JACK WINTERS' GRIDIRON CHUMS
BY MARK OVERTON
I. GRUELLING FOOTBALL PRACTICE
II. THE BOY WHO WAS IN TROUBLE
III. BIG BOB CONFESSES
IV. A FRIEND IN NEED
V. A MESSAGE FROM MARSHALL
VI. JACK AND JOEL INVESTIGATE
VII. STRANGE FRUIT FOR A TREE TO BEAR
VIII. A CALL FOR HELP
IX. HEADED FOR THE FIELD OF BATTLE
X. WHEN THE GREAT GAME OPENED
XI. THE STRUGGLE ON THE GRIDIRON
XII. GLORY ENOUGH FOR ALL
XIII. WHEN BED FIRE BURNED IN CHESTER
XIV. WHAT FOLLOWED THE CELEBRATION
XV. IN THE BURNING HOUSE
XVI. JACK SPEAKS FOR LITTLE CARL
XVII. THE AFTERMATH OF A GOOD DEED
XVIII. BIG BOB BRINGS NEWS
XIX. LOCKING HORNS WITH HARMONY
XX. THE GREAT VICTORY—CONCLUSION
JACK WINTERS' GRIDIRON CHUMS
GRUELLING FOOTBALL PRACTICE
A shrill whistle sounded over the field where almost two dozen sturdily built boys in their middle 'teens, clad in an astonishing array of old and new football togs, had been struggling furiously.
Instantly the commotion ceased as if by magic at this intimation from the coach, who also acted in practice as referee and umpire combined, that the ball was to be considered "dead."
Some of those who helped to make the pack seemed a bit slow about relieving the one underneath of their weight, for a half-muffled voice oozed out of the disintegrating mass:
"Get off my back, some of you fellows, won't you? What d'ye take me for—a land tortoise?"
Laughing and joking, the remaining ingredients of the pyramid continued to divorce themselves from the heap that at one time had appeared to consist principally of innumerable arms and legs.
Last of all a long-legged boy with a lean, but good-natured face, now streaked with perspiration and dirt, struggled to his feet, and began to feel his lower extremities sympathetically, as though the terrific strain had centered mostly upon that particular part of his anatomy.
But under his arm he still held pugnaciously to the pigskin oval ball. The coach, a rather heavy-set man who limped a little, now came hurrying up. Joe Hooker had once upon a time been quite a noted college athlete until an accident put him "out of the running," as he always explained it.
He worked in one of Chester's big mills, and when a revolution in outdoor sports swept over the hitherto sleepy manufacturing town, Joe Hooker gladly consented to assume the congenial task of acting as coach to the youngsters, being versed in all the intricacies of gilt- edged baseball and football.
It had been very much owing to his excellent work as a severe drill- master that Chester, during the season recently passed, had been able actually to win the deciding game of baseball of the three played against the hitherto invincible Harmony nine.
Mr. Charles Taft, principal owner of the mill in question, was in full sympathy with this newly aroused ambition on the part of the Chester boys to excel in athletic sports. He himself had been a devoted adherent of all such games while in college, and the fascination had never entirely died out of his heart. So he saw to it that Joe Hooker had considerable latitude in the way of afternoons off, in order that the town boys might profit by his advice and coaching.
"A clever run, that, Joel," he now told the bedraggled boy who had just been downed, after dragging two of his most determined opponents several yards. "The ball still belongs to your side. Another yard, my lad, and you would have made a clean touchdown. A few weeks of hard practice like this and you boys, unless I miss my guess, ought to be able to put old Chester on the gridiron map where she belongs. Now let's go back to the tackle job again, and the dummy. Some of you, I'm sorry to say, try to hurl yourselves through the air like a catapult, when the rules of the game say plainly that a tackle is only fair and square so long as one foot remains in contact with the ground."
So Joe Hooker had been laying down the law to his charges every decent afternoon, when school was out, for going on two weeks now. He seemed to feel very much encouraged over the progress made by a number of the boys.
Already he had weeded out three aspirants for honors on the eleven, who had shown no genuine aptitude for the exciting game where headwork and footwork combined go to bring success.
Others feared the coach had his eagle eye fastened on them, being doubtless conscious-stricken with the knowledge that they were not in their element. Indeed, it was no unusual thing to hear one of these boys say to his mates that he hardly knew whether he cared to try for the squad after all; which admission would serve to let him down gracefully in case his suspicions were later on confirmed.
But there were others who developed wonderfully under the friendly instruction of the one-time star player. Among them, besides the tall chap, Joel Jackman, might be mentioned a number of boys whose acquaintance the reader of other volumes in this series has already formed.
There was Jack Winters, looked upon as a leader in all sports, and late captain of the baseball nine; it seemed to be already taken for granted that he was bound to be given some position on the gridiron, for Jack seemed to have a wonderful faculty for getting the best out of those who played in strenuous games with him.
Jack Winters was really something of a newcomer in Chester, but he had hardly landed in the old town than something seemed to awaken; for Jack made up his mind it was a shame that, with so much good material floating around loose, Chester could not emulate the example of the neighboring towns of Harmony and Marshall, and do something. There were those who said Jack's coming was to Chester like the cake of yeast set in a pan of dough, for things soon began to happen.
Then there was Toby Hopkins, one of Jack's particular chums, a lively fellow, and a general favorite. Another who bore himself well, and often elicited a word of praise from the coach, was sturdy Steve Mullane, also a chum of the Winters boy. Besides these, favorable mention might also be made of Big Bob Jeffries, who surely would be chosen to play fullback on account of his tremendous staying qualities; Fred Badger, the lively third baseman who had helped so much to win that deciding game from Harmony before a tremendous crowd of people over in the rival town; and several other boys who may be recognized as old acquaintances when the time comes to describe their doings on the gridiron.
It was now well into October.
Already the leaves had begun to turn scarlet and gold on some of the hedges, and even in the forest, where the boys were beginning to go for the early nuts. Early in the mornings there was a decided tang to the air that hinted at frost. Considerable talk was being indulged in whenever a group of boys came together, concerning the prospects for a regular old-fashioned winter, and many hopes along this line were indulged in.
There was a good reason for this, Chester being most favorably situated to afford her young people a chance to enjoy ice sports when the bitter weather came along. Right at her door lay beautiful Lake Constance, several miles across; and the intake at the upper end near the abandoned logging camp was the crooked and picturesque Paradise River, where wonderful vistas opened up with each hundred yards, did any one care to skate up its course for miles.
And with this newly aroused spirit for outdoor sports in the air, also a splendid gymnasium in the course of building where the boys of Chester could enjoy themselves stormy days, and many nights, during the winter, it can be easily understood that a glorious prospect loomed up before them. Why, over in Harmony they were getting decidedly envious of the good luck that had befallen Chester; and all reports agreed that their football squad was working fiercely overtime with the idea of overwhelming utterly all rivals on the gridiron, once the Fall sports opened.
By slow degrees, as he saw best, Joe Hooker was leading his charges along the rugged path; for there is no loyal road to a knowledge of the intricacies of successful football. Constant practice alone will make a player act through intuition, since the plays are so lightning- like that there is never any time to figure out what is to be done; all that must be considered beforehand, and the player be able to decide what the most probable scheme of his opponents is likely to be.
After they had again gone through a series of tackles, using the dangling dummy for the practice, and being shown by old Joe in a spectacular fashion just what was the proper and lawful method of interfering with the man who was supposed to be running with the ball, play was called off for the day.
It was about time, for some of the fellows were panting for breath, owing to the vigorous way in which they had been working. Besides, most of them would need a bath before they could be allowed to sit down at the family table.
"I've been asked by several persons deeply interested in football," Joe Hooker remarked, as they gathered around him for a parting word, some looking anxious, as though they half expected to receive their dismissal then and there, though it was not Joe's way to "rub" it into any one, "what chance we had to meet Harmony with a team that would be a credit to Chester. To all such I give the same answer. There is no reason to despair. We have plenty of promising material, though it will need constant whipping to get it in shape between now and the first game with Marshall. That will be a test. If we down those fighters we can hope to meet Harmony on something like even terms. Tomorrow I shall have to drop out several boys who, I'm sorry to say, do not show the proper qualifications for the rough game; but I want them to understand that we appreciate their offering their services, and we need their backing all the time. Our motto must be 'Everything for Chester!' Now get away with you, and if the day is half-way decent, meet me here tomorrow, prepared to strive harder than ever to hustle for victory."
And with that the boys commenced to start homeward.
