E-text prepared by Al Haines
FRANK MERRIWELL'S CHUMS
BURT L. STANDISH
Author of "Frank Merriwell's School Days," "Frank Merriwell's Foes," etc.
[Frontispiece: "All eyes were now fixed on Frank."]
Philadelphia: David Mckay, Publisher, 604-8 South Washington Square. Copyright, 1896 and 1902 By Street & Smith
Frank Merriwell's Chums
I Frank Asks Questions II A Ghastly Subject III An Irresistible Temptation IV A Game of Bluff V Frank's Revelation VI The Plot VII Spreading the Snare VIII The Haunted Room IX In the Meshes X Downward XI Trusting and True XII The Snare is Broken XIII The "Centipede" Joke XIV Lively Times XV Warned XVI Paul Rains XVII The Bully's Match XVIII Rains' Challenge XIX Jumping XX Bascomb's Mistake XXI The Rival Professors XXII A Lively Call XXIII Skating for Honors XXIV Skating for Life XXV The Sinister Stranger XXVI The Mystery of the Ring XXVII Attacked on the Road XXVIII The Marks on the Black Stone XXIX Bart Makes a Pledge XXX Frank and the Professor XXXI Snell Talks XXXII Snell's Hatred XXXIII Playing the Shadow XXXIV The Ring Disappears XXXV More Danger XXXVI The Secret of the Ring XXXVII "Baby" XXXVIII Sport With a Plebe XXXIX An Open Insult XL For the Under Dog XLI Birds of a Feather XLII The Challenge XLIII Doughty Duelist XLIV A Comedy Duel XLV Another Kind of a Fight XLVI Result of the Contest XLVII Alive! XLVIII Baby's Heroism—Conclusion
FRANK MERRIWELL'S CHUMS.
FRANK ASKS QUESTIONS.
September was again at hand, and the cadets at Fardale Military Academy had broken camp, and returned to barracks.
For all of past differences, which had been finally settled between them—for all that they had once been bitter enemies, and were by disposition and development as radically opposite as the positive and negative points of a magnetic needle, Frank Merriwell and Bartley Hodge had chosen to room together.
There was to be no more "herding" in fours, and so Barney Mulloy, the Irish lad, and Hans Dunnerwust, the Dutch boy, were assigned to another room.
Like Hodge, Barney and Hans were Frank Merriwell's stanch friends and admirers. They were ready to do anything for the jolly young plebe, who had become popular at the academy, and thus won both friends and foes among the older cadets.
Barney was shrewd and ready-witted, while Hans, for all of his speech and his blundering ways, was much brighter than he appeared.
Still being plebes, Merriwell and Hodge had been assigned to the "cock-loft" of the third division, which meant the top floor on the north side of the barracks—the sunless side.
The other sides, and the lower floors, with the exception of the first, were reserved for the older cadets.
Their room contained two alcoves, or bedrooms, at the end opposite the door. These alcoves were made by a simple partition that separated one side from the other, but left the bedrooms open to the rest of the room.
Against the walls in the alcoves stood two light iron bedsteads, with a single mattress on each, carefully folded back during the day, and made up only after tattoo.
The rest of the bedding was carefully and systematically piled on the mattresses.
In the partitions were rows of iron hooks, on which their clothing must be placed in regular order, overcoats to the front, then rubber coats, uniform coats, jackets, trousers, and underclothing following, with a bag for soiled clothing at the rear.
On the broad wooden bar that ran across the front of these alcoves, near the ceiling, the names of the cadets who occupied the bedrooms were posted, so inspecting officers could tell at a glance who occupied the beds.
At the front of the partition the washstand was placed, with the bucket of water, dipper, and washbowl, which must always be kept in a certain order, with the washbowl inverted, and the soapdish on top of it.
Rifles were kept in the rack, barrels to the front, with dress hats on the shelf, and a mirror in the middle of the mantelshelf. Accoutrements and forage saps were hung on certain hooks, and clothing and other things allowable and necessary were always to be kept in an unvarying order on a set of open-faced shelves.
The broom and slop-bucket were to be deposited behind the door, the chairs against the table, when not in use, and the table against the wall opposite the fireplace.
At the foot of each bed the shoes were placed in a line, neatly dusted, with toes to the front.
It was required that the room should be constantly kept in perfect order, and Merriwell and Hodge were called on to take turns, week and week about, at being orderly, and the name of the one responsible for the appearance of the room was placed on the orderly board, hung to the front of the alcove partition.
Back of the door was another board, on which each was required to post his hours of recitation, and to account for his absence from the room at any inspection.
In fact, a rigid effort was made at Fardale to imitate in every possible way the regulations and requirements enforced at West Point, and it was the boast that the school was, in almost every particular, identical with our great Military Academy.
Of course, it was impossible to enforce the rules as rigidly as they are at the Point, for the cadets at Fardale were, as a class, far younger, and the disgrace of expulsion or failure in any way was not to be compared with that attending unfortunates at the school where youths are graduated into actual service as officers of the United States army.
Many of the cadets at Fardale had been sent there by parents who could not handle them at home, and who had hoped the discipline they would receive at a military school would serve to tone down their wildness. Thus it will be seen that many harum-scarum fellows got into the school, and that they could not readily be compelled to conform to the rules and requirements.
For all that Frank Merriwell was a jolly, fun-loving fellow, he was naturally orderly and neat, so that it seemed very little effort for him to do his part in keeping the room in order.
On the other hand, Bartley Hodge was naturally careless, and he had a persistent way of displacing things that annoyed Frank, although the latter said little about it at first.
Whenever the inspecting officer found anything wrong about the room, he simply glanced at the orderly board, and down went the demerit against the lad whose name was posted there. It made no difference who had left a chair out of place, hung a coat where it should not be, or failed to invert the washbowl, the room orderly had to assume the responsibility.
Now, it was the last thing in the world that Hodge could wish to injure Merriwell, but three times in Frank's first week as room orderly he was reported for things he could not help, and for which Bart was entirely responsible.
Merriwell had risen to the first section in recitation at the very start, while Hodge, who had been placed in the third, was soon relegated to the second.
Frank was trying to curb his almost unbounded inclination for mischief, and he was studying assiduously.
On the other hand, while Hodge did not seem at all mischievous by nature, he detested study, and he was inclined to spend the time when he should have been "digging," in reading some story, or in idly yawning and wishing the time away.
One day, after having taken his third demerit on his roommate's account, the inspector having detected tobacco smoke in the room, Frank said:
"Why don't you swear off on cigarettes, Bart? They don't do a fellow any good, and they are pretty sure to get him into trouble here at the academy."
Hodge was in anything but a pleasant frame of mind, and he instantly retorted:
"I know what you mean. You are orderly, and I ought to have spoken up and told the inspector I had been smoking. I didn't know what it was he put down, but I'll go and confess my crime now."
He sprang up petulantly, but Frank's hand dropped on his arm, and Merriwell quietly said:
"Don't go off angry, old man. You know I don't want you to do anything of the sort. I will take my medicine when I am orderly, and I know you will do the same when it comes your turn."
"Well, I didn't know——" began Bart, in a somewhat sulky manner.
"You ought to know pretty well by this time. I am not much given to kicking or growling, but I do want to have a sober talk with you, and I hope you will not fire up at anything I say."
"All right; go ahead," said Hodge, throwing himself wearily into a chair, and thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. "I'll listen to your sermon."
"It isn't to be a sermon. You should know I am not the kind of a fellow to preach."
"That's so. Don't mind me. Drive ahead."
"First, I want to ask how it is you happened to let yourself be put back in recitations?"
"Oh, Old Gunn just put me back—that's all."
"But you are fully as good a scholar as I am, and you could have gone ahead into the first section if you had braced up."
"I know it. You do not study."
"What's the use of boning all the time! I wasn't cut out for it."
"That's the only way to get ahead here."
"I don't care much about getting ahead. All I want is to pull through and graduate. Then I can go to college if I wish. These fellows who get the idea that they must dig, dig, dig here, just as they say they do at West Point, give me a pain. What is there to dig for? We're not working for commissions in the army."
"From your point of view, you put up a very good argument," admitted Frank; "but there's another side. It surely must be some satisfaction to graduate well up in your class, if not at the head. And then, the more a fellow learns here, the easier he will find the work after entering college."
"Work? Pshaw! There are not many fellows in colleges who are compelled to bone. I hate work! I thought you were the kind of a fellow who liked a little fun?"
"Well, you know I am. Haven't I always been in for sport?"
"But you're getting to be a regular plodder. You don't do a thing lately to keep your blood circulating."
"I am afraid you do too much that is contrary to rules, old man. For instance, where is it that you go so often nights, and stay till near morning?"
"I go out for a little sport," replied Bart, with a grim smile.
A GHASTLY SUBJECT.
"But you know the consequences if you are caught," said Frank, warningly.
"Of course I do," nodded Bart, "but you must acknowledge there is not much danger that I shall be caught, as long as I make up a good dummy to leave in my place on the bed."
"Still, you may be."
"That's right, and there's where part of the sport comes in, as you ought to know, for you are quite a fellow to take chances yourself, Merriwell."
"That's right," admitted Frank. "It's in my blood, and I can't help it. Anything with a spice of risk or danger attracts and fascinates me."
"You are not in the habit of hesitating or being easily scared when there is some sport in the wind."
"I never have been," he admitted. "I have taken altogether too many risks in the past. A fellow has to sober down and straighten up if he means to do anything or be anything."
Bart made an impatient gesture.
"Any one would think you were a reformed toper, to hear you talk," he said, with a trace of a sneer.
"Not if they knew me," said Frank, quietly. "Whatever my faults may be, I never had any inclination to drink. I have had fellows tell me they did so for fun, but I have never been able to see the fun in it, and it surely is injurious and dangerous. I don't believe many young fellows like the taste of liquor. I don't. They drink it 'for fun,' and they keep on drinking it 'for fun' till a habit is formed, and they become drunkards. Now, I can find plenty of fun of a sort that will not harm me, or bring——"
"I thought you weren't going to preach," interrupted the dark-haired boy, impatiently. "Let me give you a text: 'Thou shalt not put an enemy into thy mouth to steal away thy brain,' or something of the sort. Now, go ahead and spout, old man."
