The Hilltop Boys: A Story of School Life
Produced by Suzanne Shell and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
[Illustration: "_I shall tell you nothing_," _said Jack finally_.]
THE HILLTOP BOYS
A STORY OF SCHOOL LIFE
THE GOLDSMITH PUBLISHING CO.
MADE IN U. S. A.
THE COMMERCIAL BOOKBINDING CO.
I THE BEGINNING OF THE TERM 13
II A HITCH IN JACK'S WELCOME 21
III SOME OF THE BOYS AND THEIR WAYS 29
IV ANOTHER ATTEMPTED HAZING 36
V THE HAZERS ARE HAZED 45
VI BILLY'S LITTLE JOKE 54
VII A TOUCH OF EXCITEMENT 63
VIII WHAT JACK FOUND IN THE RAVINE 71
IX ANOTHER OF JACK'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS 79
X AN INTERVIEW IN THE WOODS 88
XI A BIT OF SIGNAL WORK 94
XII THE TROUBLES OF AN EDITOR 102
XIII TRYING TO FIX THE BLAME 111
XIV "SUSPICION IS NOT PROOF" 117
XV FUN AND EXCITEMENT 125
XVI AN ANONYMOUS ACCUSATION 132
XVII THE MATTER SETTLED 138
XVIII AN EXPLORING TRIP THROUGH THE WOODS 144
XIX MORE THAN ONE WAY OUT 153
XX WHAT BILLY'S CAMERA REVEALED 160
XXI A PUZZLING AFFAIR 169
XXII LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT 175
XXIII ON THE WAY HOME 181
XXIV HOW IT ALL CAME OUT 185
THE HILLTOP BOYS
THE BEGINNING OF THE TERM
"I say, Art, let's take a run down to the train. There will be sure to be some of the old fellows on it and perhaps some new ones."
"Yes, for I heard the doctor tell Buck to have the coach and horses ready, as he expected several of the young gentlemen to come on the afternoon train. Why can't we go down with Buck instead of going alone?"
"Because Mr. Bucephalus, called Buck for short, objects to doing any more work than he is obliged to. We can ride back with him. That is vastly preferable to pedaling up the hill."
"So it is, Harry, but I don't mind coasting down. Come on, there is the train now, just leaving the station below."
Two bright looking boys of about fifteen, dressed in a half-military fashion, stood on a terrace in front of a rambling, two-story building overlooking the surrounding country, the Hudson River being seen in the distance at the foot of a mountain of considerable height, everything being most distinct in the clear Autumn air, the steamboats on the river, the roof of the little railroad station and the puff of smoke from the engine as it pulled out being seen very clearly.
The rambling, two-story building on the top of the hill was the Academy and the boys were two of the pupils who were here a little in advance of the rest to begin the new term, were, in fact, some of the Hilltop Boys as they were called by the people of the town on the river where the train on the branch road was now going at a fair speed, the incline increasing with the distance from the station.
Arthur Warren and Harry Dickson hurried off to the stables where the wheels of the boys were kept, selected their own, mounted quickly and set out along the Academy drive to the road leading to the station, this being a mile or more distant, although in a straight line it was much less.
From the river to the station nearest the Academy it was five miles, but on account of the grade and the numerous stops the two boys had plenty of time to reach the railroad before the train which they had seen leaving the river station could arrive.
"Did the Doctor say who was coming, Art?" asked Harry, as they reached the road, set their brakes and started down the hill. "Dick Percival generally comes at this time."
"Yes, I believe the black fellow said he expected Master Dick. He always likes to fetch Dick up and will go for him at any time, day or night."
"To be sure, for Dick always gives him a tip."
The hill down which the two boys were now gliding at a good rate was quite steep, there being a decided drop a few rods in advance and a number of sharp turns, the rounding of which required considerable dexterity and the coolest of heads.
They were two-thirds of the way down and had reached the steepest part of the hill when, in rounding a particularly sharp turn where they had to keep all their wits about them, they saw just ahead of them, in the middle of the road, a boy carrying a suitcase.
"Hi! get out of the road!" roared Harry, taking a tighter grip on his handle bars and apprehending trouble.
"Look out!" cried Arthur in shrill tones.
The boy in the middle of the road, not more than fifty feet distant at this moment, stood perfectly still and cried in a clear voice, sure to be heard above everything else:
"Swerve a bit to the side, both of you and there will be room enough."
Simultaneously, he made a quick signal to the right and to the left.
Arthur steered a little to the right while Harry went to the left, both whizzing past the boy in the middle of the road who held his suitcase in front of him and stood perfectly still.
Neither of the boys even grazed him but there was little room to spare and the wind of the two wheels caused his coat to flutter violently and almost took off his soft hat.
In a moment more both boys were speeding down the hill at a tremendous gait and in another were out of sight around another and less sharp turn.
"My word! but that was a close shave!" ejaculated Harry, with a sigh and a feeling of intense relief. "I made sure that we were going to get spilled, the three of us."
"Some cool head that!" returned Arthur. "Lots of fellows would have gone all to pieces. I came pretty near doing it myself."
"He knew just what to do and when to do it," Harry went on. "Only for that there would have been a bad mix-up."
"Well, there wasn't!" grunted Arthur, "so don't say any more about it. It gives me the creeps to think of it. That fellow has some nerve. Wonder what he was doing on our road? You can't get anywhere except to Hilltop Academy that way. If he's a new student why didn't he come with Bucephalus and the coach?"
"Can't tell you. Maybe he didn't know anything about it."
The boys reached the bottom of the hill without further incident and went on to the little railroad station, hearing the sound of the expected train as they dismounted and stacked their wheels.
The colored coachman of the Academy, who bore the high-sounding name of Bucephalus, but who was almost always called Buck by the boys and by the people of the town at the foot of the hill, sat on his box as if carved out of black marble and neither looked to the right nor the left, considering it beneath his dignity to converse with any one in the village while on duty and seeming to see no one.
"Did you meet a young fellow going up the hill as you were coming down, Buck?" asked Harry, stepping alongside the big coach. "A new fellow, do you think, Bucephalus?"
"Ah dunno, sah, Ah done paid no attention to anybody Ah met on de road, sah. Ah done had 'nuff to do to look aftah mah hosses witho't catechisin' or scrutinizin' strangers, sah."
The whistle of the train was heard again at that moment and in a short time it arrived and many of the passengers alighted, among them being two or three boys who were warmly welcomed by the two students.
"Hello, Dick, back again, eh? Glad of it. How are you, Billy, how do, Tom? Ready for work, of course?"
"And incidentally, a bit of fun," replied one of the newcomers. "Hope we will have a good crowd this term. Any new ones to put through their paces and make toe the mark?"
The boys chatted and laughed at a lively rate while their trunks and valises were being put on top and behind the coach and then all got inside, Bucephalus objecting when Harry and Arthur put their wheels on the rear rack and took their seats with the others.
"Yo' young ge'men am discommodin' de reg'lah passengers an' taking up mo' room dan Ah speckerlated on," he muttered. "Whyn't yo' go back de same way yo' come?"
"Walk and wheel our bikes?" cried Harry. "Not much. There's room for all of us and I want to talk with Dick."
"That's all right, Buck," said Dick Percival, one of the newcomers, a handsome boy of sixteen, strong, well built and sturdy, slyly passing something to the coachman. "Come up on the box, Harry. I have a lot to tell you. Come on, there's lots of room."
The two boys sat on the box alongside the coachman who set off up the hill for the Academy and Dick at once began to tell of an adventure which had happened to him during the vacation.
"I was taking a hike up in the fruit country," he began, "and in making my way across lots lost my bearings and came out in a peach orchard where I could not see the road nor a house nor anything. Two rough-looking fellows, fruit pickers, and they are not the best men to meet even if they are sober, and these were not, came up and looked rather hostile and threatening. I had considerable money with me and although I could have met either one of the men singly, did not feel like engaging both of them. It was either a case of run or be outmatched, and I was puzzled what to do."
"What did you do?" asked Harry, interested. "They must have been pretty husky fellows for you to decline meeting them."
"A young fellow in overalls and a rough shirt who was picking peaches in a tree, I had not seen him at first, suddenly appeared and ordered the men to get to work and then the boss happened up and sent them away. The boy went back to his picking and the man gave me directions how to reach the road. I suppose the boy was a picker just like the rest but at any rate he had some idea of fairness. He spoke well and I was astonished to see him with the rest but you can't always tell."
"Art and I had a close call this afternoon," said Harry. "We were coming down the Academy hill on our bikes when, at one of the worst places in it, we came upon a young fellow. It looked as if we would run him down but he stood stock still and with all the nerve in the world, whisked his arm first to the right and then to the left as a signal to us. We just flew past but did not hit him and it was a mercy we didn't. Only for his coolness there would have been a bad upset for the lot of us."
"It was very fortunate that there wasn't. Did you know him?"
"No, never saw him before."
"What was he doing on the Academy hill?"
"I'm sure I don't know. That's what bothered Art and me."
The coach went on up the hill and at last stopped in front of the Academy and the boys began to alight.
Dr. Theophilus Wise, the principal, was standing on the front veranda with a good-looking boy in a brown suit and soft hat.
"This is a new pupil, young gentlemen," said the doctor, coming forward with the strange boy. "Let me make you acquainted with John Sheldon. I trust that you will make him at home."
"Why, that's the boy that Art and I met on the road," whispered Harry to his companion as they were descending.
"It is? Why, that is the first picker I was telling you of."
"Oh!" said Harry in a tone of disappointment.
A HITCH IN JACK'S WELCOME
Dick Percival was the son of wealthy parents, was made much of at home and at school was admired and flattered by the boys of his own set and looked up to by the younger ones who took him as their model and regarded him as a hero.
He was the leading spirit in the school and, being high in his studies, and first in all the athletic sports indulged in by the boys, ranked well with both professors and students, so that whatever he did was considered to be about right.
What he did now was, therefore, a salve to the wounded pride of Harry Dickson, who resented having a mere berry picker enrolled among the students of the Academy and taking equal rank with boys of wealth and position.
As soon as he was down from the coach, Dick went straight to the new boy, extended his hand cordially and said in his most agreeable voice and with a smile on his handsome face:
"I am glad to see you again. Welcome to the ranks of the Hilltop boys. You remember me? You did me a great service a short time ago and I am not likely to forget either that or yourself. My name is Dick Percival. Shake hands, Jack, if you will let me call you so."
"I have no objection," said the other, taking the boy's hand with as much cordiality as it was offered. "I remember you now but what I did was nothing. You are very kind and I will endeavor to repay you in any way I can."
The other boys now pressed forward and Harry was as cordial as Dick himself in welcoming the new boy to the school.
"You saved us a bad accident, old chap," he said, shaking Jack Sheldon's hand. "If it had not been for your coolness I would have gone all to bits in a moment. I am obliged to you and if I can do anything for you at any time just let me know."
"It was a ticklish moment," answered Jack, "but you two boys sized up the situation as quickly as I did and acted just as you should have acted so that as much credit belongs to you as you are ready to give to me. I am glad that all came out so well."
Harry introduced Arthur and in a short time the new boy was acquainted with all the boys then at the Academy and apparently on good terms with all of them, Dick Percival's advances toward the newcomer having given the others their cue, so to speak.
More boys came that afternoon and in the early evening, some by train or boat and some in private conveyances, the greater part of those expected to enter upon the new term being on hand that night.
There were nearly a hundred of the Hilltop boys, the majority hailing from New York but many other states were represented, the Academy having a national reputation and being considered one of the best schools for boys to be found anywhere.
It was conducted under military rules and had besides a retired army officer to drill the boys, a corps of competent instructors in many branches, sending its graduates to the leading colleges and universities of the land.
As the boys' duties would not begin until the next day they were at liberty to do as they pleased that evening and after supper, which was had in the great dining hall, Jack took a stroll with Dick, Harry and one or two others of his new acquaintances.
"Dick told us how you helped him out of a scrape," said Harry, as they were entering a bit of woods in the rear of the Academy. "He took you for a berry picker. That was funny, wasn't----"
"But I was one," said Jack. "I picked all summer, strawberries, raspberries and currants and then peaches and some grapes. I made enough to pay my schooling for----"
"Yes, but you were not one of the regulars," broke in Harry. "They are nothing but a lot of tramps, I believe."
"There are tramps that do the work, of course, but the regulars, as you call them are not. They work up from the south and go as far as the western part of the state and into Pennsylvania before the season is over. Many of the boys and girls, too, in our part of the state earn money that way and I don't see that there is anything----"
"Wrong in it?" interrupted Dick, who noticed the prejudice of the other boys. "Of course there isn't. Be careful about this place, Jack. There is a ravine which is very steep and a fall would not be a pleasant adventure. Stick close to me and you will be all right."
Nothing more was said about the manner in which the new boy had earned money for his schooling but even a casual observer would have noticed that neither Harry nor Arthur were as cordial in their treatment of him after that and he and Dick did all the talking.
The greater part of the boys slept in big dormitories on the upper story of the Academy building, a few especially favored ones having rooms to themselves either there or in one of the cottages adjoining, Dick Percival being one of these.
Jack was assigned to one of the large dormitories and found himself associated with Harry Dickson and a number of boys whom he had seen very little of when it came time to go to bed at ten o'clock that night.
His suitcase had been brought up and one of a number of lockers was assigned to him in which he could keep his clothes, there being a small portable iron washstand in front of it at the head of his bed which was about ten feet distant from the next on either side.
There was a row of beds running along two sides of the room with a space of ten feet between the rows, so that there was plenty of room for every one and yet the boys were near enough to converse with each other if they chose before the lights were put out, this being done outside by one of the professors.
Jack saw four or five boys gathered in a knot while he was undressing and caught a few words of their conversation which was carried on in low tones, paying no attention to it, however, and not seeming to have heard it.
"We must give him a welcome to the Academy," said Harry.
"As soon as the lights go out, make a rush and be sure and get the water jug before he gets up," put in Arthur.
"Oh, we know where everything is, all right," muttered Billy Manners, a lively young fellow whom Jack had noticed at the supper table, who seemed to be always making jokes at something or other. "We have done this before, you know."
"It was just as well that I thought there might be something of this sort and got ready for it," thought Jack, but as far as any of the boys could see he was entirely unsuspicious of their pleasant intentions.
He undressed himself quietly, now and then saying something to one or another of the boys who addressed him, and then, just before he got into bed, quietly dropped something on the floor on each side of the bed without being noticed.
He had taken whatever it was from his suitcase and had not been observed, his motions being quick and with no appearance of stealth or a suspicion of the other boys' designs.
All the boys were in bed a few minutes before the electric lights were extinguished and talked among themselves on matters of little importance, Jack saying little, however, but calculating how long it would take the nearest boy to reach him and fixing the position of the water jug well in his mind without turning to look at it.
The lights were extinguished from a switch-board in the doctor's room as soon as the clock struck, so that it was not necessary to go up to the dormitories at all.
There would be no one in the hall outside, therefore, and so whatever noise the boys might make would not be heard by the doctor or any of the professors.
The clock struck ten and as the last stroke sounded the lights went out and in a moment all was dark in the dormitory.
Then there was a sudden rush and Jack sat up in bed, turned and reached for the water jug which was just behind him.
Swift but light footsteps were heard approaching the bed on three sides and then there was a sudden howl, or chorus of howls from all sides.
"Wow! what's that?"
"Ouch! who left tacks on the floor?"
"Gee whiz! stop that!"
Jack had strewn a few small tacks on the floor and the boys who had meant to give him a little hazing had stepped upon them in the dark.
One of the invaders fell against the bed and at once the water jug tumbled over upon him or at any rate that was what he supposed had happened in his confusion.
"What's the matter, boys?" asked Jack, quietly, and then a flash of light from a pocket searchlight shone from the bed.
"Tacks!" exclaimed one.
"Waterspouts!" ejaculated another, he who had been drenched by the contents of the jug.
"Do you often have these little affairs, boys?" asked Jack, with provoking coolness. "Do you enjoy them?"
Two of the boys were sitting on the edge of their beds taking tacks out of their feet while another was looking for a dry night shirt in his locker.
The others looked rather sheepish and no attempt was made to rush in upon Jack who said with the least suspicion of a laugh:
"Better go to bed, boys. Some one might have heard the noise and be coming up to investigate."
Then the light suddenly went out as steps were heard in the hall outside and all was still within.
Whoever was outside was evidently unsuspicious of what had happened within for the footsteps passed the door and went on down the hall and not a word was heard.
"I guess that was one on us," muttered Billy Manners when all was quiet again, "and we'd better let it go at that and score a point for the new fellow."
Evidently, his advice was taken for there was no more disturbance in the dormitory for the rest of the night and in the morning when the bell sounded for the boys to get up Jack was out of bed before any of his new companions.
SOME OF THE BOYS AND THEIR WAYS
The boys were awakened at six o'clock, went into chapel at half past six, had breakfast at seven, went through a drill from eight to nine and then went into the general schoolroom and were busy till noon, when they were dismissed to get ready for dinner.
Nothing was said about the event of the night before but several of the boys gave Jack sly winks and it was quite evident that there would be no repetition of the hazing.
When they went out to drill, Dick Percival said to Jack:
"Well, my boy, it seems to me as if you showed just as cool a head last night as you did in the afternoon when you stood in the road and directed the two fellows who were rushing down upon you on their bikes. I would have liked to seen the fun."
"If they had not talked about it I would not have known anything of it," replied Jack, "but how did you hear of it?"
"Oh, Billy Manners thought it was too good a joke to keep even if you did soak him with the contents of the water jug," laughed Dick. "I don't think he upset it as some of the boys think."
Jack said nothing and the subject was dropped for the time.
Later, Billy Manners himself came to Jack and said, good-naturedly:
"That was one on us, Sheldon, but I don't hold it up against you. I would like to know how you suspected us, however. Have you been to other schools where they practised this sort of thing?"
"No, I have never been away to school before but if fellows will talk of their plans they need not be astonished if somebody overhears."
"True enough!" rejoined Billy, with a chuckle. "I never thought of that. I supposed we were speaking low, however."
"You spoke in whispers and you can hear a whisper farther than you can hear a low tone."
"H'm! I never knew that. That's something to remember."
After dinner and before they went back to the school room several of the boys, Jack among the rest, were standing in front of the main building when Peter Herring, a big, brawny fellow with a disagreeable face and manner said brusquely to the new boy:
"I say, Sheldon, who are you anyhow? Who's your father?"
Jack flushed crimson and then turned pale and for a moment seemed greatly agitated but he quickly gained his composure and said quietly:
"My father is dead."
"Well, what was he then?" pursued the other in the same disagreeable tone he had before used.
"A gentleman," answered Jack, pointedly, and then turned away and spoke to Harry and Arthur.
"H'm! you got it that time, Pete!" roared Ernest Merritt, Herring's chum and a boy with a reputation for bullying and also of toadying to the richer boys and snubbing the poor ones. "That hit you. Did you hear how he said 'a gentleman,' my boy? Your father is something dif----"
"Mind your business!" snapped Herring, darting a look at Jack which boded no good for the latter and then walking away with a sulky air.
"Did you notice how Jack flushed when Herring asked him who his father was?" asked Harry of Arthur when Jack had left them. "There is some mystery there."
"I don't see it. Jack would naturally be angry when spoken to in that tone. Herring is a bully and no gentleman, as Jack indicated."
"That's true enough, but Jack turned red and then white and was evidently under a considerable agitation. There is some mystery, take my word for it."
"Well, suppose there is?" rejoined Arthur. "It is certainly no business of ours and I am not going to meddle with it."
"Well, neither am I," with a little snap, "but I can have my opinion, can't I?"
"Certainly," and there was nothing more said, the boys being good friends and though having little differences at times, never quarreled.