THE BOY WHO WAS IN TROUBLE
As usually happened, the three inseparables, Jack, Toby and Steve, kept company on the way home. They had much in common, and only that summer the trio had spent a glorious two weeks camping up in the woods of the Pontico Hills country. There were a number of remarkable things connected with that outing, and if the reader has not enjoyed already its perusal, he would do well to secure the preceding volume of this series, and learn just what astonishing feat Jack and his chums carried to success.[Footnote: "Jack Winters' Campmates."]
"I wish both of you could drop over after supper," Toby Hopkins was saying as they trudged along with the air of tired though contented boys. "I've got those plans for our new iceboat nearly finished, with several novel suggestions which I'd like to ask your opinion about before I order the wood to make it in my shop."
"I guess I can run across lots, and spend half an hour with you, Toby," Jack announced; "though I couldn't promise to stay late, because I ought to be doing some of my lessons, you know. This football work afternoons throws everything out of gear."
"Sorry to say I'll have to beg off this time," said Steve. "Fact is, I've got a date, and couldn't break away very easily. Another time will have to do, Toby. And of course whatever you and Jack decide on goes with me, you understand."
In fact it was almost always that way, such unlimited confidence had both Toby and Steve come to place in Jack Winters. But then he merited all their high esteem, for rarely did things go wrong when Jack's hand was at the helm; he seemed to be one of those fellows whose judgment is right nine times out of ten. Looking back, the Chester lads could begin to understand what a great day it had been for them when Jack came to town, full of ideas which he had imbibed in the lively city where his folks had formerly lived.
"I'm more than ever convinced," Toby went on to say, reflectively, "that we'll be able to put a flier on the ice this coming winter that will have everything beaten a mile. It works out all right in theory anyway."
"The proof of the pudding is in the eating," chuckled Steve, who apparently was not built along quite as sanguine lines as Toby. "But then it'll be a heap of fun to try something new. All the iceboats I've ever seen around here have always been built after the same old model. Nobody ever seemed to think they could be improved on the least bit; and that it was only a matter of the pilot jockeying in order to blanket his rival and win out."
"Joe Hooker seems to be taking considerable stock in what we're doing to build up a machine for gridiron work," mentioned Jack, with a ring of satisfaction in his voice. "I certainly hope we can make things hum around here this Fall. Chester's hour has struck, it seems; and after our baseball victories we ought to be just in time to carry our colors to a sweeping triumph over Harmony and Marshall."
"Some of the boys are showing up splendidly," Steve continued. "I'm a whole lot disappointed, though, in my work today, but I expect to improve, and hope to make the team when the final choice is reached."
"Huh! I guess there isn't much chance of you being dropped, Steve," snorted Toby. "I only wish I was as sure of being retained on the honor roll. That run of mine today was as punk a thing as any greenhorn could have attempted. I saw Joe look at me as if he'd like to eat me, and I felt so small I could have crawled into any old rat- hole. But I mean to surprise him yet, see if I don't. I've got the faith to believe I can play quarterback, and I will, I tell you; I'm thinking of it most of the night while I lie awake."
"That kind of grit will take you a long ways, Toby, believe me, "said Jack encouragingly. "All of us fall far short of perfection; but Joe is persistent and I've no doubt he already knows just who the members of the team will be, barring accidents, also the substitutes in the bargain."
"We were mighty lucky to have such a dandy coach right at hand," declared Steve; "and Mr. Taft is the best sort of a man to lend him to us so much, at a loss to himself. He contributed heavily to the fund for building the gym, too, I understand."
"Yes," added Jack, "a town that has a few public-spirited citizens of his type is to be congratulated. But here's where I leave you, and hike across lots to my shack, where a nice bath awaits me. See you later, Toby; and sorry you can't join us, Steve."
"Oh! bother," chuckled Toby, maliciously; "he's got something a whole lot better to attend to than just jabbering with his two chums over the lines of a projected iceboat wonder."
Good-natured Steve only laughed in return, though had the gloaming not been settled down so early, the other fellows might have seen his cheeks flaming; for Steve was an exceedingly modest chap, and easily flustered.
Jack Winters reached home, and had his bath in time to come to the table when the supper bell rang. And it goes without saying that his appetite showed no sign of flagging on that occasion, for football work is calculated to put a keen edge on a boy's natural desire for food.
Later on he again set forth, after a hack at his lessons, and turned to make his way across lots along a well-worn path, in this fashion cutting off several corners, and shortening the distance, which is apparently a thing desired by every American lad.
It was about eight when he arrived at the Hopkins domicile, and was let in by Toby himself. The other seemed wildly excited, for the first thing he did was to burst forth with:
"Jack, I've gone and done it, I do believe, this time! Yes, sir, I've struck an idea that promises fairly to revolutionize iceboats. It came to me like a flash, and I'm wild to know what you think about it."
Jack did not enthuse as much as Toby would have liked to see. Truth to tell, Jack had known several of these wonderful "theories" which Toby had conjured up, to fail in coming up to expectation when put to the test; so he did not allow himself to anticipate too much.
Nevertheless when the idea was gone over he admitted that there might really be something in it.
"Perhaps you have struck something worth while at last, Toby," he told the other, "and we can work it out by degrees when we get down to actual business. Evidently, you've got an inventive mind, and you needn't despair if a whole lot of your ideas do go by the board. Every inventor has conceived a score of schemes to one he's adopted. Even a failure may be the stepping-stones to success, you know." "That's good of you to say as much, Jack, old chap, when I do think up some of the greatest fool notions ever heard of," acknowledged Toby; "but it's my plan to keep right on, and encourage my brain to work along that groove. I feel it's going to be my forte in life to invent things. I'd rather be known as the man who had lightened the burdens of mankind than to be a famous general who had conquered the world."
Jack did not stay longer than half an hour, but during that time he went over the whole scheme of building the new iceboat in Toby's shop.
"I've got all the specifications down in black and white, you see, Jack," the other said at the door, "as to what we'll need; and now that you've approved, I shall start right in and order the stuff tomorrow. The sooner we get started the better; though I don't suppose we'll really have much spare time to work at it until after Thanksgiving, and the big game with Harmony is over."
So Jack said goodnight and went out of the front door. Usually he was wont to whistle as he crossed the lots that would serve as a short cut to his own house; but somehow tonight he was busily engaged with his thoughts, and forgot to indulge in this favorite pastime.
It was a moonless night.
The stars shone brightly in the blue dome above, but gave very little light; although it was not really dark anywhere inside the confines of Chester, since the streets were pretty generally illuminated with electricity.
Jack had just started across lots when he made a discovery that aroused his curiosity a little. There was a queer sort of light flickering beyond him. He quickly realized that some person must be walking the same way as he was, and carrying one of those useful little hand-electric torches, which he seemed to be moving this way and that in an erratic fashion.
"Whoever it is," Jack told himself presently, "I do believe he is looking in the grass for something he's lost."
Walking on and a bit faster than the unknown seemed to be going, he soon drew closer, and was able to see that it was a boy who bent over and scrutinized everything upon which the light of his flashlight fell. Once he uttered an exclamation of sudden delight and made a jump forward, only to stop short, and give a doleful grant as though discovering his mistake.
"Oh! how cruel to fool me so," Jack heard him mutter to himself; "only a scrap of waste paper, and I thought I'd found it. Twice now I've gone over the whole lot, and never a trace have I seen. Oh! what shall I do about it? I wish I knew."
Jack by now had recognized the boy as Big Bob Jeffries, the heavy- hitting outfielder of the Chester baseball team, and who was admitted as standing a first-rate chance to be made the sturdy fullback of the new eleven in football.
He was filled with curiosity to know what ailed Big Bob. Something he must have certainly lost which he was now endeavoring to find again, and, if his lament was to be taken at its face value, without much success.
Jack was always ready to lend a helping hand to a comrade in distress. He had proved this on numerous former occasions, so that his first thought was to speak to Big Bob, and ask what was wrong.
At the sound of his voice the other started as though shot, and Jack could see that his face, usually florid and cheery, looked white and drawn. Undoubtedly, then, the Jeffries boy was suffering acutely on account of some carelessness on his own part. Jack suspected that he might have lost some money which he had been carrying home for his mother. As the path was used by a number of persons to "cut corners," it would be next door to a miracle if the lost cash were found again, unless the one who had picked it up proved to be an honest citizen.
"Oh! is that you, Jack?" said Bob, in a trembling tone, as he turned his flashlight so that its rays fell full upon the other boy. "You certainly did give me an awful jolt, because I didn't dream anybody was so near by. On your way home, I reckon? Well, I suppose I might as well give it up, and go home, too; but I hate to the worst kind, I sure do."
