Chapter XX. The Boy Peddler.
 

"What are we to do?" asked Amy, in dismay.

"We can't leave her here," added Mollie, and at the word "leave" the child broke into a fresh burst of tears.

"I'se losted!" she sobbed. "I don't got no home! I tan't find muvver! Don't go 'way!"

"Bless your heart, we won't," consoled Betty, still smoothing the tousled hair. "We'll take you home. Which way do you live?"

"Dat way," answered the child, pointing in the direction from which the girls had come.

"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Grace. "Have we got to go all the way back again?"

"Me live dere too!" exclaimed the lost child, indicating with one chubby finger the other direction.

"Gracious! Can she live in two places at once?" cried Mollie. "What a child!"

"She can't mean that," said Betty. "Probably she is confused, and doesn't know what she is saying."

"Me do know!" came from the tot, positively. She had stopped sobbing now, and appeared interested in the girls. "Mamma Carrie live dat way, mamma Mary live dat way," and in quick succession she pointed first in one direction and then the other.

"Oh, dear!" sighed Amy. "It's getting worse and worse!"

"You can't have two mammas, you know," said Betty, gently. "Try and tell us right dearie, and we'll take you home."

"I dot two mammas," announced the child, positively. "Mamma Carrie live down there, mamma Mary live off there. I be at mamma Carrie's house, and I turn back, den I get losted. Take me home!"

She seemed on the verge of tears again.

"Here!" exclaimed Grace, in desperation. "Have a candy--do--two of them. But don't cry. She reminds me of the twins," she added, with just the suspicion of moisture in her own eyes. The lost child gravely accepted two chocolates, one in each hand, and at once proceeded to get about as much on the outside of her face as went in her mouth. She seemed more content now.

"I can't understand it," sighed Mollie. "Two mothers! Who ever heard of such a thing?"

"Me got two muvvers," said the child, calmly, as she took a bite first of the chocolate in her left hand, and then a nibble from the one in the right. "One live dat way--one live udder way."

"What can she be driving at?" asked Amy.

"There must be some explanation," said Betty, as she got up from the stump on which she had been sitting, and placed the child on the ground. "We'll take her a little distance on the way we are going," she went on. "Perhaps we may meet someone looking for her."

"And we can't delay too long," added Mollie. "It will soon be supper time, and my aunt, where we are going to stay to-night, is quite a fusser. I sent her a card, saying we'd be there, and if we don't arrive she may call up our houses on the telephone, and imagine that all sorts of accidents have befallen us."

"But we can't leave her all alone on the road," spoke Betty, indicating the child.

"Don't 'eeve me!" pleaded the lost tot. "Me want one of my muvvers!"

"It's getting worse and worse," sighed Mollie, wanting to laugh, but not daring to.

Slowly the girls proceeded in the direction they had been going. They hoped they might meet someone who either would be looking for the child, or else a traveler who could direct them properly to her house, or who might even assume charge of the little one. For it was getting late and the girls did not feel like spending the night in some strange place. It was practically out of the question.

They were going along, Betty holding one of the child's hands, the other small fist tightly clutching some sticky chocolates, when a turn of the road brought the outdoor girls in sight of a lad who was seated on a roadside rock, tying a couple of rags around his left foot, which was bleeding.

Beside the boy, on the ground, was a pack such as country peddlers often carry. The lad seemed in pain, for as the girls approached, their footfalls deadened by the soft dust of the road, they heard him murmur:

"Ouch! That sure does hurt! It's a bad cut, all right, and I don't see, Jimmie Martin, how you're going to do much walking! Why couldn't you look where you were going, and not step on that piece of glass?"

He seemed to be finding fault with himself.

"Gracious!" exclaimed Mollie. "I hope this isn't another lost one. We seem to be getting the habit."

"He appears able to look after himself," said Amy.

The boy heard their voices and looked up quickly. Then, after a glance at them, he went on binding up his foot. But at the sight of him the little girl cried:

"Oh, it's Dimmie! Dat's my Dimmie! He take me to my two muvvers!" She broke away from Betty and ran toward the boy peddler.

"Why, it's Nellie Burton!" the lad exclaimed. "Whatever are you doing here?"

"I'se losted!" announced the child, as though it was the greatest fun in the world. "I'se losted, and dey found me, but dey don't know where my two muvvers is. 'Oo take me home, Dimmie."

"Of course I will, Nellie. That is, if I can walk."

"Did oo hurt oo's foot?"

