It was Pepper's plan to get hold of these teeth and hide them. How the trick was to be accomplished he did not yet know, but he resolved to watch his chances.
That evening, as luck would have it, Josiah Crabtree retired early. As was his custom, he placed his false teeth in a glass of water on a stand in his room. Watching through a keyhole, Pepper saw him do this, and then calmly waited for the teacher to go bed and fall asleep.
The door was locked, but The Imp was equal to the emergency. The room next to that occupied by Crabtree was vacant, and he entered this and threw open the window. The window of the teacher's apartment was less than three feet away, and the sash was pulled down a few inches to let in fresh air.
Pepper was not such an acrobat as Andy, but he quickly raised the next window and moved into the teacher's apartment. In a trice he had secured the new set of teeth, and then he retired as quickly as he had come, leaving both windows as he had found them.
"Now what shall I do with the teeth?" the cadet asked himself. He was strongly tempted to tell Jack and Andy of the trick, but decided to keep the matter to himself.
At last another idea came into The Imp's head and after everybody had apparently gone to bed he stole downstairs and entered the assembly room of the school. He had previously tied the set of teeth to a bit of fishing line having a sinker at the other end. He now took aim at the central chandelier and by good luck sent the sinker and line whirling around one of the pendants, leaving the set of teeth dangling below a foot or more.
"Won't there be a surprise when they see 'em up there!" he muttered. "And won't Crabtree have a job getting them down!"
"Oh, my, what a thing to do!" came a voice from out of the darkness. Pepper whirled around quickly, but the speaker had vanished, banging a door after him.
"Who was that?" was the question Pepper asked himself. He could not place the voice, and was much disturbed. Would the intruder, who had seen his actions, expose him?
"I'll have to chance it," he told himself rather dubiously. "I can't get the teeth down anyway. Too bad! I thought I was alone!" And then he hurried off to bed in anything but a comfortable frame of mind.
PEPPER A PRISONER
At the usual hour the next morning Josiah Crabtree arose and dressed himself. He was in a far from happy frame of mind, for a tailor's bill he had to pay was higher than he thought it ought to be.
Having donned his garments, and washed himself and combed his hair, he turned to the stand to get his new set of teeth.
He took up the glass and peered into it.
"Hum!" he mused. "I thought I put them in there—in fact, I was sure of it!" he murmured.
He set the glass down and commenced to look around, on the bureau, on his bookcase, on the shelf, and even on the chairs. But, of course, nothing in the shape of the set of teeth came to light.
"This is queer, mighty queer," said the teacher to himself. "Now, let me think what I did with them. Yes, I put them in the glass, I am positive of it!"
He examined the glass once more, turning it around and around. Then he commenced a systematic search of the room. At the conclusion something like a groan escaped his lips.
"They are gone! gone!" he murmured hollowly. "And I left the old set at the dentist's to be made over! Oh, what shall I do? I cannot go to the classroom without my teeth, the cadets would roar at me! It must be a trick, a wicked trick! Oh, if only I could find out who did this awful thing!"
He made another hunt, and then, not knowing what else to do, opened his door and hailed a passing cadet.
"Kindly ask Captain Putnam to step here as soon as he can," he mumbled.
"Yes, sir," answered the cadet, and looked curiously at the teacher. "Got a toothache, Mr. Crabtree?"
"No, I have no toothache," mumbled the teacher. "Send Captain Putnam as soon as you can," and then he dove back into his bedroom.
Several minutes passed and George Strong put in an appearance.
"Dalling said you wanted to see Captain Putnam," he said. "The captain has left for Buffalo on business. Can I do anything for you?"
"Mr. Strong, a wicked trick has been played on me!" burst out Josiah Crabtree.
"Yes. My teeth are gone, the new set I had made! Some cadet has taken them!"
"Can it be possible!" murmured George Strong. "Where did you leave them?"
"In that glass on the stand. Oh, what shall I do? My other set is at the dentist's, getting fixed."
"Maybe I can send for them."
"Hardly, since the dentist is at Ithaca. Oh, what a wretch, to take my teeth! I cannot go to the classroom without my teeth. I would be the laughing-stock of the entire school! It is a dreadful state of affairs!"
"I don't see how I can help you out, sir," answered George Strong, sympathetically.
"I shall have to stay here until something is done. See if you can't find the cadet who took the teeth."
"I will do what I can," answered George Strong, and left the room.
Josiah Crabtree was walking up and down nervously, when there came a timid knock on the door. He opened it to confront Mumps.
"Well, Fenwick, what do you want?" demanded the teacher, harshly. The sneak of the school generally had some tale of woe to tell, and he was just now in no humor to listen to any such recital.
"Please, Mr. Crabtree, did you lose anything?" asked Mumps, nervously.
"Ha! what is that? Come in! What do you know?" cried Josiah Crabtree, and caught Mumps by the arm.
"I didn't do it—really and truly I didn't!" cried the sneak, in sudden terror. "I—I only found it out by accident."
"About my—er—my teeth?"
"What do you know about them, Fenwick? Quick; out with it!"
"Oh, sir, please don't hurt my arm so!"
"Tell me what you know."
"I—I know where your teeth are, sir, I—I saw them put there last night."
"Where are they?"
"Hanging on the chandelier in Classroom Eight."
"And who put them there?" roared the teacher, in amazement.
"Pepper Ditmore, sir. But, oh, sir, please don't say I told on him or he'll hammer the life out of me!" cried Mumps, in alarm.
"How did he get them?"
"I don't know that, sir. I—I went downstairs to—er—to put away a book for another cadet and I saw Pepper Ditmore sneak into Room Eight. I watched him, and he threw a string with the teeth on 'em up over the chandelier. I thought they might be yours, so I came here to find out."
"Did you get the—er—the teeth?"
"Oh, no, sir. They are too high up. You'll have to get a ladder to get them down."
"The rascal!" howled Josiah Crabtree. "Oh, wait till I get my hands on him! But I must get the teeth first." He thought for a moment. "Fenwick, find Snuggers and send him to me at once."
"And don't say a word of this to any one," added the teacher, as the sneak hurried off.
It took Mumps fully five minutes to locate Peleg Snuggers. Wondering what was wanted, the general utility man hurried to the teacher's apartment.
"I want you to get my set of teeth," said Josiah Crabtree. "I am told they are fastened to the chandelier in Room Eight. Get a ladder and get them down immediately. And do it as quietly as you can."
"Yes, sir," answered Snuggers, and left to do the errand. "Teeth on the chandelier!" he murmured, "Wot an idee! Bet some o' the cadets did thet trick! How funny he did look without his grinders in!"
Pepper had not told any one about his trick, but on a blackboard in the hall he had chalked the words:
Set of Teeth For Sale! See Chandelier in Room No. 8. Crabtree, A.M., O.I.C.
This scrawl had attracted the attention of fully a score of cadets, and one after another they entered the classroom designated to find out what it meant. When they saw the teeth dangling in the air they set up a roar.
"Hello, look at the set of teeth!"
"They must belong to old Crabtree!"
"Wonder what he wants for them?"
"I reckon teeth come high, by the look of things!"
The crowd of cadets kept growing larger, until the room was crowded. Then one cadet took a blackboard eraser and threw it at the teeth. This was a signal for a general discharge of all sorts of things at the dangling object.
In the midst of the excitement George Strong came in.
"Boys! boys! Be quiet!" cried the teacher. "What is the meaning of so much noise?" And then he, too, caught sight of the dangling teeth. "Who placed those there?" he asked.
There was no reply, and he was on the point of sending a cadet for a step-ladder when the door opened and in came Peleg Snuggers with the very thing wanted.
"Mr. Crabtree sent me to git 'em," explained the general utility man.
"Hurrah! Peleg to the rescue!" cried Andy.
"Now, Peleg, do the great balancing act," said Fred Century.
"I will hold the ladder for you, Snuggers," said Mr. Strong. "Boys, stand back," he added, afraid that some of the lads might attempt some joke while the general utility man was in the air.
The step-ladder was placed in position and Snuggers mounted cautiously to the top. He could just reach the chandelier and the teeth, and it took him some time to cut the teeth loose.
"I'll take 'em right to Mr. Crabtree," he said on coming down. "He's in a mighty big hurry for 'em."
"Very well," returned George Strong.
Pepper was watching matters closely and he at once guessed that somebody had told Josiah Crabtree where the teeth were.
"It must have been the fellow who spotted me last night," reasoned The Imp. "Wonder if he told my name? If he did——" Pepper ended the question with a big sigh.
With great eagerness Josiah Crabtree received the set of teeth and examined them to see if they were all right. Then, having placed them where they belonged, he strode forth from his room in quest of the cadet who had played the trick.
Pepper was just sitting down at the breakfast table when there was a sudden step behind him and the next moment he found himself jerked out of his place.
"You come with me, young man!" stormed Josiah Crabtree. "I have an account to settle with you!"
"What do you want, Mr. Crabtree?" asked The Imp, as meekly as he could.
"You know well enough!" cried the teacher. "Come!" And he led Pepper out of the mess-hall. His grip on the youth's arm was so firm that it hurt not a little.
"Mr. Crabtree, you are hurting my arm."
"I don't care if I am!" snapped the teacher. "You come along!" And he fairly dragged Pepper along the hall.
"You'll soon see."
"What is wrong?"
"You know well enough, Ditmore. You took my—er—my set of teeth! You have made me the laughing-stock of the whole school! You shall suffer for it!"
"Who says I took the teeth?"
"John Fenwick saw you place them on the chandelier! Oh, you need not deny it."
"Mumps! Well, he always was a sneak!" answered Pepper.
"He is a nice, manly youth."
With a firm grip still on Pepper's arm, the irate teacher led the way to a room looking out on the rear. It was an apartment less than ten feet square, and plainly furnished with two chairs and a couch. In one corner was a stand with a washbowl and pitcher of water. The single window was stoutly barred.
"Going to make a prisoner of me?" asked Pepper, as the door was opened and he was thrust into the room.
"You shall stay here for the present," snapped Josiah Crabtree. "When I let you out I think you'll be a sadder and perhaps a wiser boy."
"Am I to have my breakfast?"
"No," answered the teacher.
Then he banged the door shut, locked it, and walked swiftly away.
A GRAVE ACCUSATION
"Well, I suppose I ought not to complain," mused Pepper, as he sat down on one of the chairs. "A fellow can't have his fun without paying for it. But just wait till I catch Mumps! I'll give him a piece of my mind, and maybe more!"