While Arthur and Harry were having this conversation Herring said angrily to Merritt:
"What did you want to say that for? My father is as good as yours. I'll give it to Sheldon for talking back to me."
"You started it," growled Merritt. "You're always picking on the new fellows."
"So are you," snapped Herring. "You're a regular bully. Never mind, though. There is something crooked about Sheldon or his family and I'm going to find it. I don't associate with tramp berry pickers and the rest of the boys won't when I find out things."
"Dick Percival goes with him," muttered Merritt, pointing to where the rich man's son and Jack Sheldon were walking together arm in arm. "Percival is a swell and his father is richer than yours and a lot more----"
"A lot more what?" snarled Herring, clenching his fist.
"Respectable!" snapped Merritt, hastily retreating.
"Don't mind what a fellow like Herring says, Jack," said Dick Percival, kindly, putting his arm in the new boy's. "No one of any account pays any attention to him. A fellow that can show the nerve you can has nothing to fear from Pete Herring."
"I am not afraid of him, Dick," Jack answered, "but----" and then he stopped and went on in silence.
"It's all right," said Dick, at length. "A boy that stands as high as you do in your classes need not be afraid of Pete Herring's condemnation. I believe I shall have to hustle or you will be up to me before I know it."
"That's what I'm here for, to get ahead as fast as I can," laughed the other, who in his examination that morning had showed that he was by no means a backward scholar.
The first day of the new term was spent mostly in getting things into shape for the days that were to come and the regular routine was not as strictly observed as it would be later, new boys being tried out, new methods experimented upon and everything being made ready for the fall and winter.
There were several new boys in addition to Jack Sheldon and one or two of these were as advanced as he was but the greater part went into the lower classes and would make the material of which the Academy would be composed at a later period, Dr. Wise taking them under his particular care and forming their characters for the future as he put it.
In the course of two or three days the machinery of the school was running as smoothly as if it had been in operation for a month, the boys knowing what was expected of them and the professors keeping them rigidly to their work and attending to their own duties with unflagging zeal.
Jack took an interest in his work and was stimulated by knowing that much was expected of him and that there were others who desired to overtake him in his studies, this very emulation helping him to do his best.
The greater part of the boys were his friends and he gave little attention to those who were not, keeping on good terms with them while not having much to do with them.
As far as he was concerned, however, the boys knew no more of him at the end of the week than they had known at the beginning and many of them decided that it was as well to let him remain a mystery until he chose to further enlighten them.
Without being churlish or obstinate, Jack was reserved and all they knew, which could have been obtained outside as well as from him was that he lived in another county, some ten miles distant, that he was the only child of a worthy widow and that he was paying for his schooling out of money that he had earned or would earn from his own efforts in one line or another.
"At any rate if he does have to earn the money to carry him through," said Billy Manners to a number of the boys one afternoon when school was over for the day, "he is not mean and contributes what he can to the legitimate fun of the Hilltops and does not waste his coin on foolish things. If he is poor he is not a miser and if he has to work for his schooling that is his business. If Dick Percival, the acknowledged head of the school in studies as well as in athletics, can associate with him and be proud of his company, the rest of us have nothing to say and I, for my part, certainly have not."
"Neither has any decent fellow among the Hilltops," added Harry, enthusiastically, and the majority echoed his sentiment, the few that remained silent and indulged in black looks being unobserved amid the general acceptance of the new scholar.
ANOTHER ATTEMPTED HAZING
Herring and Merritt and others like them were not satisfied to accept Jack Sheldon on the same footing as had Percival and the better class of boys at the Academy.
Herring had been used to doing about as he pleased with the new boys and any interference seemed like a curtailing of his rights as he looked at it, and he greatly resented it.
"We'll see if that new berry picking chap can get the best of us, Ern," he said to Merritt when he was alone with a few of his cronies after Harry Dickson's declaration that Jack was good enough for any of them to associate with.
"He won't do it, Pete," replied Merritt.
"There's no use in doing anything in the dormitories," remarked Zenas Holt, one of the party.
"No, that makes too much noise," muttered another of the party all being interested in the scheme which they knew Herring must be concocting to get the best of Jack.
"No, everybody hazes new fellows in the dormitories," growled Herring. "He'll be watching for us and then he has made a lot of new friends and they will go to his help."
"We want to catch him alone," suggested Merritt.
"That's the talk," added Holt.
"Just what I was thinking of," said Herring, "and if you fellows will stop talking so much, I'll tell you how we can fix it."
These boys were just the sort to attack another with the odds against him and never had a notion that there was anything cowardly in that way of accomplishing their ends.
As a matter of fact, Herring was afraid of Percival, who was his equal in size and strength as well as in athletic qualities and a good boxer to boot, and therefore did not wish to have the latter about when they set out to haze Jack.
"There are other ways of doing the thing besides getting up a row in the dormitories," he said.
"Sure!" added Merritt. "We don't want the profs. coming in on us to spoil the fun."
"Nor to have to lick Percival and a lot of other fools that have taken up with the new chap," observed Holt.
"H'm! you'd lick Dick Percival, I don't think!" sneered Merritt, who never lost a chance to jeer any one, his own associates included. "I'd like to see you do it."
"Shut up!" snarled Herring. "How can we talk the thing over if you're always putting in your oar?"
"You aren't wearing a lot of medals yourself for keeping your mouth shut, Pete," retorted Merritt.
"Who's getting this thing up?" snarled the other. "Me or you? Did you start it?"
"No, but you can't get along without me, all the same, so don't be so fresh and breezy."
"If you fellows are going to squabble there'll be nothing done at all," put in Holt impatiently.
"It ain't me that's squabbling, it's Ern Merritt," growled the leader of the bullies, angrily. "If he don't want to go into this thing he needn't, but there's no use in doing so much talking."
"Who's doing the most of it?" laughed Merritt.
"Shut up!" said the rest of the boys, who wanted to hear what Herring had to propose.
"There are other places besides the dormitories to work in," said Herring. "There's the woods and the road and a lot of other places. He won't be with the other fellows all the time."
"No, of course not."
"It'll be easy enough to send him a note and get him away from the buildings and then we can do just what we like."
"Give him a good scare and take the nonsense out of him."
"And he won't know us, neither, for we'll have masks on and we mustn't say a word."
"That'll be a hard thing for you," laughed Merritt, who could not resist the temptation to have another fling at Herring.
The latter paid no attention to him, however, knowing that one word would only lead to another.
"We'll watch him," he continued; "find out when he goes off by himself and then do the job up brown. If he don't go off alone, we'll fix it so he will, and that's easy."
"What'll you do with him?" asked Holt. "Steal his clothes and make him walk home at night?"
"Black him up with soot and send him back," suggested another, "That stuff is awful hard to get off."
"I'll make a good job, all right," muttered Herring. "Just you leave it to me."
Some of the better sort of boys were seen approaching at that moment, and Herring said in a low tone:
"Come on, let's get out. Go in different directions. Those fellows might get a notion that we were fixing up something."
The boys went off in different directions, and Harry, who was one of the other boys, said to Arthur:
"If Pete Herring and those sneaks are not plotting against the new fellow, I'll miss my guess."
"Well, it may not be against him," replied Arthur, "but it probably has to do with some of the new fellows or with the little ones. Herring and his crowd are always pestering them."
"If they try to make any trouble for Jack, they will get all that's coming to them," laughed Billy Manners.
"Yes, you found out that he could take care of himself, didn't you?" asked Arthur with a chuckle.
"There were others," replied Billy with a grin.
Herring and his accomplices found a chance to meet again later when there was no chance of being interrupted by any of Jack's friends, and the bully laid his plans before the rest.
"That's all right," said Merritt.
"Couldn't have fixed it up better myself," added Holt.
"That'll do the trick," said another.
Some time later, with still considerable time before supper, Jack happened to be passing the rear of the house where Bucephalus was at work on a wagon.
"Dey was a tullyphome message fo' yo', sah," said the man. "Yo' was to call up two-fo'-six as soon as conwenient."
"Where is the booth, Bucephalus?" asked Jack.
"Raght in bahn, sah. Dere am a switch fo' mah conwenience. Yo'll fin' it cluss to de do', sah."
"All right," and Jack went into the barn, where he saw a telephone receiver and transmitter on a little shelf near the door.
He took down the receiver and called up the number which Bucephalus had given him, waiting a moment for an answer.
"Hello, who is this?" he presently heard over the wire.
"John Sheldon. I was told to call you up. Who is this and what do you want of me?"
"This is Jones, down at the station. There is an express package for you here that has to be signed for. Better come after it."
"Can't you send it?" asked Jack, who thought that the voice sounded rather too near to come from the station below.
Furthermore, it seemed to him that it sounded suspiciously like that of Peter Herring, the leading bully of the Academy.
He had not had much conversation with the fellow, but what he had had was sufficient to make him remember the voice, and he had a good memory for all voices.
"No, I can't send it now. Haven't got any one to send. You can take a short cut through the woods as you leave the Academy and get here in a few minutes. It's shorter than by the road. Take the turn on the right after you get out of sight."
"Is there any hurry?"
"Yes, I gotter go to supper, but I'll wait for you. Hurry up!" and Jack heard the sound of the receiver being hung up on the other end.
He hung up his receiver and went out, finding Bucephalus still at work on the wagon.
"Did yo' catch him, sah?" asked the man. "Werry conwenient little instrament, dat tullyphome, ain't it? Werry myster'ous, too. Just think o' hearin' a man talkin' a mile or two away, an' yo' unnerstan' him as plain like he was right cluss up."
"Yes, there is a bit of mystery about it, Buck," laughed Jack, who had ideas of his own which he did not care to tell to any one else at the moment.
"There is a switch that those fellows have got on," he said to himself, "and I was not talking to the station any more than I was talking to the President of the United States. Well, there'll be a little fun in this, and I don't mind taking the risk."
Jack had gotten the idea that Herring was on another branch of the Academy telephone, and that the story of the express package was a fiction, meant to mislead him.
He knew enough of such characters as Herring's to satisfy himself that the bully would not rest at one attempt to make trouble, but would try again as soon as convenient.
"If that was not Herring on the wire, I never heard him speak," he said to himself as he ran off toward the house and then to the dormitories.
He was not upstairs more than a minute and then he appeared at the front of the Academy and set off down the road at a good pace.
When he had gone far enough to be out of sight of the building, he took a cut through the woods as directed by the supposed Jones at the little station below.
He walked with both hands in his side jacket pockets, and seemed absolutely carefree and happy, but he had his wits about him, nevertheless.
He suspected an ambush and was ready for it.
He had prepared himself for a hazing on his first night at Hilltop, and he now suspected that another was under way and was prepared for that as well.
Jack Sheldon had been to school before and knew the ways of boys, being one himself, although not of the sort that think it funny to play foolish tricks on others.
He knew many of these, however, and had remedies for nearly all of them, having put more than one hazing party to route by his thorough command of resources.
Although he hurried in through the woods in an apparently careless fashion and seemed to pay no attention to anything, he noticed everything, heard everything, and was ready for instant action.
He was well in the woods, which were quite thick as he went on, although there was a path through them, when his quick ear caught the sound of a sudden rustling in a clump of thick shrub oaks just in front of him, but he went on as if he had heard nothing, turning a little to one side as he reached the clump.
In a moment three or four masked figures suddenly sprang out upon him from two sides of the clump.
Then Jack took his hands out of his pockets.
THE HAZERS ARE HAZED
What Jack had in one pocket of his coat was an ammonia gun used by wheelmen to keep off the attacks of troublesome dogs who attempt to bar their progress on the road often at the risk of giving them an upset.
This, as most boys know, is shaped like a pistol and has a bulb at one end.
A slight pressure upon this bulb causes a stream of ammonia, or hot water, or whatever else one chooses to squirt in the faces of the annoying dogs and to put them to flight.
When Jack had gone up to the dormitories, after receiving the message which he had every reason to believe to be spurious, he had taken the little gun from his suitcase, where he had placed it, in anticipation of needing it in some such emergency as the present.
As the masked figures came rushing toward him from two sides, he quickly took account of stock, as one might say, and decided which one of the maskers was Herring.
Then he aimed his little gun at the fellow's face and gave the bulb a good squeeze.
There was a howl and a gasp and the boy in the mask and the old clothes suddenly sat down with more force than elegance.
Jack then turned his gun on one of the intruders from the other side of the clump.
"Ouch, stop that!" yelled the fellow, dropping a stout stick he held in his hand and beating a hasty retreat, half stifled by the fumes of the ammonia.
Jack then turned his attention to the other members of the party of hazers and discharged another gun at them, holding it in his left hand.
This was worse than the first, for it contained assafoetida instead of ammonia.
The stench was something dreadful, and two of the hazers got full doses of the stuff directly in their faces.
Jack was on the windward side of it or he could not have endured the horrible smell.
The victims simply fell on the ground and began to vomit in spite of themselves.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! I'm poisoned!" wailed Holt, who was one of the fellows dosed. "Oh! get me some water. Oh, dear! I shall die, I know I shall!"
"You need a good cleaning out," laughed Jack, who had no sympathy whatever for the sneak. "You are dirty enough inside and out to make it necessary. Turn yourself inside out. You need it."
The other victim was retching and gasping and groaning by turns and all at once, but Jack only laughed.
If one had been in pain and needed his help, no one could have been more sympathetic, but in this case the victim was simply getting his deserts, and the boy wasted no sympathy upon him.
"Oh! I am poisoned, I know I am!" howled Holt. "Go send for a doctor. I know I am going to die!"
"No danger of it, Holt," laughed Jack. "That's nothing but a cleaning out medicine that will be good for you. Take off that mask of yours and you will breathe better. If it had not been for that, you would have got a bigger dose, but it will do, I guess."
Jack had easily recognized Holt, but the other hazer was unknown to him, as he did not yet know all the boys at the Academy.
Holt retched, and coughed, and choked, and gasped, and was in a very uncomfortable state, but there was no danger of his dying and Jack knew it perfectly well.
"I know you, Holt," he said. "I don't know the other fellow, but he will know me after this, I guess. I haven't got through with you fellows yet, but first I want to see how Herring and Merritt are coming on. He is a pickled Herring now, I warrant," and Jack laughed heartily at the recollection of the bully's sudden retreat.
He hurried back the way he had come, and shortly found Herring bending over a spring and trying to wash the ammonia from his face and eyes.
He had laid aside his mask and the stick he had carried, and was totally unprepared for Jack's coming.
"What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the herring," laughed Jack as he came up behind the bully and suddenly sent him plunging headfirst into the spring.
Herring sputtered and gasped, and Jack gave him another ducking, and without the slightest compunction.
"I don't believe in taking a mean advantage of a fellow, as a rule," he laughed, "but that is the only thing that a fellow like you will understand. This is the two-four-six degree, Herring."
Then he gave the bully another ducking and finally left him to look for Merritt, who also deserved something more than he had received.
"I am going to give you a reward of Merritt, Ernest," he laughed, as he finally came upon the sneak sitting on a stone at the edge of the woods, looking very miserable.
"Get out of here, I haven't done nothing," snarled Merritt, too weak to get up. "It wasn't me, it was Pete Herring."
"What is that mask doing on the ground, Merritt?" asked Jack. "And you have your old clothes on also. How does that happen, if you were not in this plot the same as Herring?"
"I was going blackberrying and wore my old clothes so's they wouldn't get hurt. You gotter wear something over your face, too, to keep it from getting scratched."
"Well, here's something else," laughed Jack as he plunged his hand into a mudhole close by and brought it up fairly reeking with black ooze.
Then he gave a generous plaster of the stuff to the bully's face, and chuckled as he went away:
"They say that mud is a sure cure for a lot of things, Merritt, and maybe it will cure you of trying to haze a fellow unawares. Think it over. Thinking won't hurt you, anyhow. You don't do enough to injure you."
Herring had taken himself off by the time Jack went back to the spring, evidently fearing that he would get another dose, which in his weak state he had no desire for and the boy did not find him.
"Well, he has had enough to last him for a time, at any rate," he said with a grin, "and I am not resentful enough to further add to his troubles. I wonder how those others are doing?"
He found Holt sitting on the ground looking very wretched and said, wiping his muddy hand on the fellow's face:
"There's a plaster for you, Holt. You don't look very pretty, but it may do you good."
"Ouch! it stinks!" yelled Holt.
"So does your reputation," laughed Jack. "One will act as a counter irritant to the other. And like curses like, you know. That's the new school of medicine. Who got up this little scheme to waylay me?"
"Pete Herring," muttered Holt. "I had nothing to do with it. I was just going to catch rabbits."
"With a mask? H'm! you are ashamed to look a rabbit in the face, are you? Well, you are homely enough to give a young rabbit nervous prostration, so I can't blame you for that."
"I didn't have nothing to do with it," said Holt, trying to wipe the mud from his face and making it worse.
"How about the telephone?" asked Jack. "Where was Herring when I called him up?"
"On the switch. How did you know it was him?"
"There are some voices that are so disagreeable that you can actually smell them, Holt. Herring's is one. Then I did not get the station at all? I thought not."
"No, you didn't, but if you knew it was Herring, what did you want to come for? That was foolish."
"Oh, no, it was not. It was foolish for Herring to use the phone and try to disguise his voice. Why didn't he get some one I did not know at all? He was the foolish one. And then I thought I might give him a dose of his own medicine."
"Huh! did you give him as bad as you gave me?"
"Well, it was different," and Jack laughed.
"I don't treat all alike, you see. Have a little more of the mud cure?"
Then, without waiting for an answer, Jack plastered the bully's face and neck with the sticky mud and left him.
"This is hazing the hazers," he said. "They may not like it, but, then, that is merely the point of view. There is no reason why I should like it any better than they do."
The other bully was sneaking away when Jack found him and he let him go, having really had enough fun with the bullies to last him some time, and considering that he had punished them enough for one while.
"Four to one was pretty good odds," he laughed, "but I had the advantage of knowing what they were about. That was stupid of Herring to get on the wire himself. Why didn't he get some one else? Fellows like these always make some stupid mistake which betrays them."
Jack then returned to the house, where he found Bucephalus washing the wagon with warm water and soap.
"Give me a chance to wash my hands, Bucephalus," he said. "Honest Injun, now, did you know anything about a plan to haze me? That telephone message was all a hoax."
"Wha' yo' mean by dat, sah?" asked Bucephalus. "Wasn' dere no tullyphome message? I done heard it mahse'f, sah, an' Ah done give it to yo' same as Ah heard it m'se'f, sah."
"Then you did not know of any trick to get the best of me?"
"No, sah, 'deed Ah didn't, sah."
The man spoke so earnestly that Jack was convinced that he was telling the truth and believed him.
When he had finished washing his hands, he went to the doctor's study, where he found the principal himself, and asked permission to use the telephone.
Finding the number of the station below, which was not the one given to him, he called up Mr. Jones and asked if there was any package for him.
The agent said that there was not, and the boy then knew that the whole affair had been a hoax and that probably Bucephalus was as innocent of it as the station agent himself.
"They must have come in here when the doctor was out, switched the barn line on to this one, and taken my call without Jones knowing anything about it," he said as he hung up the receiver and went out. "It was a pretty good plot, but one little blunder will spoil the best of plots."
He said nothing to Percival nor any of his new friends about the matter, being satisfied to have gotten the best of his enemies without publishing it, and feeling that he would be safe from further annoyance for a time at least.
It was said at the supper table that Holt and Haddon were sick from eating too much, and that Merritt had fallen into the brook and taken cold, and Jack did not take the trouble to correct the rumors.
Herring was there, looking as well dressed and conceited as usual, and probably he had more ways of getting over his troubles than the others had, for he showed no effects of the hazing.