"Yes, Nellie. I stepped on a piece of glass, and it went right through my shoe. But it's stopped bleeding now."

"Do you know this little girl?" asked Betty. "We found her down the road, but she can't seem to tell us where she lives. First she points in one direction and then the other, and--"

"And we can't understand about her two mothers," broke in Mollie. "Do, please, if you can, straighten it out. Do you know her?"

"Yes, ma'am," answered the boy peddler, and his voice was pleasant. He took off a rather ragged cap politely, and stood up on one foot, resting the cut one on the rock. "She's Nellie Burton, and she lives about a mile down that way," and he pointed in the direction from which the girls had come.

"I live dere sometimes," spoke the child, "and sometimes down dere," and she indicated two directions. "I dot two muvvers."

"What in the world does she mean?" asked Mollie, hopelessly.

"That's what she always says," spoke the boy. "She calls one of her aunts her mamma--it's her mother's sister, you see. She lives about a mile from Nellie's house, and Nellie spends about as much time at one place as she does at the other. She always says she has two mothers."

"I has" announced the child, calmly, accepting another chocolate from Grace.

"And you know Nellie?" asked Betty, pointedly.

"Yes," said the boy. "You see, I work through this part of the country. I peddle writing paper, pens, pins, needles and notions," he added, motioning to his pack. "I often stop at Nellie's house, and at her aunt's, too. They're my regular customers," he added, proudly, and with a proper regard for his humble calling.

"I'm doing pretty well, too," he went on. "I've got a good trade, and I'm thinking of adding to it. I'll take little Nellie back home for you," he offered. "I'm going that way. Sometimes, when I'm late, as I am to-day, her mother keeps me over night."

"That's nice," said Betty. "We really didn't know what to do with her, and we ought to be in Flatbush at my friend's aunt's house," and she indicated Mollie. "Will you go with your little friend?" Betty asked of the child.

"Me go wif Dimmie," was the answer, confidently given. "Dimmie know where I live."

"But can you walk?" asked Amy, as they all noticed that the boy's foot was quite badly cut.

"Oh, I guess I can limp, if I can't walk," he said, bravely. "If I had a bandage I might tie it up so I could put on my shoe. Then I'd be all right."

"Let me fix it," exclaimed Betty, impulsively. "I know something about bandaging, and we have some cloth and ointment with us. I'll bandage up your foot."

"Oh, I couldn't think of troubling you!" he protested. "I--I guess I can do it," but he winced with pain as he accidentally hit his foot on the stone.

"Now you just let me do it!" insisted the Little Captain. "You really must, and you will have to walk to take Nellie home. That will be something off our minds."

"Maybe we can get a lift," suggested the boy. "Often the farmers let me ride with them. There may be one along soon."

"Let us hope so--for your sake as well as Nellie's," spoke Grace. "It's really kind of you, and quite providential that we met you."

"Yes, ma'am," replied the boy, looking from one pretty girl to the other. "I'll take care of Nellie. I've known her for some time, you see. I peddle around here a lot. My father's dead, I haven't got any relatives except a sick aunt that I go to see once in a while, and I'm in business for myself."

"You are quite a little soldier," complimented Betty, as she got out the bandages and salve. "You are very brave."

"Oh, I haven't got any kick coming," he answered, with a laugh. "Of course, this cut foot will make me travel slow for a while, and I can't get to all my customers on time. But I guess they'll save their trade for me--the regulars will.

"I might be worse off," the lad continued, after a pause. "I might be in as bad a hole as that fellow I saw on the train not long ago."

"How was that?" asked Betty, more for the sake of saying something rather than because she was interested. The boy himself had carefully washed out the cut at a roadside spring, and as it was clean, the girl applied the salve and was; skillfully wrapping the bandage around the wound. "What man was that?" she added.

"Why," said the boy, "I had a long jump to make from one town to another, and, as there weren't any customers between, I rode in the train. The only other passenger in our car was a young fellow, asleep. All of a sudden he woke up in his seat, and begun hunting all through his pockets. First I thought he had lost his ticket, for he kept hollerin', 'It's gone! I've lost it! My last hope!' and all things like that. I was goin' to ask him what it was, when he shouted, 'My five hundred dollar bill is gone! and out of the car he ran, hoppin' off the train, which was slowin' up at a station. That was tough luck, losin' five hundred dollars. Of course I couldn't do it, for I never had it," the boy added, philosophically, as he watched Betty adjusting the bandage.