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CHAPTER XXI A NIGHT OF SUSPENSE
It was half-past eleven o’clock when a long, echoing shout electrified the weary circle about the fire, bringing them instantly to their feet. Next they heard the steady dip, dip of a paddle, wielded with furious haste. As one voice, their answer swelled frantically loud and clear on the still night air.

“Blue Wolf at last!” Miss Drexal exclaimed with a fervent relief that was echoed in every heart. Leaving the circle, she dashed toward the edge of the lake, her charges at her heels. Through the gloom of the night, they could dimly distinguish the familiar, upright figure in the canoe. Here, indeed, was the blessed answer to more than one silent prayer that had ascended during that torturing vigil about the fire.

“How!” saluted the guide as he drove the canoe to shore. “Much trouble. Bad Indian steal canoe. Me hunt long time, find ’nother. Stop camp. Put things quick. Think mebbe some come camp. Mebbe Missy Ruth go back get rest. She know how paddle good. Me no find. Nobody there. Paddle here quick.” His piercing glance ranging over the group, he demanded: “Where Missy Ruth? Where other one?”

“They—they are lost somewhere—in the woods!” Miss Drexal’s tones were unsteady. The strain of that despairing night watch was beginning to tell on her. “We didn’t go clear across the island. We were coming back when—they—disappeared. It was about four o’clock. We couldn’t have been much more than a mile from here. We hunted them for another hour. We didn’t dare stay in the woods longer. It had begun to get dark there. Wherever they are, or whatever has happened to them, we depend on you to find out. You must start at daybreak to look for them, Blue Wolf.”

“Start now,” declared the guide laconically. From his tone, it was impossible to discern how much effect the dire news had had upon him. “We make torch now.” With this, he brushed past the bevy of white-faced women, and cantered off toward the edge of the woods. He was soon back bearing an armful of thick dry branches, which his trained eyes and fingers had enabled him to gather in the dark.

Helpless to aid him, the party could only watch with strained attention as he flung down his burden beside the fire, and, squatting before it, began a selection of such branches as would best serve his purpose. Choosing six, he fished a piece of thin tough string from his pocket. Five he bound together, leaving one for immediate use. With the free end of the string, he lashed the little bundle across one shoulder. Catching up the lone branch, he thrust one end of it into the fire, holding it there until it blazed.

“Now,” he said, speaking for the first time since he had begun his work, “you tell about place. Where you when Missy Ruth an’ other one get lost. You tell everything.”

“It was near a lot of rocks, Blue Wolf,” volunteered Frances impulsively. “Ruth found an arrow-head there. Then Jane and I went there to see if we couldn’t find another. The rocks went straight out over a little hollow below. There was a dead tree hung away across them. I stepped on it, and it began to shake. Then it went smashing down. It loosened a lot of rock and that went, too. I just missed going with the tree. If I hadn’t jumped—”

A wild yell from the Indian cut short Frances’ narrative. Without a word of explanation, Blue Wolf jerked the blazing branch from the fire, swung it about his head, and loped off toward the dark mass behind them with the speed of a hunted deer. In utter stupefaction, the watchers followed his course for a moment by the swaying, flickering light that danced among the trees.

As it disappeared, Betty found speech. It was merely a husky whisper. “What—if the girls were underneath that ledge when the rocks fell? Why didn’t we think and go there first of all?”

“If we had and—” Unable to finish, Emmy threw herself down by the fire and buried her head in her hands.

“It’s all my fault,” moaned Frances. “If I hadn’t walked along that tree—Oh, it can’t, it mustn’t be like that!” Completely unnerved, she burst into tears. Breaking away from the group, she ran distractedly along the shore for a little way, and dropped to the earth in a disconsolate heap. Hysterically sobbing, she lay there, huddled on the sand.

“This won’t do. Go and bring Frances back, Anne. You must be brave, girls, and not give way to your fears. I can’t and won’t allow myself to imagine for a minute that any such dreadful thing has happened to Ruth and Blanche. It’s evident that Frances furnished Blue Wolf with an idea as to where they may be, but we mustn’t take the way he ran off as a sign of the worst. It may prove to be just the opposite. My advice to all of you is to sit down quietly, and keep your minds free of horrors.”

