THE CHUMS OF SCRANTON HIGH
On the Cinder Path
THE WORLD SYNDICATE PUBLISHING CO.
CLEVELAND, O. NEW YORK, N. Y.
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I. THE FIVE NUT FORAGERS II. ON THE OLD QUARRY ROAD III. TALKING OF GHOSTS IV. IN TRAINING FOR THE GREAT TOURNAMENT V. TREACHERY IN THE AIR VI. THE PROWLER VII. CAUGHT IN THE ACT VIII. LEON PROMISES TO REFORM IX. SCRANTON IN GALA ATTIRE X. WHEN MUSCLES COUNTED XI. THE CRISIS IN CLAUDE'S LIFE XII. STARTLING NEWS FROM THE JUGGINS BOY XIII. TO THE RESCUE OF "K. K." XIV. THE SEARCHING PARTY XV. PROWLING AROUND THE QUARRY XVI. A FRIENDLY "GHOST" XVII. SCRANTON'S "OPEN HOUSE" DAY XVIII. THE GREAT MARATHON RACE XIX. ON THE FINAL MILE OF THE COURSE XX. THE BOY WHO WON—CONCLUSION
THE CHUMS OF SCRANTON HIGH
THE FIVE NUT FORAGERS
The bright October sun was half-way down the western sky one Saturday afternoon. Two-thirds of the Fall month had already gone, and the air was becoming fairly crisp in the early mornings.
All around the forest trees were painted various shades of bright scarlet, burnt umber brown and vivid gold by the practiced fingers of that master artist, the Frost-King. Flocks of robins and blackbirds were gathering rather late this year, preparatory to taking their annual pilgrimage to the warm Southland. They flew overhead at times in vast numbers, making a tremendous chatter.
A noisy bunch of crows cawed unceasingly amidst the treetops as a large, lumbering old automobile passed along the country road, the same filled with lively boys, and also a number of sacks stuffed to their utmost capacity with what appeared to be black walnuts, shell-bark hickories, butternuts, and even splendid large chestnuts. Apparently, the strange and deadly blight that was attacking the chestnut groves all through the East had not yet appeared in the highly favored region around the town of Scranton, in which place the boys in question lived, and attended the famous high school where Dr. Carmack, also supervisor of the entire county schools, held forth.
The five tired lads who formed this nutting party we have met before in the pages of previous stories in this series; so that to those who have been fortunate enough to possess such books they need no lengthy introduction.
First, there was Hugh Morgan, looking as genial and determined as ever, and just as frequently consulted by his comrades, because his opinion always carried considerable weight. Then came his most intimate chum, Thad Stevens, who had played the position of backstop so successfully during the summer just passed, and helped to win the pennant for Scranton against the other two high schools of the country, situated in the towns of Allendale and Belleville.
Besides these two, there was included in the party a tall chap who seemed to be acting as chauffeur, from which it might be judged that he had supplied the means for taking this nutting trip far afield; his name was Kenneth Kinkaid, but among his friends he answered to the shorter appellation of "K. K." Then came a fourth boy of shorter build, and more sturdy physique, Julius Hobson by name; and last, but far from least, Horatio Juggins, a rather comical fellow who often assumed a dramatic attitude, and quoted excerpts from some school declamation, his favorite, of course, being "Horatio at the Bridge."
It was "K. K." who got up the annual foraging expedition on this particular year, and promised that they should go in style in the antiquated seven-passenger car belonging to his father, who was a commercial traveler, which car "K. K." often used, when he could raise the cash to provide sufficient gasolene at twenty-five cents per gallon. But on this momentous occasion each fellow had chipped in his share pro rata; so that the generous provider of the big, open car was not compelled to beg or borrow in order to properly equip the expedition.
For ten days and more previously some of the boys had industriously interviewed the farmers who stood in the market-place during the early mornings, selling the products of their acres. Doubtless numerous good mothers wondered what caused such an early exodus from warm beds those days, since farmers had a habit of getting rid of their produce at dawn, and driving off home while most schoolboys were indulging in their last nap.
But, by various means, they had learned just where the nuts grew most plentifully that season; and quite a list of available places had been tabulated: to the Guernsey Woods for blacks; plenty of shagbarks, and some shellbarks to be gathered over at the old Morton Place, where no one had lived these seven years now; and they said the chestnuts away up in that region miles beyond the mill-pond was bearing a record crop this season, as if to make amends for lean years a-plenty.
Scranton was one of the few places where the boys still yearned after a goodly supply of freshly gathered nuts to carry them through a long and severe winter. Somehow they vied with one another in the gathering of the harvest of the woods, and often these outings yielded considerable sport, besides being profitable to the nutters. On one momentous occasion the boys had even discovered the hive of a colony of wild bees, cut the tree down, fought the enraged denizens by means of smoke and fire, and eventually carried home a wonderful stock of dearly earned honey that would make the buckwheat cakes taste all the sweeter that winter because of the multitude of swellings it cost the proud possessors.
Hugh had been coaxed to join the party; not that he did not fully enjoy such enterprises, but he had laid out another programme for that afternoon. All through the morning these same lads had been hard at work on the open field where Scranton played her baseball games, and had such other gatherings as high-school fellows are addicted. Here a fine new cinder path had been laid around the grounds, forming an oval that measured just an eighth of a mile, to a fraction.
All through the livelong day on Saturdays, and in the afternoons during weekdays, boys in strange-looking running costumes of various designs could be seen diligently practicing at all manner of stunts, from sprinting, leaping hurdles, engaging in the high jump, with the aid of poles; throwing the hammer; and, in fact, every conceivable exercise that would be apt to come under the head of a genuine athletic tournament.
For, to tell the secret without any evasion, that was just what Scranton designed to have inside of another week—a monster affair that included entries from all other schools in the county, and which already promised to be one of the greatest and most successful meets ever held.
Hugh and his chums were every one of them entered for several events; indeed, it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack to try and find a single Scranton boy above the age of ten, and sound of wind, who had not taken advantage of the generous invitation to place his name on the records, and go in for training along a certain line. Those who could not sprint, leap the bars, throw hammer or discus, or do any other of the ordinary stunts, might, at least, have some chance of winning a prize in the climbing of the greased pole, the catching of the greased pig, the running of the obstacle race, or testing their ability to hop in the three-legged race, where each couple of boys would have a right and left leg bound together, and then attempt to cross a given line ahead of all like competitors.
So even when they started out after lunch the whole five were a bit tired; and a vast store of nuts, like the one they were fetching home, cannot be gathered, no matter however plentiful they may be on ground and trees, without considerable muscular effort on the part of the ambitious collectors.
Consequently, every fellow was feeling pretty stiff and sore about the time we overtake them on the way home. Besides, most of them had zigzag scratches on face and hands by which to remember the wonderfully successful expedition for several days. Then there was Julius Hobson with a soiled handkerchief bound around his left thumb, which he solicitously examined every little while. He had, somehow, managed to catch a frisky little squirrel, which, wishing to take home, he had imprisoned in one of his side pockets that had a flap; but, desirous of fondling the furry little object, he had incautiously inserted his bare hand once too often; for its long teeth, so useful for nut-cracking, went almost through his thumb, and gave his such an electric shock that in the confusion the frightened animal managed to escape once more to its native wilds.
Hugh, as he went along toward home, was really taking mental notes concerning the lay of the land, and with an object in view. He was entered for the fifteen-mile Marathon race (an unusually long distance for boys to run, by the way, and hardly advisable under ordinary conditions), and one of the registering places where every contestant had to sign his name to a book kept by a judge so as to prove that he had actually reached that particular and important corner of the rectangular course, had been the quaint little old road tavern just half a mile back of them.
"You're wondering just why I'm so curious about the country up here, I can see, fellows," Hugh was saying about the time we meet them; "and, as we all belong to the same school, and our dearest wish is to see Scranton High win the prize that is offered by the committee in the Marathon, I don't mind letting you in. I know something about this country up here, and have traced on a surveyor's chart the ordinary course a fellow would be apt to take in passing from the second tally post, that old tavern back of us, along this road to the canal, and from there across the old logging road to Hobson's Pond, where there's going to be the last registering place before the dash for home. Well, I've figured it out that a fellow would save considerable ground if he left this same road half a mile below, and cut across by way of the Juniper Swamp trail, striking in again along about the Halpin Farm."
His remarks created no end of interest, for there were several others among the bunch who had also entered for that long-distance race; and, naturally, they began to figure on how they might take advantage of Hugh's discovery. It was all for the honor and credit of good old Scranton High; so that it really mattered little just which fellow crossed the line first, so long as he "saved the bacon."
"It sounds pretty fine to me, Hugh," said Julius, "only I don't like one thing."
"What's that, Julius?" demanded the Juggins boy.
"By following that Juniper Swamp trail and the old road Hugh mentions, we'd have to pass close to that deserted stone quarry; and say, the farmers all vow it's sure haunted."
ON THE OLD QUARRY ROAD
When Julius made this assertion, the other fellows looked at each other in what might be said to be a queer way. In fact, they had all heard certain absurd stories told in connection with the old quarry that had not been worked for so many years that the road leading to it across country had grown up in grass and weeds. Some adventurous boys who went out there once declared it was a most gruesome place, with pools of water covered with green scum lying around, and all sorts of holes looking like the cave Robinson Crusoe found on his island home to be seen where granite building rocks had been excavated from the towering cliffs.
