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The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale
by Laura Lee Hope
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Then, chiefly by reason of the sensible attitude of Betty, Grace and Mollie, there came a more rational feeling, and it was agreed that the affair was not so uncommon after all.

The chums of Amy said nothing about the letter Alice had written. That she had was very evident from her actions, for she was at first defiant, and then contrite, and several times it was seen that she had been crying. But she said nothing, perhaps being too proud to admit her fault.

"We'll just treat her as if nothing had happened," said Betty, and this advice was followed. Alice was not generally liked, but the three chums were so pleasant to her, in contrast with the conduct of the other girls, that it must have been as coals of fire on her head.

Mollie's boat was easily recovered, and the handkerchiefs that had been stuffed in the hole were of some service afterward, though rather stained by river water. The missing plug was found fast under a seat brace, which accounted for it not floating.

As for the five-hundred-dollar bill, nothing was heard of the owner, and it, with the attached paper, remained in Mr. Nelson's safe. The advertisement about it was published again, and though there were several inquiries from persons who had lost money, they could lay no claim to this particular bankbill.

"We'll just have to wait to solve that mystery," said Grace. "Maybe until after we come back from our tour."

Arrangements to start on the journey had rapidly been completed. Betty had made out the schedule.

"We'll leave Deepdale early in the morning," she said, "and go on to Rockford. There we're due to stop with my aunt. We can take lunch wherever we find it most convenient, but we'll make Rockford at dusk, I hope."

"I certainly trust so," said Mollie. "A night on a country road—never, my dear!"

"The next night we'll stop in Middleville," went on Betty, "at Amy's cousin's house. From there to Broxton, where Grace's married sister will put us up, and then, in turn to Simpson's Corners—that's my uncle, you know—to Flatbush, where Grace's mother's niece has kindly consented to receive us; on to Hightown, that's Mollie's aunt's place; to Cameron—that's where we'll go to the camp that Mr. Ford's half-brother runs."

She paused to make a note and to glance over the schedule to make sure of some points.

"Then we'll go to Judgville, where my cousin lives, and that will be our last stopping place. Then for home," she finished.

"It sounds good," said Mollie.

"It will be lovely," declared Betty. "Are you sure your—your aunt and uncle won't have any further objections to you going, Amy?"

"Oh, sure! It was only because they thought that I might be upset on hearing of the mystery that they didn't want me to go. But I'm over that now."

"Bravely over it," murmured Betty, as she put her arms about her chum's shoulders.

The examinations were on, and boys and girls were working hard, for, because of the need of some repairs to the school, it had been decided to cut the summer term short.

Then came the closing days, with the flowers, the simple exercises, and the farewell to the graduating class, of which our girls were not members.

"Two days more and we'll be off on our wonderful tour!" exclaimed Mollie, as she and the others came out of school on the final day. "Oh, I can hardly wait!"



CHAPTER IX

OFF ON THE TOUR

"How do we look?"

"Don't you think these skirts are too short?"

"Isn't it fine to have—pockets?"

"Oh, Grace Ford! You'll never be able to walk in those shoes! Girls, just look at those French heels!" It was Amy who spoke.

"They're not French!" declared Grace, driven to self-defense. "They're a modified Cuban."

"Not enough modification, then; that's what I say!" exclaimed Mollie, the three expressions which opened this chapter having come from Betty, Grace and Amy, respectively. "They're of the French—Frenchy, Grace, my dear!"

"I don't care! I tried to get fitted in the kind of shoes you girls have," and Grace looked at the stout and substantial walking boots of her companions, "but they didn't have my size. The man is going to send for them, and he said he'd forward them to Middleville. They'll be there when we arrive."

"All right, as long as you're going to get them," spoke Betty. "You never could belong to our Camping and Tramping Club in those shoes, Grace."

"Well, they're the largest I have, and I don't think the heels are so very high; do you?" and she appealed to the others.

"Here are Will and Frank," spoke Amy. "We'll let them decide."

"Oh, Will is sure to say something mean," declared his sister. "Don't you dare mention heels to him!"

"Ready for the hike?" demanded Will, as he came up with his chum.

"We start in half an hour," replied Betty, in the front yard of whose house the others were gathered. "Gracious, I know I haven't half the things I need. What did I do with that alcohol stove?"

"I saw you put it in the case," said Amy.

"Oh, yes, so I did. I declare I don't know what I'm doing! Now, girls, is there anything else to be thought of?"

"If there is, I'm not capable of it," declared Mollie. "I am a wreck," and she leaned against patient Amy for support.

"We'll go part way with you," offered Will.

"You shall not!" exclaimed his sister. "You'll make all manner of fun of us, and—"

"No, we won't—I promise!" exclaimed Frank, earnestly.

"Oh, let them come," pleaded Betty.

"Then go get Percy," urged Grace.

"Don't you dare!" cried Betty.

"Well, here comes Allen Washburn, anyhow," went on the tall girl. "At least we'll have enough escorts." Betty blushed and hurried into the house on some pretense or other.

The girls were to travel "light," taking with them only a few articles of clothing. Their suitcases they had arranged to send on ahead, so that they would be at each stopping place in the evening when the little party arrived. Then on leaving in the morning the satchels would again be dispatched in advance. Near the end of the route trunks would await them.

The girls expected to get their dinners wherever it was most convenient, and Betty had drawn up a sort of schedule that, should they be able to keep up to it, would mean comfort at noon. As I have explained, the breakfasts and suppers would be eaten at the homes of friends or relatives.

The girls had a little alcohol stove, a teapot and saucepan, and they expected, under favorable circumstances, to stop by the roadside and brew a cup of tea, each girl carrying an aluminum cup and saucer. Evaporated cream and sugar, to be replenished from time to time, formed part of their stores. Sandwiches, to be procured as needed, would form a staple food.

The day was a "perfect" one for June. Clad in their new suits of olive drab, purposely designed for walking, with sensible blouses, containing pockets, with skirts sufficiently short, stout boots and natty little caps, the outdoor girls looked their name. Already there was the hint of tan on their faces, for they had been much in the open of late.

They had assembled at Betty's house for the start, and were about ready to leave, though there seemed to be much confusion at the last minute.

Their first stopping place, at least for the night, would be the town of Rockford, about sixteen miles away, where Betty's aunt lived. They expected to remain two nights there, using the second day to walk to a certain old historic mill that was said to be worthy of a visit.

The good-byes were said, over and over again, it seemed, and a number of friends called to wish the girls good luck. Betty, who had been voted into the place of leader, looked over her small command. What it lacked in numbers it made up in attractiveness, for certainly no prettier picture could have been viewed than the one the girls presented that June morning, beneath the trees in the big yard.

"Well, are we ready?" finally asked Betty.

"As ready as we ever shall be," replied Grace.

"Then—what shall I say—forward—march?"

"Just say—hike!" cried the irrepressible Will.

"Don't mind him!" cautioned his sister. "Oh, I've left my handkerchief in your house, Betty!" and she hastened to secure it.

But, finally, after a few more forgotten articles had been collected, the girls were ready to start. Mr. Nelson came out to wave a farewell, and his wife appeared, to add more to her already numerous cautions.

"What shall I do with that five hundred dollar bill?" asked Betty's father. "If the owner comes, shall I give it up?"

"Don't you dare!" she cried. "At least, not until we girls have a chance to see him. We want to find out about the romance back of it. Write to us if it's claimed."

"All right—I will," he said, with a laugh.

"But it doesn't seem as though, after this lapse of time, that it would be called for. Good-bye!"

"Good-bye! Good-luck!"

This was echoed and re-echoed. Then the four members of the Camping and Tramping Club started down the pleasant country road, whereon the June sun shone in golden patches through the leafy branches of the trees.

"A good omen," breathed Amy, who walked beside Betty.

Will, Frank and Allen brought up the rear, carrying the small valises or suitcases the girls had packed. The little cavalcade passed Mollie's house, Mrs. Billette appearing at the window to wave another farewell. The twins were not in sight.

"For which I am thankful—they'd cry to come," said their sister, "and they are dreadful teases."

As the girls and their escorts swung around a turn in the highway a little later, about a mile from Mollie's house, Grace looked back to cry out in almost tragic accents:

"Look! The twins! They're following us," and the others turned around to see Dodo and Paul, hand in hand, trudging bravely and determinedly after them.



CHAPTER X

ON THE WRONG ROAD

Molly, for a moment, looked as if she wanted to cry from sheer vexation, for the getting ready to start had been trying on all of them. Then the humor of the situation appealed to her, and she exclaimed, as the solemn-eyed twins drew: nearer:

"Dodo—Paul—what does this mean? Go back home at once! Mamma will be dreadfully worried about you. Go back."

"We tum too," lisped Dodo.

"We go for walk wit oo, Mollie," Paul added.

"The little dears!" murmured Amy.

"You wouldn't say so if you had to go all the way back with them," exclaimed the sister. "Dodo—Paul, you must go home at once."

"Dot any tandy?" asked Dodo, seeing, doubtless, a chance to make capital out of the escapade.

"Candy! The idea!"

"We go back if oo dot tandy," spoke Paul, cunningly, seeing the drift of his small sister's scheme. "We 'ikes tandy."

"I'll give them some if they promise to go back," spoke Grace, making a motion toward her little case that Frank carried.