Frank's face grew red, and he bit his lip. He saw that Hodge was in a most unpleasant humor, and so he forced a laugh.
"What's the matter with you to-day, Bart?" he asked. "I haven't seen you this way for a long time."
"Oh, there's nothing the matter."
"It must be staying up nights. Where do you go?"
"If you want to come along, and have some fun, I will show you to-night."
Frank hesitated. It was a great temptation, and he felt a longing to go.
"Well," he said, finally, "I have not broken any in quite a while, and I believe I'll take a whirl with you to-night."
"All right," nodded Bart. "I'll show you some fellows with sporting blood in their veins."
"But I want you to understand I do not propose to follow it up night after night," Frank hastened to say. "A fellow can't do it and stand the work that's cut out for him here."
"Bother the work!"
"I'll have to work to keep up with the procession. If you can get along without work, you are dead lucky."
"Oh, I'll scrub along some way, don't you worry; and I will come out as well as you do in the end."
That night, some time after taps, two boys arose and proceeded to carefully prepare dummies in their beds, arranging the figures so they looked very much like sleeping cadets, if they were not examined too closely. Bart was rather skillful at this, and he assisted Frank in perfecting the figure in Merriwell's bed.
"There," he finally whispered, with satisfaction, "that would fool Lieutenant Gordan himself."
They donned trousers and coats, and prepared to leave the room in their stocking feet.
Bart opened the door and peered cautiously out into the hall.
"Coast is clear," he whispered over his shoulder.
In another moment they were outside the room. Along the corridor they skurried like cats, their feet making no noise on the floor.
Frank was still entirely unaware of their destination, but, as they had not taken their shoes, he knew they were not to leave the building.
Frank cared little where they went, but he realized Hodge was leading the way to a remote part of the building, where the rooms were not entirely taken, as the academy was not full of students.
All at once, Bart sent a peculiar hiss down the corridor, and it was answered by a similar sound.
A moment later they scudded past a fellow who was hugging in a shadow where the lights did not reach.
"Who's that?" whispered Frank.
"That's the sentinel," replied Bart.
Then they came to the door of a certain room, on which Hodge knocked in a peculiar manner.
A faint sound of unbarring came from behind the door, which quickly opened, and they dodged into the room.
As yet there was no light in the room, and, still filled with wonder, Frank asked:
"Was that the regular sentinel out there, Bart?"
"That was our sentinel," was the reply.
"But where are the regular sentinels? I did not see one of them."
Faint chuckles came from several parts of the room, and Hodge replied:
"At a certain hour each night the duties of the regular sentinels take them away long enough for me to get out of my room and in here. See?"
"They must be in the trick?"
"The most of them are. When it happens that one is not, we have to look out for him, and dodge him. To-night those on duty on this floor were all fixed."
Then somebody cautiously struck a match, by the flare of which Frank saw several fellows were gathered in the room.
A lamp was lighted, and Merriwell looked around. Besides Bart, he saw Harvey Dare, George Harris, Wat Snell and Sam Winslow.
"Hello, Merriwell, old man," some greeted, cordially, but cautiously. "Glad to see Hodge has brought you along."
Frank was instantly seized by an unpleasant sensation—a foreboding, or a warning. Harris and Snell were not friends of his; in fact, in the past, they had been distinctly unfriendly. Dare he knew little about, as they had never had much to do with each other. Sam Winslow was a plebe, having entered the academy at the same time with Merriwell, but Frank had never been able to determine whether he was "no good" or a pretty decent sort of fellow.
Had Frank been governed by his first impression, he would have found an excuse to bid that company good-night immediately, but he did not like to do anything like that, for he knew it would cause them to designate him as a cad, and he would be despised for doing so.
He had gone too far to back out immediately, so he resolved to stay a while, and then get out as best he could.
At the window of the room blankets had been suspended, so no ray of light could shine out into the night to betray the little party.
At a glance, Frank saw the room was not occupied by students, for it contained nothing but the bare furniture, besides a box on the table, and the assembled lads.
Bart saw Frank looking around, and divined his thoughts.
"I suppose you are wondering where you are? Well, this is the room in which Cadet Bolt committed suicide. It has been closed ever since, as no fellow will occupy it. It is said to be haunted."
This appealed to Frank's love of the sensational. Besides that, he fancied he saw an opportunity for some sport that was not down in the programme, and he smiled a bit.
"Of course it isn't haunted," he said. "I don't believe there is a fellow here who believes in ghosts?"
"Such stuff is rot!"
"I don't believe in anything I can't see."
Thus the assembled lads expressed themselves, and Frank smiled again.
"While I do not believe this room is haunted," he said, "I once had a rather blood-curdling experience with something like a disembodied spirit—an adventure that came near turning my hair snowy white from fright and horror. I will tell you about it. The original of my ghost happened to be a fellow who committed suicide, and he——"
"Say, hold on!" gurgled Wat Snell, who had declared that believing in ghosts was "all rot." "What are we here for—to listen to ghost stories or to have a little picnic?"
"Oh, drop your ghost yam," said George Harris, who had asserted that he did not believe in anything he could not see. "You may tell it to us some other time."
"But this is a really interesting story," insisted Frank. "You see, the fellow shot himself three times, and when he did not die quickly enough to be suited, he cut his throat from ear to ear, and his specter was a most ghastly-appearing object, bleeding from the bullet wounds and having a gash across its throat from——"
"Say, will you let up!" gasped Harris. "If you don't, I'll get out!"
"Oh, I don't want to break up this jolly gathering," said Frank, his eyes twinkling, "but I was just going to tell how the ghost——"
"Cheese it!" interrupted Sam Winslow. "Talk about something besides ghosts, will you? You are not given to dwelling on such unpleasant subjects, Merriwell."
"But I thought you fellows didn't take any stock in ghosts?"
"We don't," grinned Harvey Dare; "and that's just why we don't want to hear about 'em."
"We've got something else to do besides listen to yarns," said Harris. "Let's proceed to gorge." And he began opening the box that sat on the table.
AN IRRESISTIBLE TEMPTATION.
"Harris is lucky," said Sam Winslow. "His folks send him a box every now and then, and he gets it through old Carter, at the village."
"I have hard enough time smuggling it in," said Harris, "and I share when I get it here."
"For which we may well call ourselves lucky dogs," smiled Harvey Dare. "A fellow gets awfully weary of the regular rations they have here."
"That's right," agreed Frank. "I often long for the flesh pots of Egypt, or almost anything in the way of a change of fare."
"Well, here's where you get it—if you'll agree not to spring any more ghost yarns on us," said Harris. "Just look over this collection of palate ticklers, fellows."
"Fruit cake!" gasped Sam, delightedly. "Oh, how my stomach yearns for it!"
"Cream pie!" ejaculated Wat Snell. "Yum! yum! Somebody please hold me!"
"Tarts!" panted Harvey Dare. "Oh, I won't do a thing to them!"
"Look at the cookies and assorted good stuff!" murmured Bart, ecstatically. "I shall be ready to perish without a tremor after this!"
"Permit me to do the honors," said Harris, grandly. "Just nominate your poison, and I will deal it out."
So each one called for what he desired, and Harris supplied them, using a pocket-knife with which to cut the cake and pie.
"Aren't you glad you came, Merriwell?" asked Sam, with his mouth full of fruit cake.
"Sure," smiled Frank, as he helped himself. "I shall not regret it, if it gives me indigestion."
Frank believed Wat Snell was a sneak, but he did not fancy it would be at all necessary to accept the fellow as a friend just because they had met under such circumstances. He meant to use Snell well, and let it go at that.
The boys thoroughly enjoyed their clandestine feast. It was a luxury a hundred times dearer than a feast from similar things could have been had there been no secrecy about it and had it been perfectly allowable.
They gorged themselves till they could eat no more, and the contents of the box proved none too plentiful for their ravenous appetites. When they had finished, nothing but a few crumbs were left.
"There," sighed Harvey Dare, "I haven't felt so full as this before since the last time Harris had a box."
"Nor I," said Wat Snell, lighting a cigarette. "Have one, Merriwell?"
Frank declined to smoke, but his example was not followed by any of the other lads. Each one took a cigarette and "fired up."
"You ought to smoke, Merriwell," said Dare. "There's lots of pleasure in it."
"Perhaps so," admitted Frank; "but I don't care for it, and, as it is against the rules, it keeps me out of trouble by not smoking."
"It's against the rules to indulge in this kind of a feast, old man. You can't be too much of a stickler for rules."
"It doesn't do to be too goody-good," put in Snell, insinuatingly. "Such rubbish doesn't go with the fellows."
"I don't think any one can accuse me of playing the goody-good," said Frank, quietly. "I like fun as well as any one, as you all know, but I do not care for cigarettes, and so I do not smoke them. I don't wish to take any credit to myself, so I make no claim to resisting a temptation, for they are no temptation to me."
"Lots of fellows smoke who do not like cigarettes," assured Sam Winslow.
"Well, I can't understand why they do so," declared Merriwell.
"They do it for fun."
"I fail to see where the fun comes in. There are enough improper things that I would like to do for me not to care about those things that are repugnant to me. Some time ago I made up my mind never to do a thing I did not want to do, or did not give me pleasure, unless it was absolutely necessary, or was required as a courtesy to somebody else. I am trying to stick by that rule."
"Oh, don't talk about rules!" cut in Dare. "It makes me weary! We have enough of rules here at this academy, without making any for ourselves."
"Come, fellows," broke in Hodge; "let's get down to business."
"Business?" said Frank, questioningly. "I thought this was a case of sport?"
"It is. You mustn't be so quick to catch up a word."
The table was cleared, and the boys gathered round it, Hodge producing a pack of cards, the seal of which had not been broken.
