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?"

"We don't know. I'm afraid we don't know Mrs. Black," answered Betty. She was getting control of herself now. The aggressive woman had rather startled her at first.

"She lives down there," and the owner of the deserted house pointed toward the nearest residence.

"No one is here but us," said Betty. "We closed the windows, and we fed the cat. We also fed ourselves, but we left the money to pay for it. Shall I get it?"

The woman stared at her blankly.

"I--I'm afraid I don't understand," she returned, weakly.

"I'll explain," said Betty, and she did, telling how they had come in for shelter from the storm, how they had found the windows open, how they had closed up the place and had eaten and slept in it. Now they were going away.

"Well if that doesn't beat all!" cried the woman, in wonder.

"We couldn't understand how no one was at home," went on Betty.

"Well, it's easy enough explained," said the woman. "I'm Mrs. Kate Robertson. Yesterday afternoon I got a telephone message from Kirkville, saying my husband, who works in the plaster mill there, was hurt. Of course that flustered me. Hiram Boggs brought the message. Of course you don't know him."

"No," answered Betty, as Mrs. Robertson paused for breath.

"Well, I was flustered, of course, naturally," went on the large lady. "I just rushed out as I was, got into Hiram Bogg's rig--he drives good horses, I will say that for him--I got in with him, just as I was, though I will say I had all my housework done and was thinking what to get for supper. I got in with Hiram, and made him drive me to the depot. I knew I just had time to get the three-thirty-seven train. And I got it. And me with only such things as I could grab up," she added, with a glance at her attire, which, though old fashioned, was neat.

"On my way to the station," she resumed, "I stopped at the drug store, telephoned to Martha Black, and asked her to run over and close up my house, for it looked like a storm."

"It did rain," put in Mollie.

"I should say it did. And Martha never closed my house?" It was a direct question.

"No, we did," said Betty. "Probably she forgot it."

"I'll have to see. Well, anyhow, when I got to my husband I found he wasn't much hurt after all. Still I stayed over night with him, as there wasn't a train back. And when I saw you girls on my porch I couldn't think what had happened. Are you a Votes for Women crowd?"

"No," said Betty. "We're a walking club."

"No politics?"

"None whatever."

"All right. Now, then, I'll see why Martha didn't come over. I can't understand."

"Perhaps this is she now," said Betty, as another woman was seen coming up the walk.

"It is," said Mrs. Robertson. "That's Martha Black."

The two met. There was much talk, of which the girls caught some, and then the explanation came. Mrs. Black had started to come over to Mrs. Robertson's house to close the windows as she saw the rain, but, pausing to attend to some household duties, she was a little late. Then she looked over and saw the sashes shut down, and thought that Mrs. Robertson had come back to attend to them herself. As the storm kept up, she did not have a chance to call, and only on seeing Mrs. Robertson arrive did she suspect anything wrong. Meanwhile the girls had been in charge, but Mrs. Black was not aware of it.

"Well, I must say I thank you," said Mrs. Robertson, to Betty and her chums. "And as for me taking your money, I'd never dream of it! Won't you stay to dinner?"

"We must be off," replied Betty, and soon, after more talk and explanations, and the return of the money left by the girls in the hall, the travelers were on their way once more.

"Well, I must say, they were neat and clean," observed Mrs. Robertson, as she went through her house. "Real nice girls."

But Betty and her chums did not hear this compliment. They went on to visit the sister of Grace, who was not greatly alarmed at their delay, though she was amused at the narrative of their experience. They remained there over night, and the next day went on to Simpson's Corners, where they were the guests of Betty's uncle. This was a typical country settlement, and the girls only remained one night. Their next stopping place was to be Flatbush, where Mollie's aunt lived.

The weather was fine now, after the storm, and the roads pleasant through the country. The grass was greener than ever, the trees fully in leaf, and there were many birds to be heard singing.

Save for minor adventures, such as getting on the wrong road once or twice, and meeting a herd of cattle, which did them no harm, nothing of moment occurred to the girls on their trip toward Flatbush.

They had stopped for lunch in the little village of Mooretown, eating at the roadside, under some great oak trees, and making chocolate instead of tea for a change. Then came a rest period before they went forward again.

They were within two miles of their destination, going along a peaceful country road, arched with shady trees, and running parallel for a distance with a little river, when Betty paused and called:

"Hark! Listen! Someone is crying!"

"Gracious, I hope it isn't the twins!" exclaimed Mollie.

"Out here? Never!" said Grace.

The crying increased, and then they all saw a little girl sitting on a stone under a tree, sobbing as if her heart would break. Betty hurried up to the tot.

"What is the matter?" she asked, pillowing the tousled yellow head on her arm.

"I--I'se losted!" sobbed the little girl "P'ease take me home! I'se losted!"