Chapter XXI. The Letter.
 

The effect of the boy's words on the girls was electrical. Betty paused midway in her first-aid work and stared at him. Grace, who had, unconsciously perhaps, been eating some of her chocolates, dropped one half consumed. Amy looked at Betty to see what the Little Captain would do. Mollie murmured something in French; just what does not matter.

"Did--did he really lose a five hundred dollar bill?" faltered Betty, as she resumed her bandaging, but her hands trembled in spite of herself.

"Well, that's what he said," replied the boy. "He sure did make an awful fuss about it. I thought he was crazy at first, and when he ran and jumped off the train I was sure of it."

"Did he get hurt?" asked Amy, breathlessly.

"No, ma'am, not as I could see. The train was slowing up at a station, you know. I think it was Batesville, but I'm not sure."

"That's the next station beyond Deepdale," murmured Grace.

"What's that, ma'am?" asked the boy, respectfully.

"Oh, nothing. We just know where it is, that's all. A five hundred dollar bill! Fancy!" She glanced meaningly at her companions.

"Well, that's what he hollered," said the boy. "And he was real excited, too."

"Did you know him?" asked Betty, as she finished with the bandage.

"Never saw him before nor since. It was quite some time ago. I'd just bought a new line of goods. Anyhow, I'm glad it wasn't me. I couldn't afford to lose many five hundred dollar bills," and he laughed frankly. "That's about as much as I make in a year--I mean, altogether," he said, quickly, lest the girls get an exaggerated notion of the peddling business. "I can't make that clear, though I hope to some time," he said, proudly.

"Me want to go home," broke in little Nellie. "Me want my muvvers."

"All right, I'll take you to your real mother," spoke the boy peddler. "I guess I can walk now, thank you," he said to Betty. "Couldn't I give you something--some letter paper--a pencil. I've got a nice line of pencils," he motioned toward his pack.

"Oh, no, thank you!" exclaimed Mollie.

"We are only too glad to help you," added Betty. "You have done us a service in looking after the little girl."

"To say nothing of the five hundred dollar bill," added Grace, in a low tone.

"Hush!" cautioned Betty, in a whisper. "Don't let him know anything about it."

"And you are sure you wouldn't know that man again?" asked Mollie. "I mean the one you spoke of?"

"Well, I'd know him if I saw him, but I'm not likely to. He was tall and good looking, with a little black mustache. He got out of the train in a hurry when he woke up. You see, he was sitting with his window open--it was very hot--he fell asleep. I noticed him tossing around in his seat, and every once in a while he would feel in his pocket. Then he hollered."

"Maybe someone robbed him," suggested Betty, yet in her heart she knew the bill she had found must belong to this unknown young man--the very man to whom they had once given something to eat.

"No one was in the car but him and me," said the boy, "and I know I didn't get it. Maybe he didn't have it--or maybe it fell out of the window. Anyhow, he cut up an awful row and rushed out. He might have dreamed it."

"Me want to go home!" whined Nellie.

"All right--I'll take you," spoke the boy. "I can walk fine now. Thank you very much," and he pulled on his shoe, gingerly enough, for the cut was no small one. Then, shouldering his pack, and taking hold of Nellie's hand--one having been refilled with chocolates by Grace--the boy peddler moved off down the road limping, the girls calling out good-bys to him.

"I hope it's all right--to let that child go off with him," said Mollie.

"Of course it is," declared Betty. "That boy had the nicest, cleanest face I've ever seen. And he must suffer from that cut."

"Oh, I think it will be all right," said Amy. "You could trust that boy."

"I agree with you," remarked Grace. "Fancy him seeing the man lose the five hundred dollar bill we found!" she added.

"Do you think it's the same one?" asked Betty.

"I'm sure of it," said Mollie.

"I guess I am too," admitted the Little Captain. "He was the tramp. Now I will know what to do."

"What?" chorused her chums.

"Let the railroad company know about it. They must have had some inquiries. I never thought of that before. Look, he is waving to us."

"And little Nellie, too," added Grace. The boy and the little lost girl had reached a turn in the road. They looked back to send a voiceless farewell, the child holding trustingly to the boy's hand.

"Come on!" exclaimed Mollie, as the two passed from sight. "We'll hardly get to my aunt's in time for supper."

And they hastened on.

Somewhat to their relief they learned, on reaching the home of Mrs. Mulford, in Flatbush--Mrs. Mulford being Mollie's aunt--that the boy peddler was quite a well-known and much-liked local character. He was thoroughly honest, and could be trusted implicitly. Some time later the girls learned from Mollie's aunt that the little lost tot had reached home safely, and that the boy had to remain at her house for a week to recover from the cut on his foot.

The mother of the lost child took quite an interest in Jimmie Martin, the boy peddler, and looked after him, so the news came to Mrs. Mulford, who had friends acquainted with the parents of the child who insisted she had "two muvvers."

So that little incident ended happily, and once more the outdoor girls were left to pursue their way as they had started out. They stayed a day with Mollie's aunt, a rain preventing comfortable progress, and when it cleared they went on to Hightown, where they stopped with Grace's cousin.

"And now for the camp!" exclaimed Betty, one morning, when they were headed for Cameron, where a half-brother of Mr. Ford maintained a sort of resort, containing bungalows, and tents, that he rented out. It was near a little lake, and was a favorite place in summer, though the season was too early for the regulars to be there. Mr. Ford had written to Harry Smith, his half-brother, and arranged for the girls to occupy one of the bungalows for several days. Mrs. Smith agreed to come and stay with them as company.

"Though we don't really need a chaperon," laughed Grace. "I think we can look after ourselves."

"It will be better to have her at the bungalow," said Betty, and so it was arranged.

Betty had written to the railroad company, asking if any report of a lost sum of money had been received, and the answer she got was to the contrary.

"That leaves the five hundred dollar mystery as deep as ever," she said, showing the letter to her chums. It had reached them at Hightown.

"Maybe we should have told that boy peddler, and asked him to be on the lookout," suggested Amy.

"No, I do not think it would have been wise to let him have the facts," said Betty.

The girls found the camp in the woods a most delightful place. The bungalow was well arranged and furnished, and, though there were no other campers at that time, the girls did not mind this.

"I'll write home and ask Will to come," said Grace. "He might like to spend a few days here, and Uncle Harry said he could take a tent if he liked."

"Ask Frank Haley, too," suggested Amy.

"And Percy Falconer!" added Mollie, with a sly glance at Betty.

"Don't you dare!" came the protest.

"I meant Allen Washburn," corrected Mollie.

"He can't come--he has to take the bar examinations!" cried Betty, quickly.

"How do you know?" she was challenged.

"He wrote--" and then Betty blushed and stopped. Her companions laughed and teased her unmercifully.

There was some mail for the girls awaiting them at Mr. Smith's house, having been forwarded from Deepdale. And Betty's letter contained a surprise. Among other things, her mother wrote:

"There have been some inquiries made here about the five hundred dollar bill. Down at the post-office the other day a man came in and posted a notice, saying he had lost such a sum of money somewhere in this part of the country. His name is Henry Blackford, and the address is somewhere in New York State. It was on the notice, but some mischievous boys got to skylarking and tore it off. Your father is going to look into the matter."

"Oh, maybe he'll find the owner of the money, after all!" cried Mollie.

"Maybe," returned Betty.