Produced by Anne Folland, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
[Illustration: COOTS WAS DOWNED BY A FIERCE TACKLE ON THE PART OF SHADDUCK.]
THE BOYS OF COLUMBIA HIGH ON THE GRIDIRON
The Struggle for the Silver Cup
BY GRAHAM B. FORBES
AUTHOR OF “THE BOYS OF COLUMBIA HIGH,” “THE BOYS OF COLUMBIA HIGH ON THE DIAMOND,” ETC.
I. OUT FOR PRACTICE
II. ON THE ROAD TO TOWN
III. THE STRANGE HISTORY OF RALPH
IV. TREACHERY IN THE CAMP
V. THE SIGNAL PRACTICE
VI. AT THE SINGING SCHOOL
VII. THE ABDUCTION OF “BONES”
VIII. THE LINE-UP WITH CLIFFORD
IX. A HARD FOUGHT FIRST-HALF
X. A SCENE NOT DOWN ON THE BILLS
XI. CLIFFORD’S LAST HOPE
XII. DR. SHADDUCK FEARS AN EPIDEMIC
XIII. THE GREAT MARSH
XIV. THE DANGERS OF THE MUCK HOLE
XV. FRANK TURNS CHAUFFEUR
XVI. AN UNWILLING PILOT
XVII. A DESPERATE REMEDY
XVIII. MATCHING WITS
XIX. AT THE END OF THE CIRCUIT
XX. FRANK’S LUCK
XXI. THE LIFTING OF THE CLOUD
XXII. HOW BELLPORT BUCKED THE LINE
XXIII. WON BY FOUR INCHES
XXIV. THE MESSAGE FROM TOKIO–CONCLUSION
THE BOYS OF COLUMBIA HIGH ON THE GRIDIRON
OUT FOR PRACTICE
“Oh, what a splendid kick!”
The yellow pigskin football went whizzing through the air, turning over and over in its erratic flight.
“Wow! Look at old Sorreltop run, will you?”
“He’s bound to get under it, too. That’s going some, fellows! Oh, shucks!”
“Ha! ha! a fumble and a muff, after all! That’s too bad, after such a great gallop. Now Clack’s got the ball, and a clear field ahead for a run! Go it, you wild broncho! Say, look there, will you, Tony; Ralph West thinks he can tackle that flying tornado!”
“Will he? Maybe, maybe not, fellows!” called out the ever-skeptical Jack Eastwick, as he watched the rapidly nearing figures. Jack was on the regular team, but not playing that afternoon.
“There, he’s done it! Wasn’t that tackle a screamer, though? That man West belongs with the regulars. He’s too good for the scrub team. Mark my words, when we go up against Clifford he’ll be doing duty with Columbia’s eleven!”
“Bah!” sneered Tony Gilpin. “He’s still only a greeny; never saw a football till he came here last year. Bones Shadduck taught him all he knows about the game. Take him away from his teacher, and the little boy would be hopelessly foundered, and you know it, too, Herman Hooker.”
Herman was Columbia’s “cheer captain.” His sonorous voice aroused more enthusiasm among the struggling athletes when the prospects seemed dark and forbidding, than all other elements combined. As soon as it boomed out over a hotly-contested field, every Columbia fellow seemed to take on fresh confidence, and in many instances that meant a new determination to win the victory.
Herman looked at the last speaker, and smiled broadly. It was well known among the students of Columbia High School that Tony Gilpin still entertained great hopes of holding his place on the regular team; but his play was not up to the standard of the preceding year, and dark hints had gone abroad that in all probability he would be dropped, for “a dark horse.”
As this latter must of necessity be taken from the scrub team, it can be easily understood why Tony showed so much concern over the playing of the newcomer, Ralph West.
“Why ain’t you practicing with your team this P. M., instead of loafing around here watching the scrub eleven do things.” remarked Charlie Scott, one of the group. “It can’t be possible that a seasoned veteran of two years’ experience can pick up points from a come-on?”
“I strained my leg a bit yesterday, and the coach advised me to give it a rest for a day. When I tackle I’m apt to go at a man without regard to consequences; and sometimes the jar is fierce,” explained Tony, sneeringly.
“Well, if you can beat that work of Ralph West, you’re going some, now; take it from me, son,” commented Herman, with fatherly interest, and simply a desire to see the best man on the regular team when the auspicious day dawned that lined Columbia’s eleven up against the warriors of Clifford.
Tony made no verbal reply, but his brow grew dark, as he once again shot a look of hatred toward the player who had made that brilliant flying tackle.
The big town of Columbia was situated on the Harrapin River, with Clifford nearly four miles above, and the manufacturing town of Bellport twice that distance down-stream.
Of course, as each of these bustling places boasted of a high school, the consequent rivalries of the students had blossomed out into a league. In various sports they were determined rivals, and the summer just passed had witnessed a bitter fight between the baseball clubs of the three towns, in which Columbia won out after a fierce contest.
Among the Columbia students there were also strivings after supremacy in many gymnastic feats, as well as between the several classes, each of which was jealous of the others when it came to giving spreads. Many of the deeply interesting happenings along this line that marked the preceding Winter and Spring have been chronicled in the first volume of this series, called: “The Boys of Columbia High; or, The All-Around Rivals of the School.”
With the coming of the season for outdoor sports, there was baseball in the air from morning to night, in preparation for the carnival of games mapped out for the schedule between the three schools. What thrilling contests took place, and with what final results, can be found in the second story of this series, bearing the title, “The Boys of Columbia High on the Diamond; or, Winning Out by Pluck.”
When the Glorious Fourth came along, the river that flowed past the three towns was the scene of a most remarkable gathering; for the annual regatta between the boat clubs of the high schools had been set down for observance. To enjoy the humor of the tub races, and experience the thrills that accompanied the flight of the rival four-oared and eight-oared shells over the scheduled course, the reader must peruse the third volume, called: “The Boys of Columbia High on the River; or, The Boat Race ‘Plot That Failed.”
And now vacation having ended, and school being once more under full swing, with the dropping of the highly-colored leaves from the woods along the banks of the picturesque Harrapin, there was heard little save football talk on the campus, and wherever the sons of old Columbia High congregated.
A well-to-do widow, in memory of her boy, Wallace Todd, who had died the preceding year while a student at the high school, had offered a beautiful silver cup to the victor in the football contests, the winning team to hold it for an entire season.
It was to be known as the Wallace Cup, and every day crowds stood before the window of the silversmith’s store in Columbia, admiring its magnificent proportions.
Squads of boys even came by trolley from Bellport, and openly boasted as to their intention to carry that same trophy home with them after the struggles on the gridiron had been finished.
The group of lads watching the work of the scrub team consisted of various types among the students and town fellows.
Presently, however, Tony Gilpin nudged another fellow and beckoned him away. He knew full well that Asa Barnes, now a senior, and a class ahead of him, had only bitter feelings for several in that scrub team, and chief of all the captain, Bones Shadduck.
Lately both Tony and Asa had taken a notion that they would like to join the Delta Pi fraternity. To their disgust, however, they were blackballed, some among the members objecting to receiving fellows with their known reputation for mischief and evil-doing.
In some way they conceived the idea that Bones Shadduck was primarily responsible for their humiliation. They never accused him of it, but nursed their fancied grievance, and planned to have revenge in some fashion.
Tony was looking more than ordinarily ugly as he strolled away with Asa Barnes.
The broad hint which one of his companions had advanced regarding his rather poor chances of holding down his position as a Columbia half-back against the aspirations of Ralph West, the boy from Paulding, had fired his heart anew with a fierce desire to take matters into his own hands, and remedy them.
“Well, what’s your opinion, Asa?” demanded Tony, as they sauntered along. “You said you’d be square with me. What d’ye think of that dub’s playing? Is he going to make it, and knock me off the earth?”
Asa Barnes was nothing, if not a sneak. Throughout his entire career at school he had been looked upon as a species of snake, and had few friends. Even those who did go with him, on account of his having unlimited spending money, always kept a cautious eye out for treachery.
“Oh, you’re going to get it where the chicken did–in the neck!” he replied cheerfully, with a grin that told of secret pleasure, for he liked to see others suffer.
“No kidding now, but tell me the truth for once. Is Ralph West the wonder they make out? Can he play half-back better than I do? I’m not from Missouri, but, all the same, I want to know; for it’s going to settle a question I’ve had in my mind a long time. Cut in, now!” exclaimed Tony, wrathfully.
“He’s all to the good,” replied the other, grimly, “and when I say that, disliking the fellow as I do, you can understand it means something. I never saw a quicker half-back in my life; and when it comes to making a tackle, the fellow doesn’t really know what fear is! If they put him on the regulars, there’s going to be something doing among those long-legged chaps from Clifford.”