"No, they must not be bribed," said Mollie, firmly. "I shall insist on their going back. And oh! what faces they have! They must have been eating candy already this morning."

"Our tandy all gone," spoke Dodo. "Oo dive us tandy we go back; won't us, Paul?" and confidingly she looked up into her brother's face.

"We go for tandy," he affirmed, and there was an air of determination about him that boded no good for the girls.

"You must go back!" declared Mollie.

"We go for walk," said Dodo. "Tum on, Paul. We dot fings to eat same as dem," and proudly she displayed a very dirty bag, the opening of which disclosed a rather jumbled collection of bread and butter, and cookie crumbs.

"An' I dot a gun to shoot bad bears," went on Paul, shouldering a wooden article, that, by a wide stretch of the imagination could be seen to somewhat resemble a musket. "Gun go bang-bang!" explained the little chap, "bad bears run 'way off. Turn on, Dodo, we go wif 'em," and he nodded at the "hikers," as Will unfeelingly characterized his sister and her chums.

"Go back! Go back!" cried Mollie, now again on the verge of tears. "Oh, you bad children! What shall I do? Mamma will be dreadfully worried, and if we take them back we'll lose a lot of time. What shall we do, girls?"

"We go back for tandy—lots of tandy," spoke the inexorable Dodo. "We 'ikes tandy; don't us, Paul?"

"Yes," said Paul, simply.

"The easiest way out of it is to give them some candy," said Grace, in a low voice, but, low as it was, the twins heard. Their eyes brightened at once, and they came eagerly forward.

"Oh, dear, I suppose it is the only thing to do," affirmed Mollie. "Will you go straight back if you get some candy?" she asked. "Straight home to mamma?"

"Ess—we bofe go," promised Dodo, who usually led her small brother. "We 'ikes tandy," she reiterated.

"Me tan shoot bears to-morrow," said Paul, philosophically. "Where is tandy?" With him evidently the prospect of present enjoyment was preferable to the future possibility of becoming a great hunter.

"Here you are!" cried Grace, as she took out some chocolates. "Now be good children. Do you think it safe for them to go back alone, Mollie?"

"That's so, I never considered that. I wonder if we'll have to go with them? Oh, isn't this annoying, and we're behind time now! We'll never get to Rockford to-night. What shall I do?"

"We take 'em back if oo dive us some tandy!" mocked Will, who, with his chums, had been an interested observer of the little scene.

"Smarty!" exclaimed his sister. "But I'll take you at your word just the same. Here, Frank—Allen—you see that he performs his part of the contract," and she held the candy box out to the other two, who laughingly accepted the bribe.

Then with the hands of the trusting, and now contented, twins in theirs, Will and Frank bade the girls good-speed and led away the two small ones on their homeward way, Allen following them after a farewell to Betty.

"At last we are off!" murmured Mollie. "I'm so sorry it happened, girls!"

"Why, the idea!" cried Betty. "It was just a little pleasant episode, and we'll remember it all day, and laugh."

"But it may make us late," suggested Mollie, anxiously.

"Not much," went on the Little Captain. "It wasn't your fault, anyhow. We can just walk a little faster to make up for it—that is, if, Grace thinks she can stand it."

"Oh, you won't find me complaining," declared the girl whose footwear had been the subject of comment. "I'm not as comfortable as you, perhaps," she admitted, "but I will be when I get my other shoes. And now, let's give ourselves up to the enjoyments of the way—and day. Oh, isn't it just lovely!"

Indeed, a more auspicious start—barring the little delay caused by the twins—could not have been provided. The day was one of those balmy ones in June, when it is neither too hot nor too blowy, when the breeze seems fairly laden with the sweet scent of flowers, and the lazy hum of bees mingles with the call of birds.

The way led out along a pleasant country road, which, for some distance, wound in and out among great maples that formed a leafy shade which might be most acceptable later in the day, since there was the promise of considerable heat at noon.

As yet it was early, a prompt enough start having been made to allow of an easy pace along the road.

"For," Betty had said in reviewing the procedure to be followed, "we don't want to tire ourselves out on the first stage of our trip. We ought to begin gradually. That is the way all athletes train."

"Oh, then we are going to be athletes?" asked Amy.

"Walking athletes, at least," responded the leader. "Now, girls, if any of you feel like resting at any time, don't hesitate to say so. We want this to be an enjoyment, not a task, even if we are a regular club."

So perfect was the day, and in such good spirits were the girls, that even the simplest sights and happenings along the highway brought forth pleased comments. The sight of a cow placidly chewing her cud in a meadow, the patient creature standing knee-deep amid the buttercups, was a picture they all admired, Mollie carried a little camera, and insisted on snapping the bovine, though the other girls urged her to save some films with which to take their own pictures.

"But that cow will make such a lovely enlargement," said Mollie. "It's like an artist's painting."

Bravely they marched along, with a confident swing and firm tread—at least, all but Grace trod firmly, and she rather favored herself on account of her high heels. But her chums were good enough not to laugh.

They passed farm houses, in the kitchen doors of which appeared the women and girls of the household, standing with rolled-up sleeves, arms akimbo, looking with no small wonder at the four travelers.

There were comments, too, not always inaudible.

"I wonder what they're selling?" one woman asked her daughter, as they paused in their work of washing a seemingly innumerable number of milk pans.

"They take us for peddlers," said Amy.

A little later a small boy, who had been playing horse in front of his house, scuttled back toward the kitchen, crying out:

"Ma—ma! Come an' see the suffragists!"

"Oh, mercy!" exclaimed Betty. "What will we be taken for next?"

But it was fun, with all that, and such a novelty to the girls that they wondered why they had not before thought of this means of spending part of their vacation.

The sun crept higher in the sky, and the warmth of the golden beams increased. The girls were thankful, now, for any shade they might encounter, and they were fortunate in that their way still lay in pleasant places. They came to a little brook that ran under the road, and not far from it a roadside spring bubbled up. Their collapsible drinking cups came in useful, and they remained for a little while in the shade near the cool spot.

"Where shall we eat our lunch?" asked Grace, as the ever-mounting sun approached the zenith.

"Are you hungry already?" asked Amy.

"I am beginning to feel the pangs," admitted the tall, graceful girl.

"Then you can't have eaten much candy," commented Mollie.

"Only three pieces."

"Hurrah! Grace is reforming!" cheered Betty. "That's fine!"

"I don't see why you're always making fun of me," Grace said, as she pouted. "I'm sure you are all just as fond of chocolate as I am."

"Never mind," consoled Mollie. "We will eat soon, for I confess to having an appetite on my own account."

Deciding to eat, at least on this first day of the tramp, a lunch of their own providing, rather than go to some restaurant, country hotel, or stop at a chance farm house, the girls had brought with them packages of food, and the alcohol stove for a cup of tea, or some chocolate.

"This looks to be a perfect place for our picnic," said Betty, as, on passing a farm, they saw the plow-horses unhitched and led under a tree to partake of their hay and oats. "It must be noon by that sign," went on the Little Captain, confirming her guess by a glance at her watch. "It is," she said. "So we'll eat here," and she indicated a little grassy knoll under a great oak tree at the side of the road.

"There's the most beautiful spring of water here, too," went on Grace. "Shall we make tea?"

"Do!" exclaimed Mollie. "I'm just dying for a good hot cup. But not too strong."

Soon they had merrily gathered about the greensward table, on which paper napkins formed the cloth. The sandwiches were set out, with a bottle of olives to add to the attractiveness, and then the little kettle was put on the alcohol stove, which had been set up in the shelter of the great oak's massive trunk.

"It's boiling!" finally announced Betty. "Hand me the tea ball, Amy, my dear."

Pouring the steaming water over the silver tea ball, Betty circulated it around in the cup, until one fragrant brew was made. She passed this over to Mollie, and proceeded to make another.

"It's delicious!" cried the French girl, as she tasted it, cream and sugar having been added. "Oh, isn't this just lovely!"

"Perfect," murmured Grace. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything!"

In pure enjoyment they reclined on the grass after the meal, and then, as Betty, after a look at her watch, warned them that the better half of their journey still lay before them, they started off again.

They had proceeded a mile or so, and the way was not so pleasant now, for the road was sandy, when they came to a fork of the highway. A time-worn sign-post bore letters that could scarcely be made out, and, though they had a road map, the girls were not quite sure which way to take to get to Rockford. They were debating the matter, alternately consulting the map and the sign-post, when a farmer drove past.

"Which road to Rockford, please?" hailed Betty.

"Th' left!" he exclaimed, sententiously. "G'lang there!" This last to the horses, not to the girls.

"The road map seems to say the road to the right," murmured Betty, as the farmer drove that way himself.

"Well, he ought to know," insisted Grace. "We'll take the left," and they did.

If they had hoped to have all go smoothly on this, their first day of tramping, the girls were destined to disappointment. In blissful ignorance they trudged on, talking so interestedly that they never thought to glance at the sign-boards, of which they passed several.

It was Amy who discovered the error they had made—or rather, the error the farmer had caused them to make. Again coming to a dividing of the ways, they saw a new sign-board, put up by a local automobile organization.

"Eight miles to Hamptown, and ten to Denby," read Amy. "Girls, where is Rockford?"

Anxiously they stared at the sign.

"It doesn't seem to say anything about Rockford," murmured Grace.