He got up presently and looked out of the window. He could see but little excepting a stretch of snow. The cell-like room was almost without heat, and he had to clap his hands together, and stamp his feet, to keep warm.
"I think I'd give a dollar for some breakfast," he muttered. "Wonder if I could attract the attention of one of the servants and bribe him to get me something?"
As he walked around the little room his eyes caught some writing on the wall. There were several bits of doggerel, one running as follows:
"I am a prisoner of old Josiah, I'd feel much better if I had a fire!"
"I can sympathize with that fellow," murmured Pepper, as he slapped his hands across his chest, trying to get up more circulation. Then he walked around the room, reading another doggerel or two. Finally he drew out a lead pencil.
"Guess I'll play Shakespeare myself," he murmured, and after some thought, scribbled down the following:
"And I am jugged Alone in solitude, and by myself Alone. I sit and think, and think, And think again. Old Crabtree, Base villain that he is, hath put me here! And why? Ah, thereby hangs a tale, Horatio! His teeth, the teeth that chew the best of steak Set on our table—those I found and hid; And Mumps, the sneak, hath told on me! Alas! When will my martyrdom end?"
Having finished his attempt at blank verse, Pepper continued to walk around the room. He was hungry and cold, and inside of an hour grew somewhat desperate.
"Crabtree has no right to starve me and allow me to catch cold," he told himself. "I don't believe Captain Putnam will stand for it. I'm going to attract some attention."
He took up one of the chairs and with it commenced to pound on the door. He had been pounding for several minutes when he heard some one on the outside.
"Pepper!" came in a low voice.
"Oh, Jack, is that you?"
"Yes. Stop that noise, or I'll get caught."
"I want to get out. I haven't had any breakfast, and it is as cold as Greenland in here."
"If I had a key I'd let you out, but it isn't in the lock," went on the young major.
"Try some of the other keys, Jack."
"I will," was the reply, and the young major hurried off, to return with several keys from other doors. But not one of them fitted the lock before him.
"Too bad!" he murmured.
"Major Ruddy!" came in the harsh voice of Josiah Crabtree behind him. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to talk to Ditmore," answered Jack, boldly.
"Who gave you permission?"
"Nobody, I came as major of the battalion. When a cadet is placed in the guardhouse the major has a right to go and see him."
"Hum!" growled Josiah Crabtree. He took but little interest in the military side of the school and consequently did not know all the rules. "Well, I can do the talking here. You are excused."
"Mr. Crabtree, Ditmore tells me that he is very cold, and he has had no breakfast."
"Ha! So he is complaining, eh? Well, I'll attend to him. You may go."
"Are you going to give him his breakfast?"
"Yes—when he deserves it—not before."
"How about keeping him in such a cold room?"
"That is my affair."
"If he gets sick will you take the blame?"
"Major Ruddy, I am not here to be questioned by you!" snapped the dictatorial teacher.
"Pepper belongs to my command and he is my personal friend. I don't think you have any right to starve him and keep him in a cold room in such weather as this. I shall complain to Captain Putnam as soon as he gets back, and, in the meantime, complain to Mr. Strong."
"I am in charge while Captain Putnam is away."
"Then, if Pepper takes cold from this, you'll be to blame, and you'll foot the doctor's bill," answered Jack, and walked away.
He spoke so sharply that Josiah Crabtree became worried, and, a little later, Pepper was served with a cup of black coffee and several slices of bread without butter. It was a meager meal, but it was better than nothing, and The Imp disposed of all there was of it. Then a servant appeared with a couple of blankets used by the cadets when in camp.
"You can wrap yourself in these if you are cold, so Mr. Crabtree says," said the servant. And he went out again, locking the door as before.
"Humph! Must take me for an Indian!" muttered Pepper. Nevertheless, he wrapped the blankets around him and then felt considerably warmer.
The morning passed slowly, and at noon Pepper was given a bowl of soup and several additional slices of unbuttered bread. The soup was hot and good, and he wished there was more of it.
"Mr. Crabtree says that is all you can have," said the waiter who served him.
"Crabbed Crabtree!" muttered Pepper, and said no more.
In the middle of the afternoon, directly after school was over, Josiah Crabtree appeared. This time he was accompanied by George Strong.
"Ditmore, we have come to have a talk with you!" cried Crabtree. "And let me say at the start that I want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as they say in court."
"Are you going to try me for my life?" demanded The Imp.
"I am going to try you on a very serious charge," snapped Josiah Crabtree.
"Do not be too hasty, Mr. Crabtree," put in George Strong, mildly.
"Mr. Crabtree, if you want to know about the teeth, let me confess that I took them and hung them up where they were found," said Pepper.
"Ha! so you are willing to confess, eh?"
"I am. I did it for fun—but I suppose you don't see the fun," added Pepper, dryly, so dryly in fact that George Strong had to turn away to hide a sudden smile.
"It was a low, contemptible trick!" returned Josiah Crabtree. "But I must say I do not think it quite as bad as your other doings."
"My other doings?" asked The Imp, somewhat mystified.
"Mr. Crabtree, do not be hasty, I beg of you," put in the under teacher.
"Ditmore, how did you get the teeth?" demanded Josiah Crabtree.
"It was very easy, sir, if you must know. I went into the vacant bedroom next to your room, climbed from one window to the other, and the trick was done."
"Were you alone?"
"Yes, sir, absolutely alone."
"Have you been alone when visiting the other rooms in this building?" demanded Josiah Crabtree, sharply.
"Mr. Crabtree——" began George Strong, but the head teacher motioned for the assistant to be silent.
"I—I don't understand," stammered Pepper.
"You have shown your expertness in visiting rooms during the night, and without awakening anybody," went on Josiah Crabtree, coldly. "Some time ago other rooms were visited in this building, and various things were taken—some things of great value—things which have not been returned. Now, Ditmore——"
"Mr. Crabtree, stop!" cried Pepper, and his eyes flashed with sudden fire. "I know what is in your mind now! But don't you dare to accuse me! Don't you dare!"
"I want you to tell me the truth."
"I have told you all I know. I took the teeth as a joke, and I put them where they could easily be found."
"And about the other things——" The head teacher paused suggestively.
"I know no more about the other things that have disappeared than you do. Do you think I'd rob myself and my best friends?"
"In a case of this kind a person might rob himself just to throw the public off the scent."
"Do you dare to accuse me of these mysterious thefts?" cried Pepper, hotly.
"Mr. Crabtree, I beg of you to be careful," cried George Strong. "Why not drop this whole matter until Captain Putnam returns? Because Ditmore played a joke on you does not say that he is a—a criminal."
"Thank you for that, Mr. Strong," said the cadet, warmly. "I know I had no right to play that joke—I have no right to play any of my jokes—but I only did it for fun. I think it is—is horrible for Mr. Crabtree to even think that I—that—that——" Pepper could not go on for his emotion choked him.
"Oh? you can't deceive me!" sneered Josiah Crabtree. "I am sure that——"
"Mr. Crabtree, I insist that you drop this matter until Captain Putnam returns," interrupted George Strong.
"You insist?" roared the irate instructor.
"I do, sir."
"Who is in authority here, you or I?"
"You are the head teacher, but I feel bound to protect Captain Putnam's interests during his absence. You have no right to accuse any cadet of a crime unless you have proof against him. Have you any proof against Ditmore?"
"You heard how he acknowledged taking the teeth."
"And he said it was a joke—and I believe it was that and nothing more. There is a wide difference between an innocent joke and a premeditated crime. Take my advice and say no more until you have consulted with Captain Putnam."
"Ha! you are against me—just as the cadets are against me!" stormed Josiah Crabtree. "I know I am right. But we can wait, since you insist." He turned towards Pepper. "I'll corner you yet, you young rascal!" he cried bitterly.
And the two teachers passed out of the cell-like room, the door was again locked, and Pepper was left a prisoner as before.
THE MYSTERY GOES ON
When nightfall came and Pepper still remained a prisoner, both Jack and Andy commenced to worry about their chum.
"It's a shame to keep him in that cold room," said the young major.
"Wonder if we can get him out on the sly?" returned the acrobatic youth. "I'd be willing to run quite a risk to set him free, so he could sleep in his own bed to-night."
"Let us sneak down after dark and see what we can do," suggested Jack.
Of course the fact that Pepper was a prisoner was known throughout the whole school. Many who had laughed over the teeth affair thought it too bad that The Imp should be locked up in a cold room. But others, including Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter, said it served him right.
"He was too fresh," growled Coulter.
"Let him stay there a week; it will do him good," added Ritter.
"You leave things to old Crabtree," said Dan Baxter. "He knows how to put the screws on a cadet."
"Right you are," came from Ritter.
The one boy who had little to say was Mumps. The sneak was scared almost to death, feeling certain that Pepper would square up with him as soon as liberated. The others did not know how Mumps had acted, or Jack and Andy might have given the sneak a sound thrashing.
The young major and the acrobatic youth talked the affair over, and were joined in the discussion by Bert Field, Dave Kearney, and one or two others. They were on the point of going below, when Fred Century came in.
"Crabtree is certainly going to make sure of keeping Pepper a prisoner," said he.
"How do you know that?" asked Jack, quickly.
"He has placed a guard in front of the door, so nobody can open it."
"Two cadets—Crane and Barlow. They are to remain on guard three hours and then some others are to relieve them."
"Then we can't do a thing!" groaned Andy. "We might bribe Crane, but nobody could bribe Barlow. He's a sticker on everything he does."
Jack went below and found that the report about the guard was true. The cadets were on duty, and he was not allowed to even speak to Pepper.
"It's too bad," he said, on returning to the dormitory. "I guess poor Pepper will have to remain where he is."
"We might protest to Mr. Strong?" suggested Bart Conners.
"It wouldn't do any good. Crabtree is in charge during Captain Putnam's absence."
One after another the cadets went to bed. Jack was the last to retire, and it was a long while before he dropped off to sleep. Then he dreamed about Pepper up in the far North, sitting on a cake of ice in a bathing-suit, which showed how much he had the welfare of his chum at heart.
In the morning Josiah Crabtree went below early. He expected Captain Putnam back by noon and wished to be prepared to make a proper report to the head of the school on his arrival.
He had just seated himself at the desk in the office when there came a knock on the door.
"Come in!" he said shortly, thinking it might be a servant. The newcomer was Bart Conners.
"Well, Conners, what is it?" demanded the head teacher.
"I want to report that I was robbed last night," answered the captain of Company B.