"You'll notice that those papers are all right," he said, significantly. "Nobody's had a chance to tamper with them."
"What do you play?" asked Frank, to whose face a strange look had come on sight of the cards.
"Oh, we play most anything—euchre, seven up, poker——"
"Yes; just a light game—penny ante—to make it interesting. You know there's no interest in poker unless there's some risk."
The strange look grew on Frank Merriwell's face. He seemed in doubt, as if hesitating over something.
"I—I think I will go back to the room," he said.
"What's that?" exclaimed several, in amazement. "Why, you have just got here."
"But I am not feeling—exactly right. What I have eaten may give me a headache, and I have a hard day before me to-morrow."
"Oh, but we can't let you go now, old man," said Harris, decidedly. "You must stop a while. If your head begins to ache and gets real bad, of course you can go, but I don't see how you can get out now."
Frank did not see either. He had accepted Harris' hospitality, had eaten freely of the good things Harris had provided, and the boys would vote him a prig if he left them for his bed as soon as the feast was finished. It would seem that he was afraid of being discovered absent from his room—as if he did not dare to share the danger with them.
Frank was generally very decided in what he did, and it was quite unusual for him to hesitate over anything.
There is an old saying that "He who hesitates is lost."
In this case it proved true.
"Oh, all right, fellows," said Frank, lightly. "I'll stop a while and watch you play."
"But you must take a hand—you really must, you know," urged Harvey Dare. "Our game is small. We'll put on a limit to suit you—anything you say."
"I do not play poker, if that is your game."
"Don't you know how?"
"Well, yes, I know a little something about it, but I swore off more than a year ago."
"Nobody ever swears off on anything for more than a year. Sit in and take a hand."
Still he refused, and they finally found it useless to urge him, so the game was begun without him, and he looked on.
The limit was set at ten cents, and it was to be a regular penny ante game.
There was some hesitation over the limit, which Bart named, winking meaningly at one or two of the fellows who seemingly started to protest.
Surely there could not be much harm in such a light game! No one could lose a great deal.
The first deal fell to Bart, and he shuffled the cards and tossed them round in a way that betokened considerable dexterity and practice.
The boys were inclined to be jolly, but they were forced to restrain their feelings as far as possible, for, although the rooms near them were unoccupied, there was danger that they might be heard by some one who would investigate, and their sentinel might not be able to give the warning in time.
As Frank Merriwell watched the game, a peculiar light stole into his eyes, and he was swayed by ill-repressed excitement. He was tempted to get up and go away for all that anybody might say, but he did not go; he lingered, and he was overcome by an irresistible longing—a desire he could not govern. Finally, he exclaimed:
"What's the use for me to sit humped up here! Give me a hand, and let me in."
A GAME OF BLUFF.
"That's the talk, old man!" exclaimed Harvey Dare, with satisfaction. "Now you are beginning to appear natural."
The other boys were only too glad to get Frank into the game, and room was quickly made for him, while he was given a hand.
The moment he decided to play, he seemed to throw off the air of restraint that had been about him since he discovered the kind of company Bart Hodge had brought him into. He became his free-and-easy, jolly self, soon cracking a joke or two that set the boys laughing, and beginning by taking the very first pot on the table after entering the game.
"That's bad luck," he said, with a laugh. "The fellow who wins at the start usually loses at the finish, so I may as well consider my fortune yours. Some of you will become enormously wealthy in about fifteen minutes, for I won't last longer than that if my luck turns."
He soon betrayed that he was familiar with the game, and luck ran to him in a way that made the other boys look tired. He seemed able to draw anything he wanted.
"Say!" gasped Sam Winslow, in admiration; "I shouldn't think you'd want to play poker—oh, no! If I had your luck, I'd play poker as a profession. Why, if you drew to a spike, you'd get a railroad! I never saw anything like it."
Wat Snell had been losing right along, and he sneered:
"There's an old saying, 'A fool for luck,' you know."
"It applies in this case," laughed Frank. "If I wasn't a fool, I wouldn't be in this game."
"What's the matter with this game?" asked Harris. "Isn't the limit high enough to suit you?"
"That's the matter," said Dare, swiftly. "Let's raise the limit."
"Let's throw it off," urged Snell. "What's the use of limit, any how?"
Frank shook his head.
"I don't believe in a no-limit game," he said. "There are none of us millionaires."
"And for that very reason, none of us will play a heavy game," said Sam. "We have played a no-limit game before, and nobody ever bets more than a dollar or so. That doesn't happen once a game, either."
"Twenty-five cents is usually the limit of our bets," declared Harris.
"Then raise the limit to a quarter," said Frank. "I am willing to give you fellows a show to get back your money."
But they did not fancy having the limit a quarter, and quite a long argument ensued, which resulted in the game being resumed as a no-limit affair.
"There!" breathed Wat Snell, "this is something like it. Now I can do something. If a fellow wanted to bluff he couldn't do it on a ten-cent limit."
Hodge had said very little, but he seemed willing and ready to throw off the limit.
The change of limit did not seem to affect Merriwell's luck, for he continued to win.
"I believe you are a wizard!" exclaimed Sam Winslow. "You seem to read a fellow's cards."
Wat Snell growled continually, and the more he growled the more he lost.
"Oh, wait till I catch 'em by-and-by," he said, as he saw Frank rake in a good pot. "I won't do a thing to you, if I get a good chance!"
"If you have the cards, you will win," was the reply. "They are coming for me now, and I am simply playing 'em."
Hodge had lost something, but he said little, being more than satisfied as long as Frank was winning.
Thus the hours passed.
By one o'clock Frank was far ahead of the game, but he still played on, for he knew it would not seem right for him to propose stopping.
Dare, Harris and Winslow were nearly broken, but they still hung on, hoping for a turn in their direction. Snell had plenty of money, for all that he had been the heaviest loser.
Finally there came a good-sized jackpot, which Dare opened. Snell was the next man, and he promptly raised it fifty cents. Winslow dropped out, and Hodge raised Snell fifty cents. Then it came Frank's turn, and he simply staid in. Harris was dealing, and he dropped out, while Dare simply "made good."
This gave Snell his turn, and he "boosted" two dollars.
"Whew!" breathed Winslow. "That settles me. I'm out."
Hodge was game, and he "came up" on a pair of nines.
Snell was watching Merriwell, and the latter quietly pushed in two dollars, which finished the betting till cards were drawn, as Dare dropped out, after some deliberation.
"How many?" asked Harris, of Snell.
"Don't want any," was the calm reply.
Hodge took three, as also did Merriwell, which plainly indicated they had a pair each.
"Snell has this pot in a canter," said Harris.
Snell bet five dollars, doing it in a way that seemed to say he was not risking anything.
Hodge dropped his nines, which he had not bettered, and that left Merriwell and Snell to fight it out.
"This is why I object to a limit being taken off a game," said Frank. "It spoils the fun, and makes it a clean case of gambling."
"It's too late to make that kind of talk," sneered Snell. "You are in it now. Do you call?"
"No," replied Frank, "but I will see your five dollars, and put in another."
This created a stir, but Snell seemed delighted.
"I admire your blood," he said, "but the bluff won't go with me. Here's the five, and I will raise ten."
Now there was excitement.
Frank's cards lay face downward on the table, and every one was wondering what he could have found to go up against Snell's pat hand. He was wonderfully calm, as he turned to Bart, and asked:
"Will you loan me something?"
"Every cent I have," was the instant reply, as Hodge took out a roll of bills and threw it on the table. "Use what you want."
There were thirty-five dollars in the roll. Frank counted it over carefully, and then put it all into the pot, raising Snell twenty-five dollars!
When he saw this, Snell's nerve suddenly left him. His face paled and his hands shook.
"Whoever heard of such infernal luck as that fellow has!" he grated. "Held up a pair, and must have fours now!"
Frank said not a word. His face was quiet, and he seemed waiting for Snell to do something.
"If you haven't the money to call him——" began Harris.
"I have," declared Snell; "but what's the use. A man can't beat fool-luck! Here's my hand, and I'll allow I played it for all it is worth."
He threw the cards face upward on the table, and smothered exclamations of astonishment came from the boys.
His hand contained no more than a single pair of four-spots!
"Then you do not mean to call me?" asked Prank.
"Of course not! Think I'm a blooming idiot!"
"The pot is mine?"
"Well, I will allow I played this hand for all it is worth," said the winner, as he turned his cards over so all could see what they were.
Wat Snell nearly fainted.
Merriwell's hand was made up of a king, eight spot, five spot, and one pair of deuces!
It had been a game of bluff, and Frank Merriwell had won.
"Great Caesar!" gasped Harvey Dare. "Will you look at that! That is what I call nerve for you! That is playing, my boys!"
Wat Snell rose slowly to his feet, his face very white.
"It's robbery!" came hoarsely from his lips.
"Steady, Snell!" warned Harvey Dare. "You were beaten at your own game—that's all."
Snell knew this, but it simply served to make his rage and chagrin all the deeper.
"I am not a professional card player," he said, bitterly, "and I am no match for a professional."
He was more deeply cut by the manner in which he had been beaten than by the loss of his money.
"Nor am I a professional," came quietly from Frank Merriwell's lips, as he quickly sorted from the pot the money he had placed therein. "I simply sized you up as on the bluff, and I was right. I don't want your money, Snell; take it. I set into this game for amusement, and not with the idea of beating anybody to any such extent as this."
Snell hesitated, and then the hot blood mounted quickly to his face, which had been so pale a few moments before.
"No, I will not take the money!" he grated. "I take the offer as an insult, Merriwell."
"No insult is intended, I assure you."
Snell was shrewd enough to know he would stand little chance of getting into another game of poker with that company if he accepted the money, and so he made a desperate effort to control his rage and play the hypocrite.
"I don't suppose you did mean the offer as an insult, Merriwell; and I presume I was too hasty. I am rather quick at times, and, as Dare says, I was beaten at my own game, which made me hot. You had nerve, Merriwell; take the money—keep it."