"Maybe someone has moved our town," suggested Mollie, humorously.

Betty looked puzzled, annoyed and a little anxious. A snub-nosed, freckle-faced boy came along whistling, and beating the dust of the road with a long switch.

"Which is the road to Rockford, little boy?" asked Betty.

"Huh?"

"I say, which is the road to Rockford?"

"Give him a candy if you have any left, Grace," suggested Mollie, in a low tone.

"Are you folks peddlin' candy?" asked the boy, and his eyes shone.

"No, but we have some," answered Betty. "We want to get to Rockford."

"You're five miles off the road," exclaimed the boy, with a grin, as though he took personal delight in their dilemma. "You come the wrong way. Huh!"

"Oh, dear!" murmured Mollie. "Don't you give him any candy, Grace."

"It isn't his fault that we went wrong," spoke Betty.



CHAPTER XI

THE BARKING DOG

Disappointment, and not a little worriment, held the four girls silent for a moment. Then Betty, feeling that it was her place to assume the leadership, said:

"Are you sure, little boy? A man told us, at the last dividing of the roads, to take the left, as that led to Rockford."

"Well, he didn't know what he was talking about," asserted the little chap, with the supreme confidence of youth. "To get to Rockford you've got to go back."

"All that distance?" cried Grace. "We'll never make it in time."

"Isn't there a shorter way—some cross-road we can take?" inquired Betty.

"Who's got the candy?" inquired the little chap, evidently thinking that he had already earned some reward.

"Here!" said Grace, hopelessly, holding out an almost emptied box. "But please—please don't tell us we're lost."

"Oh, you ain't exactly lost!" exclaimed the urchin, with a grin. "I live just down the road a piece, and it's only a mile to Bakersville. That's a good town. They got a movin' picture show there. I went onct!"

"Did you indeed?" said Betty. "But we can't go there. Isn't there some way of getting to Rockford without going all the way back to the fork? Why, it's miles and miles!"

"I wish I had that man here who directed us wrongly!" exclaimed Mollie, with a flash of her dark eyes. "I—I'd make him get a carriage and drive us to your aunt's house, Betty."

"That would not be revenge enough," declared Grace. "He ought to be made to buy us each a box of the best chocolates."

"Nothing like making the punishment fit the crime," murmured Betty.

"Say, are you play-actors?" demanded the boy, who had stood in opened-mouth wonder during this dialogue. The girls broke into peals of merry laughter that, in a measure, served to relieve the tension on their nerves.

"Now do please tell us how to get to Rockford?" begged Mollie when they had quieted down. "We must be there to-night."

"Well, you kin git there by goin' on a mile further and taking the main road that goes through Sayreville," said the boy, his mouth full of candy.

"Would that be nearer than going back to where we made the mistake?" Betty asked.

"Yep, a lot nearer. Come on; I'll show you as far as I'm goin'," and the boy started off as though the task—or shall I say, pleasure?—of leading four pretty girls was an every-day occurrence.

"We never can get there before dark," declared Mollie.

"Oh, yes, we will," said Betty, hopefully. "We can walk faster than this."

"If you do I'll simply give up," wailed Grace. "These shoes!" and she leaned against a tree.

And to the eternal credit of the other girls be it said that they did not remark: "I told you so!"

Silently and unconcernedly, the snub-nosed boy led them on. Finally he came to his own home, and rather ungallantly, did not offer to go farther.

"You jest keep on for about half a mile," he said, "an' you'll come to a cross-road."

"I hope it isn't too cross," murmured Grace, with a grave face.

"Huh?"

The boy looked at her wonderingly.

"I mean not cross enough to bite," she went on.

"You turn to the left," the boy continued, "and keep straight on till you get to Watson's Corners. Then you turn to the right, keep on past an old stone church, turn to the right and that's a straight road to Rockford." He looked curiously at Grace, as though in doubt as to her sanity. "A cross road!" he murmured.

"Gracious, we'll never remember all that!" exclaimed Amy.

"I have it down!" said practical Betty, as she wrote rapidly in her note book. "I'm sure we can find it. Come on, girls!"

"Have another candy," invited Grace, hospitably extending the now nearly depleted box.

"Sure—thanks!" exclaimed the boy, but he backed quickly away from her. Her joke had fallen on a suspicious mind, evidently.

The girls trudged on, rather silent now, for somehow the edge of their enjoyment seemed to have been taken off. But still they were not discouraged. They were true outdoor girls, and they knew, even if worse came to worst, and darkness found them far from their destination, and Betty's aunt's house, that no real harm could come to them.

Successfully they found the various points of identification mentioned by the freckled boy, and at last they located a sign-post that read:

FIVE MILES TO ROCKFORD

"Five miles!" exclaimed Grace, with a tragic air. "We can never do it!"

"We must!" declared Betty, firmly. "Of course we can do it. Why, even with going out of our way as we did, we won't have covered more than eighteen miles to-day. And we set twenty as an average."

"But this is the first day," said Mollie.

"We can—we must get to Rockford to-night," insisted Betty.

Rather hopelessly they tramped on. The sun seemed to sink with surprising rapidity after getting to a certain point in the western sky.

"It's dropping faster and faster all the while!" cried Amy, as they watched it from a crest of the road.

"Never mind—June evenings are the longest of the year," consoled Betty.

They hurried on. The sun sank to its nightly rest amid a bed of golden, green, purple, pink and olive clouds, and there followed a glorious maze of colors that reached high up toward zenith.

"Girls, we simply must stop and admire this—if it's only for a minute!" exclaimed Grace. "Isn't that wonderful!" and she pointed a slender hand, beautified by exquisitely kept nails, toward the gorgeous sky picture.

"Every minute counts!" remarked practical Betty. Yet she knew better than to worry her friends.

The glow faded, and again the girls advanced. From the fields came the lowing of the cows, as they waited impatiently for the bars of the pastures to be let down. A herd of sheep was driven along the road, raising a cloud of dust. From farm houses came the barking of dogs and the not unmusical notes of conch or tin horns, summoning the "men folks" to the evening meal.

"Girls, we're never going to make it in time!" exclaimed Grace as the sky darkened. "We must see if we can't stop at one of these houses over night," and she pointed to a little hamlet they were approaching.

"Grace!" exclaimed Betty. "Aunt Sallie would be worried to death if we didn't come, after she expected us."

"Then we must send her word. I can't go another step."

They all paused irresolutely. They were in front of a big white house—a typical country home. Betty glanced toward it.

"It's too bad," she said. "I know just how you feel, and yet can we go up to one of these places, perfect strangers, and ask them to keep us over night? It doesn't seem reasonable."

"Anything is reasonable when you have to," declared Mollie. "I'll ask," she volunteered, starting toward the house. "The worst they can say is 'no,' and maybe we can hire a team to drive to Rockford, if they can't keep us. I can drive!"

"Well, we'll ask, anyhow," agreed Betty, rather hopelessly. She hardly knew what to do next.

As they advanced toward the House the savage barking of a dog was heard, and as they reached the front gate the beast came rushing down the walk, while behind him lumbered a farmer, shouting:

"Here! Come back! Down, Nero! Don't mind him, ladies!" he added. "He won't hurt you!"

But the aspect, and the savage growls and barks, of the creature seemed to indicate differently, and the girls shrank back. Betty, reaching in her bag, drew out the nearly emptied olive bottle for a weapon.

"Don't hit him! Don't hit him!" cried the farmer. "That will only make him worse! Come back here, Nero!"

"Run, girls! Run!" begged Amy. "He'll tear us to pieces!" and she turned and fled.



CHAPTER XII

AT AUNT SALLIE'S

Probably that was the most unwise course poor Amy could have taken. Dogs, even the most savage, seldom come to a direct attack unless their prospective victim shows fear. Then, like a horse that takes advantage of a timid driver, the creature advances boldly to the attack.

It was so in this case. The other girls, not heeding Amy's frantic appeal, stood still, but she ran back toward the road, her short skirt giving her a chance to exercise her speed. The dog saw, and singling out her as the most favorable for his purposes, he leaped the fence in a great bound and rushed after the startled girl.

"Stop him! Stop him!"

"Oh, Amy!"

"If she falls!"

"I know I'm going to faint!"

"Don't you dare do it, Grace Ford!"

"Why doesn't that man keep his dog chained?"

These were only a few of the expressions that came from the lips of the girls as, horror-stricken, they watched the dog rush after poor Amy.

Never had she run so fast—not even during one of the basket ball games in which she had played, nor when they had races at the Sunday school picnic.

And, had it not been for a certain hired man, who, taking in the situation as he came on the run from the barn, acted promptly, Amy might have been severely injured. As it was the farmer's man, crossing the yard diagonally, was able to intercept the dog.

"Run to the left, Miss! Run to the left!" he cried. Then, leaping the low fence at a bound, he threw the pitchfork he carried at the dog with such skill that the handle crossed between the brute's legs and tripped it. Turning over and over in a series of somersaults, the dog's progress was sufficiently halted to enable the hired man to get to it. He took a firm grip in the collar of the dog and held on. Poor Amy stumbled a few steps farther and then Betty, recovering her scattered wits, cried out:

"All right, Amy! All right! You're in no danger!"

And Amy sank to the ground while her chums rushed toward her.