"Robbed!" ejaculated Josiah Crabtree. "Did you say robbed?"
"What of? Where? When?" Josiah Crabtree's manner showed his tremendous excitement.
"Of a diamond stickpin. I left it in one of my scarfs last night and this morning it was gone. I've looked all over, but I can't find it."
"How late was it when you retired?"
"About ten o'clock."
"And when did you get up?"
"At the first bell."
"And you noticed it was gone at once?"
"Yes, for I wanted to lock it away in my bureau, as Captain Putnam warned us to do when the others' things were stolen."
"This is strange. Do you suspect anybody?"
At this question Bart Conners shook his head.
"Very well, I will look into the matter immediately after breakfast."
Scarcely had Josiah Crabtree spoken when Dan Baxter appeared at the door.
"I want to tell you something!" he said sourly. "I want somebody locked up."
"Locked up?" queried the startled teacher. "What is wrong?" And as he asked the question Bart Conners looked on with interest.
"I'll tell you!" burst out Dan Baxter. "Last night I went to bed with eleven dollars in my vest-pocket. This morning every cent of the money is gone! I want it back! If I don't get it back Captain Putnam has got to stand the loss, for I won't." And the bully looked more sour than ever.
"You robbed, too!" cried Josiah Crabtree, faintly. "Will it ever stop? What is the school coming to?"
"Have you any idea who took the money, Dan?" asked Bart Conners.
"No. I was dead tired and slept like a dog. But I know I had the eleven dollars when I went to bed, and now it's gone."
"So is my diamond stickpin," and the captain of Company B gave the particulars.
"Humph!" muttered the bully. "I heard of those other robberies, but I didn't think I'd get touched as quick as this. If it keeps on the whole school will be cleaned out."
"Yes, and Captain Putnam will be ruined," added Bart, gravely.
"I will see you two cadets later," said Josiah Crabtree, and shut the office desk with a bang. He hurried away, leaving Bart and Dan Baxter to console themselves as best they could.
Josiah Crabtree was thinking of Pepper. He had accused The Imp only the day before of these crimes, and here the thefts were continuing while Pepper was a close prisoner.
"Perhaps he got out during the night," he muttered. "I must make sure of it." For, to be fair to the dictatorial teacher, he really thought Pepper might be the guilty party.
He questioned the cadets who had been on guard during the night. One and all declared that Pepper had remained a prisoner all night and was still in the cell-like room. Then he spoke to The Imp himself.
"Did you go out last night?" he asked.
"How could I?" asked Pepper.
"Answer my question, Ditmore."
"No, I didn't go out. I have been here ever since you brought me in yesterday."
Teacher and cadet looked sharply at each other, and there was a silence that could be felt. From one of the guards Pepper had learned how Bart and Dan Baxter had been robbed.
"You know I didn't go out," went on Pepper. "You know that I am not guilty of the crimes that have been committed in this school. As soon as Captain Putnam returns I want to see him, so he can hear my side of the story."
At these words Josiah Crabtree winced. He felt that Captain Putnam might not agree with him concerning the treatment given to Pepper, and that Pepper might get him into "hot water." Even George Strong had intimated this.
"Ditmore," he said, slowly and mildly, "I—er—I feel that perhaps I have been a bit harsh with you. Your trick upset me very much; such a trick would upset anybody. If I—er—accused you falsely I am sorry for it. Supposing I let you go, and supposing we drop the whole matter?"
"I am willing to drop the matter, providing you will retract what you said about my being connected with these—er—these other things," answered Pepper, slowly.
"Well, I—I must have been mistaken. I didn't say you were guilty. I only said it looked suspicious—the way you prowled around, and the way you got into my room. But if you are willing we'll drop the entire matter, and you can go to your room and get ready for breakfast."
Pepper thought rapidly. He was angry over being accused of the crimes, yet he knew he had gone too far in his joke at Josiah Crabtree's expense.
"All right, sir; we'll drop the matter, Mr. Crabtree," he said. "Good-morning," and a moment later he quitted his prison and was on his way to his dormitory.
The cadets had much to talk about that day—the sudden liberation of Pepper, and the losses Bart Conners and Dan Baxter had suffered. At noon Captain Putnam came back, and he had the captain of Company B and Dan Baxter in his office for the best part of an hour. But nothing came of the conference, excepting that the owner of the Hall said he would pay all losses and gave Baxter his eleven dollars on the spot. Then he had a long conference with the new man of all work, who was really a detective in disguise. But that individual was as much in the dark as anybody. He had seen nobody prowling around during the night.
"We must get at the bottom of this affair," said Captain Putnam to George Strong. "If we do not, the school will surely be ruined." He was told about the affair of the teeth, but paid little attention, knowing that Josiah Crabtree could be left to manage his own differences with the students.
Pepper had dropped the matter so far as it concerned Josiah Crabtree, but he did not drop it so far as it concerned Mumps. He watched the sneak that day and the next, and managed at last to catch Mumps at the boathouse.
"Now, I am going to give you the thrashing you deserve!" cried The Imp, and caught the sneak by the collar.
"Lemme go!" shrieked Mumps. "Lemme go, or I'll tell Captain Putnam on you!"
"No, you won't!" answered Pepper. "If you do, I'll promise you another licking at the first chance I get!"
And then and there he boxed the sneak's ears and then threw him down in the snow, washing his face and shoving a lot of the snow down inside the lad's shirt. Mumps yelled like a wild Indian, but Pepper did not let up until he felt that he had given the sneak all he deserved.
"You say a word and I'll give you a double dose the next time!" warned Pepper. And this so scared Mumps he never once opened his mouth about the affair.
AN ELECTION OF OFFICERS
"Election of officers to-morrow!"
"As if every cadet at the school didn't know it, Pepper."
"Well, Andy, have you made up your mind how you are going to vote?"
"Sure I have," replied the acrobatic youth. "I am going to vote for Bart Conners for major, since Jack don't want to run again."
"That's the way I am going to vote, too."
"How about the two captains?" asked Joe Nelson.
"Well, I think I'll vote for Dave Kearney for one," answered Pepper. "I am not so sure about the other."
"What's the matter with Harry Blossom?" asked Bert Field. "He seems to be a nice sort."
"I understand Reff Ritter wants to be a captain," put in Stuffer.
"Sure, an' he'd be afther wantin' to be major, only he ain't popular enough," came from Emerald.
"Coulter is out for a captaincy, too," said Jack, who had come up during the talk.
"Do you think either of them will be elected?" asked Andy.
"Not if I can prevent it," replied the young major. "Neither of them deserves any office."
"I understand Dan Baxter wants to be major," said Stuffer. "Talk about gall! What has he ever done for the school? Nothing."
"He won't get the office," said Jack.
"Is Bart going to have a walkover?" asked Pepper.
"Hardly. Both Dave Kearney and Harry Blossom will run against him, and so will Bob Grenwood, and they all have their friends."
"Well, let the best fellows win, say I!" cried Andy, and then he ran off, to do some fancy "stunts" in the gymnasium.
The excitement attending the disappearance of Bart Conners's stickpin and Dan Baxter's money had somewhat subsided, and now the cadets could think of nothing but the coming election.
"How many cadets are there to vote?" asked Pepper, as he and Jack walked away to the river to skate.
"Then it will take forty-two votes to elect anybody."
"Well, I hope Bart gets the forty-two votes."
"I have been doing a little figuring, and I think he can count on at least thirty-one votes. But I am not so sure of the other eleven."
The election of officers was made the occasion of a holiday at Putnam Hall. Immediately after breakfast, the battalion was formed and marched around the campus and then to the gymnasium. Here Captain Putnam made a little speech, in which he announced that the balloting for a major would be immediately followed by the balloting for one captain and then the other, and then for the lieutenants.
"It is now nine-thirty," concluded Captain Putnam. "Balloting for a new major will take place promptly at ten o'clock."
"Captain Putnam, may I say a word?" asked Major Jack, saluting with his sword.
"Certainly, Major Ruddy."
"Fellow cadets," began Jack, in a clear, steady voice. "All I wish to say is this: As major of the Putnam Hall Battalion I have enjoyed myself very much, and I trust my successor, whoever he may be, will have as good a time. I understand that some of you want to vote for me again. Let me say that I am not a candidate, and will not accept the office even if elected. I expect to leave this institution next June, and in the meantime hope to devote my time mostly to my studies. I thank you for your attention."
"Hurrah!" shouted a number of the cadets.
"Three cheers for Major Ruddy!" shouted Pepper, and they were given with a will.
"We'll never get a better major!" called out one enthusiastic cadet.
After that there was a great canvassing for votes. Dan Baxter was unusually active, and Jack and Pepper felt certain that he was trying one of his old tricks, namely, that of buying votes. Some of the poorer cadets had very little spending money, and it was a great temptation to them to have money offered for their ballots. Of course, buying votes was dishonorable, and Baxter had to work on the sly. Ritter also tried to buy votes, but soon found out that very few of the cadets would even listen to him, because of the way he had misled them in the past.
At last came the time to vote, and the ballot-box was placed on a table in charge of two cadets and George Strong, who had consented to act as judge of the election.
"This is for a new major only," announced George Strong. "You will step up and vote as your names are called."
It took but a few minutes to cast the eighty-three ballots. Then the vote was tabulated, while the boys stood around on the tiptoe of expectation.
"I will read the result," announced Captain Putnam, after receiving a paper from Mr. Strong, and he read as follows:
"Whole number of votes cast, 83. Necessary to a choice, 42. Paul Singleton has 4. Henry Lee has 5. Harry Blossom has 7. David Kearney has 9. Reffton Ritter has 12. Daniel Baxter has 18. Bart Conners has 28."
"Nobody is elected," said Pepper, in a disappointed voice.
"Boys, you will have to try it again," said Captain Putnam.
"I beg to withdraw my name from the list of candidates," cried Paul Singleton. "All who voted for me will kindly vote for Bart Conners, who is my choice."
"We must beat Ritter and Baxter!" said Andy, in a low voice.
"That's right!" cried another of the cadets. "But how?"
"Let us try to make up a slate," proposed Jack, who was something of a politician. "Harry Blossom and Dave Kearney might withdraw in favor of Bart Conners if the fellows promised to support them for the two captaincies."
"Let us see if it can be done," returned Pepper, quickly. "Hustle now, for we've got to vote again in fifteen minutes."