Tony growled like a bear with a sore head; he also cast a side look at his companion, as though questioning his sincerity. Asa liked to see anyone squirm, and often did and said things just for that privilege. His companions had long ago declared that he was cut out for a surgeon–or a butcher, like his father.
“Once for all, do you mean that?” hissed the enraged boy, laying a quivering hand on his comrade’s arm.
“I certainly do. He’s got the Indian sign on you, Tony, for fair. Mark my words, when I predict that, _unless something unusual happens_ between now and next Saturday, when we play Clifford, Ralph West is going to take your place at left half-back!”
The other fairly glared at him.
“Well, you’re awful plain about it, Asa,” he muttered.
“You told me to be, and I’m giving you my honest opinion. But, all the same now, I don’t think this disaster will happen,” Asa added, with a grin at the other.
“Oh, you don’t, eh? What’s going to prevent it?” demanded Tony.
“You are, unless I’m mighty much mistaken in your make-up,” said the other boy, promptly. “Remember what we agreed to do about that Bones Shadduck, for getting us knocked down with that measly old Delta Pi business? Well, there’s a pair of ’em now!”
“Do you mean it. Will you stick with me if I try to knock West out, so he won’t be able to play football again for weeks? Are you game, or do you mean to egg me on to the last ditch, and then sidestep, leaving me to shoulder all the blame?”
Tony’s face was eager, and the light in his eyes told of a fierce desire to do something mean that would accomplish the desire of his heart.
His companion laughed as though it might be a joke. Asa was so used to others suspecting his honesty of purpose that he never seemed to get offended when they doubted his word. Another boy might have shown temper, but Asa never did this. He might grit his teeth behind a fellow’s back, and vow to get even for an insult; but to his face he was either smiling or sneering, as the humor seized him.
“Yes, I’ll help you out. Remember, it isn’t because I feel for you,” he said, quickly, as though he feared lest he should actually be considered as possessing any consideration for a comrade. “I’ve got my own little axe to grind, you see. The fellow happens to be sweet on Helen Allen, and once on a time she used to go with me to parties and the like. You understand, don’t you, Tony?”
“Sure. And there’s nothing that burns so deep as that. Then it’s settled that we’re going to lay for both Ralph and Bones at the very first chance, with some fellows we can depend on, and do them up? That’s the programme, Asa?”
“I leave the particulars to you. Meanwhile I’ll drum up a few recruits to make the crowd. Just now I know of three bully fellows who happen to have it in for either Ralph or Bones. You get as many, and then there’s going to be some fun doing,” and Asa laughed in the cold-blooded fashion that made so many dislike him.
“Well, when a fellow is bruised to beat the band, not to speak of possibly a broken rib or two, he ain’t going to play football in a hurry,” grunted Tony.
The other cast a quick look at his companion.
“You don’t want to go too far, old chap. If he happened to be seriously hurt, we might be called on to explain before Professor Parke,” he observed.
So talking, they sauntered along the road again, having paused to exchange the significant remarks as to their intentions.
Hardly had they gone twenty feet away, than a head was cautiously raised above an old log that lay just within the edge of the woods, and a white face looked rather fearfully after the pair of plotters.
ON THE ROAD TO TOWN
“Hello, Ralph, through practice here? Then walk home with me, and take supper at the house, won’t you? I’ve got some things I want to talk over with you.”
“Yes, we’re done working, and I’ll be glad to walk with you; but if I’m to sit down at your table, you’ll have to wait for me to dress and clean myself. Will we have time?” And Ralph’s face told how much he appreciated a chance to spend an evening at the home of Frank Allen, his friend and chum; for his boarding house room did look a bit cheerless at night time.
“Plenty of time, old fellow. How did the practice go to-day? Getting in trim, do you think?” asked Frank, who, as a senior, and the captain and full-back of the regular football squad, was supposed to have an intense interest in everything that took place on the practice field day by day.
“Oh, pretty well, I think. I’m not wholly satisfied with myself, but I believe I’m improving every day,” replied the other, modestly.
Frank looked sideways at his friend, and smiled. He had just been talking with the coach, and heard what he had to say about the scrub team. It was already understood between them that two of the regulars must give way to better men who shone as stars on the scrub. Columbia wanted her best sons in front, regardless of any favoritism.
Coach Willoughby was back again, visiting at the home of Buster Billings’ folks. He said the “lure of the leather” was too much for him, bringing back those dear old college days when he played on the Princeton eleven, and carried the ball over Yale’s line for a hard-fought victory.
And so he had consented to take charge of the Columbia players, and help them get in condition for the work ahead, when they were to meet the brawny cohorts of Clifford, and those others from Bellport.
Frank and Ralph had not gone more than fifty yards down the dusty road leading from the recreation field to the town center, perhaps a full mile away, when Ralph felt a sharp tug at his arm.
“Hello! what’s this?” he said, looking down at a small girl, who seemed so shy that her face was covered with blushes as she pulled at his sleeve.
“Please, Mr. West, I’d like to say something to you,” she said, hesitatingly.
“Why, it’s Madge Smalling, Mary’s older sister!” exclaimed Ralph, showing new interest.
In the Spring he had been instrumental in finding a little girl who had hurt herself seriously, in the woods. At the time, Ralph was on his way to the recreation field, where he was expected to pitch a game against a rival school. Still, as he could not think of leaving the child there to suffer, he had carried her to the mill where her father was employed.
Since that time, he had been a welcome visitor at the home of the Smallings, and, of course, was well known to this girl of nine, who had been away at the time of Mary’s adventure.
“Shall I walk on,” asked Frank, with a wink, “because, you know, there are times when two is company, three none.”
“None of your joshing, now,” said Ralph, and then, turning to the child, he continued: “I hope nothing is wrong over at your house, Madge?”
“Oh, no, sir. It wasn’t that. I heard something about you, and I wanted to tell you right away, ’cause I’m afraid of that bad boy. Once he threw water on me, and laughed when I cried. Then he put a nasty cold frog in my hand, and made me hold it ever so long.”
Ralph looked at his friend. “Whoever can she mean, and what has that got to do with me?” he said, wonderingly.
“The other boy called him Asa,” remarked Madge, quickly.
“Oh, now I begin to see light. And was the second chap called Tony?” Ralph asked.
“Oh, yes, that was it. I saw them coming along the road, and I was afraid that he had another nasty frog. So I hid behind a log,” the child went on, her face showing the deep interest she felt in her own recital.
“Say, Frank, this grows exciting. Tony and Asa walking along with their heads close together means trouble for someone, perhaps even me. And this little girl, hiding behind a log, hears them plotting. Now, what d’ye think of that for thrilling a fellow’s nerve? What did they say, Madge? Can you remember?” he asked, looking down into the girl’s face reassuringly, and stroking her tangled hair.
“Oh, I didn’t understand it all, but they hated you, and said they must get some other bad boys to beat you, so you couldn’t play ball again. If you only saw his face when he said that! It was so fierce I just shivered. I hope they don’t do it to you, Mr. West. It would be worse than a nasty, cold frog.”
Again the two lads exchanged glances.
“Aha!” chuckled Frank, “the plot thickens. Tony feels the chill of coming events, and wants to make sure that you will never displace him on the regular team. I’m not so much surprised, though. It wouldn’t be the first time a candidate has been marked for assault in the hope of putting him out of the running. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. And since we know now what is in the wind, we must be doubly on our guard. I suspected that some of them, Lef Seller and his crowd, perhaps, might have it in for me, but it seems that you are the goat, Ralph.”
“Well, I’m ever so much obliged to Madge here for telling me. And next time I come out to her house I’m going to fetch along a box of candy to pay the debt,” said Ralph, kindly.
“You always do that, anyway,” declared the child, promptly, at which Frank burst into another laugh.
“Oh, all your secrets will come out, one by one, old fellow. I think I’ll have to post my sister Helen on your double dealing. She might be jealous of Mary and Madge,” he declared.
“Don’t you worry. Helen has walked out there with me more than once. They’re all very fond of your sister, Frank,” declared Ralph, blushing a little.
“Well, you don’t blame them, do you?” asked the brother, promptly; which caused his friend to bend down to shake hands and bid the little maid good-by.
As the two boys tramped along toward Frank’s home, they naturally talked again of the unpleasant news that had been brought to their attention in so singular a way.
“I wish I knew just what to do about it,” said Frank, frowning with displeasure, “It’s certainly a most unsportsmanlike spirit to show, knocking your school colors, because you can’t play. I call that a rule-or-ruin policy. Do you suppose, if we told the boys, it would put a stop to the nasty game?”
“We have no proof, for they wouldn’t be apt to take a child’s word for much. So I’m afraid it wouldn’t be just the wisest thing to tell it broadcast,” answered the serious Ralph.
