E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE CHUMS OF SCRANTON HIGH
Hugh Morgan's Uphill Fight
[Frontispiece: "Are you through?" demanded, Hugh sternly.]
The Goldsmith Publishing Co. Cleveland Made in U. S. A. Copyright, 1919
I. A FENCE WITH A HISTORY II. THE BOYS OF OLD SCRANTON III. HUGH SHOULDERS A HEAVY TASK IV. IN FOR A FROLIC V. THE TRAGIC AFFAIR ON THE ROAD VI. MAKING A GOOD JOB OF IT VII. CALLED OUT FOR PRACTICE VIII. THAD MAKES A DISCOVERY IX. JUST BETWEEN CHUMS X. A VISITOR FROM BELLEVILLE HIGH XI. HUGH'S PETS IN DANGER XII. THE TRAP XIII. A COLD RECEPTION XIV. NICK AS A GAP-STOPPER XV. PRETTY POLLY UNDER SUSPICION XVI. THE RESCUE AT HOBSON'S MILL-POND XVII. LITTLE BRUTUS AND HIS "COLLECTION" XVIII. A STRAIGHT DRIVE FOR THE TRUTH XIX. HUGH REACHES HIS GOAL XX. LOOKING FORWARD—CONCLUSION
THE CHUMS OF SCRANTON HIGH
A FENCE WITH A HISTORY
"The best day so far this spring, fellows!"
"It feels mighty much like baseball weather, for a fact, Otto!"
"True for you, K. K., though there's still just a little tang to this April air."
"What of that, Eli? The big leagues have opened shop all over the land, and the city papers are already full of baseball scores, and diamond lore. We ought to be getting busy ourselves in little old Scranton."
"Allandale High is practicing. Sandy Dowd and I saw a bunch of the boys out on their field after school yesterday, didn't we, Sandy?"
"That's right, we did. And I understand Belleville expects to put an extra hard-hitting nine in the game this season. They're still sore over the terrible drubbing Allandale gave them last summer."
"Since Scranton has now become a member of the Three-Town League, taking the place of Lawrence when that nine dropped out, seems to me we ought to lose no time if we expect to commence practicing. That same Allandale team swept the circuit, you remember, like a hurricane."
"We've plenty of good material, fellows, believe me, right here in Scranton High. And somehow I've got a hunch that we're going to make even mighty Allandale take a tumble before the season gets old."
"Don't boast too soon, Eli Griffin. That's a wee Yankee trick you must have inherited from your forebears."
"Easy for you to say that, Andy McGuffey. Why, you're a regular old pessimist, like all your canny Scotch ancestors were. You love to look at the world through smoked glasses. On my part, I prefer to use rose-colored ones, and expect the best sort of things to happen, even if I do get fooled lots of times."
A number of well-grown lads were perched in all sorts of grotesque attitudes along the top rail of the campus fence. That same fence of Scranton High was almost as famous, in its modest way, as the one at Yale known throughout the length and breadth of the whole land.
It had stood there, repaired at stated and frequent intervals, for at least two score of years. Hundreds upon hundreds of Scranton lads, long since grown to manhood, and many of them gone forth to take their appointed places in the busy marts of the world, kept a warm corner in their hearts for sacred memories of that dear old fence. Many a glorious campaign of sport or mischief had been talked over by a line of students perched along the flat rail at the summit of that same fence. More than one contemplated school mutiny had been hatched in excited whispers amidst those never-to-be-forgotten historic surroundings.
Why, when a few years back the unthinking and officious School Directors voted to have that fence demolished, simply because it seemed to be out of keeping with the grand new building that had been erected, a storm of angry protest arose from students and parents; while letters arrived from a score and more of eminent men who were proud to call Scranton their birthplace. So overwhelming was the flood, that a hurry call for an extra meeting of the Board went out, at which their former ill-advised decision was rescinded.
And so there that fence remained, beloved of every boy in Scranton, the younger fry only longing for the day to come when passing for the high school they, too, might have the proud privilege of "roosting" on its well-worn rails. Possibly it will still be in existence when some of their sons also reach the dignity of wearing the freshman class colors, and of battling on gridiron and diamond for the honor of Old Scranton.
As to the identity of the boys in question, from whom those remarks proceeded, they might just as well be briefly introduced here as later, as all of them are destined to take part in the lively doings that will be recorded in this and in other volumes of this series.
Otto was Otto Brand; Eli Griffin came of New England parentage, and had some of the traits that distinguish Yankees the world over, though a pretty fine fellow, all told; Andy McGuffey, as his name would indicate, could look back to a Scotch ancestry, and occasionally a touch of the brogue might be detected in his speech; Sandy Dowd had red hair, blue eyes and a host of very noticeable freckles; but could be good-natured in spite of any drawbacks; while the lad called "K. K." was in reality Kenneth Kinkaid; but since boys generally have little use for a name that makes a mouthful, he was known far and wide under that singularly abbreviated cognomen.
The Committee on Sports connected with Scranton High was a body of seniors appointed by the students themselves, and given authority to handle all questions connected with athletics. As a rule, they carried out their duties in a broad-minded fashion, and not only merited the confidence of the entire school but also the respect of the faculty as well.
There was considerable anxiety abroad just at present, because it was well known that the committee had been discussing the possible make-up of the baseball team to which would be given the proud privilege of representing the school that season in the Three-Town League. No one knew absolutely just who would be selected among the numerous candidates, though, of course, it was only natural that many entertained wild hopes, which were only doomed to disappointment.
Two more boys came sauntering along, and found places on the "roost." One of these was a burly fellow with a pugnacious face and a bold eye. He seemed to be no favorite among the boys, though they treated him with a certain amount of respect. Well, there is never a town or a village but has its particular bully; and for several years now Nick Lang had ably filled that role in Scranton.
He was a born "scrapper," and never so happy as when annoying others. A fight appeared to be the acme of pleasure with him, and it was seldom that he could be seen without some trace of a mix-up on his face in the shape of scratches, or a suspicious hue about one of his eyes.
The other boy was Leon Disney, the "under-study" of Nick. While just as tough as the other, Leon never displayed the same amount of boldness. He would rather attain his revenge through some petty means, being a born sneak. The boys only tolerated Leon because Nick chose to stand up for him; and every one disliked to anger the Lang fellow, on account of his way of making things unpleasant for others.
The general talk continued, with Nick taking part in it, for he at least was known to be a smart hand at athletics, and had often led in such things as hammer-throwing and wrestling.
During the course of the conversation, which had become general, Eli chanced to mention the name of Owen Dugdale.
"Why, they say that even he aspires to get a place on the substitute list, just to think of his nerve. Perhaps a few other fellows might feel they'd been slighted if the committee turned them down for Owen Dugdale."
"Hold up there a bit, Eli," said K. K., reprovingly. "If I were you I'd go a little slow about running a fellow down, just because he happens to be called Owen Dugdale, and live with a queer old gentleman he calls his grandfather, but who chooses to keep aloof from Scranton folks as if he were a hermit. I happen to know that two of our most respected chums, Hugh Morgan and Thad Stevens, seem to have taken a great liking for that dark-faced chap. I've seen Owen in their company considerably of late."
Eli gave a snort of disdain. He was one of those impulsive boys who often say disagreeable things on the spur of the moment, and then perhaps afterwards feel sorry for having done so. Evidently, he had taken a notion to dislike the said Owen, and did not care who knew it.
"That fellow had been a mystery ever since he and his ancient granddaddy came to Scranton, and started to live in that old house called The Rookery, and which used to be thought a haunted place. I've always had a hunch they must be some relation to the notorious Luther Dugdale who has had a bad reputation as a dishonest operator down in the Wall Street district in New York. Why, lately I even asked my cousin in a letter about that man, and he wrote me the old chap had strangely disappeared some years ago, carrying off a big bunch of boodle dishonestly gained. Well, I'm not saying it's the same old rascal who's living in our midst right now, but, fellows, you can draw your own conclusions, for they came here just two years ago this summer!"
"Wow! that's something new you're telling us, Eli!"
"It takes you to pick up clues, and you'll miss your vocation if you don't look for a job with the Government Secret Service, believe me, Eli!"
"So Hugh Morgan has taken up with that gloomy looking chap Owen, has he?" remarked Nick Lang, with a suggestive wink at his crony, Leon. "Mebbe, now, I might badger him into having a friendly little bout with fists through that kid. As the rest of you happen to know I've tried about every other way to make the coward fight, and he only gives me one of his smiles, and says he's opposed to scrapping. That wise mother of his has tied little Hughy to her apron strings, seems like; but I'll get him yet, see if I don't."
The other fellows exchanged significant looks and nods. Hugh Morgan had apparently always been more or less of an enigma to them. They knew he was no coward, for only the last winter he had leaped boldly into the river at the risk of his own life, and saved little Tommy Crabbe just when the unfortunate child was about to be drawn by the fierce current under the ice. Still, no one had even known Hugh to be engaged in a fight. There was some deep object back of his reluctance so to demean himself, most of the fellows believed, and as he was so well liked, they respected his motives.
Just then keen-eyed Andy McGuffey was heard to cry out:
"Speak of an angel and you'll hear the rustle of his wings, and there comes our Hugh right now. See, he's waving his hand to us, and is hurrying along at almost a run. Say, it may be he's fetching some news from the committee, because he told me he had an idea they'd reach an understanding this afternoon. Yes, he's looking mighty wise, so I reckon we're going to hear something drop."
THE BOYS OF OLD SCRANTON
The boy advancing toward the comrades perched on the campus fence was bright of face, and with laughing eyes that made him hosts of friends. Few had ever seen Hugh Morgan angry, though there was a report that on a certain occasion he had stopped to give old Garry Owen the truckman a piece of his mind, and threaten to have him arrested if he was ever seen beating his poor horse when the animal was stalled with a load too heavy for his strength. Yes, and although Garry was known to have a fiery Irish tongue, he had been subdued by the arguments which Hugh hurled at him, and meekly promised to go easy with his stinging whip after that.