He glared at Jack in a manner that promised future trouble, but the boy paid no attention to it, and did not mention the affair to any of his friends, although he knew that they would have liked well enough to hear of it.
BILLY'S LITTLE JOKE
Billy Manners still had an idea of playing some sort of a joke upon Jack Sheldon, albeit a good-natured one, and not the kind that Herring and boys of that ilk would be likely to perpetrate.
Now Billy knew nothing of the hazing that Herring had intended to give Jack, for the latter had not mentioned it, and as a natural consequence Herring himself, in view of his failure, had said nothing about it to any one, not even his own cronies.
The bullies of the Academy never had much to say to the better class of boys in any event, and in this particular case Billy would not be apt to hear of the affair of the unsuccessful hazing, Herring and the rest naturally keeping their own counsel.
Consequently Billy knew nothing about it, but had an idea of his own and determined to work it entirely upon his own responsibility without taking any of the other boys into his confidence.
He was a pretty good hand at working a joke, and knew that sometimes, particularly in carrying out a practical joke, too many cooks spoil the broth, although there is another aphorism which declares that in a multitude of councillors there is wisdom.
However, Billy concluded to try the first old saw in working out his plans, and the reader can judge for himself by the sequel whether he took the wisest course or not.
After supper, when the boys were all supposed to be in the general schoolroom, Billy got a chance to go up to the dormitories in order to prepare for the little joke upon Jack.
The beds were all iron, with woven wire mattresses such as are used in hospitals and preferable as being much more sanitary than the ordinary wooden beds with slats of the same material.
Billy's idea was to loosen the side supports in such a manner that it would not be obvious that anything had been done to them, but that the bed would collapse as soon as any weight was put upon it and let the occupant down upon the floor in the most summary fashion.
What he did was to lift up the sides and then to fasten them to the head and foot pieces with very thin cord which was sufficient to hold them in place only as long as there was no weight put upon them.
The instant that any one got upon the bed the side pieces would drop to the floor and the occupant would go down with them, much to his astonishment and the delight of the other boys.
Having fixed up his little trap, Billy replaced the clothes in as neat a fashion as a chambermaid could have done, and there was apparently nothing the matter with Jack's bed.
"That will be one on Master Jack for the ducking I got the other night," he said, and then he moved the washstand near enough to the bed so that in the event of the latter's collapsing it would go down as well.
Satisfied with his work, he left the dormitory and returned to the big schoolroom, his absence having caused no comment apparently, and his presence and operations upstairs not having been noticed.
"There will be a nice little surprise party for some one at bedtime," he said to himself, but did not let his satisfaction show on his face, so that for all that appeared no one knew of the little trick.
He had had his own flashlight with him and had not had to turn up the lights in the dormitory, a proceeding that might have caused attention, and he was sure that no one had seen him at work, and indeed no one had.
When the boys went up to bed, Jack, still occupying the same dormitory as at first, Billy was ready to see the result of his little joke, but said nothing to any of the boys about it.
"Will you change beds with me to-night, Billy?" presently asked Jack, taking off his coat and hanging it on a hook. "Mine is a little too warm, but you don't mind that."
"Now I wonder if he has got onto it?" thought Billy. "He could not have been up here since."
"It will only be for to-night," Jack added.
"What's the use of changing?" asked Billy. "I don't like too warm a bed myself."
"Oh, this isn't too warm, just warm enough for you," laughed Jack.
"He has got onto something," thought Billy, "and wants to see me go down. Not much, I won't."
"Why can't you be obliging, Billy?" asked Arthur. "I'm sure I'd do a little thing like that if I was asked."
"I wonder if they are both in it?" thought the young joker.
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter," said Jack, taking off his waistcoat and hanging it up over his coat.
"You can have my bed if you want it, Jack," said Arthur. "I don't see why Billy is so disobliging."
"Well, I did not mean it for him," thought Billy, "but it will be his own fault if he makes the change."
"Billy's is better," laughed Jack, "but still I don't mind changing with you if you don't object."
"Not in the least," said Arthur. "You're an obliging fellow, Mr. William Manners."
"Very bad manners, I should say," laughed Harry.
"Oh, well, I am a bit particular, I suppose," said Billy, "but I get accustomed to a thing and don't like to change. It's the same with a seat at table or a desk in the schoolroom."
Billy had been in a hurry to get ready for bed in case the boys tried to persuade him to change his mind, and now he threw back the covers and plumped himself in without further delay.
In a moment there were several surprises.
First, the bed went all to pieces and let the rather stout young fellow down upon the floor in the most unceremonious fashion.
Then there was a loud report, as if a pistol had been set off, and a lot of smoke puffed up in Billy's face.
Next the washstand tipped over and Billy received a ducking much worse than he had got on the night that Jack's water pitcher had been overturned upon him.
"Hello! what's the matter with Billy?" asked several of the boys.
"Oh, you prefer that sort of bed, do you?" asked Arthur.
"Maybe that is why he did not want to let Jack have it," added Harry.
"Enjoy yourself, Billy," said Jack with a smile, sitting on his own bed.
Nothing happened, much to Billy's surprise and disappointment.
"How is this?" the joker asked as he got up. "Did I fix the wrong bed, after all?"
"No, that was all right, Billy, but I have been here since," laughed Jack, taking off his socks.
"Huh! And you found it out?"
"Quite so!" with another smile.
"How did you do it? Sit on it?"
"No, but you left the end of a string sticking out."
"How do you know I did it?" asked Billy.
"Because you are the only fellow that uses green cord in tying up parcels. I have noticed that, among other things."
"Billy is a bit green himself when it comes to playing jokes on observant boys," remarked Harry.
"But how did you happen to come up here ahead of time?" asked Billy, paying no attention to Harry's observation.
"Accident, that's all. I wanted something."
"But I did not see you leave the room," said Billy. "You did not see me at work?"
"No, but I saw you come in. Even then I did not suspect anything. I was about to go up when you came in."
"And then you fixed my bed?" with a grunt.
"Certainly. What is good enough for me is equally good for you, isn't it, my boy?"
"Yes, but, Jack, you offered to swap beds with him," chuckled Arthur.
"To be sure. I knew he would not take me up."
"And if he had?"
"Well, my side of the joke would have been off, but I would not have sat on the bed."
"Well, but what was the racket?" asked Billy.
"Giant torpedo under the bed," said Jack. "That was an improvement on your invention."
"Well, that's one on you!" said Harry with a broad grin.
"And it will be one on all of us if we don't get into bed before the lights are turned off," added Arthur.
"Yes, that's all right and very funny and I acknowledge that Jack has nicely got the best of me," said Billy somewhat dolefully, "but what am I going to do? I can't go to sleep in a wet bed."
"I have an extra set of blankets and things," said Jack. "I saved them out for you when I fixed your little joke to work backward. Here you are and now hurry and get fixed."
"H'm! I bet you never had a thought of Jack in that line," said a boy of the name of Sharpe. "Did you, now?"
"Well, no, I didn't," said Billy, making his bed with the dry blankets and sheets. "That's one on me. Still, no one offered me any dry things the other night."
"Nor me, either," said Jack. "I was to be put through the mill in fine shape, but the joke went on the wrong tack."
"And several of us got on more tacks than one," rejoined Arthur. "I did, at any rate."
"It just shows you that there is little use in trying to play tricks on Jack Sheldon," said Billy, "and I won't be such a chump again."
"Some one else thinks the same way," said Jack quietly to Arthur.
"What do you mean by that, Jack?" the other boy asked.
"I'll tell you to-morrow if you don't hear of it in the meantime," Jack answered, and then the lights went down as a warning that they would presently go out entirely, and the boys all made haste to get to bed.
The next day when the boys came down Arthur and Harry happened to come upon Herring and Merritt unexpectedly, the two bullies not seeing them, and heard Merritt say angrily:
"Huh! that was a pretty hazing scheme you got up on Jack Sheldon, Pete Herring. I got the worst of it."
"You didn't get it any worse than I did," snarled Herring, "but never mind, I'll get even with him yet."
"What are you two ruffians talking about now?" asked Arthur, and the two bullies quickly went away.
Later Arthur saw Jack, and said:
"Did Herring and those other sneaks try to haze you, Jack?"
"Yes," said Jack, smiling. "How did you hear of it?"
"They were talking it over when Hal and I came upon them unexpectedly. I imagine from what was said that it did not work very well."
"No, it did not and now that it has partly come out. I'll tell you about it, as I promised."
A TOUCH OF EXCITEMENT
One morning in the second week of school, Bucephalus, the coachman, assistant cook, head waiter, butler and general factotum of the Hilltop institution, quite astonished the boys by a bit of news he brought and gave them a touch of excitement they had never expected.
Bucephalus waited on the table at breakfast and then went to the station at the foot of the hill and brought back the mail, delivering it some little time before the morning session began.
This morning when the boys came to get their letters the general factotum said excitedly:
"I done pring de letters, what dey was of dem dis mo'nin' but ef dey was any come las' night yo' won' get 'em 'cause de post-office was buglariously entahed some time in de night an' letters an' stamps an' money done took o't."
"The post-office robbed?" cried the boys as Bucephalus began distributing the letters he had in his pouch.
"Yas'r an' de station an' de spress office an' mo' dan dat de post-office on de river was visited, too, in de same buglarious fashion an' a big lot o' pussonal property misappropriated by de nocturnal malefactors. Dey done said dat dey was abo't to call on de bank but got skeered off."
"So, they robbed the Riverton station and post-office as well, did they?" asked Harry. "Have they any notion as to who did it?"
"Wall, Ah reckon ef dey did dey would have apprehended dem by dis, Master Harry. All dey know is dat de malcomfactors done come in a auto an' went away in a hurry."
"Did the same fellows rob both places?"
"Ah reckon dey did and done went to de bigges' place fust. Down at dis station de postmaster and station agent, bein' one an' de same, as you' am aware, was woke up by hearin' de noise an' come a runnin' to stop de robbery. Dey was an exchange of compliments in de way of pistol shots an' de robbers took deir leave an' as much else as dey could get away wif an' struck fo' de nex' town below."
"Then the agent saw them go?"
"Yas'r an' dey took de wrong road at fus an' was headin' fo' de little creek what runs into de river o't'n de ravine jus' back o' here. De agent tried to catch 'em an' done telephoned to de river station but de wiahs was cut. Den de robbers done turn de oder way an' got off, goin' like de wind an' all."
The boys were naturally excited over this piece of news and during the day more was heard which greatly added to the touch of excitement they had already received.
After school Dick Percival, who had a little runabout which the doctor allowed him to keep in the barn, came to Jack and said:
"I am going down to the station to learn some more of this affair of last night. Will you come along? We won't be away more than an hour and I have already obtained permission to go."
"Certainly. I want to hear more about it myself and would enjoy the ride very much."
"All right then, I'll get it out and we'll go at once."
Jack went to the barn with Dick and showed great interest in the little car, so much so in fact, that Dick said:
"You seem to be interested. Do you know anything about cars?"
"Oh, yes," returned Jack, quietly.
"Would you like to run it down to the station?"
"Yes," and both boys got in and Jack ran it out of the shed and toward the road.
As they passed the school buildings they saw Peter Herring and some of his cronies standing together, Herring saying quite audibly:
"There's Percival and his chauffeur. I guess that's what he was before he came here and we gentlemen have to associate with him. H'm! just an auto driver mixing in with gentlemen! It's a shame."
Jack did not seem to have heard and gave all his attention to the car, managing it so well that Dick was astonished and said to himself:
"He handles the thing better than I can do it myself. It's a wonder how many things that boy can do. He may have driven a car, but what of that? That's no disgrace."
When they were out of sight of the buildings and going at a good speed down the hill Jack said quietly:
"I used to drive a motor truck with fruit to the railroad station and steamboat landing. Most shippers use horses but my man had a big motor truck and I used to drive it. That's how I know about cars."
"That's all right," laughed Dick. "You are a constant surprise to me. I am all the time finding out the things you can do. Don't mind that fellow Herring. Honestly, I feel safer with you at the wheel than if I were driving myself."
"I have had to do some pretty awkward driving. You know the Hudson River hills? We have some hard ones up my way and I have driven a car down them without an accident."
"There's where your cool head comes in. I wish I had it."
They whizzed around one sharp turn and another, down steep grades and along level stretches at a rapid pace, going smoothly, however, and with never a jar or a jolt and reached the little station in an incredibly short time, Percival being delighted at the masterly manner in which his companion had handled the car.
There was a knot of men and boys around the station and the agent was telling the story of the robbery of the night before for the fiftieth time.
"Anything new, Jones?" asked Percival.
"Not much. There's a lot of stamps missing and a package of registered mail what I hadn't opened. I can't tell what was in it. Maybe much and maybe little. The fellows went over the creek by the bridge and on, 'stead of coming back as folks said. Guess they knew where they was going. Smart fellows them."
"Did you see them plain enough to know them again?"
"Guess I did, one of 'em, anyhow. He had a big white mustache and black eyebrows and hair. Guess his mask must have dropped off."
"How many were there in the car?" and then Dick saw that Jack seemed greatly agitated about something and stopped short.
"Two, that's all. They got some money out of the drawer and dropped a package near the bridge. Guess they was in a hurry. Smart trick that, cutting the telephone wires. I couldn't get connection with no place, up or down. This morning, though, I heard that they broke into the office at Cedar Bush and got fifty dollars in stamps besides some money. Guess they was making a trip of it."
"Did they make a good haul at Riverton?"
"Guess they did and it was lucky they didn't get more. They got into the bank all right but was scared away before they got much."
"Buck said they got nothing from the bank."
"Well, they did but not all they might have. Folks don't want to say too much down there."
"I'd like to show you the country around here, Jack," said Dick. "Jump in. There are all sorts of stories about this affair and we won't get the truth of it for some time. I'll show you the creek and the bridge and you may get an idea of the risks these fellows ran unless they knew the region well, which I imagine they did."
They took the road for a quarter of a mile back from the station and then saw the banks of the creek ahead of them.
An eighth of a mile farther on the road turned sharply and ran along the creek but at a short distance from it, making a sudden turn again at the end of two or three hundred yards and crossing where the banks were steep and high and the creek itself quite tumultuous.
"This is the same creek that you reach from the ravine back of the Academy in the woods," said Percival. "The banks there are quite high and rough. There is a descent from here to the river and there the creek does not make much trouble. Here, however it is all the time roaring and tumbling. They tell a number of stories about it. During the American Revolution it had considerable fame I believe."
"It makes stir enough now to call attention to itself at any rate," laughed Jack. "It certainly is a noisy little stream. Here is where the robbers crossed over? I can see auto tracks close to the rail. They did go over and back, Dick, although the agent says they did not."
"The stories are greatly confused and you won't find out what really happened for some time, I don't think. That man with the white mustache and black hair ought to be readily recognized. If he is a professional some ought to know him."
"Yes, probably they will," and Dick once more noticed that his companion seemed agitated.
He asked Jack to turn and go back as he did not feel quite equal to the task, the road being a bad one so Jack took the wheel and got them back to the station with little trouble.
Stopping here a few minutes and listening to the talk but learning nothing new, they went through the little village, made a few trifling purchases and then returned to the Academy, Jack managing the car and quite exciting Dick's admiration by the cool manner in which he took the trying hills, sharp turns and steep ascents.
"I'd like to have you with me whenever I go to the station, Jack," Dick said. "I fancied I could run a car anywhere but you can beat me all to bits. Herring can say what he likes but a fellow that can run a car as steadily and coolly as you can is good enough to associate with the president himself."
"I am glad you like it," said Jack, smiling, "but long use has made me well accustomed to our Hudson valley hills and I really do not mind them nor think them so bad as a stranger would."
The story of the robbery was added to the next day and many conflicting accounts were related so that one could not readily find out what was true and what was not.
The man that Jones had seen was identified as a former prisoner in one of the State institutions but whether he had escaped or had served his term was very much in doubt.
On the second afternoon succeeding Jack's visit to the station he was taking a stroll through the woods in the rear of the Academy, expecting Percival to join him, the two often taking walks together.
He suddenly observed that he was quite near to the bank of the ravine and was about to turn when all at once a form flew out of the bushes close at hand, rushed violently against him and sent him in an instant off his feet and down the steep incline.
WHAT JACK FOUND IN THE RAVINE
Jack Sheldon uttered a startled cry as he found himself darting through space and then he struck on his back and went sliding down the bank toward the creek below unable to stop himself.
Many thoughts passed rapidly through his mind as he went on down the bank, narrowly missing great rocks, stumps of fallen trees and clumps of thorn bushes, feeling no pain but wondering where he would land.
What occurred to him with the most startling distinctness, however, was the fact that he had not lost his footing through his own carelessness but that some one had pushed him from the bank.
Speculation as to who this person might be seemed absolutely useless for he had not seen him and had not known of his presence until the very instant before he had fallen.
What might eventually happen to him did not occupy his thoughts so much as the identity of this person and it seemed as if he must have turned this thought over in his mind a thousand times during his descent of the bank.
His progress was so rapid that he could tell nothing of the objects he passed nor how long he was in descending, the only thing that was definite being the fact that the creek lay below and he might or might not be thrown into it.
At last when it seemed as if he must have slid a thousand feet or more, although it was much less than that distance, he was suddenly brought up sharply by his feet striking a great mass of moss, decayed wood and rich loam at the foot of a short stump almost on the brink of the roaring creek tumbling over the rocks in its bed.
He was thrown half across this stump by the violence of the contact but quickly realized that he was not hurt although nearly out of breath and with a rapidly beating heart.
His coat was about his neck, he had no hat, his shoes were badly scraped and his trousers had many holes in them but he was alive and evidently not seriously bruised or scratched by his rapid slide over the rough ground and coarse grass.
But for his having been stopped by the stump he would have gone into the water which at this point was right up to the bank.
Standing up and arranging his clothing as much as was possible at the moment, he took a deep breath or two and looked about him.
At a short distance there was a rude path along the water's edge wide enough for him to make his way, here and there obstructed by stones or bushes but wide enough for him to walk on.
There was clearly no use in trying to reach the top of the ravine by climbing and he might by following the path come to the bridge over which he and Dick had crossed two days before.
He had no idea how far it was to the station for he could see nothing but the woods and the ravine and the brook and he set off, therefore, with no idea how far he would have to go or what obstacles might be in his way.
Walking on along the tumbling brook, now having to descend at a considerable angle where the path was just wide enough for his feet, now having to make his way through tangled bushes, now scrambling over rough stones and occasionally being turned aside by great thickets of briar but still keeping the water in sight he at length came to a point whence he could see the bridge ahead of him.
He judged that he must have gone nearly half a mile although the difficulties of the way made it seem like five.
The bridge was still some little distance away and the path was no less easy for travel than at first although it was wider and evidently more traversed as if used now and then by fishermen or picknickers.
Coming near the bridge he was looking for a good place to leave the path and reach the road when he saw something half in the water and half on the ground that at once arrested his attention.
It seemed to be a rubber bag and was evidently heavy by its looks, the part on the ground being deep in the sand as if it had been thrown from the bridge.
At once it dawned upon him that here was an important discovery.
"I wonder if that is not some of the plunder stolen from the bank or from the station?" he thought to himself.
Some had advanced the theory that the robbers had not carried off all that they had stolen, some had said that the men had gone across the creek and then back and it at once occurred to Jack that they had not gone to the bridge for nothing and that here was something that they had gotten rid of at the time on account of the risk of being discovered with it and for which they meant to return at some convenient time.
Making his way down the bank, which at this point was quite steep, the boy rested on one knee, took hold of a stout sapling and tried to lift the bag half out of water.
It was quite heavy, as he had supposed and considerable of a tug was required to draw it out of the water and close to him.