Miss Drexal had taken hold of the situation just in time to avert a wholesale collapse. When Anne returned, piloting a Frances whose drawn, tear-stained face bore small resemblance to her usual genial countenance, the others had followed the Guardian’s example and reseated themselves about the fire. None, however, had the will to talk. They sat in hushed silence and waited, listening for the first sound from the forest that would herald the return of the guide, hoping with that intensity of “hope deferred which maketh the heart sick” that he would not return alone.

Meanwhile, Blue Wolf was tearing along through the black night utterly impervious to the rough course he had elected to travel. Day or night, the forest itself had no terrors for him. It was the information supplied by Frances that now held him in a fearsome grip and lent wings to his tireless feet. The faltering opinion that Betty had voiced was partially his own. He knew of only one other thing that might have happened, and on it he based his hope of finding both girls alive. With the unerring faculty of the Indian for traveling sure-footedly the most difficult territory in the dark, he crashed his speeding way through brush and bramble, never halting for an instant.

At the break-neck pace he was going, it did not take him long to reach the spot in the woods where the ledge was situated. Far from investigating it from the top, he steered straight for the hollow below. Reaching it, he delayed only long enough to light a fresh torch and stamp out the old, then went confidently forward. Training his light low, his first find was the dead tree lying in the midst of its shattered branches. Up and down its length he moved, his eyes bent to the earth. With a satisfied “Ugh!” he finally left it. Next he hurried to a spot above which the flicker of his now upraised torch showed an out-cropping rocky ledge. Straight to it he loped. Directly under it lay a huge boulder. All around it quantities of fresh earth and splintered rock told their own story. Here his investigations grew more minute. He dropped on all fours and crawled round and round the boulder, his gaze never leaving its base. Finally springing up, he laid his torch on a nearby stone and began a veritable tussle with the rock itself. Exerting his full strength, he tried to move it. It refused to budge. Over and over again he attacked it, from various angles. It was there to stay.

Panting a little, he drew back from it, and lifting his voice in a prolonged howl. Again and again the weird, mournful cry filled the surrounding silence. Still it provoked no answer, save a sighing protest from the trees, or the sleepy twitter of a bird, rudely disturbed from sleep. Blue Wolf, however, was not to be thus dismayed. He had tried one thing, and that had failed. He still had another resource. His second torch on the point of failing, he stoically lighted another, and was soon racing away from the hollow.

Deeper into the woods he went, following a comparatively straight line from the ledge. Not more than a quarter of a mile from the ledge he stopped again,—this time at the bottom of a fairly deep ditch that had once been the bed of a stream. It was now fairly dry, as there had been little rain during the summer. Its sloping sides were thickly covered with green bushes, huge broad-leafed weeds and stunted trees. Traveling the bottom of the dried-out water-course for a few yards, the guide plunged straight into a thicket of bushes, breaking them down in his haste. Suddenly he bent double, and disappeared into the greater darkness of a good-sized gap in the slope, well concealed by the luxuriant screen of living green.

Ruth Garnier had been wholly correct in thinking that there was a second entrance to the underground passage which she and Blanche had essayed to follow. Born and raised in the vicinity of Vermilion Lake, Blue Wolf had explored this very passage when a boy. According to his grandfather, the Cheyenne warrior chief, he had more than once used it as a means of escape in times of peril. Undoubtedly it had existed long before the old chief’s day. He had believed it to be the work of his ancestors, excavated when the Indians claimed the vast northern forests as their own.

At first mention of the ledge as near the point where the two girls had disappeared, Blue Wolf had pricked up his ears. Learning of the rock slide, he had been visited by the fear that Blanche and Ruth might have been standing under the ledge when it occurred. It was more than possible that they had seen the entrance to the cave and gone close to it to examine it. It was this that had caused him to shout and race off to the scene. He was in deadly fear that he would there discover only their crushed, lifeless bodies. He knew of no other spot on the island where self-reliant Ruth was likely to have come to grief. She was too good a woodsman to be merely lost.

