Chapter II. The Tramping Club.
 

With staring eyes, and with breaths that were labored, the three chums gathered about Betty. She held the bill, and the paper pinned to it, stretched tightly between her slim fingers.

"Is it--is it real?" gasped Grace.

"Of course it's real," declared Amy.

"How do you know?" asked Mollie. "I confess I never saw a five hundred dollar bill all at once before."

"Did you see it in pieces?" asked Grace. "What a lot of money!"

"How many pounds of chocolates would it buy?" asked Amy, with a laugh.

"Don't you dare say chocolate to me!" commanded Grace.

"It is real," went on Betty, who had not spoken since picking up the money. "There's no doubt of that."

"If findings were keepings you'd be well off," said Mollie. "How lucky you are!" and sighed.

"Of course I can't keep it," decided Betty. "But I wonder who could have dropped it?" and she looked up at the railroad bridge over their heads, as if she might see some one standing there waiting for the return of the bill.

"What is that paper pinned to it?" asked Grace, as she took hold of it while Betty held the bank note by the two ends.

"That's so--I forgot to look at that," said the finder. She turned it over. There was some writing on it. It said:

" This is my last five hundred dollar bill--all that is left of my fortune. This is to remind me that if I don't make good use of this I don't deserve any more luck. It is make or break with me now! Which will it be?"

The girls were silent for a moment or two after reading this strange message that had come to them in such a queer manner. Then Betty said:

"Girls, what do you make of it?"

"It's a joke!" declared Grace.

"It sounds far from being a joke," spoke Betty, seriously. "Girls, there may be a grim tragedy here."

"How romantic!" sighed Mollie. "What shall we do with the money?"

"We must take it home and consult our folks about it," decided Betty. "I'll ask papa--and you might refer the question to yours, Amy. Being a broker, he's quite likely to know about such things, and can tell us what to do. This is quite a lot of money to lose, I wonder how we can find the owner?"

"Advertise?"

"Maybe there'll be a notice in the post office."

"It can't have been here very long. Perhaps we'll meet whoever it belongs to, coming back to look for it," spoke Grace.

Thus came some opinions, and while various others were rapidly formed and expressed, and as the girls are speculating on how the bill, and the attached paper, came to lie so openly on the highway, I hope I may be permitted to insert here a little descriptive matter that will, perhaps, give the reader a clearer understanding of the characters of this story.

And as Betty Nelson had, by right of more than one informal conquest, reached the position of leader, I can do no better than begin with her.

Betty was about sixteen years old. She was not exactly what one would call "pretty"--that is, at first glance. More likely she would have been spoken of as "good-looking." At least by the boys. And certainly Betty was good to look upon. Her face showed her character. There was a calm thoughtfulness about it that suggested strength of mind, and yet it was not the type of face called "strong." It was purely girlish, and it reflected her bright and vivacious manner perfectly. How her features lighted up when she spoke--or listened--her friends well knew. Her eyes seemed always to be dancing with fun, yet they could look calmly at trouble, too.

And when Betty Nelson looked at trouble that same trouble seemed to melt away--to flee as though it had no right to exist. And this not only as regarded her own troubles, but those of her friends as well. Intensely practical was Betty, yet there was a shade of romance in her character that few suspected. Perhaps the other girls had so often taken their little troubles to Betty, listening to her advice and sympathy, that they forgot she might have some of her own. But, under it all, Betty had a romantic nature, that needed but a certain influence to bring it out.

Full of life and vigor she was always ready to assume the leadership in whatever of fun or work was at hand. Perhaps that is why she was often called "The Little Captain," and certainly she deserved the name. Her father, Charles Nelson, was a wealthy carpet manufacturer, his factory being just outside of Deepdale, and her mother, Rose, was one of the society leaders of the town, though there was no elaborate social system.