Hugh seemed to be a trimly built lad, who evidently believed in keeping not only his mind but his body also well trained, since so much depended on good health. He lived with his mother and smaller sister. His father had been dead some years now, but apparently the widow had plenty of means to afford them a good living. They resided in a nice house and kept one servant.
Most of the boys of Scranton High thought Hugh a fine fellow, and envied Thad Stevens the privilege of being his closest chum. A few, however, had no use for Hugh, and among them were such fellows as Nick Lang and Leon Disney. They pretended to dislike him because he had no "nerve," which was only another method of saying that he absolutely declined to be egged into a dispute, and had a wonderful way of cooling off all would-be fighters who dared him to a fist test.
Those who knew Hugh best felt certain there must be some good and valid reason for his action in this respect. He had taken none of them into his confidence, however, and they could only surmise what it might be. The general consensus of opinion was that possibly at some time in his younger years, Hugh may have shown signs of an ungovernable temper, and his wise mother had made him solemnly promise never to allow himself to be drawn into a fight unless it was to protect some one weaker than himself who was being rudely treated by a bully.
He nodded his head as he drew near the group, for by now the eager boys had left their lofty perch, and gathered in an excited bunch to learn what was in the wind.
"News, fellows!" exclaimed the latest addition to the group, "great news for the Scranton lovers of baseball!"
"Then the committee have finished making out their programme, and mebbe even decided on the lucky candidates who'll have a chance to show what they've got in them to put the school on the map this year?"
"A pretty good guess for you, Eli, so go up head," laughed Hugh; "for I've just been told that is what has come about. Their deliberations have closed, and presently there will be a general call issued for a full meeting, at which their report is to be read. Then everybody will know whether or not they have been deemed worthy of making a try for honors in the diamond this season."
"We'll all be mighty glad when it's over, and those of us who are unfortunate enough to get left high and dry can know the worst," said K. K.
"Huh! you needn't lose any sleep over that, K. K.!" exclaimed Sandy Dowd. "Everybody knows you're a jim-dandy at the bat, and a clever fielder in the bargain. Wish I had as much chance as you and Hugh here of making the nine. But then we must put faith in our committee, and believe they'll select the ones they firmly believe are best fitted for the job of holding down those heavy sluggers of Allandale. The rest of us can root for the glory of old Scranton, and even that counts."
"But the committee, it seems, have gone even further," continued Hugh, looking around at the eager faces of his chums, and also some who could hardly be classed under that head.
"Go on and tell us the news, Hugh! Don't ye see we're just dying to know?" pleaded Andy McGuffey.
"Have they been in touch with Allandale and Belleville?" asked the sagacious Eli.
"It seems that last night they went over to Allandale to meet the committee of that place, as well as the one representing Belleville," continued Hugh. "Matters of every kind were taken up and discussed. The meeting ended with a programme being laid out that is to be rigidly adhered to. Two weeks from tomorrow, Saturday, we will find ourselves up against Belleville; and on the following Saturday it's to be Allandale. Those two clubs have found a way of having their meetings come off on Wednesday afternoons at three, a special favor granted by the directors of the respective schools on account of there being but three clubs in the league."
"Two weeks, and as yet we don't even know who's going to be on our team!" burst out Eli. "Seems to me that's an awful short time to get settled down into our best stride. Allandale will have a terrible bulge on us, Hugh, because I hear they've kept almost the same team that carried off the honors last year."
"If anything it's said to be some stronger," added Sandy Dowd, ponderously, for he had a habit of looking solemn at times, in spite of his blue eyes, red hair and mottled face. "An Allandale fellow told me they expected to wipe up the earth with both Belleville and Scranton this term."
"Huh! better spell able first," grunted Eli. "I hope there's no more delay than is necessary about notifying the candidates who've been selected to appear on the athletic field after school every day, and keep hustling till supper time. We've just got to make the sand fly, if we expect to catch up with those older teams."
"Well," Hugh assured him, "you'll know all about it by tomorrow night, because the last knot will have been untied by then, and everybody notified to come out to the meeting. Then beginning on next Monday afternoon, hard practice for the lucky ones, to be continued every decent day during the week, with a game against a picked nine on Saturday."
"Will Mr. Leonard coach the team as he promised, Hugh?" asked K. K.
Mr. Leonard was the assistant of the head of the Scranton schools, a pretty fine sort of a young man, who had gained quite some fame as an athlete while at Princeton, and was well fitted for the task of athletic instructor, which post he filled in addition to other duties.
"He told me he would take the greatest pleasure in trying to build up a winning team for Scranton," Hugh informed them.
"Good for Mr. Leonard, he's a dandy!" exclaimed Eli; and that seemed to be the consensus of opinion; though Nick was seen to allow his upper lip to curl a bit at mention of the athletic instructor's name.
There was a reason back of that, as the other boys well knew, for they remembered the time when Nick had been handled pretty briskly by Mr. Leonard, and made to apologize for some rude remark he had thrown out heedlessly in his rough way. It could hardly be expected that Nick would ever have a very good opinion of the young man who had humbled his swollen pride in the presence of the same fellows whom he had so long ridden rough-shod over.
"Well, the afternoon is getting on, and supper-time will be around before long; so, for one, I'm going to head for home," observed K. K.
There was a general exodus, and the famous fence was soon abandoned by the entire group of boys. They started off by twos and threes, with the general drift of conversation circling around the one great subject—the meeting to be called for Saturday night in the school, at which the report of the committee would be made, together with an announcement as to their choice as to candidates to be tried out for the various positions on the season's team.
Hugh and K. K. walked along in company. Hugh always fancied the Kinkaid boy, for there was something dependable about him that won the confidence of almost all his mates. K. K. was one of the most remarkable chaps, who, while engaging in the customary rough and tumble sports of boys with red blood in their veins, still seemed able to keep himself always tidy and neat. No one ever knew how he did it, and a few were wont to call him a "sissy," but K. K. was far from that. Only one boy attending Scranton High could really come under such a name, and he was Reggie Van Alstyne, who had always been a veritable dude.
"Oh! I had nearly forgotten an errand my mother commissioned me to do for her," Hugh suddenly exclaimed. "I'll have to leave you here, K. K., and turn back."
The other laughed.
"Too much baseball on the brain, I reckon, Hugh," he went on to say; "but then, with your fetching us that good news, it wasn't to be wondered that you let such a little thing as an errand for your mother slip out of your mind. If I can help any, tell me, Hugh."
"Oh! no, I've just got to step in at Madame Pangborn's and ask her something. My mother is interested in Red Cross work, you know, and the old Madame has a connection with the French branch of that service. Most of the material the ladies of Scranton have been getting ready is sent abroad through the queer old lady, who, they say, once used to queen it at the court of Louis Napoleon. She's over eighty years of age now, but quite rich, I've been told. And if you've never been in her house you'd be interested in seeing how she lives. That wonderful green parrot of hers can rattle off a whole string of songs and sayings. It almost gives you the creeps to hear Jocko performing, for it strikes you as what Andy McGuffey would call uncanny. Well, so long, K. K. I hope you make the team, all right."
"Same to you, Hugh; but nobody doubts that, for we all think you're away above all the rest of the Scranton boys as an all-round athlete, barring none. Some may be able to outdo you in their specialty, but they're weak in other stunts."
So they parted, K. K. continuing on his way home, while Hugh turned into a side street, and went whistling along after the manner of a boy whose mind knew no care. Presently he came to a large house. It was rather dingy on the outside, but Hugh, who had often been indoors, knew there was some elegant old mahogany furniture, as well as other mementoes of the former life of the Madame when she filled a high niche at the French court, before the republic was inaugurated.
His knock at the door—for instead of an electric bell the lady insisted on using one of those enormous old silver-plated knockers, that used to be the fashion fifty or sixty years back—was answered by a colored woman, who seemed to know the boy, for she smiled pleasantly.
"Yassir, de missus is in," she told him in answer to his question. "Jes' yo' walk on back to de library, honey, an' dar you'll find her, sewin' like she always does dese amazin' times. You knows de way, I reckons, sah."
"I certainly do, Sarah," he assured her as he started along the wide hall.
When he knocked gently at the library door, he was told to enter, which Hugh proceeded to do. A very wrinkled and old woman sat in a big chair. The table was covered with material for all sorts of bandages, and such things as are urgently needed wherever hideous war is raging. Hugh noticed that at sight of him Madame Pangborn seemed pleased. He wondered why, but was not long in learning.
"Oh! I am glad you've dropped in to see me, Hugh," she told him; "because something very strange has happened, and perhaps you might be able to advise me. In fact, Hugh, I fear I am being systematically robbed!"
HUGH SHOULDERS A HEAVY TASK
Hugh hardly knew how to take that astonishing declaration on the part of the old lady. He remembered that she was very peculiar in some ways, and the very first thought that flashed into the boy's mind was to the effect that Madame Pangborn might be getting what some fellows would, impolitely of course, have called "daffy."
Still her black eyes flashed with all their old-time vigor, and she appeared to be very much in earnest. More to humor her than anything else Hugh remarked in a sympathetic voice:
"I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am. Of course if I can do anything for you I'll be only too glad of the chance. Would you mind telling me about it?"
"Thank you for your kindness, my son," she went on, eagerly. "You see, a woman of my age, who has studied human nature for a long time, comes to know the weaknesses of boys, even while believing in them to the utmost. At times the temptation may be more than their powers of resistance can stand, and they are irresistibly impelled to take something that excites their cupidity. I am prone to believe most of them find it possible to resist such an inclination. Still, alas! I have known of occasions where the temptation carried the day. This seems to be one of them. My heart is feeling very sore over it, too. I thought at first to speak to Chief Wambold, but somehow I hesitated. And then it happened precisely as before."