This he accomplished, however, and then, using the sapling to aid him, he drew the bag farther up on the bank and then to the top where he put it down and started to open it.
There was a stout cord around the neck of the bag but this he loosened with some little trouble on account of its having been swollen and made tighter by the water.
Opening the bag he caught sight of a polished tin despatch or cash box, a bundle of letters, a package of bills and a thick envelope which probably contained postage stamps by its appearance.
Reaching in and taking out the cash box, the first thing that attracted his attention were the letters on the cover.
"Hello! Riverton National Bank!" he exclaimed. "Then they did get something from the bank after all. What is this? Bunch of registered mail for the little post-office down here. Well, it was lucky I was thrown down the bank after all."
Putting back the contents of the bag and securing it with the cord, Jack now made his way toward the end of the bridge, looking up and down and listening attentively.
"If I am seen with this in my possession some one will be sure to say that I stole it and yet I must get it either to the station or up to the Academy. It will be a considerable tug to get it up the hill and perhaps I had better hide it till I can come after it with a car or a wagon. That's the best thing to do."
He was looking for a place among the bushes or under the bridge to hide the bag when he heard the sound of a car coming toward him and got behind a tree so as not to be observed.
Then, peering out, he saw the car and recognized it as the little runabout belonging to Dick and saw young Percival himself at the wheel.
"Hello, Dick, come here, I want to see you," he called, stepping out and beginning to climb the bank.
"Hello! That's you, is it? And all right, of course? I was very much afraid that I would have----"
"To do what?" for Percival suddenly stopped.
"To carry your remains back to the Academy. They told me you had fallen down the bank and I scarcely expected to see you alive again. As quick as I could I got out the car and came down here to look for you."
"They told you that I had fallen down the bank?" asked Jack, in the greatest excitement.
"Yes, and you look it all right."
"Who told you that, Dick?"
"Pete Herring and Ernest Merritt. They said they had seen you fall and had tried to warn you but were too late."
"Where did you see them?"
"In the woods. I was going there to meet you as I had promised."
"How long before had it happened, did they tell you? Did you meet them in the woods?"
"Yes, and very soon after you fell, probably. I heard a scream and hurried on. Then I met them and they told me what had happened."
"Yes, but not how it happened. Dick, I was thrown down the bank. It was not an accident at all, it was a deliberate----"
"Do you know which of the two did it?" gasped Dick.
"No, but I am satisfied that one of them did it. However, never mind that now. Come here. I want to show you something."
Dick got out of his car and followed Jack.
The boy led his friend to where he had deposited the bag, uncovered it by throwing off the leaves he had thrown over it and said:
"That's what I found down here, a few paces away. What do you suppose is in it?"
"I have not the least idea. What is?"
"A cash box from the Riverton bank, a packet of registered letters for our office, some stamps, money and other things."
"And you found it here?"
"Yes, half on the bank and half in the water."
"How did it get there?"
"Thrown from the bridge by the robbers. They did not want to be found with it on them I suppose. Probably they meant to return for it at some convenient time."
"You have examined the contents?"
"Not all of them."
"What shall we do with it, Jack?"
"Take it up to the doctor. Later we can take it to the bank. I don't want to go there now, looking as I do."
"Well, you don't look just the thing to call on a bank president," laughed Dick, "but I am glad you are alive. Are you hurt any? No bones broken, no internal injuries, nothing the matter with you?"
"I don't think there is, Dick. I do feel a bit sore and bruised but I don't think there is anything serious the matter. A good hot bath will fix me up all right, I think."
"Come on then and get that bag up to the Academy. Here, don't you lift it. I can do it better. Can you run the car up, do you think?"
"Yes. Did you raise an alarm about my having fallen down the bank?"
"No. Herring said he would speak to the doctor. I came right away."
"All right. Let them think for the present that I did fall down."
"Very good, but as soon as I am certain which one of those fellows it was that pushed you down I will make it warm for him."
"I don't believe you ever will know, Dick."
ANOTHER OF JACK'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The two boys went up the hill to the Academy with the bag which one of them had found in the creek and had an interview with Dr. Wise.
The doctor looked his name in some respects and in others he did not.
He was a tall, spare man, dressing habitually in solemn black and a huge white choker, his face being clean shaven and showing the firmness of his chin and his square, well-set jaws.
He was very bald, however, and the big round spectacles which he always wore gave an owlish aspect to his face, the glasses being set in a heavy black frame which made his eyes look even deeper than they naturally were.
However, the doctor was of a most kindly nature and all the boys under his charge, with a few notable exceptions, were greatly attached to him and treated him with admiration as well as respect.
He listened attentively to Jack's story of falling down the ravine and finding the rubber bag and then examined the latter, saying:
"H'm, ha! yes, this is a most important discovery. I am not privileged to examine it closely, that will be the duty of the agent at the station and the officers of the bank, but I am very glad that the bag has been recovered. This packet doubtless contains registered letters for me. I was expecting them and their loss would have caused us all some trouble. One thing, however. Has no one told you of the danger of wandering through our woods, especially at night?"
Dick Percival was about to say something which Jack did not want him to say at the moment and he quickly interposed:
"Yes, sir, they have, and I will admit that I was careless. However, I will take better precautions in future."
"Do so. I should be very sorry if anything happened to you and I do not like to restrict the enjoyment of the young gentlemen under my care. They enjoy walking through the woods but all of them know the danger and I need not restrict them as long as they know where to go."
"Then these things had better be taken to the station and to the bank at Riverton?" asked Jack.
"Yes. To-morrow you and Percival may attend to it. Meanwhile, I will wire the bank officers that some of their property has been found. There will doubtless be a reward given for its recovery and I am very glad that this is so, for your sake."
"My finding it was quite accidental, however, Doctor."
"Even so, the reward has been offered and belongs to you. It is immaterial how the property was found as long as it was found. You must have had a thrilling adventure but I am glad that only your wearing apparel and not you suffered injury."
The bag was left with the doctor and the boys left him, Jack to get whole garments out of his meagre store and Dick to house his car.
Outside they came upon Herring, who turned pale when he saw Jack and muttered, half under his breath:
"Then you were not killed? I was afraid that----"
"No, he was not," said Dick, "little thanks, however, to----" but Jack gave him a sudden look and he stopped short.
Herring hurried away to join some of his companions at a little distance and Dick said:
"I was too much in a hurry, I see, and now it will be harder to discover the truth. Herring will be on his guard."
"And we don't know that he had anything to do with it."
"It lies between him and Merritt, I am certain, but I will keep still after this until I am certain."
Those of the boys who had heard of the accident to Jack were quick to assure him of their satisfaction that he was not seriously hurt and there the matter rested.
The next day Dick and Jack went in the runabout to the bank where they delivered the cash box and other things which evidently belonged to it, leaving the package of registered letters and the postage stamps at the station at the foot of the hill.
"I am authorized by the bank to pay you a reward of one hundred dollars for the recovery of this property," said the president, after he had thoroughly examined the contents of the bag. "Shall I pay it to you or put it to your credit in the bank? I will have a book made out if you prefer the latter."
"I think that will be satisfactory," the boy replied. "Then if I desire to draw against it or add to it I can do so."
"Very good, my dear sir. You show the proper spirit. Many young men would wish to spend the amount at once."
"I believe I have learned the value of money, sir," said Jack, quietly, while Dick laughed and said.
"H'm! I am afraid I would have done just what the president hints at. Perhaps I have not learned the value of money from having so much of it."
The money was left to the boy's credit and he was supplied with a bank book and blank checks, feeling quite proud at having so much money as it would give him an opportunity to help his mother as well as to pay his bills at the Academy.
"You did not expect to get this, did you, Jack?" asked Dick.
"No, but I am glad to get it just the same. It means a good deal to me, Dick, although I suppose you regard it as a mere trifle."
"Well, not so much after all," laughed Dick, "but, come on. I want to stop at the office of the Riverton News. I furnish them with school items now and then and this is the day before publication. You might tell the editor of your experience yesterday. I have no doubt that he will regard it as a bit of valuable news. He does not get much."
"I would like to see him at any rate," Jack returned. "I always did like to go into a newspaper office."
The newspaper office was down the street a short distance and on the opposite side from the bank and in a decidedly less pretentious building, being in a little two-story wooden affair which looked fully a hundred years old and as if it might fall down at any moment.
They found the editor in his office, sitting at his typewriter in his shirt sleeves and busy preparing an article for the paper, this being the eve of publication day.
He was a fat little man; the top of his head being very bald and shiny with a fringe of black hair all around it and two big tufts at his ears, his eyebrows being thick and shaggy and standing straight out from twin caverns.
He held his shoulders high and put his head forward and down, pecking savagely at the keys of the typewriter with the first fingers of both hands very much as a hen pecks at the worms or grain of corn in a dunghill and making the machine rattle at every stroke.
"Busy, Mr. Brooke?" asked Dick. "Want some items?"
"Yes, of course," said the other, never stopping at his savage attack on the typewriter. "I am doing something about the robbery. Nothing new, I suppose?"
"Why, yes, I think there is," laughed Dick. "Have you heard----"
"What?" asked the editor sharply, looking up at the two boys. "I've heard lots of things and it's hard to tell just what's true and what isn't. What have you got, Percival?"
"Why don't you use all your fingers on your machine?" asked Jack, before Dick could answer.
"What's that?" snapped the editor quickly, fixing his eyes on the questioner. "Why don't I use all my fingers? Because it's quicker to use two, that's why."
"Oh, no it is not," with a quiet smile. "Let me show you. What is this? Something about the robbery? Let me add a few lines. It is news."
Jack spoke with a quiet air that evidently had its effect on the nervous little man pecking away at the machine with two fat fingers and he moved his chair to one side a little so as to make room, but apparently unwilling to believe that he could be taught anything.
Jack shifted the paper a line or two and then, standing over the machine, set to work, operating rapidly and writing as he thought.
He not only used all his fingers but did the spacing with his thumbs and wrote so rapidly that Dick thought he was copying and not writing off-hand.
What he wrote was a brief account of the finding of the rubber bag containing the missing cash box near the bridge at the upper station, not mentioning himself by name, however, nor even saying that the property had been found by one of the Hilltop boys.
When he had finished the editor looked at the paper and muttered:
"H'm! not an error! Well, you are certainly an expert operator and have taught me something but I could never write like that. Force of habit, I suppose."
"Where did you ever learn to use a typewriter, Jack?" asked Dick in admiration. "Why, you show me some new accomplishment every day."
"Oh, I have used one for some time. I have done work for the lawyers in our town. I have made a good deal of money that way."
"He gets along faster with all his fingers than you do, playing a sort of crazy jig with your two first fingers, Mr. Brooke," laughed Dick, uproariously. "I have seen other fellows play the machine like that and thought it was the only way, but now I see that it is not."
"You have put it very concisely," said the editor. "By the way, who was the person who found the money?"
"That was Jack himself," said Dick. "I was there just afterward and took the thing up to the Academy in my car. Jack is a modest fellow and you could not get him to say anything about himself."
"Very well put," said the editor. "What do you think about the political situation? I want a leader on it but hardly feel equal to it."
"Write him an editorial, Jack," laughed Dick. "How much do you pay for good articles, Mr. Brooke?"
"H'm! the News is not equipped for paying very much for anything," replied the other, pecking at the machine, "but if I could get a really good article on the situation at present or anything, the farming outlook, for instance, I would be willing to pay something for it."
"I can tell you what I think," said Jack, quietly, "and furnish you with articles on different subjects. I would like to earn all the money I can as I am paying for my education out of my own pocket."
"H'm! very commendable spirit," snapped the other. "Is that your case, Mr. Percival?"
"No, I cannot say that it is. However, I am anxious to see how Jack makes out as a writer of editorials. Let Mr. John Sheldon have your desk for a few minutes, Mr. Brooke."
"It won't be long," said Jack, blushing. "Only a few sentences but it is just what I think."
He sat at the typewriter and wrote rapidly for a few minutes, during which time both Percival and Mr. Brooke remained perfectly quiet.
When he had finished, Jack took the paper from the machine and handed it to the editor, saying:
"There, that is my opinion of the situation. You may not agree with it but that is how I think."
The editor read over the article carefully and then said with more spirit than he had yet betrayed:
"It is the thing in a nutshell. It is tersely put and carries conviction with every sentence. If it had been any longer or any shorter it would have failed of its purpose. I could not express myself any better if I wrote a column. It will go in just as it is and whenever I want an editorial written I shall call upon you."
"May I read it?" asked Percival.
The editor passed the sheet over to the boy who read it most carefully and then said:
"Great, my boy! We have long wanted a good editor for our Academy paper and the position is yours. If I say so every boy in Hilltop will agree with me, so it is settled."
AN INTERVIEW IN THE WOODS
Dick Percival was as good as his word and lost no time in telling the Hilltop boys that he had found an ideal editor for the monthly magazine conducted in the interests of the Academy and contributed to by the brightest minds among them.
The majority agreed that Jack would make a better editor but there were some who opposed this choice, not openly but in a sneering, underhand way that was harder to combat than if they had put on an attitude of bold defiance.
"You don't want a mere clerk for an editor," said Peter Herring to a number of his cronies. "If we did we could hire a six-dollar-a-week typewriter girl to do the work. Any one can work a machine with a little practice but it takes brains to run a high-class magazine like ours."
"How much do you contribute to it, Pete?" asked Merritt, with a half laugh.
"Well, I contribute to the expense of the publication and I am not going to have my money wasted," retorted the other angrily.
"So do all the boys contribute. You don't have to pat yourself on the back for that."
"Well, do you want this upstart to be editor?" snarled Herring, annoyed at these interruptions and yet not wishing to pick a quarrel with one who was useful to him at times.
"No, of course I don't but you don't need to make a fool of yourself for all that. You are no better than the rest of us."
"I don't say I am and I don't make a fool of myself. What is the matter with you anyhow?"
"Never mind bickering, you two," said one of the group. "What we want to get at is to keep Sheldon out of the paper, isn't it?"
"Of course!" said all the rest.
"Then get to work and do it."
"Leave it to me," said Herring in a mysterious tone. "I'll fix it all right, never fear."
The preparation of the next number of the _Hilltop Gazette_ was begun under the direction of Jack Sheldon, however, Dick, Harry and a few more assisting him in the selection and arrangement of articles and the opposition of Herring and his satellites seemed to have ceased.
Jack had made arrangements with the editor of the _News_ to furnish him material for the weekly paper and to give him news as well if there happened to be any and he entered on his duties as contributor under a regular if not large salary.
Meanwhile, Herring took every opportunity to speak disparagingly of Jack, to sneer at everything he said or at every word of praise that was given him and to snub him whenever they met.
Jack cared nothing for this latter treatment and, indeed, seemed not to notice it and as far as snubbing went he never had anything to say to the bully and always passed him by without notice.
It was about ten days after the finding of the money in the creek and Jack was strolling in the woods half way down from the Academy, absorbed in thought and paying little attention to where he went or to the objects about him when he heard a sudden sharp hiss and then:
"Well? Do you like it here?"
He looked up suddenly and saw a man in a rough dark grey suit and wearing a thick black beard, standing close to a tree which had a great hollow on one side.
"You!" he exclaimed, stepping back a pace and straightening himself as if wishing to keep away from something defiling.
"Yes, me. So you are going to a high-class school, are you?"
"Why should I not if I pay for it?" asked Jack, coolly.
"And I need the money. Have you any with you?"
"Yes--and I mean to keep it with me," with a slight interruption.
"I can claim all you have. It is mine by right," said the other in a dogged tone. "Come closer. I want to talk to you. Perhaps I can make a business proposition."
There was a rustle among the leaves at a little distance and Jack looked around sharply but saw nothing, the stranger having evidently not taken note of anything.
"Come here," he said, resting his hand in the hollow of the tree. "Do you see this hole? You could put something in there and I would get it. I have used it for a post-office before. It has been very handy. So, you found the money in the creek, did you? I was coming after it in a day or so. What have you done with it?"
"Restored it to the bank, whose property it was," came the quiet answer. "You do not suppose I would keep it?"
"I worked for that money and only for my pals getting frightened I would have had more. We left the biggest part behind."
"It is not safe for you here since the police have your description and know your reputation," said Jack, quietly. "I would advise you to go away at once."
"Who would recognize me?" asked the other with a laugh, whisking off his beard and restoring it again in a flash but revealing for a brief moment a large white mustache. "Besides, no one would suppose that I would stay in this neighborhood."
"Why do you?"
"To get what I left behind," with a laugh. "They say lightning does not strike twice in the same place but I do and with profit. You know the bank, don't you? Give me a little idea of the location of things. I am a little hazy on some points. Of course I could fix that but time is an item with me. Where is the----"
"I shall tell you nothing!" said Jack, firmly, "and it is useless to prolong this interview."
"Ain't I your father, Mr. John Shelden, alias----"
"No, you are not!" said Jack, fiercely.
He was retreating when the man said with a laugh and a sneer:
"You won't get people to believe that. Help me and I will keep quiet; refuse and I will see that your term here is a very short one. Ha! I still use the old word. Familiar, of course."
"I care nothing for your threats," said Jack, hurrying away and looking around sharply, the sound he had before heard coming again to his ears.
"The fellow has some confederate hidden in the woods," he thought, and made his way as rapidly as possible to the road and then went on up the hill toward the Academy.
The strange man disappeared in the woods but Jack did not look back to see where he went but kept straight on to the Academy.
Reaching the building he went to the telephone which the boys were allowed to use on occasion and called up Mr. Brooke.
"Hello! Mr. Brooke? I may have news for you about something. I will communicate with you as previously arranged in case there is anything to tell you. Good-bye."
No one hearing this message could guess what it meant and Jack was purposely cautious and guarded, knowing that some of the operators in the exchange had told things which they had heard over the wires.
Having sent his message to the editor, he hung up the receiver and went to find Percival or some other of the boys.
A few minutes after the strange man with whom Jack had had his strange interview had disappeared in the woods, Peter Herring crept cautiously out of the bushes and whistled softly to some one.
In a moment he was joined by Merritt and the two hurried toward the road and took their way down hill.
"You heard the whole business?" asked Herring.
"Yes. That's a nice mix-up."
"I guess it is. Now we've got a hold on Sheldon. The son of a bank robber and he said his father was dead."
"I'll bet he was in the robbery himself," muttered Merritt.
"Anyhow, we can make it look so," snarled the other with an evil look.
A BIT OF SIGNAL WORK
Jack Sheldon said nothing to Dick Percival or any of his friends in the Academy of the singular interview he had had in the woods with the strange man, having kept his own counsel thus far and resolving to keep it still unless forced to take some one else into his confidence.
No one would have guessed, seeing him among the boys, light-hearted and gay, apparently, that he had anything on his mind and he took good care that no one should guess it.
There was a time during the evening that one might absent himself from the general assembly if he chose although none of the boys was supposed to leave the grounds.
There was a direct rule against this except in a case of necessity, but Jack considered that it was necessary for him to leave the place at that time and he accordingly made his way rapidly down the hill, taking care that no one should see him leave.
"I cannot explain," he muttered to himself as he hurried on in the darkness, "and yet I must see if those scoundrels are at work."
He met no one, saw no one and at length reached the old hollow tree where he had met the strange man that afternoon.
He had his pocket flashlight with him and now, as he reached the tree he turned a brilliant glare into the hollow, taking care that it went nowhere else.
There was something at the bottom of the opening and he reached in his hand and brought it out.
It was a folded bit of coarse paper tied around a stone and, unfolding it, he read as follows:
"Dear Bill: Coast is clear. Think we can do the
"Very good!" he said to himself as he put the paper in his pocket, shut off the light and hurried away. "I don't know if this was overlooked or if it has just been put here but I am glad I have secured it."