They hurried around and interviewed Blossom and Kearney, and about twenty other cadets. As a consequence, the pair named said they would withdraw in favor of Bart Conners if supported for the captaincies later. In the meantime Henry Lee said he would drop out also, since he expected to leave school in June.
Once again the ballots were cast, and now it was easy to see that Bart, Ritter and Baxter were exceedingly anxious. Both Ritter and Baxter did their best to gain the votes dropped by Henry Lee and Paul Singleton.
"I will read the result," said Captain Putnam, a few minutes later. And amid a breathless silence, he read the following:
"Whole number of votes cast, 83. Necessary to a choice, 42. Robert Grenwood has 5. Reffton Ritter has 10. Daniel Baxter has 12. Bart Conners has 56."
"Hurrah for Bart Conners!" shouted half a dozen cadets in chorus.
"Bart Conners is declared elected major for the ensuing term," went on Captain Putnam. "Major Conners, allow me to congratulate you," and he came forward and held out his hand.
"And let me congratulate you, too," added Major Jack, and he shook hands also.
A great number of cadets, and some teachers, come up to shake Bart by the hand. Ritter and Baxter were conspicuous by their absence. Each of the bullies was chagrined at the poor showing he had made. Instead of gaining on the second ballot they had lost.
"That shows how much one can depend on his friends," growled Baxter to Mumps.
"Never mind, Dan, maybe you'll be elected a captain," answered the toady and sneak.
"I don't want to be a captain; I want to be a major or nothing," grumbled the bully.
A little later the balloting for a captain for Company A was started. There were half a dozen candidates, including both Ritter and Coulter, and Ritter did all he could to get the boys who had voted for Baxter to support him, and then bribed Coulter to step out in his favor. But Jack, Pepper and Bart Conners worked hard for Harry Blossom, as agreed, and as a consequence Harry was elected on the third ballot by fifty-two votes.
"Hurrah for Harry Blossom!" was the cry, and the newly-elected captain of Company A was congratulated on all sides.
This election was followed by that for a captain for Company B. Here the struggle was as fierce as before, but Dave Kearney won out on the sixth ballot. Then came ballots for the lieutenants, and Bob Grenwood came out strong with fifty-five votes. Dale Blackmore was made the new quartermaster, much to his delight, although Dale cared more for athletics than he did for military matters.
Not one of the Ritter or the Baxter crowd got an office, much to their disgust. Baxter went off by himself to sulk, but Ritter and Coulter denounced their rivals openly.
"I reckon votes were bought," said Ritter.
"Sure they were bought," responded Coulter.
"So they were, by Ritter & Company," retorted Andy, who overheard the talk.
"Oh, give us a rest, Snow!" muttered Ritter. "I don't want the old office anyway, and all my real friends know it."
"Sour grapes," answered the acrobatic youth.
"Don't you get fresh, or I'll punch your head!" cried the bully, savagely.
"Will you?" answered Andy. "Just you try it, if you dare!"
"I will!" came hotly from Ritter, and leaping forward he hit Andy a sharp blow on the chin.
The assault came so suddenly that the acrobatic youth had no time to defend himself. He staggered and fell, and as he went down the bully gave him a sharp kick in the side.
ANDY SHOWS HIS COURAGE
"Stop that, Ritter! What do you mean by kicking Andy when he is down?"
It was Pepper who uttered these words, as he rushed up from the other side of the campus.
"I didn't kick him," retorted Ritter. He was startled, for he had not anticipated being seen.
"A fight! A fight!" was the cry, and soon a crowd of cadets began to collect.
Slowly Andy arose to his feet. His face was pale, for both the blow on the chin and the kick in the side had been severe.
"You—you brute!" he gasped. "You dirty brute!"
"Hi, don't you call me a brute!" roared Ritter.
"You are a brute!" put in Pepper. "No fair-minded chap would kick a fellow when he was down."
"Ditmore, you keep out of this," grumbled the bully.
"I'm going to see that Andy has fair play," returned Pepper.
The encounter had occurred after Captain Putnam and the teachers had disappeared, so there was little chance of an interruption by the Hall authorities.
Andy stood up and tried to collect himself. He was "boiling mad," for the attack had been a dastardly one.
"Had enough?" demanded the bully, coming closer, and with his fists clenched.
"No, I haven't!" answered the acrobatic youth, and then, of a sudden, he sprang high in the air, to come down on Ritter's shoulder. Then he caught the bully around the neck with one arm.
"Hi! hi! let up——" began Ritter. "I—I——"
"I'll not let up!" retorted Andy. "You brought this on yourself, Reff Ritter, and now you can take the consequences. How do you like that, and that, and that?"
Each "that" was accompanied by a stinging blow, one on the ear, one on the eye and one on the nose. The second made the bully's left optic black, and the third caused the blood to spurt freely. Then Andy landed another blow on Ritter's mouth, leaped to the ground, and shoved the fellow from him.
"I'll give you those for an opener," he said, breathing heavily. "You can have some more in another minute."
"You—you rat!" hissed the bully and came at Andy with a rush. But the acrobatic youth dodged, and Ritter ran full tilt into Dan Baxter.
"Hi, keep your distance, Ritter!" growled Baxter.
"I'll fix him!" yelled Ritter, and made another lunge for Andy. This time he hit Andy on the shoulder. But the acrobatic youth came back at him in double-quick order, and Ritter received a blow in the chin that bowled him over into the arms of Nick Paxton. As he went over his eyes closed, and then he slid in a heap to the ground.
"A knockout for Snow!"
"Say, that was a smashing blow!"
"It served Ritter right; he kicked Andy when he was down."
"Yes, and he hit him before he was ready."
Paxton, Coulter and several others gathered around the fallen bully and rubbed his face with some snow. In a few minutes he opened his eyes and stared around.
"Don't—don't hit me again!" he mumbled, between his bleeding teeth.
"Have you had enough?" demanded Andy. "If you haven't, stand up and get some more."
"Don't—don't hit me again!"
"Then you have had enough?"
"I'll—I'll meet you another time."
"No, you won't, Ritter, you'll meet me now."
"That's the talk!" cried several. "Finish the fight."
"I don't want to fight any more," answered the bully, and his words came in almost a whine.
"Then you have had enough? Yes or no?"
"I've—I've had enough," said Ritter, in a low tone.
"Very well; see that you remember this lesson," declared Andy, and then turned on his heel and walked towards the Hall, followed by a dozen of his admirers.
"Andy, it was great, the way you jumped on him!" declared Pepper.
"It was only a little acrobatic stunt," declared Andy. "But it came in mighty handy. I shouldn't have tried it only he didn't fight fair—hitting me before I was ready, and kicking me when I was down."
"You watch out that he doesn't play you foul," said Dale, who was present.
"I'll keep my eyes open."
It was soon whispered around the school how Andy had met and vanquished the bully, and as a consequence many of the fellows who had toadied to Ritter deserted him. Even Paxton gave him the cold shoulder openly, and Baxter simply sneered at him. Only Gus Coulter clung to Ritter, and the pair seemed to become greater cronies than ever.
After the election of officers, and the fight, matters ran along swiftly until the midwinter holidays. During those days many of the boys visited their homes. Captain Putnam spent his time in trying to clear up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the things from the Hall, but without success. The detective he had hired unearthed nothing of importance and was discharged. One of the waiters left of his own accord, and the master of the school could not help but wonder if he was the guilty party.
In the meantime, Andy and his chums had been trying to find out something about Cameron Smith. They were equally unsuccessful, for no one they knew in Boston had ever heard of that individual. His name was not in the directory.
"There was something strange about him," said Andy. "I wish Ritter would tell us more about him. But I know it would be useless to ask Reff. He hasn't spoken to me since the fight."
After the holidays came some fine skating on the lake, and also some iceboating.
Fred Century had had a new iceboat built at Cedarville. It was called the Skimmer, and he was exceedingly proud of the craft.
"You must come out with me," he said to Jack, Pepper and Andy, one Saturday afternoon. "The ice is as smooth as glass, and the wind is just right."
"All right!" cried Pepper. "A sail will suit me down to the ground."
Jack and Andy were also pleased to go, and the quartet of boys were soon down at the boathouse, where the Skimmer was tied up.
They were just getting aboard of the iceboat when they saw another craft heave in sight.
"Who is that on board?" asked Andy.
"It is Reff Ritter," answered Pepper, "and Gus Coulter is with him."
"The iceboat belongs to a fellow in Cedarville," said a cadet standing near. "Ritter hired it for a week."
The second craft was called the Rosebud, and was rather a fine-looking outfit, with steel runners and a snowy-white sail.
"He must have paid something to rent that," observed Jack. "I thought he didn't have much money?"
"He says his father is in business again and is doing better," answered Paxton, who was present. "Hello, Reff!" he called out. "Want another passenger?"
"I don't want you!" answered the bully, briefly.
"All right, you don't have to have me!" growled Paxton.
"Say, Century, do you want to race me?" asked Ritter, as he brought the Rosebud alongside the dock.
"I don't know," answered Fred, slowly. "What do you say?" he whispered to the others.
"Do you think you can beat him?" asked Pepper.
"I can try."
"Then go ahead," said Jack. "You don't care, do you, Andy?"
"Not at all—if Fred can beat him," was the reply from the acrobatic youth.
"All right, I'll race!" called out Fred. "But you will have to carry four, the same as myself."
"Humph!" growled Ritter. "I don't know about that."
"I'll go, Reff!" cried Mumps.
"So will I!" added a cadet named White.
"All right, jump aboard," cried the bully, and Mumps and White lost no time in doing as bidden.
"Where do you want to race to?" asked Fred.
"Up to Dorsett's Point and back."
"All right. Are you ready?"
"Then let her go!" yelled the owner of Skimmer; and in a moment the iceboat race had started.
THE MAN AT POINT VIEW LODGE
At first it was an even race. Reff Ritter knew how to handle an iceboat to perfection and brought his craft up in the breeze in a manner that won considerable admiration.
"Take care that he doesn't beat you, Fred," said Pepper. "If he does, he will never get done crowing over you."
"This race isn't over yet," answered the owner of the Skimmer. "Wait till we round the bend yonder."
When the bend mentioned was gained the Rosebud was a good three lengths in the lead.
"Good-by!" shouted Coulter. "Here is where we leave you behind!"
"Your iceboat isn't in it with this," added Mumps.
"We'll tell them you are coming by-and-by!" came from Ritter.
"Don't answer them," whispered Jack. "Fred, can we do anything to help the boat along?"
