The Grammar School Boys Snowbound
Dick & Co. at Winter Sports
H. IRVING HANCOCK
Author of The Grammar School Boys of Gridley, The Grammar School Boys in the Woods, The High School Boys' Series, The West Point Series, The Annapolis Series, The Boys of the Army Series, The Motor Boat Club Series, Etc., Etc.
HENRY ALTEMUS COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY HOWARD E. ALTEMUS
I. REALLY A GREAT PLAN, BUT—— 7
II. DICK AND CO. FIND CAUSE FOR GLEE 25
III. THE CAMPAIGN TO COAX PARENTS 38
IV. "REMEMBERED"—BY MR. FITS? 52
V. DICK TRIES STRATEGY 62
VI. THE LOG CABIN'S TELLTALE HEARTH 68
VII. THE PROWLER OF THE NIGHT 79
VIII. WORMING THE TRUTH FROM A WHINER 88
IX. THE INTRUDER WHO TRIED TO BE BOSS 100
X. IN THE GRIP OF THE BIG BLIZZARD 107
XI. SIX BOYS AND ANOTHER IN COLD STORAGE 120
XII. BLIZZARD TOIL AND A MYSTERY 129
XIII. A VISITOR BY THE AIR ROUTE 140
XIV. THE MYSTERIOUS NOISES OF THE NIGHT 150
XV. DICK STRIKES A REAL FIND 155
XVI. KEEN ON THE TRAIL OF THE PUZZLE 165
XVII. HEN TURNS HIS VOICE LOOSE 175
XVIII. YOUNG MR. COME-BACK & CO. 186
XIX. NOT A LOVE FEAST 196
XX. THE COOK SHACK DISASTER 203
XXI. ON THE TRAIL BACKWARD 215
XXII. HEN DUTCHER IS MODEST 226
XXIII. THIS TIME IS AS GOOD AS ANY OTHER 236
XXIV. CONCLUSION 244
The Grammar School Boys Snowbound
REALLY A GREAT PLAN, BUT——
As Hen Dutcher came up to a group of boys on the ice, and slowed down his speed, he stuck the point of his right skate in the ice to bring himself to a full stop.
"Huh! You fellows think you're some smart on fancy skating, don't you?" he demanded rather scornfully.
"No," replied Dave Darrin shortly.
"You been showing off a lot, then."
"Hen," grimaced Dave, "I'm afraid you're going to miss your calling in life."
"Didn't know I had any," grunted Hen.
"Yes, you have; one of your own choosing, too."
"What is it?" asked Hen curiously.
"You're a walking anvil chorus."
"An anvil chorus?" repeated Hen Dutcher, the puzzled expression deepening in his face.
"Yes; wherever you go the fellows are sure to hear the sounds of 'hammering' and 'knocking.'"
A score of boys grinned, a dozen laughed outright. But Hen wasn't bright enough to see the point.
"What's an anvil got to do with it all?" demanded Hen in a puzzled tone. "An anvil belongs in a blacksmith shop."
"And that's where you ought to go, to do all your 'hammering' and 'knocking,'" explained Dave, as he skated slowly away.
"Huh! You think you're smart!" growled Hen, who still couldn't see why the other fellows had laughed.
"Hen," remarked Dick Prescott, "I'm afraid you're not up to concert pitch."
"Concert pitch?" repeated the dense one. "No, I know I'm not. Did I ever make any claim to being musical?"
"You see," hinted Greg Holmes, "the trouble with the Dutcher kid is that he's all ivory, from his collar-button up."
Another laugh greeted this assertion, but Hen only glared stupidly.
"Ivory is all white, anyway," Hen muttered. "So am I."
He swelled out his chest, did one or two fancy little things on skates, and tried to look important. But none of the other fellows in the group on the ice seemed inclined to take young Dutcher at his own valuation.
Hen Dutcher was a peculiar chap, at any rate. His worst fault, probably—but one that led to other faults—was his egotism. He was always thinking about himself and his own puny little interests. For the life of him, Hen couldn't understand why he wasn't popular with other fellows. He sometimes realized that he wasn't, but charged the fact up to the other fellows being "too stuck on themselves, or on those 'boobs,' Dick Prescott and Dave Darrin."
"Let's run Hen ashore and rub his face in the snow!" proposed one boy gleefully.
"You dassent!" flared up Hen. But half a dozen boys uttered a whoop and skated toward him. Hen wobbled on his skates an instant, then turned, intent on escape.
"Oh, say, fellows," called Dick, "don't be all the time picking on poor old Hen."
"We'll just wash his face," shouted back one of the pursuers.
Hen knew they meant it, and he was traveling down the ice, now, under full steam.
"Come on, fellows," called Dick, to Greg and to Tom Reade. "We don't want to see Hen abused."
"Why does he get so fresh, then?" demanded Greg, but he started, as did Tom. Dick & Co. were all fleet skaters. They surged to the front of the pursuers, who took it for granted that Dick and his friends were going to aid them, and therefore set up a shout of joy.
Hen Dutcher was traveling with so much effort that he panted hard as he skated.
"Get him, Dick!" sang out Ben Alvord, as Prescott shot ahead of the others.
Hen, looking back, saw Dick gaining on him swiftly, while Greg and Tom were just behind.
"They're mean as all-git-out!" sputtered panting Hen. "Why can't they let a fellow alone? Don't they think I've got as much right to talk as the rest of 'em? Well, I'll show 'em that I have!"
At this moment Dick overtook the fugitive, linking arms with him.
"You let me alone!" snarled Hen. "You're meaner'n poison!"
"Am I?" smiled Dick. "See here, Hen, face about and don't let the fellows bluff you out of a week's growth. Just turn on them. They won't do anything to you."
"If they try it on, I'll fix 'em, no matter what desperate thing I have to do to get square," snarled Hen.
"Oh, cut out all the war talk," Dick advised him gently. "Now, wheel about."
"You lemme alone! I know where I'm going," snapped Hen, making a big effort to break loose from Dick's hold. The effort proved a disastrous one, for Hen tripped himself, slid along for a few feet and then sat down with a jarring bump on the ice. Dick Prescott all but shared the same fate.
"Now, we've got him!" chuckled Ben Alvord, racing in and reaching out for the luckless Dutcher.
The unexpected happened. Hen swung around, as on a pivot, extending a foot in such a way as to trip Ben and send him down on his own face.
In the gasp of astonishment that followed Hen got upon his feet, gave a swift push with his left skate and was away.
"After him, fellows!" roared Toby Ross. "We'll hold him and let Ben do the face-washing."
Dick, Tom and Greg had shot past the scene. Now they circled and came back, their faces aglow with the fast sport and the keen air.
Hen tried to make for the shore, but got in where the surface of the ice was rough and choppy. Ned Allen and Toby reached out to grasp Hen as they neared him. Young Dutcher made a switching-away movement, and the next instant he had fallen flat on his face. He let out a howl.
"We've got him!" declared Toby, as he and Allen pounced on the prostrate one.
"Yes, but let him alone, fellows," urged Dick, reaching the scene and halting. "Hen may have his faults, but it's time we chose another fellow to pick on for a while."
"We're going to wash his face," insisted Ben Alvord, skating up and looking belligerent. "Don't you interfere, Dick Prescott!"
Hen, making no effort to do more than sit up, was blubbering softly.
"Lemme alone, fellows," he pleaded. "Can't you see I'm hurt?"
Hen had his right mitten off, and was gingerly applying that hand to the narrow stretch of upper lip. There was blood there. Hen, catching only an imperfect view as he gazed down past the end of his nose, was sure that he had been badly injured by his fall.
Some of the other boys set up a yell of laughter.
"Why, you big baby!" blurted Toby. "You've only scratched your lip on the ice."
"A handful of snow will heal it!" asserted Ben Alvord. "Come, get up, bone-head! Come on to your dousing."
"You lemme alone, I tell you!" screamed Dutcher, blubbering. "I've got to go home and get myself attended to."
"Come on, booby!" jeered Alvord, forcing a hand under one of Hen's shoulders and trying to lift him.
"Lemme alone. Can't you see I'm badly hurt?"
"Let Hen alone," broke in Dick quietly.
"He's got to come ashore and have his face washed in the snow," insisted Alvord. "Come, fellows, help me take him there."
"You'd better step back and let him alone, Ben!" spoke Dick, more quietly than before, but there was a sound of command in his voice as he moved over between Hen and Alvord.
"Get out of the way," growled Ben. "This ivory-top has got to have his face washed in the snow."
"And I say you're not going to do it," warned Dick.
"He's too fresh, Hen is."
"No committee of citizens has asked you to reform any one, Ben," Dick went on good-humoredly. "You've got a few faults of your own that you might remedy, and I guess we all have."
"Come on, fellows, and rush Dutcher," called Ben Alvord. Ross, Allen and others moved as though to help, but Dick was flanked by Tom and Greg. In the distance Dave Darrin could be seen skating back.
"All right, if you fellows insist on it," partly agreed Dick. "But if trouble starts Hen is going to have some backing on his side, too."
"I guess that's right," nodded Tom Reade.
"Now, who's fresh?" challenged Ben Alvord hotly. "You, Dick Prescott."
"Well, if I am," sighed Dick, "I'm ready to take my punishment for it. At all events, I'll look after myself."
"Yah, you will!" growled Ben angrily. "I notice that, just as soon as anything starts, your gang always jump in on the scene!"
"Dick will fight you, all alone, I know, Ben, if you want him to," proposed Dave Darrin, coming slowly into the circle. "But perhaps you don't want to fight Dick. You tried it once before, and got most beautifully pounded."
"Yah!" snarled Ben.
"Well, didn't you?" demanded Dave.
"Yah!" sneered Ben. "See here, Darrin, Prescott may be fresh, but he ain't as bad as you are!"
"So it's I you want to fight with, is it?" laughed Dave. "Come right on to the shore, then, and don't try any bluffing."
But Ben Alvord didn't care about putting up his guard before either of these spirited youngsters of the Central Grammar School. After sputtering a little Ben skated away by himself. Hen got up, after dabbing his upper lip with his handkerchief and finding that the scratch amounted to nothing. No further effort was made to molest Hen.
