Chapter IX. The Babes in the Woods
 

Arm in arm Sahwah and Veronica wandered on through the woods farther and farther away from the Oakwood side. They crossed the brow of the hill and descended to the valley on the other side. There they found a merry little stream which tumbled along with frequent cataracts over mossy rocks, and followed its course, often stopping to dip their hands in the bright water and let the drops flow through their fingers.

"I'd love to be a brook," said Sahwah longingly, "and go splashing and singing along over the smooth stones, and jump down off the high rocks, and catch the sunlight in my ripples, and have lovely silvery fishes swimming around in me. I'd sing them all to sleep every night, and wake them up in the morning with a kiss, and never, never let anyone catch them!"

"You love the water better than anything else, don't you?" said Veronica, looking at Sahwah and thinking how much like the brook she was herself.

"Oh, I do, I do," said Sahwah, taking off her shoes and stockings and wading into the limpid stream. Soon she was dancing in the water, frolicking like a nixie, catching the water up in her hands and tossing it into the air and then darting out from beneath it before it could fall upon her. Veronica laughed and clapped her hands as she watched Sahwah, and wished she were an artist that she might paint the picture.

Finally they came to a place where the little stream poured down over a high rock and ran through a broad gully, widening into a great pond in the natural basin, which was like a huge bowl scooped out of rock.

"This must be the place they call the Devil's Punch Bowl that Nyoda told us about," said Sahwah. "See, it looks just like a punch bowl."

"I wonder if it's very deep," said Veronica, peering into the water from a safe distance away from the edge.

"Shall I dive in and find out?" asked Sahwah.

"Oh, don't, don't," said Veronica, catching hold of her arm.

"Don't worry, you precious old goosie," said Sahwah, laughing. "I didn't mean really. I was only in fun. Did you think I was going in with my clothes on? It must be deep, though, or the Indian couldn't have jumped in. That must be the rock up there he jumped from," she said, indicating a flat, platform-like rock that overhung the gully some forty feet above their heads. "Don't you remember Nyoda telling about it; how the soldiers were chasing this Indian and he got out on that rock and dove down into the Punch Bowl and swam under water and they never thought of looking down there for him?"

Both looked at the rock jutting out over the water, and shuddered at the height of the drop. At the far side of the gully the pond became a brook again and flowed on in a narrow channel the same as before. The woods were denser on this side of the gully and there was less sunlight filtering down through the branches. Several times they came upon clusters of fragile, pale Indian pipes growing out of wet, decayed stumps.

"Oh, it's nice here," breathed Veronica, revelling in the coolness.

  "'This is the forest primeval,'" quoted Sahwah,
  "'The murmuring pines and the hemlocks--'"

"Only they aren't murmuring pines and hemlocks," she finished. "They're mostly oaks and beeches."

"It isn't the primeval forest, either," said Veronica. "There's a tent over there between the trees."

"Gracious!" exclaimed Sahwah, "and here am I, coming along with my shoes and stockings in my hand!" She sat down hastily and put on her foot-gear.

The tent stood quite close to the brook path and when they were nearly up to it they heard, coming from around the other side of it, a sound of vigorous splashing, punctuated by protesting squawks. Involuntarily the two girls stood still and listened. Above the squawking rose a voice.

"'Curse on him,' quote false Sextus, 'will not the villain drown?'" it declaimed dramatically.

Then in a moment the splashes and squawks increased to an uproar, and then around the corner of the tent there came a chicken in full flight, its leathers dripping with water, in spite of which it made amazingly fast time. After the chicken came a balloon-like figure in a sky-blue bathrobe, uttering breathless grunts which were evidently intended to be peremptory commands to the chicken to halt its flight. At the sight of the two girls standing in the path the bath-robed pursuer fell back in astonishment.

"'What noble Lucumo comes next to taste our Roman cheer?'" he exclaimed with a dramatic wave of the hand.

Then he stood transfixed, the gesture frozen in mid-air. "Sahwah!" he gasped. "Veronica! where in the world----"

The girls started forward with unbelieving eyes. "Slim!" cried Sahwah. "What are you doing here?"

