Chapter XXIV. By Telegraph.
 

The man stared at the girls as if he could not believe what Betty had said. A strange look came over his face.

"If this is a joke, please drop it," he began. "I am almost crazy as it is. I don't know what I am doing. I--"

"It isn't a joke!" declared Betty. "It may sound strange, but it's all true. We did find your bill, under the railroad bridge in Deepdale. It's in my father's safe now."

"That's great--it's fine. I'd given it up long ago. I advertised, and put up a notice in the post-office, and--"

"Yes, my mother wrote me about it," said Betty. "But she did not give your address, for some naughty boys tore it off the notice."

"And do you really think someone tried to rob you?" asked Mollie.

"I don't know what to think," frankly admitted the young man. "There was a boy in the same car--"

"He never took it!" exclaimed Grace.

"How do you know?" the young man asked.

"Because we met that boy, and he told us just how you acted when you discovered your loss. Besides, that boy is thoroughly honest."

"Say, is there anything about my case that you girls don't know?" asked the young man with a smile. "But before I go any further, perhaps I had better introduce myself--"

"Oh, we know your name!" exclaimed Betty.

"You do? And you never saw me before?"

"You forget that your name was signed to the notice in the post-office--Mr. Blackford," and Betty blushed.

"That's so. But I don't know your names, and, if it's not too impertinent, after the service you have rendered me--"

"We'll tell you--certainly," interrupted Betty, and she introduced herself and her chums.

"I suppose you will wonder how I played the part of a tramp," said the young man. "I will tell you why. I was almost out of my mind, and I imagined that by going around looking ragged I might pick up some news of my lost money from the tramps along the railroad."

Then he told of how he had started to write a letter, stating he could not buy the business he was after, and had then torn the letter up, because he still hoped to find the bill and get control of the business.

"And we found part of that letter," cried Betty. "We tried to find you, too, but you had disappeared."

"Indeed. I know how that happened--I took a short cut through the woods."

"The chocolate is ready!" called Grace, a little later. "Won't you have some, Mr. Blackford?"

"Thank you, I will. Say, but you young ladies are all right. Do you do this sort of thing often?"

"Well, we like to be outdoors," explained Betty, as she handed him a cup of the hot beverage. "We like to take long walks, but this is the first time we ever went on a tour like this."

"And we've had the best time!" exclaimed Mollie.

"And such adventures," added Grace. "Will you have more chocolate?"

"No, thank you. That was fine. Now I must try and get dry. But I'm used to this sort of thing. I'm from the West, and I've been in more than one flood."

"You have!" cried Amy, and the others knew of what she was thinking--her own case. "I hope he didn't have the same sort of trouble I had, though," she thought.

"Perhaps if you were to walk along your clothes would dry quicker," said Betty. "And if you went on to Judgeville you might be able to get a tailor to press them."

"Thanks, I believe I will. That is, if you don't mind being seen with such a disreputable figure as I cut."

"Of course we don't mind!" declared Betty. "We are getting rather travel-stained ourselves."

"Our trunks will be waiting for us at your cousin's house, Betty," spoke Grace, for it was there they were to spend the last night of their now nearly finished tour. "We can freshen up," went on the girl who loved candy, "and enter into town in style. I hope mamma put in my new gown and another pair of shoes."

"Grace Ford! You don't mean that you'd put on a new dress to finish up this walking excursion in, do you?" asked Mollie.

"Certainly I shall. We don't know who we might meet as we get into Deepdale."

"We will hardly get in before dusk," said Betty. "From Judgeville there is the longest stretch of all, nearly twenty-two miles."

"Oh, dear!" groaned Grace. "We'll never do it. Why did you arrange for such a long walk, Betty?"

"I couldn't help it. There were no other relatives available, and I couldn't have any made to order. There was no stopping place between here and home."

"Oh, I dare say I can stand it," murmured Grace. "But I guess I won't wear my new shoes in that case. Twenty-two miles!"

"It is quite a stretch," said Mr. Blackford.

He helped Grace put away the alcohol stove, and the cups in which the chocolate had been served. They were washed in the little stream, and would be cleansed again at the house of Betty's cousin.

"You haven't asked us when we are going to give you that five hundred dollar bill," said Mollie, as they started for Judgeville.

"Well," spoke Mr. Blackford, with a laugh, "I didn't want to seem too anxious. I knew that it was safe where you had put it, Miss Nelson," and he looked at Betty. "Besides, I have been without it so long now that it seems almost as if I never had it. And from all the good it is going to do me, perhaps I might be better off without it now."

"We didn't exactly understand what you meant by the note you wrote," said Betty.

"Well, I'll tell you how that was," he said, frankly. "You see, I was left considerable money by a rich relative, but I had bad luck. Maybe I didn't have a good business head, either. Anyhow, I lost sum after sum in investments that didn't pan out, and in businesses that failed. I got down to my last big bill, and then I heard of this little business I could get control of in New York.

"I said I'd make that my last venture, and to remind myself how desperate my chances were I just jotted down those words, and pinned the note to the bill. Then I must have gotten excited in my dream. I know just before I fell asleep I kept taking the bill out of the pocketbook, and looking at it to make sure I had it. I might have done that while half asleep, and it blew out of the window. That's how it probably happened, and you girls picked up the money. I can't thank you enough. But I'm afraid it will come to me too late to use as I had intended," the man went on, with a sigh.

"Why?" asked Betty.

"Because the option on the business I was going to buy expires at midnight to-night, and as you say the five hundred dollars is in Deepdale, I don't see how I am going to get it in time to be of any service."

"Isn't that too bad!" cried Amy.

"And we might have brought it with us," said Mollie.

"Only we didn't think it would be wise to carry that sum with us," spoke Grace. "And we never thought the owner of it would jump off a railroad trestle right in front of us," she added, with a laugh.

"No, of course not," admitted Mr. Blackford, drily. "You couldn't foresee that. Neither could I. Well, it can't be helped. Maybe it will be for the best in the end. I'll have the five hundred, anyhow, and perhaps I can find some other business. But I did want to get this one on which I had the option. However, there's no help for it."

A sudden light of resolve came into Betty's eyes. She confronted the owner of the bill.

"There's no need for you to lose your option!" she exclaimed.

"But I don't see how I can get the money in time. I might if I had an airship; but to go to Deepdale, and then to New York with it, is out of the question."

"No!" cried Betty. "We can do it by telegraph! I've just thought of a way out. You can take up that option yet, Mr. Blackford!"