Chapter VIII. The Big Game
 

Betty opened her eyes slowly, and blinked at the sunlight that flooded the room. She had a vague sort of idea that something unusual was going to happen, but was too lazy and comfortable to realize just what that something was.

Then suddenly it came to her, and she sat up in bed with a start. They were going home! That was the big event; and somehow, she did not feel as sorry as she usually did at the end of a vacation. In fact, she was almost eager to leave this island, with its powder mills and spies that shot boys you liked, and robbed you in the bargain--quite eager to drop play, and do her bit for the country she loved.

"Betty, what are you doing awake so early?" queried Grace petulantly. "If you can't sleep you might lie still, and let me."

"Have some candy, Gracie," Betty invited, pulling the empty candy box from the table beside the bed, and handing it to her friend. "It may help your disposition."

"Goodness, what it is to have a reputation!" said Grace plaintively. "People think they can insult and slight me, and then make it all up by handing me a bon-bon!"

"Not guilty," laughed Betty merrily. "If you'll look a little closer, you'll see there is not a bit of candy in that box! No, don't glare at me like that, Gracie, dear. The only way you could frighten me, would be by getting up early. Then I'd know there was something wrong."

"So would I," said Grace, stifling a yawn. "I'm altogether too good- natured to frighten anybody--even myself."

"Well, you can stay there all day if you want to," said Betty, inserting two determined little feet into two pretty bedroom slippers, and running across to the open window, "but I wouldn't if I were you. It's too wonderful a day in the first place, and in the second, I can imagine pleasanter things than staying alone on this island over night."

"Oh, that's so!" cried Grace, sitting up and staring at Betty. "I forgot we were going home to-day. Oh, dear, now I will have to get up."

"How awful," mocked Mollie, who had been watching them for some time from the bed in the alcove. "It's an outrage, having to get up in the morning. I think we should have been, made so we could sleep all the time."

"Just my idea," Grace was beginning, unmoved, when Mrs. Irving's voice sounded at the door.

"Seven o'clock," she announced cheerily. "And you know we decided to get an early start."

For the next hour all was hurry and excitement while four girlish tongues clattered unceasingly.

"Have you fully decided to join the Red Cross, Betty?" queried Amy.

"Why, of course. Haven't you?" asked the Little Captain, slipping on the skirt to her pretty traveling suit and fastening it deftly. "I'm going to make dozens and dozens of scarfs, sweaters and socks. The boys are giving up everything for us, and I'm sure the least we can do is, keep them warm."

"Oh, I can't wait to begin," cried Mollie. "I'm so excited all the time about the war and everything, I can't sit still--"

"You've got to, if you're going to knit," grumbled Grace. "And you can't eat candy, either, Mollie Billette."

"Oh, look who's talking," crowed Mollie. "If that's true, and the poor soldiers had to depend upon you to keep them warm, I'd feel sorry for them, that's all."

"Oh, I don't know," defended Betty, putting an arm about Grace, and starting for the door. "Grace believes in quality more than quantity. She may not knit as much as the rest of us, but she does it twice as well."

Grace laughed and hugged her friend as they ran down the stairs together.

"That's worth my lavallière, Betty," she said. "If Adolph Hensler hadn't gotten it first, I'd will it to you!"

They flew around to prepare breakfast, and the smell of sizzling bacon and baking biscuits sent their spirits soaring to the skies. The boys, who had finished their own breakfast, and scoured up the pans, heard the sounds of merriment, and came to inquire the cause.

Betty saw them first and laughingly bade them enter.

"We'd ask you to breakfast," she said, "only this is the last biscuit, and I wouldn't give it up to my best friend. Why don't you come in?" she continued, as they lingered on the threshold. "I never knew you to be bashful before."

"We're not bashful," denied Alien, as they distributed themselves about the room in various and characteristic attitudes, grinning happily at the girls. "We were so hypnotized by the charming picture you made for us we couldn't move, that's all."

"I told you there weren't any more biscuits," said Betty decidedly.

"Goodness, I'm glad somebody else has a bad reputation besides me," said Grace languidly. "At least you don't have anything to live up to."

"How is the shoulder this morning?" Mrs. Irving inquired of Allen. "You haven't taken the bandage off, have you?"

"Not yet," replied Allen, who, although it was scarcely a week since the accident, had almost completely recovered from his wound. "The doctor said he'd be around early this morning, and if it looked all right, would take it off."

"Gee, but I feel funny this morning," announced Roy, apropos of nothing in particular.