The words almost choked him, but he pretended to be quite sincere, although his heart was full of bitterness and a longing to "get even."
It was some time before Frank could be persuaded to accept his winnings, and, when he did finally take it, he was resolved to return it quietly and secretly to Snell, at such a time that no one else could know anything of it.
This matter was scarcely settled when there came a peculiar rap on the door.
"Who's that?" asked Frank, in some alarm.
"It's our sentinel," assured Harris. "His time on post is up."
The door opened, and Leslie Gage entered the room. Gage had been Merriwell's bitter enemy at one time during the summer encampment, having made two dastardly attacks on Frank, who had been generous enough to rescue him from death after that, and had saved him from expulsion by refusing to give any testimony against him.
For all of this generosity on Merriwell's part, Gage still bore deep down in his heart a hatred for the plebe who had become so popular at the academy. This he tried to keep concealed, pretending that he had changed into a friend and admirer.
"Hello, Merriwell," he saluted. "Been having a little whirl with the boys?"
"I should say he has!" replied Snell. "He has whirled me wrong end up, and I feel as if I am still twisted."
Then the whole play was explained to Gage, who chuckled over it, and complimented Frank on his nerve.
For all of this apparent restoration of good feeling, Frank was discerning enough to detect the insincerity of both Snell and Gage.
Gage had done his duty as guard, and there was no one on the watch now. None of the boys felt like taking the place, so it was decided to call the "session" over for that night.
"You must come again, Merriwell," said Dare. "You have given us the sensation of the evening, and you must let Snell have a chance to get square."
"Yes," said Snell, "all I ask is a fair chance to get square. If I fail, I won't say a word, and I'll acknowledge you are the best fellow. Let's shake hands, Merriwell, and call it quits for the time being."
"That's the stuff!" came from Sam Winslow. "Now everything is quiet on the Potomac again."
Frank shook hands with Snell, and a few moments later the boys began to slip from the room and skurry along the corridors to their rooms, which all reached without being challenged by the sentries.
Bart was filled with satisfaction and delight, and before getting into bed he whispered to Frank, not daring to speak aloud in that room:
"That was the prettiest trick I ever saw! And I was delighted to see you rub that fellow. He hasn't done a thing to me but win every time I have held up a hand against him of late."
Frank said nothing, and had there been a light in the room, Bart would have seen that his face bore an expression that was anything but one of satisfaction.
Merriwell did not sleep well during the few hours before reveille. His slumber was filled with dreams, and he muttered and moaned very often, awaking Hodge once or twice.
"I guess he is still playing," thought Bart.
At reveille Frank was, as a rule, very prompt about springing out of bed and hurrying into his clothes and through his toilet. On the morning after the game, however, he continued to sleep till Hodge awakened him by a fierce shaking.
"Come, come, man!" said Bart; "turn out. Are you going to let a little thing like last night break you up?"
Frank got up wearily and stiffly.
"I didn't sleep well," he said.
He was quite unlike his usual spirited self.
"Get a brace on," urged Bart. "You want to be on hand at roll-call."
Finding it was necessary to "get a brace on," Frank did so, and was able to leave the room in time to go rushing down the stairway and spring into ranks at the last second.
After breakfast, as Bart was sprucing up the room, and Frank was vainly trying to prepare himself for the first recitation, but simply sat staring in a bewildered way at the book he held, the former said:
"You don't know what a slick trick you did last night, Merriwell! Why, I'd given almost anything if I had been the one to soak Snell in that fashion."
Frank put down the book, and rose to his feet, pacing twice the length of the room. All at once he stopped and faced Bart, and his voice was not steady, as he said:
"You didn't mean any harm, old man, but you did me a bad turn last night."
Bart stared, and asked:
"By taking me where I could sit into a game like that. I am going to tell you something. I have one great failing—one terrible fault that quite overshadows all my other failings and faults. That is my passion for cards—or, to put it more strongly and properly, my passion for gambling."
"You don't mean to say that you have a failing or a fault that you cannot govern, do you?" he asked.
Frank put out one hand, and partly turned away. Instantly Bart sprang forward and caught the hand, saying swiftly:
"There, there, Merriwell—don't notice it! I didn't mean anything. You are sensitive to-day. Hang it all, man! do you think I want to hurt your feelings without cause! I shouldn't have said it, for I see you are not yourself."
"No, I am not," confessed Frank. "You know every fellow has a secret. I did not intend to tell mine. I believe I was born with an intense passion for gambling."
"And you cannot govern it?"
"Well, I have been able to do so during the past year."
"Oh, you are all right; you have a strong mind and——"
"Every strong mind has a weak spot. I began gaming by playing marbles, and the passion grew on me. When I had money, I gambled for cents and nickels. As I grew older, I learned to play cards, and I gambled for larger sums. If I knew that a game was going on I would leave everything to get into it. Once I 'appropriated' money from my mother's purse to gamble with."
Frank stopped. His face crimsoned as he uttered the words, and he showed his deep shame and humiliation. But he quickly added:
"That was my first and last theft. The shame and disgrace of exposure by my mother was nearly more than I could endure. But she did not know I played cards for money. Thank God! she never knew! She died when I was twelve years old.
"I never knew much about my father's business. He was much away from home, and I saw him but little. After mother's death, I went to live with my uncle. Still I played cards for money, and the passion grew upon me. A little more than a year ago I was rapidly developing into a young gambler. Then came news of my father's sudden death in California, and I swore I would never play cards again. Last night I broke my oath."
"What was the cause of your father's death?" asked Bart, by way of saying something.
"He was shot over a game of cards in a gambling-house," replied Frank, hoarsely.
Wat Snell and Leslie Gage were roommates, and they certainly made a delectable pair.
Gage was naturally the leader, being the worse of the two. He was a daring and reckless sort of fellow—one who would not stop at anything, and who would have recourse to almost any measure to gain his ends.
This revengeful fellow had never forgiven Merriwell for what he considered a great injury. Gage had been the pitcher on the regular ball team, but, by superior skill, Merriwell had supplanted him. That was enough to produce in Gage's heart a feeling of undying hatred for the successful plebe.
It made no difference that Frank had, in all probability, saved him from death after he had twice attempted to kill Merriwell. Gage had been shrewd enough to see that he must dissemble if he would remain in the academy, and so he pretended to be repentant and to think Frank one of the finest fellows in the world, while his hatred and longing for "revenge" still lay hidden, black and hideous, in a secret corner of his heart.
Snell was quite a different sort of bad boy. He regarded Gage as his superior, and he was ready to do almost anything for the fellow, but he could not imitate Leslie's daring, and he kept his own vileness so much concealed that many square, honest lads believed he was a really good fellow. Bart Hodge had begun to think Snell was a sneak and bad, but he had no proof of it, and so he kept still.
Wat was in anything but a pleasant mood the day after the game of cards. He flung things round the room in a way that caused Gage to regard him with wonder, as it was so much unlike the usual quiet, crafty roommate he knew.
"What's the matter with you, Wat?" he asked, in surprise. "You must be ill. Go directly and place those things where they belong, for we never know when one of those blooming inspectors will pop in. I am room orderly this week, and am going to have things kept straight, for I can't afford to take any more demerit. My record is bad enough as it stands."
So, with a little grumbling, Wat went about and restored to order the things he had disarranged, but he could not help thinking how often, when he was room orderly, he had been obliged to follow Gage about, and gather up things he had displaced.
"What's the matter?" repeated Leslie, who suspected the truth. "You don't seem to feel well, old boy."
"Oh, it's nothing," replied Wat. "I was thinking of last night."
"And raising all this row because you happened to drop a dollar. Why, that's the run of the cards."
"Oh, it wasn't what I lost that made me mad."
"Then what was it?"
"Why, I was thinking that that fellow Merriwell won."
"And I presume you were thinking how he won the last pot, eh?"
"You don't love Merriwell a great deal?"
"I should say not! I despise the fellow!"
"And you'd like to get square?"
"I suppose you mean to do so?"
"If I ever get the chance—yes."
"I fancy you are aware that I am not dead stuck on Merriwell myself?"
"Yes, I know."
"I have an old score to settle with him, and I will settle it some way. I failed in one or two attempts to do him up, for——"
"You were altogether too bold, partner mine; and it's a wonder you were not expelled from the academy. You would have been if Merriwell had blowed on you."
"That's right, and he would have done so if he had known what was good for him. He is soft!"
"In some things he may be soft, but you must acknowledge he is hard enough in others. He has a way of coming on top in almost everything."
Gage could not deny this, and it made him angry to think of it.
"You are right," he said, fiercely. "I suppose I was foolish to fight him in the way I did. That big bully Bascomb got a hold on me, and he has been blackmailing me ever since. Hang that fellow! I'll choke the wind out of him yet!"
A crafty look came to Snell's face, and he said:
"There are ways to down a fellow without showing your hand."
"I suppose so; but it usually takes too long to suit me. I like to jump on an enemy at once, and do him up."
"Well, I hope you are satisfied that Merriwell is the kind of a fellow who will not be jumped on that way?"
"It seems so."
"Then it is possible you are ready to try some other method?"
Their eyes met, and Wat grinned significantly.
"How do you mean?" asked Leslie, eagerly. "You have some kind of a scheme?"
"That fellow won some money off me, and I refused to take it back. He must show up again, and give me a chance to square the score. He is bound in honor not to refuse to do so."
"That's right," nodded Gage.
"Well, you are rather handy with the cards, and I reckon you will not find it hard to fleece him."
"Oh, I can beat him out of his money, but that is poor satisfaction when you want to disgrace a fellow and drive him out of the school."
"We'll find a way for that, if we can get him to following the game."
"I don't know as I see how."
"His parents are dead."
"He is supported by a rich uncle, who sent him here to this school."
"What of that?"
"His uncle gives him a regular allowance. If Merriwell exceeds that allowance, there will be inquiries as to what he has done with his money."
"I begin to see."
"This uncle is a stern, crusty old fellow, and he would be furious if he should accidentally find out that his nephew is gambling. The chances are about ten to one that he would take him out of Fardale and turn him adrift to hustle for himself."