"Just shift a little more to the left—that's it," was the reply. "Now we'll soon get the breeze and then we'll do better."
Fred's words proved true. As the Skimmer rounded the bend, a good, stiff blast struck her sails and away she started after the Rosebud.
"Now we are going some!" cried Andy, his face brightening.
"Make her hum!" cried Pepper.
Slowly but surely the Skimmer crept up on the Rosebud, until the bow of the second craft overlapped the stern of the first.
"Not walking away so fast now, are you?" questioned Pepper, cheerily.
"Just wait, we'll beat you, see if we don't!" growled Coulter.
"Swing the mainsail over!" cried Ritter.
His order was obeyed, and the Rosebud commenced to pick up again. But the Skimmer kept on steadily, and at last, when the turning-point was reached, was several lengths ahead.
"Now for the homestretch!" cried Jack.
"I hope we win by about a mile!" was Andy's wish.
The turning-point was a well-known rock, and the Skimmer came around this in fine style. But, just as this was accomplished, Ritter allowed the Rosebud to swing around out of the proper course.
"Look out, you'll run us down!" yelled Fred, in alarm.
"Clear the track!" yelled Ritter, angrily. "Clear the track!"
"The clown!" muttered Jack. "Does he want to run into us?"
Fred worked quickly, assisted by all the others and the Skimmer was thrown out of her course. On rushed both of the iceboats and the Rosebud slid by the other with less than six inches to spare.
"Ritter, that wasn't fair!" shouted Fred. "I won't race with a fellow who won't sail fair!"
"You go to grass! I don't care about the race anyway!" howled the bully.
"You are beaten and you know it," cried Pepper.
"In a regular race such actions would disqualify you," was Jack's comment.
"Oh, don't preach! I know what I am doing!" grumbled Ritter, and then he steered off in another direction and out of hearing.
"What a mean bully he is getting to be!" said Fred. "It seems to me he is much worse than he was when I first came to the Hall."
"He is slowly but surely losing his grip here and that is souring him," answered Jack. "Before he knows it he won't have a friend in the world. As it is, about the only fellow who is really friendly with him is Coulter. Paxton doesn't have much to do with him, and Mumps merely toadies to him the same as he toadies to Dan Baxter and some of the rest."
"Where shall we go now?" asked Fred.
"Anywhere you please," came from the others.
"Shall we take a run up to Point View?" and Fred looked quizzically at first one and then another of his friends.
"Might do that," answered Jack. "But the Lodge is shut up, you know; the Fords are at their city home for the winter."
"Well, we can run up that way anyway," said Pepper. "One place is as good as another."
The course of the iceboat was slightly changed, and in less than a quarter of an hour they swept up to the dock attached to Point View Lodge. The sails were lowered and they went ashore to stretch their legs, for sitting on the iceboat rather cramped them.
"Might as well take a look around the Lodge while we are here," suggested Jack.
"Is there a caretaker here?" asked Andy.
"I don't think so, but there may be."
The four youths walked through the snow in the direction of the mansion, which was set among some heavy trees.
"Hello, what is that, an animal track?" asked Jack, pointing to a trail among the trees.
"Looks more like human footprints to me," replied Pepper.
"Then somebody must be here."
"Funny the trail leads from the side fence," came from Andy. "If it was some person who belonged here why wouldn't he come from the road or the dock?"
"Maybe it was easier to come that way than by the road, right after the snow fell," suggested Pepper.
They walked forward to the mansion and saw that the trail led to the back door and then around to a side window.
"Hello! I don't like this!" exclaimed Jack. "What would a person be doing at the side window?"
"Try the window?" suggested Fred. They had already tried the door, to find it locked.
Jack stood on a flat rock that was handy and took hold of the lower sash. Much to his surprise it went up with ease.
"It's open!" he exclaimed. "Do you know what I think? I think somebody came here and got into the house by this window!"
"A tramp, perhaps," said Fred.
"Or a burglar!" vouchsafed Andy.
"Do you think he is in the house now?" asked Pepper.
"That is something for us to find out. If he is, we must catch him and turn him over to the authorities!"
"Have we a right to enter the house?" questioned Andy.
"I am sure Mr. Ford would want us to do so, Andy."
"I guess you are right. But be careful, Jack, that fellow, whoever he is, may be a desperate character."
"Perhaps he isn't here now," said Fred. "He may have looted the place and skipped."
"I'll soon see," cried Jack. "Pepper, do you want to go in with me? You other fellows might stay on guard."
"Sure, I'll go in," answered The Imp.
In a moment more the two cadets stood in the sitting-room of the mansion.
"Better not make too much noise," whispered Jack. "If he is here we may be able to take him unawares."
As the sky was overcast that afternoon it was rather dark in the mansion, and the cadets could see but little as they made their way from one room to another. They were just entering the dining-room when Pepper's foot struck something and sent it spinning across the floor.
"What's that?" asked his chum.
"I don't know—sounded like a spoon or a fork," was the reply. Pepper walked forward, bent down, and felt around. "Yes, it's a silver fork!"
"It made as much noise as if it was a dozen of 'em!" murmured his chum.
Pepper put up his hand and both listened intently. They had heard a noise, as of footsteps overhead.
"Somebody is up there!" whispered Jack.
"It must be the fellow we are after!" returned Pepper. "What shall we do next, go after him?"
"Yes, but we had better try to arm ourselves."
"I've got the fork."
"I'll take this," said Jack, picking up a bronze ornament from the mantelpiece.
Hardly daring to breathe, the two cadets stole from the dining-room to the hall and prepared to mount the stairs. As they did this they heard more footsteps, this time in the rear of the upper floor of the mansion.
"There he goes, Jack!"
"Sounds as if he was going to try to get out the back way!"
"Hi, there, stop!" called Pepper, at the top of his voice. "Stop, you rascal!"
"Don't you try to stop me!" was the reply from the upper hallway. "If you do, it will be the worse for you!"
"Who is he?" asked Pepper, quickly. "I've heard that voice before."
"I think I know," answered his chum. "Come on, and we'll soon see if I am right."
WHAT THE CONSTABLE THOUGHT
Up the stairs went the two cadets, Jack leading the way. On the upper landing they paused, for the sounds of footsteps had suddenly ceased.
"Which way did he go?" whispered Pepper.
"I don't know, Pepper. Go slow now, we don't want to walk into any trap."
With caution the chums made their way to the back end of the hall. As they did this a door close by came open and a cold draught of air met the lads.
"This way!" cried Jack. "He has opened a window! That air comes from outside!"
He rushed through the open door, to find himself in a bedroom. In an alcove was a window and this was wide open. Beyond the window was the top of a back porch, with a trellis reaching to the ground.
"There he goes!" exclaimed Jack, pointing down among the trees.
"Stop! stop!" came in a cry from the side of the mansion, and a moment later Andy appeared, followed by Fred.
"Stop the rascal!" shouted Jack, and bounced out on the porch with all speed. Down the trellis he came, with Pepper following.
By this time the fleeing individual had gained the shelter of a number of trees. Beyond these was a hedge, and he dove through this and then into some brushwood that lined the highway.
"Can you catch him, Andy?" asked Jack.
"I can try!" was the answer.
"Keep back, unless you want to get shot!" roared the man, and he raised something he held in his hand. It was too dark to see if it was a pistol.
Andy came to a halt, and in a few moments his companions joined him. By this time the fellow was out of sight. The cadets strained their ears, but in the snow no sounds of footsteps reached them.
"I guess we have lost him," murmured Fred.
"Sorry I didn't keep after him," grumbled Andy.
"He might have shot you."
"Come on, let us make a hunt for him!" cried Jack, and this was done. But though they searched the vicinity for the best part of half an hour they failed to locate the man who had fled.
"Jack, who do you think it was?" questioned Pepper, as the four boys gathered in the mansion and lit one of the lamps, for it was now quite dark.
"I may be mistaken, but to me his voice sounded like that of the man Reff Ritter met in Cedarville, Cameron Smith."
"Just what I think!" cried The Imp. "Did you get a look at his face?"
"Not a close look, and it was too dark to see much. But that Smith had a queer catch in his voice and this fellow had the same thing."
"Yes, I remember that."
"Was that the fellow Reff met?" demanded Andy.
"We are not sure, Andy, but we think so."
"What was he doing here?" asked Fred.
"That remains for us to find out," answered Pepper. "Certainly the man had no right here, otherwise he wouldn't have run away as he did."
"Let us take a look through the house," suggested Pepper.
A hand-lamp was lit and the boys began a systematic inspection of the Lodge. They found nothing disturbed in most of the rooms, but when they inspected the library all set up a shout.
"It has been blown open!"
"Yes, and look, the contents are scattered all over the floor!"
It was true, the small safe that was located under a bend of the stairs had been drilled and the door blown asunder. On the floor of the library lay the shattered door and likewise several bundles of papers and legal-looking documents. They also saw a case that had contained silverware.
"Wonder how much he took?" said Pepper.
"He took something, that is sure," answered Jack.
"We must have come in right after he blew the safe open," said Andy.
"Boys, I think we ought to notify the authorities at once, and also notify the Fords," cried Jack. "This is a serious piece of business."
"Let us go to the nearest farmhouse and tell the folks," suggested Andy.
He hardly uttered the words when a loud ring at the front door of the mansion made every cadet jump.
"There is somebody now!" cried Fred.
"I'll see who it is," said Pepper, and went off, followed by Jack.
When they opened the door they found themselves confronted by a farmer named Fasick, who lived in that vicinity.
"Hello!" cried the farmer, on noticing the uniforms the boys wore. "What are you cadets doing here?"
"Who are you?" questioned Jack.
"I'm Isaac Fasick, and I own the farm down the road a spell. I saw the lights here, and as Mr. Ford asked me to keep an eye on his property I made up my mind I'd come over and see what it meant. Is he here on a visit?"
"Not that we know of, Mr. Fasick," answered Jack. "Come in out of the cold, and we'll tell you something."
The burly farmer entered, and the cadets quickly related what had occurred. When Mr. Fasick saw the shattered safe he was all but stunned.
"The pesky rascal!" he ejaculated. "Did he run away with much?"
"That we don't know, for we have no idea what was in the safe," replied Jack.
"He must have taken some of the silver spoons, and knives and forks," put in Pepper. "Here is the empty silverware case, and I found a loose silver fork on the floor of the dining-room."
"The Fords will be the only ones to tell just what was taken," said Andy. "And the sooner we notify them the better."
"I don't know if they are in the city or not," said Isaac Fasick "I know they meant to travel some this winter."