"What's the matter—lost something, Bob?" asked Jack, joining the other.
Bob Jeffries did not answer for a brief time. He was apparently pondering over the matter, and trying to decide in his mind just how far he ought to take Jack into his confidence. Then, as though some sudden impulse urged him to make a clean breast of the facts, he broke out with:
"Jack, to tell you the honest truth, I'm in just a peck of trouble for a fact. You asked me if I lost anything, and you'll think me a bit daffy when I tell you I don't know—I only fear the worst. I'm going to tell you all about it, Jack, because I feel sure you'll never give me away; and maybe yon might even help me."
BIG BOB CONFESSES
"Look here, Bob, suppose we adjourn over to my house and have our little talk out in my den. I've got some comfortable chairs there, as you happen to know; and it'll be a heap better than standing here, where people may come along any old time and interrupt us."
That last line of argument seemed to convince Bob, for he immediately agreed.
"The fact is, Jack," he went on to say, "I wouldn't want to have anybody hear what I'm going to tell you now. It certainly is a shame how I've muddled this thing up, and I guess I deserve all I'm getting in the shape of worry. It's going to be a lesson to me, I give you my word on that, Jack."
They were trudging along in company when Big Bob said that. Of course such talk could only excite Jack's natural curiosity still more. He began to understand that whatever the other had been searching for was not his own property, for he was hardly the kind of fellow, inclined to be careless, and free from anxiety, to let such a personal loss bother him greatly.
Presently the pair found themselves in Jack's particular room, which he, like most boys of the present day, liked to call his "den." It was an odd-shaped room for which there had really been no especial use, and which the boy had fitted up with a stove, chairs, table and bookcases, also covering the walls with college pennants, and all manner of things connected with boys' sports.
Jack closed the door carefully.
"Pick your chair, Bob, and I'll draw up close to you," he said, briskly, as though bent on raising the other's drooping spirits without any delay, just by virtue of his own cheery manner.
Bob looked as though he had lost his last friend. He sighed and then started to tell just what ailed him.
"Seems like I've grown three years older since I suddenly failed to remember about that particular letter father gave me to be sure to post before the afternoon mail went out. I had some others, you see, two of my own, and three that Mom gave me. I can recollect shoving them in the shute one by one; but for the life of me, Jack, I can't say positively that the one going across to England was with the bunch. Oh! it gave me a cold chill when I first had that awful thought I'd lost it on the way. I remembered pulling something out of my pocket when crossing that shortcut path, and that's why I hurried there with my light, hoping to discover it in the grass."
Jack understood what lay back of this. He chanced to know Bob's father was reckoned a very stern man, and that he had grown weary of Bob's customary way of forgetting things, or doing them in a slipshod fashion. He even knew that Mr. Jeffries had laid down the law to his son, and promised to punish him severely the next time he showed such carelessness.
"It's too bad, Bob, of course it is, but then don't despair yet," Jack told the other boy. "There is always a good chance that you did put that particular letter in the post-office. We'll try to find out if Mr. Dickerson, the postmaster, or his assistant, chanced to notice a letter addressed to England. It must have been of considerable importance, I take it from what you've said already."
"It was just that, Jack; and father impressed its importance on me when he handed it to me stamped, and ready to go. I think it means something big in a business deal of his. Now, in these times when war has gripped nearly the whole world, Uncle Sam with the rest, it's a long wait before you can expect an answer to a letter going abroad, even if the German submarines allow it to reach there. And if I don't find out the truth now, just think of the days and weeks I'll be worrying my head off about that letter! Oh! it makes me just sick to even think of it. I could kick myself with right good pleasure."
Jack realized that this was bound to be the long-needed lesson, by means of which careless Bob would cut loose from his pernicious habit of taking everything free—and—easy. Good might spring from evil, and what now seemed to be a crowing disaster, the boy was likely in later days to look upon as a blessing in disguise.
"If you'd like, Bob," he told his friend, to ease the strain, "I'll see the postmaster in the morning, and without arousing his suspicions find out if he noticed a letter directed to England in the mail yesterday. There are not so many foreign letters going out of Chester these days but what such a thing might happen to catch his eye. If he says there was, of course that'll settle the matter. Even if he didn't happen to notice any such, you mustn't believe it is absolutely certain you dropped it."
"I'd give anything to just know, one way or another. Then I could, if the worst turned out to be true, tell my father, and stand the consequences, for he'd be able to rewrite the letter, you see. But, Jack, it would hit me terribly hard if he has to know what a fool I've been; because he told me if he caught me in any bit of carelessness again this Fall he'd force me to give up all my connection with the football squad, and not even allow me to attend the gym this Winter. Oh! he's in dead earnest this time, and I'm afraid my goose is cooked. It'd almost break my heart to be shut off from connection with my mates in athletic sports, because I'm crazy about such things, you know; it's in the blood, I guess."
Big Bob stretched out his massive arms when saying this, as though to call the attention of his companion to his splendid physique. Indeed, he did look like a boy whom a generous Nature intended to take part in every conceivable manner of athletic sports; no fellow in all Chester was built in quite such a massive mould as Big Bob Jeffries.
"I tell you what let's do," said Jack, immediately afterwards; "I'll get my lantern, and we'll walk back over that path. Possibly the wind may have carried the letter further away than where you looked. How about that, Bob?"
"It's mighty kind of you to take so much trouble for such a stupid comrade, Jack, and let me tell you I appreciate it a heap. Yes, and I'll also get out before dawn in the morning to scour every yard of ground on the way from my house to the post-office. If I could only find that letter I'd be the happiest fellow in Chester, believe me."
So they once more donned their caps, and Jack lighted the lantern he had mentioned. While its rays might not be as strong as the glow of the hand-torch, it was able to cover much more ground at a time; and with its help a white envelope half hidden in the long grass could not escape detection.
Jack could easily understand just what had happened to Big Bob. He had become so "rattled" when that dreadful suspicion first flashed into his brain after supper that for the life of him he found it impossible to say positively one thing or the other. Now he thought he could remember distinctly pushing the important letter through the slot or drop inside the post-office; and immediately afterwards doubts again assailed him, leaving him worse off. after each experience.
If they failed to find the letter, and the postmaster and his assistant had no recollection of having noticed it in cancelling the stamps of the heap that went out with the afternoon mail, then there was no help for it; and poor Bob was doomed to wait day after day, as even weeks went on, always dreading lest each morning was destined to usher in the time when his great crime must come to light, and his punishment begin.
They were soon on the spot, and each with his separate light started to carefully examine the long and tangled grass, now partly dead, that lay on either side of the well-worn path across the lots.
Doubtless Bob's heart still beat high with hope and anticipation; for when Jack on one occasion started to say something he saw the other whirl around as though thrilled with expectations that were immediately doomed to disappointment.
Nothing rewarded their search. Bob might further satisfy himself, and believe he was only doing his duty, by coming out again at peep of dawn and once more covering the ground before giving it up as hopeless; but Jack felt certain nothing would be found. If that letter had dropped from the boy's pocket, then some one must have long since picked it up. He believed he would hear of it if this person, being honest, delivered the letter at the post-office, and told how he had come to find it on the vacant lot.
"Well, it's no use looking any further, I guess, Jack," Big Bob now remarked, in a decidedly dejected tone, after they had gone twice over the entire width of the three lots, and without any success attending their efforts.
"I'm afraid not, Bob," the other admitted with genuine regret, because he felt just as sorry as could be for the poor chap. "I suppose you'll sleep mighty little tonight, for worrying over this thing. Try your level best to follow out all you did when in the post-office. Some little thing may recall to your mind that you certainly did drop that particular letter in the slot."
"I will, Jack, surely I will," Bob told him, vigorously; "but I'm afraid it won't do much good. You see, I've become so mixed up by now, thinking one thing and then another, that no matter what did happen I couldn't honestly say I remembered it. But I still have a little hope you'll hear good news from Mr. Dickerson; or that in the morning it may be handed in at our house, for my dad put his full address on the back flap, I remember that very distinctly. Yes, I'd be willing to stand my gruelling and not whimper if only it turned up."
He walked away looking quite down-hearted, Jack saw. Really he felt very sorry for Big Bob Jeffries. The latter was well liked, having a genial disposition, like nearly all big boys do, the smaller runts being the scrappy ones as a rule, as every one knows who has observed the lads in their play hours, and made any sort of a study of their characteristics.