A regular "Gibson girl," was Grace Ford, not only in form but in face. There was that well-rounded chin, and the neck on which was poised a head with a wonderful wealth of light hair. The other girls rather envied Grace her hair--especially Mollie, who was a decided brunette. And, as I have said, Grace dressed to advantage. There had been a time when she bemoaned the fact that she was tall--"regular bean-pole" her brother had taunted her with being--and Grace--well, she had slapped him. But this was some years ago. But now, with the newer styles that seem to forbid the existence of hips, and with skirts that so circumscribe the steps that fast walking is impossible, Grace fitted in perfectly. She was artistically tall and slender, which fact none knew better than she herself.

But Grace was not vain. She did pose at times, but it was done naturally and without undue thought. She just could not help it.

Her brother Will made no end of fun about her--even at this date, but Grace had sufficient composure to ignore him now, and only smiled sweetly, remarking:

"You only show how little you know, Billie-boy. Run along now and play ball!"

Then Will, trying to think of some cutting thing to say, would hasten to join his bosom friend Frank Haley, perhaps remarking as they tramped off:

"Hanged if I can understand girls anyhow."

"Why, what's up?"

"Oh, Grace is such a primper. She's got a new dress and some sort of fancy dingus on it doesn't mix in right. She says it makes her look too stout, and she's going to have it changed."

"Hum! I think your sister is a mighty stunning-looking girl."

"I'll tell her you said so."

"If you do I'll rub your nose in the mud!" and then, as they thought, philosophising further on the queerness of girls in general, the boys departed to the ball field.

The father of Grace and Will Ford was a lawyer with more than a local reputation. He was often called on to handle big cases of state-wide interest, and had made a modest fortune in the practice of his profession.

Of Mollie Billette--"Billy" to her chums, I hardly know what to say. Aged fifteen, the daughter of a well-to-do widow, Mrs. Pauline Billette, Mollie seemed older than either Betty or Grace, though she was a year younger. Yet she did not assume anything to herself by reason of this seeming difference in years; and the difference was only seeming.

Perhaps it was that bit of French blood making her so quick-tempered--so vivacious--so mature-appearing--that accounted for it. And it was, very likely, that same French blood that gave her a temper which was not to be admired, and which Mollie tried so hard to conquer. But her friends knew her failing, and readily forgave her. Besides Mollie there were the comical twins--Dora--never called anything but Dodo--and Paul, aged four. They were always getting into mischief, and out again, and were "just too sweet and dear for anything," as Betty put it. Betty, being an only child, rather hungered for brothers and sisters.

And now we come to Amy Stonington. Poor Amy! There was something of a mystery about her. She realized something of it herself when she was old enough to know that she was not in physical characteristics at all like her parents--at least she regarded Mr. and Mrs. John Stonington as her parents. And yet she could not understand why she was not more like them in type, nor why, of late, she had often come upon them talking earnestly together, which talk ceased as soon as she entered the room. In consequence of which Amy was not very happy these days.

Yet the most that she feared was that her parents were mapping out a career for her. She was talented in music, playing the piano with a technique and fire that few girls of her age could equal. More than once, after a simple concert in the High School, at which she played, teachers had urged Mr. and Mrs. Stonington to send her to some well-known teacher, or even abroad to study.

"But if that's what they're planning I just won't go!" said Amy to herself, after one of those queer confidences she had broken up. "I'd die of loneliness if they sent me away."

So much for our four girls.

Dear Deepdale the girls always called it--Dear Deepdale! They always spoke affectionately of their home town, the only residence place any of them had ever really known, for though some of them had lived as children in other places, their years, since they were old enough to appreciate localities, had been spent in Deepdale.

And certainly it was a town of much natural beauty, to which a certain amount of civic pride added, had made for local enjoyment in parks, memorials and statues. Though there were only about fifteen thousand residents, there was a spirit about Deepdale that many a fair-sized city might have envied--a spirit of progress.

Deepdale was situated on the Argono river, which gave a natural advantage, and provided a setting that could not be improved upon. The stream ran around two sides of the place, the waters curling gracefully around a bend which had been laid out in a little pleasure park.