“Anyhow, I mean to take a few of my special friends into council, and warn them what we’re up against. From this time on you need a guardian squad, Ralph,” the other went on.
“Why me more than any other fellow?” asked Ralph.
“I’ll tell you, though I meant to keep it until to-night. Coach Willoughby finally made up his mind, though nobody knows it but myself. He means to drop two fellows off the team to-morrow–Tony Gilpin and George Andersen; the former because he fails to come up to the scratch, and George on account of that old injury to his leg, which is cropping up again. He was our star player last year, and we are going to miss him a heap.”
“Yes, I supposed poor George would have to go, but expected Tony would hold on,” remarked Ralph, quietly.
“And the coach has decided that _you_ are to take the place of Tony as left half-back. I’m awful glad of it! I purposely kept my hands off, because I wanted merit and not favoritism to bring the change about. Shake on it, Ralph!”
“And I’m glad, too,” remarked the other, his voice quivering a little with his emotion; “not that I like to supplant any other fellow, but I believe it’s only right that every one of Columbia’s sons should cherish an earnest desire to make the best of what there is in him. I only hope the coach isn’t making a serious mistake, that’s all.”
“I know he isn’t, and the other fellows will say so, too, when they hear. Tony isn’t a popular player at all, and when there is dissension in a baseball nine or a football eleven, it’s going to make trouble. ‘Beware the worm i’ the bud,’ you know. But these cowards may find that they’re up against a tougher proposition than they suspect, before they’re done with it.”
Frank was even more indignant at the possibility of peril overhanging the head of his chum, than if it had threatened himself. That is ever the way with generous souls.
“Three days more, and then comes Clifford after our scalp,” remarked Ralph, desirous of dropping the unpleasant subject for the time being.
“Yes, and although Bellport beat them last Saturday 17 to 4, we mustn’t imagine Clifford is going to be an easy mark for us. Perhaps they may fancy our style of play, and rub it all over us. Nobody can say until we’ve met, and fought it out,” was Frank’s sagacious remark.
“I agree with you on that score,” declared his companion: “Clifford was unfortunate in many ways. She lost three of her best men through accidents, while Bellport did not. Then some people hint that her secret signals were given away, because the Bellport players seemed to be ready to meet every sudden move Clifford made.”
“Yes, I heard that, too, and while I hate to believe any fellow could be so low as to betray his school to the enemy, it’s been done before. We must be doubly on our guard against such a thing. I’ve been thinking up a little scheme that would upset anything like that. But we haven’t started with signals yet, keeping that until to-morrow, when the real team as selected will come together.”
“I can guess what you’ve got in mind, Frank, but I’m not asking questions. Only I do hope nothing prevents me from going into that game. Somehow, all my life I’ve just longed to be a football player. There’s something about the game that seems to just stir me up, as even baseball couldn’t. And yet nobody would call me a scrapper either,” remarked Ralph.
“Oh, it isn’t that always. Lots of good football players are quiet, modest fellows, ready to mind their own business, if let alone. I guess it must be something in a fellow’s nature that makes him long to buck up against difficulties, and down them. And seeing that you’ve always been so quiet and unassuming a fellow, I hardly know how to apply that to you, either. It’s just born in a man, that’s what,” and Frank clapped his hand affectionately on his chum’s shoulder.
Others were streaming along the road at the same time, homeward bound.
“Look out, here comes a vehicle back of us,” said Ralph presently, when they were about half-way to Columbia Center.
They stepped to the side of the road, to allow the carriage to pass.
“Why, it’s Minnie Cuthbert and a friend!” said Ralph, suddenly.
At that Frank turned hastily, the color flying to his face like magic; for that same name always had a wonderful influence over him, since he and Minnie had long been the warmest of friends.
The pretty girl who held the reins urged her horse on. There was a look in her face that Frank had never seen there before. She stared straight at him, as he took off his cap and bowed, but not by the slightest sign did she give any evidence of being aware that such a person as Frank Allen existed.
It was the cut direct!
Ralph uttered an exclamation of amazement. Quickly he glanced at his chum, to see that Frank had gone deadly white, and his eyes glittered with sudden spasm of pain that seized upon him.
He drew a long breath, and tried to get a grip on himself.
“Say, that hurt some, I tell you, Ralph. I never expected to be cut by Minnie Cuthbert, that’s sure,” he said, between his set teeth.
Ralph was sorely puzzled. He remembered that Minnie really owed her life to the wonderful presence of mind of Frank, when a runaway horse had threatened to bring disaster down upon her.
“What’s happened?” he asked, eyeing his friend.
“You know as much as I do. It’s a mystery to me,” returned Frank.
“Perhaps Lef Seller could tell; he’s just back of us, and I heard him laugh as he saw Minnie drive past without speaking,” suggested the other, meaningly.
“I wonder now if history has a habit of repeating itself,” ventured Frank. “But what can I do but grin and bear it? Sooner or later she’ll find out the truth. I’ll never ask for an explanation, knowing that I’ve done nothing to make her act so. Now, forget it, and let’s talk about your affairs, Ralph.”
THE STRANGE HISTORY OF RALPH
“If you don’t mind, Frank, I’d like to go out of my way a few steps, so as to stop at the post-office. There’s a late mail comes in after the last delivery by carrier,” observed Ralph, after they had reached town.
“Why, certainly,” returned the other, quickly, as he glanced at Ralph, who smiled half sadly and nodded.
“I keep hoping to hear something from your Uncle Jim. It may come any day now, unless the very worst has happened, and they’re all lost over in that big wild country,” said Ralph, drawing a long breath.
“When did you hear from him last?” asked his friend, as they turned the corner into the main street of Columbia.
“A month ago. You know, from England they had gone to India. He wrote me from there that he had just missed Mr. Arnold Musgrove and his widowed sister, Mrs. John Langworthy, who had sailed for China.”
“Yes, I remember all that. The lady has always been a very great traveler, and something of an explorer. You told me she was intending to do something that few strong men had ever attempted,” remarked Frank, wonderfully interested in all that pertained to the strange history of this boy friend.
Ralph had been brought up as the son of the Wests, living in the village of Paulding. Then there had come a letter by mail, accompanying bank notes to the extent of fifty dollars, and telling him that a friend, knowing of his great ambition to get an education above what the little country school could afford, wished him to accept this gift, which would be duplicated every month.
Ralph, with the assistance of his good friend, Frank, had learned that the money came through a lawyer in New York, really an uncle of young Allen. Then, later on, it was found that Ralph was only an adopted son of the Wests, who had taken him from a poorhouse.
By degrees, it came out that the man who had left this sum with the lawyer, Mr. Arnold Musgrove, must be an uncle of the boy, who was, in all probability, a son of the rich widow.
Judge Jim had immediately set out for Europe, to confront Musgrove, and tell the lady that her child was not dead, as she believed, but could be restored to her. And, as Ralph had just said, the legal gentleman soon found that he was going to have the time of his life overtaking the energetic couple.
“Well,” remarked Ralph, in answer to the inquiry of his chum, “she and her brother actually started with a caravan overland across China, skirting Thibet, and aiming to head northeast, so as to pass through a portion of Siberia, and after that reach Russia. They have been gone a long time now, and I wonder if I will ever see her face. Sometimes it seems too good to be true.”
There was no letter at the post-office for Ralph. He was getting used to this daily disappointment. Still, Frank could see the look of pain that flashed across Ralph’s fine face, though he tried to conceal it with a little laugh.
Arrived at his boarding place, the boys entered. It did not take Ralph long to take a bath, and get into his ordinary clothes, after which they hurried to the Allen home, where Frank followed suit.
Although Frank said nothing more about the strange actions of Minnie, it was very plain to his friend that he felt the snub deeply.
“If I thought he wouldn’t be mad with me, I’d be tempted to try and find out from Minnie what she meant,” Ralph was saying to himself, as he sat opposite his chum at the table, and noticed the little frown that occasionally came upon the open countenance of the one he had in mind.
But he knew Frank’s ways, and that the other would not like any meddling in his own private affairs.
“Better let him settle it in his own fashion,” was the conclusion Ralph reached. “But if Lef Seller has had anything to do with it, I’m sorry for him, that’s all. Once Frank makes up his mind that these pranks of Lef have reached a limit, he’s going to give him an _awful_ licking; and I know it.”
Frank had been watching his sister Helen at supper. He knew that there was something worrying her, too, and the strange thought came that perhaps it might be along the same lines as his own vexation.
“I wonder, now, could that be possible?” was the question that kept confronting him.
Having once given way to this suspicion, he could not refrain from trying to find out the truth. Helen had gone upstairs, on some small excuse. He was surprised to find her in her room, and with traces of tears in her beautiful eyes.
“Why, what’s the matter, sister mine? Has anyone been abusing you? I wonder if I could guess. Is it about Minnie?” he asked, gently, for Frank was very fond of his only sister, but two years younger than himself.