On another occasion Jack well remembered he had come very nearly losing one of the best players on the baseball nine, when the pitcher, Alec Donohue, appeared exceedingly gloomy, and confessed to Jack that as his father was unable to obtain work in the Chester mills and shops, and had been offered a position over in Harmony, he feared that he would thus become ineligible to pitch for Chester.
But Jack, as so often happened when trouble beset him, took the bull by the horns. He went and saw a gentleman who could give Mr. Donohue employment, and enlisted his sympathy. It had all ended right, by a place being found for the man who was out of work; and so Alec pitched the great game whereby Harmony's famous team went down to a crushing defeat.
Jack could not but take note of the similar conditions by which Chester was to be threatened with the loss of one of the strongest members of her team.
"Looks as though history liked to repeat itself," Jack mused, as he walked back home after parting company with Big Bob; "only in this case it's the football eleven that's liable to be weakened if Bob's father takes him out; and we never could scare up a fullback equal to him if we raked old Chester with a fine-tooth comb. So I certainly hope it'll all come out right yet, I surely do!"
A FRIEND IN NEED
It lacked only five minutes or so of the school hour on the following morning when Jack Winters, hurrying along, was intercepted by a disturbed looking boy, who had been impatiently awaiting his arrival.
Of course this was none other than Big Bob Jeffries, who had kept aloof from all his customary associates ever since arriving, and had never once taken his eyes off the street along which he knew Jack must come.
He seized hold of the other eagerly. Jack needed no second look to convince him that poor Bob had passed a wretched night. His eyes were red, and there was an expression of mute misery on his usually merry face, that doubtless had induced more than one fellow to ask if he felt ill. No doubt Bob had a stereotyped answer to this sympathetic question, which was to the effect that he was "not feeling himself."
"Oh! I thought you'd never come along, Jack!" he exclaimed, in a voice that quivered with eagerness and anxiety; "though of course I understood that you must be waiting for Mr. Dickerson to be free to talk with you. Tell me what you did, please, Jack?"
"I'm sorry to say I couldn't learn much at the post-office," the other hastened to say, determined not to keep Bob in suspense any longer than could be helped.
"But you did ask about the foreign letters, didn't you, Jack?"
"Yes, I worked that part of it pretty well, and managed to get into a talk about the great difficulty which most foreigners here in this country found in communicating with their old folks abroad. Mr. Dickerson said there was a time when every day he had quite a batch of letters going out to different countries; because you know there are many foreign workers in our mills here, and they were constantly sending money home to their poor folks. But as the war went on, he said, they began to write less and less, because they feared the letters were being held up by the British, or the vessels being sunk with all the mail aboard by the German subs. So he said it was a rare event nowadays for him to cancel the stamps on a foreign letter, though he had one yesterday, he remembered."
"Yesterday, Jack? Oh! what do you mean?"
"But it was to Italy the letter was going," Jack hastened to explain. "Mr. Dickerson said he took particular pains to notice it, because the stamp was put on the wrong end of the envelope. He remembered that Luigi, the bootblack at the railroad station, always insisted on doing this. He also read the address, which was to Luigi's parents in Genoa."
Big Bob's face darkened again.
"Too bad!" he muttered, disconsolately; "why couldn't that letter he chanced to notice have been my lost one? Hard luck, I must say, all around."
"Then you didn't meet with anything this morning, I take it, Bob?" continued Jack, hardly knowing what to say in order to raise the drooping spirits of his friend.
Big Bob shook his head in the negative.
"Not a thing, Jack," he went on to admit, "though I was really out, and walking up and down that path at peep of day. I couldn't tell you how many times I went over the ground without finding anything. Why, I even remembered which way the breeze was blowing yesterday, and spent most of my time on that particular side of the path. Think of that, will you, Jack; and yet for the life of me I can't positively recollect whether I did drop that letter into the slot along with the rest. I must be getting looney, that's what."
"Well, you've just got to brace up, Bob, and believe it's all right," Jack told him, slapping the other heartily on the shoulder, boy fashion. "As time goes on you'll sort of get used to it; and then some fine day your father will speak of having heard from his correspondent abroad."
"Thank you for trying to bolster up my nerve, Jack It's mighty nice of you in the bargain. I'll need your counsel more than a few times from now on, and I'm right glad I can have some one to go to when I feel so sick with the suspense, All the while I'm waiting and hoping I've got to tremble every time my father speaks to me That's the result of having a guilty conscience you know. I've read about such things before, but this is the first time I've actually had the experience myself."
"Besides," continued Jack, "even if you did mail the letter, that's no assurance it would ever reach the party he wrote to. Many a vessel has gone down before arriving at its destination, a victim to the terrible policy of the Germans with their U-boats. And of course the mail sinks when the boat goes down in the war zone. If your father were wise he would duplicate that letter several times, and in that way make sure one of them had a chance to reach the party abroad."
"Do you know I thought of that myself, Jack!" exclaimed Bob, quickly; "but you see it would never do for me to mention it to him. Why, he'd suspect something lay back of it at once, and ask me the question that I shall be dreading to hear—'Did you positively mail that letter I gave you?' Jack, sometimes I can see just those words in fiery letters a foot high facing me, even when I close my eyes. It makes me think of the handwriting on the wall that appeared before the eyes of that old worthy, a victorious general, I believe it was, or an ancient king, but which spelled his doom."
"If I knew of anything else I could do to help you, Bob, I'd be happy to try. Now, I do remember reading an account of a gentleman who carried out the very policy of follow-up letters that I was speaking about. He explained how to make sure he reached his correspondent across the water he would send a duplicate letter every week for a whole month; and so far he had never failed to connect, although more than one boat carrying his letters went down. Now, perhaps I can find that same newspaper, and give it to you. If you placed it where your father would be apt to pick it up, with the article marked a little, he'd read it, and might act upon it."
"That sounds good to me, Jack. Please look hard, and see if you can run across that paper. It might be the solution of the whole thing. If father wrote again and even a third time I'd lose my guilty fears, because one of his letters would be bound to get across."
"Why, even the possibility of this proving to be a success caused the boy to smile, though he looked almost comical while so doing, because his heart still hung like lead in his breast.
"Well, try and forget it all you can, Bob," Jack went on to say, encouragingly. "I believe I can find that paper, and I'll hunt far and wide for it, I give you my word. If anything else strikes me meanwhile, I'll speak to you about it. If I were you I'd throw myself into the game, and that ought to help you forget your troubles."
"Yes, it's all very good for the time being, Jack," sighed the other, "but say, after the excitement is all over with, and you find yourself nearing the house, and father, the most terrible feeling grips you around your heart. I know I'll have a perfectly terrible month of it, every day seeming to be forty-eight hours long. But it serves me right. After this Bob Jeffries will be a reformed boy, I give you my word for that. Never again can I allow myself to grow careless, and do important things as though I was in a dream. I've awakened at last, Jack."
"Then if that is so, Bob, you're bound to profit by your lesson. It may seem hard, but in the long run it'll pay you many times over. I'll not mention your trouble to either of my chums, though for that matter both Toby and Steve would feel just as sorry as I do. Still, there's no way they could help you, and for your sake and peace of mind I'll keep mum."
Big Bob impulsively clutched Jack's hand, and squeezed it so fiercely that it actually hurt.
"You're a friend worth having, Jack Winters!" he exclaimed, warmly, while his eyes seemed to dim in a strange fashion, though he winked several times to conceal the fact that tears were near. "You put fresh heart into a fellow every time. If you can find that paper with the account of the duplicate letters in it, please let me know, and I'll run over to your house to get it."
"I'll give a big look tonight," Jack assured him; "and I'm almost sure I know just where I saw it. Father never allows papers to be destroyed under a month old, and it'll likely be up in the attic. Depend on me to get it for you, Bob."
Just then the high school bell started to ring, and both lads had to hurry to enter in time. Bob braced up and tried to assume his ordinary look. His pride came to the rescue, for no boy likes to find himself an object of commiseration among his mates. As for Jack, he had to put the entire matter from his mind just then, having other things to occupy his attention.
But every time he chanced to look toward Big Bob during that day's session it would be to find the other staring eagerly toward him; and a peculiar smile would creep across the big fellow's face when he caught Jack's eye. He was depending on this comrade to extricate him from the pit which his own carelessness had dug for his feet. And Bob was finding how good it was at such a crucial time in his life to have a reliable friend upon whom to lean. Again and again he doubtless told himself how lucky he was to be so favored.