It was K. K. who laughed first, actually laughed scornfully, though Julius took it all so seriously. Thad Stevens followed with a chuckle, after his peculiar fashion.
"You give me a pain, Julius, you certainly do," ventured K. K.
"To think," added Thad, assuming a lofty air of superior knowledge, "of a fellow attending Scranton High believing the ridiculous yarns these uneducated tillers of the soil and their hired help pass around, about there being some sort of a genuine ghost haunting the old quarry—why, it's positively silly of you, Julius, and I don't mind telling you so to your face."
"Oh, hold on there, fellows!" expostulated the other boy; "I didn't say that I really and truly believed any of those awful stories, did I? But so many different persons have told me the same thing that, somehow, I came to think there might be some fire where there was so much smoke. Of course, it can't be a ghost, but, nevertheless, there are queer goings-on about that deserted quarry these nights—three different people, and one of them a steady-going woman in the bargain, assured me they had glimpsed moving lights there, a sort of flare that did all sorts of zigzag stunts, like it was cutting signals in the air."
"Hugh, do you think that could be what they call wild-fire, or some folks give it the name of will-o'-the-wisp, others say jack-o'-lantern?" demanded Horatio Juggins, who had been listening intently while all this talk was going on.
"I'd hardly like to say," replied Hugh thoughtfully. "As a general thing that odd, moving light is seen in low, damp places. Often it is noticed in graveyards in the country, and is believed to be induced by a condition of the atmosphere, causing something like phosphorescence. You know what a firefly or lightning bug is like, don't you, Horatio? Yes, and a glow-worm also? Well, they say that there are black-looking pools of stagnant water lying around the old quarry; and yes, I think the lights seen might come from just such conditions."
"That sounds all very well, Hugh," continued Julius, "but what about the terrifying cry that sometimes wells up from that same place?"
"A cry, Julius, do you say?" exclaimed Horatio, his eyes growing round now with increasing wonder and thrilling interest, "do you really and truly mean that, or are you only joshing?"
"Well," the narrator went on to say soberly, "two fellows told me they'd heard that same shriek. One was hunting a stray heifer when he found himself near the quarry, and then got a shock that sent him on the run all the way home, regardless of trees he banged into, for it was night-time, with only a quarter-moon up in the western sky. The other had laughed at all such silly stories, and to prove his bravery concluded to venture out there one night when the moon was as round as a cartwheel. He got close to the deserted workings when he too had a chill as he heard the most outlandish cry agoing, three times repeated, and——well, he grinned when he confessed that it took him just about one-fifth the time to get back home that he'd spent in the going."
"Whee! perhaps there may be some sort of wild animal in one of the caves they tell about up there?" ventured Horatio. "I'm not a believer in ghosts, and I don't consider myself a coward, either; but all the same it'd have to be something pretty big to induce me to walk out there to that same lonely quarry after nightfall. Now laugh if you want to, K. K."
"Well," interrupted Hugh, just then, "we're approaching the place right now where that old quarry road I spoke of starts in. I'd like ever so much to take a look at that same quarry, by daylight, mind you. Is there any objection, fellows, to our testing out that road right now? It used to be a pretty fair proposition I've been told, so far as a road goes, and I think we could navigate the same in this car. K. K. how do you stand on that proposition, for one?"
"Count me in on anything that promises an adventure, Hugh," came the prompt reply. "There is plenty of gas in the tank, and if we do get a puncture on the sharp stones we've got an extra tube along, with lots and lots of muscle lying around loose for changing the same. That's my answer, Hugh."
"Thad, how about you?" continued the shrewd Hugh, well knowing that by making an individual appeal he would be more apt to receive a favorable response, because it goes against the average boy's pride to be accounted a weakling, or one addicted to believing old wives' fairy stories of goblins, and all such trash.
"Oh, count me in, Hugh," responded the other, with an indifference that may possibly have been partly assumed; but then Thad Stevens was always ready to back his enterprising chum, no matter what the other suggested.
"Horatio, it's up to you now!" Hugh went on remorselessly, as K. K. stopped the car at a signal from the other, and faint signs of what had once been a road were to be distinguished just on the left.
"Majority rules, you know," said the wise Juggins boy, "and already three have given their assent; so it's no back-out for little Horatio."
"Course I'll agree, Hugh," quickly added Julius, when he saw that the other had turned toward him. "I'm just as curious as the next fellow to see that old haunted quarry—in the daytime, of course. Besides, everybody knows there isn't any such thing as a ghost. All such stories, when they're sifted down, turn out to be humbugs. Sometimes the moving spectre is a white donkey browsing alongside the road. Then again I've heard of how it was a swing that had a white pillow left in it by the children, and the night wind caused it to advance and retreat in a terrible way. Hugh, let's investigate this silly old business while we're on the spot."
And by these wonderfully brave words Julius hoped to dissipate any notion concerning his alleged timidity that may have lodged in the brains of his chums.
So K. K. started up again, and by another minute the old car had passed in among the trees, with the overgrown brush "swiping" against the sides every foot of the way. It was necessary that they proceed slowly and cautiously, because none of them had ever been over that long disused road before, and all sorts of obstacles might confront the bold invaders of the wilds.
Hugh was using his eyes to good advantage, and at his advice the others did the same. It was a good thing the car was old, and that it mattered nothing how those stiff branches scraped against the sides during their forward progress. K. K. knew how to manage, all right, and, although the trail was quite rough in places where the heavy rains had washed the earth away, and left huge stones projecting, he was able to navigate around these obstacles successfully.
Twice they came to low places where water ran, and there was some danger of the heavy car becoming mired. At such times several of the boys would jump out, and after investigating the conditions perhaps throw a mass of stones and pieces of wood in, to make what Hugh called a sort of a "corduroy road" across the swampy section of ground.
It was all very interesting in the bargain, and, for the time being, the boys even forgot the fact that they were exceedingly tired.
Then they seemed to be gradually ascending a grade, where the road turned out to be somewhat better.
"I imagine we're getting close to the quarry now, fellows," Hugh informed them; "if what I was told is true. It will lie over here on the right; and only for the dense growth of trees with their foliage still hanging on, we might see the cliff forming the background of the quarry right now."
Julius and Horatio looked around them with increasing interest, and perhaps a slight flutter of unusual vigor in the region of their hearts. It was about as gloomy a scene as any of them had ever gazed upon. Years had elapsed since work in the stone quarry had been abandoned, and Nature, as usual, had done her best to hide the cruel gashes made in her breast by man; the trees had grown and spread, while bushes and weeds extended their sway so as to almost choke everything around. The distant cawing of the crows sounded more gruesome than ever amidst such surroundings; but there was no sign of bird-life to be seen. It was as though the little feathered creatures found this region too lonely even for their nest building. Not even a red or gray squirrel frisked around a tree, or boldly defied the intruders of his wilderness haunt.
"There, I just had a glimpse of the place through an opening!" suddenly announced Hugh; "I calculate that we'll soon come in plain sight of the whole business, for this road leads straight across the dumps, I was told, and then on again in the direction of Hobson's Pond."
The sun was passing behind the first cloud of the whole day just then. Somehow the added somber conditions had an effect on all the boys; for, with the temporary vanishing of the king of day, the shadows around them appeared to grow bolder, and issue forth from their secret retreats.
"Ugh! this is certainly a fierce place for a fellow to visit, say around midnight," K. K. was forced to admit, for he was the essence of candor at all times.
"Wild horses couldn't drag me up here at such a time as that," said Horatio, as he looked ahead, and shivered, either with the chill of the air, or from some other reason, he hardly knew himself.
"Hugh, would you try it if someone dared you to?" demanded Julius suddenly, taking the bull by the horns, so to speak.
"I don't think I would, on a dare," replied the other calmly, yet deliberately, as he smiled at the speaker; "but if there was any good and sufficient reason for my doing the same, I'd agree to come alone, and spend a whole night in the deserted quarry. However, I'm not particularly hankering after the experience, so please don't try to hatch up any wild scheme looking to that end. If you want to come, Julius, you're welcome to the job."
Julius shuddered, and looked a bit pale at the very thought.
"Oh! I wasn't even dreaming of it, Hugh," he hastened to declare. "I'd much prefer to being asleep in my own comfy bed at home when midnight comes around, and the last thing on earth you'd catch me doing would be out hunting spooks."
It was just as Julius finished saying this that they received a sudden shock. A loud and thrilling sound, not unlike a human shriek, came to their ears, filling each and every boy in the car with a sense of unmitigated horror. It was so exceedingly dreadful that K. K. involuntarily brought the auto to a full stop, and then turned a face filled with mingled curiosity and awe upon his comrades.
TALKING OF GHOSTS
"That was no crow cawing, boys, believe me!" ejaculated K. K.
"Crow! Well, I should say not!" added Horatio instantly. "If you asked me right to my face I'd mention a donkey braying. Gee! but it was fierce!"
"But what would a donkey be doing away up here at the old quarry, where there hasn't been a stroke of work done these many years; tell me that?" demanded Julius defiantly.
"I don't believe it was a donkey," said Hugh, shaking his head, as though he, too, found himself exceedingly puzzled; "but I'm not in a position to explain the thing. That was certainly a queer noise, for a fact."