"Hold him, Zeke! Hold him!" cried the farmer, as he came lumbering up. "Hold on to him!"

"That's what I'm doin'!" responded the hired man.

"Is th' gal hurted? Land sakes, I never knew Nero to act so!" went on the farmer apologetically. "He must have been teased by some of th' boys. Be you hurted, Miss?"

Pale and trembling, Amy arose. But it was very evident that she had suffered no serious harm, for the dog had not reached her, and she had simply collapsed on the grass, rather than fallen.

The dog, choking and growling, was firmly held by the hired man, who seemed to have no fear of him.

"I'm awfully sorry," said the farmer, contritely. "I never knew him to act like that."

"Some one has tied a lot of burrs on his tail," called out the hired man. "That's what set him off."

"I thought so. Well, clean 'em off, and he'll behave. Poor old Nero!"

Even now the dog was quieting down, and as the hired man removed the irritating cause of the beast's anger it became even gentle, whining as though to offer excuses.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am," went on the farmer. "You're strangers around here, I take it."

"Yes," said Betty, "and we lost our way. We're going to Rockford. We must be there to-night."

"Rockford?"

"Yes, my aunt lives there."

"And who might your aunt be?"

"Mrs. Palmer."

"Bill Palmer's wife?"

"Yes, that's Uncle Will I guess," and Betty laughed.

"Pshaw now! You don't say so! Why, I know Bill well."

The farmer's wife came bustling out.

"Is the young lady hurt, Jason? What got into Nero, anyhow? I never see him behave so!"

"Oh, it was them pesky boys! No, she's not hurt."

Amy was surrounded by her chums. She was pale, and still trembling, but was fast recovering her composure.

"Won't you come in the house," invited the woman. "We're jest goin' t' set down t' supper, and I'm sure you'd like a cup of tea."

"I should love it!" murmured Grace.

"What be you—suffragists?" went on the woman, with a smile.

"That's the second time we've been taken for them to-day," murmured Betty, "Do we look so militant?"

"You look right peart!" complimented the woman. "Do come in?"

Betty, with her eyes, questioned her chums. They nodded an assent. Really they were entitled to something it seemed after the unwarranted attack of the dog.

"We ought to be going on to Rockford," said Betty, as they strolled toward the pleasant farm house. "I don't see how we can get there now—"

"You leave that to me!" said the farmer, quickly. "I owe you something on account of the way Nero behaved. Ain't you ashamed of yourself?" he charged.

The dog crouched, whined and thumped the earth with a contrite tail. He did not need the restraining hand of the hired man now.

"Make friends," ordered the farmer. The dog approached the girls.

"Oh—don't!" begged Amy.

"He wouldn't hurt a fly," bragged the farmer. "I can't account for his meanness."

"It was them burrs," affirmed the hired man.

"Mebby so. Wa'al, young ladies, come in and make yourselves t' hum! Behave, Nero!" for now the dog was getting too friendly, leaping up and trying to solicit caresses from the girls. "That's th' way with him, one minute he's up to some mischief, an' th' next he's beggin' your, pardon. I hope you're not hurt, miss," and he looked anxiously at Amy.

"No, not at all," she assured him, with a smile that was brave and winning. "I was only frightened, that's all."

"I'm glad of that. I'll have t' tie that dog up, I guess," and he threw a little clod of earth at the now cringing animal, not hitting him, however.

"Oh, don't hurt him," pleaded Betty.

"Hurt him! He wouldn't do that, miss!" exclaimed the hired man, who now had to defend himself from the over-zealous affections of the dog. "He's too fond of him. Nero isn't a bad sort generally, only some of the boys worried him."

The girls, with the farmer and his man in the lead, walked toward the house, the woman hurrying on ahead to set more places at the table.

"I'm afraid we're troubling you too much," protested Betty.

"Oh, it's no trouble at all," the farmer assured her. "And I owe you something on account of my dog's actions."

"But really, ought we to stay?" asked Grace. "It's getting dark, Betty, and your aunt—"

"Say, young ladies!" exclaimed the farmer, "I'll fix that all right. As soon as you have a bite to eat I'll hitch up and drive you over to Rockford, to Bill Palmer's."

"Oh!" began Betty, "we couldn't think—"

She stopped, for she did not know what to say. Truly, it was quite a dilemma in which they found themselves, and they must stay somewhere that night. To remain at a strange farm house was out of the question. Perhaps this was the simplest way after all.

"It won't be any trouble at all," the farmer assured her. "I've got a fast team and a three-seated carriage. I'll have you over there in no time."

"Then perhaps we'd better not stop for supper," said Mollie. "Your aunt might be worrying, Betty, and—"

"We'll telephone her!" exclaimed the farmer. "I've got a 'phone—lots of us have around here—and I can let her know all about it. Or you can talk to her yourself," he added.

So it was arranged; and soon Betty was talking to her anxious relative over the wire. Then, after a bountiful supper, which the girls very much enjoyed, the farmer hitched up his fine team, and soon they were on their way to Mrs. Palmer's. The drive was not a long one.

"My!" exclaimed Mollie, as they bowled along over the smooth road, under a young moon that silvered the earth, "this is better than walking!"

"I should say so," agreed Grace, whose shoes hurt her more than she cared to admit.

"You are both traitors to the Club!" exclaimed Betty. "The idea of preferring riding to walking!"

"Oh, it's only once in a while," added Mollie. "Really, pet, we've had a perfectly grand time."

"Even with the dog," added Amy, who was now herself again. "I was silly to run."

"I don't blame you," said the farmer, "and yet if you hadn't, maybe Nero wouldn't have chased you. It's a good thing not to run from a dog. If you stand, it let's him see you're not afraid."

"Put that down in your books, girls," directed Betty. "Never run from a dog. That advice may come in useful on our trip."

Half an hour later they were at Mrs. Palmer's house, and received a hearty welcome, the telephone message having done much to relieve the lady's anxiety.



CHAPTER XIII

THE MISSING LUNCH

"Oh, but these shoes are so comfortable!"

"I'm glad of that, Grace."

"Though I didn't really delay you much; did I?"

"No, I wasn't complaining," and Betty put a caressing hand on the arm of her companion.

"We'll be able to make up for lost time now," said Mollie, as she shifted her little valise from one hand to the other. "Your aunt was certainly generous in the matter of lunch, Betty," she went on.

"Yes, she said this country air would give us good appetites."

"I'm sure I don't need any," spoke Amy. "I've been hungry ever since we started."

The four girls were again on the broad highway that was splashed and spotted with the streaks of the early sun as it slanted through the elms and maples along the road. They had spent two nights at the home of Betty's aunt, that lady having insisted on a little longer visit than was at first planned. She made the girls royally welcome, as did her husband. Grace's shoes had been sent to her at Rockford, having been telephoned for.

"But if we stay another day and night here," said Betty, "not that we're not glad to, Aunt Sallie—why we can't keep up to our schedule in walking, and we must cover so many miles each day."

"You see it's in the constitution of our club," added Grace. "We can't violate that."

"Oh, come now!" insisted Mr. Palmer. "You can stay longer just as well as not. As for walking, why we've got some of the finest walks going, right around Rockford here. You'd better stay. We don't very often see you, Betty, and your aunt isn't half talked out yet," and he solemnly winked over the head of his wife.

"The idea!" she exclaimed. "As if I'd talked half as much as you had."

And so the girls had remained. They had greatly enjoyed the visit. In anticipation of their coming Mrs. Palmer had prepared "enough for a regiment of hungry boys," to quote her husband, and had invited a number of the neighboring young people to meet the members of the Camping and Tramping Club.

The dainty rooms of the country house, with their quaint, old-fashioned, striped wall paper, the big four-poster beds, a relic of a by-gone generation, the mahogany dressers with their shining mirrors, and the delightful home-like atmosphere—all had combined to make the stay of the girls most pleasant.

The day after their arrival by carriage they had gone on a long walk, visiting a picturesque little glen not far from the village, being accompanied by a number of girls whose acquaintance Betty and her chums had made. Some of them Betty had met before.

The idea of a walking club was enthusiastically received by the country girls, and they at once resolved to form one like the organization started by Betty Nelson. In fact they named it after her, in spite of her protests.

In the afternoon the girls went for a drive in Mr. Palmer's big carriage, visiting places of local interest. And in the evening there was an old-fashioned "surprise party"—a real surprise too, by the way, for Betty and her chums had never dreamed of it. It was a most delightful time.

Mr. and Mrs. Palmer had tried to persuade their niece and her chums to stay still longer, but they were firm in their determination to cover the two hundred miles—more or less—in the specified time.

So they had started off, and the snatches of conversation with which I begun this chapter might have been heard as the four walked along the pleasant country road.

"We've had very good luck so far," said Mollie, as she skipped a few steps in advance on the greensward. "Not a bit of rain."

"Don't boast!" cautioned Betty. "It will be perfectly terrible if it rains. We simply can't walk if it does."

"I don't see why not," spoke Mollie, trying to catch Amy in a waltz hug and whirl her about.

"My, isn't she getting giddy!" mocked Grace.

"I feel so good!" cried Mollie, whose volatile nature seemed fairly bubbling over on this beautiful day. And indeed it was a day to call forth all the latent energies of the most phlegmatic person. The very air tingled with life that the sunshine coaxed into being, and the gentle wind further fanned it to rapidity of action. "Oh, I do feel so happy!" cried Mollie.

