Chapter XXIII. A Moonlight Apparition
 

"Let's look around a little anyway," Betty suggested. "He may possibly have been swept up on the shore farther down the river."

"If such a thing were possible he would probably be dead anyway," Frank protested, but the girls paid no attention to him. The mere suggestion that the professor might still be alive and in need of assistance was enough for them, and they set about feverishly to scour the woods on both sides of the river and for a considerable distance down its shores.

After an hour of vain search, however, they were forced to conclude that the old man was indeed dead, and so reluctantly and with heavy hearts they turned their steps back toward Wild Rose Lodge.

They talked very little on the way back, for they were too occupied with their own gloomy thoughts. Only once Betty spoke what was in the minds of all of them.

"It seems such a terrible waste-- such a pity," she said. "Just a mistake on the part of the Government to have resulted in this tragedy. Arnold and James Dempsey coming home, safe and well and hopeful to find their father-- dead!"

The boys stayed on for several days at the lodge, and for all the Outdoor Girls but Betty their stay was unmitigated joy. But in the heart of the Little Captain, hard as she tried to fight against it, was a little sense of injury to think that her chums had got their boys back and she had been denied hers.

To be sure, all the boys made much of her and petted her-- for there was not one of them who had not competed for her favor in the old days before Allen had shouldered them all out-- but no amount of attention from any one else could make up for one little word from Allen.

At each sunrise she awoke thrilling with the thought that perhaps Allen would be with her before the sun went down. And as each evening came without him she sighed and thought, "Perhaps to-morrow."

Since the tragic death of Professor Dempsey they felt that they need no longer fear the woods, although they never ventured near the river or the falls without a heartache and the fervent wish that they might have reached the poor demented man with the glad news of his sons' safety in time to avert the tragedy.

However, they did enjoy their liberty, and took long tramps with the boys through the woods and picnicked with them beside little unexpected brooks and streams, quite in the nature of old days.

Then at last came the day when the boys announced that they would have to return to town and to the military camp to obtain their formal discharge from the army.

"We may surprise you by coming back in 'civies' a week or two from now," Will laughed, as the girls prepared to spin them to the railroad station in the cars. "So you had better be prepared for the shock."

"Maybe they won't care for us any more when they see us out of uniform," grinned Roy, as he shook hands with Mrs. Irving. "You know the old saying that a uniform has made many a hero of a bootblack."

"Goodness, I hope you aren't a bootblack," said Mollie from her car, where she was "doing things" with the engine.

"I'm not," answered Roy, adding with a grin: "Nothing half so honest."

Although the girls knew that they were only saying good-bye to the boys for a few days, the parting was hard just the same, and half an hour later they watched the train wind serpent-like down the shining track with a sinking feeling at their hearts.

"Aren't we a lot of geese?" said Grace impatiently, as they climbed back into the cars. "We have done without the boys for a couple of years, and now when they have just gone as far as Deepdale for a couple of weeks, we are almost crying about it."

"I suppose it is just because we have had so much separation that we can't bear any more of it-- even a little," suggested gentle Amy, feeling as if she had just awakened from a blissful dream.

"Never mind," said Mollie, putting an arm about Betty's waist and giving it a little squeeze. "Just think how lovely it will be to see the boys in regular clothes again, and maybe," with a sly glance at Betty, "by the time they come back they will have added one to their number."

"Goodness, I hope so!" said Betty, unashamed.

In spite of some regret at not having the boys, the girls managed to enjoy themselves in the days that followed. They motored and swam and fished and hiked, and got as becomingly sunburned and tanned as young Indians. It was not until two or three days before the boys returned that anything untoward happened to disturb their peace of mind.

Then one night the moon came out with such dazzling brilliance that Betty was seized with a strong desire to be out in it.

"Let's go for a moonlight swim," she suggested excitedly, as they all stood on the porch of the lodge staring up through the trees to where the moon shone glitteringly down. "We haven't done it since we came, and surely our vacation wouldn't be complete without one."

"Or more," said Mollie, seconding the plan with enthusiasm, "Come on. Let's tell Mrs. Irving where we are going. Maybe she will wish to go along, but I doubt it."

Mollie was right: Mrs. Irving did not wish to go, and the girls rushed upstairs to don bathing suits in preparation for the lark.

A few minutes later they were racing like slim young ghosts through the woods, laughing and calling to each other and entirely abandoned to the joy of the moment.

"Race you to the old swimming hole," Mollie called out, as they neared the river; and away they all raced in response to the challenge.

Betty won, in spite of the fact that Mollie had had a short head start, and the girls, wild in their exuberance, would have lifted her to their shoulders had not Betty herself laughingly fought them off.

"I have another challenge," she cried. "My fresh box of candy to whoever swims to the other side of the swimming hole first. Are you on?"

"We're on!" yelled Grace enthusiastically, adding: "I'd swim from here to Jericho for that box of candy, Betty."

As a matter of fact, whether it was really the thought of the candy or whether it was because the other girls were tired from the last spurt, Grace really did get to the other side of the swimming pool first, and, pulling herself up on the other bank, dripping and triumphant, demanded the prize.

"You surely did win it, and you shall have that box of candy-- much as I hoped to keep it in the family," laughed Betty, shaking the water from her eyes and drawing herself up beside her chum. "Goodness, isn't that water delicious to-night?" she added, wriggling her toes luxuriously in the rippling wavelets. "Just cool enough to be refreshing and not cold enough to chill you----" She broke off suddenly and sat staring, her eyes widening and her body tense.

"Girls," she said in a queer voice, for Mollie and Amy had also drawn themselves up on the bank, "have I gone crazy, or what is the matter with me? Do you see-- what-- I see-- up there?"

Alarmed, the girls followed the direction of her strained gaze, and suddenly they seemed to feel themselves congeal with momentary horror.

Far above them on the bank near the falls and on the other side of the river, stood the crouched-up, animal-like figure of-- the "Thing!"