He mixed in with the boys and left them to go to his room in one of the cottages where he was now quartered only a short time before the hour of retiring.
When ten o'clock struck he waited about ten minutes and, looking out of the window to assure himself that all was dark, he opened the sash and flashed his light in the direction of the river, keeping the light on until an answering flash in the distance told him that his own signal had been seen.
Then he sent a number of long and short flashes and waited a few moments until he saw a steady flash of a few seconds in the direction where he had seen the first.
"All right, he is ready," he said to himself and then sent a number of flashes as before, holding the light for a longer or shorter period as required to indicate dots and dashes in the Morse code of telegraphy.
As a matter of fact, he was sending a message in this manner to the editor of the _News_ as already arranged between them.
His first long flash was to determine if the editor was at his post and, having ascertained that he was, he announced that he was about to send an important message and then when the answer came that they were ready for him he went on.
Leaving out all unnecessary and obvious words, his message to the _News_ man was as follows:
"Inform bank officials attempt robbery be made to-night. Thought they would keep away from bank account danger."
To telephone at that time of night would be inconvenient as well as not feasible and Jack had therefore hit upon this method of sending word to Mr. Brooke as being the safest and surest.
He had signaled before with great success, his light being a powerful one and capable of carrying to the river without the least difficulty, providing the night was clear.
"That is all right," he muttered as he shut off his light, closed the window and turned into bed, having no need of any light and not caring to have any show from the cottage at that hour.
Unknown to him, however, there were those who saw his signals, or a part of them, in addition to the man for whom they were intended.
Peter Herring and Ernest Merritt, returning from a clandestine visit to the village after hours were coming along the road, keeping as much in the shadows as possible, not caring to be seen, when Herring whispered:
"See that light?"
"Yes, what is it? Keeps winking and blinking like a----"
"Sh! some one is signaling. H'm! regular dots and dashes, that's what they are. H'm! do you know the code?"
"Yes, a little bit. We used to practise it----"
"Watch 'em. H'm! I've got some of it. It's a regular message to----"
The two prowlers advanced as close as they dared and watched the signals, muttering to each other as one word and another was flashed out.
"What do you make it, Pete? 'Keep away from something on account of danger.' Is that it?"
"Yes, 'keep away from bank,' that's it."
"Keep away from the bank? What bank? The river or the ravine?"
"No, stupid! The bank in the town. The one that was robbed. Are you so stupid you can't put two and two together? That's Sheldon's room where the lights came from. He was warning his father to keep away from the bank on account of danger. Don't you see? He is not the fine honorable fellow he makes himself out to be."
"H'm! that gives us another hold on him. If he puts on any airs with us now we'll spit upon him."
"Sh! not so loud. We've got to get in without being found out. It is not late but it's after hours and a half minute or a half hour over time is all the same with the doctor."
"It's a good thing we were late, Pete. Otherwise, we wouldn't have seen this high-toned burglar's son signaling to----"
"No, but keep still," whispered Herring and the two hurried on in the darkness till they reached the rear of the building where an associate was waiting to let them in at their signal.
Jack went to sleep feeling assured that if the bank robbers made another attempt to rob the Riverton institution they would meet with a warm reception and satisfied that he had done his duty.
In the morning when Bucephalus came with the mail he quite astonished the boys by announcing:
"Dem robbers was at deir wo'k again las' night, down at de bank on de river an' one of dem was shooted bad an' am in jail, so dey tell me down at de station."
"Tried to rob the bank again, did they?" cried one or two of the boys excitedly.
"Yas'r, but the bank kind o' suspected dat dey was coming and was prepared for them. The robbers did not suspicion that anything was wrong for the bank was playing 'possum and the robbers was caught at their surreptitious employment and----"
"Which one got away and how many were there, Buck?" asked Herring, who seemed puzzled over something.
"Ah donno sah, Ah don' keep acco'nt of such obnoxious individuals as bank robbers, sah," replied Bucephalus, with great dignity.
"Was the fellow with the white mustache caught?"
"Ah donno, sah, and----"
"What is it to you which one was caught and how do you happen to know so much about them, Herring?" asked Harry.
"It is not much to me, of course," returned Herring, "although I fancy it is a lot to somebody not a hundred miles away."
"What do you mean by that?" demanded Harry. "You are hinting at something. Out with it if you are man enough."
Herring flushed scarlet and then, feeling that he was defied, he said doggedly:
"You'd better ask Sheldon how he is interested in the matter."
"What has he got to do with it?" asked Percival, hotly, having just arrived on the scene.
"What has he got to do with it?" sneered Herring. "Oh, nothing very much. He signaled to the robbers to keep away from the bank last night, that's all. He must have some interest in them to do that."
Jack said nothing, although he was clearly agitated and Percival turned to him and asked kindly:
"It is not so, is it, Jack? Say that it is not so."
"No, it is not so. I signaled to Brooke and told him to warn the bank officials that there was to be another attempt to rob it."
"You knew this, Jack?" asked Dick.
"Yes, I knew it," quietly.
"Of course he knew it," said Herring, with a disagreeable laugh. "Why wouldn't he know it when he had a meeting with the chief robber yesterday afternoon and told him that he would keep him and his pal posted as to a good time to rob the bank?"
"Peter Herring," said Jack, turning white but retaining full command of himself, "you are a miserable liar!"
"Oh, am I?" and Herring began to bluster, feeling sure of his ground. "You won't deny that you had a meeting with a disguised man yesterday afternoon in the woods near the foot of the Academy hill, will you? Will you deny that you telegraphed with your pocket flashlight, 'Keep away from the bank on account of danger?' You did not do that?"
"That was only a part of my message. It was sent to Mr. Brooke, the editor of the _News_ at Riverton and not to the robbers."
"Why should he send warning to the robbers, you toad?" demanded Dick, angrily.
"Stop, Dick, never mind," said Jack, putting a hand on his friend's arm. "The fellow is lying and he knows it."
"Oh, I do, hey?" and Herring turned purple with rage. "Maybe I am lying when I tell the boys that you had a secret interview with your father yesterday afternoon and that he is the chief robber, the one with the white mustache, the one that Jones shot at. Maybe you will deny that you have a father?"
"I do deny it," said Jack, quietly. "My father is dead, as I told you once before."
"You are a liar!" roared Herring, "and I'll bet that you are just as bad as this----"
That was as far as he got for in an instant Jack had knocked him down.
THE TROUBLES OF AN EDITOR
There was great excitement among the boys in an instant and while the greater part of them sympathized with Jack, there were some who took sides with Herring and one of these now ejaculated:
"Ha! if he wants to fight let him go at it fair. Get a ring and----"
"Young ge'men," said the negro coachman, pushing forward and throwing aside the boys who were rushing at Jack, "Ah beg of yo' to remembah dat dis am against de rules and dat you will be severely chastised if not punished for dis."
Herring picked himself up, brushed his clothes hastily and cried in angry tones:
"You will have to give me satisfaction for that, Sheldon. You called me a liar and you struck me without provocation. I don't stand for anything like that I can tell you and----"
"What is this?" a newcomer said and the boys suddenly found the drill master among them. "A fight? I shall have something to say about that. Disperse at once and proceed to the drill ground."
"Sheldon called me a liar and struck me!" blustered Herring. "I am not going to have----"
"We will hear this case later," said Colonel Bull, severely. "Do as I command or I shall put you all under arrest."
Some of the boys smiled at the idea of putting the whole school under arrest but they all moved away and were shortly in regular formation going through their customary morning exercises.
After drill Percival went to Jack and said:
"There is some mystery here, old chap. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"Not now, Dick," answered Jack. "Some other time, perhaps, but not now. I have no father as I told you once before."
"But you know this man that claimed----"
"Yes, but I would rather not say any more about it."
"All right, Jack, I won't urge you," and the two went together into the main building and took their seats in the great schoolroom.
The boys had been at their tasks for some little time when the doctor sent in for Jack to come and see him in his study.
Jack left the room and was gone some little time, returning at length with the doctor who said:
"There is no blame attaching to this young gentleman for what has lately happened in the neighboring town and his rank is as high now as it ever was. I wish you to treat him with the same respect that you have always shown him and which he richly deserves."
"H'm! that does not tell us very much," muttered Harry to Arthur who sat next to him. "We always did like Jack but the mystery is no more clear than it was before."
"I trust that there will be no repetition of the scene of this morning," the doctor went on. "There may have been provocation on both sides but we will not allude further to this and the rest of you will forget it or at any rate not speak of it."
"That is not so easy," murmured Arthur to Harry. "It clears Jack in a way, at any rate, and that is enough for me."
Jack went to his place and the doctor took his seat at his desk and matters went on as usual.
Herring gave Jack the blackest of black looks when next they met but Jack paid no more attention to this than if he had not seen it and Herring muttered something under his breath which Jack did not hear.
"It seems rather strange," said Percival to some of the boys at recess, "that Wise did not more thoroughly disapprove of the squabble of this morning, but the reason I suppose is that he respected the mystery surrounding Jack and did not care to clear it up by making too great an investigation. Jack says his father is dead and I shall believe him and that liar Herring had better keep his lips closed tight on the subject."
"You are breaking the doctor's injunction that we were to say nothing about it, Dick," laughed Billy Manners, "but I suppose you couldn't just help it. I know I couldn't."
"Well, that is all I am going to say about it," replied Percival and the matter was not mentioned although, none of the boys could help thinking of it at odd times.
Herring still treated Jack with disdain but was careful to avoid an open rupture, the recollection of the stunning blow which the apparently slight young fellow had given him acting as a deterrent to his wrath so that he avoided the boy as much as possible while he still retained his rancor.
Percival said nothing to Jack about his past life, preferring to let the boy take his own time about clearing up the mystery which was no clearer than before.
"I'll get even with Sheldon before I leave the Academy," declared Herring to Ernest Merritt and another of his satellites a day or so after the exciting scene in front of the school. "He can't walk over me if he has got Dick Percival for his friend."
"You can't lick him," laughed Merritt, who did not have the same fear of his associate that he formerly had. "He has a fist like a rock for all that he looks so slight. You were three or four minutes coming round the other day."
"Suppose he has?" snarled Herring. "I can train, can't I? If I send him a challenge to fight, he can't refuse to take it up and keep his self-respect, can he?"
"Yah! what do you know about self-respect or honor?" laughed Merritt. "You haven't got either and----"
He was obliged to retreat and leave the sentence unfinished to avoid the swinging blow that Herring aimed at him, the third boy narrowly missing catching it in his stead.
"Here! Look out what you are about!" he roared. "Look where you're hitting, can't you?"
"Pete Herring means to do Jack an injury, Art," said Harry who had seen the three talking together, "and we shall have to watch him."
"I guess Jack can watch himself," chuckled Arthur. "He is not afraid of Pete Herring and he is not a boy to be caught napping."
"But some one threw him down the ravine."
"Yes, but it won't happen again and so we won't have to keep a watch upon this fellow. I'd like to know if it were really Pete who did it. Dick met him and Merritt right after the thing happened and puts it down to one of them."
"I think it was Pete myself," said Harry, "and that's why I think he needs looking after."
The new number of the Academy magazine was expected to come out in a day or so and promised to be a very interesting one, Percival and the assisting members of the editorial staff having gone over the proofs and found them satisfactory.
There was still some little matter to go in and Jack promised to furnish this, taking or sending it to Mr. Brooke who did the printing.
On Friday afternoon, having written the last of his copy, Jack took Percival's runabout which he now had permission to do at any time, and set off for Riverton and the office of the _News_.
He saw Dick as he was leaving and said:
"I am going down with the last of the matter for the magazine. Will you come along?"
"No, I guess not. I am getting up for examination next week. I am a bit behind in my work. You won't hurt the machine."
"Very good. Brooke will want to print the paper and have it sent up to-morrow and so I am giving him the last of the stuff for it. It will not take long to set it up and then he can print it to-morrow."
"All right, I can trust you with it. Guess I don't have to revise what you write."
The run to Riverton was made in a short time and Jack left the car outside and went into the office, being somewhat surprised to hear the sound of presses going as he entered.
They were not usually started till the next day but Jack surmised that the editor might be running off some special job to save time and went straight to the inner office where he saw Mr. Brooke pecking away at the typewriter.
"Pretty busy now, Mr. Sheldon," said the little man, looking up for an instant. "You'll have to excuse me."
"But I have brought the last of the copy for the _Gazette_. Shall I give it to the foreman?"
"The last of it? Why, you sent it this morning and told us to go ahead with the magazine."
"I sent you copy this morning?" exclaimed Jack in some surprise.
"Yes, this morning or early this afternoon. We set it up and they are now running off----"
"But I sent you nothing, Mr. Brooke. You say they are running off the paper now?"
"Yes, of course. You said you wanted it the first thing in the morning."
With a vague sense of apprehension that something was wrong and yet unable to say why, Jack went out into the printing office and picked up a newly printed sheet from a pile that lay in front of the press then being worked.
The sheet was not folded and several pages of the matter were visible at once.
Quickly glancing his eye over the sheet he suddenly came upon an article on the first page which had no business there.
It was not more than four or five lines in length and was a bitter and most scurrilous attack on Dr. Wise, signed "Jack Sheldon."
"Stop the press," cried Jack to the boy who was feeding the sheets. "Stop the press! This thing must not go in!"
"Hey?" shouted the boy.
"Stop the press!" cried Jack and in a moment he had thrown off the belt and the machine came to a standstill.
"What's the matter?" asked Mr. Brooke, missing the noise of the press and coming out to learn the reason.
"This!" said Jack, pointing out the offensive article. "Did you allow this to be set up, Mr. Brooke?"
"I? No, indeed. I did not know it was here. If you don't want it, why did you send it in?"
"I did not. I am not in the habit of signing my nickname to things I write. There was something else on this page and this rubbish has been inserted in its place. You can see that there is a break somewhere. How did you get this? Unlock the forms. It must be taken out at once. Where are the proofs? It will be easy enough to get the right matter to put back or it may be on one of the galleys."
While the press boy was looking for the missing type and the foreman was unlocking the forms, Jack questioned Mr. Brooke regarding the orders to hasten the printing of the magazine and the identity of the person who had brought them.
"The foreman took the order," said the editor, "and told me about it. I supposed it was all right. I don't know who set up the article you naturally object to. If I did I would discharge him."
"What do you know about this?" Jack asked the foreman who was busy at the forms. "Did you see the copy or the proofs?"
"No, I did not," the man replied. "I had your order to go ahead with the printing but knew nothing of any extra matter to be set up. I never saw this article before. It has been set up and inserted without my knowledge."
"Here is some matter on a galley," said the boy. "Is that what you are looking for?"
"Yes," said Jack, looking over the type, for Mr. Brooke could not afford a typesetting machine and set his paper by hand. "Put it where it belongs and when the magazines are printed send the bundle direct to me. If anything is in them that I do not approve we will not pay for the printing and in the future will have our work done elsewhere."
"You do not hold me responsible for this?" asked Brooke.
"No, but I mean to find out who is."
TRYING TO FIX THE BLAME
Saving out two or three of the sheets containing the spurious article, folding them neatly and putting them carefully in the inside pocket of his coat, Jack ordered the rest to be burned in the office stove and personally witnessed their destruction.
Then the missing lines were put in the form, the latter locked up and the printing proceeded, the inserted lines being speedily put into "pi."
"Send the bundle addressed to me at the Academy to-morrow morning," Jack said, "and remember that if there is any change whatever, the editors will not be responsible for the payment."
"But you don't hold me responsible for this rascality?" sputtered Brooke in the same nervous manner he used when pecking at his typewriter. "You can't expect that----"
"I have said all that I have to say at present," replied Jack.
"Yes, but I want to understand the situation."
"I have said nothing about what has already happened. I allude to any future happenings. Send me the bundle in the morning."
"Couldn't you call for it? That is generally done. It won't take you any time at all to run down in the car and to-morrow is Saturday and a holiday. With me it is a busy day."
The editor seemed to be in such real distress that Jack answered:
"I will flash you an answer to-night at ten o'clock by the Morse international."
The boy and the editor were now in the latter's sanctum and not in the main office so that there were no hearers to the conversation.
"International, not American?" asked the editor.
"Yes. Every one does not know the International but every local telegrapher knows the American."
"Yes, but I don't see why----"
"If some unscrupulous person should send you a message purporting to come from me you would know that it did not if my instructions were not carried out, wouldn't you?"
"Certainly, but have you any apprehension that----"
"It is possible. I will let you know to-night. I do not want to telephone and will flash you instead."
Jack then left the building, entered the car and in a quarter of an hour was at the Academy.
He saw Harry and Arthur on the grounds and called to them to go with him as soon as he put up the car.
The three went to Percival's room where they found the young fellow busy over a Greek translation.
"Read this, you fellows," said Jack, distributing the printed sheets he had brought up from the office of the _News_.
"But, I say, Jack!" exclaimed Percival. "You don't mean----"
"Why, this is positively awful!" gasped Harry.
"There will be no more _Gazettes_ after this," wailed Arthur.
"You don't imagine, any of you, that I wrote that?" asked Jack in his coolest tone. "Here, let me have one of the sheets."
"But how did it get in then?"
"This is not the revised sheet. In the first place I do not sign my articles 'Jack Sheldon,' do I?"
"I never knew that you did."
"And in the next a very careless compositor set this up. It is badly spaced, has many errors and is ungrammatical."
"Yes, I can see that but I don't know anything about the spacing."
"It looks as if a green hand had set it up and that gives me an idea."
"Yes, but Jack, how did it get in at all?" asked Percival, still in the dark regarding the article.
"It won't be in the paper to-morrow," and then Jack told of his accidental discovery of the obnoxious article and what he had done about it.
Percival thought a few minutes and said:
"Some one who doesn't like you has done this, Jack, or had it done. You don't suspect Brooke?"
"No, for it would mean the loss of all our patronage to him. He is not such a fool."
"No, of course not. Who is it then?"
"That I don't know. There was collusion with some one in the _News_ office, of course, and it will be difficult to find just where it comes in. This thing was done to throw discredit on me and to stop the life of the _Gazette_."
"That's just what it would mean if the thing had gone through."
"It was done by some one who knows the Academy and the fellows," declared Harry. "It was aimed at Jack, principally. We know who does not like him here and it should not be a hard matter to find who is responsible."
"It may be one for all that," replied Jack. "This is a serious business and the perpetrators will cover their tracks. One thing is certain. You must watch every boy that reads the _Gazette_ to-morrow. Shall I have the bundle sent up here or go after it?"
"We have generally gone after them and done the distributing ourselves in the past," said Percival. "If we do that now the fellow who engineered this business will be the first to get a copy of the paper and to make it public. Did any one see you leave this afternoon or did any one know why you went to Riverton?"
"No, there was no one around when I left except yourself and only Hal and Art saw me return."
"Then no one suspects that you have discovered this article and suppressed it. I will take a run down in the morning and get the papers. You were to let Brooke know?"
"Good! Tell him that I will call for the papers and to deliver them to no one else."
"Why don't you phone him?" asked Arthur. "That will save a lot of trouble."
"And perhaps cause more," laughed Jack. "I don't like telephoning myself. There are too many listeners."
"I have a wire," said Dick. "You may use it if you like. I do often and I don't know that I am bothered much."
"Just now the old ladies on the party wire are not doing their afternoon gossip," chuckled Arthur. "They are busy getting supper instead. I don't believe we would have any trouble. Go ahead, Jack."
Thus urged Jack stepped to the telephone, took down the receiver and called:
"Let me have one two three Riverton, please. Office of the _News_, yes. They are not busy?"
"Here's your party," said the operator on the other end of the wire.
At the same moment Jack heard some one say, not at the 'phone but evidently in the room where the instrument was kept:
"Well, I done it but I wanted the money."