"Do you mean to say you have missed something on two separate occasions, ma'am?" Hugh hastened to ask, beginning to realize now that "where there was smoke there must be a fire," and that after all there was something more in this affair than a mere specter brought into being through an old lady's whim.
"Yes, it has occurred twice, and on each occasion that same boy chanced to be in my house. Oh! it is too bad, too bad! And he such a quiet and respectful young chap in the bargain."
"Please tell me more about it, for I can't possibly be of any assistance to you, Mrs. Pangborn, unless I know the facts," Hugh continued, his curiosity beginning to rise by jumps.
"The first time," the old lady went on to say, consulting what seemed to be a diary which she picked up from her overloaded table, "was just a week ago today. I had been busy as usual, for an additional number of pieces came in from those kind ladies of Scranton who are helping me sew for the brave wounded poilus of my country, valiant France. This lad brought in a package which Mrs. Ackerman had given into his charge. I remember I chatted with him quite a while, and was interested in all he said so respectfully; for it happened I had heard a number of peculiar things in the way of town gossip concerning him and his aged grandfather."
She paused as if to recover her breath. Hugh, on his part, had started as though he might have received a sudden shock. Possibly his thoughts flew instantly toward one particular boy who happened to have an old grandfather, and about whom there had always been more or less mysterious comment in the town.
"After he had gone away, letting himself out at my request, so as to save Sarah from coming up from the kitchen, I had occasion to pass into the other room, which also opens into the front hall. Something impelled me to idly count over some souvenir spoons that I have personally collected from various parts of the world, and each one of which has a peculiar value for me far, far beyond its pecuniary worth.
"To my surprise and dismay I found that there were only eleven, when there should have been twelve. I keep them there on a table so as to show them to some of my kind lady friends, for I am particularly proud of my collection, and Sarah had only that morning brightened them all superbly until they glistened.
"So I called her up and asked her if she could remember counting the spoons at the time she cleaned them. She assured me solemnly that the entire twelve were in the open case when she placed them on the table at my orders.
"It remained a puzzle to me for a whole week. I believed, of course, that Sarah must have unconsciously mislaid a spoon, which would be found sooner or later. At the same time I remembered the visit of that lad, who had never been in my house before, and how he might have glanced into the drawing-room through accident, and seeing my souvenir spoons, been tempted to purloin one. But every time that terrible thought flashed into my mind I indignantly refused to harbor it, I love all boys so much.
"Then again today he came with more work turned in by Mrs. Ackerman, who had for some reason of her own selected him as her messenger. I actually forgot all my ugly suspicions in the charm of his manly conversation, until some time after he had gone, again, at my suggestion, letting himself out. I hurried into the drawing-room, and with trembling fingers proceeded to count my spoons. There were but ten of them left in the open box. Another had strangely vanished!"
Hugh almost gasped, he was so tremendously interested in this thrilling recital.
"You are certain you did not make any mistake, Mrs. Pangborn?" he asked, for want of something better to say.
"Please step into the other room and count them for yourself, Hugh," she quickly told him. "You can use the connecting door if you wish, instead of passing around by way of the hall."
Hugh came back a minute later. His face was very grave.
"It is just as you told me, ma'am," he remarked, softly, at the same time shaking his head, as though he could not bring himself to believe it was as bad as the old lady suspected; that there must be some other and reasonable explanation for the vanishing of the spoons; surely Owen Dugdale could not be guilty of such a base theft!
"What can I believe, Hugh?" she almost wailed. "I do not walk in my sleep, and that colored girl is as honest as your own mother, I feel positive. Please tell me you will try and find out the answer to this distressing puzzle."
"I can easily promise you that I will at least do my level best to learn where your property went, Mrs. Pangborn; and if possible recover it for you," he hastened to assure her.
"Thank you very much, my son. As soon as I saw you I seemed to feel an inspiration that Providence had sent you to me in my distress. For it would break my heart if I were compelled to have that poor, weak boy arrested, and charged with so grievous a breach of the law. You being a boy may be able to have a certain amount of influence over him. You may even induce him to own up to his act, and send me back my precious spoons. The ones taken by some accident are the very ones I value most."
"While I give you my promise willingly enough, ma'am," Hugh went on to say deliberately, "I want to add that I can't believe it possible Owen Dugdale could be so small and mean as to yield to an impulse, and take anything that belonged to another."
"That is splendid of you, Hugh!" she cried, her black eyes sparkling with genuine admiration. "I love a boy who has faith in his fellows, and thinks the best of them, no matter how circumstantial evidence may seem to blacken their characters. And my son, if only you can find an explanation of this puzzle that will exonerate your young companion, I shall be very happy indeed. A great load will have been removed from my poor old heart. I would rather lose the entire twelve spoons than learn that Owen Dugdale were guilty."
"Then you will not say a word of this to any one," he continued, "particularly Chief Wambold, who everybody knows has a great itching to shine as a wonderful sleuth, but makes himself only ridiculous whenever he tries to unearth any uncommon happening?"
"I gladly give you my promise to keep silent, Hugh," she assured him, holding out her withered hand, resplendant with lovely gems, diamonds, rubies and pearls, for like most French women, the Madame was more than commonly fond of jewelry. "And from what you say, as well as your mentioning the boy's name before I spoke it, I assume that you know Owen Dugdale?"
"I have latterly become greatly interested in him, ma'am, and we have been much together," he told her simply. "Since I pride myself on being something of a reader of human nature, I feel almost certain that there must be a great mistake somewhere; and that when the truth is discovered, you and I will laugh, and say it was ridiculous for us to even think Owen could have taken the spoons!"
The old lady's eyes glistened as she heard these brave words. Standing up for a friend was one of Hugh Morgan's leading traits; and yet, if the truth were known, he did not feel quite so positive as his words would indicate. Things certainly looked dark for the Dugdale boy. Hugh, when he came to think over the whole matter, was bound to be smitten with a grave fear lest the worst come to pass.
"Somehow I seem to have unbounded confidence in your ability to accomplish the impossible, Hugh Morgan," she told him, which words of praise thrilled him to the heart, for he was, after all, human and a boy. "Only good words have come to me about you from all those with whom I converse; for though you may think it odd in an old woman who never had a son of her own, I have all my life been interested in other people's children, particularly boys, seven of whom I have had educated at my expense. Ah! they are either fighting bravely for the life of France just now, or else filling patriots' graves in the battle country."
Hugh asked a few more questions that chanced to occur to him. Then he prepared to take his leave.
"I will think it all over, ma'am," he remarked, as she gave him her dainty if wrinkled hand to press, "and like as not I'll conjure up some scheme by which we can prove whether Owen is innocent or guilty. You see I could be hidden in that room and a trap set, you sending him word to call for a package you wished him to deliver. Then if he went out without even looking into the drawing-room, and yet another of your spoons disappeared, we'd know to a certainty that the trouble lay inside this house."
"Hugh, you give me fresh hope!" she cried, with her eyes glistening as though the tears were trying to flow. "Oh! I would almost pray that something of the sort turned out to be the case, for somehow I have taken a great interest in Owen Dugdale. I mean later on to find an opportunity to meet that wonderful grandfather of his, for somehow I suspect he may turn out to be an exile of note who has taken this means for hiding his identity. I have known eminent Russians to do that from fear of the Czar's secret agents."
Hugh could not but remember how some of the people chose to believe old Mr. Dugdale was keeping in hiding from some far less honorable cause; but of course he did not say anything about that. He went out of Madame Pangborn's big house with a sense of having undertaken a great responsibility; and realizing that an up-hill task lay upon his young shoulders which might test his utmost abilities to carry through.
IN FOR A FROLIC
The high-school boys and girls of Scranton, like those of most other communities, delighted in getting up occasional entertainments so dear to the hearts of young people. A straw-ride late in the summer; it might be a class-spread under difficult conditions on account of the envy of the other grades at school; and once in a while a jolly barn dance was engineered by a committee composed of both sexes.
There was just such a pleasant outing arranged for this same Friday night. Some of the fellows had made up a party to go out several miles to where a big barn, as yet empty of the anticipated crop of hay, offered them excellent facilities for a merry hop.
A trio of darky players had been engaged. The leader was quite famous through that section of country and had played at such affairs for years. Everybody for miles around knew Daddy Whitehead and the fiddle from which he could extract the most enticing music boys and girls had ever danced to; while his assistants, Mose Coffin and Abe Skinner were fairly good with the violoncello and oboe, making a good combination capable of playing up-to-date dances, as well as others known to the fathers and mothers of the present generation.
These affairs were conducted with a due respect to the proprieties. A middle-aged lady invariably went along in the carryall to chaperone the young people, although there was a deal of fun going and coming back home, as well as on the floor of the great barn, with its many lanterns to serve in lieu of electric lights.
Hugh was going, of course. He and his best chum, Thad Stevens, had a pretty fair car in which to transport the two girls whom they had invited as their partners. These same girls were co-eds with Hugh and Thad on the weekly paper which Scranton High issued, just as many other schools do. They were named Sue Barnes and Ivy Middleton. Sue was Hugh's company, while the dark-haired vivacious Ivy seemed to have a particular attraction for Thad.
By the way, since Thad has thus far not been introduced to the reader, it might be a good idea to say a few words about him before going any further with the exciting events that happened on the Friday night of the barn hop.
Thad was a quick-tempered lad, in which respect he seemed to differ radically from Hugh, who somehow managed to keep his under wonderful control, as though he had long practiced holding it in subjection. Strangely enough, Thad's folks came of Quaker stock, and "thee" and "thou" had been familiar words to his young ears. But Thad apparently had not inherited the peaceful ways of his ancestors, for he had been in more than a few battles with some of his more pugnacious school companions, nor did he always come out from these encounters first best.
All the same, Thad was a pretty clever chap, and Hugh had always been very fond of his chum. They got on wonderfully well together, and seldom had the least "tiff."
It was Thad who had secured his father's old car for the special occasion. He turned up at Hugh's house about half-past seven that evening. It was a calm night, and the moon was just rising in the east, being a little past her full period.