"They are at their city home just now; I got a letter day before yesterday," answered the former major of the school battalion. He did not deem it necessary to say the letter was from Laura Ford.
"Let us telegraph to them," said Pepper. "But what about the thief? We ought to get right after him."
"We can tell Jed Plodders," said the farmer. "He's the Cedarville constable and pretty smart, too."
"Jed will never catch that fellow," answered Jack. "He'll be miles and miles away before the constable gets his badge pinned on to go after him."
"Oh, Jed is smart," cried the farmer. "He's my wife's second cousin, and the whole family is mighty cute."
"All right, let him catch the thief," answered Pepper.
Matters were talked over for several minutes, and the boys decided to separate, Andy and Pepper to remain on guard at the Lodge and Fred and Jack to run the iceboat to Cedarville and take Isaac Fasick along.
"Now, don't you run into no air-holes!" cried the farmer, as he took a seat on the Skimmer. "I don't want to drown just yet, not me!"
"We'll be on our guard," answered the owner of the craft.
"The wind is just right," said Jack, as the mainsail was hoisted. This was true, and the run to the village took but a few minutes. While the boys went off to send their message to the Fords, Isaac Fasick hunted up the constable and related what had occurred.
"Ha! a robbery, eh?" cried the constable, looking highly important.
"That's it, Jed."
"And you caught the boys in the house all alone?" went on the constable, trying to look very wise.
"Why, yes; I did."
"Maybe they did the robbery, Isaac."
"By gum! I didn't think of that, Jed!" exclaimed the farmer.
"It would be an easy way of tryin' to look innercent," went on the constable. "They fixed it all up—blow open the safe, hide the silver an' other valerables, an' then, when you surprise 'em, they try to put the crime off on sumbuddy else."
"Say, Jed, do you think that's so?" asked the farmer, his suspicions aroused.
"Don't it look reasonable, Isaac?"
"It sure does, Jed. But to think them boys would do sech a terruble deed!"
"Some o' them boys at boardin'-school spend a fierce sight o' money. Some of 'em drink an' gamble. They ain't above gittin' money by hook or crook, ef they need it. Yes, they may be guilty," and the constable swelled out with his own importance.
"Perhaps you better question 'em," suggested the farmer, timidly.
"Question 'em?" snorted the constable. "Yes, I will; an' I'll do more—I'll hold 'em until this mysterious case is cleared up!"
LOOKING FOR CLUES
Having sent their message to the Fords, the two cadets turned in the direction where the farmer had said the constable lived.
"I don't think old Plodders will be able to do a thing," said Jack. "He'll look wise and ask a lot of questions, and that's all."
A block had been covered when they saw the farmer and the constable approaching. On his breast Jed Plodders had pinned a bright, silver star, and he carried a policeman's club in his hand.
"There they are!" cried Isaac Fasick.
"Is them the cadets?" queried the guardian of the peace.
"That's two of 'em. The other two said they'd stay an' watch the house."
"Stop!" cried the constable, and pointed his club at the cadets.
"Are you Constable Plodders?" questioned Jack.
"That's who I be," was the stern reply. "Now then, out with it, young fellers. You broke into Mr. Ford's house, didn't you? Now, don't try to fool me, fer it won't wash! You broke into the house, and Mr. Fasick ketched you at it, didn't he?" And the constable cast what was meant for an eagle eye on Jack and then on Fred. He had made up his mind that he would surprise both of the boys into a confession.
The two cadets stared in wonder at the constable, and then a smile came into Jack's face. The situation was so ludicrous he felt like laughing. Jed Plodders saw the smile and frowned deeply.
"This ain't no laughing matter, you scamp!" he bellowed. "You broke into the Ford house an' tried to steal the silverware! Now don't try to deny it, or it will be the wuss fer you! You done it now, didn't you?" And he pointed his club at first one cadet and then the other.
"No, we didn't do it!" burst out Fred. "You are a great big chump to think we did!"
"Hi! hi! don't you talk to me like that!" roared the guardian of the peace.
"Then don't you accuse us of any crime," came quickly from Jack.
"Didn't Mr. Fasick find you at the house?" demanded the constable.
"He did, but we didn't go there to steal; we went there to see if everything was all right. He went there for the same purpose."
"Say, don't you go for to mix me up in this robbery," interrupted Isaac Fasick, hastily. "I didn't have a thing to do with it."
"No more had we," answered Fred. "We just sailed to the place on my iceboat. We can prove it."
"We are friends of the Ford family; we can easily prove that, too," added Jack. "Mr. Ford and his wife both asked us, when we were in this vicinity, to take a look and see if everything was all right. We found a strange man in the mansion and we did our best to catch him, but he got away. What we want you to do is to get busy and try to catch that rascal. If you don't do it, we'll make a complaint against you for neglect of duty."
While Jack had been major of the school battalion he had been in the habit of speaking in an authoritative voice, and now he used the same tone in addressing Jed Plodders. The constable stared at the cadet for a moment and then his jaw dropped and likewise the club in his hand.
"Well—er—if you're friends o' the family mebbe that alters the—er—the case," he stammered. "Why didn't you say so fust?"
"You didn't give us a chance," answered Fred.
"What you want to do is to go to the house and then try to get on the track of that robber," said Jack. "We'll help you all we can."
"I got to send word to Mr. Ford."
"We have already done that, and he will probably come as quickly as he can, or send somebody."
"Did you git a good look at the man?"
"No, not a very good look."
"Then you hain't got no idee who he might be?" went on the constable.
"Well, I think——" commenced Jack, and then broke off short, and at the same time pinched Fred's arm. It would do little or no good to acquaint the constable with their suspicion that the rascal might be the man named Cameron Smith.
"What do you think?" demanded Jed Plodders.
"I think I saw the man in Cedarville once. But I am not certain. I rather imagine he was a stranger around here."
"Thet's what he was," came from Isaac Fasick. "There hain't no thieves livin' in these parts. We are all honest folks."
Several other men of Cedarville were told about the robbery, and a crowd of half a dozen got on the iceboat and sailed to Point View Lodge. When they arrived at the house they found that Pepper and Andy had brought in some wood and started a cheerful blaze in the big fireplace of the living-room.
"It was so cold we couldn't stand it," said Pepper. "I don't think Mr. Ford will mind."
The constable and the other newcomers inspected the damage done to the safe with interest, and walked through the rooms of the house. The cadets showed them just how the thief had made his escape, and Jed Plodders and two of the men went off to see if they could trail the evil-doer.
"I think at least one of us ought to stay here until Mr. Ford comes," said Pepper.
"Supposing you and I stay?" suggested Andy. "Fred and Jack can take the iceboat back to the Hall and explain matters to Captain Putnam."
This was agreed to, and a little later the Skimmer was on the way to the school. It was now after eight o'clock and the cadets were hungry. Andy and Pepper were to have their meals sent to them from the Fasick farmhouse.
Tying up at the boathouse landing, Jack and Fred hurried into the Hall. As they passed one of the classrooms they came face to face with Reff Ritter.
"Got back late, didn't you?" said the bully to Fred.
"Yes," was the short reply.
The bully passed on without another word.
Jack was in a quandary. What should he tell Captain Putnam? If he told of his suspicions concerning Cameron Smith he would drag Reff Ritter into the mix-up.
"I guess I had better wait until something more turns up," he thought. "If I mention this Smith, and he is innocent, both he and Reff will be terribly angry at me."
As briefly as possible the former major of the school battalion related what had occurred at Point View Lodge. Captain Putnam listened with keen interest.
"It is a pity you didn't catch that robber," said he. "For all we know, he may be the fellow who has been stealing here."
"Well, we couldn't get him," answered Jack. "Maybe Constable Plodders will be more successful."
"I hardly think so, Ruddy. So you left Snow and Ditmore at the Lodge?"
"Yes, sir. We thought Mr. Ford would like them to remain until he got there, or sent somebody."
"I see." Captain Putnam mused for a moment. "I don't see that I can do anything. You had better go and get your supper. Tell the head waiter I sent you in."
"Yes, sir," said Jack, and he and Fred hurried off to the mess-hall. The waiter was inclined to grumble a little at having to serve them at such a late hour, but, nevertheless, he got them plenty to eat, and they pitched in as only hungry boys can.
On the following morning came word from Cedarville that Mr. Ford had arrived, and Jack and Fred were allowed to take the Skimmer and sail to Point View Lodge. There they met the gentleman, who was somewhat excited over what had occurred.
"The loss of the silverware is a serious one," said he. "The ware came from my wife's grandfather and she prized it very highly. I meant to take it to the city with me, but forgot to ship it, and so we placed it in the safe here. A couple of gold napkin-rings are also gone, and likewise my old gold watch."
"Mr. Ford, I wish to tell you something in private," said Jack, and then he took the gentleman aside and related his suspicions concerning Cameron Smith.
"I think this is assuredly worth looking into, Jack," said Rossmore Ford, slowly. "I shall put a first-class city detective on this case, and I'll tell him about this Cameron Smith. He'll soon be able to find out who the chap is. If he is an honest man, well and good. But if not, we'll round him up and make him give an account of himself."
"Please don't mention our names," said Jack, gravely, "And please don't mention Reff Ritter."
"I'll remember that," answered the owner of the Lodge.
TO THE RESCUE
"If this weather keeps on, skating and iceboating will soon be over, Jack."
"Right you are, Pepper. I think if we want any more skating this season we had better go out this afternoon."
"Just what I say!" cried Dale Blackmore. "If it starts to rain the ice will be gone in no time."
"All out for a skate, as soon as school is dismissed!" came from Andy.
A week had passed, and during that time nothing had been learned concerning the robbery at Point View Lodge. Mr. Ford had hired two city detectives but, so far, neither these men, nor the local constable, had been able to accomplish anything. One city detective was trying to locate Cameron Smith, but that individual could not be traced.
During the past few days the weather had moderated greatly. Much of the snow was gone, and the cadets feared that soon the ice on the lake would disappear and then skating would be a thing of the past.
"Spring will be here before you know it," said Pepper.
"Yes, and then summer, and the end of our days at Putnam Hall," added Jack, with something of a sigh.
"Jack, how are you getting along in your studies?" questioned Andy.
"Fairly well. I find Latin rather hard. How about you, Andy?"
"Mathematics is my bugbear, Jack. Some of those problems old Crabtree gives us are corkers."
"Well, you must be sure to pass, Andy, and then it will be good-by to Crabtree forever."