"Now, when you talk, say something pleasant. Don't talk so disagreeably all the time," advised Prescott in a low tone. "At least, not unless you're really hunting trouble."
"This is the meanest crowd I ever saw," declared Hen Dutcher stiffly. "And you started it all, Dave Darrin, by nicknaming me 'Anvil Chorus!'"
"You're at it again, Hen," sighed Dick. "Why can't you stop saying disagreeable things?"
Toby Ross, who had skated close enough to hear this last, now skated away again to join a crowd of boys a little way off. Toby spoke to them laughingly. Then, over the ice, came a mocking chorus:
"Oh, you Anvil!"
"There, you see," muttered Dutcher angrily, "you've gone and fastened the nickname on me!"
"Anvil! Anvil!" yelled other tormentors.
"You're all of you about the meanest crowd of fellows I ever saw," grunted Hen, as he started slowly to skate away.
"And that's all the thanks you get, Dick, for trying to use him a bit decently," jeered Greg Holmes.
"Oh, well, I'm sorry for the fellow," muttered Prescott. "Hen is one of those fellows who are never popular with any crowd and can never understand why."
Harry Hazelton and Dan Dalzell now skated up from town and joined their chums. Dick & Co. were at last united.
"Let's try a two-mile swift skate up river, fellows," urged Dick. "Ready? Go!"
Away went the six, moving along over the ice like young human whirlwinds. Dick & Co. were known to be the best skaters of all the Grammar School boys in town.
Dick & Co. will need no introduction to the readers of the first volume in this series, entitled "THE GRAMMAR SCHOOL BOYS OF GRIDLEY." Our readers have met all six of the young men, namely, Dick Prescott, Dave Darrin, Greg Holmes, Dan Dalzell, Tom Reade and Harry Hazelton. It would be hard to find six manlier boys of thirteen—now all of them close to their fourteenth birthdays.
Readers of the previous volume know on what grounds it can be claimed that these six were real leaders of the little Grammar School world of Gridley. Dick & Co. were ardent lovers of all forms of outdoor sports. All were keen for baseball. As runners these six youngsters were just beginning to develop as a result of self-training. The September before Dick Prescott had organized, at the Central Grammar School, a football squad. Things were moving well in this line until delegations came over from the North and South Grammars, to see about organizing a Grammar School football league. The delegates from the two other schools, however, displayed lack of harmony, and the football idea fell through.
Now, however, winter was on in earnest, and Dick & Co. were in their element, for, of all sports, they loved those that went with winter. All six were fearless coasters; no hill was too steep, too long or too dangerous. On the ice Dick & Co. felt all the bounding pulse of life.
This day was the twenty-fourth of December. School had closed in order to give the Gridley youngsters a free hand on the last day before Christmas.
The river had been frozen in fine condition for more than a week. Not more than four inches of snow had fallen, but all the boys knew that the season gave promise of more snow ere long.
As Dick & Co. skated along the number of other skaters became fewer. At last they reached a part of the river where they had the ice all to themselves.
"There's Payson's orchard, Greg," sang out Dave Darrin. "The place where you got grabbed last fall, by Dexter and Driggs, and carried off to be shut up in that cave."
"Say, we ought to hunt up that cave, fellows," called Greg. "Whee! It might make a bully place for a winter camp. Now, that we've got the two weeks and more of holiday vacation, wouldn't it be fine to slip off and camp a few days in that cave?"
"Nothing doing," retorted Tom Reade.
"Why not?" Dan asked.
"You remember that I went off, yesterday after school, on a sleigh ride with Jim Foley?"
"Well, we went by that cave," Tom continued. "Nothing would do but that we stop. Jim had a lantern on the sleigh. We lit the lantern and got into the cave. Whew! We nearly got drowned. I meant to tell you fellows about it, but forgot it."
"How did you come near getting drowned in a cave?" Greg demanded.
"Why, the outlandish place isn't weather-tight," responded Tom. "You know, the flooring slopes slightly upward from the entrance. There are a lot of cracks that rain and snow-water leak through. It was all little rivulets inside the place. Camp? Huh! It'd make a better extra reservoir for the town water-works, that place would!"
"Too bad!" muttered Greg. "I have had a notion that it would be huge fun to camp out in such a place."
"I've got another idea about that," spoke up Dan.
"Fire away!" begged Reade.
"A cousin of mine who visited me last summer told me about the kind of camp he and some of his chums had. It was a sort of manufactured cave. The fellows dug an oblong hole in the ground. Just like a cellar in shape, you know. It was eight feet wide and twelve feet long. When they had it all dug out the fellows laid boards over the hole for a roof. Then they piled dirt back on top of the boards, and on top of the dirt they laid the sods that they first dug up. At a corner in one end the fellows left a square hole in the roof, to use for an entrance. For a door they made a square board cover to fit over the entrance hole. At the upper end of the cave they dug into the dirt wall and made a stove. They dug another hole down from above to connect with it, and that made a dandy stove and chimney. My cousin and his chums used to do a lot of cooking there. Then they laid down more old boards to make a floor, and boarded most of the wall space, too. Last of all, they took up an old table and old chairs, and they had just a dandy camp! Say, fellows, why couldn't we have a camp like that?"
"It would do all right for springtime," declared Tom Reade, "but we couldn't work it in winter."
"Why not?" challenged Dan.
"Not unless, Danny, you want to be the strong man who's going to dig down into the ground through two or three feet of frost."
Dan looked a bit crestfallen.
"Besides," declared Dick thoughtfully, "every time there was a thaw or a big rain the cave you're talking about making would be nothing but a big cistern, half-full of water. But we could dig and fit up such a cave somewhere in the woods in springtime, fellows."
"Only we don't have much vacation in the spring," broke in Greg disappointedly, "and it certainly would be grand to go into camp right after Christmas Day, if we could be warm enough and have enough to eat."
"It would be great sport," nodded Dick.
"Then let's do it," glowed Greg.
"I suppose you have the camping place all picked out, and permission to use it," smiled Prescott.
"Well, no," admitted Greg. "But why can't we fix up some sort of place?"
"How?" Dave Darrin wanted to know. "If we try going into camp at this time of the year we want, first of all, some place above ground, with enough daylight and sunlight. We want a weather-tight place that we can keep properly warm."
"All of that," agreed Dick.
"Why can't we build a place, out in the woods somewhere?" Greg insisted.
"For one thing," objected Tom Reade quizzically, "there are no leaves at this time of the year."
"What do we want leaves for?" queried Greg.
"To lay on the roof, like shingles."
"Bosh!" snapped Holmes. "We'd build our camp of wood."
"Well, where'll we get the wood?" came from Dave.
"We can carry it from home," proposed Greg.
"No lumber pile in our yard. Is there in yours?" Dave insisted.
"We can use the boards from old boxes and things," went on Greg desperately.
"Oh, excuse me!" mimicked Tom Reade. "I am not camping out in any grocery boxes at this cold time of the year."
"You might go home nights, then," hinted Greg disdainfully.
"The whole camping idea is a great one, if we could only put it through," declared Dick.
"Then let's put it through," pressed Greg Holmes. "Where there's a will there's a way, you know."
"The trouble is that we need a pocketbook more than a will," returned Prescott doubtfully. "It would take lumber to build a winter camp, even if we could prove ourselves good enough carpenters."
"How much money would it take?"
"Well, I don't believe a hundred dollars would go far," declared Reade.
"Make it a thousand, then," laughed Darrin. "We fellows couldn't raise either sum in a year."
"It's too bad," sighed Harry Hazelton. "A good camp, at this time of the year, would be huge fun!"
"Yes; it would," agreed Dick. "I don't see the way now, but we may find it. We can keep on hoping."
"Hey, you boobs!" called a disagreeable voice across the ice.
All of the six Grammar School boys slowed down and turned around. They found themselves looking at a solitary skater who had slowed down. He was Fred Ripley, son of Lawyer Ripley, one of the wealthy men of the town. Fred was never over polite to those whom he considered as his "inferiors." Besides, young Ripley was now in his freshman year at the Gridley High School. As such, he naturally looked down on mere Grammar School boys, none of whom, perhaps, would ever reach the dignity of "attending High."
"What do you want, Ripley?" called Dick. "Planning to give us a lesson in the art of polite speech?"
"Cut the funny talk," grumbled Fred. "Prescott, did you get a letter from my guv'nor this morning?"
"Why, no; I didn't know your father was in the habit of writing me letters. Anyway, I left home before the mail carrier was due."
"Guv'nor said that was likely to happen," continued Fred. "So he told me, if I saw you fellows on the ice, to say that he wanted to see you."
"All of us?" Dave wanted to know.
"I reckon so. And the guv'nor said it was important, too. You boobs had better crank up your skates and make fast time. Guv'nor won't be at his office late to-day."
"What——" began Dick.
"The guv'nor gave me a message to you fellows, and I've delivered it," cut in Fred airily, as he started to skate away. "That's all I've got to do in the matter. I don't care to stand here all day. Somebody that knew me might come along and catch me talking with you."
"The snob!" muttered Dave indignantly.
"What on earth can the lawyer want of us?" pondered Greg.
"Generally, when a lawyer sends for you, it means trouble," guessed Dalzell.
"Or else some relative has died and left you a lot of money," added Harry Hazelton.
"Well, in any case," replied Dick, "we six fellows haven't the same relative, anywhere, and Fred said his father wanted to see all of us."
"We haven't been doing anything—nothing wrong, anyway," declared Dan virtuously.
"We won't know the answer until we've seen Mr. Ripley," declared Dick. "We'll have to go around there after dinner to-day."
"Why not go now?" proposed Tom Reade. "We haven't anything special to do with our time."
"You fellows haven't much imagination, have you?" laughed Dave, his eyes twinkling mysteriously.
"Have you guessed?" demanded Dick Prescott.
"Well, it's only a guess, of course, and it may be a wild one."
"Out with it!" ordered Tom Reade sharply.