She looked at him in surprise.
“Why, Frank, however did you guess?” she exclaimed.
“Because,” he replied, steadily, “she gave me the cut direct when Ralph and myself were heading home from the athletic field this evening. She and Dottie Warren were in the carriage, and Minnie looked right through me when I bowed. Whew! it gave me a shock, I tell you.”
“The mean thing, to carry it to you! I suppose I’ve said something or other to give her offense, although I tried in vain to remember any cause; but since she chooses to include all my family in her resentment, I’m not going to do the least thing in the way of an apology,” exclaimed Helen, warmly.
“I’m of the impression that it’s me who’s to blame, though I don’t know what I’ve done,” said Frank, immediately. “If I did, I’d apologize decently, and have it over with, whether she accepted it or not. But Ralph suggests that perhaps it’s the work of some outsider, who wants to make trouble between Minnie and the Allens.”
“Oh, how mean! And from the way you talk, I can imagine who it is you have in mind. That wouldn’t be the first time Lef Seller has been guilty of meddling!” exclaimed the girl, indignantly.
“It was Ralph who said that. He heard Lef laugh when she cut me, as if it tickled him. If I could only get proof that he’s been telling yarns about me, I’d soon settle old scores with him. But you won’t try to make up, will you Helen?”
“Certainly not! I’m the innocent party. Minnie chose to give me to understand that she’d prefer to go out with Dottie this afternoon. I just turned away and came straight home. I think she called out after me, but I wouldn’t turn my head an inch. I shall decline to ever speak to her again until the time comes when she apologizes. There!” and Helen stamped her little foot on the floor, for emphasis.
Frank sighed, and went back to the library, where Ralph was chatting with Mr. Allen, always deeply interested in the strange life story of the boy from Paulding.
Three times that evening Frank went to the telephone and held a little confab with some unknown parties. Each time when he came back he would be smiling in a way that mystified his friend, who wondered what the particular business could be that took up so much of his time.
But then, a captain of a school football eleven, on the eve of a great struggle, must have no end of difficulties to straighten out; and doubtless Frank found much to talk about with the various members of his team.
Helen had come down again, and showed nothing of the dreadful shock her feelings had sustained when her one particular chum so basely deserted her.
She sang for Ralph, and the three of them also joined their voices in many of the school songs dear to the heart of all Columbia students.
“Ten o’clock, and time I was getting away to my little den,” remarked Ralph, at last; for even the best of evenings must come to an end.
“Wait just a few minutes,” said Frank, mysteriously.
“What’s all this? You’re up to something or other,” laughed the other.
“I’m waiting, that’s all,” returned Frank, calmly.
“Waiting for what?”
“To hear the signal–there it is!” as three distinct knocks sounded on the outside of the house.
“Why, whatever does it mean, Frank,” asked the visitor, as he arose to get his cap: for they were again in the little den Frank called his sanctum, where he kept all his beloved traps connected with the sports he delighted in, most of them decorating the walls.
“They’re all on deck, thank goodness! And now it’s safe for you to go home,” was the rather startling remark of the other.
Ralph looked at the speaker a moment, and then, as a light dawned upon his comprehension, he burst out into a genuine, hearty, boyish laugh.
“Say, you don’t mean to tell me you’ve gone and got a bodyguard to escort me to my own dear little home, do you, Frank? Well, of all the pranks, this certainly takes the cake! What do you think, that they’re already getting down to their fine little work, and mean to kidnap me?” he exclaimed, greatly amused.
“No, but I know that crowd better than you do. When two sneaks like Tony Gilpin and Asa Barnes make up their minds to gather a bunch of skunks after their own stripe, and waylay a fellow they hate, they lose no time about it. There’s only one more day between now and Saturday, when we play Clifford; and I saw them turning to notice whether we kept on together. They know you are here, sure.”
“But I might slip out the back way, and give them the merry ha! ha!” suggested Ralph; “though I hate to crawl that way from such cowards, not one of them willing to face me outright.”
“But that isn’t it. We have talked it over, and come to the conclusion that half of the fun would be lost unless those whelps were treated to a dose of their own medicine. They need a good sound licking, and I give you my word for it, they’re due for one if they try to tackle you on the road home to-night,” and Frank, as he spoke, brought his fist down sharply on his knee.
“Who did you invite to the party?” inquired Ralph, still laughing at the absurdity of his requiring a bodyguard.
“Let me see,” replied Frank. “There’s Lanky Wallace, for one; Buster Billings, for the second, and Paul Bird, for the third.”
“Three good men, and true. I see that I’ll be well protected on my journey of half a dozen blocks!” cried Ralph.
“Oh, that’s only a beginning. Each one of them agreed to get two other fellows belonging to the team, if possible; for they want all the practice they can get. So there will be nine in the bunch that follows after you; ten, counting myself!”
“Oh, splash! That’s an army! Why so many, Frank, when I’d be willing to go anywhere with just you along for company,” demanded the other.
“Thanks for the compliment; but, you see, everybody wanted to go, and bring others, and so I had to let ’em have their way. Now, you’ll probably never see a sign of our crowd as you walk along, whistling and seeming to be unsuspicious. But at the first sign of trouble, lift your sweet voice and sing out the rallying cry we all know, ‘Columbiad!’ That will fetch us on the jump, Ralph. Hold them off as best you can for a dozen seconds, and then prepare to laugh.”
“All right, seeing that it’s your joke. Honestly, I don’t think they’ll pay any attention to poor me; but since Coach Willoughby believes I ought to play with the regulars, and any hurt to one is an injury to all, I’ll accept the guard of honor; only _please_ don’t tell anyone about it to-morrow, unless you want me to be the butt of ridicule for the whole school.”
“Wait and see,” was all Frank would say; and with this Ralph had to be content.
The two friends separated at the door. Frank rather ostentatiously bade his visitor good-night, and Ralph sauntered down the walk to the gate, as the door closed.
Although he looked around once or twice, and thought he caught a fleeting glimpse of several flitting figures, Ralph walked bravely on his way, whistling merrily, as though he had not a care or trouble in the wide world.
When he had gone a couple of blocks, he came to a portion of the road when the shadows were densest. Here the trees grew close to the thoroughfare, and this fact made it a splendid hiding place for anyone so inclined. There was a legend told of a peddler who had, once upon a time, been set upon by tramps at this point, and robbed and beaten, so that he died of his hurts.
Even bold people were wont to hurry their steps a trifle when passing this ill-omened place. Ralph, however, kept on at his customary pace, still whistling one of the songs he had so lately sung with Frank and Helen Allen.
Just as he was half-way past the shadowy spot, he heard a sudden shrill sound, not unlike a referee’s whistle on the football gridiron. Dark figures immediately sprang up close by, and the rush of many feet told that the danger anticipated by Frank was about to materialize.
Ralph at once threw himself into a position of self defense, and at the same time shouted out the call for assistance so well known to all the sons of Columbia High.
TREACHERY IN THE CAMP
It was the call for assistance, known to, and respected by, every boy who loved the name of Columbia High School–a rallying cry in time of emergency, when the enemy had carried the ball down close to the home goal, and almost supernatural efforts were needed, in order to beat back the rising tide.
Never did the old familiar yell of “Hey, Rube!” appeal more positively to canvasmen connected with a traveling circus, when set upon by rowdies in some wayside town, than did this shout.
Ralph had no time for more. From three sides he found himself attacked by unknown foes. Some had their hats drawn far over their faces, in order to conceal their identity, while others had gone still further, and tied handkerchiefs over the lower half, with the same purpose in view.
A jargon of angry cries arose, each assailant seeming desirous of venting his especial method for showing dislike.
“Down him, boys!”
“Spank the cub!”
“Send him back where he belongs; we don’t want poorhouse brats here!”
“Do him up! Butt in, fellows! Make a clean sweep of it now!”
Among all these outcries, only that one concerning the “poorhouse” stung the ears of the boy at bay. It was so cruel, so mean, so utterly uncalled for, that his whole body seemed to quiver with indignation, and a burning fire shot through his veins.
He had thrown himself into an attitude of self defense, with his back against a tree. In this way he was able to avoid considerable punishment, since the attacking force could not completely surround him, the tree being an unusually big one.
[Illustration: HE HAD THROWN HIMSELF INTO AN ATTITUDE OF SELF-DEFENSE.]
So far as he could see, there were at least half a dozen opposed to him. Evidently Tony and Asa did not mean to take any chances when trying to put the new candidate for honors on the regular team out of the running.
What with all the row connected with their rush, the cowardly assailants were themselves unable to hear the patter of swiftly-approaching footsteps, coming from the rear. They evidently shouted, in order to keep their courage up, and prevent Ralph from recognizing any one particular voice.