Gage's eyes began to glitter, and the smile about his mouth was most unpleasant to see.
"Snell," he said, "you have a head on your shoulders! You are a dandy schemer! But how will this uncle find out that Merriwell has been gambling?"
"There are several ways for him to find it out. If we can get hold of a few of Merriwell's IOU's, they might be sent to the uncle for collection."
"I see; but first we must run him out of ready cash."
"Of course. By the time he has lost all his money, he will be eager to play to win it back. We must lend him money, and take his IOU's."
"We'll do it!" Gage jumped up, struck Snell a blow on the back, and then grasped his hand, giving it a shake.
"We'll do it!" he repeated. "Merriwell's goose is beautifully cooked!"
Snell smiled in his crafty way.
"I am glad you take to the scheme, for with your aid, there ought not to be any trouble in carrying it out."
"Oh, we'll work it! But how did you find out so much about Merriwell? That's what sticks me. He has been sort of a mystery here, as none of the fellows knew exactly where he came from, or anything about his folks."
"Oh, I took a fancy to get posted concerning him. At first I didn't see how I was going to do so. That was during camp, and Hans Dunnerwust tented with him then. I cultivated the thick-headed Dutchman, and succeeded in getting into his good graces. So I often visited Hans in the tent when Merriwell and Mulloy, that Irish clown, who thinks Merriwell the finest fellow in the world, were away. I kept my eyes open, and one day I spotted a letter to Merriwell. I swiped it instanter, and it helped me out, for it was from his uncle."
"You're an artist in your line, Wat!" exclaimed Leslie, approvingly.
"That letter didn't give me all the information I desired," continued Snell, "but I found I had a friend living in a town adjoining the one Merriwell hails from, so I wrote and asked him to find out a few things for me. He rode over on his wheel, and found out what I have told you."
"Why, you are a regular detective, old man!"
"Merriwell's mother," continued Wat, "has been dead several years. No one seems to know much about his father, except that he was nearly always away from home, and he died suddenly in California a little more than a year ago. I haven't been able to find out that he left any property, so Merriwell is dependent on the generosity of a rather crabbed and crusty old uncle, whose head is filled with freaks and fancies. He seems to be just the kind of a man who would be easily turned against a nephew who had, as he would consider it, gone astray."
"That settles Merriwell! If we cannot get the old uncle down on him, we are pretty poor schemers."
They looked at each other and smiled again. A precious pair of youthful plotters they were!
"We must be slick about this business," warned Snell. "We mustn't let anybody but ourselves get the least wind of it."
"And we must do our prettiest to pull the wool over Merriwell's eyes, for you know he is rather discerning in some things, and he may be inclined to be wary. We must seem to think he is the finest fellow in the world."
"That will be pretty hard," said Leslie, with a wry face, "but I have been doing something in that line of late, and I will keep it up. That business doesn't come so easy for me as it does for you."
"You can do it, if you try. And I shall depend on you to skin him with the papers."
"That won't be hard, if he plays square."
"I don't think there is any doubt about that. He is one of the kind of fellows who doesn't know enough to play any other way."
"Then Frank Merriwell's name is mud—with a capital M."
SPREADING THE SNARE.
The plot was laid, the snare was set, but the game seemed wary. For some time Frank Merriwell remained away from those midnight gatherings in the room of the student who had committed suicide.
"Hang the luck!" exclaimed Gage. "Is he going to keep away right along?"
"He must not be allowed to do so," said Leslie. "He must be shamed into coming."
"That may not be easy."
"It should not be difficult with a fellow like Merriwell. He must give me a chance to get even."
"Hodge doesn't try to get Merriwell out again."
"No. He says he will not influence him to attend the gatherings."
"What's the matter with Hodge?"
"I don't know. He is ready enough to come himself."
It was true that Bart had positively refused to use his influence to induce Merriwell to attend again one of the secret parties. He had been greatly moved by Frank's revelation, and he had resolved not to lead Frank into the path that was so fascinating and so dangerous for him. He did not know that the evil was already done—the fever was burning in Merriwell's veins.
Frank had been waiting an opportunity to speak with Snell in private, and it came one day when he met the fellow on the grounds outside the academy.
"Hello, Snell," he saluted. "I have been looking for you."
"And I have been looking for you," said Wat, meaningly. "Why haven't you ever come round since that night? Aren't you going to give a fellow a show to get square?"
"I am not going to play cards any more!"
"What?" cried Wat, in apparent astonishment. "That beats anything I ever heard! You have beaten me out of a good roll, and now——"
"I have been looking for you that I might return every cent you lost that night, so you cannot consider me mean if I do not give you a chance to get even over the table. If you will tell me just how much you dropped, I'll make it good now."
An eager look came to Wat's face, but it quickly vanished, for he realized that he would defeat himself if he accepted the money.
"What do you take me for!" he cried, with apparent indignation. "I am not that kind of a fellow!"
"You need never fear that I will say anything about it, for I pledge you my word of honor to say nothing. All I want is to make sure you do not feel that I have any money that belongs to you."
"I don't care whether you say anything about it or not, Merriwell. That does not keep me from accepting the money. I tell you I am not that kind of a fellow. You won it, and you will keep it, unless you have nerve enough to give me an opportunity to win it back."
This did not suit Frank at all, for the money had lain like a load on his conscience. He had sworn not to gamble again, and he had broken his oath. But, what was worse, so long as he kept that money, he felt that he really ought to give Snell a chance to get square. There seemed but one way to get out of playing again, and that was to make Snell take back the money.
But it was useless for him to urge Wat; not a dollar would the fellow accept.
"You can't give me back anything," declared Snell. "You won that money by having the most nerve—at that time. But you can't repeat the trick, old man," he added, jovially. "Come around to-night, and see if you can."
Frank shook his head.
"No," he declared, "I shall not come."
"Oh, what's the use, Merriwell! We want you to come, and all the fellows are saying it is not like you to win a few dollars and then stay away. I have told them over and over that I do not believe you are staying away because you are afraid I will win the money back. You're not that kind of a fellow."
At that moment Snell seemed very sincere, and Frank said:
"Thank you. I am glad to know you do not believe such a thing possible of me. Still, I shall not come."
"Oh, yes you will!" laughed Wat. "It can't be that you're afraid of being caught. If anybody says so, I'll swear I know better. You have nerve enough not to care for that. Come around to-night. We'll look for you."
Snell hurried away, knowing full well that he had said things which must worry Merriwell, if they did not drive him into coming to the midnight card parties.
Wat was right. Frank was worried not a little, for he could not bear to fancy that some of the boys thought him mean in staying away. Hodge saw Merriwell was troubled, but the dark-haired boy remained silent.
In the meantime, finding Hodge would do nothing to bring Merriwell round. Gage and Snell tried their best to make friends with Hans Dunnerwust and Barney Mulloy, as these boys were particular friends of Merriwell's, and might be induced to use some influence over him.
Barney, however, was wary. He did not fancy either Gage or Snell, and he repulsed their advances.
To Hans, the temptation of a midnight supper on cakes and pies was too much to resist, and he was added to the circle that gathered in the room of the suicide.
Hans could play poker, and the game being made small enough to suit him, he came in and won about two dollars, which made him swell up like a toad, and declared:
"Uf you poys know some games vot I can play petter as dot boker, shust you name him, und I vill do you at dot. Oh, I vose a dandy on trucks, ain'd it? Shust keep your eye on me, und I vill learn some tricks vot you don'd know alretty yet."
Snell did his best to make Hans believe he was a great favorite, and then he told him how Frank had won the only time he had appeared in the game, and had never come around since.
"Some of the fellows seem to think he is afraid I will win the money back," said Wat; "but I don't take any stock in that, for Merriwell's not that kind of a fellow. Still, I don't like to have such ideas concerning him get into circulation."
"Dot vos vere I vos righdt," nodded Hans. "He don't peen dot kindt uf a feller ad all, you pet me my shirt! Dot Vrankie Merrivell vos a taisy, undt he don'd peen afrait a show to gif anypody. You vait till I tell him vot dose fellers say. I pet me your life he vill gome aroundt bretty kuveek righdt avay."
"Oh, don't say anything about it!" exclaimed Snell, as if he really wished Hans to keep silent. "Merriwell knows his business. His friends will stand up for him, no matter what others may say."
"Vell, I vos going to toldt him dot shust der same. Uf he don'd peen aroundt here der next dime, I don'd know der kindt uv a feller vot he vos peen yet avile."
"Well, don't mention that I said anything. He might fancy I thought him afraid to come round."
"I don'd call your name at all, don'd you let me vorry apout dot."
Snell knew the Dutch boy would lose little time in communicating with Frank, and he was right. Hans did not see that Frank was little like his usual jovial self, and he did not know in what a turbulent state of mind the unfortunate plebe was left.
Bart was not a little worried over Frank, for he saw how the lad had changed in a short time, but he hoped that Merriwell would come round in time, and be his old jolly self.
That evening, a short while before taps, Frank asked:
"I suppose it is another card party to-night?"
"Yes," replied Bart, "a few of us are going to get together."
"Will Snell be there?"
"I presume so."
No more was said. Bart rose and slipped out of the room at the usual time, thinking Frank was asleep.
But Frank was not asleep, and Hodge was scarcely gone when he, too, arose and began to arrange a dummy in his bed.
THE HAUNTED ROOM.
The little party of card players was expectantly awaiting the appearance of Bartley Hodge.
There was to be no feast this night—nothing but cigarettes and draw poker.
Hodge appeared at last, and he brought a disappointment to at least two of the party, for Frank Merriwell was not with him.
Leslie Gage and Wat Snell exchanged glances that were full of meaning.
Sam Winslow was on guard outside, it being his turn to fill that unenviable position.
"Hello, Hodge," saluted Harvey Dare. "Now we are ready to proceed to business."
"Dot vas righdt," nodded Hans Dunnerwust, who was on hand. "I vos goin' to smoke cigarreds to-nighd dill I vos sick, und haf a pully dime."