Jack recognized the voice as that of the boy in the _News_ office.
"How much did you get?"
This time the speaker was the editor, Mr. Brooke.
"Who paid you? Here, wait, till I answer that confounded call. Hello! who is this?"
"John Sheldon, of Hilltop. Is this Mr. Brooke? Dick Percival will call for the bundle in the morning."
"Very good. Now then, you rascal----" the voice being less plainly heard, "who was it paid you for doing it?"
"Keep still, boys," said Jack, turning his head. "I am on the track."
"SUSPICION IS NOT PROOF"
Jack listened attentively to catch the reply of the boy for upon it much depended.
Some one had paid the boy to set up and insert the obnoxious article and Jack knew that his theory that a poor compositor had done the work was correct.
Now the thing to be learned was who had paid him for what he had done and Jack believed that he was about to be enlightened.
Then he heard the click of the receiver being put back upon the hook and the connection was cut off.
"That's too bad!" he muttered as he hung up. "I thought I was going to find out something. Maybe I can yet."
"Did you get him?" asked Percival.
"Yes," and Jack told what he had heard over the wire.
"It's too bad that Brooke hung up so soon," said Dick, "but can't you get him again?"
"I suppose I might."
"And ask him pointblank who it was that hired the office boy to do this dirty work."
"I will, for he must know that I could hear all that was said in the room. That is a common occurrence."
Jack took down the receiver again and called up the office of the _News_, presently getting an answer after some delay:
"Line is busy."
"Call me up when it is not, please," said Jack, giving the number of Dick's 'phone.
Then he hung up again and said to the eager boys:
"The line is busy, of course. It always is when you want it particularly. However, they will call me up when it is free."
"Somebody paid the boy to get this thing into the _Gazette_," observed Percival, "and that somebody was an enemy of ours. Who was it?"
"Some one who wants to do Jack an injury," said Harry. "There are Pete Herring, Ernest Merritt and a few others like them but Herring and his side partner are the most likely ones."
"It is really narrowed down to those two when you come to it," suggested Arthur, "for they hate him the worst and are more active than the others."
"I think we'd better take that for granted," added Harry, "and work along those lines. I think it was one of them, just as I think it was one of them who pushed Jack off the bank."
"They may have hired a third party to do the work," remarked Percival. "They would know that they would be suspected on account of their opposition to Jack and so wish to hide their tracks."
"That's all right on the supposition that they are clever fellows," laughed Harry, "but your rascals are always weak somewhere and trip themselves up. They say it takes a smart man to be a rogue and neither Herring nor Merritt has any medals for brilliancy of intellect."
"No, and yet they have a certain shrewdness. Detection in a case of this sort would mean expulsion from the Academy and I do not believe either of them would care to face that."
"No, but all the same I think it was one of them and I believe we will eventually discover this."
"Aren't they a long time in calling you up, Jack?" asked Percival with some impatience. "Try them again."
Jack took up the receiver again, therefore, and called the _News_ office.
After some delay the girl at the central office said:
"They don't answer. I guess they must have gone home."
"Central cannot get the _News_," said Jack, hanging up. "She thinks everybody must have gone home. It is rather late for a fact," glancing at his watch. "I had not thought of that."
"Has Brooke a telephone in his house?" asked Percival.
"I don't know, I'll look," and Jack took down the address book hanging at the side of the instrument.
"I don't remember that he has," murmured Percival.
"No, he has not, only one at his office," reported Jack, after looking in the directory. "We cannot catch him now."
"That's too bad," grumbled Harry. "I would have liked to know positively about the business before supper."
"I can call him up after supper," suggested Dick. "He often goes back to the office of an evening. If he knows anything he will tell me, of course."
"If he does?" cried Harry. "Won't he?"
"If the boy tells him, but the boy may not."
"He couldn't refuse. He'd lose his job if he did."
"But the boy may not know the person who hired him. All the Hilltop boys are not known in Riverton and it is not positive that one of the boys of the Academy hired him. It may have been a third party."
The three boys now left the room, leaving Percival alone and not seeing him until supper time.
Later, Jack went to his friend's room to learn if anything had been heard from the editor.
"I have not been able to get him yet," reported Dick, "but I will try again later."
Up to the time of the boy's retiring for the night, however, nothing had been heard from Brooke and the boys were as much in the dark as ever.
In the morning Dick went in the runabout and got the bundle of papers from Brooke.
"Well, did you find out who hired the boy to put in that outrageous article?" the young fellow asked.
"No, I did not," said Brooke. "He said he did not know the young man and could not tell him again if he saw him."
"Where is he now, the boy I mean?"
"I don't know. He did not come to work this morning and his mother says he has gone up the river to take a job somewhere else."
"Did the foreman see the man who gave the order supposedly from Mr. Sheldon?"
"He says he had the order by telephone and never saw the copy which he was told would be sent in. Please look over the papers now to see if they are all right."
Dick read over one of the magazines, compared it hastily with a dozen others and found that no extraneous matter had been introduced.
"Yes, they are all right," he said, "and we will pay you for them but I would very much like to find out who was juggling with them. It is a queer thing all around. Wouldn't the foreman know Jack's voice?"
"He says he never thought to question it when some one said over the wire that he was Sheldon. He never had to do with your friend anyhow. I did most of the talking."
"But didn't you think it odd to send such a message over the 'phone?"
"I was pretty busy at the time working at the paper and we had some job work besides so that I left things to the foreman. He is rather hard of hearing and cannot distinguish voices very well. You have to yell at him to make him understand but the more noise there is in the office the better he can hear."
"Well, I don't suppose we will see the boy again and I wouldn't know him if I did see him. Jack might, for he remembers faces. What's the boy's name, anyhow?"
"Joe Jackson. He is red headed and squints. He always did get on my nerves and I am not sorry that he has gone but I shall have to find another."
"Well, the papers are all right and we will give you the job again but I hope we will not have any more such trouble. You can trust to Jack to see if there is anything wrong, however."
Dick took the papers, put them in the car and started for the Academy, reaching which in something less than half an hour, he found a big crowd of the Hilltop boys waiting for him.
They all clamored for the papers and Dick rapidly distributed them, giving Jack a significant look to indicate that everything was all right and that the conspirators, whoever they might be, would be greatly disappointed when they examined the _Gazette_.
Harry, Arthur, Billy Manners and Jack himself kept their eyes upon the suspected boys to see how the perusal of the magazine affected them.
"Oh, I say, fellows, here's something rich!" Arthur heard Merritt say as he opened the paper. "Let me read--why, that's nothing."
"He is one of the disappointed ones," thought Arthur, "but he may have only had knowledge of the thing rather than participated in it."
Harry kept his eyes upon Herring when the latter began to look at the paper and noticed that he seemed disappointed for he turned page after page evidently without finding what he wanted.
"There's nothing in that!" he sputtered in disgust. "It is not worth the paper it is printed on and wouldn't be if it were printed on the worst kind of brown wrapping paper. I won't subscribe for it again."
"What is the matter with it?" asked Harry.
"There's nothing in it, that's what."
"You mean that you expected to find something that is not----" and then Harry caught a warning look from Jack and stopped short.
Herring flushed crimson, however, and looked guilty, throwing the paper on the ground with an angry exclamation and walking hurriedly off the campus.
"That's one of the fellows if not the principal one," said Harry to Jack with a triumphant tone. "I have always suspected him."
"Suspicion is not proof, Harry," answered Jack, "and we must have more evidence before we can convict him."
"Just wait till we do, then. I wouldn't be in his slippers at the time, not for a hundred dollars!"
FUN AND EXCITEMENT
The new number of the _Gazette_ was liked by all the boys with a few exceptions, which were to be expected and nowhere was anything but praise heard in regard to Jack Sheldon's first appearance as an editor for the disaffected ones were wise enough to remain quiet after the first outbreak of disapproval.
"Herring will keep still," said Dick to a few of his chief cronies who were in the secret. "He does not understand just how the thing happened, but he knows that he is suspected and will keep under cover for a time. Don't say anything to arouse his suspicions."
"I came pretty near letting the cat out of the bag," laughed Harry, "but I will be careful after this."
"Yes, you must be. You are too apt to sputter out what you think without any regard to the consequences."
The _Gazette_ was circulated among the boys of the Academy and also sent to their parents and to many other schools which exchanged with them, so that it had a considerable circulation.
In a short time there were complimentary notices of the latest number of the _Gazette_ in several of the school periodicals, all of them noticing its improvement and speaking highly of the new editor.
"Somebody thought that the _Gazette_ would be a dead one," laughed Billy Manners one afternoon when reading over one of the other papers with a number of his chums, "but it will be livelier than ever now. Jack is just the boy to run it and make it one of the best there is."
Billy Manners was one of the chief funmakers of the Academy, although he was a good student as well and stood high in his classes.
He was fond of a joke even if it happened to be at his own expense but more often it was at that of some one else.
Billy and the others were so much interested in reading the complimentary notice of the _Gazette_ that they failed to observe the coming of Colonel Bull, the military instructor of the Academy.
Now the Colonel was a bit of a stickler for ceremony and the boys were always obliged to salute him when they met him.
Failing to notice his approach, however, he was upon them before they saw him and the only warning of his coming was the hearing of a sharp command:
"Attention! Where are your manners, you cubs? Salute me this instant and keep your eyes about you another time."
The boys were at attention in a moment and gave the salute in the customary stiff and wooden fashion to which they were used.
"What are you reading?" demanded the Colonel. "Some sentimental rubbish, I suppose. Let me see it."
Billy handed over the magazine and the Colonel looked at it, being obliged to put on his glasses in order to read it, however.
"H'm! foolish but not as bad as I thought. Now you may go but at another time keep your eyes about you. Break ranks!"
The boys assumed a natural attitude and Billy stooped to pick up the paper which the Colonel had thrown contemptuously upon the ground.
Billy was not a ventriloquist but he did have a way of altering his voice and now, feeling a bit sore at the pompous Colonel and desiring to be revenged suddenly shouted in an ear-piercing tone:
"Look out! Mad dog!"
At once the Colonel, who was fat and more than forty, let out a sudden ejaculation and bolted for the nearest tree.
His hat flew off, his glasses dangled at the end of their cord and thrashed around like mad and the colonel's short, fat legs ate up space in a most remarkable manner.
There was a tree in the way which the colonel had not noticed and he ran into it with considerable force, knocking off his wig which the boys, up to that time, had never seen except upon his head.
He got up in great haste, grabbed his wig from the ground, clapped it on his head hind side before and at once started to climb the tree.
The sight of the short, fat, bald drillmaster, with his wig awry, endeavoring to climb a little tree was too much for the dignity of the boys and they burst into a roar of laughter.
They had no thought of consequences, no fear of future punishment, but just laughed as hard as they could.
Then there was a sudden cry of alarm around a turn in the road.
"Hallo! what's that?" cried Arthur.
"Great Scott! there is a mad dog after all!" gasped Harry.
A number of the smaller boys of the Academy suddenly appeared in full flight pursued by a panting, yelping, foam-covered dog whose every look showed that he was mad.
"H'm! the alarm was not given for nothing after all," muttered Billy, looking for a place of safety.
Harry and Arthur turned toward the Academy and ran as fast as they could, thinking nothing of fun now.
"Here, here, I must do something for those kids!" cried Billy, pausing in his flight.
There was some one else ready to do something for them, however.
The dog had almost reached the hindmost and smallest of the boys when Jack Sheldon suddenly came out of one of the cottages.
He saw the danger of the boys in an instant and plunged forward as if making a tackle in a game of football.
The dog was right in front of him at this moment and six feet away.
Suddenly the weight of a boy of a hundred and twenty-five pounds was dropped upon the dog's back with a force that laid him flat and gave him a start for which he was not looking.
In an instant he was flat on his belly on the ground with all the breath and the greater part of his desire to injure some one knocked out of him.
He was able to give one yelp and then Jack suddenly sprang off his back, gave him a contemptuous shove with his foot and said:
"Get out of here and go about your business!"
With his tail between his legs and a yelp of fright the dog suddenly turned and went down the road as fast as he had come up.
"Well! that was some way of dealing with a mad dog!" said Billy, with a laugh. "You knocked all the fight out of him in a jiffy."
"Has he gone for sure?" asked one of the small boys of Jack.
"Yes, and you need not be afraid. Whose dog was it and what brought him up here?"
"H'm, has he gone?" asked the Colonel who had reached the crotch of the tree, fortunately not far from the ground and now turned a very red and sweaty face upon the group below.
"Yes, sir," said Jack, saluting and at the same time having the greatest difficulty to refrain from smiling or even laughing outright at the comical appearance of the doughty warrior.
"Go and enquire more about the matter, Sheldon," said the Colonel and Jack went away, smiling broadly now but fortunately holding in his laugh.
"He wants a chance to get down from the tree, adjust his wig and get back his dignity," whispered Billy, who went off with Jack.
"Yes, but how did he get there?"
"It was one of my jokes and I'll get a wigging if he finds it out," chuckled Billy. "There wasn't any mad dog at first but I made him think there was. You should have seen him climb that tree, Jack. It would've delighted your heart. He won't be scoring us again in a hurry but if there had not been a mad dog I guess I would have caught it."
"Be careful how you play jokes on the Colonel, Billy," said Jack, when he heard the whole story and laughed over it. "There are some persons at whom it is not safe to poke fun and Colonel Bull is one."
"He forgot to put the last letter to his name, that's all," laughed Billy, "for he is a bully all right, but your advice is good and I will take it--or at least I will try."
"That is well put," said Jack, dryly, "for I don't believe you could help making jokes if you did try."
AN ANONYMOUS ACCUSATION
When next Jack saw the Colonel the latter had regained his wig, his natural complexion and his dignity, the last being so great that it was a perfect danger signal warning away all levity or even the slightest sign of it on the part of the boys.
"You showed very commendable bravery, Sheldon," said the Colonel, "and I congratulate you for your spirit. Rescuing those in danger is more commendable than conducting an imitation newspaper."
"Thank you, sir," said Jack, saluting and going back to his friends.
"What has Bull got against the _Gazette_?" he asked Arthur and Harry.
"Oh, it poked a little quiet fun at him once and he has never recovered from it," laughed Harry. "The Colonel is a bit of a martinet and imagines that the army lost one of its brightest officers when he was retired."
"But he was a Colonel?"
"Only by courtesy. He would have stayed on till he was a hundred years old if he could, the pay being a consideration, but was retired some twenty years ago and now earns his living by instructing us boys and by occasional articles to the educational magazines."
"It was all I could do to keep from laughing and I can imagine what Billy would get if the Colonel knew how he had been humbugged. He can be a very disagreeable person when he is aroused, I imagine."
The boy had not the slightest apprehension of having any trouble with the drillmaster, always treating him with the respect due his position and giving no cause for any complaint on the other's part.
The term was progressing smoothly, the majority of the Hilltop boys attending sedulously to their duties and trying to make a good record, the exceptions being very few, even some of the disagreeable set like Herring and his cronies working with considerable vigor.
Jack was already high in his classes and it looked as if he might be still higher before the end of the term for he was working with a purpose and meant to finish as near the top as possible.
"If you don't see Jack Sheldon at the head of his class by the end of the term I shall miss my guess," said Harry to Percival and one or two others one afternoon as some of the boys were taking a stroll through the woods near the bottom of the hill.
"I would not mind seeing him there even if he passes me," said Dick. "Jack is a good fellow and if he can win a scholarship it will mean much to him. He deserves it at any rate."
"But he is not in your classes," said Harry.
"No, but he might make a better average and next year he might be up with me and then I should have to look out. I was not thinking of just now alone."
The boys passed on, not knowing that Herring and Merritt were hiding behind some bushes within easy hearing.
"That gives me an idea," muttered Herring when the others had gone. "I can smash Sheldon's chances and I am going to do it."
"How will you manage it?" asked Merritt.
"You leave it to me," with a chuckle. "I may want you to help me a bit but I'll put a spoke in his wheel all right and the doctor won't admire him as much as he does when I get through with him."
"Look out that the thing does not fall through like that matter of cooking the _Gazette_ to suit yourself," sneered the other.
"You were as much in that as I was," snarled Herring, "and if you split on me you will hurt yourself."
"I ain't going to split," whined Merritt, "but I know when a fellow makes a mess of a thing. You came near giving yourself away on that."
"Me? It was you that did it. Some of the fellows suspect you but they can't prove anything."
"Well, never mind that. How are you going to fix Sheldon this time?"
"I'll let you know. I've an idea but I want to get it in shape so that there won't be any slip. He won't come out on top nor anywhere near it when this thing gets to going."
"All right, I'll help you for I don't like Sheldon any better than you and I'd like to spoil his chances."
One morning a day or so after this Dr. Wise received an anonymous letter written and addressed in typewriting and posted at Riverton, which caused him some little uneasiness.
During the morning session when all of the boys were in the great schoolroom, he called for attention and said, evidently with the greatest reluctance:
"It is not my custom to notice unsigned communications but I have one here which I feel must be investigated in common justice to the person accused. I will read it."
The boys looked at each other, wondering what was coming and the doctor read the half sheet of note paper which he held in his hand.
"J. S. has a pony in his desk. You had better search it. This may account for his standing in class."
The boys all understand that by a "pony" was meant a translation of some work in one of the dead languages which they were studying at the time.
"This is a serious accusation," the doctor went on. "What boy has the initials J. S.?"
"I have, sir," spoke up Jack, promptly. "My name is John Sheldon."
"So have I!" cried the other boy. "I am Jasper Sawyer. Maybe it's me he means."
"That's nothing, my name is James Sharpe," said another.
"And I answer to the name of Jesse W. Smith!" piped up one of the smallest boys in the Academy.
There was a titter among the boys and Harry whispered to Arthur:
"Somebody has made a miscalculation here. I wonder who it is?"
"Smith is out of the question," remarked the doctor. "You are not studying Greek or Latin, are you, Smith?"
"No, sir," and the boys laughed again for Jesse W. Smith was not even in the Latin grammar as yet.
"Have any of the rest of you bearing the initials J. S. a translation in your desks?" the doctor asked. "I will take your word for it."
"No, sir," answered Sawyer and Sharpe.
"I have none, sir," said Jack, "but if you wish to search my desk you are at perfect liberty to do so. In fact, I will search it myself."
"That is not necessary, Sheldon," replied the doctor quickly, but Jack was already hunting through his desk, taking out everything at hand in a rapid fashion.
"Of course it is not!" sputtered Harry. "No one accuses him of----"
"Here is a translation, sir," said Jack, suddenly, when he came to the bottom of his desk, "but I need not tell you that it does not belong to me. It is a Cæsar."
"Sheldon has been out of Cæsar all this term," exclaimed Percival. "It is absurd to think that the pony----"
"Might it have belonged to you at some time, Sheldon?" asked the doctor, not noticing Dick's interruption. "I do not say that it did, you understand."
"No, sir, it might not. I never used a translation in my life and never will!"
Jack was hurriedly examining the book as he spoke and now noticed that the fly leaf was torn out, evidently in haste, the edges being ragged and a bit of writing on one of them.
"This bo----" was on one line and "erty of" on the next.
"I give you my word of honor, Doctor, that this is not my property," said Jack, "but I would like to keep it for the present," and he put the little book in his pocket.
"Very well, Sheldon," said Dr. Wise. "You are clearly exonerated from this charge."
"But Jack has something up his sleeve as well as in his pocket, believe me," whispered Billy Manners to Arthur.
THE MATTER SETTLED
Lessons were resumed and no more was said concerning the charge against Jack or any of the boys having the same initials, Sawyer and Sharpe being ready to turn out their desks for the doctor's satisfaction but not being required to do so.