When a careful search revealed nothing of the sort, his one other theory, that they might have entered the cave just before the rock fell, seemed in keeping with his discovery that the entrance to the cave had been effectually sealed by the boulder. Believing them to be on the other side of it, he had tried to roll it away. Failing he had begun to shout in the hope of making them hear him. This proving also fruitless, he had promptly sought the other end of the passage, determined to investigate every inch of it.

As he had not the slightest notion of the blood-curdling quality of his wild yells, he could not then know the unspeakable terror they brought to the two huddled together in the cave. Worn out with anxiety, pain and fatigue, Ruth had finally dropped into fitful slumber, her head on Blanche’s lap. Wide-awake, Blanche had heard them first, the intervening barrier of rock deadening them just enough to make them sound like nothing human. In her fright she attributed them to some prowling wild animal, a wolf, or perhaps a panther, she shudderingly guessed, as she listened. To Ruth, they came dimly as part of a fevered dream. The touch of her companion’s hand on her shoulder, accompanied by a whispered, “There’s a wild animal outside the cave!” woke her to their reality, her drowsy faculties becoming alert just too late. By the time she was wide enough awake to judge them, the yells had ceased.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a human voice?” she questioned anxiously. “Why didn’t you wake me when it commenced? I must have heard them in my sleep, for I was dreaming something about hearing someone call.”

“I thought it would be best if you didn’t hear it,” faltered Blanche. “I wanted to save you as much as I could, but I got so scared I couldn’t stand it. I knew whatever animal it was, it couldn’t get in here, but—Oh, Ruth, do you suppose we’ll ever be found?”

“Yes, I think so.” Though she tried to reply heartily, Ruth’s answer was faintly lacking in assurance. “Blanche,” she continued softly, “I want to tell you that you’ve been the bravest girl ever since all this happened. You’ve shown yourself to be a Camp Fire Girl in every way. When we do get out of here, there will be a lot of honors waiting for you.”

“I don’t deserve them,” Blanche answered very humbly. “Think how hateful I’ve been to you, and of how I brought all this trouble on you! I’m not worthy to be a Camp Fire Girl. But there is one thing I’m going to do if I—if we—are found. I’m going to ask Miss Drexal to call a Council Fire. Then I’m going to stand up, and confess how deceitful I’ve been and how splendid you’ve been!”

“Never!” Ruth’s protest rang out sharply. “What’s past is past. Somehow, I don’t believe either Miss Drexal or the girls would feel that you owed it to them to do that. After all, it’s between you and me. Let’s keep it so.”

“I shall tell my mother.” Blanche was bent on expiation. “I never told you, but I broke my engagement right after what happened at the Heights.”

“Yes, you ought to tell your mother. I’m glad you feel that you wish to. I am glad, too, about the other. You could never have been happy to go on with it without your mother’s approval. Now promise me that you won’t ask Miss Drexal to call that Council Fire.”

“All right, I won’t, but only because you ask me. I’ll try to make up for my faults in other ways. Will you help me, Ruth, and forgive me, and be my friend for always?”

“For ever and always.” In the dark Ruth’s hand sought Blanche’s and found it. A moment of sweet silence ensued.

“We talk as though we were perfectly sure of being rescued.” Blanche laughed shakily.

“Never despair is our—”

Of a sudden the two clutched each other desperately. From the depths of the passage came the long, terrifying howl that had so greatly unnerved Blanche.

“It’s got in somehow! It’s coming after us!” shrieked Blanche.

“Shh!” warned Ruth. Bolt upright, she listened with all her might.

Again came the cry, this time a little louder. To Blanche’s amazement a high clear call of “Hoo-oo!” burst from Ruth’s lips. Instantly it was answered by the oncoming intruder.

“It’s—not an animal!” Ruth was half laughing, half crying. “It’s a man’s voice. It’s good old Blue Wolf.” Ruth had leaped to her feet, and was stumbling toward the direction from which the voice came. “Blu-e W-o-l-f!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.

A patter of feet, a flare of light that hurt her eyes, and behind that light the stalwart figure of the Indian. With a glad cry, Ruth forgot dignity and catching him by the arm, clung to him joyfully.

“I knew you’d find us!” she repeated over and over. “You said you would, you know, and now you have.”

