Chapter V. Betty Takes a Dare
 

It would be a week or two before Wild Rose Lodge would be ready for the girls' occupancy, and as a relief for their impatience they filled in the time in hiking, motoring and put-putting up and down the Argono in their natty little motor boat.

But whatever it was they were doing, their conversation almost invariably returned to one of two subjects-- the return of the boys and the good time they would have at Moonlight Falls.

They spoke often of Professor Arnold Dempsey. They took a real interest in the queer little old man, both because of the service he had done them and the fact that he was watching and waiting for his two big sons, even as they were anxiously awaiting the return of their boys.

"It must be dreadfully lonely for him in that little cabin or house or whatever you call it in the woods," Amy said one day as she and the girls sauntered down to the dock where their motor boat was anchored. "And he said he hardly ever had company."

"Goodness, I should think he would go crazy," Mollie commented. "Why, I go almost mad when I don't have any one to talk to for an hour."

"I wonder if he lived in that little house all during the war," said Betty thoughtfully. They had reached the dock and were walking slowly out upon it. "If he did, it must have been dreadfully hard for him. It makes me shiver to think of him sitting there all alone, reading the casualty list, terrified for fear the next name would be that of his son----"

"Oh, Betty," cried gentle Amy, all her sympathy quickly roused by the picture Betty had drawn, "what a dreadful thing to think of!"

"But he never did find their names among the missing or killed," Mollie reminded them soberly. "We know that because he said he expected to see them soon."

"Of course, And all we can do is hope with all our hearts that he gets his wish," said Betty brightly, adding with a sudden change of subject: "But away with dull care. The sun is shining and here's our fairy ship waiting to carry us off to fresh adventure. What more could any one want, I'd like to know."

"Humph," grunted Mollie, eyeing critically the trim little boat in which they had had so much fun and adventure, as the other girls tumbled aboard. "I'd say she didn't look very much like a fairy boat just now. She needs considerable polishing and scrubbing. Why don't you girls get busy, anyhow?"

"Just hear who's talking," yawned Grace, disposing herself lazily in a comfortable chair on deck. "I haven't noticed you waving a broom and mop frantically around these parts lately, Mollie dear."

"In fact," Betty added with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, "I think I remember suggesting that the Gem needed grooming the other day. Whereupon some one who shall be nameless suggested a motor ride instead."

"She's got you there, old dear," drawled Grace, taking the inevitable box of chocolates from her pocket and opening it lovingly. "I remember the incident pre-zactly as it has been described."

Mollie, who was still standing on the dock, regarding them frowningly, started to reply but Betty interrupted her with a shout. She had started the engine and the boat began to move slowly away from the dock.

"Better hurry up," suggested the Little Captain wickedly. "We'd rather not leave you behind, but if you insist.

However, Mollie had not the slightest intention in the world of being left behind. With a gasp of mingled surprise and dismay she made a jump for it, cleared the foot of space between the dock and the boat and landed square in the middle of Grace's astonished and outraged lap. She would have sat on the candy box, too, and would, in all probability, have ruined it and her dress as well, had not Grace, with rare presence of mind, whipped the box out of danger just in the nick of time.

"Well," said Mollie, too surprised and indignant to move for a moment, while, at the comical picture she made, both Betty and Amy laughed merrily, "I surely like this!"

"You do, do you? Well, I don't!" cried Grace, recovering both her breath and her dignity at the same moment. "If you don't stop sitting on my lungs this minute, Mollie Billette, I'll-- I'll-- stick this pin into you."

With a yell Mollie stumbled to her feet and shook out her dress belligerently.

"You had better not. I'm stronger than you, Grace Ford, and I've a good mind to let you see what the bottom of the river looks like."

She advanced toward her prospective victim, and Betty stopped laughing long enough to call to her.

"You'd better change your mind, Mollie," she cautioned merrily. "You can't give Gracie a ducking without ruining her dress and she might charge you damages. Reconsider-- I beg of you, reconsider!"