There were some who protested against this "waste" of good and valuable dockage facilities, but the town committeemen, wisely ignoring objections, had, at some cost, acquired the land, and made what was one of the prettiest spots for miles around--a little breathing place on the very edge of the beautiful river.

Nor was the river the only attractive bit of water about Deepdale. The stream emptied into Rainbow Lake, some miles below the town, and Rainbow Lake fully justified its name. It was a favorite scene of canoeing and motor-boat parties, and many summer residences dotted its shores. In summer white tents of campers gleamed beneath the trees on its banks.

Situated in the lake were a number of islands, also camping sites, and much frequented, in summer, by little parties of young people who landed there after a trip on the lake, to rest in the shade of the leafy trees. Triangle Island, so called from its shore outline, was the largest of those that seemed floating on the lake, like green jewels in a setting of silver.

Several steamers of good size plied on the Argono river, one a freight and passenger boat, belonging to a local line going as far as Clammerport at the foot of the lake. Often school society excursions were held, and the boys and girls made merry on the trip.

About Deepdale were several thriving farming communities, for the slightly rolling land was well suited to cultivation. The town, and the outlying farms filled a sort of valley, girt around with hills of sufficient size and height to be called mountains, at least by the local inhabitants who were proud of them.

There were valleys in these mountains, some large and others merely glens, though Shadow valley, one of the most beautiful, was only of medium size. It was a favorite spot for excursionists who wanted a change from the water route, there being a sort of summer resort and picnic ground at one end of this valley.

The other end was not so often visited. It had once formed the estate of a very wealthy man, who built a large mansion there. But, on his death, the property was contested for in the courts by several heirs and for years had been tied up by litigation. So the mansion became deserted.

Of sufficient importance to have a railroad, as well as a steamer line, Deepdale was well provided with transportation facilities.

True, the railway was only a branch one, but it connected with the main road running to New York, and this was enough for the people of Deepdale. The town also boasted of a paper, the Weekly Banner, and there was a good high and grammar school in town, besides numerous stores, and other establishments, including a moving picture theatre--this last rather an innovation.

Our girls--I call them ours, for it is with their fortunes that we shall be chiefly concerned--our girls lived near each other on the outskirts of the town.

Betty and her parents occupied an old-fashioned stone house, that had once been the manor of a farm. But it was old-fashioned outwardly only, for within it was the embodiment of culture and comfort. It set well back from the street, and a lane of elms led from the front porch to the thoroughfare. Back of the house was an old-fashioned garden, likewise well-shaded, and there were the remains of an apple orchard, some of the trees still bearing fruit.

On the other side of the street, and not far off, was the home of Grace--a modern brick house of tasteful design. It had ample grounds about it, though being rather new could not boast of such noble trees as those that added dignity to the old stone house.

Amy Stonington lived in a large, rambling wooden structure, too large for the needs of the family, but artistic nevertheless. It was just around the corner from the residence of Betty, and the yards of the two girls joined---if you can call the big orchard of Betty's home a "yard."

Mollie's home was near the river, about ten minutes' walk from that of the other three girls. It was a wooden house of a dull red that mingled well in tone with the green grass and the spreading trees that surrounded it.

And now I believe I have mentioned my principal characters, and places, though others will be introduced to you from time to time as our story progresses.

So on this pleasant spring day, for one of the few times, Amy was not brooding on the subject that had given her such uneasiness of late. Nor were the other girls concerned with anything save the finding of the five hundred dollar bill, which absorbed everything else for the time being.

"Who could have lost it?" wondered Mollie.

"There aren't so many persons in Deepdale who can afford to throw away money like this," added Amy.

"It wasn't thrown away--it was lost," declared Betty, "and we must find the owner if we can."

"Especially after such a pathetic message," said Grace. "Poor fellow! His last big bill!"

"What makes you think it was a man?" asked Amy.