"Extraordinary!" assented Thad Stevens.
"Well, I should call it perfectly awful!" Horatio clipped in.
"Horrible would be a better word to describe it," eagerly followed Julius, who, it must be confessed, was trembling all over; of course, not with fear, or anything like that, but just because of excitement, he assured himself.
"And," continued the sensible Hugh, "if that's the sort of noises these farmer folks have been hearing right along, I don't wonder some of them have been nearly scared out of their wits. It was bad enough in broad daylight, with the sun shining; so what must it have seemed like in the moonlight, or when it was pitch dark?"
"Wow! excuse me from coming up here after dusk," muttered Julius. "I'm no ghost-hunter, let me tell you. I know my weak points, and seeing things in the night-time used to be one of the same. They had a great time breaking me of it, too. Even now I sometimes dream of queer things when I've got the nightmare, after eating too big a Thanksgiving dinner; and when I wake up suddenly I'm all in a sweat, and a poor old moth fluttering at the window will give me a start, thinking it's the tiger getting in my East Indian bungalow."
"Well, what's the program, Hugh?" asked K. K. "Shall I start up again, so we can continue our journey along this tough old road; or do you want to get out, and take a hunt around the quarry for the thing that gave those yawps?"
"Get out?" repeated Julius, in a sudden panic; "not for Joseph. Don't count on me for any such silly business. I came up here to get walnuts and such; and I'm meaning to stick close to my engagement. Side issues can't tempt me to change my mind. Guess I know when I'm well off."
"It's been several minutes since we heard that sound," Hugh went on to remark; "and, so far, it hasn't been repeated."
"Oh! it came three times, you remember, Hugh," suggested K. K.; "and, like in baseball, I reckon it's three times and out. Whatever it was let out those screeches it's certainly quieted down. How about going on now, Hugh?"
"If I was alone," mused the other, "I really believe I'd be half tempted to take a prowl around, and find out if I could what all the row meant. I never like to pass anything up, when my curiosity is excited."
"Oh, come back again some other time, Hugh, when you're not booked for getting home!" sang out Horatio. "If you put it to a vote I don't believe anybody in this bunch would seem wild to back you up right now. Fact is, I can hear our supper-bell calling me ever so loud. Hey! boys, how about that?"
"Let's get a move on!" Julius hastened to reply, so that there could be no mistaking his sentiments, at least.
Julius was followed by K. K., although the latter shrugged his shoulders as he added:
"Perhaps it looks timid in us doing what we mean to, but really this is none of our business, and we might get in some trouble bothering around here. I read about a house that was said to be haunted, which story a daring reporter said he'd investigate. He spent a night there, and actually captured the ghost, who turned out to be just an ordinary man, living on a place adjoining the haunted estate. He owned up to being the pallid specter that had been giving the house such a bad name; and said he wanted to buy the property in for a song, as it would find no other purchaser if it had such an evil reputation. Now, maybe somebody wants this quarry for thirty cents, and this is his way of scaring other would-be purchasers away. We don't want to butt in on any such game, you see."
Hugh and the others laughed at such a clever explanation.
"Whatever the truth may be," said Hugh, "I hardly believe it'll turn out anything like that, K. K. But you might as well start on. We're only losing time here, and it seems as though the thing doesn't mean to give as another sample of that swan song."
"For which, thanks!" sighed Julius. "I know music when I hear it, and if that's what they call a song of the dying swan excuse me from ever listening to another. I can beat that all hollow through a megaphone, and then not half try."
So the chauffeur started up, and they were soon moving along the rough road that had once, no doubt, been kept in repair, when the heavy wagons carried out the building stone quarried from the hillside, but which was now in a pretty bad shape.
Two minutes afterwards and the road took them directly alongside the quarry dump, where the excavated earth had been thrown. They could now see the cliff rising up alongside. It looked strangely bleak, for, of all things, there can hardly be a more desolate sight than an abandoned stone-quarry, where the weeds and thistles have grown up, and puddles of water abound.
Of course, the boys all stared, as they slowly wound along the road in full view of the entire panorama that was being unrolled before their eyes. They noted how in places there seemed to be deep fissures along the abrupt face of the high cliff. These looked like caves, and some of them might be of considerable extent, judging from their appearance.
"If this great old place chanced to be nearer town," said K. K., managing to get a quick glimpse, although, as a rule, he needed all his attention riveted on the rough road he was trying to follow, "I reckon some of the fellows would have high times exploring those same holes in the hill."
"It's just as well then it's as far distant as happens to be the case," Hugh told him; "because the doctors in Scranton would have broken arms and legs galore to practice on. That same old quarry would make a dangerous playground."
That was Julius uttering a startled exclamation. He gripped Horatio so severely by the arm that he must have pinched the other. At any rate, Horatio gave a jump, and turned white; just as though his nerves had all been stretched to a high tension, so that anything startled him.
"Hey! what did you do that for?" snapped Horatio, drawing away. "Think you're a ghost, Julius, and feel like biting, do you? Well, try somebody else's arm, if you please."
"But didn't any of the rest of you see it?" gasped the said Julius, not deigning to quarrel over such a trivial thing as a pinch.
"See what?" asked Steve, still staring hard at the quarry, which they were by now fairly well past.
"Well, I don't know exactly what it was," frankly admitted the disturber of the peace. "But it moved, and beckoned to us to come on over. You needn't laugh, Steve Mullane, I tell you I saw it plainly right over yonder where that big clump of Canada thistles is growing. Course I'm not pretending to say it was a man, or yet a wolf, but it was something, and it sure did move!"
Hugh was looking with more or less interest. He knew how things appear to an excited imagination, and that those who believe in uncanny objects seldom have any trouble about conjuring up specters to satisfy their own minds.
So all of them, save, perhaps, the driver, kept their eyes focussed on the spot mentioned by Julius until the first clump of trees shut out their view of the old stone quarry and its gruesome surroundings.
"I looked as hard as I could," said Horatio, "but never a thing did I see move. Guess you've got a return of your old malady, Julius, and you were seeing things by daylight, just as you say you used to in the dark."
"The only explanation I can give," spoke up Hugh, and, of course, every one lent a willing ear, because, as a rule, his opinions carried much weight with his chums; "is that while Julius may have seen something move, it was only a long, feathery plume of grass, nodding and bowing in the wind. I've been fooled by the same sort of object many a time. But let it pass, boys. We've turned our back on the old quarry now, and are headed for the road again, two miles above Hobson's mill-pond. I only hope we find it better going on this end of the abandoned trail. This jumping is hard on the springs of the car, and also on our bones."
"For one," said Julius, "I hope never to set eyes on the place again."
"Oh! that's silly talk, Julius," commented K. K. "Here's Hugh, who means to take a run out this way again as soon as he can, so as to time himself, and learn just what he can save by cutting across country in the big race. And I wouldn't be surprised if he put 'Just' Smith up to the dodge, in addition to Horatio here and myself, all being entered as contestants in the big Marathon race."
"I certainly feel that way, K. K.," admitted Hugh firmly. "It strikes me this is going to be worth trying. If one of our crowd can save time by taking this route, while the other fellows go all the way around by road, that same thing may give Scranton High the clinching of the prize. It's all fair and square, too, for the conditions only demand that the runners refuse all sorts of lifts while on the road, and register at each and every tally place designated. If they can cut a corner they are at liberty to do so."
"Oh! well," said Julius; "I'm not entered in the Marathon, luckily enough, so you see there's no need of my prowling around this spooky place again. I haven't lost any quarry, that I know of; and Scranton is a good enough place for me to do my athletic exercises in. But, Hugh, if you should happen to find out about the thing that emitted all those frightful squawks, I hope you'll promise to let us know the particulars."
"I can promise that easily enough, Julius," the other told him; "though, just at present, my only concern is to gain time by this cut-off, and so win the big event for our school. Now suppose we drop this subject, and return to something pleasant."
They continued to bump along the rocky road with its deep ruts. At times K. K. had to make little detours in order to navigate around some obstacle which could not be surmounted; for time had not dealt lightly with the quarry road, and the rains and wintry frosts had played havoc with its surface.
But, eventually, they sighted light ahead. Steve was the first to glimpse an opening, and announce that the main highway leading down to Scranton must be close at hand. His words turned out to be true, and soon afterwards they issued forth from the covert and found themselves upon the turnpike, headed for home.
Hugh turned around to mark the spot well in his mind, though he knew that it was to be the exit, and not the entrance, to the short-cut, in case he concluded to utilize the quarry road when the great race was on.
IN TRAINING FOR THE GREAT TOURNAMENT
It was an afternoon on the following week, after school hours, and the athletic field bordering the outskirts of the town of Scranton afforded a pretty lively spectacle. Indeed, it could be readily seen that the approaching tournament had taken a great hold upon the young people of the town.
Scores of boys were busily engaged in various exercises, under the watchful eye of Mr. Leonard, the assistant principal under Dr. Carmack. This determined-looking young fellow was a college graduate, and had taken considerable interest in all manner of athletics; indeed, it was well known that he had played on one or more of the college teams during his course, and won quite an enviable reputation for good work, though hardly reckoned a brilliant star.
Many who did not expect to participate in any of the numerous events had gathered to watch what was going on; and, besides, there were clusters of pretty high-school girls on the side lines, chattering like magpies, and venting their opinions regarding the chances certain favorites among their boy friends appeared to have in the way of winning a prize.
