Chapter III. The Queer Little Man
 

While the girls stood looking wildly at each other their unknown rescuer seemed suddenly galvanized to action.

"This won't do at all!" he cried, raising both hands to his bald head which was by this time very wet and more shiny than ever. "You will get your death of cold, young ladies, you surely will. You must come with me. Here, right along this path I have a cottage--" All the time he was talking he was hustling them fussily ahead of him, for all the world like some old hen with a brood of chickens.

The girls, not knowing what else to do and being in rather a bewildered frame of mind, allowed themselves to be hustled. The rain was sheeting down in a terrific cloud burst, so that their clothes clung to them damply and they began to shiver.

They circled the fallen tree which had so nearly been their undoing, and a moment later found themselves upon a narrow footpath which seemed to lead into the very heart of the woods.

"I wonder where he is taking us," whispered Grace in Betty's ear. "Maybe he's a murderer or something."

In spite of her discomfort, Betty giggled.

"Did you ever see a murderer with a bald head like that?" she asked.

It seemed to the girls as if the path must be at least a mile long, but just as they were despairing of ever reaching the end of it, they came out into a partially cleared space and through the trees caught a glimpse of something that looked like a house.

Their new acquaintance, who up to this time had been bringing up the rear, now took the lead and led them over tangled underbrush, stones and foot-bruising rocks, to his strange little dwelling.

"It's a house, it's a house!" cried Grace thankfully, as they hurried after the little man. "I guess somebody will have to wring me out when we get inside. I'm soaked through!"

"Goodness, why don't you tell us something we don't know?" grumbled Mollie, but nobody was listening to her. They had reached the house and the man had swung the door open hospitably.

"Step inside, step inside, do," he urged with a nervous gesture that reminded the girls once more of the proverbial hen. "You will find it dry at least, and I will have a fire for you in a hurry. Just a moment till I get some wood-- just a moment----"

And while he rambled on, suiting his words with quick nervous action, the girls crowded inside the cottage and looked about them curiously.

The room they had entered was large and scrupulously neat. At first glance it seemed a queer combination of hunting lodge and museum of natural history. The rough clapboards and beams of the ceiling and walls had never been plastered, and this very crudity seemed somehow to give the room an air of warmth and homelikeness that was very inviting.

Hung on the walls were several fairly large skins of animals, a gun or two, and over the huge open fireplace, which very nearly covered one end of the room, hung the magnificent head of a buck.

On the wall opposite the fireplace was a set of rudely-erected shelves, one beneath the other, and these shelves were covered with specimens of butterflies, beetles and other bugs of every size and description. That the specimens had been mounted by an expert even an inexperienced eye could see.

The girls, who had been regarding the oddities of the room with growing interest, were brought back to a realization of the discomfort of wet clothes by the owner of the place himself.

The latter had brought firewood from somewhere, and, with the aid of half a dozen matches, had succeeded in getting a fairly good blaze.

Then with a smile of satisfaction he turned to the girls, rubbing his hands together genially.

"Come nearer to the fire-- come closer-- do," he urged in his quick nervous way. "I am sure you are chilled through-- quite chilled through. I will bring chairs." He stopped abruptly and looked about him with an embarrassed air, his gaze coming to rest on the only chair which adorned the room.

Betty, seeing his confusion, was trying to think of something helpful to say, when the little man suddenly found a way out of his quandary.

"Ah, I have it!" he cried, seizing enthusiastically upon a long bench that stood on one side of the room. "Four can sit upon this quite easily, I am sure. A happy thought-- a very happy thought--" and he pulled and tugged at the bench until he succeeded in moving it close to the fire,

Afterward it occurred to the girls that they might have helped him, for it was a very heavy bench and he was rather a frail old man. But at the time they were too interested in this unusual place and their rather extraordinary host, to think of anything very rational.

However, they seated themselves dutifully in a row upon the bench, "for all the world like an orphan asylum out for an airing," as Mollie said later, and gratefully stretched out their sodden shoes to the blaze.