The beleaguered boy was himself fighting like a cat at bay. He had no positive assurance that friends were near, and with so many eager hands striving to reach his face and body, he had to retaliate, giving blow for blow.
Once he managed to dash his clenched fist into the face of a fellow who, in his eagerness, had rushed in too close.
“Wow!” bellowed the stricken party, and somehow it seemed to Ralph that the voice was that of Tony Gilpin.
More than once he was himself the recipient of blows, some severe and others of a glancing nature. For a brief period of time there was a constant maelstrom of hands flying back and forth, accompanied with shouts, jeers and grunts.
“Oh, you cowards!” called Ralph, as a blow struck him on the back of the head, and almost stunned him for a second; one of the crowd, not daring to face the boy at bay, having crept alongside the tree to watch his chance.
He could easily believe that this was Asa Barnes. Immediately a mad desire possessed him to pounce upon that sneak and return the blow with interest. Despite the array of threatening fists that formed a half-circle in front, Ralph threw himself around to one side of the tree, eager to come in contact with the object of his especial contempt.
So speedy were his movements that the treacherous one could not get out of the way, nor was he, anticipating such a bold act on the part of the boy who had been held up on the road.
Just as Ralph pounced vigorously upon him, he caught sight of a number of dark figures jumping into the fray. At the same instant new shouts arose, a volume of sound that made the welkin ring, and brought satisfaction to the heart of the one in peril.
He knew then that his call for assistance had been heard–that Frank and his football comrades had reached the spot, and were in the act of practicing their gridiron tactics upon the unfortunates who had fallen into the very trap they had themselves set.
“Help! help! fellows, take him off!” shrieked the one against whom the angry Ralph had collided; for both of them had gone down in a scrambling, kicking heap.
Fear caused the under dog to make frantic efforts to escape; and while Ralph was able to get a little satisfaction out of his attack, he found it utterly impossible to hang on to the squirming figure, which, eluding his grasp, presently rolled over and over, bounded to his feet, and fled like the wind.
Meanwhile there was taking place a furious fight. The disguised crowd found itself outnumbered two to one, and while they struck back whenever possible, the one thought in their minds was escape.
“Cut it!” shouted the one who seemed to be a leader.
“Don’t let them get away! Take ’em prisoners!” whooped a tall lad, who was doing his share of the mauling.
But that was easier said than done. The now sadly demoralized enemy scattered in every direction, some running wildly down the road, and others vanishing in the darkness of the wood.
“They’re gone!” cried Lanky Wallace, in disgust, as he found that the fellow he had embraced was no other than his fat friend, Buster Billings.
“Let me go, hang it! You’ve squeezed the last breath out of me! I’d had that dub, only for your interference. Such rotten luck!” gasped the stout one, as he shook himself free from Lanky’s encircling arms.
Frank was at the side of the boy they had rescued just in time.
“How is it, Ralph, did they pummel you hard?” he asked, solicitously.
“I gave ’em more than I took; but my head sings a bit from the nasty knock that sneak Asa Barnes gave me from behind!” replied the other.
“From behind!” echoed Lanky, indignantly; “well, wouldn’t that jar you some now? But what else could you expect from that snake in the grass? He never fought fair in all his life. I hope you got one or two in back on him, Ralph.”
“Didn’t you hear him howl for help?” replied the other, quickly. “That was when I nailed him. I guess his head rings about as much as mine does. But, boys, you came just in time. I was in a tight box. And I’m ever so much obliged for the help.”
“Don’t mention it, old chap. We really needed the exercise, and the only thing I complain of is that it all happened too fast. Why, I don’t believe I really got my windmill working freely when I was threshing the air. Zip! and they were gone,” and Paul Bird laughed heartily at the hasty way in which the enemy had vanished.
“You’re sure they didn’t get you?” persisted Frank.
“I guess I’m all right,” laughed the other, as he swung both arms back and forth, and bent his body to test his muscles; “you see, there wasn’t time enough for them to do much damage. And they were all so mighty anxious to reach me they really interfered with each other.”
“As we came up on the run, I thought I heard one fellow give a whoop of pain, as if he had run up against something. Was that your fault, Ralph?” demanded Lanky.
“Sure. And what’s more, I expect it was Tony. If he shows a black eye to-morrow, give me credit for one goal kicked, boys,” replied the party addressed.
Bones Shadduck was lighting a match.
“Hello! What’s that for?” asked Jack Eastwick.
“I picked up a hat just now, and the idea struck me that possibly there might be some more headgear lying around. We’d like to know who these pirates are, you see, and here’s a chance to get a line on ’em,” explained the other, as he bent low to scan the ground in the immediate vicinity.
“Matches–who’s got any? Pass ’em around, fellows!” called Buster.
Immediately there was quite an illumination around that part of the road, half a dozen tiny torches burning at once, as eager eyes scanned the ground. Twice cries of satisfaction announced that a find had rewarded the search, but the supply of matches gave out, and, besides, it seemed that there were no more hats or caps to be gathered in.
“Three times, and out, boys! Now we’ll be able to learn who some of the crowd must have been. I think I ought to nail this gay old cap. Nobody but Bill Klemm ever dared wear such a screamer as that,” announced Lanky, holding the object of his derision aloft.
“And this looks like the hat I turned over to Jay Tweedle the time I accidentally knocked his off in the river, and it sank. I know it is, fellows!” exclaimed Frank, who had been one of the lucky discoverers.
“Well, we’re getting a line on the bunch, all right,” laughed Jack.
“If only Ralph marked both Tony and Asa, and we’ve got the hats of three more, it looks good to me,” chirped Lanky.
“Fall in, fellows!” called Bones Shadduck, assuming the air of a drum major, as he waved an imaginary baton in the air.
With considerable talking and laughter, the squad gathered around Ralph.
“Here, what’s all this mean?” laughed Ralph. “Want to make me a high muckamuck, a grand sachem surrounded by his valiant bodyguard? I object. I’m only a common worm, like the rest of you, and not fit for these great honors. Take Frank there, and put him in the center of the bunch; he’s the captain of the crew!”
“Worms! Hear him rant, fellows, will you? Compares us to the lowly angleworm of commerce. And this is the reward we get for sacrificing our sleep to rescue the perishing! I call it base ingratitude, that’s what!” cried one.
“But just now you’re the guest of honor, Ralph; the one bright particular star that has attracted the attention of all the meaner ones. Just hold your row, and let us run this funeral, will you?” declared Buster.
“Oh, well, have it your own way, fellows. You’re a good lot, anyhow, to pull my chestnuts out of the fire for me,” concluded the one upon whom all these attentions were being showered.
And so they marched through the streets singing one of their school songs. The good people of Columbia were quite accustomed to such “stunts” on the part of the students, especially when there was a day of sport close by. At such times the thriving town on the bank of the Harrapin was wont to assume all the airs of a college center, and enthusiasm run rampant.
So, while many heads were thrust from doorways or windows as the procession trailed along, no adverse comments arose. Many of those same men were old graduates themselves, and such patriotic songs only served to awaken the spirit that never could be wholly eradicated from their systems.
In such fashion was Ralph West conducted to his humble boarding place. And hearty were the “good nights” that accompanied the scattering of the band of defenders.
Frank and Lanky walked home together.
“That job’s done, anyhow,” remarked Frank, with evident satisfaction.
“And well done, too. Only one more night to consider, and the glee club has its regular meeting then. We must keep a close watch on Ralph. Those chumps mean to get him yet if they can. I only hope I have just one more whack at some of that bunch. I never hit a follow with more vim in my life than to-night, when I came up against that chap with the handkerchief across his face.”
“I heard him grunt,” observed Frank, with a chuckle, “and really I felt sorry for him. I think you struck him with both fists together in the excitement. But it’s a shame that Columbia fellows are fighting among themselves just now, when we ought to be united, and showing a common front against the enemy.”
“Oh, these represent only a tail-end fragment. Don’t count them as much. Outside of possibly a dozen students, I firmly believe the school _is_ united, and that you posses the confidence of the whole town. This is our lucky year. I tell you we just _can’t_ lose,” and Lanky emphasized his words with a smack of one hand in the palm of the other.
“I feel the same way,” said Frank, “but, all the same, I’ll be better satisfied when the game has been played. There’s many a slip, you know. An accident might mar the finest play the gridiron ever knew. And then the treachery of these fellows always annoys me. An open foe I can meet boldly, but deliver me from the snake in the grass that steals up in the rear to upset your calculations.”
“Never mind, it’ll be all right, Frank; but here we are at your gate, so good night,” and Lanky hurried on.
THE SIGNAL PRACTICE
The next day was Friday.