Scores were busily engaged in running around the cinder-path, taking the high jump, trying the hurdles, so as to perfect themselves against the coming Saturday when the wonderful event was to come off; sprinting for the short races of fifty, or a hundred yards; throwing the discus or the hammer, and numerous other lively doings.
Among these participants there were a number whom the reader of previous volumes in this series will readily recognize, and possibly gladly meet again. There was Alan Tyree, for instance, whose masterly pitching had done so much to land the pennant of the Three Town High School League that season for Scranton; Owen Dugdale, the efficient shortstop of the local nine; "Just" Smith, whose real name it happened was Justin, but who seldom heard it outside of school and home. He was a fleet runner, and had ably filled the position of left fielder when Scranton carried the school colors to victory over Allandale in that last heart-breaking game. Besides these, Joe Danvers was on deck, doing all sorts of wonderful stunts at throwing the hammer and taking the long jump, for Joe delighted in a variety of specialties and did not confine himself to any one particular thing; also might be seen one Claude Hastings, a chap who was a regular monkey in his way, and who always kept the crowd laughing by his antics, such as might be expected of a prize clown at the big Barnum and Bailey circus.
Yes, and there was Nick Lang, as big as life, running like the wind around the cinder-path and looking as though he might have a pretty fair chance to carry off some sort of prize. Nick had for a long time been the town bully. He was not a rich man's son; in fact, Nick's folks were poor, and some people even thought the big, overgrown boy should be at work helping to keep the wolf from the door, instead of still attending high school and making himself a nuisance to decent folks through his delight in practical jokes and his bullying propensities.
But even those who detested Nick Lang the most were willing to admit that he was a pretty fair athlete and could even have excelled along several lines if only he were able to control that nasty temper of his and "play fair."
There were two other fellows, who were cronies of Nick's, and who, apparently, had entered for some of the events, because both Leon Disney and Tip Slavin were in evidence and hard at work practicing.
Nick secretly hated, even as he also feared, Mr. Leonard, because the under-teacher had once cowed him and made him "eat humble pie" before the whole class; but, being a wise as well as pugnacious boy, Nick managed to keep his feelings under control, and when Mr. Leonard was around he usually behaved himself.
Later in the afternoon, when most of the boys out for practice had become more or less tired from their exertions, they gathered here and there in little bunches to exchange "chaff," and express their opinions concerning various matters that had a bearing on the coming tournament.
So Hugh Morgan found himself in a cluster that contained several of his chums, as well as a sprinkling of other fellows. A trio of lively highschool girls hovered near, and occasionally joined in the conversation. They were Sue Barnes, whom Hugh usually counted on as his partner when any dance was given in the country, or at singing-school during the winter evenings; Ivy Middleton, Thad's choice for company, because she was both jolly and genial; and pretty Peggy Noland, whom Owen Dugdale liked, as had also Nick Lang, though the latter had of late been badly snubbed by the scornful Peggy because she could not stand for his rowdy ways.
"Mr. Leonard says he's fully satisfied with the way most of the fellows are showing up," Joe Danvers was saying, about that time.
"Well, we can't afford to loaf, for a fact," remarked Just Smith, soberly. "Let me tell you something, fellows. I was down in Paul Kramer's sporting emporium just last evening, when who should walk in but Big Ed. Patterson, the Allandale pitcher, who came so near to downing us last summer. He looks as fine as silk, and told me privately he calculates on carrying off that prize offered for hammer throwing, because that is his pet hobby, you see. Yes, and more than that, he said they were all crazy up at his 'burg' over the big meet, boys being out practicing every sort of stunt, even to road-running by moonlight."
"That sounds good to me," Hugh observed, not appearing to show any sign of alarm over the stirring news. "It means we'll have a wonderfully successful affair. Who carries off the prizes is a matter for the different schools to take care of, and those of us who believe in clean, honest sport only hope the best fellows win."
"Huh!" grunted Owen Dugdale, "it goes to show that Allandale is all worked up over losing the baseball pennant to Scranton, and means to get even by carrying off the majority of the prizes our committee has offered for the dozen or more events to be contested for."
"But he also informed me," continued the bearer of news, "that over in Belleville they were just as much excited as in his town, so that every fellow who'd entered for any event, even to climbing the greased pole or the sack race, was diligently practicing his particular stunt. Oh! it's just going to be the greatest athletic tournament ever held in this section of the country, believe me."
Some of the more timid among the boys seemed to think that Scranton would come out second-best when the great meet was a thing of the past; but others only found themselves more determined than ever to win, after learning how their rivals had entered into the affair with heart and soul.
Hugh's often-expressed motto that the "best man should win" found an echo in the majority of their hearts, and they vied with each other in promising to give every ounce of ability to doing Scranton High credit.
Mr. Leonard came around to have a few words with his boys. He was a great favorite with the majority of the scholars under his charge, and to his clever method of coaching they attributed considerable of their success on the diamond of recent months. If only his rules were strictly adhered to it was possible that Allandale and Belleville might be due for another rude surprise when they came over, bent on carrying off the majority of the high honors.
"It is going to be no easy sledding for anybody,—remember that, fellows," the athletic instructor went on to say, after he had been told how both adjoining towns entered in the meet were striving with might and main to excel in every sort of event. "No matter who wins he'll only get there by doing his level best. That's all Scranton High asks of her representatives. Let there be no loafing, and if some of our good friends from A and B succeed in carrying away a few of the prizes, why, we'll know they earned the right, and are welcome to their reward. And now, I'd like to see you runners try one more ten-minute sprint, every one of you in a bunch, as a sort of wind-up for the day."
Accordingly they ran off to the starting-point and lined up, each assuming his particular favorite crouching attitude, which he seemed to think best fitted for a speedy "get-away" when the signal was given.
They ran like colts, and some displayed amazing speed, considering that they had been diligently working out on that same cinder-path for over two hours, with little intermissions between for resting.
Those who expected to take part in the Marathon did not attempt to compete with those fleet sprinters, though if they were pressed doubtless they too could give quite an exhibition of fast running.
But Mr. Leonard had taken great pains to inform them that the successful long-distance runners always take things moderately easy in the beginning of a race, preserving as much vigor as possible for the gruelling finish. The chief idea was to keep just behind the pace-maker, and be ready to rush to the front when on the home-stretch. The fellow best able to preserve his full powers for that last half-mile dash would be the one to carry off the honors.
Nick Lang was there with the rest, watching Hugh out of the tail of his eye, as if he considered that in the other he would find his chief competitor; possibly he hoped to be able to pick up valuable points by keeping watch and ward on Hugh. Hugh had even consulted Mr. Leonard with regard to making use of his knowledge concerning that "cut-off." In fact, he wanted to lay any doubts that may have arisen in his own mind concerning its being perfectly legitimate that he should profit by such knowledge.
The athletic instructor assured him he was keeping fully within the conditions of the race in so doing.
"It is any competitor's privilege to go over the route as often as he pleases," was the way Mr. Leonard put it; "and so long as he conforms to the rules, such as keeping on his own feet every yard of the way, accepting no lift from wagon or car, and registering faithfully at the several stations provided, he has done all that is expected of him. If by crossing a field he thinks he can cut off fifty feet or more he is at liberty to make the attempt, although it may cost him dear, through his meeting with some unexpected obstacle in his progress, which would not have occurred had he stayed by the road. Some fellows might believe they could do better than trying to cross by way of that overgrown quarry road. Yes, you are keeping well within the letter of the law in choosing your own way of going, Hugh. Have no fears on that score, my boy."
Mr. Leonard liked Hugh Morgan exceedingly; though that was not to be wondered at, because Hugh was one of those boys who would never stoop to do a tricky thing, no matter what allurements it held out; he always "played square," and even won the high regard of his rivals in many cases.
When the October sun had reached the horizon the multitude of contestants and spectators commenced to string back to town, for it would soon be getting near supper time; and no fellow likes to be late at the table, especially when he feels as hungry as a bear, after exercising so violently for hours.
Hugh was starting off alone, when Thad Stevens called out that he'd like the other to "hold up a minute," until he could overtake him; because it happened he had something to communicate which he thought Hugh ought to know.
TREACHERY IN THE AIR
"Hugh, it looks to me like there's a hen on," was what Thad Stevens said, as he joined his chum.
"That's a queer remark for you to make, Thad," the other chuckled; "after seeing what's been happening here on our athletic field this afternoon, I'd be likely to say there were a good many score of hens setting, each hoping to hatch out one of our dandy prizes next Saturday."
"Oh! you understand that I mean something crooked going on, Hugh," Thad hastened to add.
"That sounds serious enough. What do you know, Thad? The chances are ten to one if anything in the way of trickery is contemplated I can put my hand on the fellow who's guilty of the same."
"Sure thing, Hugh, and his name is Nicholas in the bargain. They call him Young Nick, to distinguish him from his father who's dead and gone; but sometimes people say he's a regular Old Nick when it comes to playing mean jokes, and getting into trouble of all kinds."
"What's Nick Lang been up to now, Thad?"
"Oh! just spying on you, for one thing!" exclaimed the other angrily.