"Say, this couldn't be improved on any, according to my notion, Thad," Hugh remarked, as, attracted by the call of the klaxon outside, he hurried forth, wearing his overcoat, for the night air was quite chilly, it being still only April.
"A bang-up night for a dance," echoed the enthusiastic Thad; "just cool enough to keep us from getting overheated. The farmer's wife will make the coffee, and spread a table for us in her big kitchen, she promised; and the girls are to provide lots of good things. We're mighty lucky for once, Hugh."
"How many do you think will be on hand?" asked the other, settling down alongside the driver.
"Well, ten couple have solemnly promised to attend, barring some accident; and I reckon there may be several more show up, because we've done lots of talking about the jolly time we expected to have. I only hope that Nick Lang and his crowd will have the decency to stay away. If they show up there's bound to be trouble brewing."
"I'm afraid so," acceded Hugh, seriously, "for Nick is never so happy as when he's making other folks miserable. But the farmer has a stout hired man, who will be on deck to keep an eye on our cars, and other conveyances; so there'll hardly be any tricks attempted with the lines, taking wheels off buggies, and all such practical jokes, such as those fellows dearly love to play."
"I heard Owen Dugdale was coming," Thad went on to say, as they started off, "which is something unusual for him, because up to now we've never seen him at a hop."
"Now how did you learn that?" laughed Hugh.
"Oh! a little bird told me," replied the other. "Fact is, Hugh, pretty Peggy Noland told my sister Grace Owen had asked her to be his company to this hop, and she had accepted, because somehow she always liked Owen."
"Whew! I wonder now how Nick Lang will feel about that?" ventured Hugh. "You know Peggy used to have him for her company a number of times. But I remember how annoyed she looked at the class spread when he acted so rudely, and made everybody present wish he had stayed at home."
"Oh! Peggy says she will never, never go anywhere again with that terrible Nick Lang. She never did like him any too well, and now she detests him. I only hope Nick isn't mean enough to try to pick on Owen because Peggy's accepted his offer to take her to the barn hop."
There were so many other things pressing on Hugh's mind just then that he did not give the matter much attention. Later on, perhaps he might have it brought forcibly before him, and in a manner bordering on tragedy in the bargain.
Hugh meant to take Thad into his confidence at the first favorable opportunity. He knew his chum would never breathe a syllable of what he told him; and possibly two heads might prove better than one in solving what promised to be a great enigma. But the time was too short now to even mention the matter. Perhaps later on as they chanced to come together between the dances he would find the opening he sought to confide in Thad. He did excite the other's curiosity, however, by saying just before they drew up in front of the Barnes' home:
"I've got something queer to tell you, Thad, when I get the chance. Perhaps it'll come while we're resting between dances. I've undertaken a pretty big proposition, and I'd like to have you share it with me."
"Well, now, you have got me guessing," chuckled Thad. "What a fellow you are for undertaking big things. Nothing seems to faize you, Hugh, Can't you just give me a little clue to feed on till you explain it all? It's mean to stir me up like that, you know, old fellow."
"All I can tell you now," said Hugh, who had discovered some one peeping out through the lace curtains at the parlor window, and knew how anxious Sue must be for him to run up the steps and ring the door bell, "is that it concerns Owen Dugdale. So just let your curiosity-mill work on that until I can spin the whole odd yarn."
"Whew! you've twisted me up worse than ever now," he heard Thad muttering, as he hastened to make for the door, where the eager Sue awaited him, having seen the car stopping at the curb.
As Ivy lived only a short block away, they speedily had her installed alongside the chattering Sue in the back seat; though possibly on the way home the girls might prefer to change partners, as Ivy was heard to say she just dearly loved to be alongside the chauffeur when out in a car, because the view was so much better.
On the road they passed several vehicles, all bound in the same direction. Now it was a slow car that managed to roll along "like an ice-wagon," as Thad laughingly called out on going ahead. Then again it was a buggy pulled by a horse; for there were actually a few of these almost extinct quadrupeds still to be found in some of the family stables of Scranton.
"Listen! that must be the carryall ahead of us," called out Thad, not venturing to turn his head when he spoke, because the road was rather poor, with ditches on either side, while the moon gave rather a poor light, since it had not yet risen above the haze near the horizon.
Some one aboard was noisily tooting the horn, for some boys seem to be up to all manner of mischief every hour of the day, and dearly love to make a noise in the world, even though it rasps on other people's ears distressingly.
Once they arrived at their destination, they found it a very gay scene. The barn had been quite prettily decorated by some of the girls who had come out during the last two afternoons after school to sweep the floor, and instruct the farmer and his helper just where to hang the many lanterns they had fetched along.
There was Daddy Whitehead, with his famous fiddle, which he was already tuning up, so as to be ready to commence operations; while his "band," consisting of Abe Skinner and Mose Coffin, sat there with huge grins on their faces, and also an expectant look. They had undoubtedly noted the huge hampers of eatables that came with each party, and could anticipate a delightful break in the monotony of sawing away, or blowing steadily into that oboe instrument.
Chattering girls and boys were soon strewn all about the place. The farmer and his good wife seemed to be enjoying the picture, since it must have reminded them of somewhat similar episodes in their own younger years, when life seemed buoyant, and without any trouble such as time always brings in its train.
Soon the first dance started, and immediately the floor was covered with happy couples whirling in the maze of a waltz. More vehicles arrived, and others joined in the festivities. This continued for two solid hours, with brief respites to allow both musicians and dancers a chance to "rest up."
Then some of the girls were called upon to pass into the kitchen of the farmhouse to start work at getting supper ready; though none of the boys were allowed to accompany them, being told that they would only interfere with the work.
It happened that among those who took this duty on themselves were both Ivy and Sue, so that Hugh and Thad found they were without partners. They were feeling a bit fatigued in the bargain, and following the example of several other fellows who were in the same fix, they strolled outside for a breath of cool air, taking care to pick up their overcoats, as they were flushed from exercise.
Here Thad demanded that Hugh explain what his strange words meant with reference to Owen Dugdale. He listened while the other told the story in low tones; for while they believed themselves alone in the moonlight, it was always possible that some other fellow might be loitering close by, and thus overhear what was not intended for his ears.
Thad of course was deeply interested by what he heard. He, too, declared that it seemed preposterous to think that Owen could demean himself so much as to deliberately steal what belonged to the queer old French madame. At the same time Thad admitted he considered the circumstantial evidence fairly strong.
"My father's a lawyer, you know, Hugh," he went on to say, "and I've heard him say circumstantial evidence has hanged many an innocent man. We ought to go mighty slow about believing Owen guilty without better proof than his having been in the house on both occasions."
THE TRAGIC AFFAIR ON THE ROAD
"Let's walk up the road a bit," suggested Hugh. "It's too cool to sit here after getting so heated up inside the barn. And Sue told me they'd be all of a quarter of an hour laying the supper out."
"I'm with you, Hugh. After those cranky dances, it'll do both of us good to step out in some other way than that silly tango, and monkey climb. Have you thought up any scheme yet for learning the truth about Owen?"
"Not yet," came the reply, "though I've several ideas on tap, and may settle on one soon. It's such a serious affair that I'm afraid to hurry too fast. Why, if the boy is innocent, as we both seem to believe, he'd be terribly humiliated if he learned that he had been under suspicion. I've found out he's quite proud, and that's one reason he hasn't mingled with the young folks much since coming to our town. He knows there are strange rumors about his grandfather, and that some people are even talking about Mr. Dugdale as if they suspected him of being a notorious crook in hiding."
"Listen! what's all that loud talking ahead there mean?" suddenly exclaimed Thad.
They both stopped short, and held their breath while listening.
"Would you believe it!" cried Thad, "that was certainly Nick Lang's gruff voice I heard just then. If that chap's around this region, he's come out on purpose to kick up some sort of a shindy. It would be just like his way."
Hugh felt a thrill pass over him. It was as though some innate warning told him he would sooner or later be mixed up in the mess Nick meant to start. Somehow, his thoughts instinctively flew to Owen Dugdale, and he remembered what Thad had remarked earlier in the evening about the possibility of Nick picking on Owen simply because Peggy Noland chose to accompany the other to the hop, in preference to accepting Nick for a partner.
The voices were growing even more boisterous.
"Let's get a move on us, and sprint up that way, Hugh," suggested Thad, unable to restrain his impatience.
"Might as well," the other grimly told him.
Accordingly, they started to run. All the while they could hear disputing voices raised in anger and excitement. Apparently, Nick was aroused, and looking for trouble; when he allowed himself to jump into this aggressive mood, somebody was liable to feel the weight of his heavy fist before the end of the affair came. At least such had always been the case in the past.
Nick was not the only one doing the talking. Hugh thought he several times caught the sound of a voice that might belong to Owen. Then there were also others in the heated argument, some of them apparently egging the pugnacious Nick on, while yet a few more seemed to be trying to cast oil on troubled waters.
At least Owen was not alone with Nick and his ugly cronies, Hugh realized, though, after all, that would not count for much. Fellows like Leon Disney and several others of the same stripe would be only too well pleased to pair off and attack any other boy who might show a disposition to interfere with the designs of their leader, the bully of the town, big blustering Nick Lang.
Faster still did Hugh and Thad run along. They feared lest something happen before they could arrive on the spot. Both of them were grimly resolved that they would never stand by and see that overgrown fellow abuse a smaller boy like Owen.
As they drew nearer, they discovered that Owen was trying to stand up for his action. He seemed to be declaring that any fellow had a perfect right to ask a girl to accompany him to a dance, and if she did not wish to accept she would say so. He was not trying to cut anybody out, and if Peggy Noland would rather go home with another fellow, Nick, for instance, she had only to say so. But so long as she gave him to understand that she preferred to have him for an escort, he did not mean to be driven away by anybody, no matter if they were twice his size.