"Why doesn't Merriwell ever show up again?" asked Leslie Gage.
"That's it," joined in Wat Snell, "why doesn't he come round and give a fellow a show to win back some of that money he won off us? Is he afraid?"
"You know well enough that Frank Merriwell is not afraid," said Bart, quickly.
"Well, it looks that way," declared Leslie.
"Yes, it looks that way," echoed Wat.
"Possibly he has too much sense to spend his nights here," said Hodge. "If I had known that much, I wouldn't have gone back a class. Merriwell is in the first section, and he is making right along."
"Well, he is a different fellow than I thought he was," asserted Snell. "Until lately, he has seemed quite a fellow for sport, but he is degenerating into a drone."
"Such drones are the fellows who get along well in school and in the world."
"Bah! Give me a fellow with blood in him!" came contemptuously from Gage.
Leslie had grown desperate, having come to the conclusion that Frank was not to be cajoled into playing poker any more. He now determined, of a sudden, that he would take another tack, and see if he could not anger Merriwell into coming.
Hodge remembered that Gage had tried to injure Frank in the past, and the dark-eyed plebe was ready to blaze forth in an instant. Although he did not know it, Gage was treading on the very thin crust that covered a smoldering volcano.
Leslie was not warned by the fire that gleamed in Bart's eyes, for he continued:
"If Merriwell persists in staying away—if he does not show up and give Snell a chance to get square, he is——"
A knock at the door!
It was the regular signal for admittance, and so, after the first start of alarm, George Harris said:
"Open up quickly. It must be Sam, and, if so, there's something wrong in the wind."
Wat Snell opened the door, and, to their amazement, into the room stepped Frank Merriwell!
It was with difficulty that the boys suppressed a shout of welcome.
Snell quickly closed the door, and then the boys rushed at Frank and shook his hand delightedly.
"You're a sight for sore eyes!" exclaimed Wat Snell, joyously.
"Dot vos so!" agreed Hans. "You vould peen a sighd for a plind man!"
"I will take back anything I said, and swallow what I was going to say," came from Leslie Gage. "I didn't think it could be possible you wouldn't come round again, old man."
"Now, we will have a jolly little racket," said George Harris. "And you want to look out for Merriwell. He is a great bluffer."
"But he doesn't bluff all the time," supplemented Harvey Dare. "I found out that he held cards occasionally, for I called him a few the last time he was around."
Frank laughed; it was his old, jolly laugh, suppressed somewhat. He seemed like himself once more, as Bart Hodge instantly noted. He had cast off the strain under which he had been for so long, and now Frank Merriwell, mischievous and full of fun, was on deck again.
But this did not quite please Hodge, who watched his roommate closely, his uneasiness growing as he saw how care-free Merriwell seemed. What had brought about such a change? Had Frank thrown his resolutions to the wind?
"I've got a supply of coffin-nails," said Snell, as he produced several packages of cigarettes. "Help yourselves, gentlemen. Pass them round."
Round they went, and when they reached Frank Merriwell he accepted one.
"I am going to be real dissipated to-night," he laughed, as he struck a match and "fired up." "You may have to carry me to my room on a shutter, for I actually am going to smoke!"
Leslie Gage and Wat Snell exchanged glances of satisfaction.
A black look came to Bart Hodge's face, and he half started up as Frank took the cigarette, acting as if he would utter a warning. Then he settled back in his seat, thinking:
"Let him smoke, if he wants to. One cigarette will do nobody harm."
But Hodge knew in his heart that it was not the smoking of one or a dozen cigarettes that was dangerous to Merriwell; it was the breaking of his resolutions—it was the feeling of abandon and recklessness that had seemed to seize upon him.
Not much time was lost in beginning the game, but now Bart insisted on a proper limit.
"What do you say, Merriwell?" asked George Harris. "What kind of a limit suits you?"
"Anything from five cents to the sky," was the laughing reply. "Fix it to suit yourselves."
Once more Gage and Snell exchanged glances.
Bart stuck for a moderate limit, but he finally agreed to make it a dollar, the ante being five cents.
"Vell, uf I had pad luck, I don'd last long at dot," said Hans. "I don'd haf more as four tollars und sefen cends."
"Merriwell won at the start the last time he was here, and he kept the luck straight through to the finish," observed Harvey Dare. "It isn't often such a thing occurs."
A few minutes later, as Harris beat Frank, the latter said:
"This game starts differently from the other, fellows. I have lost at the beginning, and to keep up the precedent I have established, I must lose all through it."
He said this smilingly, as if he really wished to lose.
As the cards were being dealt, Bart, who sat by his roommate's side, leaned toward Frank, and softly asked:
"What made you come, old man?"
"Couldn't keep away," was the reply.
"Well, be careful—keep watch of yourself."
"Not to-night, Bart. I am going to let loose on this occasion."
Frank played recklessly from the start, and fortune fluctuated with him, for he would forge ahead and then drop behind, but he was never much ahead, nor far behind. For all of his careless playing, he seemed to hang about even.
Leslie Gage was too shrewd to try to get at Frank on this occasion, for he wanted Merriwell to win again, so they would get a still firmer hold upon him.
Wat Snell lost steadily, soon beginning to growl, and keeping it up. Once, under cover of conversation the others were making, he leaned toward Gage and muttered:
"Merriwell is my hoodoo. I can't do a thing with him in the game."
"Keep cool," warned Leslie. "Never mind what happens this time. We'll get at him again."
Hans Dunnerwust managed to blunder along and keep in the game by sheer luck, for he did not play the cards for their face value at any time. Still he made enough to keep on his feet and not have to get out of the game.
"Vell!" Hans finally exclaimed, as he tried in vain to win, "uf I don'd do petter as dot, I vill suicide go und gommit bretty soon alretty."
"By the way, Hans," said Frank, "do you know that the fellow who used to have this room committed suicide here?"
"Shimminy Gristmas!" gurgled the Dutch boy. "You don'd say dot!"
"Yes, I do, and the room is said to be haunted by his spook, which cannot rest in its grave."
"Vell, dot vos nice! Oxcuse me while I haf a chill!"
At this moment a hollow groan seemed to come from beneath the chair on which Hans sat, and the Dutch lad gave a jump, getting on his feet quickly, and peering under the chair, his face growing pale, as he chattered:
"Vot vos dot, ain'd id?"
Some of the other boys were not a little alarmed, for all had heard it distinctly.
"It—it actually sounded like a groan!" said Wat Snell.
"That's what it did," agreed George Harris.
"But you know it couldn't have been anything of the sort," laughed Frank, "for you fellows do not believe in ghosts."
"Who—who—who said anything about ghosts?" stammered Snell.
At this moment another groan, louder and more dismal than the first, seemed to come from directly beneath the table.
There was a scrambling among the boys, as they hastened to get their legs from beneath that table.
"I don'd feel very vell aroundt der bit uf mein stomach," gasped Hans. "I pelief I vos going to be sick alretty yet."
One of the boys held the light, while they all looked under the table, but they did not find anything there.
"Now, that is singular," commented Harvey Dare. "If that wasn't a groan, I never heard one in my life."
"And a real ghostly groan at that!" said Leslie Gage.
"I never did take any stock in this rot about ghosts, but——"
"Beware, young man, how you mock at the spirits of the departed!"
The voice seemed to come from one of the alcove bedrooms, and it was of the sort to make the hair stand on the head of a superstitious person.
"Oh, dunder und blitzen!" panted Hans. "Dot vos a shook! Uf I don't ged avay oud uf here righd off, I peen gone grazy! I don'd vant any shook in mine!"
"It is some fellow playing a joke on us," said Harvey Dare, angrily. "Some one has concealed himself in there. Bring the light, fellows, and we will soon find out."
He started for the alcove, but no one seemed anxious to take the light and follow him. After a moment, however, Frank did so.
All through both alcoves Harvey searched, and his face was rather pale when he and Frank returned to the table.
"What did you find?" asked Wat Snell, thickly.
"Not a thing but dust," replied Harvey. "There hasn't been a living soul in either of those bedrooms since the room was closed after the suicide."
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed the hollow voice. "You are right. They dare not come, but I am doomed to stay here till this building shall crumble and decay."
"Vell, you may sday till der cows come home!" gurgled Hans; "but I don'd peen caught in here any more bretty soon righd avay, you pet!" and he made a break for the door.
The others quickly extinguished the light, and followed him.
There would be no more gatherings in that room.
IN THE MESHES.
Frank Merriwell fancied he had hit upon a scheme to stop the card games from which he could not remain away. Being a skilled ventriloquist, he was the author of the dismal groans and the mysterious voice that had so alarmed the boys.
Bart was not in the secret, and so he wondered, when he heard Frank chuckling to himself, after they had safely reached their room and were getting into bed.
For several days the "gang" was disconsolate, having no place in which they could play a game of cards without fear of detection at any instant.
Frank Merriwell seemed restored to his usual jolly self. He laughed and joked, and did not seem worried over anything.
But the "gang" would not remain long without a place in which to play cards.
One day Frank received an invitation to "sit into a little game" that evening.
Snell tendered the invitation.
Merriwell's face clouded instantly.
"Why, there is no place to play, is there?"
"Sure!" was the reply. "You didn't suppose we'd be knocked out so easy, did you?
"Where do you play?"
"Come along with Hodge to-night, and he will show you. You have been there before."
But Frank did not come along.
Three nights he knew of Bart rising and stealing out of the room. Then there was an interval of two nights, during which Bart, plainly too much used up to stand the strain, or else out of money, remained in his bed.
When Hodge arose again, and prepared to go out, he heard a stir in Merriwell's alcove.
"Are you awake, Frank?" he asked, softly.
"Yes," was the reply, "and I am going with you."
Bart hesitated. He was tempted to undress and return to bed, but he had received his money from home that day and, having lost heavily the last time he played, he was anxious for "satisfaction."
"I'm not Merriwell's guardian," he thought. "I guess the fellow is able to take care of himself."