"He's welcome to chase around after me as often as he pleases," said Hugh; "much good will it do him, I'm thinking. But tell me, why should he go to all that bother, when my going-out and coming-in don't interfere with his happiness a whit?"
"Hugh, Nick is on to your scheme for making use of that short-cut across by way of the old deserted quarry!"
"You don't tell me?" Hugh observed. "Well, I came near speaking to him about it myself, Thad. You see, Nick is entered for the Marathon, just the same as a number of other Scranton High boys are. If K. K., Just Smith, and several other fellows are to have the benefit of that cut-off, if they choose to avail themselves of it, why shouldn't Nick be included, I've been asking myself? Yes, and I'd about concluded it was my duty to let him know; but if, as you say, he's found out for himself I'll be saved all the bother of telling."
"He followed you across yesterday, Hugh. By a mere accident I heard him telling Tip Slavin, and he seemed to think it a good joke, because you never once suspected he was spying on you from behind trees and bushes. Why, he says he followed you clear across to the road again."
Hugh shrugged his shoulders.
"Then I give Nick full credit for carrying out a clever piece of business. I never once remember suspecting that anybody was around. But, Thad, what's worrying you? There isn't anything about that discovery to excite you."
"Hugh, that boy means to do something mean, and it's got a connection with the short-cut quarry road in the bargain!"
Hugh turned and looked at the speaker a little gravely.
"I suppose now you've got some good reason for making that accusation, Thad?" he ventured.
"Yes, I have," came the quick reply. "I heard him say something to that other sneak which I couldn't just catch, but it started Tip laughing like everything. He slapped a hand down on his knee, and went on to say: 'Fine, Nick, finer than silk! I bet you he'll be as mad as hops if he finds himself caught in such a trap, and loses the race. You can depend on me every time. My affair comes off right in the start, and I can easy get out there on my wheel long before the first runner heaves in sight. I'll coach Pete Dudley in his part, just as you were saying. It's the greatest trick you ever hatched up, Nick, the very greatest!' Now, you can judge for yourself, Hugh, whether it's safe for you to try to cross by that same quarry road when the big Marathon race is on."
Hugh seemed lost in thought for a brief interval. When he spoke again there was a settled look of grim determination on his face that Thad could easily understand, knowing the other as well as he did.
"It isn't my way to show the white feather when the first cold wind starts to blowing, Thad, and no matter what Nick is planning to do I'm not going to give him the first chance to profit by my discovery of that short-cut route from road to road."
"That means you decline to be shoved off the path, does it, Hugh?"
"If I start in that race, as I expect to," Hugh told him, "I intend to make use of that short-cut, no matter if a dozen Tip Slavins, and Pete Dudleys are lying in wait to trip me up. But I'm much obliged to you all the same, Thad, for your warning. I'll be on my guard from this time on, and they're not going to trap me with my eyes blinded, I tell you that."
Thad seemed to be lost in thought himself for a minute or so. Possibly he was trying to figure out how he could best serve his comrade in such an emergency. The gloomy woods surrounding the old quarry did not possess any attraction in the eyes of Thad Stevens. Though he had not shown the same degree of alarm as Horatio and Julius at the time they heard those remarkable sounds, so like human shrieks, nevertheless, Thad felt no hankering after another similar experience.
Still he would brave much in order to help the chum whose interests were so dear to his own heart. He did not say what was in his mind, only looked a bit wise, as he once more turned to Hugh, as though his mind had been finally made up.
"Just as you think best, Hugh," he went on to say quietly. "It may be that one or more of the other fellows will be taking advantage of that same old road, and there's safety in numbers, you know, they say. Nick is likely to get his fingers burned if he attempts any of his silly tricks. What do you suppose now he could plan to have those chaps do? They wouldn't want to really hurt you, because that might get them in bad with Captain Wambold, our police head. Can you think of any fool play he'd be apt to conjure up, such as might make Tip say it was the best and slickest scheme he'd ever heard about?"
"Nick has so many wild ideas that he's likely to attempt nearly anything," said Hugh. "If he could find a good place where a runner would have to keep to the road I even believe he'd try to dig a deep pit, and cover the same over, just as the wild-animal catchers do in Africa, when they go out after big game for the menageries and zoos."
"Why, would that work, do you think, Hugh?" cried the startled Thad, mentally picturing his chum crashing through a false roadbed, and dropping down into a deep hole from which, alone and unaided, he could not hope to escape until much time had elapsed, and all hope of winning the big Marathon was lost.
"It might have done so if I hadn't chanced to possess a wide-awake chum, who gave me due warning, and caused me to keep a sharp lookout. As it is, if I glimpse a suspicious spot in my path I'll fight mighty shy of the same; or by a big leap give it the go-by. Of course, there might be other ways in which they could hope to detain me, such as dropping down on my shoulders from a tree, and with their faces covered so I couldn't recognize them."
Thad looked grave.
"Yes, they could do that, for a fact," he admitted. "Seems to me you'll have to keep one eye aloft all the while, Hugh, while the other is watching the ground for treachery. I must say this is a fine state of affairs. Not only does Scranton High have to go smack up against all the best runners of Allandale and Belleville, but be on the lookout for treachery at home besides. I'd give something to be one of a bunch of indignant fellows to take Nick Lang and his two pals out to the woods some fine night, and give the same a coat of tar and feathers, or else ride them on a rail. They're a disgrace to the community, and Scranton ought to take them in hand right away. That boy will set the town on fire yet I'm thinking, with his desperate tricks."
"He will, unless he soon sees a light, and turns over a new leaf," admitted Hugh, who, it seems, had an idea of his own in connection with the said Nick, which, perhaps, he might find an opportunity to work out one of these days; but which he did not care to confide to his chum, because he knew Thad would be apt to consider it impossible, perhaps foolish.
"There they go now, Hugh," suddenly remarked Thad in an undertone. "You see, he has both Tip and Leon along with him, and they're grinning as they look over this way. I warrant you Nick has been elaborating on that fine scheme of his; and, in anticipation, they can already see you held up in that lonely place, kicking your toes at the bottom of a miserable pit, or else tied to a tree."
"Don't scowl so savagely, Thad," warned Hugh. "There's no need of letting them understand we're on to their game. The advantage always lies in catching the other fellow off his guard. Let's laugh while we walk past, as if we'd been figuring out how a certain prize was already dangling close to our fingertips."
So Thad managed to "take a brace," profiting by the sage advice of his comrade; and, as they passed Nick and his two cronies, Hugh remarked as pleasantly as he could:
"I've been watching you run to-day, Nick, and I honestly believe you are right up with the top-notchers in the game. There may be some surprises next Saturday for those who think they've got it all figured out who's going to win the prizes. And Nick, as far as I'm concerned, I'd like to see you take the long-distance prize, honestly and cleanly, if I can't get it myself. You're a representative of Scranton High, Nick, and we're all out to see the old school do herself proud."
Nick seemed taken aback by these hearty words on the part of the fellow whom he had so long sought an opportunity to injure. He shot a hasty glance, accompanied by the uplifting of his heavy eyebrows, toward his companions, who, thereupon, catching a sly wink, perhaps, both chuckled audibly as though amused.
"Oh! I've already as good as copped that Marathon prize," Nick went on to say, at the same time thrusting out his chin in his customary aggressive and boastful fashion. "I calculate to give the folks some surprise by the ease with which I'll come in away ahead of the next competitor. There'll be a wheen of those who also ran, bringing up the tail of the procession. Long-distance is my best suit, and I've waited a while to show up certain chaps in this town who think they are just the thing. Don't worry about me, Morgan; Nick Lang generally gets there when he throws his hat into the ring."
At that the other two laughed uproariously, as though they thought the joke too good for anything. Possibly they took Nick's reference to "those who also ran" to mean Hugh Morgan particularly; and in their minds they could see him desperately trying to break his bonds; or climb up out of the deep pit into which he had gone crashing when the covered mattress, formed of slender twigs and dead leaves, had given way under his weight.
Hugh and Thad walked on, the latter fairly boiling with illy-suppressed anger.
"That fellow always gives me a pain, Hugh," he was saying, as they increased the distance separating them from the still merry trio in the rear. "He is really the meanest boy you could find in all the towns of this country. But fellows like him sometimes catch a Tartar; so, perhaps, it might happen in this case," and Thad, who evidently had something on his mind, would not commit himself further, as they walked on in company.
There had been considerable of a change in connection with the big open field where the boys of Scranton were allowed by the town council and mayor to play baseball, and also football, since summer waned. Somehow the success that attended the work of Scranton High in the battles of the Three Town League, as narrated in an earlier volume of this series, seemed to have stirred up many of the leading citizens. Besides, Mr. Leonard, the efficient under-principal of the high school, with a genuine love and sympathy for all boys in his heart, had kept things at boiling pitch.
Consequently there was, first of all, a move made to lease that splendid field for a long term of years, from the owner, so that the young people of Scranton might have some central place to gather for all sorts of outdoor games and sports.
So subscriptions were started looking to collect a fund with which not only to erect some sort of decent grandstand, but a building that would contain a number of conveniences such as most athletic grounds and similar institutions can boast.
This building had now been completed, and the boys were in full possession. It contained, among other things, a score and more of lockers, where the one who paid a small fee could keep his "fighting togs," as Thad Stevens was wont to term his baseball clothes, or it might be the scanty raiment he wore when exercising on the athletic field, running, or boxing, or wrestling.