"You know, fellows," Dave continued, "that we did some service for Mrs. Dexter last fall, and that she tried to reward us. Now that she's gone away to parts unknown, perhaps you also know that Lawyer Ripley is managing her money affairs these days."
"Then——" gasped Greg.
"Why, fellows, now that Mrs. Dexter is away, and we can't stop her, and as to-morrow will be Christmas, why, perhaps——"
Not one single member of Dick & Co. was at all lacking in imagination now!
"Why, do you think——"
"I wonder if——"
"Fellows," hinted Dick Prescott dryly, and in a tone that hid the excitement going on within him, "it won't take us long to skate back to Gridley!"
DICK & CO. FIND CAUSE FOR GLEE
Lawyer Ripley was one of the important men of the little city of Gridley. His law practice, which he did not now follow on account of the need of an income, put him in touch with all the wealthier people of the place.
In manner the lawyer was rather severe and austere. He was a good deal of an aristocrat. While he did not seek to repel people, he had little of the knack of drawing people to him in democratic fashion.
"Come in!" he called, in answer to the knock that Dick gave on the door.
As the boys entered they saw the lawyer pausing beside his coat rack.
"I am afraid we have gotten along a little too late, sir," apologized Dick Prescott.
"I can spare you two or three minutes," said the lawyer, turning and going back to his desk.
"Your son said you wished to see us," Prescott continued.
"Yes," said the lawyer, pulling a drawer in his desk open and glancing inside. "Late yesterday afternoon I received a letter from my client, Mrs. Dexter, who directed me to hand you each a new ten-dollar bill, with her best wishes for a Merry Christmas added."
"I am afraid that Mrs. Dexter intends that as a reward for what we were able to do for her last fall," cried Dick, flushing. "We tried to tell her, at the time, that we didn't want any reward and that we wouldn't feel comfortable in taking one."
"Nothing was said in Mrs. Dexter's letter about a reward," replied the lawyer dryly. "She directed me to hand you the banknotes in place of Christmas cards. I suppose you young gentlemen have no objection to receiving Christmas cards?"
Lawyer Ripley took out several banknotes. One of these he now held out to Prescott.
Dick flushed again, looked embarrassed, then reached out his hand slowly and took the money.
"Will you send Mrs. Dexter our thanks, sir, and tell her that we enjoyed the cards very much?"
"Especially the pictures on them," added Dan Dalzell, as he received his banknote.
"I will send all your messages," nodded the lawyer, as he continued the distribution.
"Say—whoop!" suddenly exploded Greg Holmes.
"What's the matter—yours counterfeit?" laughed Dan.
"Say, fellows," Greg went on, "we were wishing we had the funds to build some sort of a camp. We can do it, now, can't we?"
"What kind of camp?" inquired Lawyer Ripley, looking mildly interested. "And for what would you use a camp?"
"Why, for camping, I suppose," confessed Greg.
"You wouldn't live in a tent, at this time of the year, would you?"
"If we had to," assented young Holmes. "What we were talking about was building some kind of a shack in the woods somewhere."
"Rather a bad time of the year for building operations," smiled Lawyer Ripley dryly.
"But this wouldn't be so very much of an operation, sir," urged Greg. "Now that we've sixty dollars between us, we ought to be able to buy enough lumber to put up quite a shanty."
"Yes; and probably have enough money left to pay for the teaming of the lumber a few miles," agreed the man of law. "But there wouldn't be enough to pay the carpenters."
"We might be able to build a small shack ourselves," proposed Tom Reade.
"Why, so you might," admitted the lawyer, half smiling. "However, any task that is worth doing is much better done by one used to that kind of work. When do you want to go camping?"
"Why, right after to-morrow, Christmas," replied Dick. "We could stay in the woods, if our parents let us go, until about the end of the present vacation."
"It would take you at least that length of time to build the shack, I should think," suggested the lawyer. "Until you had it built you might have to wrap up in the snow at night for your sleep. And, then, when you had it all built, you would discover that the shack didn't belong to you, but to the owner of the land on which you built it. He could order you away from the shack if he were so disposed."
"I hadn't thought of that," admitted Greg, looking crestfallen.
"I'm afraid we won't camp," spoke up Harry Hazelton.
"The greatest difficulty," suggested the lawyer, "would be getting the consent of your parents to any such madcap scheme as going off into the woods to camp, day after day, in mid-winter."
"There might be some difficulty about that, sir," replied Prescott. "But now it looks as though the one really big problem would be to get a camp on the money that we now have, and to be ready to go into it in season during this school vacation."
"That would really be but a very slight difficulty," rejoined the lawyer.
"I wish I could see how you make that out, sir."
"Why, as it happens, in the property that Mrs. Dexter's grandfather left her there's the strip called Hobson's woods, you know. The forest is a pretty big affair. In fact, it's what's generally called wild country. But there are a thousand acres of the woods, worth about four dollars an acre, that now belong to Mrs. Dexter. She authorized me to find a buyer for that bit of the forest, but it seems to be out of the question. Now, on Mrs. Dexter's land, in about the middle of it, and less than two hundred feet off the main trail, is one of the few real old log cabins left in this part of the United States. The cabin is in pretty good repair, too, I fancy, for Mrs. Dexter's grandfather used to do logging out that way. Later in his life, when he had amassed money, the old gentleman used to go out to that cabin to live for a while, two or three times in every year. The place was in excellent repair when he died. It is still, I imagine."
There was a breathless silence as the lawyer ceased speaking. How the thought of that log cabin, out in the deep forest, appealed to the imaginations of such Grammar School boys as these!
"Well, sir?" asked Greg breathlessly, at last.
"Young men, if your parents should consent to your going on such a wild, madcap picnic in mid-winter, I would let you have the use of that cabin. But you may have the use of the cabin at any other time, as long as the cabin remains in Mrs. Dexter's name, so I would suggest your going in the spring or summer."
"Oh, pshaw!" leaped to Greg Holmes's lips, but he choked back the exclamation. What use would boys have for a log cabin in summer, when there was a chance to use it in mid-winter? Besides, the summer seemed a long way off.
"Is there any water near the cabin, Mr. Ripley?" asked Tom Reade, who possessed a practical head in such matters.
"Yes; a spring, within perhaps twenty or thirty feet of the doorway," nodded the lawyer. "Inside the cabin is one of the big, old-fashioned fire-places——"
"O-o-oh! A-a-ah!" gasped the youngsters in chorus.
"There are also eight bunks in the place, each with a straw or dry-leaf mattress," continued Mr. Ripley. "There are table and chairs, hand made and of the crudest kind, and some few tools."
"Say, wouldn't that make an ideal camp?" demanded Dick Prescott, turning to his chums, his eyes glowing.
All their faces were flushed with the excitement of the thing. Now that it was so close, and practical, all the boys of Dick & Co. felt a wild desire to be up and away for camp at once.
"And you say we may have the cabin, sir, and the right to cut some firewood in the forest?" Dick asked.
"I said you could, if you had your parents' full and free permission to go," replied Lawyer Ripley. "That, I fancy, is a very different thing."
"But if we get that permission, sir," urged Dick, "and come back and tell you so, then you will let us——"
"If you get home permission, you won't need to come back to me at all," replied Lawyer Ripley, smiling, as he rose. "Just go and help yourselves to the cabin and what few improvements it contains. But I am afraid, boys, you are going to be very much disappointed if you expect that your parents will consent. I think it very unlikely that you'll get any such permission. I will send your thanks to Mrs. Dexter, and will also tell her what I have told you about the use of the camp. As to-morrow will be Christmas, I shall not be back here to-day. If you go camping, boys—which I don't believe you will—don't burn the old cabin down unless you find it necessary in order to keep warm enough."
As Lawyer Ripley now made it plain that he was about to leave, the boys hastily repeated their thanks and left the office.
Not until they got down into the street did any of them feel like speaking.
"Say, fellows, if that isn't the grandest——" suddenly blazed forth Greg.
"It's all right," nodded Tom.
"I'm going camping, if I can get any of you fellows to go with me," announced Dave Darrin.
"If your folks will let you, you mean," interrupted Hazelton.
"They will," Dave contended. "And so will yours, Dick."
"I—I hope so," sighed Dick, his eyes dancing. "I never before in my life wanted to do anything as much as I now want to go camping."
"With the still woods, all snow-covered!" cried Dan enthusiastically.
"And the cold nights, with the great fire roaring up the chimney!" supplied Greg.
"And some hunting!"
"And the jolly fun of cooking our own food!"
These youngsters, as they hurried along the street, were in grave danger of being lost in the depths of their own excitement.
"Say, I wonder if there'd be any fishing out there—through the ice?" demanded Harry Hazelton.
"There'd be some rabbit hunting, anyway," supplied Dan.
"If we can only get leave to go!" groaned Greg anxiously.
"See here, fellows," muttered Dick, halting suddenly. "We've simply got to get that leave from our parents!"
"But how?" challenged Dan.
"That's what we've got to think out right now. And, by hookey! I believe I have an idea. Fellows, we have ten dollars apiece."
"My mother will say that I must put that in bank," grunted Dan.
"Wait! Of course, with ten dollars apiece, we've got to consult our parents as to how the money is to be spent," Dick went on. "Now, that is a matter that will call for a little diplomacy. Some of what our principal, Old Dut, calls 'finish'—no, 'finesse.'"
"What's that?" Dan wanted to know.
"Oh, it's a Latin or a Greek word, or something of the sort, meaning to put a fine edge on a piece of business," Dick explained tranquilly. "What I mean is this, fellows: Each one of us will go home and show the money to his father—his father only. Then each one of us will ask permission to spend five dollars of the money on a present for his mother, to be given to her to-morrow morning as a surprise. Then we'll ask our dads for leave to use the other five dollars towards provisioning our camp. Fellows, if you go about it the right way, I'm sure you can each get leave for the camping expedition! I feel just about sure on my own account."
"But how about our mothers?" inquired Dan dubiously.
"Don't you think the present will smooth the way with the mothers?" laughed Dave Darrin.
"It ought to," smiled Tom Reade.
"Don't you think we could get our mothers something pretty nice with two dollars apiece?" asked Harry Hazelton speculatively.
