Chapter XXIV. Recovered
 

The sight was almost too much for the girls. What they felt was sheer animal panic and they wanted to run away-- anywhere-- just so they put distance enough between them and that figure on the bank.

"Sit still," Betty commanded them, recovering her presence of mind. "That is Professor Dempsey up there, and if we make any sudden sound we are sure of frightening him away."

"But he was killed-- we saw it," moaned Amy. "That must be his g-ghost."

"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Mollie, her thoughts working along with Betty's "You know you don't believe in ghosts."

"But how--" Amy was beginning when Betty interrupted sharply.

"Listen," she said. "I came across an old derelict of a rowboat the other day when we were exploring the upper river, but I didn't say anything to you girls about it because I thought it was too much of a wreck to bother with. For all I know it isn't even water tight

"Betty," Mollie broke in excitedly, "I see what you mean! We can row across the upper river to where Professor Dempsey is-- Were there oars in the boat?" she broke off to ask.

"A couple of old sticks that would serve for oars," Betty answered. "Of course it's taking a big chance----"

"Say no more," cried Mollie, jumping to her feet and wringing out her bathing suit. "Big chance is our middle name anyway. Lead on, Betty. Where do we find this craft?"

"I'm not quite sure that I can find it," said Betty, leading the way into the woods, "but it was down this way somewhere. Don't make any noise, girls, and let's hurry, or we won't get there before he disappears again."

Grace and Amy were now entering into the spirit of the thing, and they followed at Betty's heels eagerly, careful not to step on stick or stone that might betray their presence.

Luckily Betty managed to stumble directly on the old derelict rowboat where it lay in ancient helplessness in the concealment of a thick grove of bushes along the upper reach of the stream.

"Goody! This is almost too much luck," cried Betty exultantly. "You get in the stern, Amy, and Grace in the bow. Mollie and I will do the rowing."

"I only hope the old thing doesn't take in too much water," said Amy, as she and Grace got gingerly into the rickety old craft and Betty and Mollie pushed it off from the shore.

"That remains to be seen," answered the Little Captain as she handed one of the ancient oars to Mollie. "There is one thing we shall have to remember, Mollie," she said, as they pushed clear of the bank and glided out into the swift water of the river, "and that is to keep far enough this side of the falls to guard against being swept over it. Bear hard on your right hand, Mollie honey. It wouldn't be much fun if we upset here, you know."

"Oh!" gasped Grace, holding fast to the side of the boat and noting with dismay how plainly the roar of the falls came to them. "I wish we had another oar, I'd help--"

"You can help most, Gracie," cut in the Little Captain briskly, "by keeping your nerve and helping us to keep ours. Mollie," she called in a whisper that carried the length of the boat, "can you see-- It-- yet?"

"Yes," Mollie telegraphed back in the same tense whisper. "It's got its back to us, I think."

"Good," said Betty softly, adding as she threw all her weight against her oar, "now let's keep still and work."

It was queer how they referred to that presence at the head of the falls as "It." Some way, in the weird moonlight, under the more than unusual circumstances, it seemed almost impossible to give the thing a name.

"Was it Professor Dempsey?" they kept asking themselves over and over again. But he had committed suicide. Or at least they had seen him fall into the river, and they could have vowed that he did not come out again. They had searched both sides of the river. How could they have missed him? And yet, if that motionless figure at the head of the falls was really Professor Dempsey, he must have been washed ashore that day and evaded them as he had succeeded in evading them so many times before.

And all the time the roar of the falls was growing louder and louder in their ears and they knew that theirs was a race with life and death.

Could they succeed in reaching the opposite bank before the deadly current of the river should suck them over the falls; to almost certain annihilation?

The answer to the question came a moment later when, without warning, the prow of the little boat struck on an unexpected projection of the shore and they came to a standstill.

"Thank heaven!" said Betty under her breath as Mollie jumped out and pulled the craft further in to shore. "That was nearly the riskiest thing you ever did, Betty Nelson."

Once on shore again, the girls' confidence returned and they hurried silently through the woods toward the spot where they had seen the figure. Then Betty, who had taken the lead, suddenly motioned to them to stop.

She had caught a glimpse through the trees of the man, who resembled more than ever a scarecrow in his crazy makeshift garments-- and at the sight of him her heart unaccountably skipped a beat.

Her thoughts had not gone beyond this moment. Strangely enough all her energy had been concentrated upon reaching the man before he disappeared. But now that they had succeeded so far she was at a loss what to do next.

But at that moment she inadvertently stepped on a dry twig that snapped sharply under her foot, and at the sound the man had turned fiercely, like an animal at bay. Then he wheeled about and made as though to flee for the shelter of the woods.

In this emergency Betty followed impulse. She ran out into the open, calling to him wildly that his sons were alive. Not to run away, because his sons were safe and well. They were coming to him----

The pitiful wreck of a man paused in his flight as the import of the words seemed to sink into his befuddled brain, but he turned upon the Little Captain a look of ferocious hatred that would have terrified a less courageous girl than Betty. But her whole heart was in her mission, and she had utterly forgotten herself.

"Won't you please believe me?" she said, advancing toward him, hands outstretched pleadingly. "I know what I'm talking about. Your sons, Arnold and Jimmy----"

As though the names of his boys had released some cord in his brain, the man cried out hoarsely:

"Jimmy and Arnold-- my sons, my little boys!" Then, turning fiercely to Betty, he cried: "You're not lying to me, are you? Because I'll throw you into the river! I'll cut you into little pieces!"

As the man advanced menacingly, Grace screamed and Mollie ran forward with some wild idea of protecting her chum, but Betty waved them back.

"I'm not lying to you," she told the crazy man, looking straight into his glaring eyes. "Your boys were wounded, but not seriously, and they sailed a few days ago for this country on a hospital ship. They want to see you more than anything else in the world," she added, playing on the sudden softness that had crept into his wild eyes. "And they sent their love to their dad."

At sound of the old loving name all the fight went out of the old man and he sank to his knees on the grass, sobbing horribly.

They let him alone for a moment, then Betty motioned to Mollie, and together they lifted him to his feet. The sight of his tear-stained, unkempt old face, creased and lined with suffering, but with the wildness gone out of the eyes, stirred a profound pity in the girls and they wished more than anything in the world to make him happy again.

"We are going to take you home, Professor Dempsey," Betty told him soothingly, as with Mollie's help she half led, half carried, him through the woods toward the spot where they had left the boat, Amy and Grace following awed and silent behind them. "And as soon as your boys reach home we will bring them to you. Be careful of this big rock. Ah, here's the boat." And talking all the time, softly and soothingly as one would to a child, Betty at last succeeded in seating the derelict old man in the equally derelict old boat.

The girls tumbled in after him, and with a prayer in her heart Betty pushed off from shore.

That ride back across the river was as weird and unreal as any nightmare the girls had ever lived through. Their queer passenger, seeming the most unreal of all, was quiet for the most part but occasionally he would sit up and look about him wildly and could only be soothed back to reason by Betty's sweet voice telling him of his boys-- Jimmy and Arnold.

Somehow they reached the opposite shore, and, after pulling the boat up among the bushes once more, they started back, the old man with them, to Wild Rose Lodge.