Jack's friends did not believe in his guilt, even without his saying that the book was not his and they all regarded the affair as a very clumsy one.
"Whoever it was ought to know that Jack was not in Cæsar," said Harry. "If he had put in a translation of something Jack was doing at this time there would have been more reason."
"And nobody sends an anonymous letter who has any spunk," muttered Billy Manners. "The doctor would have done right to have paid no attention to it but he is a good old fellow and wants to do right by all."
"I'd like to know what Jack is going to do about it," thought Dick. "He won't let it rest. I have an idea who did this for it was just his clumsy way of working that betrays him but I won't say anything."
When the forenoon recess arrived, the boys generally went out upon the campus but Jack went straight to the cellar where the negro coachman and general caretaker was at work cleaning up.
"What do you do with the papers and stuff you sweep up of a morning, Bucephalus?" asked Jack.
"Ah gather them in a receptickle fo' de puppose, sah, and den Ah communicate dem to de fiah, sah," answered the man.
"Have you done so as yet?"
"Ah have not yet consigned the rubbish to the fiah, sah. Dere it is in dem baskets yondah. You done lose something, sah?"
"No, I want to find something," replied Jack.
He went over to the waste paper baskets standing on the floor in one corner and began to turn out their contents.
"The fellow may have torn out the fly leaf before," he thought, "but it looks like a fresh tear. If so, and he did not keep the leaf or throw it away somewhere it will probably be here."
Turning out the bits of torn paper, old exercises and other things, Jack looked carefully at every scrap in search of the missing fly leaf.
"It's only a fool who would put his name in a translation, to betray him at any time," he mused, "but there are just such fools in the world."
There were many bits of paper which were obviously not the one he wanted and he passed them over rapidly and threw them aside.
He came upon more than one crumpled bit and picked them up but upon smoothing them out found that they were not the thing he wanted.
At length he saw a tight ball of crumpled paper which he was about to pass over as being nothing and then took up and unrolled carefully.
Smoothing it out he saw that it was a piece of book paper and was written on.
When it was nicely smoothed out and laid upon the inside of the book found in his desk and now produced from his pocket, he read the following inscription written in a scrawly hand:
"This book is the property of Peter Herring, Hilltop. Don't steal."
The torn edges fitted perfectly and the letters remaining on the inner edge of the leaf were followed regularly by those on the other side.
"That accuses Peter Herring all right," said Jack. "This is his book and if he did not put it in my desk who would? At any rate, it will be safe enough to make the accusation."
Putting the book back in his pocket, the torn leaf being now in its place, Jack went up stairs and out upon the grounds.
There were some of his chums at a little distance and Herring and Merritt were just going around the corner of the building toward the barn, being evidently engaged in earnest conversation.
Jack waited a minute and then followed them into the barn.
"Maybe it didn't work all right," Herring was saying, "but folks'll suspect him just the same."
"It wouldn't have went all right if I hadn't seen your name in it," snapped Merritt, "and made you tear it out before you slipped it in his desk last night."
"That's all right, he didn't see it and I did tear it out."
"Burn it up?"
"I guess so. Anyhow, no one won't find it and if they do so long as it ain't in the book--what the mischief!"
Herring suddenly found a book placed in front of his nose and, turning his head quickly, saw Jack Sheldon standing behind him.
"They will know that it belongs to this particular book now, won't they, when the edges match so perfectly, Herring?" asked Jack. "You were very clumsy in putting a Cæsar in my desk when I am not studying it and more so in having your name in it."
Herring turned crimson and tried to snatch the book out of Jack's hand.
"You can have it now, for I no longer have any use for it," said the boy, slapping Herring's face with the book, "and now I am going to give you the thrashing you have so long deserved."
"You are, eh?" snarled Herring, backing away.
"Yes. It is the only thing you understand."
"You see fair play, Ern," blustered the bully.
Jack only smiled and then without further notice attacked his enemy and administered what he had promised, a sound thrashing.
In a very few minutes he forced Herring to cry for a respite and to acknowledge that he was beaten.
"I could make you apologize before the doctor and the whole school," said Jack, as he heard the bell ring to call the boys back to their duties, "but there is no shaming a fellow who is without shame and the way I have taken is much more efficacious and you will remember it."
Then Jack left the barn and went back to the building, meeting Percival and Billy Manners at the door.
"Where have you been, Jack?" asked Dick.
"Wrestling with a passage from Cæsar," said Jack, with a laugh.
"Did you get the best of it?"
"I think I did."
"Yes, but you are not studying Cæsar. What do you mean?"
"I'll tell you later if you don't guess," and Jack passed on and into the room and took his accustomed seat.
Merritt came in rather late and some of the boys noticed that he looked excited over something.
It was nearly ten minutes before Herring took his seat and then it was seen that his face was wet and evidently lately washed and that there was a discoloration around his nose and another under one of his eyes.
"Hello! I guess he has been wrestling with something, too," thought Percival. "I wonder if it had anything to do with Cæsar?"
"You are very late, Herring," said the doctor. "What is the reason?"
"Fell down and bruised my face," muttered Herring. "Had to wash up before I came in. My nose bled."
"See that it does not occur again," said Dr. Wise, using the customary phrase which had become a habit with him.
"It will if he fools with Jack Sheldon," chuckled Percival. "I'll bet anything that he was the one who put the Cæsar in Jack's desk and got paid up for it."
Neither Percival nor any of the other boys had a chance to speak to Jack about the matter until dinner when a knot of them interviewed him at the door of the dining hall.
"Were you the cause of Herring's being late to class after recess, Jack?" asked Percival.
"Did you find out anything?" put in Harry. "I had a bet that it was Pete who tried to undermine you in his generally clumsy fashion."
"The affair is settled, boys," said Jack, quietly. "We need not think any more about it."
And that was all he would say, for all their coaxing.
AN EXPLORING TRIP THROUGH THE WOODS
After school was over that day Percival came to Jack and said:
"We are going off into the woods, some of us, to explore things generally. Won't you come along, Jack?"
"Of course he will," put in Billy Manners, who came along at that moment with Harry and Arthur. "He will want to make some more discoveries to add to those he has already made. The place is new to us where we are going and, consequently, will be new to him."
"We are going into a part of the woods beyond here that is new to us, and you will enjoy it as well as the rest," said Percival.
"I shall be glad to go with you, Dick," said Jack. "Are you going to take your lunch, Billy? Shall we be away as long as that?"
The other boys now noticed that Billy carried a black box under his arm, but until Jack had spoken of it they had not observed it.
"That is not a lunch box," laughed Billy, "but you have eyes all the same. No one else noticed it."
"What is it, anyhow?" asked Kenneth Blaisdell, one of the new boys at the Academy. "Box for botanic specimens?"
"No, it is not and I am not going to satisfy your curiosity by telling you what it is just now," chuckled Billy. "Come on, Dick, we have a large enough party now."
There were Percival, Jack, Harry, Arthur, Billy Manners, Blaisdell and Jasper Sawyer, the boy whose initials were the same as Jack's, seven in all, and each of the party well liked by all the rest.
They set off without delay, and passing through the woods back of the Academy, and avoiding the ravine down which Jack had fallen, kept on down the hill on the side away from the station at the foot, and then up another and through a very rough, extremely wild section, where travel at times was most difficult.
"There is not much wonder that we have not been here before," laughed Billy Manners, as he sat on a rock and puffed for breath after they had gone some distance through the thicket, and stopped in an opening where the travel was better.
"Yes, we should have brought axes with us," said Percival. "I had no idea the country through here was so rough."
"Well, the doctor said it was and so did some of the fellows," said Arthur; "so we cannot say anything."
"Did they tell you about this gully?" asked Jack, who had gone ahead a few paces, and paused in front of a deep gully stretching right across their path, and presenting an obstacle which there seemed to be no way of getting over.
The gully was quite wide in front of them, and to the left extended into the woods as far as they could see, while on the right it presently ended at a great mass of ledge rock, which towered well above their heads, and was crowned with trees, some of them very big, while at different points, as far as the bottom, there were trees of various sizes growing from crevices in the rock.
"H'm! I guess they did not know about this," muttered Percival. "This gully can be bridged all right, and it will be a nice job for us; just the sort I like, but in the meantime, how are we going to get over and go on with our exploring?"
"You ought to know that," laughed Billy Manners. "You are an engineer, you know. A little thing like that ought not to bother you."
"Well, it does all the same," said Percival with some impatience, as Billy took the black box from under his arm. "What are you going to do now, you funny fellow?"
"Take a picture of that ledge," said Billy, looking around for a flat rock or a stump upon which to place his box.
"Wait a minute till we get back," said Blaisdell, who had joined Jack at the gully. "It looks to me as if there was a cave down there. There is some sort of an opening at the bottom of the ledge, seems to me."
"Yes, so there is. I never noticed it before. How are you going to get a picture, Billy? That is no camera you have. Where is your lens?"
"Haven't any! I can take a picture without a lens, only it will require more time to make the exposure."
"Take a photograph without a lens?" said Percival in a tone of doubt, mixed with scorn. "You must be crazy!"
Several of the boys thought the same as Dick, and laughed heartily at what they considered one of Billy's harum scarum schemes.
"Go ahead and laugh, boys," said the good-natured fellow, as he placed his small square box on top of a flat rock he had found, and pointed it toward the ledge at the foot of which Blaisdell had discovered his supposed cave entrance. "I know something that you fellows do not, and I am going to get a picture. The light is fine, for it just sifts nicely through the trees, and the sun is quite high enough yet."
"Yes, but Billy, if you have no lens nor shutter, how are you going to take a photograph?" asked Blaisdell. "That doesn't look like anything but a square box."
"That is all it is, but it is a camera just the same. Did you never hear tell of a pinhole camera, my boy?"
"No, I did not. What is it?"
"I have a plate in this box, and it is set at what they call a universal focus. That is, I can take a picture of something not too close, and one at a distance. The box is lined with black paper, and in front there is a very small hole, now covered by a flap of the same stuff. This hole will admit the light fast enough, and yet not too fast, and as my plate is sensitized, I can get a picture even if I have no lens. Did you ever see a 'camera obscura,' as they call them?"
"Oh, you mean one of those things that take a panoramic view of the beach and everything in sight? People get shown up sometimes when they don't know it."
"Yes, that's the thing. You don't get a real photograph there, but you see everything shown up on a table, as the thing at the top revolves. Well, I will get a picture with my pinhole camera even if I have no lens. Why, they used to sell these things, maybe they do yet."
"Why, yes, seems to me I have seen something about them in the advertisements."
"No doubt," and Billy, having seen that his out-of-the-way camera was perfectly level, carefully removed the black flap from the tiny hole in the front of the box and said:
"That's all right. You fellows cannot get in front of it, and so there will be no harm done. It will take some time to get a picture, but I will have it all the same. The light is fine and I can afford to wait."
"There's a cave down there all right, Dick," said Jack. "Don't you think so?"
"Yes, it looks like a cave," said Percival. "How would you like to go down and explore it?"
"All right, if we can manage it. Got a light? We can make torches I suppose. There is plenty of pine wood about. Anyhow, I have my pocket flash with me."
"You fellows can go down there if you like," laughed Arthur, "but none of it for me."
"Or for me either," said Harry.
"Come on, Dick," said Jack. "Here is a good place to get down, I think."
The two boys supplied themselves with stout sticks with which to aid them in getting down, and then began to make the descent, the other boys sitting or standing around.
Step by step, from rock to rock, and from one tree root to another the two chums made their way down into the gully and toward the hole in the face of the ledge, which they could at length see was of considerable depth, and high enough for them to pass through without stooping.
They finally reached the bottom, and then were not far from the hole into which they made their way, finding that it extended for some distance at an incline part of the way, and then on a level, as it seemed.
"There are lots of these holes in the Hudson valley," said Jack, "and sometimes they are interesting, while at other times they are nothing but holes, don't go very far, and have nothing in them after all."
"You don't expect stalactites or anything of that sort, do you, Jack?" asked Dick.
"No, for this is not a limestone region, like that in Kentucky or in Virginia, where there are some of the famous caves. However, it will be worth our while to go down here, I think, or I would not have undertaken it. We do not need to go very far. This place may be known, although the people in the woods hereabout don't take much stock in such things, as they say and think tourists and summer boarders who want to explore them just a lot of crazy fools."
"It's an easy thing to call a man a fool because he can understand or like things that you don't," laughed Dick.
The boys at length got so far into the hole in the rocks that they had to make use of Jack's pocket electric torch, and they proceeded, still on a down grade, and finding the way a bit rough in spots, but at last finding it better traveling and more level.
They had turned somewhat, and looking back, could not see the entrance where they had come in, nor the gully beyond, nor any light, Percival saying with a bit of a shudder:
"H'm! it is a bit creepy in here, isn't it, Jack?"
"Oh, I don't know," laughed Jack. "I think other people have been here before us, Dick. I can see black spots on the rock overhead, as if smoke from torches had made them. Then the rock under our feet is worn somewhat. Some one has been in here before, although not recently."
"H'm! you notice everything, as Ken Blaisdell said just now," laughed Percival. "Does anything escape your notice?"
"Well, Dick, I have had to keep my eyes about me pretty much all of my life in order to make my way, and I suppose it has got to be a habit, but am I any more observant than most boys? They say that little children notice everything, certainly a good deal more than their parents like, sometimes. Perhaps I have not gotten over my childish habits."
"Oh, I don't believe you were one of those young nuisances that call attention to everything, the grandmother's wig, the maiden aunt's false teeth and the like," chuckled Percival. "Yes, I think you are particularly observant and--hello! what's that?" as a dull sound broke upon their ears.
"It might be thunder," said Jack. "It sounds somewhere behind us. That's all right. This place begins to look interesting, Dick. Suppose we go on."
The floor of the cave was quite level here, and the place wider and higher than before, so that it was really much more a cave than a mere hole in the ground, and the boys pushed on, having plenty of light from Jack's torch, and being in no danger of stumbling or falling.
They pushed on for a few hundred feet, and then came upon a narrow passage where they at first thought the cave ended.
Jack flashed his light ahead of him, and saw that there was evidently a chamber beyond the passage, and in a few moments they came out in it, and, to the amazement of both, saw a rude table and a bench, and on the floor some old clothes, a black mask or two, some burglars' tools and a coarse sack.
"Hello! here's a discovery, Jack," cried Percival. "I shouldn't wonder if this was some more of the plunder taken by the man with the white mustache and his accomplices."
"It certainly looks like it," said Jack, examining the sack and finding nothing in it; "but it strikes me that I can see a light ahead of us. Suppose we go on."
"All right," agreed Dick, and Jack led the way forward.
MORE THAN ONE WAY OUT
Pushing on, Jack made his way, followed by Dick, through a narrow passage and out into an open space where they could see the sky and a lot of trees and bushes above them with a rough path leading to the ground above.
"Well, we have found the way out, as well as the way in," said Jack, "and we might as well go out this way as to return the way we came."
"But can we find the boys?"
"Certainly. You have a pocket compass?"
"No, I have not."
"Well, I have one or had, and anyhow, I don't think we need it. It is daylight, and we know the direction we want to go. We should not have any trouble in finding our way back."
"How are you going to do it when there is no road that we know of?" asked Percival, as Jack began making his way toward the top of the unnatural bowl in which they found themselves.
"I'll show you, Dick," Jack replied, pushing on, now using the stick to assist him and now getting along without it.
They reached the top at last, and then Jack began examining the trees about him, and presently said, pointing off into the woods:
"That is the south, and the boys are in that direction."
"How do you know it is the south?" asked Percival.
"Because the trees are more worn on this side, from frost and exposure. Look on the other side and you will see a difference."
"Yes, I see it. The other side is smooth, while this is rough and of a different color. And that is the north side, is it? I have noticed trees looking like that, but did not think of settling direction by it."
"Yes, you can, and you will never go wrong. Come on, I think we can find the boys all right," and with a look at the sun, which could be seen above the treetops, Jack started off, Percival following.
Jack knew from the position of the sun and from the exposed side of the trees which way to go, and he pushed on in a straight line without deviating a foot to either side toward where he judged he would find the boys, keeping an eye for ledge rock and listening for any sounds which would tell him that he was nearing the other end of the cave.
In the meantime, unknown to the two chums, the boys remaining at the gully were having a bit of excitement of their own, and were seriously alarmed about the two in the cave.
The sound that Dick and Jack had heard in the cave was not thunder, as Jack had suggested, but something entirely different.
When the boys had been in the cave a short time, there came a sudden rustling on a part of the ledge Billy had aimed his camera at, and all of a sudden a great boulder fell into the gully.
"Hello!" exclaimed Arthur. "That's bad. Who would have thought of it? Jack and Dick are shut in there!"
A considerable mass of earth had been carried down with the boulder, and now the entrance to the cave was completely filled by the rubbish.
"I am afraid they are shut in, Art," said Blaisdell seriously.
"Who would have thought of that?" cried Harry, going forward and looking into the gully. "Certainly Jack did not, or he would not have gone in there."
Blaisdell and three or four others stepped to the brink of the gully, and looked down, as the dust began to settle.
"It's closed up all right," said Billy Manners, covering the aperture of his pinhole camera.
"Do you mean the mouth of the cave or your picture box?" asked Blaisdell. "You are a funny fellow, Billy."
"Both," said Billy tersely.
"I guess it is as far as the cave goes," remarked Jasper Sawyer. "Now the question is how are we going to get the boys out?"
"H'm! we've got to take away that stuff, I suppose," said Harry. "It won't be so hard getting down there, but there's a lot of stuff to get rid of. Come on, boys, get down there and set to work."
"My! but there's a lot of this stuff!" exclaimed Sawyer, getting to work. "I wonder if we can get rid of it before the boys get back? Do you suppose they heard the noise and knew what it was?"
"How would they know?" asked Arthur, throwing aside a lot of stones and earth. "The place is probably pretty big, or they would have been back by this time."
There were four or five boys at work, but as Harry had remarked, there was a lot of the earth and stones to remove, and they were more or less in each other's way.
"We might call to them," suggested Jasper Sawyer at length. "If they are not too far off they will hear us."
"That's all right," agreed Blaisdell, and he and the rest of the boys shouted at the top of their voices.
There was no reply, and, indeed, Jack and Dick did not hear them, being at some distance from the mouth of the cave at this moment.
The boys presently shouted again, but still there was no response, and Harry said in great disgust:
"We are only wasting our breath. They can't hear through all this rubbish, and they may be a good way off. I should not wonder if the cave was a big one. There are some such in the mountains along the Hudson valley, especially in these counties. Nobody bothers with them very much, but they're here all the same."
The boys kept hard at work removing the debris that had fallen into the entrance of the cave, but some of this consisted of great rocks, which were impossible to get rid of with the means at their disposal, and Harry presently growled, as he wiped his perspiring forehead with one hand while he leaned against the ledge with the other:
"We'll have to blow this stuff up. If it were only earth and gravel we could do something, but there are rocks as big as a house in the hole, and we can never get rid of them."
Several of these boulders had been uncovered by throwing aside the earth, so that Harry's statement was seen not to be an exaggerated one, and Arthur replied:
"We have nothing to blow it up with. Would prying do any good, do you think? We have no bars, but we can get plenty of stout poles from the trees, and they will help us."
"I shouldn't wonder. It is clear enough that we cannot do much with the shovels alone."
"Hark!" cried young Sawyer, who was too little to do a great amount of the kind of work the boys were doing at the moment, but who seemed to be on the alert; "don't you hear something?"
"Keep still, boys," said Billy Manners. "Sawyer has heard something. There is not much of him, but it is all good stuff."
"Keep still!" said the smaller boy impatiently, and there was silence.
In a few moments there was an unmistakable shout heard, distant, it was true, but still a well-defined shout.