"I couldn't get anything nice enough for my mother with two dollars, when I have more money," Dick replied promptly.
Hazelton's money-saving plan was promptly voted down.
"So now," proposed Dick, "all we have to do is to hurry home and hustle! Beat your way to it, fellows!"
"Hurrah!" Greg gasped.
Hurrying along Main Street, through the crowds of Christmas shoppers, the Grammar School boys were on the point of parting, to go their several ways homeward, when they came upon a scene that halted them.
More than two dozen people, mostly women, had gathered around a shabby-looking man who was clutching wildly at a lamp post, and yet seemed in momentary danger of falling. His lips were thickly covered with foam, his eyes glaring, and the fellow was talking wildly, in low tones, as though to himself.
"Come away and leave him. He's intoxicated," announced one woman shrilly.
"He's not intoxicated," responded another matron indignantly. "There is no odor of liquor about the poor man. And drunken men don't froth at the mouth. This poor fellow is ill—very ill. It must be a fit—maybe epilepsy. Some of you women who have a little more brains and heart than others help me to take this poor fellow to the drug store."
There were willing hands enough, now, among the women. Three or four tried to take hold of the sufferer at once. That victim of an unknown malady clutched and gripped at the good Samaritans as they tried to steer him along the street toward the drug store. To hold him up was all four women could do together, so progress along the street was slow indeed.
"Here comes Dr. Bentley in his auto. Stop him, some one!"
The doctor quickly ran his car in toward the curb and leaped out. A fine man and a busy physician, Dr. Bentley was never too much occupied to stop and help an unfortunate man.
Dr. Bentley's big frame and broad shoulders loomed up in the crowd.
"Let me have the man on one side," urged the doctor. "One of you ladies might help hold him on the other side."
"What's the matter with the man, doctor?" cried several.
"Really, ladies, I can't tell until I've had a chance to examine the man. It may be a fit of some sort. I think likely it is. But we will get him to the drug store first, and into the back room. Then I can examine the poor chap comfortably."
Though seemingly "out of his head," the sufferer succeeded in throwing his arms about a great deal.
Then, suddenly, Dick, who had been following and watching with wide-open eyes, called out lustily:
"Dr. Bentley, your overcoat is open, your chain is hanging with no watch on it, and your scarf pin is gone!"
That announcement electrified the situation. Dr. Bentley glanced down swiftly, then threw one hand up to his necktie.
"My purse is gone from my chatelaine!" cried one of the women who had been helping.
"My purse is gone, too!"
It was amazing to see how quickly the sufferer from the fit galvanized into action. He straightened up suddenly, gave himself a violent wrench and shook himself free of those who had sought to aid him.
With a bound the fellow was off and away. As he sprang he spat from his mouth the piece of soap that had supplied the foam to his lips.
"Catch him, fellows!" yelled Dick.
But only Tom and young Prescott were near enough to the path of flight. Tom Reade leaped valiantly in, but was shoved off and sent spinning by one of the burly fists of the rough.
It was up to Dick to make the catch.
Dick had his skates, strapped together, swinging from his right wrist. He swung the skates back to strike at the fugitive. Ere he could do it the man drove a big, hammer-like fist straight between Dick Prescott's eyes in a way that sent that boy down like a log.
The impact of that blow was heard by all.
THE CAMPAIGN TO COAX PARENTS
In another moment the fleeing one had darted around the corner.
Five members of Dick & Co., angry all the way through, were the first to reach that corner.
"There he goes, down the alley-way to the livery stable!" roared Dave Darrin. "After him, fellows!"
But by the time that the five reached the stable yard the fugitive was out of sight. Men hurried up, and a quick search was made of the neighborhood. It was soon certain, however, that the fellow had made good use of his time and had gotten away. Two policemen who were among the latest arrivals on the scene gave it as their opinion that further chase would be worse than useless.
So Dick's chums turned back, to see how their leader had fared.
Dr. Bentley was leaning over the boy, who, white and lifeless, lay at the edge of the sidewalk.
"Take him to the drug store, doctor," urged one of the women.
"He'll revive quicker in the open air, madam," answered the physician.
"Is young Prescott very badly hurt?"
"I can't tell yet," said Dr. Bentley. "There doesn't seem to be any fracture of the bone at the point where he was struck. And the back of his head seems to be sound and whole. I think Master Dick is simply stunned."
Dr. Bentley stepped over to his auto, took out a drug case and selected a vial from it.
"Get me a glass of water, someone, and promptly," he directed.
The water was quickly brought. After pouring a few drops from the vial into it, the medical man supported Dick's head and poured some of the stuff into his mouth.
After a short time Dick opened his eyes.
"Wh-what kicked me?" he asked slowly.
"The fist of that gentleman with soap-made fits," replied the physician dryly. "Take a few deep breaths, Prescott. Now, a little more from the glass. Breathe hard again. There, do you feel as though you'd like to get on your feet?"
"Certainly," Dick replied.
Dr. Bentley helped him to his feet, supporting him and urging him to try to walk a little. At about this time Dave and the others returned at a trot.
"Dick, I guess you saved some of us from losing more in the way of valuables," smiled the medical man grimly. "For one, I'm ashamed of myself. A man who has been practising medicine more than twenty years should know too much to be taken in by sham fits on the part of a thief who plays his trick in order to rob a crowd of Christmas shoppers."
"You think he meant to rob us, then, doctor?" pressed a woman in the crowd.
"That fellow certainly did mean to do it," replied Dr. Bentley with emphasis. "It's an old trick in a crowd—this sort of sham sickness."
"And he got all my Christmas money—every cent of it—and carried it off with him!" wailed one woman, who looked as though she could not afford to lose much money.
"He snatched my locket with the diamond in it!" vengefully exclaimed another woman, exhibiting the broken ends of a neck chain.
"My purse is gone. I had forty-two dollars in it."
"I didn't get off very lightly, ladies," replied Dr. Bentley. "My scarf pin wasn't so extremely valuable, but I feel badly about the watch, and I shall feel worse when I realize its loss more fully. That was my father's watch, and I valued it above money."
"The police ought to catch that scoundrel," declared one of the women losers.
"Of course they ought," cried another. "If they don't catch the thief what good are the police, anyway?"
"I don't care much about their finding him, unless they also find my forty-two dollars on him," mournfully proclaimed another of the losers.
"I am sorry for you, ladies. I don't deserve any sympathy, or very little, for myself. Well, as the scoundrel has gotten away, and as young Prescott is growing stronger, I shall go on my way to other patients who need me."
Dick was still rather dizzy and weak, but Dave's right arm supported him.
"Does your head ache?" inquired Greg.
"Guess," advised Dick dryly.
As the two policemen had given up looking for the fugitive, and had gone back to their posts, the crowd was melting. It was nearly noon, and most people on the streets were moving homeward.
"Guess you won't have a large appetite for the coming meal," observed Tom Reade to Dick. "Whew! What a crack that sounded like when the scoundrel struck you! It must have jarred away some of your appetite."
"I can't tell about that until I try to eat," Dick answered.
"No matter whether you eat much or not, but you want to be sure to ask your mother for two cups of strong coffee with your dinner," advised Darrin, with all the readiness of the amateur physician.
"I guess I'll go home, fellows," announced Dick, as the noon whistles blew. "I advise the rest of you to hustle, too. Remember what you've got to spring on your fathers when you get home. We want to have the whole thing settled when we meet this afternoon. Try to put it through, all of you, won't you?"
"I'm going to see you as far as your door, Dick, old fellow," Dave insisted.
"Oh, I'll be feeling fine in another hour," Dick protested. "It just knocked my senses for a minute or two."
Shortly after one o'clock the chums gathered again on Main Street. Dick now looked as keen as ever, and his eyes were shining.
"It's all settled for me," he announced. "I can go camping."
"So can I," Dave reported with satisfaction.
"Dad almost as good as said I could go," Tom declared. "He'll agree to it by to-night."
"How about you, Dan?" queried Dick.
"I can go—not," groaned Dalzell.
"I hope to go," announced Greg. "All I could get out of my father was that he was in a rush, but that he'd talk it over with me to-morrow and let me know what he had to say."
Hazelton admitted that he was in the same plight, as to a delayed decision, but he did not speak as though he were very hopeful of being permitted to go.
"It'll just be a shame if we can't all go," Dave declared seriously. "It won't be a quarter as much fun unless we have the whole crowd."
"Say, watch that slim, well-dressed fellow with the brown derby," whispered Hazelton. "See him coming along behind the two women. I'm sure I saw him, earlier this morning, talking with the same fit-thrower that bumped Dick."
"Humph! So did I," muttered Dick. "I remember. This slim fellow was with a short, thick-set man with a black moustache."
"Right!" nodded Harry.
"They must all be members of the same gang of thieves, then," flashed Dick. "I've read in the newspapers that the thieves who work the Christmas trade generally go in gangs. By crackey! Did you see that?"
"Yes!" muttered Tom Reade excitedly.
"What?" questioned Greg.
"Why," explained Dick, "Mr. Slim put his hand in a woman's skirt pocket. He slipped a wallet from her pocket to his."
"That's what he did," nodded Tom.
"Come along," urged Dick. "We'll see if we can come across a policeman before Mr. Slim gets all the money in the town."
Falling in by twos the Grammar School boys, full of excitement, trailed after the slim, neatly dressed thief.
Two blocks lower down the boys ran across Policeman Whalen, who, in citizen's clothes, had been turned out to watch for thieves.
In an undertone Dick called attention to the slim fellow, who was still moving along in the moving crowds of shopping women. Whalen cautiously took up the trail, while Dick & Co. fell back somewhat.
Two minutes later Whalen made a sudden leap forward, seizing the suspected young man by the coat collar.
"Stand by, till I shake ye down!" roared the policeman, thrashing the thief about until the slim one's teeth chattered. A small morocco purse fell to the sidewalk.
"Why, that's mine!" cried a woman.
"I know it, ma'am. I saw this spalpeen take it from your pocket," nodded Policeman Whalen. "Come along with me, lad! And ye come, too, ma'am, and claim your pocketbook."