Each boy who hired such a locker, of course, carried the key to the same; and when engaged in practice work rested easy in the belief that his street garments were securely taken care of.
There was also a shower-bath and a pool in the building, as well as several other conveniences that could be used in the summer time during the hot weather. The boys arranged to take turns in shifts with regard to keeping the building clean, and thus far the scheme had worked very well; for the town did not care to go to the extra expense of hiring a custodian.
Besides this, a high fence was ordered to be built around the entire grounds, for most other towns had their athletic fields enclosed. It would keep the rowdy element from disturbing the players when any game was in progress; and, as a small admission fee might often be asked, having one or two gates through which admission to the grounds could be obtained would facilitate matters greatly.
But this was not all. Scranton had awakened to the fact that Nature had been rather unkind to her young people, in that there was no large lake, or even so much as a small river close by her borders. When the boys and girls of the town felt inclined to skate after a sharp freeze along about New Year's Day, they had to walk all the way out to Hobson's mill-pond, situated between half and two-thirds of a mile away. This was not so bad for some of the sturdy chaps, but there were others who disliked taking such long tramps, especially after violent exercising for hours, it might be, on the ice.
So, after mature deliberation, and receiving valuable suggestions from Mr. Leonard, as well as others who had seen similar things successfully carried out in various places, it had been arranged to flood the field after winter had fully set in. Then, during the time of severe weather, the young folks would have a splendid sheet of ice right at their doors, a comfortable retreat into which they could go to warm up, or to put on and remove their skates.
Here various games were expected to be indulged in, as the weather permitted; and already a fine hockey Seven had been organized, under the leadership of Hugh Morgan, with a promise of many exciting games against rival teams.
The high board fence was being erected, but would hardly be completed before Spring; still, it gave an air of business to the grounds, and the boys had already begun to congratulate themselves over the great stride forward Scranton had taken in the way of catering to her rising population.
Of course, there were those in the town—you can always find a few in every community—who seriously objected to so much "good money being wasted," as they termed it, on such trivial things, when Scranton really needed an up-to-date library building in place of the poor apology for one that had to serve.
These people, doubtless from worthy motives, though they were short-sighted in their opposition, lost no opportunity for running down the entire enterprise. The person who, perhaps, had more influence than any of the others, and was more vehement in deriding the "foolish expenditure of funds along such silly lines, instead of trying to elevate the standard of reading among Scranton's young people," was the rich widow, Mrs. Jardine.
She had a son named Claude, whose life was rendered miserable by the lofty ambition of his mother to make him a genius. She never ceased talking upon all sorts of elevating subjects; and where other boys were allowed to lead normal lives, and have lots of innocent if strenuous fun during vacations, and holidays, poor Claude led a life of bondage.
He was rather an effeminate-looking boy, tall and slender, with a face entirely destitute of color such as would indicate abounding spirits and good health; but it was no wonder, everyone knew how he was being made such a "sissy" of by his doting "mamma."
Despite all this there seemed to be a spark of ordinary boyish spirits concealed under Claude's superior airs. He sometimes stood and watched the other fellows engaged in playing prisoner's base, or some such rough-and-tumble game, with envy. Once upon a time his mother, chancing to pass along the street in her fine car, was horrified to discover her darling Claude actually taking part in some "rowdy game," in which he scrambled with the rest just as vehemently, and was, moreover, even worse off than the other boys with regard to soiled garments and disheveled hair. Evidently the long suppressed spirit of the lad had broken bounds, and for once he allowed himself to be natural.
The other fellows never tired of telling how she had called to him almost frantically, as though she believed he had become inoculated with some deadly germ, and must be contaminated, bundling the boy into the car, and actually crying with dismay when she found that he actually had a scratch upon his nose, which had been bleeding. But it was also noticed that Claude grinned at his late fellow wrestlers as he was borne triumphantly away, as though to emphasize the fact that he had, at least, enjoyed one real period of excitement in his life, to remain as a bright spot for many days.
Hugh had often wondered whether there might not be some way through which this deluded mother might be shown what a terrible error she was making in bringing up her boy to be so inane and useless. He needed physical development more than any other fellow in Scranton High. Constant feeding upon lofty ideas, and never given a chance to develop his muscles, was wrecking his health. Mr. Leonard had even gone to Mrs. Jardine and entreated her to let him undertake a moderate programme of athletic exercises with Claude; but he might as well have tried to lift the high-school building as to make her change her set ideas.
Hugh and Thad had been out on a particular night after supper, visiting another boy who chanced to live on the outskirts of town. He had received a wonderful collection of curios from an uncle living out in India, after whom he had been named; and upon being especially invited over to view these things, which included a wonderful assortment of rare postage stamps, the two chums had made it a point to accept, being greatly interested in all boyish "hobbies."
That was how they happened to be passing along the road close to the athletic grounds about half-past nine o'clock that same night.
There was a fair moon shining, but objects appeared more or less misty, as often occurs under such conditions. The boys had about exhausted their vocabulary of words that express delight, in examining the many things of interest shown by "Limpy" Wallace, who was a cripple, and had to use a crutch, he being also a great admirer of Hugh Morgan, whom he considered in the light of a hero.
Besides this, both boys were unusually tired after the exertions of the day, and Thad frequently yawned in a most terrific fashion, as he walked homeward. Probably these were the main reasons for their unnatural silence, as they stalked along side by side; since it is seldom that two lads will refrain from exchanging opinions on some subject or other, when in company.
Afterwards, in the light of what happened, they were inclined to believe that it was exceedingly fortunate they had lapsed into this queer condition of silence, for, otherwise, they would have missed something that proved unusually interesting, as well as afforded them more or less excitement.
It was Thad who discovered it first. Perhaps he chanced to be looking that way while Hugh was star-gazing. At any rate he gripped his chum suddenly by the arm.
"Sh! Hugh, what's that yonder, a skulking dog, or a fellow half bent over?" was what Thad whispered in the ear of his chum.
Both of them had come to a full stop, under the impulse of the moment; and Thad was pointing a little to the right, which was where the building erected on the athletic grounds stood, dimly seen in the mysterious moonlight.
So Hugh, staring quickly, made out the object indicated by his companion. Really, he could hardly blame Thad for asking such a question, because at first it was next to impossible to determine whether it was a four-footed creature, or a human being who, for some good reason, was trying to make himself appear as small as possible.
But as Hugh continued to look he saw the other raise himself to his full height, as though to take a cautious survey of his surroundings. Then he knew that it was no canine prowling around to discover scraps thrown aside by the carpenters working on the board fence, as they ate their noon lunch.
"It's a human being all right, Thad," Hugh whispered, in such a low tone that even the sharpest pair of ears going could never have caught the sound ten feet away.
"Man, or boy, Hugh?" asked Thad, copying the example set by the other, and even bending his head so that his lips might come closer to Hugh's right ear.
"Can't make that out," he was told.
"But what in the wide world is he trying to do?" pursued Thad, his curiosity now fully aroused, as the unknown again started to move forward, pursuing the same strange cautious tactics as before.
"That's what we ought to find out," Hugh told him. "I don't like the way he's sneaking around here. It looks as if he might be up to some game."
"Oh! perhaps it's a tramp," suggested Thad, as the idea dawned upon his brain.
"He may be meaning to break into the building, to sleep there to-night. I wouldn't put it past a hobo to steal anything he could find left in the lockers. Hugh, it's up to us to put a kink in his rope. Let's chase after him before he disappears."
CAUGHT IN THE ACT
"Hold on, Thad," continued Hugh, as he put a restraining hand on the shoulder of his more impulsive chum, "we've got to be careful, or else he'll learn how we're meaning to spy on him. Bend over, and do the grand sneak act."
"He's headed straight for the building, Hugh!" breathed the other, as he complied with the directions given by the one whom he was accustomed to look upon in the light of a leader.
"That's right, and I guess he's meaning to crawl inside, if only he can find a window that's been left unfastened. Steady now, Thad; he's stopped under one right now!"
They continued to crouch there and watch what went on, their eyes glued upon the dimly seen figure of the unknown. Greatly to the surprise of Thad, the party stepped to one side, and seemed to be dragging back a heavy plank, not of any vast length, but sufficiently long to reach the window when placed on a slant.
"Say, did you notice how he seemed to know just where that plank was lying, Hugh?" asked Thad deliriously. "Seems like he must have been spying out the land by daylight beforehand."
"You're right there," whispered Hugh; "and he acts as if he felt pretty certain that particular window would be unfastened, in the bargain."
"Hugh, that settles it," added the other sturdily, as though now fully convinced.
"Yes, settles what, Thad?"
"Why, it's a boy, don't you see, and he must have left that window unlatched on purpose this afternoon when some of the fellows were shutting up."
"Wait and see," advised Hugh, although almost convinced of the same thing himself.
The test was not long in coming. They could see the other "shinning" up the sloping plank, as any athletic boy would be apt to do, without any particular trouble. Now he had reached the window, and Thad held his breath in suspense. He sighed as he heard a slight squeaking sound. Evidently the sash which was supposed to be fastened every night through ordinary prudence, had given way to his hand, when he exerted some pressure.
"He's going in, Hugh!" Thad observed, again laying a quivering hand on the arm of his comrade, and then following these words with a low exclamation of startled wonder: "Oh! look there, what's that queer glow mean?"