“Me find.” For a brief instant, Blue Wolf also forgot his dignity. Very lightly he laid his hand on Ruth’s brown head. “You Blue Wolf friend. You lost, he feel bad. Now find, feel happy. You come both now. Go quick. All wait by lake for you. You follow me close. Bad hole down there.”

“I know it! I nearly fell into it!” exclaimed Ruth ruefully. “We found the passage and went along all right till we got that far. We couldn’t see a thing. I was ahead. Blanche pulled me back just as I was going over. How deep is it, Blue Wolf?”

“Twelve feet, mebbe. Little room one side. You walk there all right, you careful. Me show how walk.”

With this gracious offer, the guide marshalled his charges behind him, and sweeping his torch from side to side, stepped into the passage, the girls following. This time they went rapidly, halting only at the “bad hole,” which was indeed a veritable pit. Whether it was due to natural causes, or purposely dug by the Indians to foil pursuit, Blue Wolf did not know. Afterward questioned by Ruth, he replied that, so far as he knew, it had always been there. The light of the torch revealed, however, a narrow foothold of earth on one side, not more than a foot in width, and on this they walked safely across to feel the solid floor of the passage again under their feet.

Soon afterward they emerged from it to feel the soft night wind blow upon their faces and hear the blessed rustle of the leaves overhead. To Ruth, it was the supreme moment of her life. As long as she lived, she never forgot the sensation of reverent exultation that swept over her as she paused for an instant to breathe deeply of the fragrant air, her eyes lifted to where, far, far above, she glimpsed the faint twinkle of the stars.

A gentle touching of her arm brought her to earth once more. “Come now hurry,” urged the guide. “’Bout mile to lake. I go first. Torch he light. You careful, no fall.”

“After what we’ve been through, a few tumbles won’t matter,” Blanche commented with an alert cheerfulness that brought the guide’s black eyes to bear on her. Thus far, he had accorded her small attention. He now became aware of a curious change in the indolent, selfish girl of whom he had so deeply disapproved. He stared harder than ever when she faltered diffidently: “We can’t ever hope to repay you for what you’ve done for us, Blue Wolf.”

The sincerity of the little speech struck a responsive chord. Very gravely the guide held out his hand to Blanche. “Good words. Me like. Remember long time. Now you my friend like Missy Ruth and Missy Drexal.”

Ruth looked smilingly on, happy at the way things were moving. Out of their sorry adventure had come the awakening of Blanche’s “better self” for which she had so earnestly hoped. It was well worth having endured much.

Guided by the flickering light of Blue Wolf’s torch, the journey to the lake shore was accomplished without event. Just as they emerged from the woods, a wild, jubilant shout from shore thrilled the hearts of the returned wanderers. The flare of the guide’s torch had shown the watchers three figures instead of only one. Half way between the woods and the lake’s edge, a reunion took place the memory of which lingered in the minds of all concerned long after that joyful meeting.

When the first excitement had somewhat subsided, Ruth and Blanche were affectionately conducted to the camp fire by a thankful bodyguard. Ever practical, Miss Drexal went to work immediately to bandage Ruth’s wrist, while thoughtful Marian soon had a fresh pot of steaming coffee ready. With such comestibles as had been saved against their return, Blue Wolf and the two heroines of the cave made a satisfactory repast. As it was then after three o’clock, it was decided to wait for daybreak before starting for Wohelo Wigwam. Absorbed as were all in listening to Ruth’s story of that terrible adventure in the dark, the remaining hours until daylight flew by on wings.

The first faint gray of dawn saw a flotilla of three canoes, burdened with a weary but contented crew, gliding away from “Disaster Island,” as Frances had lugubriously named it, shortly after Ruth and Blanche had disappeared. Seated in the last canoe, Jane shook a vindictive fist at the fast receding object of her grudge. “Good-bye, hateful old thing,” she jeered. “You thought you’d cheat us, but we cheated you.”

The echo of her mocking taunt was flung back at her across the hush of dawn, precisely as though Disaster Island had heard and had been stirred to retaliation. A bend in the lake and it was lost to view, left behind to brood in the solitary grandeur that had pervaded its forest depths before the unlucky invasion of the Camp Fire Girls.



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