They were cold and they were wet and they were fast becoming very hungry, all of which might have been expected to form a very good reason why they should have been miserable, But they weren't miserable-- not at all. To the Outdoor Girls the thrill of an adventure always more than counterbalanced the possible discomforts attending it.

Their host started to draw up the one chair in the room, hesitated a moment then, as though he had just thought of something, turned and darted through the door, closing it with a little click behind him.

For the space of half a second, the girls looked after him. Then they looked at each other. Then they drew a long breath and let loose the flood of curious questions which had been struggling for expression for the past twenty minute

"Well, isn't this a lark?" cried Mollie, her eyes dancing. "Half an hour ago we were awfully bored, and now look at us."

"Yes, look at us," said Grace with a little sniff. "I'm sure we're not very much to look at right now with our hair wet, and our clothes--"

"Oh, for goodness' sake, who cares about such things?" cried Betty gaily. "I think this is a darling place and I'm having the time of my life. I wonder who he is?"

"He seemed kind of scared just now, didn't he!" chuckled Mollie, feeling her shoe to see if it was drying out any. "It was funny the way he bolted out of the room."

"Poor old dear-- no wonder he was scared," commented Grace, as she took off her hat and tried to do something with her hopelessly bedraggled locks. "The way we look we're enough to scare anybody. Oh, dear, hasn't any one a comb?"

"Why, of course, we carry a complete beauty parlor outfit just for your benefit, dear," giggled Mollie. "The rest of us don't need it though. We are too beautiful naturally."

"You know I like him a lot, the queer little man, I mean," said Amy, evidently following out her own train of thought. "He seems kind of fussy and peculiar but he has an awfully nice smile."

"Trust Amy to find the smile," said Betty, putting an arm fondly about the younger girl. "And of course we all like him," she added seriously. "If it hadn't been for him we probably wouldn't be feeling so happy right now."

"Yes, we would probably be in some hospital with our unhappy relatives weeping over our mangled remains," said the irrepressible Mollie, and laughed at the shriek that went up at her gruesome remark. "There probably wouldn't have been enough of us left to recognize," she added by way of good measure, and they shrieked again.

"For goodness' sake, let's talk of something pleasant," said Grace, rising suddenly and going over to the window. "If you want to sit on that old bench all day, you can."

It appeared that the girls had no intention of sitting on the bench all day. They got up and sauntered about the room, examining the skins on the walls and looking, but without much curiosity, at the rifles. They lingered longest before the shelves of butterflies and beetles, for some of the specimens were really beautiful and very rare.

After they had examined everything in sight they began to grow restive. They must have been in the place nearly an hour and it suddenly occurred to them to wonder where their host had been keeping himself all this time.

"I wish we could get started," worried Mollie, looking out upon the sodden landscape. The rain was apparently coming down just as hard as ever. "I hate to leave the car all by itself out there. Somebody might steal it."

"I wish I knew where that man was," said Grace nervously. "I never trust strange men. He may set the house on fire for all we know."

The words were hardly out of her mouth when the door opened and the topic of conversation himself entered, carrying a tray so big and heaped so high with sandwiches that one could scarcely discover the man behind it.

Betty and Amy ran to his assistance, and between them they got the tray safely to the bench. In one delighted glance the girls saw that not only sandwiches, but a steaming pot of coffee and the remains of what had been a great, three-layer chocolate cake were on the tray.

At thought of the fussy little man taking all this time and trouble, for it must have taken a good deal of work to make all that formidable array of sandwiches-- the girls were sincerely touched and regarded their host with a new interest.

"There, there," he was saying, regarding the heaped-up tray with evident pleasure, "you must sit down and eat at once. You must be nearly starved-- famished. I hope this will be enough."

He looked at them so anxiously that Betty felt like hugging him-- and nearly did it.

"Enough! Well, I guess it is enough," she said heartily, as the other girls seated themselves on the bench either side of the tempting tray and began enthusiastically to help themselves. "It would be plenty for an army. We can't thank you enough."

"Indeed we can't," added Mollie.

"It's awfully good of you," said Grace, as she took a bite of her ham sandwich.