Hugh understood readily enough.
"Why, he's got one of those little handy electric torches, you see, and is using it so as to get his bearings inside the building."
"Guess you're right, Hugh," admitted the other; "and there, he's crawling over the sill now, as sure as anything. Oh! the skunk, what can he be up to?"
"We'll try and find out," said Hugh, with his usual promptness. "Now he's gone further from the window let's be moving along. That plank ought to make it easy sledding for fellows like us."
Indeed, it would be hard to find a couple of more athletic boys than Hugh and his chum. Their intense love for every type of outdoor sport had kept them in splendid physical condition, so that their muscles were as firm as those of an athlete in training. To make their way up that sloping board and reaching the open window was likely to prove a mere bit of child's play with such fellows.
Hugh was the first to ascend. When he had raised himself so that he could peep over the window ledge and see within the building he apparently found the coast clear; for Thad, coming along just behind, received a gentle prod with a toe, twice repeated, which he knew to be a signal that all was well.
By the time Thad arrived the other was already well within the room, having slipped across the window-sill without making the slightest sound. All was dark around them, but further on they could see that weird shaft of light moving this way and that, indicating the spot where the unknown intruder just then happened to be located.
"He's making for the locker room, don't you see, Hugh?" Thad ventured, with a perceptible quiver to his low voice.
"Sure thing, and he knows where he's going, in the bargain," the other went on.
"Of course, it's no hobo, then," continued Thad. "That scamp knows every foot of ground under this roof. You can see it by the way he keeps straight on. Hugh, do you think it might be Nick Lang?"
After all, it was only natural for Thad to jump to this conclusion, because of the evil reputation enjoyed by the boy he mentioned. Nick Lang had been the bully and the terror of Scranton for years. There was seldom a prank played (from stealing fruit from neighboring farmers, to painting old Dobbin, a stray nag accustomed to feeding on the open lots, so that the ordinarily white horse resembled the National flag, and created no end of astonishment as he stalked around, prancing at a lively rate when the hot sun began to start the turpentine to burning), but that everybody at once suspected Nick of being the conspirator.
Possibly he may not have always been the chief offender; but give Dog Tray a bad name and he gets the blame of everything that happens calculated to outrage the respectability of the law-abiding community.
"I thought of him at first," replied Hugh, "but it strikes me that chap isn't of Nick's build. You see his light leaves his figure pretty much in the dark; for he's using it principally to show him the way, so he won't stumble over any chair, and make no end of a row."
The two had been stealthily creeping forward all this while, and were, therefore, gradually diminishing the distance separating them from the bearer of the electric hand-torch. Thad had evidently been consulting his memory concerning something, for presently he again whispered in his chum's ear:
"Then mebbe it might be Leon Disney, Hugh. Seems to me that sneak would be just the one to try some mean trick like this. And, besides, I happen to know he bought one of those little vest-pocket lights down at Paul Kramer's store only three nights ago, because I saw him testing them and heard him say he'd take it."
"Yes, that looks significant, I must say, Thad. But I'm trying to make out what he's done with his head. Don't you notice he's got it bundled up with a sort of woollen comforter or something like that?"
"Why, so he has," replied the other; "I tell you what, Hugh, he's hoping to hide his face, so if he's discovered prowling around in here no one can say positively that they recognized him. Leon is up to all those sly tricks. He gets ideas like that out of the stories he's so fond of soaking in."
"Keep still now, Thad, and we'll creep closer," warned the other.
They really had their hands full endeavoring to advance upon the prowler without making any sort of sound that would arouse his suspicions. Hugh realized that if anything of this sort occurred the other would instantly throw the full glow of his little electric torch in their direction, and, of course, immediately discover their presence. If such a thing happened it might interfere with their suddenly arranged plan of campaign, and prevent the capture they contemplated, which would be a grievous disappointment to both boys.
The unknown party had come to a standstill. He stood there in front of the long row of new lockers in which the boys who meant to take part in the principal events of the great athletic tournament kept their possessions, without which they would be more or less handicapped in their practice work.
Thad had made another important discovery; indeed, it struck him as so significant that he could not forbear dragging Hugh down so that he could place his lips against the other's ear and whisper:
"It's your locker he's trying to open, Hugh, don't you see?"
Hugh, of course, had already noted this circumstance, and felt duly thrilled, for really it struck him as something more than an accident, and along the lines of a deep design. Doubtless, his active brain started to wrestle with the problem as to why any one should wish to open his locker, since the only things he kept there consisted of his running jersey and trunks and shoes.
Could it be possible that this was only some small piece of spite-work engineered by his old and inveterate enemy, Nick Lang, and ordered carried out by one of the bully's cronies; while Nick himself made certain to be in good company, so he could easily prove an alibi if accused of the mean trick.
It seemed almost too contemptible to be true, since Hugh could easily purchase other garments down at the sporting-goods store in Scranton. Still, some mean natures are small enough to love to give "stabs" that might annoy the recipient; and boys sometimes grow so accustomed to certain articles of wearing apparel that being compelled to "break in" a new pair of running shoes might lose Hugh the great race!
He gritted his teeth as a wave of indignation swept over him. Really it was high time this contemptible spirit of annoying those he chose to look upon in the light of enemies was crushed in Nick Lang. He had carried on with a "high horse" too long already, and, for one, Hugh felt as though combined action should be taken against him by the respectable fellows of Scranton High.
But it was far from Hugh's intention to stand there and see his locker robbed by such an unprincipled fellow as Leon Disney, if, indeed, the skulker proved to be the party they suspected. Possibly Hugh moved too soon, for it would have been much wiser had he waited until the sneak thief actually had the locker open, and disclosed his full intention.
Urged on to action by his indignation, Hugh started forward. Thad, realizing that it was his chum's intention to do something radical, skipped off a little to the right. He fancied that should the skulker take the alarm and try to flee, making for the open window in the rear, he was apt to turn aside and try to pass by; so his move was intended to block this little game.
It turned out to be needless, for so interested was the fellow with the flash-light in his work of inserting a key in the lock, and trying to turn it, that he did not appear to notice anything wrong until Hugh was close at his elbow. Then, as Thad slipped around to one side to cover all lines of retreat, Hugh reached out a hand and caught hold of the fellow by the shoulder. At the same time he exclaimed in a severe voice:
"Well, what are you doing here, I want to know, trying to break into my locker?"
The other gave a tremendous start, and a low, bubbling cry, half of fright, and also of disgust, came from his lips. The woollen muffler fell from about his face, and, although he snapped off the light just then by a movement of his thumb, the others had glimpsed his features.
Thad had evidently hit the target in the bull's-eye when he mentioned his suspicions concerning the probable identity of the skulker. It was Leon Disney!
LEON PROMISES TO REFORM
The startled boy struggled to get free, but Hugh had taken a firmer grip upon his person, and saw to it that he could not squirm loose.
"Quit your kicking!" cried Thad, indignantly, when one of the fellow's shoes came in rough contact with his own shins; "or we'll start something along the same lines! We know you, Leon Disney, so there's no use trying to hide your face."
Leaning over, Thad groped around until he managed to find the hand that held the little electric torch. This latter article he tore from the grasp of Leon, and immediately pressed the button that caused the battery to work. The intense darkness around them was dissipated to some degree. Thad threw the glow directly into the face of the fellow Hugh was holding.
Leon stopped his desperate struggles. He realized that the game was up so far as trying to keep his identity a secret; and, being a most resourceful sort of chap, he now resorted to another little scheme which he had undoubtedly thought out, to be used in case he was discovered, and cornered, while on his night mission.
"Oh! is that you, Hugh?" he burst out, in a shaky voice. "Say, you gave me an awful scare! I thought it must be some old tramp that grabbed me, sure I did. It's all right now, Hugh, and I'm not wanting to clear out, since I know who you are. That's Thad, too, I reckon, holding my little flash-light. How you did startle me, though. I never dreamed anybody was around here when I started to come back after my watch."
"What's that you say?" gasped Thad; "your watch? Tell that to the marines, Leon Disney!"
"But it's so, I tell you. Thad, it sure is," persisted the other tenaciously, as though he had laid all his plans for just such an "accident," whereby his attempt to rob Hugh's locker would be held up. "I believe I must have forgotten to take it out of my locker this evening when I was dressing, after hard work on the field, running, and practising throwing the hammer. I never noticed it till long after supper, and I was afraid of what my dad would say when he asked me for it in the morning, to take back to the store where he got it, to exchange for another. So, Hugh, don't you see, the idea came to me that mebbe I might be able to get in the building out here if a window happened to be unfastened; which turned out to be the case, you know."
"Yes, the very first window you tackled in the bargain, Leon; how fortunate for you!" sneered the unbelieving Thad. "And say, you ought to know that this isn't your locker, because the numbers are painted big enough on the door for anybody with only one eye to see."
Even this did not appear to disconcert the other boy. He was a slippery sort of customer, who always seemed able to find some sort of ready excuse, or a way to "climb down a tree" when caught in the act.