"Oh, I'm so glad you saw him do it," quivered the young woman, her face white from the shock caused by the thought of losing her Christmas money.
"I wouldn't have seen him do it," admitted Whalen honestly, "only Dick Prescott called my attention to the spalpeen."
The prisoner, who realized that he could not twist himself away from the strong clutch of the policeman, scowled at Dick as the young woman thanked him.
A crowd formed in an instant, but Whalen broke up the excitement by starting promptly along with his captive.
Dick & Co. turned and followed a little way. The crowd that kept in the wake of the policeman was soon a dense one.
"You'll be sorry for this, youngster!" growled a low, angry voice just behind Dick.
Like a flash Prescott wheeled. It was not plain, however, who, in all that throng, had spoken to him. But Dick's roving gaze soon made out, several yards away, a man in brown, wearing a gray overcoat. The fellow was marching along with the throng as though he, too, were an idle spectator.
"That's the fit-thrower's other friend," flashed through Dick's mind. "He must have been the fellow who spoke behind me just now, too."
"Oh, let's not go any further," proposed Tom Reade. "We've seen folks arrested before this."
"Come along," said Dick shortly, not caring to explain his reasons just at this moment.
So the chums kept on in the wake of the crowd. A block further on a uniformed policeman stepped forward to have a look at Whalen's prisoner.
"Moll-buzzer," explained Policeman Whalen briefly to his brother of the force. A "moll-buzzer" is a thief who robs women in crowds.
The uniformed policeman fell back and the crowd moved forward, but Dick seized the second policeman's coat sleeve.
"There's another of the gang," whispered Dick, pointing to the black-moustached man in the gray overcoat.
"Are you sure?" demanded officer number two.
"Positive," whispered Dick. "At least, we saw them talking together early this morning."
At this moment the man in the gray overcoat turned. He saw Dick and the policeman talking in low tones. Without waiting an instant the man in the gray overcoat darted forward, trying to break through the crowd.
"Grab him!" shouted the policeman.
Three or four men moved closer to obey.
"Look out!" yelled some one frantically. "He's got a pistol."
The citizen helpers drew away quickly at that information, but the delay had been enough to enable the policeman to close in on his man. With his locust stick the officer struck down the pistol hand and snatched away the weapon. An instant later two prisoners were marching toward the police station, the second one having been taken only on suspicion.
"Bully for you, Dick Prescott!" cried Grocer Smith, laying a heavy but approving hand across Dick's shoulders.
"Oh, we all recognized the pair," Prescott answered modestly. "They were together this morning, and the fit-thrower was with them."
"You boys will be sorry for making unfounded charges of this sort," called back the black-moustached prisoner angrily. "Wait and see if you're not."
"Cut out the gloom, man!" ordered the uniformed policeman, giving his captive a twist that hurt. "Don't be trying to frighten small boys."
At the station house the crowd hung about outside.
"Going inside, Dick!" asked Dave eagerly.
"No one has asked us to. I guess we'd better wait out here unless we're invited inside."
The young woman, whose pocketbook had been taken, went inside. She identified her property and made a charge against the pick-pocket. Both prisoners again heard the name of Dick Prescott mentioned.
The crowd melted after a little. Later the two prisoners were taken before Justice Lee. Mr. Slim was sent away for six months on the charge of pocket picking. The thick set captive in the gray overcoat, because he could not give a good account of himself, was sentenced to ninety days in the workhouse for vagrancy. Police and court were determined to do all in their power to protect the Christmas shoppers.
* * * * *
"Now, as to our camping plans," Dick resumed, a little later in the afternoon. "You fellows who aren't yet sure that you can get leave to go, will have to keep right on the trail until that permission is given. You can say that some of us are going, and that may help you some at home."
"It may help the rest," suggested Dan Dalzell mournfully, "but nothing will do me any good. I'm dished. No camping out in winter is going to come my way."
"Oh, I wouldn't be too sure," urged Dick. "But, at least, you can be sure you won't go if you don't try some more coaxing."
"Say, you come and do the coaxing yourself to-night, when dad is home," begged Dan.
"I will, if you think it will do any good, Danny," Prescott agreed.
"At any rate, your little speech can't put the matter any further back than it stands right now," Dalzell declared. "And, oh, dear! I do want so badly to go with you fellows! I never wanted anything as much before."
"Say, we'll all go together, early this evening," proposed Dick, his eyes now snapping. "We'll call in a body at the house of each fellow who hasn't yet secured leave to go on the winter camping party. We will all present the case. Perhaps we can put it through for the whole six. If we can't all go there won't be nearly as much fun."
Very soon, indeed, after supper, Dick & Co. were all assembled once more.
"You won't need to go to my house," Tom explained triumphantly. "My father says I can go and he has brought mother around to agree to it."
"Whose house shall we go to first, then?" asked Dick.
"Come to mine," begged Dan woefully.
So to the Dalzell home they went. The boys pleaded their case both with Mr. and Mrs. Dalzell. Neither parent, however, would do more than say that "they would see."
At Greg Holmes's house victory was quickly won, and Greg was happy. Next Dick & Co. went in force to Harry Hazelton's home, where the coaxing was renewed.
"I want to sleep over this scheme, Harry," said Mr. Hazelton finally, "and I think your mother does, too. We don't want to see you miss any good times that you really ought to have, so I think, if the rest are going, we shall probably decide to let you go, too. But I won't say 'yes' to-night. I'll wait and see how the idea strikes me to-morrow."
"Oh, I guess you're fixed, all right, Harry," grunted Dan when the Grammar School boys had filed out of the Hazelton house. "But—oh, poor me!"
"And now, see here, fellows, we want to get around into the stores before we lose any more time," suggested Dick. "We don't want to forget that each fellow is to spend half his money in buying the best present he can get for his mother."
"Do you think it will pay—in my case?" asked Dan dolefully.
"Shame on you, Danny boy!" growled Dave Darrin, giving Dalzell a sturdy shaking.
"Was there ever a time that it didn't pay a fellow to remember his mother whenever he had a chance?" demanded Dick. "If my mother had said 'no' and had stuck to it, I'd be mighty glad over being able to get her a solid Christmas present just the same."
Within another hour the presents had been bought, the crowd sticking together and giving collective advice for the benefit of each individual.
Then Dick went home. Instead of passing through the store, where both his parents were, he took out his key and made for the door that admitted to the living rooms above. Over the knob was tacked a piece of paper. Dick took it off and carried it upstairs with him, where, in the light of the parlor, he read this message, in scrawling print:
"Wait and see if you ain't sorry!"
"This must be from the fit-thrower!" thought young Prescott, with an inward jump.
He was soon to know.
"REMEMBERED"—BY MR. FITS?
Through the night Dick slept as only an active, tired out boy can sleep. If he woke once he had no recollection of it in the morning.
This, too, despite the fact that it was Christmas, and he had all of a boy's natural desire to know what the day was to bring him.
Rat-tat-tat! sounded Mrs. Prescott's soft fist on Dick's bedroom door that morning.
"Wake up, son!" Mrs. Prescott called for the second time.
"I—I'm awake," gasped Dick sleepily.
"Get up, then, son. Have you forgotten that this is Christmas?"
"No'm; I haven't." Dick's feet struck the floor heavily, and he reached out for his clothing. "Merry Christmas, mother! Is dad there?"
"He's out in the kitchen, raking the fire. Don't you hear him?"
"Yes'm. Say, mother, have you seen your presents yet?"
"I found a handsome gold chain from your father on my bureau."
"Was that all you found?"
"Where did you look?" chuckled Dick.
"Why, on the parlor table, as usual, to be sure."
"Better look again, mother," laughed Dick.
By this time he was nearly dressed. He heard Mrs. Prescott going back into the parlor.
"I don't find anything else here for me," Mrs. Prescott called back in a puzzled voice.
"Mother, at this rate, you'll soon be needing specs," called Dick, throwing open his bedroom door and looking out.
"But I don't see anything else for me, Richard," insisted his mother, as the boy entered the parlor.
"Look again, mother. Surely, you——"
Then Dick halted suddenly, staring hard at the table, and at the mantel beyond.
"Why, I left——" he began, and then looked more puzzled. At last he grinned as the solution of the mystery came into his mind.
"It's just one of dad's jokes," he laughed. "Or else dad forgot. I gave it to him last night, to lay on the table after you had gone to bed. You see, mother, this is the first Christmas that I have had money of my own with which to buy you something really nice. I'll ask dad where it is."
"Who's taking my name in vain?" called Mr. Prescott, as he came through the hallway and looked in the parlor. "Merry Christmas, Dick."
"Same to you, sir. But, say, what happened to that little package I handed you for mother?"
"I put it on the table before retiring last night," replied Mr. Prescott. "It must be there—but it isn't, is it?"
"Honest, now, dad, this isn't a joke, is it?"
"Not on my part, anyway," replied the elder Prescott rather blankly.
"Now, I suppose that you're both playing a little joke on me, trying to make me curious and impatient," laughed Dick's mother.
"But where is the package?" demanded Dick, exploring all around. His father lent a helping hand in the search.
"Oh, never mind, Dick, dear," urged his mother. "My surprise is bound to turn up. It couldn't have walked out of these rooms. Look at your own package, my boy."
Dick turned to glance eagerly at a not very large box, against which rested a card bearing his own name. He saw, at a glance, that the box bore the imprint of one of the Gridley jewelers.
"I can guess!" cried Dick. "I know what's in the box!"
"Suppose you made a wrong guess?" laughed his mother teasingly. "Better open it and make sure."
Dick picked up the box with trembling fingers.
"Mighty light, whatever it is," he murmured. Then he took off the cover.
"What's this?" choked Dick. "O-o-o-h!"
For all he saw resting in the box was a slip of white paper on which had been poorly printed, in lead pencil, the words:
"Merry Christmas, Master Butt-in!"
"Some of Dad's fooling," laughed Dick a moment later.
"Not much it isn't," retorted Mr. Prescott, taking a quick step forward. "Let me see that paper."
Dick handed it over, and his father read the words.