And with that battle of the gridiron gladiators looming up just ahead, it can be readily understood that Mr. Amos Wellington, not to mention Mr. Oswald, and the women teachers in Columbia High School, found it a most difficult task to get any satisfaction out of the many classes before them that day.
Football was in the air! The very tang of the frosty morning seemed to suggest ideal weather conditions for the coming struggle. Wherever boys congregated, on the campus before the morning session, or down in the lunch room during intermission, when they sampled the various types of sandwiches and pies supplied by Mrs. Louden, nothing was talked of but the chances of Columbia against the seasoned players of Clifford.
“They’re heavier than our men,” one would lament.
“But the day of weight in football is gone,” cried another, quickly.
“Yes, for the game as played to-day calls for agility and pertinacity more than heft. And we’ve got the boys who can do stunts, believe me, fellows!” remarked a third deeply-interested student.
“They practice for the last time this afternoon, don’t they?”
“Yes, but mostly on signals, I understand. Now the team has been selected, they want to work in harmony,” remarked the fellow who seemed to know, because he had a big brother on the eleven, and that was a great honor for the entire family.
“There’s one weak spot,” grumbled another prophet of evil.
“Name it, Sandy.”
“Yes, tell us where it is. I’ve gone over the whole bunch ever so many times, and with the new men I think it couldn’t possibly be improved.”
“That’s just it; you’ve put your finger on the sore the first thing. Now, don’t all jump on me at once, and say I’m knocking, for I’m not. I think a heap both of Ralph West’s playing and that of Bones Shadduck. They’re cracker jacks, and far superior to the fellows they displaced.”
“Then what are you kicking about, Sandy?” demanded Molly Manners, the dudish student, who, while no athlete himself, always felt a decided interest in the accomplishments of his more muscular comrades.
“Lack of practice in common will bankrupt us. That’s what worries me. You see, Bones and Ralph haven’t worked with the rest, to any extent, at least. How can they fill their parts in the machine? I’m dubious, that’s all, even while hoping for the best,” went on the croaker.
“Well, now, don’t let that keep you awake tonight. Coach Willoughby has been training the scrub just as he did the regular team. They know the same plays, and once the signals are decided on the whole thing will move along like a well greased machine. He’s done wonders with the raw material. And if Columbia wins this year, much of the credit belongs to the trainer, our old Princeton grad.”
“Hear! hear! Three cheers for Coach Willoughby!”
And they were given with a will.
Frank and Ralph came together at intermission. While they munched a bit of lunch, they naturally fell into conversation, and, of course, their talk must be in connection with the stirring events of the preceding night.
“Have you met Tony?” asked Frank, with a chuckle of amusement.
“No. You see, he’s a junior and I’m only a soph, so we run in different grooves. What about him, Frank?” asked the other, eagerly.
“I was sent into Miss Condit’s room with a message from Mr. Wellington, and, of course, I felt a little curious to know how Tony looked. While I waited for an answer to the note I carried, I glanced over to where he sat. Would you believe it, he had turned deliberately around in his seat, so that his back was toward me.”
“Then perhaps I did put my mark on him?” suggested Ralph, eagerly.
“Well, now, you certainly did. As I glanced further along I saw a mirror at the side of the room, and just then discovered that he was facing it. He turned fiery red when he caught my look, for I really couldn’t keep from grinning, because, as sure as you live, my boy, our friend Tony is nursing a most beautiful black eye!”
“It serves him right. He had no business to bother me so. I only struck in self-defense, and everyone is entitled to that privilege,” declared Ralph.
“Well, I should say so,” remarked his friend, quickly, “and I hope you did as well by that sneak of an Asa. But he was wise enough to stay home to-day. When you get that fellow off his guard you can catch a weasel asleep.”
The ending of the recess brought their conversation to a close, but after school, Ralph, possessed by a sort of fascination to behold his work, haunted the campus until Tony appeared, surrounded by several of his set.
The two rivals met face to face at the exit of the grounds. Tony glared at the author of his woes, and his two chums made threatening gestures; but, of course, they did not dare place a finger on Ralph at such a time.
But, at any rate, Frank had certainly not understated the facts, for Tony was the possessor of a fine black eye. Of course, it was easy for him to invent a plausible excuse for this mishap; he had run slap against a door when getting up in the dark. And, of course, nobody believed him, though only a select few understood the true origin of his damaged optic.
Ralph said never a word; but he could not keep from smiling a bit as he turned away; and this must have been gall and wormwood to the other fellow.
An hour later and the chosen eleven, together with the substitutes, gathered on the field for their last instructions, and the trial of the signal code. Frank and the coach were frequently in secret confab, and the others regarded this as having more or less significance.
“What did your investigation result in, Mr. Willoughby?” Frank was asking.
“Just what we expected. I have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the secret signals of Clifford were given to Bellport by some traitor. A dozen people I interviewed were positive in that belief. For while there is as yet no proof, they declare that on no other grounds could the Bellports know just what play was coming every time the other captain called out his numbers,” replied the coach, in a firm voice.
“Well, it is what may happen to us, unless we change backward at the last minute. That would confuse Clifford, and set them on the wrong track,” remarked Frank.
“Just so, and the advantage would be with us. If they can down you boys squarely and fairly, I’ll be the last one to knock, but this thing of trickery makes me angry. Because they feel that they were fooled by Bellport is no reason they should want to pass it along, and defeat you unfairly. I’m surprised that there is no clean-minded fellow on their team who will positively refuse to take advantage of such a mean game.”
“If Cuthbert Lee was still on the Bellport team,” said Frank, “I’m sure he’d never have listened to such a thing. It would be just like him to go to the other side and tell them to change their signals, as they had been betrayed. He was a lover of clean sport.”
“Then I only wish there were more like him, Frank. The trouble is, too many boys, yes, and young men, too, believe that anything is fair that promises to bring the advantages to their side. Love of school is all very good, but it should never step in the way of honest dealing,” observed the Princeton man, soberly.
“Then we’ll go on with the signals as they have been used?” asked the other.
“To-day, yes, but in the morning we’ll get the boys together early, and change the whole order, so that things mean just the opposite of what they are now. You get my meaning, don’t you, Frank?”
“Yes, and think it a capital idea. I’ve always been told that the truly wise man is he who grapples with adversities, and makes them work to his advantage. And that is what you propose to do now. Watch Lanky; he’s up to some mischief or other. I can tell it in his actions. There he goes after the ball that he purposely kicked into those bushes, I believe.”
“Well, he’s got it all right, and is calling to Substitute Buster that it’s up to him to try for a field goal,” commented the coach, smiling. “Yes; notice, however, that Lanky makes no effort to hold the ball for the kick, but has set it there on the ground,” continued Frank, who knew the joking propensities of his chum so well that he could quickly guess when the other had any lark coming.
“I suppose Lanky doesn’t want to take chances of a bad kick, and, considering how near the game is, you can hardly blame him. Perhaps he’s had some experience with Buster’s kicking before. There he goes now!”
“Look at Lanky, sir, with his fingers in his ears!”
Hardly had Frank spoken when Buster, swooping down, with all sail set, on the inoffensive oval, brought his right foot against the ball with a tremendous effort. The result was certainly astonishing, for there was a sudden heavy detonation, and the football arose about ten feet, in a sadly flattened condition, while the kicker sat down heavily on the ground, looking dazed.
Lanky had substituted some cleverly constructed gas balloon, placed in an old cover, for the genuine article, having previously hidden the fraudulent contraption in those bushes until the chance came to utilize the same.
There was a brief silence, and then a shout went up from the husky band of players, who caught on to the joke. All but the dazed Buster, who, still sitting there and gaping at the seeming remains of a once fine oval football, shook his head and turned appealingly toward the coach, called out:
“Say, that wasn’t my fault, Mr. Willoughby. Now, who pays for that ball, anyhow?” which remark brought out renewed shrieks from the others, some of whom fairly fell over with the violence of their merriment.
When the joke was explained to the fat boy, of course he laughed heartily, for his nature could not take offense at anything.
Then the work began in earnest. The efficient coach drilled the players in all the various plays that were apt to come up during the course of the game. He expressed his pleasure at the masterly way these were carried out.
“I’m satisfied that the changes I made have vastly strengthened the whole team,” he said, as he and Frank came together during a period of rest, after a fierce foray, in which every player worked systematically, and really clever passes and runs were made around imaginary hostile forces.
In other days they had rubbed up against the scrub team, and practiced all their arts against real foes, but this last practice was to be in secret. Signal work and the drilling of Ralph and Bones in their respective positions, must occupy much of the afternoon.
To keep spectators away from the field, several dozen boys had volunteered to patrol the neighborhood, completely surrounding the open. Thus it would seem that there could be no one close enough to overhear when the signal numbers were deliberately called by the captain.