"Tenting on the Old Camp Ground," replied Slim, holding his voluminous bathrobe primly around him with one hand to cover the bathing suit which he wore under it, and shaking hands vigorously with the other.

Then, making a trumpet of his hands, he called loudly, "Captain, oh, Captain, come here quick!"

There was an upheaval inside the tent and the sound of something falling, and in a moment a second youth appeared around the corner of the tent, clad in khaki trousers and a blue and white blazer.

"What's the matter?" he asked in alarm. Then he saw the girls and threw up his hands in amazement. "For the love of Mike!" he exclaimed elegantly.

"Captain!" cried Sahwah.

Rapturous greetings followed.

"Of all things," said Sahwah, "to run across you two in the woods like this! What on earth are you doing here? We thought you were doing some summer work at your college."

"We are," replied the Captain, looking from one to the other of the girls with a face beaming with delight at the unexpected meeting. "We're making a survey of different parts of the state--it's part of our course--and incidentally we're compiling certain statistics for the government."

"Oh!" said the two girls respectfully.

"But what, if I might make so bold as to ask," said the Captain, "are you two doing here in the wet, wild woods, all by your wild lone?"

Sahwah explained and extended a cordial invitation for the two boys to come to Carver House whenever they had time.

"Is Hinpoha there?" asked Slim and the Captain simultaneously.

"She certainly is," replied Sahwah.

Slim squinted critically down his nose at his tub-like form. "Do you think I've gotten any thinner?" he asked anxiously.

Sahwah scrutinized, him closely for signs of reduction and decided he might possibly be half a pound thinner than when she saw him last. Slim sighed and looked pensive and Sahwah had hard work to keep her face straight.

"But what on earth was all that racket as we came up?" she asked, unable to restrain her curiosity on that point any longer. "What were you chasing the chicken for?"

Slim's eye roved regretfully back toward the trees among which the chicken had vanished, and the Captain answered for him.

"You see," he exclaimed, "today is Slim's birthday and we were going to celebrate by having a chicken dinner. So Slim went out to buy a chicken and came back with a live one. Then he didn't have the heart to chop its head off, and was trying to drown it in a barrel of water when you came up. By the way, Slim, where is it now?"

Slim pointed to the bushes with an expression of chagrin on his fat face. "It's gone," he said with a sigh of regret. "A dollar and eighty-seven cents' worth of chicken stew running loose on the landscape."

"But it wasn't the nerve I lacked to chop its head off," he added, looking reproachfully at the Captain. "It was the hatchet. You see," he explained, "we didn't exactly come prepared to catch our meals on the hoof, so to speak, and all I had to chop his head off with was the can-opener on my pocket knife, and that wouldn't work, so I had to drown him."

"Oh, you funny boys!" said Sahwah, laughing uncontrollably.

"I think you might have helped me hold him down," said Slim to the Captain in an injured tone.

"I couldn't," replied the Captain gravely. "The butter got overcome with the heat and I was reviving it with a fan."

"Oh, you babes in the woods, you!" said Sahwah, with another burst of laughter. "You must be having the time of your lives."

"We are," replied the Captain. "Won't you stay to dinner? There isn't anything to eat but a can of tomato soup, but you're welcome to that."

"Oh, we hadn't better," replied Sahwah, "they will be wondering at home what has become of us, and besides, it would make too much trouble for you."

"Too much trouble!" snorted the Captain. "That's just like a girl. As if a girl ever cared how much trouble she made for a fellow! Come on and stay, we want you. We're lonesome."

Thus pressed, the girls accepted the invitation, and pretty soon they were all sitting in a circle under the trees with cups and spoons in their hands, and the Captain was singing at the top of his voice:

  "Glorious, glorious,
  One can of soup for the four of us,
  Praises be, there are no more of us,
  For the four of us can drink it all alone!"

Lunch over, they exchanged gossip under the trees for a merry half hour, then the girls took their departure and sped homeward to carry the news to Carver House.