It may be said in passing that Jack did inaugurate a search among the latest pile of papers in the attic that night, and after a thorough hunt actually succeeded in locating the article he had mentioned. His wonderful memory had again served him in good stead, for it turned out to be in the very periodical he had had in mind.
He even went to the trouble to drop over to give Big Bob the paper, marking with, a blue pencil the article just above the item in question. Any one reading this interesting account of something connected with the war must naturally have his attention arrested by the heading just below it, which ran: "How to make sure foreign letters reach their destination in spite of U-boats;" and then went on to tell how the gentleman in question sent out follow-up letters, exact duplicates of the original one.
Bob was intensely interested.
"I can fix it," he assured Jack, "so that this paper will be lying on the floor of the library. I'm glad you had it wrapped around that old sweater you were returning, because if father should ask me about it I can truthfully say I believe you brought it here in that way, and that I must have dropped it in the library; which would be just like my careless habits of the past, you know, Jack."
Taken altogether Jack thought it a pretty good scheme. It might work, too, which would be a fine thing for everyone concerned; since Mr. Jeffries would be sure of having his letter reach its destination, and poor Bob could be relieved of at least a portion of the load that was weighing on his mind.
When Jack left Bob after a short stay, he saw that fresh hope had already taken hold of the other's heart. It had been the fact that he did not know which way to turn in order to try to remedy his mistake that had been the chief cause for the boy's desperation. Now that there was at least a little chance of the ugly affair coming out all right, Bob was beginning to pluck up fresh courage.
A MESSAGE FROM MARSHALL
"What does this mean, Phil Parker? Why are you sitting here and watching the boys get the right dope from Joe Hooker out there on the field? I thought you were sure to land a tackle job."
The speaker, a student who wore glasses, and therefore could have no hope of taking part in such a rough game as football, slapped a fellow on the back who was wearing the blue and white sweater of a Chester athlete.
Phil Parker, who had done yeoman service as left fielder on the baseball nine the preceding summer, laughed as he went on to reply.
"Oh! the fortunes of war, Doc. I chanced to be one of those who didn't come up to the scratch with old Joe. And I want to say right now he was right when he made up his mind I wasn't fast enough for his team. I hurt my leg a month ago, and it's never been quite as strong since. I've been expecting to hear something drop, and now it's come I'm actually relieved. The strain is over, and I can root for our team with the rest from the side lines."
"You're the right sort, Phil, I must say," the other student continued, warmly. "With you it's a question of Chester first, last, and all the time. Personal matters ought never to have any part in such things. Every boy ought to be ready and willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. That's what I heard Jack telling Archie Frazer, who's also been dropped; but his Scotch blood seemed to be up, and he looked as if he had a personal grievance against old Joe for letting him go."
But the wisdom of the coach weeding out the weak brothers was already beginning to bear fruit. Anyone who knew football could easily see that there was a distinct gain in the general work. It is just as happens in a convoy of vessels trying to slip past waiting submarines; the fastest has to hold up for the slowest, and in consequence much valuable time is lost. It has even been figured that this loss of time amounts to fifty per cent in all.
A new fire and ambition seemed to possess the players on this afternoon. They appeared to adapt themselves to the conditions much more readily than at any time in the past It might be the steady work of the coach was beginning to make itself shown; and that the boys who remained, under the belief that they now had a good chance of becoming members of the fighting eleven, were induced to throw themselves into the battle with fresh vigor.
Joe Hooker encouraged them constantly. His was a policy of this kind, whereas some coaches think it expedient constantly to keep telling their charges that they are unusually dull, and will never make themselves a fighting force; which is apt to discourage fellows, and fail to bring out all that is in them. Joe believed that enthusiasm and a firm belief in themselves would in the end serve best.
Another thing Joe did, which was to let down the unfortunate ones who must be dropped as easily as he could. He talked to them all like a father, and tried to impress it upon their minds that while Chester might not be able to utilize their services that season, there was another time coming. Besides, he endeavored to arouse their pride in connection with the home town, and beg them to do everything in their power to assist in encouraging those who were finally selected to battle on the gridiron for supremacy.
Outside of Archie Frazer no one had shown any ill feeling about the matter; but all tried to take it as the fortunes of war. Jack himself had made up his mind to have a heart-to-heart talk with Archie, to try to win him over. They needed all the backing possible in order to bring success. When there is any bitterness in the hearts of some of those who ought to be shouting themselves hoarse for the home team, it always hurts.
Jack at one time, when resting, and giving another fellow a chance to get in the game, suddenly discovered a strange face amidst the crowd that had gathered to watch the practice. He looked closer, and then remembered where he had seen the boy before.
"Tell me, Stanley," he said to one of the fellows close by, "isn't that Horace Bushnell, from Marshall? I seem to remember him playing on their team when we took that game from them last summer."
"That's right, Jack, Horace it is," came the reply. "He played on third, you may remember, and made some rattling good stops in the bargain, that were ticketed for clean singles or even doubles. I was speaking with him a bit ago. He says he's just dropped over to see what's going on in old Chester, once asleep, but suddenly resurrected since you came to town. You'll find Horace a pretty decent sort of fellow, and built along the right lines too."
Jack sauntered over to where the boy was standing watching the exciting melee just then taking place out there on the field, with old Joe Hooker dancing and limping around like mad, shouting directions, or blowing his referee's whistle to indicate that the ball was dead, and that a fresh start must be made.
"Hello! Bushnell!" said Jack, extending his hand with that Free Masonry that always exists among boys. "I thought I recognized you, and asked if you didn't come from Marshall way. Took a notion to see how we were getting along over here, did you? Well, we're making progress, I suppose, but only for our luck in having such a cracker- jack of a coach I'm afraid Chester wouldn't have much show on the gridiron this season; because most of the boys were as green as grass at the finer points of the game."
"He certainly is a dandy coach, all right," asserted the Marshall boy, shaking hands cordially. "I wish we had one half as good as old Joe Hooker. If you fellows make a dent in the game this season you'll owe it all to him. I've just been watching how he works, and it's simply grand. I understand that Harmony is putting in extra licks too this year, being afraid Marshall will down her team. So altogether it looks as if we'll have a pretty lively session."
"I don't suppose, Bushnell, that either Marshall or Harmony has much fear of Chester taking their scalps this year?" laughed Jack.
"Well, you never can tell what may happen in football, until you've tested the mettle of your antagonist," the other sagely replied. "Anything is liable to come along the pike. But as a rule the veterans in the business are those who count; and we take it that few of the Chester fellows have ever been in a real scrimmage; so we expect they'll have a heap to learn. Still, with that veteran coach drilling it in day after day wonders may happen. You've got several weeks for practice before the game with Marshall comes off. If you fellows keep on improving as you're doing now, I can see a jolly struggle taking place, and the result may surprise some folks I know."
"It's nice of you being interested enough in our work to drop in and watch us, and I mean that too, Bushnell," said Jack.
"Well, of course I wouldn't think of coming across later on, when you'll be practicing your signal stunts, and different mass plays," hastily remarked the other, coloring a bit with embarrassment. "If Marshall does carry off that game I want to see it won on merit, not trickery. Football isn't a game where such things should be tolerated. Once a chap from Harmony was discovered watching our late signal work. He had a pair of field-glasses, and was perched on top of an old ruined chimney, from which place he had a fine view of the field. We didn't do a thing about it, only changed our signals in secret. Well, believe me, that came near losing the game for Harmony. They took it for granted that we would play the original signals, and in trying to cut us off left an opening that gave us a chance for our first touchdown. And it was only after the hardest kind of savage work that they were able eventually to lay us out cold, but only by a score of seven to nine."
"That was playing dirty ball," said Jack, indignantly. "I hope they won't repeat that thing this year."
"I hardly think so," the Marshall boy hastily went on to say. "Their paper gave them a rough deal over it, and told them they deserved to lose every game where they placed any dependence on trickery, rather than true merit. Some of the Harmony fellows were heartily ashamed of it all, and came over to apologize after they learned about it. I don't believe such a thing can ever happen again around these parts. You weren't here then, Winters, which accounts for your not knowing about it. But what message shall I take to our fellows from you, as I understand you have been selected to be captain of the eleven?"
"Only this, Bushnell," said Jack, impressively. "We're going into this thing with all our vim. We mean to wrest a victory from Marshall by fair means, if it can be done. If luck is against us we'll be the first to congratulate you fellows over your success; and then get ready to give Harmony the best there is in us. We believe in clean ball, and you never need be afraid that a Chester fellow would be guilty of spying on your team when practicing signal work. If one did we'd refuse to take advantage of his knowledge, and warn you that such a thing had occurred."