Somehow, when Hugh caught the drift of what Owen was saying, his heart burned within him, for he realized that the boy was made of the right kind of stuff. In build and muscular ability he was no match for Nick Lang; but evidently his courage was equal to any test; and it is that makes the man, not his physique alone.
"Bully for Owen!" Thad could be heard muttering between his pants as he raced along; "if that big coward strikes him, he's going to answer to me for it, no matter what happens."
Now that was just what was passing through Hugh's mind at the same moment. True, a social hop might be one of the last places in the wide world for a boy to allow himself to be drawn into a brutal fight; but if his hand were forced by Nick Lang everything else must be forgotten, Hugh decided.
Somehow, he felt better after that. He could even think of his mother without any burning regret and shame, for had she not impressed it upon his mind years back that no matter how averse a boy may be to entering a fist fight, when it is in defense of a girl, or a smaller lad, he is perfectly justified in so doing, putting aside all his scruples, even his sacred promise to his mother.
Matters were now getting pretty close to the breaking point. They could hear Nick ranting as to what he ought to do to a fellow who played him such a trick as to come between him and the girl he had always taken to hops and singing school.
"Do you know what I got a good mind to do to you, sonny?" he roared, and doubtless added emphasis to his words by shaking that big fist of his under Owen's nose.
"I haven't the least idea," replied Owen, steadily enough, considering that he must surely know sufficient concerning Nick's ways to understand the danger he was in. "All I say is that I had a perfect right to ask any girl to come to the hop with me. Since she accepted, you must look for an explanation from Peggy. I'm sure I don't feel obliged to ask you whether I can breathe the same air as you do or not. The country is big enough for both of us, Nick Lang. You go your way, and I'll go mine."
"I'll go when I'm done with you, and not a minute before," snarled the other. "So get ready to take your medicine. Mebbe when Peggy sees your nose all bloody, and one eye closed up, with a black circle coming around the other, she won't think you so pretty a sight."
"What's going on here?"
It was Hugh who asked this as he and Thad managed to arrive on the scene, to discover a group of boys standing there on the moonlit road surrounding the two principals in the heated argument, who were facing each other so threateningly.
Nick turned his head to take a look. Even in the moonlight, the sudden grin that came upon his red face was noticeable. Apparently it pleased him to know that the boy whom he had never thus far been able to coax into a row with him had arrived on the spot. He must have judged that this was a piece of double luck, in that he might take revenge upon the one who had interfered with his pleasure, and at the same time force Hugh Morgan, who had never been known to engage in any rowdy practices, to enter into a rough-and-tumble scrap with him.
"Hello! so you're there, are you, Hugh Morgan?" he called out, with a ring of savage delight in his heavy voice. "Glad you've dropped in just in time to see me give a good friend of yours a little lesson in politeness. Here's Owen saying how he thinks it good taste to step in between a fellow and his best girl. I'm meaning to knock a different notion into his silly head. Sometimes you have to pound things into some people, you understand."
"I'd advise you to try nothing of the sort, Nick," said Hugh, steadily.
At that the other laughed aloud.
"Why, you don't mean to tell me you'd stick in your little oar, Hugh, and try to teach me a few tricks, do you? I could put you on your back with one hand behind me. Fellers that are tied to their mother's apron strings ain't apt to know a heap about how to take care of themselves in a stand-up fight. Mebbe now you're meaning all of you to pick on me? Well, I've got a few nervy pals hangin' around who'd like nothing better than to have you try that game."
Owen had not attempted to escape while Nick's attention was thus taken up with the newcomers, though possibly he might have been forgiven had he done so, considering all the conditions. But evidently Owen had plenty of nerve, even though he might be lacking in brawn equal to the bully's larger figure.
Nick now turned again upon the other. His gestures became even more offensive, as though despite Hugh's grave warning, he meant to attack Owen, come what might, and give him the drubbing which according to his, Nick's light, was long overdue.
Suddenly, without the least warning, his fist shot out. Owen apparently was not expecting such a cowardly blow, and hence must have been taken unawares. The consequence was that the blow landed on the side of his head when he tried instinctively to duck. It sounded horribly suggestive, and made Hugh's blood fairly boil as anger swept over him in a wild wave.
Owen staggered and fell. Gamely, he attempted to scramble to his knees, and before Nick could prevent him had even done this, trying to strike back in return. The boy was furious because of having been dealt such a foul blow; he would have leaped at the giant just then if the necessity arose.
Nick was in his element. Scenes like this were so frequent in his life that he fairly delighted in them, just as another boy less pugilistic in his nature might glory in taking snap-shot pictures, catching fish, or camping in the woods. Fighting and Nick Lang were synonymous terms, it might almost be said.
Sweeping the threatening hand of Owen aside almost contemptuously, Nick suddenly sent in another swift jolt, such as he knew so well how to deliver, having taken a few lessons from some reformed prize fighter. Poor Owen went down again in a pitiful heap. He did not have the slightest chance against such a master in the art of delivering heavy blows that could not be parried. As one of the boys who looked on with staring eyes, too much afraid of the bully to interfere, was heard to say, it was "like taking candy from the baby for Nick to strike that boy, unacquainted with the art of self-defense."
This time the boy was really unable to do more than struggle to his knees. There he knelt trying to recover his breath, and not yet wholly conquered, though unable to make any further threatening gestures toward his cruel oppressor.
Hugh had already started to quietly remove both his overcoat and the under one. These he handed over to Thad for safe-keeping. Nick saw his actions with keen delight. Apparently, the hope he had entertained of forcing Hugh Morgan into meeting him in a clean-cut issue, to see which would prove the better man, was about to be realized.
"It's just got to be done, I see," Hugh was saying, as he faced the leering victor in the unequal affair just concluded. "You big coward, I'm going to teach you that there's danger in picking on a boy smaller than yourself. In other words, you're due for a thrashing you'll never forget. Now look out for yourself!"
MAKING A GOOD JOB OF IT
A fight between two boys is not a very pleasant subject with which to deal. In this particular circumstance there were, however, mitigating conditions that would almost make it a pleasure to describe the battle. Hugh was standing up for the rights of the weak, and had only plunged into the scrimmage when he saw that Nick had treated Owen in a most cruel manner.
Once he started in and he meant business. There could be no half-way measures in handling so crafty and unprincipled a customer as the town bully. He must be carried off his feet with the impetuosity of the attack; and while still bewildered thoroughly punished. As Hugh had well said he needed a lasting lesson. Perhaps after this Nick would think twice before attacking a weaker boy, who might have a friend capable and willing to take up cudgels in his behalf.
Nick flourished those big fists of his, and commenced to dance tauntingly around as though meaning to enlist the admiration of his cronies, who had never yet seen him come out of a battle second-best, and therefore deemed him invincible.
Hugh leaped at him with fury glowing in his eyes. Some powerful fever seemed to have utterly overwhelmed the boy. Thad and those others stared as though they could not believe their vision. Was this impetuous boy who struck down Nick's guard as though nothing could restrain his attack, the same Hugh Morgan who on numerous occasions had been known to arbitrate a dispute, and declare that it was not worth getting into a temper over? A miracle seemed to have happened. The sight of Nick's brutal treatment of Owen Dugdale must have transformed Hugh into a merciless avenger. In that supreme moment he had constituted himself the champion of all those lads in Scranton who, in times past, had suffered cruel wrongs at the hands of the sneering bully.
There was a furious exchange of blows. Nick knew how to fight, but on this occasion something seemed to go wrong with his customary programme. Why, when he hit out his hardest, and expected to see his antagonist reeling back before the blow, to his consternation, it was cleverly warded off, and the next instant something crashed against his own face that made a myriad of luminous stars, never indexed in the galaxy of the heavens, flash before his eyes.
Then Nick was seen to stagger, and fall down. That was perhaps the first time he had ever taken a dose of his own medicine. How often had he stood jeeringly over some wretched fellow whom he had sent to grass, counting him out with monotonous chant, in which the joy of brutal victory was prominent?
"Get up and try it again!" said a stern voice. "That is only a taste of what is due you! I hope you have not had enough yet, you cowardly brute!"
Leon Disney and those two other cronies of Nick's were holding their breath with dismay. They had never expected to see the time when any one could knock their boastful leader out in this easy fashion. What previous opinions they had entertained concerning Hugh Morgan's prowess must now be reversed.
Stung by this taunt, Nick immediately scrambled to his feet. He seemed a bit what he himself would have termed "groggy," being familiar with the slang of the prize ring, but in spite of this he leaped wildly at his enemy.
Thad Stevens feared for his chum when he saw the fury of this attack; but he need not have worried. Hugh was able to look out for himself. Although those boys had never known him to take part in a single encounter, Hugh had apparently made a study of the art of self-defense. There can be no harm in knowing how to fight, if one is resolved never to indulge in the game save as a very last resort. And whatever reason it was by which Hugh had bound himself up to the present, apparently the time had arrived when he could break his promise with honor.
There was another brief struggle, exceedingly brief, to tell the truth. Then, for the second time, Nick, the boss of all juvenile Scranton up to this amazing hour, was thrown heavily to the ground, on which he landed with a terrible crash.
"That's two for you!" said Hugh, in a hissing voice, as though he might be speaking between his set teeth. "Now, if you're able get up again, and give me a chance to finish my job, of which I'm already sick."
Nick was not yet defeated, though it took him longer to rise this time than before. He was wary, too, and plainly disliked the idea of coming in contact with those sturdy arms of Hugh Morgan. Seeing that Nick did not mean to attack him, but had commenced to say harsh things in the endeavor to force his rival to assume the aggressive, in hopes that the advantage would fall to his share, Hugh lost no time in obliging him.
Vain were Nick's most desperate efforts to ward off the inevitable. Hugh had decided to finish the bout with this third round, and the way he pummeled staggering Nick almost dazed Leon Disney and those other fellows, staring as though in the throes of a nightmare.