"I guess we all do," spoke Grace, but even as she said this she could not refrain from covertly glancing at Amy, over whose face there seemed a shade of—well, just what it was Grace could not decide. It might have been disappointment, or perhaps an unsatisfied longing. Clearly the mystery over her past had made an impression on the character of this sweet, quiet girl. But for all that she did not inflict her mood on her chums. She must have become conscious of Grace's quick scrutiny, for with a laugh she ran to her, and soon the two were bobbing about on the uneven turf in what they were pleased to term a "dance."

"Your aunt was certainly good to us," murmured Mollie, a little later. "I'm just dying to see what she has put up for our lunch." For Mrs. Palmer had insisted, as has been said, on packing one of the little valises the girls carried with a noon-day meal to be eaten on the road. Mollie was entrusted with this, her belongings having been divided among her chums.

"Oh," suddenly cried Grace, a moment later, "I forgot something!"

"You mean you left it at my aunt's house?" asked Betty, coming to a stop in the road.

"No, I forgot to get some of those lovely chocolates that new drug store sells. They were delicious. For a country town I never ate better."

"Grace, you are hopeless!" sighed Betty. "Come along, girls, do, or she'll insist on going back for them. And we must get to Middleville on time. It won't do to fall back in our schedule any more."

"I sent a postal to my cousin from your aunt's house," said Amy, at whose relatives the girls were to spend the night. "I told her we surely would be there."

"And so we will," said Betty. "Gracious, I forgot to mail this card to Nettie French," and she produced a souvenir card from her pocket.

"Never mind, you can put it in the next post-office we come to," suggested Grace. "Oh, dear! I'm so provoked about those chocolates. I'm positively famished, and I don't suppose it is anywhere near lunch time?" and she looked at her watch. "No, only ten o'clock," and she sighed.

Laughing at her, the girls stepped on. For a time the road ran along a pleasant little river, on which a number of canoes and boats could be seen.

"Oh, for a good row!" exclaimed Mollie.

"We'll have plenty of chances this summer," said Betty. "It has hardly begun."

"I wonder where we will spend our vacation?" spoke Mollie.

"We'll talk about that later," said Betty. "I hope we can be together, and somewhere near the water."

"If we only could get a motor boat!" sighed Grace. "Oh, Bet, if no one claims that five hundred dollars maybe we can get a little launch with it, and camp at Rainbow Lake."

"I'm only afraid some one will claim it," spoke Betty. "I dropped papa a card, telling him to send me a line in case a claimant did appear."

"Oh, let's sit down and rest," proposed Mollie, a little later. "There's a perfect dream of a view from here and it's so cool and shady."

The others were agreeable, so they stopped beneath some big trees in a grassy spot near the bank of the little stream. Grace took advantage of the stop to mend a pair of stockings she was carrying with her. It was so comfortable that they remained nearly an hour and would have stayed longer only the Little Captain, with a look at her watch, decided that they must get under way again.

"Now it's noon!" exclaimed Grace, when they had covered two miles after their rest. "Mollie, open the lunch and let's see what it contains."

There was a startled cry from Mollie. A clasping of her hands, a raising of her almost tragic eyes, and she exclaimed:

"Oh, girls, forgive me! I forgot the lunch! I left it back there where we rested in the shade!"



CHAPTER XIV

THE BROKEN RAIL

Dumb amazement held the girls in suspense for a moment. Then came a chorus of cries.

"Mollie, you never did that!"

"Forgot our lunch!"

"And we're so hungry!"

"Oh, Mollie, how could you?"

"You don't suppose I did it on purpose; do you?" flashed back the guilty one, as she looked at the three pairs of tragic, half-indignant and hopeless eyes fastened on her.

"Of course you didn't," returned Betty. "But, oh, Mollie, is it really gone? Did you leave it there?"

"Well, I haven't it with me, none of you have, and I don't remember picking it up after we slumped down there in the shade. Consequently I must have left it there. There's no other solution. It's like one of those queer problems in geometry, or is it algebra, where things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other," and she laughed with just the hint of hysteria.

"But what are we to do?" demanded Grace. "I am so hungry, and I know there were chicken sandwiches, and olives, in that lunch. Oh, Mollie!"

"Oh, Mollie!" mocked the negligent one. "If you say that again—that way—"

Her temper was rising but, by an effort, she conquered it and smiled.

"I am truly sorry," she said. "Girls, I'll do anything to make up for it. I'll run back and get the lunch—that is, if it is there yet."

"Don't you dare say it isn't!" cried Betty.

"Why can't we all go back?" suggested Amy. "Really it won't delay us so much—if we walk fast. And that was a nice place to eat. There was a lovely spring just across the road. I noticed it. We could make tea—"

"Little comforter!" whispered Betty, putting her arms around the other. "We will all go back. The day is so perfect that there's sure to be a lovely moon, and we can stop somewhere and telephone to your cousin if we find we are going to be delayed. She has an auto, I believe you said, and she might come and get us."

"Stop!" commanded Mollie. "We are a walking club, not a carriage or auto club. We'll walk."

"Then let's put our principles into practice and start now," proposed Grace. "We'll have a good incentive in the lunch at the end of this tramp. Come on!"

There was nothing to do but retrace their steps. True, they might have stopped at some wayside restaurant, but such places were not frequent, and such as there were did not seem very inviting. And Aunt Sallie had certainly put up a most delectable lunch.

The girls reached the spot where they had stopped for a rest, much sooner than they had deemed it possible. Perhaps they walked faster than usual. And, as they came in sight of the quiet little grassy spot, Mollie exclaimed:

"Oh, girls, I see it. Just where I so stupidly left it; near that big rock. Hurry before someone gets there ahead of us!"

They broke into a run, but a moment later Grace cried:

"Too late! That tramp has it!"

The girls stopped in dismay, as they saw a rather raggedly-dressed man slink out from the shadow of a tree and pick up the lunch valise. He stood regarding it curiously.

"Oh, dear!" cried Grace. "And I was so hungry!"

Betty strode forward. There was a look of determination on her face. She spoke:

"Girls, I'm not going to let that tramp take our lovely lunch. Come on, and I'll make him give it back!"

"Betty!" cried Amy. "You'd never dare!"

"I wouldn't? Watch me!"

The man was still standing there, looking at the valise as if in doubt whether or not to open it. Betty with a glance at her chums walked on. They followed.

"That—that's ours, if you please," said Betty. Her voice was weaker than she had thought it would be, and quite wobbly, too. Her knees, she confessed later, were in the same state. But she presented a brave front. "That—that's our lunch," she added, swallowing a lump in her throat.

The man—he certainly looked like a tramp, as far as his clothes were concerned, but his face was clean—turned toward the girls with a smile.

"Your lunch!" he exclaimed, and his voice was not unmusical, "how fortunate!"

He did not say whether it was fortunate for them—or himself.

"We—we forgot it. We left it here," explained Mollie. "That is, I left it here."

"That is—unfortunate," said the man. "It seems—it seems to be a fairly substantial lunch," and he moved the bag up and down.

"It ought to be—for four of us," breathed Amy.

"Allow me," spoke the man, and with a bow he handed the missing lunch to Betty. The girls said afterward that her hand did not tremble a bit as she accepted it. And then the Little Captain did something most unexpected.

"Perhaps you are hungry, too," she said, with one of her winning smiles, a smile that seemed to set her face in a glow of friendliness. "We are on a tramping tour—I mean a walking tour," she hastily corrected herself, feeling that perhaps the man would object to the word "tramp." She went on:

"We are on a walking tour, visiting friends and relatives. We generally take a lunch at noon."

"Yes, that seems to be the universal custom," agreed the man. "That is, for some persons," and he smiled, showing his white teeth.

"Are you—are you hungry?" asked Betty, bluntly.

"I am!" He spoke decidedly.

"Then perhaps—I'm sure we have more here than we can eat—and we'll soon—I mean comparatively soon—be at a friend's house—perhaps—"

She hesitated.

"I would be very glad," and again the man bowed.

Betty opened the little satchel—it was a miniature suitcase—and a veritable wealth of lunch was disclosed. There were sandwiches without number, pickles, olives, chunks of cake, creamy cheese—

"Are you sure you can spare it?" asked the man. "I'm sure I don't want to—"

"Of course we can spare it," put in Mollie, quickly.

"Well then I will admit that I am hungry," spoke the unknown. "I am not exactly what I seem," he added.

Betty glanced curiously at him.

"Don't be alarmed," he went on quickly. "I am not exactly sailing under false colors except in a minor way. Now, for instance, you took me for a tramp; did you not?" He paused and smiled.

"I—I think we did," faltered Mollie.

"And I don't blame you. I have, for the time being, assumed the habiliments of a knight of the road, for certain purposes of my own. I am—well, to be frank, I am trying to find something. In order to carry out my plans I have even begged my way, and, not always successfully. In fact—"

"You are hungry!" exclaimed Grace, and her chums said she made a move as though to bring out some chocolates. Grace, later, denied this.

"I am hungry," confessed the tramp—as he evidently preferred to appear.

Betty took out a generous portion of food.

"It is too much," the wayfarer protested.