"What on earth does this mean?" he demanded. "What we put in that box was your first watch, Dick. A silver-cased watch and a very neat gold-plated chain."
One look at his father and a swift glance at his mother convinced the boy that they had not been parties to any joke. Yet where were the watch and chain?
"Who could have left this slip of paper here?" asked Mrs. Prescott.
"Hardly any one outside of the family," replied Mr. Prescott. "I don't understand this at all."
"And mother's gift, too?" pondered Dick aloud, growing more puzzled every instant.
"Well, certainly no one else has been in this flat," went on Mrs. Prescott.
But Dick flew first to one parlor window, and then to the other. Next he crossed the parlor in two bounds, dashing to his bedroom. He came back, holding the slip of paper he had taken from the outer door the night before.
"The two slips look as though they had been printed by the same fellow, don't they?" inquired the boy.
"Yes," nodded Mr. Prescott. Dick told him about finding the other slip on the door the evening before.
"But who could play such a mean trick?" insisted Mrs. Prescott.
"The fit-thrower, very likely," Dick answered.
Then Dick hastily recalled to them his adventures of the day before.
"And one parlor window is fastened," Dick went on. "The other has its catch slipped. The fit-thrower must have climbed up in the night, slipped the catch with a thin blade and prowled around in here just to spoil our Christmas."
"It looks that way," nodded Mr. Prescott slowly, his usually calm eyes filled with disappointment. Then he added, to his wife: "My dear, I'm very glad, indeed, that I placed your chain on your bureau last night, instead of leaving it here on the parlor table."
"And poor Dick doesn't get any present!" cried Mrs. Prescott, her eyes filling a bit. "O Dick, this year we thought we'd please you more by putting all the money we could spare into one present, so we got your watch and chain that you've wanted for so long. It's—it's too, too bad!"
Mrs. Prescott, though seldom given to tears, now sank to the sofa, pulled out her handkerchief and gave brief vent to her own great disappointment.
"Never mind, mother; it may turn up all right yet," urged Dick soothingly, as he rested one arm around her waist. "But if Mr. Fits really did break in here and take your present, then I feel as though I'd enjoy trailing him to the end of the earth and seeing him shoved away behind strong bars!"
"It seems almost fantastic," declared Mr. Prescott, "but I'm afraid, Dick, that the scoundrel you've told us about really did break in here on purpose to spoil your Christmas. If he didn't come in person he must have sent someone."
"Oh, well, anyway," protested Dick, trying to stifle his disappointment, both on his mother's account and his own, "probably we'll all live to see more Christmases. But, mother, I'm awfully sorry about the loss of your gift. Dad thought, too, that I had made a fine choice."
"Indeed you did, young man," remarked Mr. Prescott. "You know, my dear, that the last time you went to the opera house it was a gala occasion, and you regretted that you didn't have a really nice fan to carry? Dick remembered that, and he got you a fan. It was a handsome one. I didn't believe that a young boy could have as much taste as our son displayed in choosing that fan. And now—it isn't here!"
Then each tried to cheer the other up, but despite their best efforts it started in as a gloomy Christmas morning. The Prescotts, while not by any means poverty stricken, were yet in very moderate circumstances. Dick knew well enough that his parents would not be able to duplicate his much-wanted Christmas gift, and that he would have to wait until some dim time in the future before he could hope to carry a watch of his own.
So all three went out to the breakfast table. Dick, to do him justice, thought more of his mother's loss than of his own.
"Are you going to the police about this, my dear?" Mrs. Prescott asked her husband presently.
"I could," the elder Prescott replied, "but I don't imagine it would do much good. The stuff that has been taken isn't likely to be restored to us. I doubt if the police would think it even worth any effort. It isn't an important robbery, as crime goes. It was just a little trick of revenge."
"Mr. Fits is revenged all right, then," admitted Dick, with a bitter smile. "Oh, I only hope that I get a fair chance to pay him back one of these near days! But, at any rate, my Christmas isn't going to be spoiled. You have already agreed to my going away on the camping trip to-morrow, and that is going to be more fun for me than two Christmases."
"I'm glad you're looking forward so to enjoying your vacation in the forest," smiled Mrs. Prescott. "It does seem fortunate that you have such a treat at hand to repay you for your disappointment."
Suddenly Dick looked blank for an instant. Laying down his knife he employed his right hand in making a frantic thrust into one of his trousers' pockets. Then he fished up a banknote.
"Thank goodness that is all right," he gasped. "Mr. Fits didn't think to look for that. It's my five dollars left out of Mrs. Dexter's present, and is the money that I'm going to pay my share of the camp expenses with. But, on second thought, I believe I'll drop out of that camping scheme."
"Why?" asked Mr. Prescott, in a rather sharp, queer voice.
"Because this five dollars will fool Mr. Fits in another way. I can go to-morrow and get mother another fan like the first one."
Mr. Prescott's eyes flashed proudly for a moment as he answered, a bit huskily.
"You could do that, of course, young man, but your mother would never forgive you for cheating yourself out of the one pleasure you want most."
"Sometimes," spoke Dick gravely, "there's more fun in doing without a pleasure, when you can find another that is worth more to you."
The tears stood in Mrs. Prescott's eyes. She rose and dropped both arms around her boy.
"If we absolutely needed your money, Dick," she said, "I know how cheerfully you would do without your pleasure for our sakes. But this is a case where your going camping will be worth more to us all than anything else that five dollars would buy. Besides, think how disappointed your friends would be over not having their leader."
"I appreciate your mother's feelings so much, lad," went on Mr. Prescott, "that I forbid you to spend your remaining money on anything for your mother. She has had her greatest happiness in knowing that you spent half of the first considerable sum of money you ever had in buying something for her. That is as far as you can go. Illness alone preventing, Dick, you'll go camping, and you'll pay your full share into the camping fund. Besides, I'm glad to say that the indications are that a much better business year is coming, and that probably we'll soon be able to have all the things within reason that we may want."
So Christmas, if it ran rather shy on presents in the Prescott household, was at least a season of extremely good feeling among three people whose sympathies ran staunchly together.
"The fellows will be waiting to see me," laughed Dick after breakfast. "So, if I haven't anything to show 'em, at least I've got something to tell them that will make their hair stand up. And I wonder if Mr. Fits visited any of their homes last night?"
Laughing, though doubtless he felt quite unlike it, Dick Prescott put on coat and hat and went out into the Gridley streets.
DICK TRIES STRATEGY
"Hey! Hear about Dick Prescott?"
"His Christmas got 'pinched'!"
Rapidly indeed did the news travel about. Dick told it to his own chums first. The news "leaked" and traveled up and down the streets as Gridley boys began to come forth to compare their Christmas experiences.
Just as certainly, too, the news didn't lose any on its rounds. By the time that the yarn had been carried to the further end of Main Street, Dick's holiday losses had mounted up to a total of: A gold watch and chain, a diamond stickpin, a twenty dollar gold piece, a suit of clothes, silver plated racing skates, a camera, a cornet and a host of lesser articles.
"Whee! The Prescotts must have been making money this year," commented Ben Alvord, when he heard the long list of presents named.
"Say," proposed Dave Darrin indignantly, "we'll hike all over Gridley and just see if we can't run into Mr. Fits somewhere. If we find him we'll jump him all together, and then holler for the police."
Quite a bit of searching the six members of Dick & Co. did that morning, though all without the least success. It presently dawned on these Grammar School boys that Mr. Fits must have left Gridley far behind.
"We'll keep our mind on the camping, anyway," proposed Dick. "We want to start to-morrow morning. We ought to meet at eight o'clock, and then get away together as soon after as we can."
"And hoof it twelve miles?" asked Hazelton.
"No; as we'll have so much stuff to carry, we'll have to pay someone to drive the stuff out there for us. If we have a wagon we may as well ride on it."
"I hope you fellows will all have a good time," suggested Dan Dalzell generously, though his own face still wore a doleful look. For his father and mother had held out against his going. All of the other boys had secured permission.
"It's a shame you can't go, Dan," blazed Dave.
"That's what I think," muttered Dan. "Huh! I've a good mind to run away from home."
"You'd get spanked when you went back," laughed Tom Reade.
"Huh! I ought to run away and never come back," growled Dan.
"Oh, cut that out—do!" urged Dick. "Be a fellow of good sense, Danny. Your father and mother have their own reasons for not wanting you to go."
"Their reasons don't do me any good," uttered Dan resentfully.
"Would it do any good if we all went down to your house and tried coaxing for you?" asked Greg Holmes.
"Not a bit," declared Danny gloomily.
"Say, will you fellows wait here a little while?" begged Dick. "I want to run home a minute. I'll be right back."
"Go ahead," nodded Dave.
Dick started on a trot, for he had a new thought as to a possible way of securing Dan's happiness.
As young Prescott turned a corner and raced homeward, he was espied by a boy on the other side of the street.
"Hey, Dick!" challenged Hen Dutcher gleefully. "What time is it?"
Dick flushed, but wisely made no answer.
"Humph!" muttered Hen to himself. "Just as well his watch did get the run-off. Now Dick Prescott won't be hauling his old timepiece out every two minutes in school to see what time it is."
Dick reached home somewhat out of breath.
"Who's been chasing you?" demanded Mr. Prescott, snatching up a cane that stood in the corner of the parlor. He assumed a ferocious expression, which, with one of as peaceable a disposition as Dick's father possessed, looked more than out of place.
"I haven't got time to joke, dad," objected the boy, dropping into a chair. "But I've got something very particular that I want you to do for me, and it will make Christmas really jolly after all if you can do it."
Then Dick unfolded his plan, while Mr. Prescott looked uneasy.
"Why, Dick, my boy, if Dalzell's parents don't want him to go camping it would look very strange in me to call on them and urge them to exchange their own good judgment for mine. It would look like an impertinence on my part. Dan's father and mother are the very best judges as to whether he should be allowed to go away several days camping. In fact, although I've consented to it, I'm not sure that I have shown the best kind of judgment in the matter."
"Oh, I don't want you to urge the Dalzells very hard, dad. I'm not just asking that. But I think, if you talk it over with them, perhaps——"
"It's a queer bit of business for me," remarked Mr. Prescott.