So he told Frank to dress fully for going out, and to take his shoes in his hand.
Together they crept from the room, slid along the corridor, watched a favorable moment to get past the sentinel, and finally found their way into a room where the "gang" was waiting.
There was much whispered satisfaction when Merriwell was known to be with Hodge.
Then the window was softly opened, and one by one the boys descended the fire-escape, which ran past that window. The last one out closed the window, having arranged it so it could be readily opened from the outside.
Behind the messhall they sat down on the ground and pulled on their shoes.
It was a cool, starry night,
"I rather fancy I know where we are bound," said Frank.
"Where?" asked Bart.
"To the old boathouse, down the cove."
"Sure. You are a good guesser, old man."
Then the thought came to Frank that it would be a good thing for Fardale Academy if that boathouse should burn to the ground. It was there plebes generally received their first hazing, and there most of the fights between the cadets took place.
To the boathouse they went, and this night luck ran against Frank, for he lost heavily.
"There," he said, as he and Bart were returning together, "I can stay away from the game now, and no one will have a right to accuse me of meanness, for I have dropped more than I made at both of the other games I have been in."
"That's right," assured Bart, "you may do as you like now, and I'll fight the fellow that dares open his trap about it."
But Frank had taken the false step that leads to others, and he was to find it no easy thing to keep away from the game that fascinated him so. For a little time he succeeded, but he was uneasy and in a bad way so long as he knew a game was going on. Night after night he heard Bart dress and slip out, and the longing to accompany him grew and grew till it was unbearable.
"What's the matter with Merriwell?" one of his classmates asked of another. "He was making right along at one time, and we all thought he would head the class, but now he is making an average of less than 2.5."
"Oh, he is flighty," replied the other. "Do you notice that he doesn't seem to be as jolly and full of fun as he was once."
"I believe he is in some kind of trouble," declared the first. "He doesn't ever get a max lately."
By way of explanation, let us state, a "max" was the highest mark obtainable, or 3; 2.9 or 2.8 was considered first class, 2.5 was really good, 2 was fair, and below that it fell off rapidly too, which meant utter failure.
Frank was, indeed, in trouble. He found it impossible to keep away from the poker parties, and so, one night after Bart had departed, being unable to sleep, he got up and followed his roommate again.
Gage and Snell were rejoiced, for they saw they had Merriwell fairly within the meshes. All that was needed now was to close the net carefully and draw it tighter and tighter about him, till there was no possible escape.
This trick was accomplished with consummate skill. Frank's luck seemed to have deserted him, but at first his losings were just heavy enough to provoke without alarming him. Sometimes he would win a little, and then he would fancy his luck had turned, but the tide soon set the other way.
Made angry by his petty losses, he followed the game with dogged persistency. And those petty losses soon began to grow larger and larger. His money melted away rapidly, and still fortune frowned on him.
In vain Hodge counseled his friend to drop the game and stay away. Such advice was now wasted on Frank, and it made him angry.
"It's too late!" he hotly declared. "I am going to see the thing through!"
And so the meshes of the snare closed around him.
In vain Gage and Snell tried to get hold of some IOU's with Frank Merriwell's name on them. Frank's money was exhausted, and he stopped playing suddenly. Gage offered to loan him money, but he had not forgotten the past, and not a cent of Gage's cash would he touch.
Then Snell tried it, but was no more successful.
This made them both angry.
"Confound the fellow!" said Gage, fiercely. "We've got him badly tangled; but he seems to have taken the alarm, and I'm afraid he will break away."
"We must not let him do so," said Snell. "If we lose our fish now, we'll never land him."
"What can be done?"
"That is for us to study out."
And so they set about plotting and trying to devise still other schemes to disgrace Frank, and drive him from the academy.
In the meantime, a feeling of revulsion had seized Frank Merriwell. Of a sudden he had perceived whither he was drifting. He realized what false steps he had already taken, and he was heartily ashamed of himself.
Among his treasures was a medal of honor presented to him by Congress for twice saving the life of Inza Burrage, a pretty girl who lived in Fardale, and whose brother, Walter, was a cadet at the academy. Once he had fought a mad dog with no weapon but a clasp-knife, and kept the creature from biting Inza, and once he had saved her from death beneath the wheels of the afternoon express, which flew through Fardale village without stopping.
Coming across this medal where he kept it choicely deposited, it suddenly brought to him an overwhelming feeling of self-abasement and shame.
What would Inza Burrage think of him if she knew of his weakness—knew that he was playing cards for money, and making associates of such fellows as Gage and Snell?
It was true that she did not know either Gage or Snell for what they really were at heart, but Frank did, and there really seemed no excuse for him.
He tried to excuse himself by saying he had been led into temptation through Hodge, but, in another instant he felt meaner than before.
"You ought to be ashamed, Merriwell!" he told himself. "You have all the influence in the world over Hodge, if you use your power skillfully, and, instead of trying to shoulder the blame on him, you should be disgusted with yourself for making no attempt to save him from such company and such practices!"
Then he thought of the money he had lost. How could he stop without making an effort to win it back? If he could have one good streak of luck and win enough to make himself square, he would stop.
This very desire to "get square with the game" has been the ruin of more than one promising youth.
So he told himself over and over that he would stop as soon as he "got square."
Saturday came round. Inza Burrage had sent him word through her brother that she would visit Belinda Snodd that afternoon, and he might see her there, if he cared to call.
Belinda Snodd was the daughter of John Snodd, a rather queer old fellow, who ran an odd sort of boarding-house for summer people who visited the Cove, on which Fardale Academy was situated. Snodd each year boarded a number of applicants for admission to the academy until they had prepared themselves for examination and been accepted or turned away. Frank had boarded there when he first came to Fardale, and so he knew the family well.
But how could he meet Inza that afternoon? He was in no mood to meet her. She had regarded him as a hero—as being very near perfection. If she knew the truth——
"I can't do it!" Frank muttered. "Not till I face about squarely can I see her again."
But, as the afternoon came round, he was seized by a great longing to catch a glimpse of her, at least. Mechanically he began dressing, as if he were going to call on her.
Hodge was reading a book. He flung it aside, with an impatient exclamation that was followed by a yawn.
"I'm tired of that old thing!" he cried. "I am tired of everything!"
"You need a rest, Bart," said Frank. "You are not getting enough sleep."
"I am getting as much as you. I say, Frank, don't you think living is a bore, anyway?"
"Not when a fellow lives right."
"Right? What do you mean by that? Isn't a chap to have any sport?"
"Yes; but there are two kinds of sport—so called. One is healthy, invigorating, delightful, like baseball and football, for instance. The other is fascinating, injurious, debasing, like poker."
Bart stared at Frank a moment, as if he were somewhat puzzled, and then said:
"I guess you are right, old man. I hadn't ever thought of it just that way before. I'd swear off and try to keep away from the game, if I wasn't in so deep."
"You have lost quite an amount lately."
"Yes, I have been knifed deep. Gage has astounding luck."
"Do you think it is all luck?"
Bart looked surprised.
"Why, to be sure. The fellow plays a square game."
"Why should he? You know, as well as I, that he is not square by nature."
"That's right; but his cards are cut every time, and he doesn't know enough to put 'em up."
"There are other ways of cheating besides putting the cards up."
"That's true, but I do not believe Gage is on that lay. He simply has beastly big luck."
"You do not think so?"
"I do not know. You will remember that Gage has no particular love for either of us, and we have both lost heavily."
"Do you mean to quit playing?"
Hodge looked doubtful, for he now understood how strong must be the temptation for Merriwell to follow the game.
Frank completed dressing, and left the academy. He turned his footsteps in the direction of Snodd's, but still he had no intention of going there. Keeping under the brow of the hill, he passed around to a large grove in the rear of Snodd's buildings.
It was early October now, and the air was bracing and exhilarating, for all the afternoon was mild. The trees were flaming with color, and the leaves had begun to sift down. In the grove squirrels romped and chattered.
It seemed good to Frank to get away alone under the shadow of the trees. New strength and new life came to him, and new resolves and determinations formed themselves unsought and unbidden in his mind. He felt that it was a privilege and a blessing to be alive.
Had he felt free to meet Inza then, he would have been quite happy.
He flung himself down beneath a great tree at the edge of the grove, where he could see Snodd's buildings. For a long time he lay there, thinking and dreaming.
Suddenly he started up. Three figures were leaving the buildings and coming toward the grove. He saw they were three girls, and he instantly recognized one of them as Inza. The others were Belinda Snodd and one of the village girls, with whom Frank was slightly acquainted, Mabel Blossom, generally known as May Blossom.
"They are coming here!" exclaimed Frank. "They must not see me!"
He arose hastily, and scurried away into the grove, and he did not stop till he had reached the shore. There he sat down amid some rocks, and remained a long time, as it seemed to him.
But he could not resist the temptation to steal back and see if the girls were still in the grove. He finally arose and did so.
As he passed through the grove and came out near the old picnic-ground, he suddenly halted and stepped behind a tree, for he had come upon two persons in earnest conversation.
They were Inza Burrage and Leslie Gage!
TRUSTING AND TRUE.
Instantly a surge of jealousy swept over Frank Merriwell. How did it come about that Gage had met Inza there? Was it by appointment?
Belinda Snodd and May Blossom were in plain view a short distance away, and Wat Snell was trying to make himself agreeable to them.
Without intending to eavesdrop, Frank paused there a moment, unconsciously listening. He heard Inza say:
"The others cannot hear you now, Mr. Gage, so you can tell me the important thing you have to reveal."
"I don't know as you will be pleased to hear it," said Gage, with an attempt at great apparent sincerity, "for it is about your friend, Frank Merriwell, and you will not like to hear anything unpleasant of him."
Inza drew herself up proudly.
"You cannot tell me anything of Mr. Merriwell that will make me think less of him," she declared, her dark eyes flashing.
That was enough to chain Frank to the spot; he could not have slipped away then had he desired to do so.