“Still, I’m under the impression that there may be someone hidden in those bushes, or in a hollow tree, watching our work, and drinking in all we say. When fellows descend to such low practices as betraying their schoolmates to the enemy, they become very crafty. On the whole, it will be better to change the code just before the game to-morrow,” remarked the coach, later on, during another rest.
Frank said no more. Secretly, however, he was planning to find out, if it could be possible, that this idea of Mr. Willoughby had reason back of it. In other words, he had made up his mind that when the crowd of players went back to town, he would find some opportunity to drop behind, and keep watch over that field.
For the third and last time, play was resumed. Again did the coach follow the carefully arranged maneuvers. Up to the present he had found it necessary to stop them in the midst of the play to start afresh, because of some inaccuracy. Not once did this occur now.
“Well, sir, how was that?” asked Frank, as, with disheveled hair and soiled clothes, he came out of the fracas and sought the side of the man who knew.
There was hardly any need to ask. Coach Willoughby’s bronzed face was all smiles.
“Fine! I never saw the thing executed better, even by the leading colleges. Depend on it, my boy, if you and your men do as well as that to-morrow, and there’s no treachery shown, you’re going to mow Clifford down far worse than she suffered at the hands of Bellport. I congratulate you, every one, for the fine form you show. It does my heart good to see it. And now, home, lads, and see to it that you don’t overeat to-night, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. That’s all from me, and I feel that my work is well done!”
The afternoon had worn away while they strained and labored, trying for the last time some of the plays by means of which they hoped to carry the ball into Clifford territory during the coming game.
Each member of the team felt more or less weary when the coach declared that they had done enough, and dismissed them for the day.
“Don’t forget the secret directions given for an early morning meet in the place selected, to go over the changed signals,” was spoken in the ear of every fellow before they started back to town.
Frank held out behind the rest, pretending to be busy with a number of things that fell to his lot as captain of the eleven. He had whispered his intentions to Lanky, and the latter, while laughing at his fears, promised to keep any of the others from returning to look for the leader, should they notice his absence.
Watching his chance, Frank dropped behind some bushes. Then, without wasting any time, he started to crawl back to where he might have a view of the wooded side of the athletic field.
Perhaps, after all, the fears of the coach had been groundless. He would spend a short time watching, and then, if nothing developed, he could hasten home.
At the same time, the thought of how Clifford had been deceived and beaten by the too free handling of their secret code, gave Frank an uneasy feeling.
When he had gained a position that would allow him to observe the ground he deemed most suspicious, he waited for developments.
“What was that?” he asked himself in another minute; for it seemed to him that he had heard a sharp crack, as of a rotten branch giving way.
Then his attention was attracted toward a certain spot, where something had undoubtedly fallen to the ground. Eagerly he riveted his eyes on the place, and in this way became aware of the fact that something was certainly moving up among the branches of the pine tree.
Then an object came heavily to the ground, rolled over once or twice, and scrambled half erect. Though some little distance away, Frank could see that this was no animal, but a human being, a boy at that, who was rubbing his elbow furiously, as though it had been smartly tapped in his fall.
No need to put a label on this fellow to signify what his presence meant. Frank knew that he was looking on a spy, who had been perched among the thick branches of that pine tree during the better part of the afternoon, making notes of the signal play of the Columbia eleven!
And he was now moving off, possessed of information that was of tremendous value to the Clifford team!
AT THE SINGING SCHOOL
Frank did not hesitate a minute. He believed that it was his duty, if possible, to overtake the spy, and not only learn his identity, but in some fashion make him promise not to reveal what he had seen and heard.
He started as fast as he could, making allowances for the fact that he did not wish to alarm the fellow too soon. The shades of evening were not far away, since night comes early in mid-November, and try as he would, he found it impossible to decide as to whether the other was someone he knew or a stranger.
As he ran quickly over in his mind the list of those who would come under the head of suspicion, he put them aside, one after another. It was certainly not Lef Seller or Bill Klemm; another look, and he was just as positive that it could not be either Asa Barnes or Tony Gilpin.
Perhaps, after all, this cunning spy might be some enthusiast from Clifford, who, believing that his team had suffered through treachery on the preceding Saturday, when Bellport overwhelmed them, wished to even matters by picking up Columbia’s signals.
“As if two wrongs ever yet made a right,” said Frank bitterly, as he continued to chase after the unknown.
He was gaining rapidly. Still, in order to do so, he had to keep his eyes fixed for the most part on the moving figure ahead, and in this way was unable to properly watch his footsteps.
Consequently, it was not at all surprising when he suddenly stepped on a stick that broke with a sharp twang. And, before he could dodge behind a tree, the fellow beyond had turned his head.
Frank knew instantly that he was discovered. He had stood perfectly still, in the hope that he might escape observation; but when he saw the other take to his heels, he realized that it was now destined to be a stern chase. So he, too, started to run at top speed, which meant a hot pace, since Frank was something of a sprinter on the cinder path.
At least, that turn on the part of the other had told him one thing–it was no Columbia fellow who had played this miserable trick upon the football squad; so undoubtedly he must belong in Clifford.
Despite the efforts of the school authorities, there was always more or less laying of wagers on these games. Driven away from the racetracks by recent strict State legislation, it seemed that those who made books were seeking all manner of sports, in order to carry on their games of chance.
So Frank consoled himself in the belief that this might be some agent of these gamesters, rather than a Clifford schoolboy intending to take a mean advantage of the rival team.
He was outrunning the fugitive, and it looked as though, if the chase were continued five minutes more, Frank was sure to overtake him.
Then the road leading north toward the river was reached. To Frank’s disgust, he saw the other drag a bicycle out of some bushes, and, while he made a swift rush, hoping to yet come upon the fellow before he got away, it was only to see his intended quarry spin off along the road.
Frank followed a short distance, still cherishing a faint hope that something might happen to upset the other, but gradually the figure of the fleeing spy began to vanish, and he had to give it up.
The last he heard from the fellow was a sharp howl of derision. Evidently his sudden coming on the scene had given the coward a great scare, and he was now rejoicing over his narrow escape.
“Too bad that he got away,” thought Frank, as he started across a field to take a short-cut that would save him considerable in his walk home. “I don’t even know who he is. But, at any rate, this settles the question of signals. We wouldn’t dare use the old ones now.”
He made direct for the home of Buster Billings, where Coach Willoughby was stopping, he being an old friend of the family.
“Hello, how did you make out?” was the way he greeted Frank when the football captain was ushered into his room, where he was dressing for dinner.
“You guessed right, sir,” answered Frank, gloomily.
“Then there _was_ a spy around to pick up our signals?” asked the coach, smiling.
“He was hidden up in that big dense pine tree, and I guess he could see everything we did, as well as hear my signals. It’s a shame that we have to go up against such trickery as that, sir,” declared Frank, warmly.
“That’s all right. Remember what we concluded would come out of this thing. If those Clifford players are small enough to take advantage of this find, let them, that’s all. We’ll fix it so that they’ll make some tremendous blunders before they decide that honesty is the best policy. But I’m glad you found out. Now, tell me all about it, Frank,” and the coach put both hands on the shoulders of the young athlete, in whom he had taken great interest.
Frank made a wry face.
“There isn’t much to tell. No _veni, vidi, vici,_ about this, for, while I came, and saw, I didn’t conquer by a long shot. The fellow dropped down out of the tree, and made off, with me tagging behind. Then he discovered me, and ran. I followed suit, and was rapidly overtaking him, when we reached the road that turns toward the one along the river bank leading to the Clifford bridge.”
“Yes, and then?” continued the coach, expectantly.
“I lost him! He had a wheel hidden in the bushes, and pedaled away, giving me the laugh as he went out of sight. That’s all, sir,” concluded Frank.
“Did you get a square look at the fellow?” inquired Mr. Willoughby.
“Enough to make sure that he didn’t belong in Columbia, so far as I could tell. I guess he came from Clifford, all right, sir.”
“Well, it makes little difference, so long as we know the signals are off. Forewarned is forearmed, they say. Forget all about it, my boy, and we’ll fix matters so that we can profit from our seeming misfortunes.”
So Frank went home to clean himself, and eat his supper. The consolation given by Coach Willoughby did much to cheer him up, and he managed to put the ugly business out of his mind.
Indeed, he had a host of other things to bother him. The game on the morrow, of course, meant much to an enthusiast like Frank. Then, again, there was that strange matter in connection with Minnie Cuthbert. Frank thought a good deal of Minnie, and they had been great friends for a long time. To have her cut him dead was bad enough, but to act as she did toward his sister Helen seemed outrageous.
“There is something wrong about it,” Frank said, as he dressed. “Minnie isn’t the kind of a girl to do such a thing unless she believes she has a mighty good excuse. Well, I can’t do anything to bridge the gap. It must go on until something happens to bring about an explanation. Until then it is my policy to simply leave matters alone, and pay attention to my own affairs.”