"That's the right kind of talk, Jack Winters!" exclaimed the other, effusively. "It's just what true sportsmanship means. Every tub must stand on its own bottom, and may the best team win! My comrades will be glad to get a message like that from Chester; and if such a thing should happen as your team beating us to a frazzle, why, you'll not find us poor losers. We'll give you a cheer that'll do a lot to make you buck up against that terrible Harmony crowd."
"I understand," continued Jack, "that you've strengthened your team considerably this season."
"Yes, that's the only thing we've got to counterbalance your possession of such a great coach. We chanced to pick up several star players this year, fellows who moved to Marshall lately, and who have played on other teams before. Two of them are grand goal kickers, and may give you the surprise of your lives later on. Then we've got a dandy end who is like lightning on his pins; and once he gets the ball he can bewilder the best of them by his ducking and doubling. Well, enough for the present. I don't want to discourage you, Winters, but take my word for it, Chester has to go the limit if she hopes to snatch that game from us. We're full of ginger and—say, that was as fine a kick at goal as could be. That big chap is Jeffries, isn't he? I remember his fielding when we played ball last summer; and the way he swatted the pill was a caution. It nearly broke our pitcher's heart. I guess some of your fellows can do stunts? as well as our stars. But I must be going back home, for I ran over on my motorcycle, you see. Wish you all the luck going, Captain Winters; after Marshall, of course!"
Jack rather liked Horace Bushnell. He did not know as yet whether the other was to play on the rival team, but at least he had shown his heart was set on his home town coming out victor in the approaching contest on the gridiron.
At any rate it was a pleasure to know such an honorable fellow was to be an opponent, and that the Marshall boys were so utterly opposed to any form of double-dealing or trickery, in order to win.
JACK AND JOEL INVESTIGATE
So the time passed, and a week, yes, fully ten days more had gone, with the Marshall game only a few more days away. All this while the coach had kept at his constant grind, trying to get the eleven so accustomed to the many plays of the game that they could act through instinct rather than reason.
Every boy remembers how difficult it was at first to ride a bicycle, when equilibrium was a thing to be studied; but how after the muscles of the body had grown accustomed to adapting themselves to the slightest motion of the wheel, from that time on it seemed the easiest thing going to do all sorts of stunts while riding.
So with football, where the action must be as quick as a flash. Players who are dull-witted never make any great success in the game, no matter how clever they may appear at some particular feat.
Old Joe Hooker knew this only too well. It had been the reason for his detaching several promising fellows who could never understand why they were given the "Indian sign" and dropped; but the fact was Joe had found they could not break themselves of the habit of stopping just a brief space of time as if to consider, before making a play; and that second or two lost, he knew, might account for the game.
It had now reached the critical point where they were practicing signals. While doing this it was deemed wise that they should get away from all spectators; not that they feared any Chester boy would be so mean as to betray their codes to the enemy, or that either Marshall or Harmony would descend to taking advantage of such underhand treachery; but then it was the ethics of the game that such things should be kept to the players themselves.
So on this particular Wednesday afternoon, besides the eleven in the field there were only a dozen select fellows on hand, and all of them really held places as substitutes of one sort or another. Some of them were likely to be called into action in case a fellow got hurt, and had to be taken out; so they were just as vitally interested in this secret work as any one could be.
During the course of the afternoon they would all be given an opportunity to take part in the play going on, so as to become used to it.
As the great day approached everyone seemed to be more filled with ginger than at any time in the past. Coach Hooker was racing this way and that, calling, adjuring, scolding mildly at times, but always with an eye singly to the advantage of the Chester interests. If the team did not pull off a victory with Marshall few there would be to say it was any fault of old Joe.
Jack had been in the melee for quite some time now, and was giving way to a substitute who seemed eager to get in the game. Joining the group over at one side Jack fell into conversation with some of his mates.
As he stood there he continued to follow the excited actions of the bunch out on the field. The counting could be plainly heard, and then would come the lightning-like play as the ball was put in motion; fellows leaped into action, each with a definite aim in view. Then Joe would call them back, to tell them where they fell short, and could improve on the play.
"Old Joe seems to see everything that goes on, just as if he had a dozen eyes in his head," remarked Joel Jackman, who was also allowing a sub to take his place in the line-up.
"Well, that's what makes him the clever coach he is," Jack told him. "In his way he's like the old orchestra leader, Theodore Thomas. I've heard it said that when his orchestra of a hundred and twenty pieces was practicing some big movement by one of the great composers, Mr. Thomas would suddenly stop the music, and scold one player in particular. His wonderful ear had caught a note that was imperfect, and he had been able to pick out the chap who was guilty. Well, that's the way with our Joe; only in this case it's his eye that is highly educated, instead of his ear."
Joel moved aside with Jack.
"Listen to me, Jack," he went on to say, impressively. "Some of the boys here chanced to mention the fact that last year a Harmony fellow tried to steal the signals of Marshall, and in fact did so; but the other fellows discovered him watching the play from a tree or some place, and they just changed their code of signals after he had been scared away. Now, Jack, don't look surprised when I tell you I've got a sneaking notion we're being spied on right at this very minute!"
Jack saw that Joel was not joking, and he looked serious.
"What makes you say that?" he inquired, immediately.
"I haven't mentioned anything about the matter to the fellows; in fact, I only got on to the game about the time you dropped in. Just turn to the right a little, will you, Jack. I'm not pointing, because it would tell the skunk we knew about his being there. See that bunch of trees over yonder, do you? Pretty thick, all right, and offering a splendid asylum to any chap who might want to watch what we were doing out in the open field. He's up in the largest tree, that's right."
"Did you see him then, Joel?" asked the other, after staring for a brief interval in the direction indicated, without noticing any incriminating evidence.
"Well, no, I can't say that I did, though it seems to me there is something like a bunch in that crotch about ten feet from the ground; but the branches sort of screen it. But, Jack, I saw the sun flash from the lens of a pair of glasses, not only once but several times."
Jack continued to watch. This sounded like serious business, and he began to feel something like indignation surging up within him. If there was anything Jack Winters despised it was underhand work. Straight and aboveboard himself he was unable to conceive how any fellow could so demean himself as to wish to win by trickery.
"There, didn't you see that flash then, Jack?" whispered Joel, eagerly, a short time later on.
"I certainly did," replied the other, between his set teeth.
"Don't you agree with me that there's some one hidden in that same big tree, and watching us through means of powerful glasses?" continued Joel.
"I must say it does look a good deal that way," he was assured.
"Well, what's the answer, Jack? Are we going to stand for such dirty business? Of course he can't exactly catch the signals from over there, unless he's got some way of accentuating his hearing. But he can see the work that's being repeated over and over again, and in that way learn what our play is. It's a burning shame, that's all I can say. I'd just like to take half a dozen fellows and capture that spy. We would duck him in the river, and make him sorry he ever took a notion to peek on us. I heard that Bushnell chap from Marshall was over one day some time ago."
"You can depend on it this spy isn't Horace Bushnell," Jack hastened to assure his companion. "I talked things over with him at the time, and found him a boy after my own heart, who despises trickery."
"But can't we do something about it to let him know he's discovered, and had better chase himself off?" pleaded Joel.
"I'm thinking of a way in which we might at least learn the truth," said the other, thoughtfully. "We've been going over to the little spring to the left for water. Once we get there it would be easy to slip around, for it happens there's plenty of good cover, I notice. In that way we could surprise the fellow, and catch him in the tree."
Joel showed considerable eagerness to try the plan of campaign.
"Let's be starting across for a drink, then, Jack," he urged, and accordingly they set forth.
No one paid any attention to them, because from time to time some of the boys would head toward the spring, when the water in the bucket lost its freshness, and in their heated condition they panted for a cold drink. Jack and Joel both had their heavy wool sweaters on, so they took no chances of catching cold after their recent energetic exercise.
They stopped at the spring, where there was a gourd that could be used for dipping up the refreshing water, and each of them took a drink.
"There, he's still working away!" snapped Joel, indignantly; "I caught another flash when he moved his glasses. The sun chances to shine in just the right quarter to make that flash each time. I only hope the skunk will stay there till we can get him, that's all."
Joel looked so extremely pugnacious when saying this that Jack knew he must be making up his mind just what sort of corporeal punishment best fitted the crime of playing the spy on rivals in football, in order to obtain an unfair advantage over them and taking a game by trickery.
"Now, just duck down, and we'll be off," Jack told his companion.