Mollie condescended to reconsider and plumped herself down cross-legged on the deck, disdaining a chair.

"Oh, very well," she said, adding as she glared darkly at Grace: "You will probably never know, woman, how near to death you were."

To which Grace replied with unexpected ferocity.

"And you may never know, woman, just how near to death you are this minute. Look at what you have done to my best sport skirt. I don't believe I will ever be able to get those wrinkles out."

"If you two will stop quarreling just long enough to tell me where you want to go," Betty requested, "I should be very much obliged. Up or down the river?"

"Anywhere," answered Grace, still regarding her crumpled sport skirt gloomily. "We are just trying to kill time this afternoon anyway, so I don't see that it makes much difference where we go."

"Suppose we take her up to the Point," suggested Mollie, getting up from the deck and going over to Betty who still had the wheel. "Maybe we can get some ice-cream and a drink of ice water. I am getting dreadfully thirsty already."

Betty looked tempted but a little doubtful.

"You know it is pretty dangerous to run in there, Mollie," she protested. "There are so many other boats driven by Percy Falconer's crazy lot who don't care whether they capsize you or not--"

"Goodness, Betty, it isn't like you to be afraid," Mollie started, but stopped at the look in the "Little Captain's" eye.

"I'd rather you didn't ever say that again, Mollie," she said. "I'll take you in there since you want it, but if anything should happen remember that I warned you."

"Goodness, Mollie, I don't see why you ever wanted to go and suggest that for," said Grace nervously. "We all know there is danger of a collision over at the Point, and I'm sure I don't want to spoil my clothes, even if you do."

"Your father said that he would rather we kept to this side of the river, Betty," urged Amy. "Please don't go over to the Point now."

"There's no use talking to her," snapped Grace. "You ought to know Betty well enough by this time to know that she would take us over to the Point now, after what Mollie said, if she knew we would all die of it. Might as well save your breath."

Mollie said nothing, but down in her heart she was more than a little bit anxious and was beginning to regret that she had deliberately egged Betty on.

Percy Falconer, of whom Betty had spoken, had once been a rather dudish, affected boy and had later developed into an exceedingly fast young man. He had an immensely rich father and a mother who denied him nothing so that he had been able to gather together a few kindred spirits among whom he was the leader. All the regular boys and girls in town thoroughly disliked "the set," but there were a few girls who were willing to put up with Percy Falconer and his crowd for sake of the long motor rides, dances, dinners and motorboat picnics that the boys were able to give them.

There were always some of this wild crowd over at the "Point," and it was for this reason as well as the very real danger of a collision with a recklessly driven boat that Betty's father had rather discouraged the chums going over to that side of the river.

However the day was fine, the water of the river was as calm as a lake and the Gem flew across the sparkling water like a gull, bringing a flush of pure excitement and pleasure to the faces of the girls. Danger-- what danger could there be in this staunch little craft, with Betty at the wheel?

They were half way across the river, now-- three quarters. The gay pleasure craft flaunting up and down the river were becoming more numerous and Betty slackened speed. Her breath came more quickly and her hands tightened on the wheel. She could drive a boat as well as any boy, but here, she knew, was a situation to test her greatest skill.

Craft of all sizes and descriptions seemed to the excited girls to be piling up about them. Most of the boats were being navigated carefully, but now and then a small, fast speed-craft would shoot out from behind another so suddenly that Betty would be forced to swerve sharply to one side, fairly grazing the stern of the racing boat.

On one of these occasions, when it had seemed impossible to avoid a collision, Amy called out sharply:

"Oh, Betty, don't you think we had better go back?"

And Betty replied with a queer little laugh:

"Might just as well go ahead as back now. We'll be there in a minute. Don't worry."

The words were scarcely out of her mouth when two craft running neck and neck and driven recklessly slipped out from behind a sailboat and drove directly down upon the Gem. It seemed impossible that the Outdoor Girls could escape disaster.