"But will you go, Dad? Please."
"Yes," agreed Mr. Prescott very reluctantly.
"Can you—can you just as easily go soon, dad?"
"Ye-es. I'll go now. It's such a queer piece of business that I shall be thankful when I have it over with."
"And you'll say the best word you can think of, won't you?"
"If you don't stop soon, young man, I may change my mind and back out altogether."
But Dick, who knew well enough that his father's promise, once given, was never gone back on, thanked him and then danced joyously out into the street again.
"What was the matter, Dick?" asked Tom Reade, curiously, when he rejoined his chums. "Did you forget something?"
"There was something I wanted to talk to dad about," responded Dick evasively.
"What——" began Dan, without an inkling of a true guess.
"Be still, you Danny boy," ordered Dave Darrin bluntly. "The family affairs of the Prescotts should be no concern of yours."
Though, very much to his regret, Dick did not possess a watch, he nevertheless managed to keep very good track of the time. Something more than an hour later he led the fellows around to his own corner. He was just in time to see Mr. Prescott returning.
"You stay here a minute," young Prescott directed, then set off at a run to join his father.
"Did you—did you——" he panted, as he reached his parent.
"Yes," replied the head of the family, a bit stiffly. "I made a nuisance of myself over at the Dalzells. I talked and talked. They talked, too, and both Mr. and Mrs. Dalzell asked me if I thought it at all safe to let such a busy little gang of hooligans as you boys go off on such an expedition. All I could say was to point out the fact that I had given you leave. Well, Mr. and Mrs. Dalzell gave their consent to Dan's going. So now I hope you're satisfied."
"Satisfied? Oh, dad, thank you! This is the best Christmas ever. Thank you! Whoop!"
With that young Prescott executed an about-face and went charging back to where he had left his chums.
"Are you crazy?" demanded Dan curiously.
"No; but you'll be, in a minute. Dad went over to see your folks, and they've given in. You're to go with us."
THE LOG CABIN'S TELLTALE HEARTH
"Have we got everything?" demanded Tom Reade anxiously.
"I think so," nodded Dick.
"No one ever yet started off on any big jaunt without forgetting something, you know," Greg explained.
"Well, let every fellow take a look around and see if he can find anything that we ought to have, and haven't," suggested Dick.
Six pairs of eyes did some anxious searching.
It was nearly ten o'clock on the morning after Christmas. Dick & Co. stood in Miller's grocery store, having mounted guard over an extensive supply of groceries, meat and personal belongings. What a stack of stuff there was!
Dick and Dave had been delegated to do the buying. Starting with a capital of thirty dollars, they had expended a little more than nineteen dollars with the butcher and grocer. Joe Miller, the grocer's son, had gone to hitch up a pair of horses to a roomy truck wagon. Their conveyance to camp, some twelve miles distant, was to cost them four dollars, and Miller had made a low price at that. Dave, as the treasurer of the outfit, now had nearly seven dollars left, but of this, four would be required to pay Joe Miller for the return trip.
In addition to food supplies, each of the six boys had brought along underclothing, shirts and an extra pair of shoes. These personal belongings were packed in bags.
Then, besides, each boy had a roll of bedding—a pillow, sheets and old blankets and comforters for each. There were also, either in bedding rolls or in bags, some few toilet articles. There was also a box of old kitchen ware. Tom Reade had brought a Rochester lamp; Greg and Dan had contributed lanterns and Dick a dark lantern.
"I see one thing we haven't got, but ought to have," said Harry Hazelton to Dick.
"What's that?" asked the latter.
"A shotgun. Joe Miller has a good one, and I know he'd lend it to us if we asked him."
"We won't ask him," Dick replied.
"Now, why not? We have money enough so we can afford to buy some shells, and——"
"Harry, did you tell your folks you expected there'd be a shotgun along on this trip?"
"'Course not. I didn't know there would be one."
"Do you think your folks would have let you come if they had thought of such a thing?"
"Maybe not. But they didn't say a word against our having one."
"Harry, if our parents were to hear that we had taken a shotgun along they'd be worried to death," said Dick gravely.
"Humph! We're old enough to manage a gun," remonstrated Hazelton.
"Perhaps we are, but it would worry our home folks just the same. Boys are always believed to be careless with firearms. We don't want any shotgun along, and then we won't have any need to be sorry about it afterwards."
"But there'll be rabbits and other game that we might get."
"Dave has brought his air-rifle, and has plenty of 'pills' for it. And Tom brought along his bow and half a dozen arrows. We can take care of the little game we may see."
"That's right," broke in Dave, who had been listening. "If we were fools enough to take along a shotgun it'd be many a day before we'd get leave to go on another camping jaunt."
So better counsel prevailed, and Joe Miller was not asked to loan his shotgun. In due time Joe drove around to the door of the store, and the work of loading began.
"Hey, you fellows, where are you going?" hailed Ben Alvord, stopping and gaping in wonder.
"Camping," replied Dick with an air of importance.
"Whee! Say, take me along?" coaxed Ben.
Dick hated the task of refusing, but Dave came to his rescue.
"Got five dollars, Ben?"
"Quit your kidding," retorted Alvord.
"That's what each fellow paid to get into this outfit," Dave went on. "We couldn't feed any more fellows unless they contributed their share in cash."
"How long you going to be gone?" asked Ben.
"Maybe two weeks."
"It will depend somewhat on how long it takes us to eat up our table stuff," laughed Dick.
"My, but you fellows are in luck!"
A few more of the Grammar School fellows happened along. There was much envious talk. There were also several pleas to be taken along, but the mention of the five dollar assessment silenced all such requests.
"All ready!" called out Joe Miller at last. "You youngsters jump on lively, for we've got a long way to go."
With a glad whoop Dick & Co. piled aboard the truck, stowing themselves away as comfortably as might be.
"Giddap!" grumbled Joe at the horses.
"Say!" shouted Ben Alvord as the start was made.
"Well?" answered Dan.
"Who's going to do your cookin'?"
"Wow! You won't all live to tell the tale, then. Got any medicines with you?"
"There, I knew we'd forgotten something," declared Tom Reade solemnly. "S'posing any of us should get sick?"
"We'll make up our minds that we're not going to," replied Dave. "Fellows camping out in winter haven't any right to get sick."
"Still, we might. Might have colds, especially," remarked Dick thoughtfully. "Oh, I say, Joe! Haul up, quick!"
Dick was standing up, using his arms to signal an automobile that was coming toward them.
"Well, who's sick?" smiled Dr. Bentley, stopping his auto.
"Doctor, I have six free patients here for you," Dick announced solemnly.
"Good!" laughed the physician. "That's the kind I like best. What are you boys up to?"
"We're going camping, doctor, out in the forest, and may be gone a fortnight. Just this minute it struck us that we hadn't a bit of medicine with us in case any of us got sick. We don't expect to be, of course, but——"
"I see," nodded the doctor, smiling pleasantly. "One thing is sure. If you have a few simple remedies along with you you're less likely to be ill than if you had forgotten to make any preparation. In that case worry might do its share. Now, let me see."
Dr. Bentley reached up a drug case from the bottom of his car.
"Here's a bottle of stuff for colds," he went on, selecting a bottle and writing on the label. "There, the directions are straight. Going to cook for yourselves?"
"Then indigestion is your most likely trouble." Dr. Bentley began to write on the label of a second bottle. "And here's a little vial, in case any of you get a real fever. Be careful to follow the directions closely."
Then Dr. Bentley took out his prescription book and wrote on two leaves.
"Here's a prescription for a liniment, and something else," he added, tearing out the two pages and passing them to Dick. "You'll notice that I've written on these that the druggist is to give you the goods with all discounts off. That'll make the stuff come cheap, for I don't suppose you're overburdened with wealth on this trip."
"And now, doctor, how much for the stuff you've given us?" asked Dick.
"Giddap," retorted Dr. Bentley, giving his machine a start. "I helped introduce four of you boys to this world, so I'm in a measure responsible for you."
"Stop at the drug store, Joe," Dick called out, as the horses were started.
"Say, wasn't that fine of Dr. Bentley?" glowed Dick, as they rode along.
"Sure," nodded Dan, "but our folks will find it somewhere in their bills, between now and summer."
"Dan, for that," warned Prescott, "we'll wash your face in the first snow that falls out in the woods."
"We surely will," confirmed Tom Reade.
The stop at the drug store was made, whereby the cash capital was lowered by eighty cents. Then Dick & Co. were off in earnest.
So late had the start been made that the boys did not expect to reach their log cabin until after two o'clock. Over Christmas most of the snow had disappeared. There was not enough for good sledding, but just enough to make the going on wheels rather difficult.
Before noon, appetite asserted itself. Fortunately the boys had brought along lunches for use on the road. These were devoured with much relish, Joe Miller, of course, being invited to share with them.
By one o'clock the horses headed into the forest. For the first mile or so there was a fair sort of road, but after that it dwindled down to something more like a trail.
"Isn't this grand, Joe?" exclaimed Greg.
"What?" demanded Joe.
"This great old forest, this silence, this grandeur of solitary nature?"
"It ought to do first rate for lunatics, and such like," answered Joe, gazing with disfavor at the bare trees and desolate looking bushes. "What have you boys been doing that you've got to spend a fortnight away from comfortable livin'?"
"Why, we're doing this for pleasure," said Dan Dalzell.
"Humph!" muttered Joe, and there the matter rested.
It was nearly half past two when the horses were finally hauled up before the log cabin. But now the truck was bare of boys. Dick & Co. had leaped overboard the instant they came in sight of the cabin, and had scampered on before for a look at the place.
"Say, this is great!" cried Greg. "The old cabin looks good and solid, too."
"But how do you get in?" queried Dan, bracing his shoulder against the door and pushing hard. "The place seems to be locked."
More boys tried their shoulders against the door, but it did not yield.
"We'll have to try the windows," proposed Dave. "Hurry and see if they're fastened. This one is."
All the windows proved to be fastened.
"We don't want to break any glass," said Tom Reade ruefully. "We might have a big freeze around here, and then we'd appreciate window glass."