"Not at all," Betty insisted. "We have a double reason for giving it to you. First, you are hungry. Second, please accept it as a reward for—"

"For not eating all of your lunch after I found it, I suppose you were going to say," put in the man, with a smile. "Very well, then I'll accept," and he bowed, not ungracefully.

He had the good taste—or was it bashfulness—to go over to a little grove of trees to eat his portion. Grace wanted to take him a cup of chocolate—which they made instead of tea—but Betty persuaded her not to. The girls ate their lunch, to be interrupted in the midst of it by the man who called a good-bye to them as he moved off down the road.

"He's going," remarked Amy. "I wonder if he had enough?"

"I think so," replied Betty. "Now, girls, we must hurry. We have been delayed, and—"

"I'm so sorry," put in Mollie. "It was my fault, and—"

"Don't think of it, my dear!" begged Grace. "Any of us might have forgotten the lunch, just as you did."

As they walked past the place which the tramp had selected for his dining room, Betty saw some papers on the ground. They appeared to be letters, and, rather idly, she picked them up. She looked into one or two of the torn envelopes.

"I wouldn't do that," said Grace. "Maybe those are private letters. He must have forgotten them. I wonder where he has gone? Perhaps we can catch him—he might need these papers. But I wouldn't read them, Betty."

"They're nothing but advertising circulars," retorted the Little Captain. "Nothing very private about them. I guess he threw them all away."

She was about to let them fall from her hand, when a bit of paper fluttered from one envelope. Picking it up Betty was astonished to read on the torn portion the words:

"I cannot carry out that deal I arranged with you, because I have had the misfortune to lose five hundred dollars and I shall have to—"

There the paper, evidently part of a letter to someone, was torn off. There were no other words.

"Girls!" cried Betty, "look—see! This letter! That man may be the one whose money we found! He has written about it—as nearly as I can recall, the writing is like that in the note pinned to the five hundred dollars. Oh, we must find that tramp!"

"He wasn't a tramp!" exclaimed Grace.

"No, I don't believe he was, either," admitted Betty. "That's what he meant when he spoke of his disguise, and looking for something. He's hunting for his five hundred dollars. Oh, dear! which way did he go?"

"Toward Middleville," returned Amy.

"Then we must hurry up and catch him. We can explain that we have his money."

"But are you sure it is his?" asked Mollie.

"This looks like it," said Betty, holding out the torn letter.

"But some one else might have lost five hundred dollars," protested Grace.

"Come on, we'll find him, and ask him about it, anyhow," suggested Betty. "Middleville is on our way. Oh, to think how things may turn out! Hurry, girls!"

They hastily gathered up their belongings and walked on, talking of their latest adventure.

"He was real nice looking," said Mollie.

"And quite polite," added Amy.

"And do you think he may be traveling around like a tramp, searching for that bill?" asked Grace.

"It's possible," declared Betty: "Perhaps he couldn't help looking like a tramp, because if he has lost all his money he can't afford any other clothes. Oh, I do hope we find him!"

But it was a vain hope. They did not see the man along the road, and inquiries of several persons they met gave no trace. Nor had he reached Middleville, as far as could be learned. If he had, no one had noticed him.

"Oh, dear!" sighed Betty, when they had exhausted all possibilities, "I did hope that money mystery was going to be solved. Now it's as far off as ever. But I'll keep this torn piece of letter for evidence. Poor fellow! He may have built great hopes on that five hundred dollar bill—then to lose it!"

They went to the house of Amy's cousin in Middleville. There they spent an enjoyable evening, meeting some friends who had been invited in. Amy said nothing about the disclosure to her of the strange incident in her life. Probably, she reflected, her relative already knew it.

Morning saw them on the move again, with Broxton, where a married sister of Grace lived, as their objective point. The day was cloudy, but it did not seem that it would rain, at least before night.

And even the frown of the weather did not detract from the happiness of the chums. They laughed and talked as they walked on, making merry by the way.

Stopping in a country store to make sure of their route they were informed that by taking to the railroad track for a short distance they could save considerable time.

"Then we ought to do it," decided Betty, "for we don't want to get caught in the rain," and she glanced up at the clouds that were now more threatening.

They reached the railroad track a short distance out of the little village, and proceeded down the stretch of rails.

"There's a train in half an hour," a man informed them, "but you'll be off long before then."

"I hope so," murmured Amy.

They had nearly reached the end of the ballasted way, when Betty, who was in the lead, came to a sudden halt.

"What is it," asked Mollie, "a snake? Oh, girls!"

"No, not a snake," was the quick answer. "But look! This rail is broken! It must have cracked when the last train passed. And another one—an express—is due soon! If it runs over that broken rail it may be wrecked! Girls, we've got to stop that train!" and she faced her chums resolutely.



CHAPTER XV

"IT'S A BEAR!"

"What can we do?" It was Grace who asked the question. It was Betty, the Little Captain, who answered it.

"We must stop the train," she said. "We must wave something red at it. Red always means danger."

"Mollie's tie," exclaimed Amy. Mollie was wearing a bright vermilion scarf knotted about the collar of her blouse.

"It isn't big enough," decided Betty. "But we must do something. That man said the train would come along soon. It's an express. A slow train might not go off the track, as the break is only a small one. But the express—"

She paused suggestively—apprehensively.

"There's a man!" cried Grace.

"A track-walker!" cried Betty. "Oh, he'll know what to do," and she darted toward a man just appearing around the curve—a man with a sledge, and long-handled wrench over his shoulder.

"Hey! Hey!" Betty called. "Come here. There's a broken rail!"

The man broke into a run.

"What's that?" he called. "Got your foot caught in a rail? It's a frog—a switch that you mean. Take off your shoe!"

"No, we're not caught!" cried Betty, in shrill accent. "The rail is broken!"

The track-walker was near enough now to hear her correctly. And, fortunately, he understood, which might have been expected of him, considering his line of work.

"It's a bad break," he affirmed, as he looked at it, "Sometimes the heat of the sun will warp a rail, and pull out the very spikes by the roots, ladies. That's what happened here. Then a train—'twas the local from Dunkirk—came along and split the rail. 'Tis a wonder Jimmie Flannigan didn't see it. This is his bit of track, but his wife is sick and I said I'd come down to meet him with a bite to eat, seein' as how she can't put up his dinner. 'Tis lucky you saw it in time, ladies."

"But what about the train?" asked Betty.

"Oh, I'll stop that all right. I'll flag it, and Jimmie and me'll put in a new rail. You'll be noticin' that we have 'em here and there along the line," and he showed them where, a little distance down the track, there were a number placed in racks made of posts, so that they might not rust.

From his pocket the track-walker pulled a red flag. It seemed that he carried it there for just such emergencies. He tied it to his pick handle, and stuck the latter in the track some distance away from the broken rail.

"The engineer'll see that," he said, "and stop. Now I'll go get Jimmie and we'll put in a new rail. You young ladies—why, th' railroad company'll be very thankful to you. If you was to stop here now, and the passengers of the train were told of what you found—why, they might even make up a purse for you. They did that to Mike Malone once, when he flagged the Century Flier when it was goin' to slip over a broken bridge. I'll tell 'em how it was, and how you—"

"No—no—we can't stay!" exclaimed Betty. "If you will look after the broken rail we'll go on. We must get to Broxton."

"Oh, sure, it'll not take the likes of you long to be doin' that," complimented the man, with a trace of brogue in his voice. "You look equal to doin' twice as much."

"Well, we don't want to be caught in the rain," spoke Mollie.

"Ah, 'twill be nothin' more than a sun shower, it will make your complexions better—not that you need it though," he hastened to add. "Good luck to you, and many thanks for tellin' me about this broken rail. 'Tis poor Jimmie who'd be blamed for not seein' it, and him with a sick wife. Good-bye to you!"

The girls, satisfied that the train would be flagged in time, soon left the track, the last glimpse they had of the workman being as he hurried off to summon his partner to replace the broken rail.

That he did so was proved a little later, for when the girls were walking along the road that ran parallel to the railroad line some distance farther on, the express dashed by at a speed which seemed to indicate that the engineer was making up for lost time.

Several days later the girls read in a local paper of how the train had been stopped while two track-walkers fitted a perfect rail in place of the broken one. And something of themselves was told. For the track-walker they had met had talked of the young ladies he had met, and there was much printed speculation about them.

"I'm glad we didn't give our names," said Grace. "Our folks might have worried if they had read of it."

"But we might have gotten a reward," said Mollie.

"Never mind—we have the five hundred dollars," exclaimed Grace.

"It may already be claimed," spoke Betty.

When they had seen the express go safely by, thankful that they had had a small share in preventing a possible loss of life, the girls continued on their way. They stopped for lunch in a little grove of trees, brewing tea, and partaking of the cake, bread and meat Amy's cousin had provided. Amy had torn her skirt on a barbed wire fence and the rent was sewed up beside the road.

The clouds seemed to be gathering more thickly, and with rather anxious looks at the sky the members of the Camping and Tramping Club hastened on.

"Girls, we're going to get wet!" exclaimed Mollie, as they passed a cross-road, pausing to look at the sign-board.

"And it's five miles farther on to Broxton!" said Amy. "Can we ever make it?"

"I think so—if we hurry," said Betty. "A little rain won't hurt us. These suits are made to stand a drenching."

"Then let's walk fast," proposed Grace.

