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.