Here was a poser, indeed.
"There doesn't seem to be any keyhole, and yet the door is locked," muttered Dick, studying the door. "Hold on! What's this string for?"
He took hold of a cord that appeared to run through the wooden barrier. Giving the cord a hard pull, Dick once more pushed against the door. It yielded and swung open.
"Hurrah!" sounded the chorus.
"We're bright ones," laughed Dick. "Thought we knew a lot about log cabins, and we clean, plumb forgot the latch-string."
"Let's get inside and get warm," begged Dan.
"Let's get warm by tumbling the things off the wagon," dissented Prescott. "I know Joe is in a big hurry to get started back."
So the stuff was bundled off in rapid order, after which Joe backed his team and swung it around.
"I hope you fellows have a real, nice, loony time!" was Joe's parting salute.
"Now, let's get the stuff inside," urged Dave. This was done with speed, if not with order.
"Now, I'll go out and chop firewood," proposed Dave. "Who'll go with me?"
"Let's all go out and take a look around," suggested Dick. "We want to know all of our surroundings before dark, which isn't a great way off."
"We can't have a fire too soon to suit me," grumbled Dan.
Outside one of the first sights that met their eyes, back of the cabin, was a pile of four foot logs that would have measured five or six cords.
"Now, that's what I call bully," gloated Dalzell. "It won't take us long to have a real fire going in that big chimney-place."
"Let's see what this other little shack is," urged Dick, leading the way to a log shanty some eight feet by ten. Again it was necessary to pull a latch-string, after which the door of the shanty yielded.
"Why, there's a cook stove in here, and a table and a couple of chairs," cried Tom. "This must have been the summer cook house."
"We'll use it for our jail to lock up the bad ones in," jested Dick. "There are no bunks here for sleeping."
"What do you say if we get some of those logs and start a fire in the big cabin?" pleaded Dan. "I'm getting chilled."
The idea prevailed. But the youngsters found snow between the logs, which were tightly frozen in place. After a good deal of work and much panting, Dick and Dave succeeded in freeing one log.
"Huh!" grunted Dan, who had not done any of the work. "Getting these logs is going to be harder work than chopping down young trees."
Whistling, Tom Reade had gone around to the cabin. Now, with a whoop of glee he returned, bearing a crowbar.
"Found this in one corner of the cabin," he explained. "Now, we'll pry logs loose in fast order."
His prediction turned out a good one. Within five minutes more than a dozen of the logs had been loosened and Dick & Co. busied themselves in carrying the logs around and into the cabin.
"Now, Danny Coldfeet, we'll soon have your flame red medicine ready," laughed Dave Darrin jovially. "Get one of the coal oil tins, Danny boy. Greg, tear off some of the paper to stuff under the logs. Hurry! Then I'll lay the fire. Tom, you and Harry bring the logs closer."
Some nearly burned bits of log lay in the broad fireplace under the chimney. Dave bent over to lift these charred bits out. Three or four he tossed back of him. Then suddenly he stiffened up, sticking a finger in his mouth.
"Ouch!" he grunted.
"What's the matter?" asked Tom.
"I burned my finger," sighed Dave.
"Burned your finger—in a dead fire?"
But Dick, stirring the burned bits of wood with his shoe, suddenly lay bare some dull red coals.
"Look-a-here, fellows," hailed Dan in the same moment. "Here's meat and bread, and part of a can of tomatoes on the table. The bread ain't old enough to be mouldy."
"Fellows," announced Dick Prescott, moving about, "there's some one living here—some one besides ourselves!"
THE PROWLER OF THE NIGHT
The six youngsters stood looking curiously at one another.
"I wonder who it can be?" muttered Dan.
"Some one who has no business here, anyway," returned Tom Reade bluntly.
"I wonder if it's some one who did live here, or some one who thinks he's going to keep on living here?" asked Dave Darrin dryly.
"Just the same, I'd like to know who has been living here," Dick went on. "For that matter, who would want to live here, in the depths of the woods in winter?"
"Well, we do, for one crowd," Greg reminded him.
"Yes; but we're boys with a craze for open air and something different," Prescott maintained. "Now, if men have been living here, the case is different. Men don't care about schoolboy junkets. If the man or men who have been living here are honest, I don't mind. Such men will move on if they find that we're here, and that we alone have the proper authority to live here. But suppose the men are not honest? Or rough characters?"
"It will depend on how many there are of them," responded Dan, with one of his broad grins.
"Why?" challenged Dick. "If we had to fight for the right to live in this cabin, how many do you think we could thrash?"
"Oh, I guess it won't come to that," remarked Tom Reade coolly.
"And I hope it won't come to that, or anything like it," Dick replied.
"But just the same, you're going to be scared until you find out? Is that it?" laughed Harry Hazelton.
Dick flushed, but he answered honestly:
"Until something happens I can't tell whether I'm going to be scared or not. Anyway, perhaps I won't show the greatest amount of fright that is displayed around here."
"Now, you're answered, Harry," muttered Dave in a low voice, his eyes flashing. "No fellow in this crowd has any right to doubt that Dick Prescott is all there with the grit when it's called for."
"Can't a fellow joke?" asked Hazelton.
"But, while all this talk is going on," chattered Dan, "I'm not growing any warmer."
"All lend a hand, and we'll get the fireplace cleaned out and the fire going," urged Dick.
After that they made matters fly. The old ashes and hot embers were taken outside and spread. Logs were laid and coal oil spread over them. A match was touched, flames leaped up in response to the heavy draft of the broad chimney, and the interior of the old cabin seemed ablaze.
"My, but that's going to be plenty hot, and some more," chuckled Dan.
"Who'll chop the ice at the spring and get two buckets of water?" called Dick.
"I will," Harry answered, and departed, Greg going along to help him. In a short time Dick had water boiling in a kettle that hung over the fire.
"I don't suppose anyone cares for coffee?" proposed Dick, glancing about him.
In a very short time the beverage was ready.
"Aren't we going to have something to eat, too?" Dan wanted to know, as the young campers gathered at the table.
"What's the use of spoiling our supper, which is only a couple of hours or so away?" asked Dave sensibly.
Though the coffee was weak, it was hot. The youngsters soon began to warm up, and all became cheery.
"Oh, but this life is going to be great!" sighed Greg exultantly. "Say, fellows, I'm glad I thought of this way of putting in a vacation. Won't the other fellows in town be crazy when they hear what a great time we've had?"
"What I want to know," Harry broke in, "is whether rabbits really do run in the woods in winter? My mouth is made up for some rabbit stew."
"Maybe we can buy a couple of rabbits, then, from some farmer's son," suggested Dick dryly.
"Buy 'em?" sniffed Hazelton scornfully. "Huh! Next thing we know you'll want some one to come in and do the housework!"
"It would be better done, then, I don't doubt," laughed Dick. "Now, fellows, the clock tells us that it's quarter of four. That means something like an hour more of daylight. I guess we've a few things to do, haven't we?"
"Get supper!" proposed Dan.
"That's one of the things," nodded Dick. "Then there's water to be brought in. In this nipping air I'll bet there's already more ice over the spring. Then we ought to bring in a lot more logs for the fire. It'll be harder work after dark. And some one ought to get potatoes ready to put on over the fire. Then we ought to select our bunks and get bedding in them. After that we want to tidy up this hard dirt floor. Some one will need to wash the cups and saucers, and have 'em ready for supper."
"Let's have some system to it, then," urged Dave. "Dick, you look about and see what's needed. Then set each fellow to his task—and all the rest will take any kicker down to the spring and duck him!"
"Lemme fix the potatoes, then," begged Dan. That being one of the "disagreeable" tasks, no one objected. Dick parceled out the tasks, and things were soon humming. While they were still busy, darkness had settled down. But Greg had filled the lamp and the lantern, and had them going, though the big, red fire filled the whole cabin with light.
"Whee! But this is jolly!" cried Greg, as he stood arranging his bedding in the bunk he had chosen.
"It'll be more like fun to-morrow, though," suggested Dick, "when we can have a whole, daylight day out in the woods. But I think we're all going to be mighty comfortable here."
That was the general feeling. The Grammar School boys found themselves filled with contentment.
"How are the potatoes coming on, Danny?" inquired Tom. "I'm so hungry I can hardly stand up."
"Ready in ten minutes more, I reckon," Dan answered cheerily.
Greg was cutting bread and getting butter out of a glass jar. Dave had busied himself with opening two tins of meat. They had fresh meat, but the latter was to be used on the morrow when their housekeeping arrangements had been better made. For the present the meat and some other perishable articles of food rested on the ground outdoors, under an overturned box on which three large stones had been placed as weights.
"It's six o'clock," called Dick at last. "Are we going to eat on time?"
"I'm all ready with the potatoes," Dan called back.
Dick once more busied himself with making weak coffee. Tom and Harry set the dishes on the table with a cheery clatter. Then six fearfully hungry boys sat down to table.
"There's no jam on the table," grunted Harry.
"Oh, wait until we get outside of the solid stuff before we bother with sweets," begged Darrin.
It was nearly seven when the glorious meal was over. As nothing but potatoes and coffee had depended on a cook, nothing went wrong with the meal.
"Now, we can clean up and wash the dishes," proposed Dick Prescott.
"What's that?" demanded Tom Reade belligerently. "Work? Right on top of a supper like that?"
"I guess we do all feel more like taking a nap," laughed Dick. "Well, we'll rest for half an hour and see if we feel more like effort then. What do you say if we all pull our chairs up to the fire?"
"How close to the fire?" asked Dan, screening his eyes with his fingers as he glanced at the blazing logs.
"Oh, not too close for comfort, of course," agreed Dick. "But come on. We can swap stories."
"Will they be anything like the spanking story that good Old Dut told you last September, Dick?" teased Dave.
"Not right away, I guess," smiled Dick. "I don't believe any fellow, after that big supper, feels as if he had energy enough to tell a spanking story. But what kind of stories shall we tell?"
"I'll wait for some one else to start it," yawned Tom, as he took his seat in the semi-circle at a respectful distance from the blaze.