After school was dismissed about twenty of the cadets hurried down to the lake-front to go skating.
"I see Reff Ritter has hired the Rosebud again," remarked Pepper, as he was adjusting his skates. "Fred, are you going to take out the Skimmer?"
"No, I don't think it is safe. Skating is one thing; to sail a heavy iceboat is another."
"Just my idea," added Stuffer.
They watched Reff Ritter sail away. The only person with the bully was Gus Coulter. Jack and Pepper watched Ritter closely and then looked questioningly at each other. What did Ritter know about Cameron Smith, and was the man really the fellow who had robbed the Ford mansion?
Soon the merry shouts of the cadets proved they were enjoying themselves thoroughly. Some started a race, while others formed sides for a hockey contest, with Dale Blackmore as captain of one five and Emerald Hogan as captain of the other.
"Let us go down the shore a bit," suggested Jack to Pepper and Andy, and the three joined hands for the spin. All felt like "letting out," as Andy expressed it, and they covered over a mile almost before they knew it.
"The ice is getting pretty rotten," said Jack, as his skate cut in so deeply that he would have fallen had not his chums supported him.
"Yes, a day or two more and skating will be at an end," answered Andy.
"Jack, are you going in for baseball this spring?" questioned Pepper.
"No, I am going in for nothing but study towards the end of the term."
"Well, I guess I'll have to do the same—if I want to graduate," answered Pepper, and he heaved a deep sigh as he thought of all the fun he would have to miss.
The three cadets skated on until they came to a spot where the shore made a sharp turn. On the point of land were a number of trees and bushes, so they could not see what was beyond.
"Listen!" cried Andy. "Somebody is calling!"
"Help! help!" came the cry. "Help!"
"Somebody must have broken in!" exclaimed Jack. "Come on, maybe we can save him!"
He broke away and led around the point of land. Beyond were some rocks and a sort of cove, where the ice was extra soft.
"There is an iceboat!" exclaimed Andy. "It's the Rosebud!"
"It's in the water!" ejaculated Pepper. "And see, Gus Coulter is clinging to it."
"Where is Ritter?"
"I don't know."
"I see Ritter!" burst out Jack. "He is clinging to the ice yonder, trying to crawl out! Come on, fellows, we've got to help them both."
"Help! help!" screamed Gus Coulter, and his voice showed that he was almost scared to death. Ritter did not call, but was making frantic efforts to get on top of the ice, which seemed to break away as he placed his weight on it.
It took Jack, Pepper and Andy but a minute to get to the vicinity of the mishap. As he skated forward, the former major of the school battalion stripped off the sweater he was wearing.
"Join hands with me," he called to his chums. "Now be careful; not too near the hole, remember. I'll throw Ritter the end of the sweater."
His chums understood, and while they held hands, Jack advanced cautiously. The ice cracked ominously, but step by step he drew closer to where Ritter was clinging.
"Catch hold!" he cried, as he swung one end of the sweater toward the unfortunate youth.
"You—you won't let go?" questioned the bully, suspiciously.
"Of course not!" retorted Jack. "Hold tight now, and we'll haul you up."
He gave the signal, and Andy and Pepper pulled back with all their might, and Jack did the same. Slowly but surely Reff Ritter came up out of the icy water, his teeth chattering loudly. Soon he was out of danger.
"Run for the nearest farmhouse!" cried Jack. "Put the sweater on if you want to," and he tossed the garment over.
"It was Coulter's fault," growled Reff Ritter. "He swung the sail the wrong way." And then he ran off as advised.
"Such meanness!" snorted Pepper. "And Coulter may be drowned!"
"Ritter was always willing to lay the blame on somebody else," added Andy.
The chums skated as closely as possible to where the iceboat was drifting in a sheet of open water—a spot where some days before a farmer had been cutting ice. To the craft Coulter was clinging and still crying piteously.
"Help!" came in a chattering tone. "Please help me, somebody, or I'll be dro—drowned! I can't ho—hold on mu—much lon—ger!"
"We are coming, Coulter!" yelled Pepper.
"I'm nearly fro—frozen to de—death!" chattered the suffering cadet.
"If we only had a line we might throw it to him," said Andy.
"I've got an idea!" exclaimed Pepper. "Come on and get that fallen tree!"
He pointed to the shore, where a long sapling lay partly uncovered in the snow. He skated off for this, with Andy at his heels.
While Andy and Pepper were doing their best to get the sapling out of the snow and drag it over the ice, Jack circled the spot where the Rosebud was drifting. The iceboat was now within ten feet of the ice, so he could see Coulter quite plainly. The poor fellow had been ducked in the water and was shaking from head to feet from cold.
"We'll soon have you ashore, Gus!" he called out. "Keep up your courage."
"I—I can't hold on much longer!" was the gasped-out reply. "I am free—freezing to de—death!"
At that moment a blast of air came sweeping across the lake. It caught the sail of the iceboat and tilted the craft over in the water.
"Oh! oh!" screamed Coulter, and then, as the iceboat whirled around, the exhausted cadet lost his grip and commenced to slip slowly downward. Soon he was in the water up to his shoulders.
"Save me!" he yelled. "Oh, Ruddy, don't let me drown! Please sa—save m—me! Please!" And then of a sudden his head went under out of sight!
Jack was for the moment struck dumb with horror. He felt that Coulter was drowning before his very eyes. Then a sudden noble determination came to him, and measuring his distance carefully he leaped for the iceboat and managed to catch the swaying mast. He went down in the water up to his knees, but held on to a stay with his left hand.
The icy water made the youth gasp. But he set his teeth hard and looked down for Coulter. Presently he saw the other cadet bob upward. Then a hand came up and was waved frantically. Jack tried his best to reach that hand, but could not. Then Coulter commenced to sink again from sight.
"I must save him! I must!" thought Jack, and an instant later leaped boldly into the waters of the icy lake.
A REAL HERO
It was a desperate plunge to take, for the former major of the school battalion ran the risk of getting a chill that would kill him. But Jack was a hero, and he could not bear to see Gus Coulter drowned before his eyes.
As the icy waters closed over him, he struck out boldly for the spot where he had last beheld the struggling youth. Then his hand came in contact with Coulter's body and he caught the cadet by the arm.
As soon as Coulter felt himself touched, he swung around, and the next instant had Jack by the shoulder, in a grip like that of death itself.
The former major of the school battalion realized only too well that he must not let the drowning boy catch him by the neck, otherwise both would go down to rise no more. He shoved Coulter as far off as possible and at the same time struck out to regain the surface of the lake.
When the pair came up they were some distance from the iceboat and also some distance from the edge of the ice.
"Help! help!" yelled Jack to Pepper and Andy.
The latter had succeeded in getting the sapling free of the snow, and were dragging it to the ice on the lake-shore.
"Hello, Jack's in, too!" cried Andy, in horror.
"Hurry with the tree!" yelled Jack, as he commenced to swim for the edge of the ice. "Quick now, or we'll both go down again! This water is frightfully cold."
A few strokes brought Jack and Coulter to the edge of the ice. Coulter was still holding fast, but his strength was rapidly growing weaker. His head shook so that his teeth rattled like castanets.
Luckily Jack reached a spot where the shore ice was tolerably firm. More than this, the water was somewhat shallow, so he could stand on the bottom while Pepper and Andy shoved out the end of the sapling to him.
"Here, I'll lift Gus out!" he called, his own teeth chattering not a little. "He ca—can't hel—help hi—himself!"
He lifted the other cadet as high as he could and with a shove sent him rolling on the ice beyond. Andy and Pepper caught Coulter by the feet and immediately dragged him out of harm's way. Then Jack caught hold of the end of the sapling and was hauled up by his chums.
"How in the world did you fall in?" gasped Andy.
"I didn't fall in—I ju—jumped in!"
"Oh, Jack!" came from Pepper. "Talk about nerve! But come, you had better get to shelter as soon as you can."
"Yes, I fe—feel as if I wa—was turning to i—i—ice!" chattered the other.
"The Darwood farmhouse is just over the hill, let us run to that," suggested Andy. "Here, put on my sweater!" and he stripped off the garment in an instant.
"Do—don't leave m—me!" came from Coulter. He was on his knees, being too weak to rise to his feet.
"I'll carry you on my back!" cried Pepper. "Come, take hold."
Coulter was too far gone to aid himself, and Andy had to place him on Pepper's back. Then off the whole party started, Andy holding Jack by the arm and thus giving him some support.
"Where did Ritter go?" asked Jack, as they sped over the hill in the direction of the farmhouse mentioned.
"I think he went up the lake, in the direction of the Saldy farm," answered Andy.
The Darwood farmhouse set back from the road, among some cedar trees. Rushing up to the back door, the boys pounded vigorously.
"Who is there?" demanded a man's voice, and then Mr. Darwood showed himself.
"Please let us in, we are nearly frozen!" cried Jack.
"Hello! been in the water, eh?" cried Samuel Darwood. "Come right in and I'll stir up the fire!" and he stepped aside that the cadets might enter.
When Pepper deposited his burden in a chair it was seen that Gus Coulter was in a bad way. His eyes were closed, and he was shaking as with convulsions.
"Here, we'll strip off some of his wet clothes and rub him down!" cried Andy. "And can you get something hot to drink, Mr. Darwood?"
"Sure I can," cried the farmer. "But I'll pile some wood on the fire first!" he added.
He was as good as his word, and soon the fire was roaring, and the kitchen got thoroughly warm. The farmer was home alone, but he knew how to make some hot coffee, which he speedily offered to all of the cadets. Coulter could hardly drink, and it was a good half-hour before he felt at all like even speaking. He was propped up in a big rocking-chair directly in front of the fire, and Andy and Pepper took turns at trying to restore his blood to circulation. Jack was not so far gone, and soon felt quite like himself. The wet uniforms were hung up to dry, Mr. Darwood in the meantime lending the lads some other garments. He had been the one to cut the ice from the lake at that spot, so he felt in some measure responsible for the mishap, even though he had put up several danger signs, to which Ritter and Coulter had paid no attention.
"I don't know that we will care to skate back to the Hall," said Pepper. "Mr. Darwood, could you take us back in your sleigh, if we paid you for it?"
"I'll take you back, and it shan't cost you a cent," answered the farmer, quickly.
"Hadn't we better find out what became of Reff Ritter?" questioned Jack.
"I'll run over to the Saldy farm and see," answered Andy, and set off without delay.