"Awfully good," added Amy, like an echo.

The little man waved aside their thanks and drew up the one chair in the room, talking all the time in his quick, jerky fashion.

"It was no trouble, I am sure,-- no trouble whatever," he said, adding as though he wished to change the subject: "You didn't tell me your name----" he hesitated, looking at Betty, who of course did tell him her name on the spot. This proved a signal for mutual introductions, and the girls learned that their new friend was a college professor, Arnold Dempsey by name. They also learned that he had taken up woodcraft in the hope of recovering his health.

And while they contentedly munched sandwiches and sipped steaming coffee the girls learned a good deal more about Arnold Dempsey, and the more they learned of him the more they felt drawn to him.

And when he started to tell them of his two sons who had fought so nobly in the army of democracy, their eyes began to shine and they leaned toward him with an interest that was intensely real.

"Oh, it must be wonderful to have two big soldier sons," cried Amy, forgetting her shyness in her enthusiasm. "Aren't you dreadfully proud?"

A gleam came into Professor Dempsey's eyes and his thin shoulders straightened.

"Yes, yes," he said. "Of course I'm proud of my boys-- very proud. And I hope," a look of absolute happiness came into his eyes and he smiled contentedly, "that before very long I shall see them."

"Oh, I'm sure you will!" cried Betty eagerly.

"That's what we are all hoping for, anyway," said Grace, adding with a sigh: "The boys have been gone so dreadfully long."

"Look," cried Mollie presently, rising suddenly to her feet and pointing toward the window. "We have been so busy talking that we never noticed the sun had come out."

"And doesn't it look good!" exulted Betty.

In spite of their reluctance to leave their newfound friend, the girls were anxious to be off, for they knew their parents would be worrying about them.

Professor Dempsey insisted on seeing them safely back to the road although they protested that there was absolutely no need of it.

"There are two or three paths that lead to the road," he explained, as he flung wide the door, letting in a flood of sunshine, "and I wouldn't have you lose your way for the world-- not for the world!"

The woodland was beautiful after the rain, and the girls sniffed the fragrant air eagerly as they followed Professor Dempsey along the path. It was not till they had almost reached the road that Mollie had a disquieting thought.

"How do we know but what we're stuck here for good?" she asked the girls. "The car stopped dead, you remember, just under that horrible tree, and I'm sure I don't know what in the world made it. If I can't find out the trouble----"

"Oh, but you've got to find it," protested Grace, while Betty and Amy looked worried. "We can't stay here all night, and it may be a dozen miles to the nearest garage."

"I know that just as well as you do," grumbled Mollie. "But if I can't, I can't, that's all."

By this time they had reached the road and Mollie went straight to the car. While she and Betty were trying to find out what was wrong the other two girls and Professor Dempsey looked on anxiously.

"Well, as far as I can see there is absolutely nothing wrong with it," snapped Mollie at last, lifting a face flushed with exertion. "Get in, girls, and I'll start the engine-- or try to. Then if she won't go we'll have to make up our minds to stay here all night or walk to the next garage."

Accordingly the girls got in and Mollie pressed the self-starter. To her great surprise, the engine purred a response, and as she shifted her gears the car moved slowly forward.

"Oh, goodie, we're going," cried Amy, and the faces of the other girls showed relief.

"Must have been a drop of water in the gasoline," hazarded Mollie, and then she throttled the engine once more while she and her chums turned to say good-bye to Professor Dempsey. The latter was still standing in the road, looking up at them rather wistfully.

"I'm glad that I had an opportunity of helping you, young ladies-- very glad," he answered, in response to their repeated thanks. "You conferred a great favor on me also, for I have little company. Good-bye-- and good luck to you."

The girls responded gayly, and as they started forward Betty leaned far out of the machine to call back an encouraging: "Keep hoping hard for your boys to come home. I am sure they will be back soon."

"Thank you, young lady, thank you," said Professor Dempsey, but the words were too low for Betty to catch and she was too far away to see the mist that sprang suddenly to his eyes.