When for the third time clumsy Nick went down heavily before the attack of the aroused Hugh, he refused to make the least effort to get on his feet. Evidently Nick was a wise boy in one sense; he knew when he had had enough of an unpleasant thing.
"Are you through?" demanded Hugh, sternly. "If you say the word I'll have some of your crowd stand you up on your pegs again, so I may knock you down. While I'm at it I want to make it a thorough job. Have you had all you want for tonight?"
In deadly fear lest Hugh be tempted to put his threat into execution, Nick managed to swallow his pride, and mumble that he guessed he must be out of condition just then, a fact so evident that Thad had to laugh aloud.
"All right, then," said Hugh, stepping back, for he had been standing over the fallen boy in a threatening attitude, like a Roman gladiator who had thrown his rival, and was waiting to see what signal the emperor gave so as to decide the vanquished man's fate.
He took one look around at Leon and those two other fellows. They quailed before his fierce glance.
"If any of the rest of you feel like having a try with me while I'm in the humor, now's your chance! Don't all speak at once, please," said Hugh, grimly.
When they saw him take a step in their direction, they shrank back. Although not averse to having a little entertainment of the sort at times, none of them seemed to particularly fancy being made a scapegoat.
"We're satisfied, Hugh," said Leon, hurriedly. "Nick got trimmed neat and good. It's been coming to him for a long time, I guess."
There is a saying to the effect that "rats desert a sinking ship"; and when Nick's hour for defeat arrived, even these hitherto admiring cronies threatened to turn their backs on him.
Aroused by this taunt, he scrambled to his feet. Nick was a sight indeed with his face bloody, and one of his eyes giving evidence of going into mourning. He snarled something at Leon with a degree of his one-time ferocity, and the other turned back to assist him off the field. Nick stopped to look back. He made no threat, but the malevolence in that stare toward Hugh told better than words would have done what bitterness was in his heart. No town bully is dethroned without his hating the object of his humiliation. Hugh had better be on his guard, for every one knew that Nick Lang would never rest until he had at least tried to even up the score.
Hugh calmly put on his garments again. Thad and the others were voicing their admiration for his recent gallant deed, but somehow their praise seemed to grate on the boy's nerves.
"Please don't keep on saying those things, fellows," he begged them, presently. "I know you mean it in kindness, but I'd rather try and forget this unpleasant business. I had to break a promise tonight, and it hurts ten times worse than any of the few cracks Nick got in at me. But then my mother always told me she would not for worlds have me stand by and see a bully injure one weaker than himself. I just had to do it, that's all there is to it. And, Owen, old chap, I'm mighty glad I happened to be around to give you a helping hand."
Owen Dugdale had watched all this exciting happening with varied emotions. Each time his detested oppressor had gone crashing to the earth, he seemed to feel his own injuries less and less. When the fight was over, and Nick had received such a decided thrashing, Owen felt like dancing around. He was a boy, every inch of him, with all a boy's feelings; and Nick had humiliated him dreadfully, as well as taken a mean advantage over him on account of his superior strength.
"I'm a thousand times obliged to you, Hugh!" cried the grateful Owen, wringing the other's hand vigorously; "of course this winds up my evening's pleasure, and I was enjoying myself more than any time in my whole life."
"Why should it put a stop to your fun?" demanded Hugh. "What if you have got a bloody nose, and a lump on your forehead. See here how my knuckles are badly skinned, will you; and I fancy I've something of a scratch on my right cheek, where he got to me. We'll wash up back of the farmhouse, you and I, Owen. Of course all the folks will have to know what's happened; but then we needn't be ashamed of the part we took in the little circus."
"Yes, be a sport, Owen," said Thad, encouragingly. "There isn't a single girl at the hop but who will sing out 'good!' when they hear that Nick Lang met his match tonight. And say, Owen, Peggy Noland will likely clap her hands with joy when she learns of what's happened, and then be extra nice when she sees how that brute marked you. Sympathy is akin to love you know, they say, Owen."
Owen had to laugh at this good-natured "joshing," but he allowed himself to be persuaded to accompany Hugh to the rear of the farmhouse. Here Thad soon secured a basin, and some warm water, as well as soap and a towel. The boys performed their ablusions, and in the end made quite a respectable appearance.
"Why, both of you are all right," said Thad, gaily, after the job had been completed. "Just think how Nick will look when he shows his face again. Chances are he'll stick to his house all day Saturday and Sunday; and when school opens on Monday prepare to listen to a tough story of how he got up in the night and in the dark ran plumb up against a half-open door, which would account for his black eye and swollen face. Oh! I know, because I've spun that yarn myself once."
Supper was announced just then, and the boys trooped in to enjoy the bountiful spread that had been provided for them. A buzz ran around the room, and all eyes were fastened on Hugh and Owen in eager curiosity. Thad thought it up to him to explain what had happened, so that no one might rest under a misapprehension. And when he briefly described how Hugh had so thoroughly whipped the hitherto invincible town bully, every one applauded. It might be noticed also that pretty Peggy Noland looked at her company with unshed tears in her eyes; and she was unusually good to Owen the balance of the evening, so that he had a jolly time of it, taken in all.
CALLED OUT FOR PRACTICE
When Monday saw the gathering of boys and girls at school, there were two subjects that seemed to engross their conversation. One of these concerned the royally good time enjoyed by those who had been at the barn hop on Friday evening; and of course the other was connected with the meeting held in the schoolhouse Saturday night, at which almost every boy in town had been present, to hear the report of the Athletic Committee, and learn who the lucky ones were.
Of course four-fifths of the aspirants entertained hopes that lightning might be so kind as to strike the little rod which each had modestly erected. There were doubtless burning regrets when the long list had been finished, many disappointed fellows trying to laugh, and appear as though they had never wanted the job anyway.
The call had gone forth for every boy selected to appear on the field immediately after school that same Monday afternoon, for initial practice. There was considerable speculation as to who would finally bear off the honors, and make the first string of players. Being a substitute was as much as some of them had any desire for, for as such they might share in the glory, and have only a small measure of the actual work.
When just before school took up, Nick Lang came along, he was the "cynosure of every eye," as Reggie Van Alstyne was heard to remark in his elegant way.
Nick had evidently made up his mind to just "grin and stand it." He could scowl in his old fashion, and thus restrain others from being "too fresh." These fellows need not begin to imagine themselves all Hugh Morgans, and they had better leave him alone unless they were seeking trouble.
Dr. Carmack thought it his duty that morning, at general exercises, to speak of the meeting which he had attended on Saturday night.
"It was a thoroughly representative meeting of Scranton young people," he went on to say in his cordial way, which always endeared him to the students of all the schools under his jurisdiction. "The committee carried out their business in a commendable manner, and submitted a list of names of acceptable candidates that in my opinion could not be excelled. Let every one who is given the opportunity to contest for the prizes, do his level best; and when later on the nine has been selected we all hope and believe they will bring great honor to Old Scranton High."
Of course the good doctor had been told about the little affair on the road at the time the barn hop was in progress; but he was a wise pedagogue, and made no mention of it in his address. Nick writhed in his seat every time he saw the principal look his way, his guilty conscience causing his fears to rise, with the thought that he might be further humiliated before the entire school.
But the encounter had taken place far beyond the jurisdiction of the school rules; and Dr. Carmack was usually satisfied to let his boys settle these things among themselves. Besides, doubtless, he grimly concluded that Nick, whose reputation as a universal bully of course he knew full well, had been pretty well punished already, since his bruised face and dark-rimmed eye spoke eloquently.
Later on that morning, when Hugh had occasion to go to the office of the Head on some errand, he met with an unusually warm reception.
"Pardon me for speaking about what I know must be a sore subject with you, Hugh," remarked the principal, as the boy was about to depart after concluding his errand. "But I have had a graphic account of that miserable affair Friday night. Permit me to say that you acted quite right, and I commend you for it. The boys of Scranton are deeply indebted to you for punishing a brutal bully. I understand that it has always been much against your principles to engage in a fight; which makes your championing the cause of a weaker boy all the more justifiable."
"Oh! you are giving me far too much credit, Doctor Carmack," said Hugh, reddening with confusion. "I could hardly claim I had any great scruples about not engaging in such things that are almost universal among boys. But years ago I promised my mother never to let my temper get the better of me; and under no conditions to strike a companion in anger, unless it was to save myself from a beating, or to whip a bully who was abusing some one weaker than himself."
"Then you have a very wise mother, Hugh, let me tell you!" declared the gentleman, who knew boys "like a book," from long association with thousands of them. "She doubtless had her reasons for asking you to take that pledge."
"I have never told even my chum, Thad Stevens, what it meant, sir," said the boy, eagerly, "but I do not mind speaking of it to you."
"Please don't do it, Hugh, if it brings up any memories that you would rather forget," exclaimed the principal, "though I feel honored by what you say."
"But I do not mind telling you, sir; indeed, I would rather do so, for it must seem strange to you that when I can use my fists so well, apparently, I should all this while have avoided every chance for trouble with others. The fact of the matter is, Doctor Carmack, that I am constituted very like my father was; and once upon a time his temper got the better of him, so that he attacked a man who had insulted him, and seriously injured him. That man always had a limp through the remainder of his life. He and my father became good friends, but my dad could never forgive himself for what he did. He used to say that it was a mercy he had not actually killed the man in his blind passion. And after he died, my good mother, seeing that I had just the same Morgan temper, once I was thoroughly aroused, feared that it might get me into some dreadful trouble. And so she told me about my father, and I made her that solemn promise which, until Friday night, had never been broken."
There was a suspicious moisture in the eyes of the doctor. He squeezed the hand of Hugh vigorously, as though he could easily love such a manly boy.
"Of course you told your good mother all about it, Hugh, when you got home?" he went on to say, with a trace of huskiness in his voice.