While Andy was gone, Samuel Darwood went to the barn to hitch up his team. Jack, Pepper and Coulter remained in the kitchen. Coulter sat staring at the fire, but occasionally his eyes wandered to Jack. Suddenly, while the others were silent, he spoke.
"Say, but you're a fine fellow, Jack Ruddy!" he said. "A fine fellow! And I'm a—a skunk! That's what I am, a low-down, mean skunk!"
"Never mind now, Gus," answered Jack, kindly. He hardly knew what to say at this outburst.
"You—you jumped in and saved me from drowning, didn't you?"
"Yes. But anybody would do that, Gus, for a schoolmate."
"No, they wouldn't; Reff Ritter wouldn't. He would have left me to drown!" And Coulter shuddered. "You're a real hero, Jack Ruddy! And I'm a—a skunk; yes, a mean, low-down skunk—and I always have been!" And now Gus Coulter buried his face in his hands.
"Jack certainly deserves great credit for jumping in after you," said Pepper, warmly. "It was a mighty cold plunge for anybody to take."
"Oh, let's drop it!" came modestly from the hero of the occasion.
"I am not going to drop it!" retorted Gus Coulter, with spirit. "You saved my life, and I want everybody to know it, especially Reff Ritter. He would have left me to drown!"
"Reff had to save himself. He was chilled to the bone when we got him out," answered Jack.
"If you had been Reff you wouldn't have run away and left me to drown," went on Coulter, stubbornly.
At this Jack was silent.
"You don't know it all, Jack Ruddy. Reff and I had a quarrel. He said he—he didn't want to have anything more to do with me. I believe he—he would have been glad to have me drown!"
"Oh, don't say that, Gus!" burst out Pepper.
"But I will say it!" flared out Gus Coulter. "After this I am going to cut Reff Ritter! And I am going to tell what I know about him, too! And I am going to get Nick Paxton to tell what he knows, too!"
"What do you know about him?" asked Jack, with sudden interest.
"Oh, I know a good deal."
"Coulter, answer me honestly. Do you know anything about his dealings with a certain man named Cameron Smith?"
"Oh, do you know that fellow?" questioned the other cadet, and he stared wonderingly at Jack.
"I know a little about him."
"Don't you have anything to do with him, Jack! And don't you have much to do with Reff! They are both bad! Oh, you don't know how bad!" And Gus Coulter shook his head to emphasize his words.
"What did you and Reff quarrel about, Gus?" asked Pepper.
"We quarreled about—about—— Oh, I don't know how I can speak of it! But I suppose I've got to, if I want to remain honest. We quarreled over something I found one day in his private box. I got suspicious of him, and when he was taking a nap I took his key and opened the box. And in the box what do you suppose I found?"
"What?" came simultaneously from Jack and Pepper.
"Your watch and chain, Jack."
THE MYSTERY EXPLAINED—CONCLUSION
"My watch and chain!" cried the former major of the school battalion.
"What did you do about it? Why didn't you report it to me, or to Captain Putnam?"
"I was so stunned I didn't know what to do. I couldn't believe that Reff had taken them, and that he was guilty of the robberies that were going on. I locked the box up and put the key back in his pocket. That night I accused him of the theft, and we had a quarrel and almost came to blows. He said he didn't take the watch and chain, that he found them in the gymnasium near the lockers. He said he was only keeping them to get square with you, and that he would return them to you before the term closed."
"Found them in the gym?" repeated Pepper.
"I don't believe it," came firmly from the former major of the school battalion. "I believe he took them; and I believe he took the other things, too!"
"And I believe that myself, now!" cried Gus Coulter. "Oh, my eyes are open! I used to think Reff was a pretty good fellow, even though something of a bully, but I am learning that he is bad through and through. Paxton saw him sneaking through the dormitories at night, and he got afraid of him and cut him."
"And what of Cameron Smith?" asked Jack. "You said he was bad?"
"He is. I didn't know it at first, but I heard about it during the holidays, when he and Reff went off on what they called a good time."
"Can you give me Smith's real address?"
"He claims to come from Boston, but I know Reff once sent him a letter addressed to Springfield, care of the Excelsior Hotel."
Having once opened his mind, Gus Coulter talked freely of his doings with Reff Ritter. He said the bully had quite some money at times, but the amount was quickly spent.
Just as Mr. Darwood drove around to the door with his sleigh Andy came back to the farmhouse.
"I had some hot words with Ritter," he explained. "He was just as bullying as ever, and gave us no credit for hauling him out of the lake, and he said if Coulter was drowned it would be his own fault. Oh, he is the limit!"
The ride to Putnam Hall was a short one, and on arriving at the school the cadets hurried to their dormitories to change their damp clothing for suits which were perfectly dry. In the meantime Jack asked Pepper to find Captain Putnam and tell the master of the school that he wished to see him on a matter of great importance.
A little later the former major of the school battalion entered the captain's private office, followed by Pepper and Andy. They found Captain Putnam staring at a telegram that had just come in.
"Well, what can I do for you?" he asked.
"I've got something to tell you, sir," returned Jack, and as briefly as possible he narrated what had occurred on the lake and repeated what Coulter had told him. As he progressed Captain Putnam shook his head sadly.
"It must be true," he said almost brokenly. "It all fits in—this telegram and what you say."
"The telegram?" repeated Jack.
"Yes, Ruddy. This telegram is from Mr. Ford. He states that Cameron Smith has been caught and has made a confession that he looted the safe at Point View Lodge. Smith was partly intoxicated at the time of his capture, and informed the detective that some jewelry he had in his possession had come from Reff Ritter. He stated that Ritter took the stuff from the cadets and the others while they slept, and it was Smith's part to pawn the things and divide the proceeds."
"And Ritter was guilty of all the thefts at the Hall?" cried Pepper.
"Yes, and he even took some of his own things, just for a blind, according to this man Smith. What Coulter has to say, and Paxton, seems to corroborate his story."
"What a terrible thing to do!" murmured Jack.
"Smith had a bunch of pawn tickets hidden away in a drawer, and they represent all the things taken from this school, and they also represent some other things, namely, those lost by you, Snow, at the time the horse ran away with you."
"Then it was Cameron Smith after all whom I saw, and who robbed me when I was unconscious!" cried the acrobatic youth.
"Yes. He was a bad man, and I have no doubt but that he was the one to lead Ritter astray."
"What are you going to do with Ritter?"
"I cannot do otherwise than have him arrested. But I hate to have such a scandal attached to the school," and Captain Putnam heaved a sigh that came from the bottom of his heart.
In the meantime, Reff Ritter had come back to Putnam Hall in another sleigh, and had gone to his dormitory to change his clothes. Here he was confronted by Coulter and, a little later, by Nick Paxton, and a hot discussion arose, which ended in blows. Both Coulter and Paxton fell upon the bully together and punished him severely. The pair told Ritter what they thought of him, and each declared that he was going to expose the bully to Captain Putnam.
"I'll tell all I know about Ruddy's watch and chain, and about you and that Cameron Smith, too!" declared Coulter.
"Don't you do it!" shouted Ritter.
"And I'll tell what I know about your sneaking in and out of the dormitories at night," added Paxton. And then he and Coulter went off together.
They reached the office just as Jack, Andy and Pepper were about to leave. Each told his story, and both were closely questioned by the master of the school.
"How long ago did you find this out about the watch and chain, Coulter?" demanded Captain Putnam.
"Only a few days ago, sir."
"You should have told me before. And you, Paxton, should have told me about Ritter's sneaking around."
"Oh, I thought it was only fun at first," pleaded Paxton.
"He is undoubtedly guilty, and there remains nothing to do but to have him arrested."
It was not long after this when he and George Strong went on a hunt for Reff Ritter, to place him in the guardroom until an officer of the law could be summoned. Ritter could not be found, and it was not until some time later that Peleg Snuggers brought in the information that the cadet had been seen leaving the Hall, dress-suit case in hand, by a side door.
"He has run away!" cried George Strong.
"If so, perhaps it is just as well," murmured Captain Putnam. "To prosecute him in court would create a terrible scandal! I would rather pay for the stolen things out of my own pocket!"
Reff Ritter had indeed run away. By some means unknown he managed to get to a town at the end of the lake and there boarded a midnight train bound West. He was traced as far as Chicago, but that was the last seen or heard of him until many years later, when it was learned that he had gone to Alaska with some gold miners. He got very little gold for a large amount of hard work, and drifted from place to place, picking up odd jobs that offered themselves.
The announcement that Ritter was the fellow who had perpetrated the many thefts at Putnam Hall created strong excitement in the school. But the matter was hushed up as much as possible by Captain Putnam, and the master saw to it that every cadet got back the things that belonged to him, and also squared matters with the teachers.
In due course of time Cameron Smith was tried for the robbery of Point View Lodge and was sent to prison for a term of years. He admitted robbing Andy after the runaway, and the acrobatic youth got back from the pawnbrokers the things taken on that occasion.
After the excitement had passed, Jack, Pepper, Andy and their chums of the senior class buckled down to hard work for the rest of the term. As a consequence, Jack graduated at the head of the class, with Joe Nelson, second; Andy, third; Stuffer, fourth; Pepper, fifth; Henry Lee, sixth, and Fred Century, seventh.
"I must congratulate you, Ruddy," cried Captain Putnam, warmly. "All through your term at this school you have made a record to be proud of. And the other graduates have made fine records, too. I shall hate to part with all of you."
"And I shall hate to leave Putnam Hall," answered the former major of the school battalion. "I have had the time of my life since I have been here."
"So have I!" put in Pepper.
"The best ever!" chimed in Andy.
"I shall never forget Putnam Hall, no matter where I go," came from Stuffer.
"The best school there ever was!" added Joe Nelson.
* * * * *
And now, kind reader, let me add a few words more and then bring this story of "The Putnam Hall Mystery" to a close. As I promised some years ago, when I gave you "The Putnam Hall Cadets," I have now related in detail the most important events that transpired at the military school during the first years of its existence. What took place there after Jack Ruddy and his chums left will be found set down in another line of books called "The Rover Boys Series," starting with "The Rover Boys at School." In that volume you will not only meet the three jolly Rover brothers—Dick, Tom and Sam—but also learn more concerning the doings of Bart Conners, Harry Blossom and Dave Kearney, and again meet that dictatorial old teacher, Josiah Crabtree, and the bully, Dan Baxter, and his toady, Mumps. The Rover boys went to Putnam Hall for a number of years, and had just as good a time as did Jack and his friends.