"Perhaps not," said Gage, with a significant smile, "but I think I can."
"How has Frank Merriwell ever injured you that you should be slandering him behind his back?"
For an instant this staggered Leslie, like a blow in the face, but he swiftly recovered.
"Oh, Merriwell has never injured me, and I haven't the least thing in the world against him," he said, smoothly; "but I do take an interest in you, and it makes me sorry to see you so absorbed in a fellow utterly unworthy of your friendship—utterly unworthy to be spoken to or even noticed by you."
Gage spoke rapidly, for he saw she was eager to interrupt him. Her face grew pale, and she stamped one small foot angrily on the ground, as she flung back:
"This is not the first time you have tried to injure him, and you should be ashamed! Why, he saved you from the Eagle's Ledge, after you had fallen over Black Bluff."
"Which was exactly what any fellow would have done for another under similar circumstances. That is not to his credit. I beg you to listen. It has taken me some time to make up my mind to tell you the truth—to warn you, and now I must. To begin with, Merriwell comes of an uncertain family, although, I believe, he has an uncle who has some money, and that uncle is paying the fellow's way through Fardale Academy."
"What do I care about his family, so long as I know him to be a noble fellow! You forget, sir, that he has twice saved my life!"
"No, I have not forgotten. I do not blame you for being grateful, but you must know the whole truth about him. Frank Merriwell is a gambler—he plays cards for money."
"I don't believe it!" were the words that came from Inza's lips, and sent a thrill of shame through the lad behind the tree.
"But it is true, and I can prove it. I will prove it, too! If I prove it to your satisfaction, Miss Burrage, will you cut the fellow, and have nothing to do with him in the future?"
Frank leaned forward, holding his breath, eager to hear the answer.
It came promptly and decisively:
Gage caught his breath.
"Do you mean to say you will still be friends with a regular gambler like Merriwell?" he asked.
"I do not believe Frank Merriwell is a gambler—you can never make me believe it!"
"But I will bring proof."
"Even then I will believe your proof is hatched up against him."
This made Gage lose his head.
"Why, you are awfully stuck on that cad!" he cried. "You are altogether too fine a girl for him!"
He suddenly caught her in his arms, and tried to embrace her. She struggled, and cried out for help.
Like a panther, Frank Merriwell bounded from behind the tree. He caught Gage by the collar, and tore Inza from his grasp. Then Frank's fist shot out, landing with a sharp spat right between Leslie's eyes. A second later Gage came in violent contact with the ground.
"Frank!" exclaimed Inza, as he supported her.
Wat Snell and the two girls with whom he had been talking had witnessed the entire affair. They now came hurrying toward the spot.
"The miserable cur!" cried Frank. "I will——"
"Don't touch him again!" urged Inza. "Oh, you struck him an awful blow!"
In truth Frank had given Gage a heavy blow, and it was some seconds before the fellow made a move. Snell helped him sit up. Leslie put his hand to his head, and stared in a dazed way at Frank.
"Are you hurt much, old man?" asked Wat, sympathizingly.
"I guess not," mumbled Gage. "What did he strike me with?"
"Why, it seemed like a rock!"
Wat helped him to his feet, and the two stood glaring at Frank, who regarded them with supreme scorn.
"Shall we sail in and do him up?" asked Wat, excitedly.
"Yes," said Leslie; "we will give him a good drubbing."
Instantly Frank placed Inza to one side, and boldly faced the two young rascals.
"I don't believe you both can whip me, the way I feel just now," he cried. "I think I can give you more fight than you want, so just sail right in."
They hesitated. There was something about Merriwell's look and bearing that seemed to warn them against attacking him. To Wat Snell it suddenly seemed quite probable that Frank would prove more than a match for both of them.
"There are ladies present," he said, hastily. "We cannot fight in the presence of ladies."
"Very thoughtful!" came scornfully from Frank's lips. "Possibly the ladies will step aside long enough for us to settle this little matter."
"Oh, don't fight with them, Frank!" pleaded Inza. "There are two of them, and——"
"That is not enough. I am good for two such sneaking scoundrels as they are! Don't worry about me."
"Hear the blowhard!" sneered Snell.
Frank seemed on the point of springing toward him, and Wat hastily dodged behind Leslie, saying:
"Give it to him, Les, if he wants to fight!"
This showed how much Gage could depend on Snell in a scrimmage, and the former instantly decided that it was not best to try to get revenge on Merriwell just then.
"There will be no fighting here," he said, loftily, "but I shall not forget Merriwell's blow, and he shall pay dearly for it. I will make him wish he had not been so free with his fist."
"As for you, Miss Spitfire," turning to Inza, "you must feel proud to have a friend in a fellow of his class! Do not forget what I told you about him and——"
"Silence, sir!" cried Inza, contemptuously. "You had better go away at once. I wouldn't believe such a contemptible creature as you under any circumstances!"
"All right, all right," growled Gage, scowling blackly. "You will find out in time that I told the truth. This is not the end of this matter. Come, Wat, let's go. If I stay any longer, I'll have to whip Merriwell before all of the present company."
So the delectable pair moved away together, and Gage's revengeful heart was made still more bitter by the ringing laugh of scorn Inza Burrage sent after them.
THE SNARE IS BROKEN.
When Frank parted from Inza that afternoon, he had made a free and full confession of his fault. She had listened with pained surprise, almost with incredulity, but she had not shown the scorn that Frank felt he fully deserved. However, she had exacted a pledge, which he had freely given, and, returning to the academy, he felt that he was himself once more. His step was elastic, his heart was light, and he whistled a lively strain.
That evening he had a long talk with Bart.
"Come, Bartley," urged Frank, "drop this card-playing, and give attention to your studies."
Bart was in a bad mood, as he had been much of the time lately, and he laughed harshly.
"You're a fine fellow to give that sort of advice when you cannot keep away from the game yourself!" he said.
"But I can keep away," came quietly and decidedly from Frank's lips.
"I will. I am not going to play any more. I have been a fool, and I am ashamed of it."
"That is easy enough to say, but—— Well, we will see what we will see."
"You doubt my ability to keep away from the game?"
"Haven't I reason to do so?"
"You surely have. But look here, Bart; you know as well as I the kind of fellows we are running with when we play cards with that gang. Neither you nor I care to call Gage and Snell our particular friends."
"And Harris is a kind of uncertain fellow—neither one thing nor another."
"Sam Winslow hasn't enough stamina to resist temptation of any sort."
"Harvey Dare is a pretty decent chap, but he doesn't care a rap what people think or say of him."
"Hans Dunnerwust has been inveigled into the game, and I am going to do my best to make him break away."
Bart drew a deep breath.
"Go ahead, Frank," he said, "and I hope you may succeed in your missionary work. You didn't name my failings, but I have them, or they have me, for I can't break away from them."
"You can if you will try. Make a desperate effort, Bart. Think how differently you are situated than I, who was born with a passion for gambling."
Bart rose impatiently.
"Drop it, old man," he growled. "I've lost too much to knock off now. I am going to play to-night."
"To-night? Why, it is Saturday night!"
"If you begin playing, you will not stop before Sunday comes in."
"You don't mean to say that you are going to play on Sunday?"
"The better the day, the better the deed," mocked Bart.
Frank said no more, but he formed a firm resolution. He would find a way to save his roommate and break up the card game. Gage and Snell were welcome to all they had won off him, but he would bring their career to an end.
How was he to do it?
Surely he could not report them, for that would place him beneath a ban among the cadets.
He studied over the problem.
That night, when Hodge arose to slip away, Frank got up also, and began to dress. Bartley heard him, and was surprised.
"Where are you going, Frank?" he whispered.
"With you," was the quiet reply.
"But I thought——"
Hodge stopped; he would not say what he thought. But he told himself that he had known all along that Frank could not keep away.
They got out of the academy, and made their way to the old boathouse, where the company was already assembled.
Gage and Snell were there, but neither of them spoke to Frank.
Bart sat into the game immediately, but, to the general surprise, Frank declined.
"I am short, and I don't feel like playing to-night," he said. "I've got a book I want to read, and it wasn't possible for me to have a light in quarters, so I came along."
He declined all offers of money, and sat down to read the book. He turned his back to the table, so the light fell on the pages from over his shoulder, and in a short time he seemed too much absorbed in the book to observe anything that was going on.
The game became very warm. It was without limit, and Hodge lost from the first. Both Gage and Snell were winning steadily.
Still Merriwell seemed to read on calmly. But he was not reading a great deal. In the palm of one hand he had a small mirror concealed. By the aid of this mirror, he was watching the movements of Gage and Snell.
And he was making some very interesting discoveries!
At length there came a large pot. Hodge and Gage stayed in and raised till every one else fell out. Hodge took one card; Gage, who was dealing, took two.
Then there was betting such as had never before been known in that old boathouse.
Hodge's face was pale, and he refused to call, for he believed his time to get square had come. He put in his "paper" for more than fifty dollars, after his money was exhausted.
Finally the game came to an end, and Gage proclaimed himself the winner.
He started to take the money lying on the table. Like a leaping tiger, Frank Merriwell came out of his chair, whirled, thrust Leslie's hands aside, and pushed the money toward Bart.
"Not this evening, Mr. Gage!" he said. "I am onto your little game, and it won't work any more with this crowd!"
The boys sprang to their feet.
"What do you mean?" asked Gage, hoarsely, his face very pale.
"I mean that you are a sneak and a cheat!" said Frank, deliberately. "I mean that you are too mean and contemptible for any honest fellow in this academy to ever have anything to do with! I mean that you have deliberately robbed your companions by means of crooked appliances made for dishonest gamblers! That is exactly what I mean, Mr. Gage."
Leslie gasped, and managed to say:
"Be careful! You will have to prove every word, or——"
"I will prove it! I have been watching you, and I have seen you repeatedly make the pass that restores cut cards to their original position. I have seen you hold back at least three of the top cards in dealing, and give them to Snell or take them yourself. Those cards will be found to be skillfully marked, and that pack is short. Boys, count those cards!"