"I could not have slept a wink, sir, if I had not gone to her room, and kneeling beside her bed poured out the whole story. She cried a little, because, I suppose, it brought back some old memories that had often saddened her; but she told me again and again I had done exactly as she would have wished me to. Oh! she is the most sensible mother any fellow ever had, I assure you, sir."
"And I also believe that you are supremely blessed in that respect, Hugh," said the gentleman, solemnly. "Be very careful that you never in all your life do anything to bruise the heart of that noble mother. I thought it best not to mention anything in connection with the matter. For one thing I could see you had done your work thoroughly, and that Nick had already received sufficient punishment. That is all, Hugh, and I thank you for taking me into your confidence."
When afternoon finally came around, and school was over early, there was a scramble among the boys, and a great hurrying home to get a bite to eat, after which, of course, every fellow who had any sort of baseball uniform would don the same, and show up at the grounds to take part in the practice. The air seemed surcharged with some electrical influence. All the talk was along the line of baseball slang. Even many of the girls were drawn to the spot to watch what went on, for they had become enthusiasts, and were in prime condition to "root" for Scranton High when the time came for the first contest on the diamond.
The scene was a busy one, with scores of boys doing various stunts—knocking flies to those in the field, passing balls with the vigor of veterans, and chattering like a lot of magpies all the while. Out of this throng, Mr. Leonard, the athletic instructor, once a Princeton player of some note, was expecting to bring order, and get some kind of game started.
Baseball is quite unlike football. In the latter instance, every boy has to receive an education before he is at all fitted to fill the position assigned to him. There must be long arduous drills in a dozen particulars, from bucking the line, and carrying the ball, to making a flying tackle, or punting. Then the intricate system of signals must be thoroughly learned, so that instinct takes the place of reason in the carrying out the play.
But every kid plays baseball from the time he can toddle. By degrees they keep on improving their game, so that when they arrive at the dignity of high school freshmen honor, it is only a question of ability, rather than any necessity as to education in the art of driving home a runner, or snatching a liner hot from the bat.
So Mr. Leonard anticipated having only to inoculate his bunch with the proper virus and ambition, after which he could let the drilling do the rest.
Among others who were out was Nick Lang. There was nothing really strange about that fact, because Nick would almost rather play ball than eat; and any boy about whom this can be said must be pretty fond of the National sport. Nick had always shown considerable knack in playing, though he was apt to make himself disagreeable, and want to run things. Possibly this trait might not show so prominently, now that his conceit had been so heavily bumped in his encounter with Hugh. Then again, Mr. Leonard was not the only one to let a boy take advantage of him. He would make sure, if Nick were to get on the nine through his superior playing, to have a substitute handy capable of taking his place; and at the first sign of insubordination, it would be good-by to Nick and farewell to his hopes of playing on the team.
Hugh was surprised not to see Thad Stevens among those present. Thad had received a summons along with thirty other boys. Hugh guessed it must be something pretty serious that could keep his chum from turning up. Perhaps, when he ran home to change his clothes, his mother had given him an errand to do. Thad was an obedient boy, and although he may have begrudged the afternoon lost, still there would be plenty of time to train for his position, if he had the luck to be selected in the end.
All the time they worked, and afterwards with picked nines played a short game, Hugh kept on the lookout, but no Thad showed up. This was so queer that Hugh made up his mind he must drop in at the Stevens domicile on his way home to supper, and find out what had happened to keep his chum, who was as enthusiastic as himself over baseball matters, from coming around for the first test.
More than once that afternoon Hugh received warning words from some of the other boys concerning Nick Lang.
"He isn't the kind of a fellow to forget and forgive, Hugh, remember," K. K. went on to say, with a shake of his head. "I've studied the beast, and I know how he's made up. Right now he glares at you every time he happens to come near. And if looks could kill, they'd be conducting your funeral tomorrow, Hugh. He's a tough one, all right, and you knocked the conceit out of his head when you gave him that dandy black eye. Be on your guard, Hugh, and never trust Nick Lang; for he's not only a brute but a treacherous one in the bargain."
But Hugh only laughed on hearing this warning.
"Thank you for what you say, K. K." he told the other. "You make the fourth fellow to tell me about the same thing. But really, I don't believe there's as much danger as you seem to believe. Fellows like Nick are careful not to get struck by lightning twice. The burnt child dreads the fire, they say. Nick's bark is worse than his bite; and I think I've drawn the fangs of the wolf, K. K. Thank you again."
THAD MAKES A DISCOVERY
When Hugh, on his way home, came in sight of the Stevens place, he was quite surprised to discover his chum Thad seated on one of the low gate posts, and apparently waiting for him to pass along.
"Why, hello! what does this mean, I'd like to know?" burst out Hugh. "After being honored with summons to come out and start practice at baseball, you run home to get on your togs and then forget all about it. But, joking aside, what really did happen to you, Thad, tell me?"
Thad was looking unusually serious, Hugh thought. Evidently something quite out of the usual line must have occurred to detain him; and Hugh, on his part, would not have been a natural boy had he not felt more or less curiosity concerning its nature.
"Oh! that was only an accident," the other commenced saying. "I begrudged losing my first chance to get limbered up; but so far as that goes, there'll be plenty of occasions later on. You see, I had to go on an important errand for my mother."
"It must have taken you out of town, then," remarked Hugh; "or else you'd have showed up at the athletic grounds later on."
"The fact of the matter is, I had to run over to Chestnut Hill, which you know is some ten miles away," explained Thad, as he made room alongside for his chum. "It was a matter that could not be delayed, so I didn't even bother running to the field to report to Mr. Leonard. At that I hoped to breeze along fast enough to fetch me back in time to have a little turn with the boys; but I counted without considering that I was dealing with an old car; and sure enough one of the back tires had to take on a puncture."
"And as you didn't carry an extra tire along, you just had to lay off and mend the same," chuckled Hugh. "I was afraid that might happen the other night when on our way to the hop; but we were lucky enough to escape it. Of course, on the road home, I wouldn't have cared much, because all the fun was over by then; and the girls would consider it something of a joke for us to bump along on a flat tire. But I see the old flivver in by the barn, so you did manage to get it home after all, eh, Thad?"
"Oh! yes, though I made a beastly mess of my tire-mending, I'm afraid. I ought to take a few more lessons in that art, because I've always been weak there. And when I found how late it was after getting here I concluded not to hustle around to the grounds. I guessed you'd be cropping up to find out what had become of a certain baseball crank who had played hookey. So I've been sitting here about ten minutes, I should judge."
"Is that all?" asked Hugh.
"Well, no, it isn't," snapped Thad, "though I wonder how your sharp eyes noticed anything peculiar about my manner. There is a lot more to tell you, Hugh."
"Suppose you get started then, and let's hear of your adventures," the other went on to say, with kindling interest. "Did any tramp try to hold you up on the road; or was it necessary for you to stop and help put out a fire in some farmhouse; like the time both of us had that pleasure, and received the biggest dinner we ever got away with as a reward?"
Thad shook his head in the negative.
"If you kept on guessing all day long I don't believe you'd hit the mark, Hugh. Still, in one sense you're right when you call it an adventure; though a pretty mild one. I'll tell you about it."
"Wish you would, Thad," grumbled Hugh, pretending to look anxious to hurry along on his way home. "Playing ball for three hours gives a fellow a ferocious appetite, you know; and we have chicken pot pie at our house tonight, which is one of my favorite dishes. So please get a move on you."
"Well, after I managed to mend my tire, being set on accomplishing the job if it took me till dark, I started along the road, and presently drew near town. That was about half an hour ago, I should imagine. I had just stopped to take another look at the tire, which seemed to be flattening more or less, when I heard some one calling weakly. When I turned to look I found that by some accident I had stopped exactly in front of that queer old place which we've always called the Rookery, because it looks as if spooks might live there."
As Thad paused to catch his breath, Hugh elevated his eyebrows. Apparently his interest no longer flagged, for he instinctively guessed that something unusual must come out of Thad's mention of the strange old place, where, as he well knew, Owen Dugdale and his eccentric grandfather lived by themselves.
"When I caught the sound of a voice again," continued Thad, "I was interested, because I had heard the one word 'help' uttered. Some one must be in trouble, I told myself; and then all of a sudden I remembered who lived there. So I started my machine and moved off the road, to leave it clear for other cars to pass by if any came along. After that I jumped out and hurried over to the stone wall that, as you know, surrounds the wild-looking grounds of the place.
"The voice still sounded, and I could see somebody lying on the ground there. I vaulted the low stone wall, and soon found that it was old Mr. Dugdale. He seemed glad to see me, though really he didn't know me from Adam, because I had never had a word with him before.
"While out taking exercise in the grounds he had been suddenly seized with an acute attack of rheumatism or sciatica in one of his legs, and had been unable to get back to the house alone. Then seeing me stop and step out to look at my mended tire, he had called as loud as he could, to attract my attention, hoping that I'd be kind and neighborly enough to help him to the house; for as he explained to me his grandson Owen was off playing ball just then."
"Yes," Hugh broke in with, "Owen was on deck, and did splendidly. He may be able to make the team if he continues to improve. So you, of course, assisted the old gentleman, as he asked, and got him safely to his house?"
"Yes, that's what I did," replied Thad, "and it seemed that his pains began to leave him once he got to walking. He said it was characteristic of the disease to come and go suddenly and mysteriously. When we arrived I had to help him up the steps, for he insisted on my coming in. Well, to tell you the honest truth, Hugh, I was a little curious to see what that queer old house did look like inside, and so I didn't hold back at all. Now, you've likely never been there yourself, even though you've been getting pretty intimate with Owen lately?"
"Once he asked me to step in, but it happened that I was in a hurry to get home. I supposed some time or other he would renew the invitation, but I also remembered that his grandfather was said to be queer, and averse to meeting strangers; so I've thought nothing about it. Well, is there anything more coming, or does that end your adventure?"
Thad drew a long breath, and looked sober.
"I only wish it did, that's right, Hugh," he continued, mysteriously. "Up to then the whole thing hadn't amounted to a row of beans, so far as giving me a thrill went. But the worst was yet to come."