"That isn't a girl's writing," insisted Grace.

"Fine! You'll be a detective if you keep on--or should I say detectivess?" asked Mollie, with a laugh.

"I wonder what that note means?" inquired Mollie.

"Why," said Betty, "it seems to indicate that some young man ran through a fortune--or lost it--and had only five hundred dollars left. He was going to try to redeem his standing or wealth with this, and probably wrote this to remind himself not to fail. I used to have a habit of leaving my room untidy, and Daddy suggested once that I write a notice to myself, and pin it where I would see it as I came out each morning. I did, and I cured myself. This young fellow probably tried the same system."

"What makes you think he is young?" Grace wanted to know.

"I'm following your line of reasoning--no elderly man would do anything like this--write such a strange memorandum to himself. I'm sure he is young."

"And--good-looking?" asked Amy, smiling.

"Let us hope so--if we are to return the money to him in person," suggested Mollie.

"Well, the best thing to do is to put that in some secure place, Betty," advised Grace. "Has your father a safe at home?"

"Yes."

"Then let him keep it, and we can put an advertisement in the Banner. 'Found--a sum of money. Owner can have same by proving property, and paying for this advertisement.' How is that?"

"Wouldn't you ask for a reward?" came from Mollie.

"The idea--of course not!"

"But he might give us one," suggested Amy, "without being asked."

Then talking excitedly about the find, and speculating on how it could have come in the road, the girls accompanied Betty to her house. Mrs. Nelson was duly astonished at the news, and agreed with the chums that the best plan was that suggested by Grace. Accordingly, when Mr. Nelson came home, the bill and the queer attached note, were put in his safe. Then an advertisement was telephoned to the paper.

"And now let's talk about our Camping and Tramping Club," proposed Betty, for her three chums had called that evening after supper.

"I spoke to mamma about it," said Mollie, "and she said she thought I could go. But we must stay with friends, or relatives, at night; she won't let me put up at a hotel."

"Of course not!" cried Betty--"none of us will. Now my plan is this: Papa and mamma have a number of relatives living in distant towns, but all in this vicinity. Probably you girls have some also. Now, why couldn't we arrange a tour that would take us on a circuit say of--two hundred miles--"

"Two hundred miles!" came in a horrified chorus.

"Why, yes, that's not much. We can take three weeks to it, and that's only a little over ten miles a day--not counting Sundays, of course. If we can't walk ten miles a day--"

"Oh, that's not so bad," admitted Amy.

"I can easily do that," assented Mollie.

"What about our meals?" asked Grace.

"Can't you carry enough chocolate fudge to do between morning and evening?" asked Amy, with a laugh.

"I've got that part all planned," began Betty. "Or at least I have an idea about it. We can get breakfast and supper at our friends' or relatives' and at noon we can go to restaurants, or to houses along the way. Why, we can even take a little camping outfit with us, and make coffee on the road, carrying sandwiches, too."

"Fine!" cried Amy and Mollie.

"Make chocolate--not coffee," begged Grace.

"Well, chocolate then," assented Betty.

"I have a couple of aunts somewhere out Bessingford way," spoke Amy.

"And mamma has a cousin or two near Millford," went on Grace.

"Now, it's your turn, Mollie," said Betty.

"Oh, I have some wood-pile relations scattered about the country!" exclaimed the French girl, her eyes sparkling. "I guess they would be glad to entertain us."

"And I can fill in the between-spaces with uncles and aunts and cousins, I think," spoke Betty. "Now let's make out a partial list."

It took some little time to do this, but it was finally accomplished.

"Well, shall we decide on it?" asked Betty after a pause. "Shall we form the Deepdale Camping and Tramping Club?"

"I move you, Miss Chairman, that we do!" exclaimed Grace. "The sooner the better."

"Second the motion!" came laughingly from Mollie.

"All in favor--"

"Aye!" came in a joyous chorus, and the little club was thus quickly formed.