"She wouldn't have said that with those other shoes," remarked Amy, drily.

"Got any candy?" demanded Mollie. "I'm hungry!"

Without a word Grace produced a bag of chocolates. It was surprising how she seemed to keep supplied with them.

The girls were hurrying along, now and then looking apprehensively at the fast-gathering and black clouds, when, as they turned a bend in the road, Amy, who was walking beside Grace, cried out:

"Oh, it's a bear! It's a bear!"

"What's that—a new song?" demanded Mollie, laughing.

"No—look! look!" screamed Amy, and she pointed to a huge, hairy creature lumbering down the middle of the highway.



CHAPTER XVI

THE DESERTED HOUSE

The girls screamed in concert, and whose voice was the loudest was a matter that was in doubt. Not that the Little Captain and her chums lingered long to determine. The bear stopped short in the middle of the road, standing on its hind legs, waving its huge forepaws, and lolling its head from side to side in a sort of Comical amazement.

"Run! Run!" screamed Betty. "To the woods!"

"Oh! Oh! Oh!" That seemed the extent of Mollie's vocabulary just then.

"Climb a tree," was the advice of Grace.

"Is he coming? Is it coming after us?" Amy wanted to know.

She glanced over her shoulder as she put the question, and there nearly followed an accident, for Amy was running, and the look back caused her to stumble. Betty, who was racing beside her, just managed to save her chum from a bad fall. All the girls were running—running as though their lives depended on their speed. Luckily they wore short, walking skirts, which did not hinder free movement, and they really made good speed.



They crossed the road and plunged into the underbrush, crashing through it in very terror. They clung to their small suitcases instinctively. Then suddenly, as they ran on, there came the clear notes of a bugle in an army call. Betty recalled something.

"Stop, girls!" she cried.

"What, with that bear after us?" wailed Grace. "Never!"

"It's all right—I tell you it's all right!" went on Betty.

"Oh, she's lost her mind! She's so frightened she doesn't know what she is saying!" exclaimed Mollie. "Oh, poor Betty!"

"Silly! Stop, I tell you. That bear—"

Again came the notes of the bugle, and then the girls, looking through the fringe of trees at the road, saw a man with a red jacket, and wearing a hat in which was a long feather, come along, and grasp a chain that dangled from the leather muzzle which they had failed to notice on the bear's nose.

"It's a tame bear!" cried Betty. "That's what I meant. He won't harm us. Come on back to the road! Oh, I've torn my skirt!" and she gazed ruefully at a rent in the garment.

The girls hesitated a moment, and then, understanding the situation, and being encouraged by the fact that the man now had his bear in charge, also seeing another man, evidently the mate of the first, approaching with a second bear, they all went back to the highway. The bugle blew again, and one of the bears, at a command from the man, turned a clumsy somersault.

Grace burst into hysterical laughter, in which she was joined by the others.

"Weren't we silly!" exclaimed Mollie.

"Oh, but it looked just like a real bear!" gasped Amy in self-defense.

"Listen to her," said Betty. "A real bear—why, of course it is. Did you think it was the Teddy variety?"

"Oh, you know what I mean," spoke Amy, "I thought it was a wild bear."

"It probably was—once," remarked Grace.

They were all out in the road now, and the two men, with the bears, were slowly approaching. Evidently the foremost man had seen the precipitate flight of the girls, so, taking off his hat, and bowing with foreign politeness, he said:

"Excuse—please. Juno him get away from me—I chase after—I catch. Excuse, please."

"That's all right," said Betty, pleasantly. "We were frightened for a minute."

"Verra sorry. Juno made the dance for the ladies!"

He blew some notes on a battered brass horn, and began some foreign words in a sing-song tone, at which the bear moved clumsily about on its hind feet.

"Juno—kiss!" the man cried.

The great shaggy creature extended its muzzle toward the man's face, touching his cheek.

"Excuse—please," said the bear-trainer, smiling.

"Come on girls," suggested Amy. The place was rather a lonely one, though there were houses just beyond, and the two men, in spite of their bows, did not seem very prepossessing.

With hearts that beat rapidly from their recent flight and excitement, the girls passed the bears, the men both taking off their hats and bowing. Then the strange company was lost to sight down a turn in the road, the notes of the bugles coming faintly to the girls.

"Gracious! That was an adventure!" exclaimed Mollie.

"I thought I should faint," breathed Amy.

"Have a chocolate—do," urged Grace.

"They're nourishing," and she held out some.

"Girls, we must hurry," spoke Betty, "or we'll never get to Broxton before the rain. Hurry along!"

They walked fast, passing through the little village of Chanceford, where they attracted considerable attention. It was not every day that four such pretty, and smartly-attired, girls were seen on the village main street—the only thoroughfare, by the way. Then they came to the open country again. They had been going along at a good pace, and were practically certain of reaching Grace's sister's house in time for supper.

"It's raining!" suddenly exclaimed Betty, holding up her hand to make sure.

A drop splashed on it. Then another. Amy looked up into the clouds overhead.

"Oh!" she cried. "A drop fell in my eye."

Then with a suddenness that was surprising, the shower came down hard. Little dark spots mottled the white dust of the road.

"Run!" cried Mollie. "There's a house. We can stay on the porch until the rain passes. The people won't mind."

A little in advance, enclosed with a neat red fence, and setting back some distance from the road was a large, white house, with green shutters. The windows in front were open, as was the front door, and from one casement a lace curtain flapped in the wind.

"Run! Run! We'll be drenched!" cried Grace, thinking of her new walking suit. Without more ado the girls hurried through the gate, up the gravel walk and got to the porch just as the rain reached its maximum. It was coming down now in a veritable torrent.

"Queer the people here don't shut their door," remarked Betty.

"And see, the rain is coming in the parlor window," added Amy.

"Maybe they don't know it," suggested Grace. "Oh, the wind is blowing the rain right in on us!" she cried.

"I wonder if it would be impertinent to walk in?" suggested Mollie.

"We at least can knock and ask—they won't refuse," said Betty. "And really, with the wind this way, the porch is no protection at all."

She rapped on the open door. There was no response and she tapped again—louder, to make it heard above the noise of the storm.

"That's queer—maybe no one is at home," said Grace.

"They would hardly go off and leave the house all open, when it looked so much like rain," declared Amy. "Suppose we call to them? Maybe they are upstairs."

The girls were now getting so wet that they decided not to stand on ceremony. They went into the hall, through the front door. There was a parlor on one side, and evidently a sitting room on the other side of the central hall.

"See that rain coming in on the curtains and carpets!" cried Betty. "Girls, we must close the windows," and she darted into the parlor. The others followed her example, and soon the house was closed against the elements.

Breathless the girls waited for some sign or evidence of life in the house. There was none. The place was silent, the only sound being the patter of the rain and the sighing of the wind. The girls looked at each other. Then Betty spoke:

"I don't believe there's a soul here!" she exclaimed. "Not a soul! The house is deserted!"



CHAPTER XVII

IN CHARGE

"No one here? What do you mean?"

"Betty Nelson, what a strange thing to say!"

"Of course there must be some one here. They're only upstairs, maybe, shutting the windows there."

Thus spoke Mollie, Grace and Amy in turn. Betty listened patiently, and then suggested:

"Just hearken for a minute, and see if you think anyone is upstairs shutting windows."

Then all listened intently. There was not a sound save that caused by the storm, which seemed to increase in fury instead of diminishing.

"There is no one here," went on Betty positively. "We are all alone in this house."

"But where can the people be?" asked Grace. "They must be people living here," and she looked around at the well-kept, if somewhat old-fashioned, parlor.

"Of course the house is lived in—and the people must have left it only recently," said Betty. "That's evident."

"Why did they go off and leave it?" asked Mollie.

"That's the mystery of it," admitted Betty. "It's like the mystery of the five hundred dollar bill. We've got to solve it."

"Perhaps—" began Amy in a gentle voice.

"Well?" asked Betty encouragingly.

"Maybe the lady was upstairs shutting the windows when she saw the storm coming, and she fell, or fainted or something like that."

"That's so!" exclaimed Mollie.

"We'll look," decided Betty.

"Betty!" chorused Grace and Amy.

"Why not?" the Little Captain challenged. "We've got to get at the bottom of this."

"But suppose we should find her—find some one up there in a—faint," and Amy motioned toward the upper rooms.

"All the more reason for helping them," said practical Betty. "They may need help. Come on!"

The girls left their things in the hall, and, rather timidly, it must be confessed, ascended the stairs. But they need not have been afraid of seeing some startling sight. The upper chambers were as deserted as the rooms below. In short, a careful examination throughout the house failed to disclose a living creature, save a big Maltese cat which purred and rubbed in friendly fashion against the girls.

"The house is deserted!" declared Betty again. "We are in sole and undisputed possession, girls. We're in charge!"

"For how long?" asked Amy.

"Until this storm is over, anyhow. We can't go out in that downpour," and Betty glanced toward the window against which the rain was dashing furiously. "We must close down the sashes here, too!" she exclaimed, for one or two were open, and the water was beating in.

"What can have happened?" murmured Mollie. "Isn't it strange?"

"I've no doubt it can be explained simply," said Betty. "The woman who lives here may have gone to a neighbor's house and failed to notice the time. Then she may be storm-bound, as we are."