He had sized the situation up correctly, Joel saw. There was excellent cover running around to the patch of trees among which the object of their solicitude was placed. It would be an easy matter for two such agile lads to bend over and cover that short distance, all the while keeping themselves hidden from the eyes of the party perched amidst the dead leaves of that oak.
It was real exciting work, too, for they fully anticipated having some trouble in making the spy come down after they arrived under the tree in which he was so comfortably perched. Perhaps there might be a pair of them, when the situation was likely to be somewhat more strained. Joel even wished now they had asked a couple of the fellows to accompany them, so as to make the capture more certain.
Once or twice they found themselves compelled to make a little detour, because the ground in front was too open, and offered little in the way of a screen; but Jack knew just how to manage, and Joel was quite willing to leave matters in the hands of his associate. Everybody trusted Jack Winters, when a task was to be performed; and it is a great thing for any boy to possess the confidence of his mates in this fashion.
"We're getting mighty close now, Jack," whispered Joel, presently. "I can see the trunk of the big oak all right. It's got limbs pretty near the ground too, so that spy couldn't have had a very hard time of it climbing up. I reckon he must have hit on that particular tree partly on that account."
"Keep quiet, Joel, he might hear you," warned Jack; although truth to tell there was little fear of that, because all the while there came across the field the cries of the workers and the chatter of those who looked on.
A little farther and Jack stopped short. He held up a finger as if to tell Joel not to say anything. But that worthy was crouching there, listening as if petrified, while a look of astonishment bordering on consternation began to hold sway in his face.
The truth of the matter was both boys had caught a series of giggles, and sounds of low laughter, which undoubtedly came from the direction of that particular tree; and what struck them as a staggering fact was that these gurgling noises seemed to be of a girlish character, rather than to proceed from boys.
Then Jack made a gesture with his crooked finger, and both of them again commenced to creep softly along, wondering what effect their coming would have upon the fair watchers perched in the lower crotch of the giant oak with the spreading branches.
STRANGE FRUIT FOR A TREE TO BEAR
"Oh! girls, you just ought to have seen Fred Badger run with the ball then! They all chased after him, but he dodged them like everything. If the boys win that game from Marshall I'm sure Fred's going to have a lot to do with it!"
Joel chuckled at hearing one girl say that, for he recognized the voice of pretty little Mollie Skinner, on whom it was said the Fred mentioned was rather sweet, since he always accompanied her to choir meeting, and when they had a dance out in the country, she invariably went with Fred. "Well, I don't know what Fred Badger has got over Steve Mullane, or Jack Winters, or even Joel Jackman," said another voice, rather cynically, as though the speaker did not wholly subscribe to Mollie's view that Fred stood out as a shining mark above the rest of the bunch of struggling players.
Joel chuckled again. It tickled him to be mentioned at all by one of the fair watchers in the tree, even though with such a doubtful compliment as "even Joel Jackman!" would imply.
"But I'm beginning to get tired of sitting here in this ridiculous fashion," said a third one, dolefully, "and taking turns at peeking through Mollie's mother's opera-glasses. I wouldn't have come only I felt so much interest in our boys this year. It's their first appearance on the gridiron, and I'm just wild to see them beat that bragging old Harmony. As to Marshall, I just know Chester will put those fellows down where they belong, at the foot of the class, without half trying."
"Neither would I have gone to all this trouble," spoke up the fair and spirited Mollie, "only for that silly letter my friend in Harmony wrote me, saying that it was a foregone conclusion Harmony would sweep the earth this year because their team had been terribly strengthened. In fact she gave me to understand that everything, even to the crepe, had been ordered for poor little new beginner Chester. It kept me awake most all last night; and I felt so much excited that I just had to get you girls to come out here and see what our gallant boys were doing."
"Yes, but however are we going to get down from here?" sighed the girl who had spoken second, and whose name was Lucy Marsh, while the last of the daring trio Jack knew to be another pretty maid, Adelaide Holliday by name. "I feel afraid to jump from so high a place; and girls can't climb trees and come down like boys do."
"Would you mind if we came up and helped you, girls?" suddenly demanded Jack, as he and his companion showed themselves.
There were alarmed squeals from the three nesting in the crotch of the tree, and this was followed by girlish laughter when they discovered who the newcomers were. It was not only the boys of Chester who liked Jack Winters; for any girl would be proud to be asked for her company by a fellow like Jack, so universally esteemed.
"You've turned the tables on us this time, Jack," said Lucy Marsh, bravely enough. "It's a case of the biters bitten, evidently. We came to spy, and we've been spied on in turn. Well, since you've discovered us in a tree, perhaps you'd better climb up and help a pack of foolish girls back to the solid ground again. I seem to lose my head once I get off the earth."
Accordingly Jack and Joel joined them, and it was no particular effort to help each girl down. When the last had been safely landed, the boys jumped lightly after them.
"You'll excuse our looks, of course, girls," said Joel. "We've been in a scrimmage and are hardly fit for ladies' company; but all the same we're delighted to have been of service to you."
"And so," remarked Jack, turning to Mollie Skinner, who was small but pert, and as pretty as a peach, "you had a boasting letter from some girl over in Harmony, I think I heard you say as we came up. She tried to discourage you, didn't she? All right, Mollie, you just send her back a Roland for an Oliver; give her as good as she sent. Tell her the Chester boys are going to swamp Marshall next Saturday, just to put them in trim for the great game on Thanksgiving morning with poor old Harmony. Twit her with a few reminders of that last baseball game we played, when Chester trailed Harmony's colors in the dust. I guess you can rub it in good and hard, Mollie, if you try."
"And you guess right, too, Jack Winters," snapped the girl, her eyes flashing with spirit. "I'll compose a scathing letter that will give Maude something to think about from now to Thanksgiving. And let me say that I'll be meaning every word of it, too. Why, after what we've seen you boys do in practice I just feel that fellows like Fred, and some of the others of course, in the bargain, just can't be whipped by any old school team that plays. Those are my sentiments, and I don't care who knows them."
"Those Harmony fellows wear the yellow and black of Princeton, you know," spoke up Lucy Marsh, "and love to call themselves the Tigers. They think to frighten their opponents by a great exhibition of rough play, and try to act as if they expected to just walk away with every game."
"That's right for you, Lucy," chipped in Joel, "but those same tactics didn't carry weight last summer. Chester didn't seem to be afraid of being bitten by the tiger, in fact we managed to devour the beast, hide and all; and let me assure you, girls, we can do it again, don't you fear."
"How about that, Jack, do you subscribe to Joel's boast?" demanded the girl, as though she would be ready to place a good deal more dependence on an opinion from the captain of the eleven than from the left tackle.
"You're going to the wrong quarter for that kind of information, Lucy," he went on to say. "Jack's too modest to boast, as everyone knows, though he'll work his head off to win the game."
"I'm not claiming anything!" declared Jack; "and only saying that Chester will have no cause for complaint, no matter whether we win or lose; for every fellow's grimly determined to do his level best. Victories sometimes hinge on small things, and the luck of the game may go against us. But we'll be fighting all the time up to the blowing of the last whistle that tells the time of the fourth period has expired."
"Tell them what Coach Hooker said this very afternoon, Jack?" begged Joel.
"Please do, Jack," the fair Mollie pleaded; while the other two looked so wistful that Jack could not have declined had he wanted to, which was far from the fact.
"Oh! Joe seemed to be especially well pleased with our work today," he remarked, "and told us that taken all in all we made as lively and hustling a lot of youngsters as he had ever had the pleasure of handling. He even went on to say that if we worked as well in the Marshall game we would carry off the prize as sure as two and three make five. And let me tell you, after hearing those inspiring words we played better than ever the next round, and had old Joe beaming with joy. I honestly believe he thinks a heap of our bunch, since it's been weeded out."
"We're all proud of you, just remember that," said Mollie, boldly; "and we do hope you'll be able to make the Marshall boys eat humble pie next Saturday. Why, nearly everybody that's worth knowing at all in Chester is going over to Marshall to give the Chester salute when you come on the field. I chanced to hear Packy McGraw, your cheer captain, drilling his squad; and let me tell you they can give the Chester yell in a way that thrills the blood."
There could be no doubt about Mollie and her two chums being heart and soul for the local team. Jack was glad to see such enthusiasm. It would make himself and the other ten fellows fight all the harder to know that bright eyes were watching every move that was made; while dainty hands clapped until they ached, keeping company with the defiant cries arising wherever Chester girls congregated, in grand- stand or field.