"You look it," murmured Mollie, pouring herself another cup of coffee.

"What do you mean--funny?" queried Frank with interest, while Roy favored Mollie with a hurt look.

"Oh, I don't know how to explain it," said Roy, blushing, as all eyes were turned upon him. "Just sort of excited and--er--queer."

"Yes, we heard you the first time," said Mollie patiently, while Roy looked about for help.

"I know what you mean," said Allen, coming to his rescue. "You're thinking that we're likely to be called almost any time now, and it gives you stage fright to think about it. It's a great big task we've taken hold of, and we can't quite grasp it yet, that's all."

"Th-that's the way I feel," said Betty, her eyes shining and her cheeks flushed, stammering in her eagerness. "I feel somehow as if we were acting in a great big play, where there are all actors and no audience, and everybody's sort of flustered and excited and not sure just where they belong but terribly anxious to get into it somewhere."

"Well, we're all in it," cried Frank, his eyes fired with enthusiasm. "Thank heaven, there's not one among us we can call a slacker. We've all enlisted without waiting to be hauled into it by the scruff of the neck--we--we---," his eyes happened to fall upon Will as he sat regarding him steadily from a chair near the window, and as though at a signal, his enthusiasm died and he stammered incoherently.

"Well, we know what we're going to do," said Betty, hurriedly changing the subject. "As soon as we reach town we're going to hunt up the nearest Red Cross headquarters and join."

"Bully!" cried Roy admiringly. "I heard a fellow saying the other day that it was wonderful the way the American women have come up to the scratch--pardon the slang, ladies, but that's what he said. He said the Red Cross was turning out bushels of woolen wear, and that at this rate there wouldn't be a man in the United States army or navy, that wouldn't be kept warm and comfortable during the big fight. I tell you it makes you feel good, to think that mothers and sisters and sweet girl friends are backing you up like that. It takes away old Fritz's last shadow of a chance."

"Oh, it's wonderful to hear you talk like that," said Mollie, eyes bright and cheeks glowing. "Ever since war was declared I've been dying to put on a uniform and get into the thick of it myself. But if we can't, it's the next best thing to be able to encourage our boys, and make them as comfortable and happy as we can. Oh, I think they're wonderful--and I love them all, every one of them!"

"Hold on, hold on!" cried Roy, while the other boys looked delighted. "It's all right for you to love me, but why take the whole army into it? It would be much more exclusive the other way."

"I love them all," said Mollie stubbornly. "And I'll keep on loving them till this awful war is over. Then I'll consent to be exclusive."

"Is that a promise?" cried Roy, while the others laughed delightedly.

"But I didn't mean what you mean," protested Mollie, flushing vividly. "Oh, dear, why does everybody have to be so foolish?"

"I call upon the others to witness," said Roy, jumping to his feet and bringing his fist down upon the table, with a force that made them jump. "Mollie has consented to be exclusive when the war's over, and you all know what that means."

"Better get it in writing," Allen suggested. "That's the only safe way."

"And that isn't," said Mollie, recovering.

"Well, we'll see what we shall see," said Roy, sitting down again, rebuffed but undaunted.

"Gee, it'll be up to Roy to end the war in a hurry now," grinned Frank. "If we don't look out, he'll be starting some peace trip, and getting his name in all the papers."

"Nothing doing," said Roy decidedly. "When I deal with old Fritz, it will be with a gun!"

"So say we all of us," cried Allen, his eyes kindling, "I tell you, it won't take us long, when we really begin to get our troops over there. I'm crazy to get into it."

"So am I," cried Betty, getting up energetically and beginning to clear away the dishes. "And the first thing to do is to get back to town where we can really start something. Goodness, I wish these dishes were washed."

"If all your wishes were granted so quickly," smiled Mrs. Irving, as the other girls went at the task with equal vigor, "you wouldn't have anything to worry about."

Two hours later the campers were standing on the deck of the ridiculous little ferryboat, that still plied between Pine Island and the mainland, looking with mingled emotions toward the spot where they had spent so many pleasant hours.

"Do you remember," Amy said thoughtfully, as the girls stood in a group in the bow of the boat, "how sorry we were to leave the island that other summer? And now--"

"We're almost glad," finished Grace.

"We're glad because we're going to do our share in the biggest thing that ever happened to this world," said Betty tensely. "We're glad because we've got the greatest country in the world, and are going to do our best to keep it the greatest country in the world. We're glad, most of all, because--we're Americans!"