"Go on, and don't stop so often, Thad," urged Hugh. "I believe you do it just to tantalize me. What wonderful secret did you discover there? Is that old house the rendezvous of a nest of counterfeiters, or might it be where they manufacture moonshine whiskey, like those mountaineers do down in Georgia?"
"Oh! come, it's nothing like that, Hugh, so don't allow your imagination to carry you away. I did get something of a shock, though, and I guess you'll feel the same way when you learn about it. Well, the old gentleman asked me who I was, and if I knew his grandson Owen, as well as a lot of other questions. Fact is, Hugh, I rather guess he must have taken a violent liking for me right on, the spot, for when I said I must be going two different times, he begged me to stay with him just a little while longer.
"I knew I would be too late for the ball practice anyhow, and besides I didn't have on my old suit, because mother had asked me not to wait to change my clothes. So I sat down again each time, and answered some more questions. The old gentleman interested me a whole lot in the bargain, and I soon made up my mind that those silly people who had been hinting that Old Mr. Dugdale might be that notorious Wall Street speculator who had such a bad name, and who'd disappeared several years ago, didn't know what they were talking about. Why, he is a polished gentleman, and a foreigner at that, I tell you, Hugh.
"He started talking about his grandson. How his wrinkled face lighted up when I said my chum, Hugh Morgan, had taken a great fancy for Owen, and that I shared in the same feeling. You could see easily enough that Mr. Dugdale believes the sun rises and sets in that boy of his. Nothing would do, finally, but that he should take me to seen the den Owen had fitted up for himself, because there was plenty of room in the big house, and every fellow he knew had some kind of a den in which he could keep his boyish treasures, in the way of foreign postage stamp albums, photos taken by himself connected with outings he had been on, college flags and burgees, and well, just such traps as the average boy liked to see around him when he's out of school, and settling down to read a favorite book.
"Of course, Hugh, I told him it would be too much for his aching leg, but he assured me the pain had now all left him; and he wanted to know if there was anything I could suggest that Owen might have to add to his comfort while at home studying his lessons or reading. So I went with him upstairs. Say, it's a real queer house, and must look a whole lot spooky at night time; because they only burn lamps and candles, for there's no electricity connection at all, or any gas either, I suppose.
"At the end of a long hall we came to where three steps led down into a room. It was a bully place, I will say that, with plenty of light from a lot of small dinky windows that faced on three sides of the room. Owen had fixed it up in good taste in the bargain. He must have plenty of spending money, because there were lots of traps around, from a pair of expensive snow shoes hanging on the wall to a splendid toboggan tilted up in a corner.
"In fact, Hugh, the place was pretty well filled with boy truck. It looked cozy to me, and I ought to know something about a boy's den; haven't I arranged mine seven separate times, until now it's back where I started? Well, of course, to please the old gentleman, I walked around, and peeked at things and told him Owen had as fine a loafing place as any boy in Scranton; which sort of talk seemed to tickle Mr. Dugdale a heap.
"Then, Hugh, I got my shock, all right. It seemed to grip my heart just as if an ice-cold hand had been laid on it. You see, in nosing around I chanced to set eyes on something that lay half hidden among some papers on a side table. Hugh, you could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw that it was a souvenir tea spoon, an ornate one at that, representing some foreign city, I don't know which, for I was too flustered by my terrible discovery to look close. Now, what do you think of that?"
JUST BETWEEN CHUMS
"Oh! I'm sorry to hear that, Thad!" exclaimed Hugh. "Are you dead certain it was a souvenir spoon you glimpsed? Couldn't you have been mistaken?"
The other boy shook his head in the negative.
"I sure wish I could say so, Hugh, and that's a fact," he replied; "but I've got pretty good eyes, and I ought to know what such things look like, for hasn't my mother been collecting the same for ten years now. Of course, ours are all of this country, representative of cities and places she and dad have visited. But this one was different. I'm as certain as anything that it must have come from some foreign place, because the style and marking stamped is of no American workmanship."
Evidently, what he had just heard caused Hugh considerable anxiety. It seemed as though things were getting darker for Owen Dugdale with every passing day. Even stout-hearted Hugh felt his doubts rising. He wondered if, after all, he had made a mistake in his judgment of Owen, and his belief in the boy's honesty. Hugh remembered some of the things that were being said around town concerning the old man of the dismal place called the "Rookery." His aversion to meeting people, as well as other odd traits about him, had caused no end of talk. Some even said they were not Americans, but foreigners, English possibly.
Altogether Hugh felt considerably exercised. He shut his teeth hard together, however, and told himself that no matter how many suspicious circumstances seemed to surround Owen, he would still continue to have faith in the boy.
"Whenever I think of Owen's clear eyes," he told Thad, "and the way they look you fair and square in the face, I feel positive that boy can't be a sneak and a thief. No one with such honest eyes could do mean things. Such fellows are patterned on a different model nearly always."
"Well, I've believed a good deal as you do myself, Hugh," admitted Thad. "Just take that Leon Disney, for instance. There's a chap who never could look straight at any one he was talking to."
"You're right, Thad. He keeps on shifting his eyes up and down all the while. I've often noticed it about Leon, and made up my mind it was an uneasy conscience that made him act so."
"Then, after all I've told you, Hugh, you still believe in Owen?"
"I'm going to hold firm until the evidence is all in," said the other.
"You're a good friend, I must say," Thad hastened to observe, a gleam of honest admiration showing in his eyes. "I only hope you'll stand by me as well, in case I ever get into any trouble, that's all."
"I'd stand by you to the last ditch, and then some," Hugh told him, with an affectionate smile; "for we're chums, and what's the use of having a pal unless he '11 go through thick and thin for you. But I'm a little surprised about one thing, Thad."
"Do you mean about my actions in that house, Hugh?"
"I should have thought you'd been quick to say something about the spoon, so as to draw the old gentleman out," continued the other.
"Oh! I didn't dare do such a thing as that, Hugh. It would have been pretty bold in me, you know."
"There might be ways to do it without seeming rude, Thad. For instance, what was to hinder you from picking it up and expressing your admiration for such a thing. Then by using your eyes, you could have told whether Mr. Dugdale was surprised at seeing the spoon there, or not. His actions more than anything he might say would have given you a pointer, don't you see?"
"Yes, I can understand that all right, now you've mentioned it, Hugh," chuckled the other. "It's so easy to grip a thing after some one has shown you how. Remember those envious Spanish courtiers who tried to take Columbus down a peg by saying it was a simple thing to discover America, since all you had to do was to set sail, and heading into the west keep going on till you bumped up against the islands that at that time they thought were the East Indies. Then, you remember, Columbus asked them to stand an egg on end, which they tried and tried without success, until he gently cracked one end, and it stood up all right. Oh! yes, I can see now I might have done a lot of things that didn't happen to occur to me just then."
"I'm sorry you let such a good chance slip by without nailing it," said Hugh.
"Well, it might happen," added Thad, as though an idea had come into his brain like an electric flash, "that another opportunity will come along, and if it does, I give you my word I'll learn something worth while."
"How did you like the old gentleman," continued Hugh; "and after meeting him, do you take any stock in the stories that have been floating around town about his being the clever rascal who disappeared from Wall Street two years ago?"
"Why, he seemed very pleasant, so far as I could see," replied Thad, slowly. "Course I don't pretend to be a smart enough reader of human nature to say positively that old Mr. Dugdale is all to the good; but he is well read, and I seemed to see what looked like a twinkle in the corners of his eyes as though he might have a fair sense of humor in his make-up."
"He liked you, too, didn't he, Thad?" continued Hugh.
"Well, to be honest with you, I really believe the old gentleman did act a little that way. Perhaps, it was because he'd heard Owen mention my name as one of his few friends; and Mr. Dugdale was wanting to show how pleased he felt to know me. Yes, he acted as if he would like to see me again; in fact, he asked me to come in some time, and visit Owen in his den, for the boy often seemed lonely, he told me."
"Poor Owen! let's hope this will all come out right in the end, then," Hugh finally said, as though his own mind was made up not to allow the latest discovery to influence him against the Dugdale boy.
"But we've got to admit," added the other, seriously, "that it adds to the tangle a heap, and makes it look worse than before. However, I'll try and learn a thing or two. Give me a little, time to get my slow wits working, Hugh; and I may have more news for you. All the same, it wouldn't surprise me if you took a spurt and came in across the line ahead of me."
"Whatever makes you say that?" demanded Hugh.
"Oh! I know you so well, that's all," laughed his chum, giving him a nudge in the side with his elbow. "I wager the chances are ten to one you're beginning to turn over a little scheme in your mind right now. How about that, Hugh?"
"If I am," retorted the other, "I don't intend telling you the first thing about it until there's some solid foundation for the theory to rest on."
"Same here," chuckled Thad, with a wink that had a deal of significance about it, Hugh could see. "Mebbe I've got a whiff of an idea myself that might turn out worth while; but wild horses couldn't drag a hint of the same from me so early in the game. So we're quits on that score, you see, Hugh."
The other jumped down off the wide-topped post, as though he thought he should be continuing on his way home.
"I must be going, Thad," he remarked. "Supper-time, almost, you know; and besides I have some chores to do. When a fellow will keep pets the way I do, he's got to expect to spend some little time looking after them. I wouldn't want to let any of mine suffer for lack of attention."
"And I wager they never do, Hugh!" declared the other, with his customary stanch faith in his chum. "You have it fixed so that your homing pigeons can always get feed from a trough that allows only a scant ration to come down at a time, your 'lazy boy's self-feeder,' I've heard you call it. And as for those fine Belgian hares that would take first prize at any rabbit show, they live on the fat of the land. Right now you're cultivating a bed of lettuce for them, as well as a lot of cabbages, and such truck. Oh! no fear of any dumb beast, or bird going hungry when it has Hugh Morgan for an owner."