But when he got to thinking of how Lef Seller had on one other occasion played a trick that, for a time, made trouble between Minnie and himself, he shook his head wrath fully, and muttered threats that boded no good to that prank-lover, should he prove to be guilty in this present instance.
Helen, being a girl, knew how to disguise her feelings. She seemed quite herself, and Frank could not help wondering if, after all, she had cared more for Minnie than she did for Flo Dempsey, with whom she intended seeing the great game on the morrow.
“Going to the meeting of the glee club to-night, Helen?” he asked, after supper.
She looked at him with a smile.
“Why not? I’m just as fond of singing as ever. I hope you don’t mean to stay away for any reason, Frank?” came her quick reply.
That decided Frank. Any hesitation on the part of his sister, and he meant to remain at home; for, somehow, he felt that he hardly cared to mingle with the crowd, where Minnie must assuredly be, since she was one of the leading singers.
“Why, sure. I guess a little relaxation from the strain will do all of the team good. Some of the other fellows are going to come in a bunch, with Ralph and Bones.”
“What is that for?” asked Helen, who could see from the smile that crossed his face that there was a reason.
“Oh, it’s just like the class spreads, where they want to break the jollification up by kidnapping the president; some fellows are after our two new recruits, that’s all,” he replied.
“But this is different. Why should any Columbia boy want to kidnap Ralph? It would spoil the game to-morrow, and perhaps defeat our school.”
“And that’s just what these fellows would like to see. A case of sour grapes with them. But we’re going to protect our men to the limit,” declared Frank.
“How mean and contemptible of them! They ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
“Well,” said Frank, soothingly, as he saw how the indignant girl took it to heart in connection with Ralph, “Never mind now, but go and get your things on. We might as well make a start now. You know, we don’t practice to-night at the school, because they’re fixing the ceiling in the assembly room. It’s to be at Dyckman’s Hall.”
“I promised that we would drop around and take Flo with us,” remarked Helen, with a quick look upward, and a little smile.
“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter; that is, it won’t take us much out of our way,” returned Frank.
“No, it isn’t so far as the Cuthbert’s,” and with this parting shot, Helen ran upstairs, leaving Frank to ponder over her meaning.
The glee club usually met in the hall at the high school. It was connected with the educational department, in that the school authorities encouraged its existence, for the study of music was along the lines of the ordinary duties of the classes.
Of course, when fifty or more young people come together of an evening, they are bound to make merry. Consequently there was always an air of jollity connected with these weekly singing society meetings throughout the winter months.
Both Bones Shadduck and Ralph West were present. They showed up with a bunch of others, and secretly Ralph reported to Frank that they had seen no sign of the enemy while on the way thither.
“But don’t let that make you careless,” retorted the other, “for these chaps are as cunning as Indians, who always attack, they say, just before dawn, when the men on guard are apt to be sleepy. Watch out, Ralph. We need you too much to have you taking chances.”
But the evening passed quickly, with the customary songs and merriment. Minnie was, of course, present. She had come with Dottie Warren, and once, when it chanced that she and Frank met face to face, she looked annoyed because she had to speak. However, Frank’s nod was just as cold as her own.
He sang with even more vim than customary, just to show her that he was not caring in the least. Still, there were curious eyes that noted the breach, and more than one group of girls commented on the fact.
“They’ve certainly had a falling out,” said Emily Dodsworth, the primp, and she tried to look horrified, even while secretly pleased, because she was herself very fond of Frank. “Isn’t it dreadful, girls? But then I thought their friendship was too sudden to last long. Perhaps Frank may understand now that ‘old friends are sure, old ties endure.'”
It was nearly ten o’clock, when the singing school was supposed to close. Frank found himself wishing that it were over with. Somehow, he felt very tired, though suspecting that his weariness might be more of the mind than the body. Still, with that great game to be won on the morrow, he believed that he ought to get between the sheets as soon as possible now.
It was just at this time he saw Lanky Wallace heading toward him. Lanky was not in the least a diplomat. Whenever he had anything worrying him, the fact seemed to stick out all over his face, bringing wrinkles to his usually placid brow.
It was so now. Immediately Frank began to scent trouble, though, for the life of him, he could not understand just how it could come while the boys were still at the singing school. Surely, none of those schemers would dare sneak into the hall and kidnap either of the two new recruits.
He hastily glanced around and heaved a sigh of relief when his eyes fell on the figure of Ralph close by, as he chatted with Helen and Flo. At least it could not be him.
“What’s ailing you, Lanky?” he demanded, as the other rushed up to him.
“It’s Bones–they can’t find him anywhere, and I guess he’s been carried off by some of those disgruntled chaps!” exclaimed the other, with a look of dismay.
THE ABDUCTION OF “BONES”
“What’s that?” demanded Buster Billings, who happened to be nearby.
“Goodness, they are saying poor Bones Shadduck has been kidnapped!” exclaimed a shuddering girl, and the news was flashed all through the several groups.
The singing for the evening was done. The Columbia High School Glee Club had never before been so well attended. Time was when it consisted of a baker’s dozen of students, but there were an unusually large number of good voices in the various classes this year.
Frank was, of course, much worried by the news.
“Are you sure, Lanky? Perhaps he’s just stepped out to saunter around with one of the girls, like some of the others have done,” he observed.
“Well, we thought of that, and hunted high and low. Why, even Allie Sawyer, who generally takes up so much of his time, hasn’t seen him for ten minutes.”
“So long as that?” answered Frank, with a smile; “but we must get busy, and learn if any one saw Bones go out.”
“I did!” spoke up a girl just then.
“When was this?” asked Frank, turning on her quickly.
“Not more than seven or eight minutes ago. I was standing in the doorway, and had to move aside for him. And he spoke to me, too,” came the reply. “And what did he say?” continued the other.
“Why, you know Bones has a dog?”
“Yes, a bulldog named Kaiser.”
“He brought him along to the hall to-night,” continued the girl.
“That’s a fact, Frank; for the ugly brute came near taking a hunk out of my leg when, by the merest chance in the world, I happened to rub up against him!” declared Tom Budd, the boy gymnast, who was constantly doing stunts, as though possessed of an insatiable desire to stand on his head, walk on his hands, or throw somersaults.
“The dog was howling, oh, so mournfully,” continued the girl. “I heard him, and it really got on my nerves. Well, I guess it acted the same way with Bones, for he said that he was going out and remonstrate with Kaiser.”
Frank and Lanky exchanged glances.
“Told you so!” declared the latter, triumphantly.
“Well, it certainly looks as though there might be something in it. Bones must have forgotten the warning, in his sudden desire to stop the howling of the dog. He went out, and as he hasn’t come back, we’d better be looking after him. Come along, some of you fellows. If they’ve carried him off, it’s up to us to rescue our right guard!”
There was an immediate rush made for the door of the hall. Dyckman’s was situated just on the outskirts of the town. It had once been some sort of church, and was now used for a variety of purposes connected with the life of the community, from political meetings to dancing classes.
As the stream of boys poured out of the building, the howling of the bulldog nearby became more furious than ever. It immediately attracted the attention of the observant Frank.
“Hark!” he said, holding up his hand to indicate that silence would be necessary if they hoped to succeed in accomplishing anything worth while.
“What is it?” demanded Lanky, eagerly; “do you see Bones, or did you hear him shout for help?”
“Neither. I was thinking of his dog,” was the reply.
“What of old Kaiser, Frank? How does he come in this game?” asked Buster.
“You can tell from the way he’s acting that Bones has never been near him. More than that, I believe the smart dog knows that something has happened to his master, for he’s just wild to get free!” declared Frank.
“Sure as you live! Just listen to him growl and bark. I never heard a bulldog do that before!” cried Ralph.
“Oh, Kaiser is only a half-breed mongrel, but looks like a full-blooded bull. But an idea just occurred to me, fellows.”
“Then let’s have it, Frank. We’re short of ideas at present, just as we are of a bully good football player needed in to-morrow’s game. What is it?” asked Molly Manners, unduly excited by these strange occurrences.
“Perhaps the dog might lead us to where Bones is!” said Frank.
“Say, now, that’s just a crackerjack suggestion. Of course, he will, if someone could only hold him in by his leash!” exclaimed Lanky, with the light of anticipation shining on his face.
“Come on, let’s try it!” shouted another fellow.
“But who’s going to unfasten Kaiser, and hold him?” asked Frank, always practical, even at such moments as this.
“Here’s Buster, he knows the dog better than anyone else,” said Jack Eastwick, pushing the fat boy forward.
“Oh, yes, I’ve had an intimate acquaintance with him. He’s tasted of me three different times,” declared the unwilling candidate for honors.
“Still, he knows you?” said Jack, in a wheedling voice.