He turned, and stared at the number 16 plainly on the door. Then he grinned at Thad as he hurriedly went on to explain further; for his inventive faculties seemed without end when they were exercised in order to get him out of any bad scrape:
"Well, that shows my first guess was the right one after all. You see, Hugh, I knew my number was either 16 or 19, and, for the life of me, I couldn't tell which. Of course, if the first belongs to you when my number is 19, I was foolish to change my mind; though, of course, even if the key opened your locker I'd have known my mistake right away. No harm done, I hope, Hugh?"
Thad made a low, growling sound, as though he put not the slightest faith in the story Leon was telling. He knew the other to be utterly unprincipled, and a willing tool in the hands of Nick Lang; indeed, there were some things about the sneaky Leon that blunt, honest Thad hated worse than the bullying propensities of the other boy.
"So you really and truly left your watch in your locker, did you?" he demanded, with a perceptible sneer in his tones.
"I think I did; in fact, I'm certainly hoping so," Leon hastily replied; "because if it doesn't happen to be there I don't know where I could have lost it; and I'll get a fine turning over from dad in the morning when he asks me for the same to take back, and exchange for one that keeps decent time."
"Oh!" continued the still skeptical Thad, thinking to corner Leon, "then, perhaps, you'll prove your words by showing us the inside of your locker right now? Number 19 it would be, you said; well, here it is, on a direct line with Hugh's locker. Get busy with your key, Leon, and open up!"
Possibly Thad was confident that the other would not venture to do as he demanded. He may have expected him to invent some handy excuse for not complying; but then the other had already laid the foundation for a reasonable sense of disappointment in case no watch was forthcoming when the locker was opened; since he said he hoped he might have forgotten it when dressing, and not lost it on the way home that evening at dusk.
Leon started to obey with alacrity, as though he had no fears. His key immediately opened the door, and this, upon being swung aside, revealed a bundle of old athletic garments hastily thrown in without regard to neatness.
These Leon commenced to eagerly take out, one at a time. He was careful how he handled them, as though fearful lest he might toss the silver watch out, to land on the floor with disastrous results.
As he picked up such various articles of wearing apparel as used by an athlete in training, Leon continued to air his grievances, as though he meant Hugh to understand how utterly impossible it was for him to have intended any mean thing by breaking open a locker other than his own:
"It was silly of me getting those numbers mixed in my head, of course; but then a figure nine is only a six turned upside down, you see. I was so worked up over missing my clock that I just couldn't think straight at all. Well, it isn't under that jersey, anyhow; nor yet covered by those trunks. I remember now I pushed it away back, so I couldn't drag it out. There's an old sweater I use when I'm overheated, and afraid of taking cold; mebbe now it's under that."
Reaching further in, Leon caught hold of the article in question, and carefully drew it toward him. Then he as cautiously lifted the torn sweater; and, as Thad turned the glow of the flash-light directly into the box they all saw the watch reposing in the corner, just as the boy had left it.
Leon made a clutch for his property. He over-did the matter, Hugh thought, acting in an exuberant fashion.
"Oh! mebbe I'm not joyful over getting my hands on you again, you poor old time-keeper!" he exclaimed, as he snatched the silver watch up and shook it, as though any fault could be attached to the article in question. "A fine chase you've given me to-night; and playing the part of sneak-thief in the bargain; but then, of course, you believe what I told you, now, Hugh, since you've seen that the watch was in my locker?"
Hugh did not care to fully commit himself, it seemed, judging from the way in which he went on to say:
"We've seen you recover your watch all right, Leon; and it was in your locker just as you said; but whether you forgot it, or left it there on purpose, is a question I'm not prepared to settle."
Of course there was no further excuse for Hugh keeping that grip on Leon's shoulder, so he released his hold, and the other gave a sigh as of relief at this evidence of a change in policy on the part of his captor.
"Say, I wish you'd do me a great favor, Hugh," Leon went on to say, as though he believed in the old maxim that it is wise to "strike while the iron is hot."
"As to what?" demanded the one addressed in this whining way.
"What's the use of saying anything about this business?" Leon went on eagerly. "It certainly wouldn't do any good, and I proved to you that I did enter here just to recover my watch, didn't I? But mebbe it might get to my dad's ears, how I'd gone and been so careless about looking after my property. You see, he told me that if I lost this birthday present he'd not get me another watch till I graduated from high school; and say, I'm beginning to lose all hope of that ever happening in my case. But you will keep mum about it, won't you, Hugh; just to save me from getting up against it rough with my strict dad?"
It sounded like a reasonable request, Hugh must have thought. Besides, no matter what the intentions of Leon may have been, there had really been no harm done, owing to the fact of their being drawn to the spot by discovering his skulking figure dimly outlined in the moonlight.
Hugh considered before committing himself to making any reply. He did not believe most of what the other so glibly declared, partly because he knew very well that Mr. Disney was not a strict parent at all, but a most indifferent one, or he would never have allowed his young hopeful to go in the company of Nick Lang, and take part in many of the other's practical jokes. Some of these had bordered on a serious nature, like the time the electric current was shut off abruptly when the graduation exercises were going on at night-time in the big auditorium in the high-school building; and the ensuing utter darkness almost created a panic among the audience, composed principally of women and young people, the wires having been severed, it was later discovered, at a point where they entered the building.
"I'll say this, Leon," he finally told the waiting boy; "I'll keep quiet about this little thing for three days, and then feel free to mention it, if the necessity arises. I'll make a further bargain with you to this effect; you fight shy of the company of Nick Lang after this, and I'll hold my tongue as long as I understand that you've cut his acquaintance; otherwise, I'll feel free to speak; and there are lots of people in this town who'll believe you had some dark motive back of your breaking into this building to-night. Your reputation is against you, Leon, you understand. Another fellow might enter here, and everybody would believe what he said; but you've long ago lost the confidence of everybody worth while in Scranton. Is it a bargain, then?"
Leon replied with alacrity; but then that was no sign that he meant to keep his word. He had been caught in a downright lie on many another occasion; so Hugh did not place much reliance on his promise to reform.
"Oh! as to that, Hugh," said the crafty Leon, "I've been figuring on cutting away from Nick for a long time now, and I guess I'll do it. He's got me in lots of nasty scrapes, you understand, and then just laughs at me. I'd have given him the shake long since, only he threatened to whip me black and blue if I ever did. But this would be a good chance to try it out. Yes, I'll promise you to try and break away from Nick; and I hope you'll keep mum about my coming here to-night. If you don't mind, Thad, I'd like to have my flashlight now. And I ought to be going back home in the bargain, because dad doesn't like me to be out nights unless he knows where I'm at."
Thad chuckled as though he considered this last remark in the light of a joke; for Leon roamed the streets until a late hour every night he chose; but, as there was no need of their staying longer, they passed out of the window, and headed toward their respective homes.
SCRANTON IN GALA ATTIRE
That was, indeed, a busy Friday with the students of Scranton High. Lessons had been tabooed entirely, for what was the use of trying to hold the attention of the scholars upon dry subjects when their thoughts continually roamed afield, and seemed concerned only with what great things were scheduled for the next afternoon? Still, they gathered at school, which was a sort of general headquarters where the various committees appointed could consult, and go forth to the work assigned to their particular charge.
The girls were just as enthusiastic as the boys, and demanded equal representation upon a number of the said committees, especially the ones designed for the welcome and entertainment of the vast crowds expected to be present from neighboring towns and villages.
It was going to be an event long to be remembered in Scranton, and the town dressed in gala attire in honor of the occasion. Flags and banners were being displayed as though a great wave of patriotism had overwhelmed the place. If a stranger had suddenly dropped down on the town just then he must have believed American soldiers were on the fighting line across in France, and that news had been cabled over to the effect that they had met the enemy in their first engagement, and won a decisive victory.
The fairly good town brass band had promised to be on hand, and play during the best part of the afternoon. Then there would be a host of refreshment booths at which Scranton's fairest daughters would preside, accompanied in each instance by a matron of mature years, to lend dignity to the occasion. Here the good folks from Allandale, Belleville and other places, who honored the town with their presence would always be warmly welcomed, and given a cup of delicious tea, coffee or chocolate, as they preferred, accompanied with sandwiches galore, and even cake.
Meanwhile it was planned that those who meant to take part in any of the events on the long programme should have a last "workout" that Friday afternoon. Saturday morning it was intended they should rest up, so as to be in the pink of condition when the meet opened at one o'clock.
That might seem to be an early hour, as some had argued, but the programme was so extended that there was a possibility of darkness creeping up on them before the fifteen-mile Marathon, the greatest event of the day, had been fully completed.
During that energetic morning at school, when boys and girls were hustling to carry out the part of the work entrusted to them, Hugh had managed to keep an eye on Leon Disney from time to time. He felt pretty certain that the tricky boy had no intention of fulfilling the promise he had made under duress, and while a threat of exposure hung over his head, like the famous sword of Damocles, suspended by but a single hair.
Leon watched Hugh also, and tried to act in a manner calculated not to arouse suspicion; but Hugh understood from his actions how matters probably stood. Leon had, of course, managed to see Nick Lang before coming to school, and explain to him what a bad fix he had managed to get himself in when caught in the act of breaking into Hugh Morgan's locker at the athletic grounds building.
No doubt it had been artfully arranged between the precious pair that Leon was to seem to keep his distance away from Nick; and if at any other time the latter joined a group amidst whom Leon chanced to be standing the other was to immediately move away in an ostentatious fashion that would cause Hugh to believe he meant to keep his given word.