"No woman would remain at a neighbor's house, and leave her own alone, with a lot of windows up, the front door open and a beating rain coming down," said Grace, positively. "Not such a neat housekeeper as the woman here seems to be; she'd come home if she was drenched," and she glanced around the well-ordered rooms.

"You've got to think up a different reason than that, Betty Nelson."

"Besides, what of the men folks?—there are men living here—at least one, for there's a hat on the front rack," put in Amy. "Where are the men, or the man?"

"They'll be along at supper time," declared Betty.

"Besides, maybe that hat is just kept there to scare tramps," said Grace. "I've often heard of a lone woman borrowing a man's hat—when she didn't have—didn't want, or couldn't get a man."

"That's so," admitted Betty. "But, speaking of supper reminds me—what are we going to do about ours?"

"It is getting nearly time," murmured Mollie. "But we simply can't tramp through that rain to your sister's house, Grace."

"No, we'll have to wait. Oh, dear! Isn't this a queer predicament to be in, and not a chocolate left?" she wailed, as she looked in the box. "Empty!" she cried quite tragically.

The rain still descended. It was not, for the moment, pouring as hard as at first, but there was a steadiness and persistency to it that did not encourage one in the belief that it would soon stop. The big drops dashed against the windows intermittently, as the wind rose and fell.

Around one angle of the house the gale howled quite fiercely, and in the parlor, where there was an open fireplace, it came down in gusts, sighing mournfully out into the room, with its old horsehair furniture, the pictures of evidently dead-and-gone relatives, in heavy gold frames, while in other frames were fearfully and wonderfully made wreaths of flowers—wax in some cases, and cloth in the remainder, being the medium in which nature was rather mocked than simulated.

The girls stood at the windows, staring drearily out. They could just see a house down the road on the other side. In the other direction no residences were visible—just an expanse of rain-swept fields. And there seemed to be no passers-by—no teams on the winding country road.

"Oh, but this is lonesome," said Amy, with a sigh.

"Girls, what are we to do?" demanded Mollie.

"We simply must go on to my sister's," declared Grace. "What will she think, if we don't come?"

As if in answer, the storm burst into another spasm of fury, the rain coming down in "sheets, blankets and pillow cases," as Mollie grimly put it.

"We can never go—in this downpour," declared Betty. "It would be sheer madness—foolishness, at any rate. We would be drenched in an instant, and perhaps take cold."

"If there was only some way to let your sister know," spoke Mollie. "I wonder if there's a telephone?"

It needed but a little survey to disclose that there was none.

"If we could only see someone—send for a covered carriage, or send some word—" began Amy.

"Oh, well, for the matter of my sister worrying, that doesn't amount to much," interrupted Grace. "When I wrote I told her it was not exactly certain just what day we would arrive, as I thought we might spend more time in some places than in others. That part is all right. What's worrying me is that we can't get to any place to spend the night—we can't have any supper—we—"

"Girls!" cried Betty, with sudden resolve, "there is only one thing to do!"

"What's that?" the others chorused.

"Stay here. We'll get supper here—there must be food in the house. If the people come back we'll ask them to keep us over night—there's room enough."

"And if they don't come?" asked Amy, shivering a little.

"Then we'll stay anyhow!" cried the Little Captain. "We are in charge and we can't desert now."



CHAPTER XVIII

RELIEVED

That Betty's suggestion was the most sensible one which could have been made they were all willing to admit when they had thought of it for a little while.

"Of course it is possible for us to go out in this storm, and tramp on to Broxton," said Betty. "But would it be wise?"

"Indeed not!" exclaimed Grace, as she glanced down at her trim suit, which the little wetting received in the dash to the house had not spoiled. "If we were boys we might do it, but, as it is—"

"I won't admit that we can't do it because we are not boys," said Betty. "Only just—"

"Only we're just not going out in this storm!" said Mollie, decidedly. "We'll stay here, and if the people come back, and make a fuss, we'll pay, just as we would at a hotel. They won't be mean enough to turn us out, I think."

"We'll stay—and get supper," cried Betty. "Come on, I'm getting hungrier every minute!"

"If the people do come," remarked Amy, "they ought to allow us something for taking care of their house—I mean if they attempt to charge us as a hotel would, we can tell them how we shut the windows—"

"At so much per window," laughed Mollie. "Oh, you are the queerest girl!" and she hugged her.

"Well, let's get supper," proposed Betty again. "It will soon be dark, and it isn't easy going about a strange house in the dark."

"There are lamps," said Mollie, pointing to several on a shelf in the kitchen.

"Oh, I didn't exactly mean that," went on Betty, rolling up her sleeves. "Now to see what's in the ice box—at least, I suppose there is an ice box. There's a fire in the stove, and we can cook. Oh, girls! It's going to be real jolly after all!"

"And how it does rain!" exclaimed Amy. "We never could have gone on in this drenching downpour."

It was an exceedingly well-ordered house, and the girls, who had been wisely trained at home, had no difficulty in locating an ample supply of food. They invaded the cellar, and found plenty of canned fruit, tomatoes and other things. There were hams, shoulders of bacon, eggs, and some fresh meat. Great loaves of evidently home-made bread were in the pantry.

"We shall dine like kings!" cried Grace.

"Better than some kings," said Betty. "Only I don't see any chocolates, Grace," and she laughed.

"Smarty!" was the other's retort, but she laughed also.

Such a jolly meal as it was! The girls, once they had decided in their minds to make the best of a queer situation, felt more at home. They laughed and joked, and when supper was over, the dishes washed, and the lamps lighted, they gathered in the old-fashioned parlor, and Betty played on a melodeon that gave forth rather doleful sounds.

However, she managed to extract some music from its yellowed keys, and the girls sang some simple little part-songs.

"Too bad we haven't an audience," murmured Grace, as they ended up with "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

"The rain is audience enough," spoke Mollie. "As for someone's Bonnie lying over the ocean—the yard is a perfect lake!" she went on, looking from the window.

"It would have been foolish to go on," said Betty. "I am glad we have such a comfortable place."

And comfortable it certainly was. The house, while a typical country residence, was very convenient and well ordered. Careful people lived in it—that was easy to see. And as the rain pelted down, the girls sat about, the cat purring contentedly near them, and a cheerful fire burning on the hearth in the parlor.

"I hope they won't make a fuss about the liberties we are taking," said Mollie, putting some extra sticks on the blaze. "Some persons never open their parlors in the country."

"These people don't seem of that sort," said Amy. "At least, the parlor was open enough when we closed the windows."

"And how it rains!" murmured Grace, with a little nervous shiver.

"Suppose the people come back in the middle of the night?" asked Mollie. "They'll think we are burglars."

"We must leave a light burning," decided Betty, "and a note near it explaining why we came in and that we are asleep upstairs. Then they will know."

That was decided on as the best plan, and it was carried out. The girls went to bed, but it was some time before they got to sleep, though finally the steady fall of rain wooed them to slumber. No one entered during the night, and the morning came, still retaining the rain.

"Will it ever clear?" asked Mollie, hopelessly.

"The wind is changing," spoke Betty. "I think we can soon start."

"But can we go away and leave the house alone?" asked Amy. "Ought we not to stay until the owners come back?"

"How can we tell when they will come back?" demanded Grace. "Besides, I must let my sister know why we were detained."

"I suppose we will have to go on," said Betty. "If the persons living here didn't care about deserting their place we ought not to."

"But what will they think when they come in and see that someone has been here?" asked Mollie.

"We must leave a note explaining, and also some money for the food we took," decided Betty. "Or we can stop at the next house and tell how it was."

They debated these two plans for some time, finally deciding on part of both. That is, they would leave a note and a sum of money that they figured would pay for what they had eaten. They made no deduction for closing the windows against the rain. They would also stop at the nearest house and explain matters to the residents there, asking them to communicate with the occupants of the deserted house.

When this point had been reached, and when the note had been written, and wrapped around the money, being placed in a conspicuous place in the front hall, the girls were ready to leave.

The rain had slackened, and there was a promise of fair weather. Breakfast had been partaken of, and the dishes washed. The house was as nearly like it had been as was possible to leave it.

"Well, let's start," proposed Grace.

They went towards the front door, and as they opened it they saw advancing up the walk a lady with a large umbrella, a large carpet bag, wearing a large bonnet and enveloped in the folds of a large shawl. She walked with determined steps and as she came on she glanced toward the house. As she saw the four girls on the porch she quickened her pace.

"Girls, we're relieved," said Betty, in a low voice. "Here comes the owner, or I'm much mistaken!"



CHAPTER XIX

A LITTLE LOST GIRL

"What are you doing here? Who are you? How long have you been here? Is Mrs. Black in there?"

These questions were fairly shot at the girls, who stood in rather embarrassed silence on the porch. The sun was now breaking through the clouds in warm splendor, and they took this for a good omen.

"Well, why don't you answer?" demanded the rather aggressive woman. "I can't see what you are doing here!"

She stuck her umbrella in the soft earth along the graveled walk.

"We—we came in to shut the windows," said Amy, gently.

A change came over the woman's face. She frowned—she smiled. She turned about and looked toward the nearest house. Then she spoke.

"Do you mean to tell me," she demanded, "that after I called her on the telephone, Martha Black didn't come over, shut my windows, lock up my house, and feed the cat? Didn't she?"

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