It means a whole lot to a team to feel that their home folks believe in them to the limit. Just as soon as this interest gives signs of waning the best of teams grow careless, and show signs of disintegration. So Jack hoped the girls as well as the boys and grown- ups of the town would be with them all the while, ready with cheering words and praise for good deeds, as well as apologies for mistakes such as the best of players may sometimes make.
So the three girls departed, binding Jack and Joel to a promise not to betray them to the rest of the squad. This promise both boys gladly gave, for no harm had been done; and they knew now just how earnestly the girls of Chester were hoping and praying for their success. It was really an inspiration, to Joel at least.
"There's no use talking, Jack," he was saying, as they started to go around once more to the place of the spring, to avoid exciting any suspicion on the part of their comrades, "we've just got to beat Marshall on Saturday. Why, it'd break the hearts of those pretty girls if we failed. I really believe they'd feel it more than any of us would. And that little spitfire Mollie is crazy to rub it into her boastful friend over at Harmony, too. Oh! we've got our job set out before us for a fact, and must sweep the deck each deal."
The rest of the practice caused the boys to forget their recent little adventure for the time being. They worked hard, and won additional praise from old Joe Hooker.
"You're getting better every day, fellows," he told the bunch as they started homeward, chattering like a lot of magpies. "I never was so pleased with the improvement shown; why, it's simply marvelous. If an old football man should watch some of your plays he'd swear you were anything but novices, and vow you'd done plenty of footwork last season. Don't stop, boys! Keep up the good work, and my word for it, your reward is sure to come, for you'll take Marshall into camp on Saturday, barring accidents."
They would have two more afternoons for practice, and then Saturday would dawn with its uncertainties that might not be relieved until the referee had blown his whistle to signify that the time for the game had expired. Whose would be high score when that minute came around was an unknown quantity; and many a Chester lad would have given much to be able to lift the veil of the future just that far. But this was beyond their ken, and they could only possess their souls in patience while hoping for the best.
Those two days would soon pass, and the great time come when Chester folks could be seen thronging the road leading to Marshall, bent on witnessing the meeting of the rival teams on the gridiron.
How some of the most impatient managed to pull through the intervening time it would be hard to tell. But finally Saturday morning dawned, and the fact that the sun shone from an unclouded sky, while the air was quite nipping, brought joy to thousands of eager hearts in Chester, and doubtless also in Marshall; for both towns were said to be football crazy this year.
A CALL FOR HELP
"Hello! Jack, I was just thinking of dropping around at your place. Can you spare me a few minutes of your precious time this morning?"
Big Bob Jeffries called this across to the other, down on the main street of Chester. Jack was hurrying along, after finishing the several errands that had taken him into the heart of the shopping district. It was on the great Saturday morning that was to give the town folks their first taste of real football. Everywhere people seemed to be talking about it, and the chances the local team had of pulling off a victory. Jack, being known as the captain of the eleven, and an acknowledged leader among his fellows, was greeted with many an anxious question concerning the condition of the team, and whether he really and truly expected to score a triumph against the hard-playing Marshall crowd.
To all such inquiries the boy had returned a merry answer, simply saying:
"We're going to do our level best, and we have hopes, that's all I can say. Tell you more about it this evening."
When he heard Big Bob calling out this request a look of real concern flashed across Jack's face, the very first that morning. He feared lest the other was about to spring some sort of disagreeable surprise upon him at almost the last hour.
All along he had managed to keep Bob sort of buoyed up with constantly renewed hope that his troubles were sure to end in smoke. But evidently the big fellow had suffered in secret, and was in quite a nervous state of mind.
"Certainly I can, Bob!" he exclaimed, starting to cross over to where the other stood, looking so forlorn that had any observing fellow come along just then and noticed the expression on his face, he might have spread an alarm to the effect that the big fullback was ill, and consequently there would be a weak spot in the line-up that afternoon, as sure as anything.
"I hate ever so much to bother you, Jack, with my personal affairs, just when, of course, you've got your hands full of the coming battle on the gridiron; but I must ease my head or something will burst, I'm feeling that wretched."
"Come along and walk with me," said Jack, promptly. "I am in a little of a hurry, but we can be going in the direction of my house, and take it slowly. Now what's happened, Bob?"
"Happened, Jack? Why, nothing at all, and that's just what's the matter. If only something did come along to break up this terrible monotony, I'd welcome it; but every day's like the one before it. I go to bed, and get to sleep all right, but when I wake up along in the early hours, about two or three o'clock, I begin to think, and lie there till dawn comes, just groaning to myself, and trying to make up my mind what I ought to do."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Big Bob, sure I am," said Jack, his voice telling the same thing. "But you say things haven't changed at home. By that I reckon you mean your father hasn't asked you anything about that letter he gave you to mail?"
"Not yet, Jack, but I'm mighty much afraid it's going to come any time now. You see, he must be getting anxious because he's received no answer to his letter, though of course there hasn't been any too much time so far. But my mother is worried on account of me. I've almost lost my appetite. The things that used to appeal to me the most I now let pass with barely two helpings. She knows there's something gone wrong; you can always trust a boy's mother for being the first to suspect that, when he gets off his feed."
"Does she say anything to you?" asked Jack, solicitously, for it pained him to see how much Big Bob felt it all.
"Oh! every day she asks me if I'm real sure I'm not sick," came the slow reply. "I always tell her I'm all right; but say, she knows better, Jack. I can't meet her eyes when she looks at me like that. Once she begged me to tell her what had gone wrong with me, whether I was doing poorly at school, even if my report stood to the contrary; but I tried to laugh that off, and told her I'd soon be all right again, after this football game, mebbe."
"I hope you will, Bob, and a lot of us will have a big load off our minds if only we can come back home this afternoon, singing, and feeling joyous. Of course you never really knew how that little scheme of mine worked, did you?"
"Meaning the idea of putting that marked paper where my dad would be sure to see the item about the man who sent follow-up letters abroad, so as to make certain one of them would get to its destination, in spite of British blockade and German submarines? Why, no, I never found out if father took to the idea or not. I only know he must have seen the paper, because I found it later on his desk in the library, and I left it crumpled up on the floor. He never asked me where it came from, so I didn't have to tell him you had it wrapped around an old sweater you were returning to me. All I'm sure of is that he didn't trust me to mail a second foreign letter. I only wish he had."
"You said he was beginning to look serious, didn't you?" continued Jack.
"Why, yes, and I can just feel him watching me when he thinks I'm not looking. He certainly must suspect something, Jack. But the queer part of it all is that lately he's been a heap more gentle with me than I ever knew him to be before."
"I don't quite get the hang of that, Bob."
"Well, you must know that my dad is reckoned a stern man. Folks have always looked on him as what they call austere. He's engaged in a business that keeps his mind away up in the clouds most of the time, and he just can't pay much attention to the small things of life. I heard him tell that once, and I've tried to understand what it really meant, but somehow I couldn't, because my nature is just the opposite, so I guess I must take after my mother's side of the family. I can hardly remember the time when my dad played with me, or seemed at all interested in my childish hopes and fears. It was always Ma to whom I went with my troubles; and Jack, she never failed me. That's what makes it so hard for me now. Only for you to confide in, I don't know what I'd have done."
He seemed on the verge of breaking down at this point. Jack in order to prevent anything like this hastened to ask again:
"Go on, Bob, and tell me just how your father is acting differently nowadays from what he's always done."
"Why, you see," continued the other, with a spasmodic movement of his big frame that might have been caused, Jack suspected, by a half- suppressed sob welling up from his sorely distressed heart, "he's not only been watching me close at times, but twice now he's even asked me something about the football match with Marshall; and last night Ma told me he had said they must surely go over today and watch me play. Oh! Jack, that nearly broke me all up. I felt just like I must throw my arms around my mother's neck, and pour out the whole wretched story of my carelessness."
"But you didn't, I suppose, Bob?"
"No, I managed to blurt out an excuse for hurrying away, though I kind of think she must have seen that there were tears in my eyes, for she called after me; but I didn't dare turn back right then, and pretended not to hear her. Later on I'd managed to get a fresh grip on myself, and even smiled a little, though I tell you that was the most ghastly smile I ever knew, for it was a hollow mockery, Jack."
"But you've held out this far, Bob, and you must pull yourself together so as to go through the game today," Jack went on to say, warmly. "If you failed us our goose would surely be cooked, you know, because the fellow who has been practicing as your understudy at fullback is a mighty poor fish, and Marshall will know it as soon as the first period is over, especially if they push us hard, and he breaks down, as he's pretty sure to do."