"That's Percival!" cried young Sawyer.
"Hello!" shouted Harry. "Keep her up, boys! Give a good shout all of us. Now then!"
All of the boys shouted at the same time, and then kept quiet to hear the answering shout.
"All right, we are coming!" they heard Jack shout in a clear, shrill tone, which had great carrying power.
"Where are they?" asked Billy. "That does not sound from the cave. Hello! Are you in the cave, you fellows?"
"No, we found a way out," came the answer in a few moments.
"Bully!" shouted Billy. "That lets you out, boys. We don't need to dig any more."
The boys in the gully scrambled out of it in great glee, and then set up a shout which was soon answered at a less distance than before, and shortly after that they heard Jack's voice from somewhere above them saying:
"Hello, you fellows! We are up here. How are we going to get down?"
The boys all looked up and saw Jack Sheldon and Dick Percival standing on top of the ledge, at the foot of which was the entrance of the cave.
"How did you get there?" asked Blaisdell. "We were trying to dig you out, but we are glad we don't have to."
"Dig us out?" asked Percival in astonishment.
"Yes. When the boulder fell it sent down a lot of stones and earth, and completely blocked the entrance of the cave."
"Then it was fortunate we found the other entrance," said Jack.
"Yes, in the woods over yonder, a wild place, wilder than this. We'll tell you all about it when we get down."
Jack and Percival now quickly joined their companions, who were eager to learn of their experiences in the cave.
The boys were greatly interested in hearing of what Jack and Dick had discovered in the cave, and speculated about the presence of the burglars' tools, some of them wondering if the bank robbers made the cave their headquarters, and why the tools had not been taken away before.
"Well, if the place is closed I shall have a picture of it at any rate," declared Billy.
"Which cannot amount to much," laughed Harry, "seeing that your camera has neither shutter nor lens."
"Never you mind," said Billy. "That camera of mine is going to surprise you boys."
WHAT BILLY'S CAMERA REVEALED
As it was now getting well along in the afternoon, and as the way back was a difficult one, Percival and Jack decided that they would better return without making any further explorations.
"We have found out a lot that we did not know, anyhow," said Percival, "and we can come here again."
"Certainly I never knew about that cave," remarked Arthur, "although I have been here two years."
"That is not so much to be wondered at," declared Harry. "The place is hard to get at and out of the way, and I don't believe you could get many of the boys to come here even if you told them there was a cave to be seen. I don't think I would care to come again."
"I would," said Sawyer, "but it is not an easy job all the same."
"Bother the thing!" sputtered Billy Manners. "It is nothing but a hiding place for burglars and thieves. Pity you did not find some more of the stolen property, Jack."
"It has probably been taken out. They could afford to leave their tools behind, but they would take everything else."
The boys talked about the place as they made their way back to the Academy, which they reached shortly before supper, and all agreed that it was rather too great an undertaking to visit the cave again, all being tired and glad to rest after their tramp.
"I want to see how my picture turned out, Jack," said Billy Manners after supper when it was quite dark. "Then I want to get the laugh on those fellows that said my makeshift was no good. I know it is."
"All right, Billy," laughed Jack. "I can fix you up a dark room in the cottage. I have developers and all that, though I suppose you have also."
"Yes, I have everything. Have you a camera, Jack? You never said anything about it."
"Well, I have not had much occasion to say anything or to use it, but I have one. Come ahead, get your plate and we will develop it."
On the way to the cottage they met Dick Percival, who was greatly interested when he heard what they were going to do and said:
"I'd like to see you develop that plate, for, to tell the truth, I don't have much faith in these photographic freaks. Do you think there will be anything on the plate, Jack?"
"Yes," said Jack shortly.
"All right, then. If you have faith in it I have nothing to say."
Reaching the room in the cottage, Jack locked the door to keep out all possible intruders, got out his ruby lamp and developers, and set to work.
Billy had faith in his pinhole camera, because it was his. Jack was certain that he would get a picture, because he knew about such things, and Dick was interested because Jack was, and therefore the three watched the process of developing with considerable interest.
Jack had running water and all the facilities for doing good work, and it was also apparent that he had done a good deal of it.
"By Jove! you are a wonder, Jack," laughed Percival. "I am all the time finding out new things that you can do. If we were not with you so much we would not know how much you can do. You never tell about it."
"What is the use?" said Jack quietly. "If I can accomplish anything it is bound to be found out some time."
"Of course, but most fellows would tell you ahead that they were going to do so and so and make a lot of talk about it. You just go ahead and do it without making any fuss."
"Why, no, of course not, but it is so different from the ordinary fellow's way of doing things."
The boys watched the picture appear on Billy's plate, and the funny fellow said with a grin of great satisfaction:
"There is something there all right, Jack. It is good and sharp, too, if I know anything. Why, you can see each individual leaf and the rocks stand out fine."
"Yes, I think the boys are going to be surprised," declared Jack, as he watched the developing, and removed the plate from the bath just at the right time and put it in another tray.
After fixing the image and washing the plate well with several waters, having everything convenient to his hand, he examined the plate carefully by the white light, which could do it no harm, and suddenly said in a tone of the greatest astonishment:
"My word, Billy, we are going to surprise somebody and no mistake. You don't know everything that is on this plate."
"Well, what is it?" Billy and Percival both asked, being greatly excited by Jack's impressive tone.
"I'll show you shortly. I am going to make an enlargement of this so that you will have no trouble in seeing just what I see."
"Yes, but Jack, can't you show us?" asked Percival with some impatience. "Must you make a secret of it?"
"For a little while, Dick," laughed Jack; "but you won't say anything when I show you the enlargement. You will be perfectly satisfied at having waited a little."
"All right," muttered both boys.
Jack had all the appliances for making an enlargement, and he could do it as well by night as in daylight, having flash powders which would give an instant's light or be continued for as long as he chose, together with plates, paper and everything convenient.
The boys watched him at work and were greatly interested, now and then catching the sound of the Hilltop boys singing outside, but generally paying little attention to anything except what was going on just around them.
In the course of something more than an hour Jack had completed his work and showed a much larger print of Billy's pinhole photograph than was possible from the original plate, and also a print from the latter.
"Now look at these two, first the little one and then the big," he said, "and tell me what is the difference."
"You've got an eight by ten, and mine is less than a four by five," answered Billy. "The figures are naturally four times as large. By Jinks! you have a handsome picture, Jack."
"Yes, but tell me what you see on one that you don't see on the other. You should see it on both, of course, but it stands out stronger in the enlargement, as it naturally would."
Percival looked at the larger picture and said:
"Hello! there is a man looking out from among the rocks on the ledge. Did you know he was there, Billy?"
"No, I did not. He must have kept pretty still, for that was a long time exposure. He is not as strong as the objects around him, however. How is that, Jack? H'm! I know. He came in after I had started to take the scene."
"That's it, and he kept still because he wanted to hear what you boys were talking about, and did not wish to be discovered himself. Do you see him on the smaller print, Billy?"
"Yes, now, but I did not at first. Golly! but you have eyes, Jack! You saw this on the plate?"
"Yes, and that is why I wished to get the enlargement. Do you recognize the man, boys?"
"I never saw him," said Percival, "but if that is not the man with the white mustache and the black eyebrows I am very much mistaken. My! but how he glares!"
"It is the man with the white mustache," said Jack. "I have reason to recognize him. That is the bank robber. He is glaring, as you say, Dick. There was something on his mind. What do you suppose it was?"
"I am sure I don't know. Do you suppose he was afraid we might find his hiding place. By Jove! we found the burglars' tools, Jack, and now you have found the burglar himself on Billy's plate."
"Yes, and you said there would not be anything on it," laughed the good-natured fellow.
"Why, no, Billy, I did not altogether say----"
"No, you didn't say it, but you intimated it just the same. Well, my pinhole camera has turned out all right, hasn't it?"
"Yes, and I must say that I am surprised."
"The rock fell down shortly after we had gone inside the cave, Billy?" asked Jack.
"Yes. None of us had any suspicion that such a thing would happen, and we were very anxious about you. I don't see now why it should have happened. We have not had any rains to loosen things."
"I will tell you how it happened," said Jack earnestly. "Your man here, with his fierce eyes, like those of a hunted wild beast, was plotting our death when he shoved down that boulder, for it was he who shoved it down I am certain. He probably did not know of the other exit and imagined that we would be imprisoned with no way of getting out."
"He looks as if he wished you and everybody else dead," said Billy. "He has a face to make you have bad dreams. Well, we have proved two things to-day."
"That your pinhole camera is all right," said Percival, "and that this mysterious man with the white mustache is still in the neighborhood. H'm! I should think he would avoid it."
"I hoped he might," said Jack musingly. "It is clear enough from this print that he did not mean any good to you and me, Dick."
"Yes, and as Billy says, his face is one to haunt you. Well, if he is hanging around these woods we don't care to make any more exploring trips until we are sure he is out of them. What are you going to do with the big print, Jack?"
"Keep it if the man makes any more trouble," said Jack shortly. "It will be of use to detectives in identifying him."
"I suppose I had better not show my print?" said Billy questioningly. "You would rather I would not? I don't know what you are to this fellow, Jack, and I don't want to know. You say he is not your father, and that is enough for me."
"No, he is not," said Jack, "and just now I don't care to say any more about it. Show your plate if you want to convince the boys that your odd sort of camera can do something. They may not notice the man on it. They will probably simply notice the trees and rocks, which are very sharp and distinct."
"All right," said Billy. "I would like to show it to those wiseacres just to convince them that the thing was all right, and to get the laugh on them."
"Revenge is sweet," laughed Percival.
"Of course it is," said Billy, "but I guess we fellows had better get to bed or the doctor will be giving us fits. Is there time to show this picture to the fellows?"
"I should think so," replied Jack. "I will keep the enlargement in case I need it, and I would rather you did not say anything about it to the boys."
"Of course not!" said Billy promptly.
Billy and Percival now took their leave and Jack put away his developing outfit, locked the enlargement in his bureau drawer and turned on the lights and threw aside the curtains, so that any one in any of the other cottages or in the Academy could see him.
"Still in the neighborhood," he muttered, as he sat by the window and looked out on the calm Autumn night. "I wish he would leave it. I am not safe as long as he remains. At any rate, I shall do my duty as I have always done it, no matter what happens."
An hour later Jack went to bed, and no one who saw him at that time would have imagined that anything was on his mind, his face was so calm and tranquil.
A PUZZLING AFFAIR
The mysterious stranger with the white mustache and dark hair who had caused so much speculation among the Hilltop boys had not been seen since the second attempt to rob the Riverton bank and none of those most interested knew where he was.
His confederate, badly wounded at the time, was in jail and likely to remain there for some time, but of his principal nothing was known.
He had made his escape and had probably left the region for good and all, being satisfied that a third attempt to get at the money of the bank would be fatal.
The Hilltop boys were anxious to know what relation he bore to Jack Sheldon, who, it will be remembered, had been visibly agitated when he was first mentioned but as the boy did not seem inclined to enlighten them they did not ask him any more questions.
Herring avoided Jack after the stirring scene in the barn but neglected no opportunity to speak ill or slightingly of the boy to his cronies and to Jack's friends when he dared.
There were not many of these occasions, however, for the first time that he spoke slurringly of Jack to Billy Manners, that fun-loving young gentleman said hotly:
"Look here, Herring, I'll pickle you if I hear you talk that way of Jack Sheldon again. A word to the wise is sufficient."
Billy was not as big nor as strong as Jack but there was a determination in his look which Herring did not care to see there nor to provoke and he laughed carelessly and retorted:
"Oh, well, you don't need to get mad about it. I was only joking about it."
"I don't see anything funny in any such jokes," returned Billy, "and I would advise you to take them to a market where they are better appreciated than they are here."
"Ah, you think Sheldon is a lot," sneered Herring, "but he isn't any better than any one else."
"Maybe not. It depends who the any one else is," laughed Billy.
From the words that the bully dropped to his associates, however, it was clear that he meant mischief to Jack and would pay off his supposed debts as soon as opportunity offered and there was the least chance of detection.
There were examinations coming on and Jack was getting ready for them, devoting all of his spare time to studying so that he would be able to pass with the greatest credit to himself and his instructors.
The next number of the Hilltop _Gazette_ would give the results of the examination but there was other matter to be prepared for it, the standings being the last matter to go in.
On the afternoon before the examinations were to begin Jack borrowed Percival's runabout and set out for Riverton with the copy for the school paper and something he had written for the weekly _News_, furnishing something now every week.
It was rather late when he started, as he had been busy up to the last moment and when he left the office after seeing Mr. Brooke and looking over the matter already set up it was growing dark, the sun being already behind the hills.
He would be back in time for supper, however, and as he had his lights in good order he had no fear of being out after dark.
He had left the town and was about to put on speed so as to carry him easily up a hill just ahead of him when he saw a man suddenly come around a turn just ahead of him.
He slacked up in an instant and then heard a sharp whistle behind him and at the next moment heard rapid footsteps, the man in front suddenly running toward him.
Before he was aware some one had sprung over the back of the car and had thrown a pair of strong arms around him.
Then the man in front ran up, jumped in and took the steering wheel, quickly backing the car and turning into a narrow lane a few rods behind.
Jack, meanwhile, had been blindfolded and gagged by the man who had seized him from behind and had no idea where he was going.
He was held tight as well and could not move, his captor being evidently a very powerful man.
"I'd like to know what this means, so close to town," he thought. "If it were two or three miles out I should not wonder and yet I have never been molested as long as I have been driving the car, or was I when I carried fruit and returned with money in my pocket."
By this time it was dark but if it had not been it would have made little difference to Jack with a heavy bandage over his eyes which shut out all light.
They were running on the level, as he knew by the motion but at length they began to ascend a considerable rise, the speed being increased and the car being higher in front.
The boy was utterly in the dark as to the identity of his captors or their intentions and could not hazard a guess on either point.
If robbery were intended why had they not searched him at the start and if they only wanted the car why had they taken him along with them instead of getting rid of him at once?
All these things set him to thinking and he had plenty of time for it as the car seemed to have no intention of stopping but kept right on, now up, now down, but all the time at a rapid gait.
It must have been fully an hour from the time he had been seized when the car began to slow down and then stopped but where he was Jack could not, of course, have any idea.
"I wonder if this is a hazing joke of some of the fellows?" he asked himself. "Billy Manners would be up to just such a trick. Perhaps we are at the Academy now and they are ready to have a great laugh at my expense. I don't see what else it could be."
There was no sound to be heard, however, as there would be if they were near the Academy and Jack was as much puzzled as ever when he was lifted out of the car and taken somewhere, where he could not tell.
He was placed upon a bench but whether it were out of doors or in he had no notion.
He knew no more when the bandage was taken off his eyes and the gag removed, for all was as dark as pitch, the car either having been taken away or the lights put out, for he could see nothing.
"You set quiet," some one said to him. "We ain't going to hurt you but you're goin' to stay with us for a spell."
"Who are you and where am I and what are you going to do?" Jack asked, being unable to see any one.
"Never mind askin' questions," returned the other. "We ain't goin' to hurt you, that's all, an' you needn't be afraid o' nothing."
"Yes, but why have I been brought here and where am I anyhow?"
There was no answer and Jack suddenly became aware that he was alone.
He had not been bound and now he arose, felt in his pockets and presently produced matches, not having carried his pocket flashlight with him.
He struck a match and looked around him, finding that he was in a roughly finished room like a shop or a workman's shack, with two barred windows on one side and a closed door opposite, there being a straight ladder reaching to some place above, probably the sleeping quarters of the men who worked here.
This much he saw before the match burned out, seeing no one and hearing not a sound.
He tried the door and found it locked, the shutters of the windows being fastened on the outside for he could not open them.
"It is clear enough that I am a prisoner here," he mused, "but for what purpose?"
There seemed to be no answer to the question and he gave up trying to find one but sat down and waited for somebody to return.
LIGHT ON THE SUBJECT
Jack had been sitting in the dark for several minutes when he heard a sound from the loft overhead.
Some one was stirring, there was a yawn, then a step on the floor and then some one said impatiently:
"Hello, down there! Can't you show a light? Where are you all, anyway, and what time is it?"
The boy started for he knew that voice and had hoped that he would never again hear it.
It was that of the man with the white mustache and the dark hair and eyebrows whom he had met in the woods near the foot of the hill leading from the Academy.
He said nothing and then he heard steps moving about in the loft and the man spoke again.
"I'll fall down there before I know it. There's a hole somewhere, but where is it? Hello, there! can't you show a light? Isn't there anyone about? Where have you all gone?"
Then he heard a footstep on the ladder and knew that the man was coming down, grumbling as before.
"What's that man doing here?" he thought. "I had hoped I would never see him again. If he is not careful he will be taken and spend more of his time in prison."
Then a thought occurred to him and he said quietly:
"Wait a moment and I will give you a light."
There was a startled exclamation and then the man asked:
"Who is that? Is that you, John Sheldon?"
"Yes, it is I."
"What are you doing here? Have you come to hunt me down?"
"No, I am a prisoner but I don't know who brought me here. I have not come to hunt you down. I did not know that you were anywhere about and I don't know where I am myself."
Then the boy lighted a match and looked around him, seeing an old rusty tin candlestick with the butt of a candle in it on a shelf under one of the windows.
He lighted this and the man came forward, looked fixedly in his face and said:
"You say you are a prisoner here? How did that happen?"
"I was run away with by two men who jumped into the runabout I was driving when I stopped but I don't know who they are nor why they did it. Why do you remain in this neighborhood? Don't you know it's dangerous to be so near the place where----"
"You had a runabout? Yours?"
"No, a friend's. I was down at Riverton on business and was just going back to the Academy."
"Where is it? Is it a fast one?"
"You are right about the danger of remaining here but we are not as near the place as you think. This place must be miles away and nowhere near the river. It is safe enough but if I had a good car and a fair start I could----"
There was a step outside and then the turning of a key in a lock and the door was opened.
Two men were outside, both rough looking fellows whom Jack had not seen before and one of them now said:
"Waitin' for your supper? Hungry, are you? Well, we'll fix up something in a jiffy and then you can go to bed as soon as you like. Hello! there wasn't two of you, was there?"
"What are you keeping the boy here for?" asked the man with Jack.
"I donno, some business of keeping him away from school till arter examinations, I guess, but I don't see why that should worry him. I never was anxious to go to school myself and if anybody had said I shouldn't it wouldn't have bothered me none," with a hoarse laugh.
"Keep me away from school till after examination?" thought Jack. "Oh, I see! This is a plot of some of the Hilltop boys, Herring and his set, no doubt. No one else would do it."
"Where have Byke and Tyke gone?" asked the man.
"To take back a car. We don't want it."
"Ha! I might have wanted it myself," muttered the other. "Why didn't they let me know?"
"Couldn't tell you. Friend of theirs, hey? Well, they'll come back after a bit. Folks don't like to have other fellows' autos with 'em. It ain't allus safe."
"No, but I could have taken it back as well as they could and I wanted to go that way besides."
"Well, we come to get supper for the boy and to see that he didn't get away. If you want to go it ain't nothin' to us as I know."
One of the men now unfastened one of the windows while the other went outside where there was a rusty little cook stove and began to make a fire.
Then the other got some bacon and a half dozen potatoes from a locker under the shelf, produced a greasy frying-pan from a dusty corner and went outside to get the supper.
"I would have taken the car and got away," muttered the strange man. "This is far enough away but it might not be safe for all that and the sooner I get away the better."
"The car will be missed and advertised," replied Jack, "and you would be taken. Where were you going?"
"Out West somewhere. It is not safe around here nowadays."
"If you had lived a decent life it would have been safe for you anywhere, George Williamson," said Jack.
"Sh! not a word! they don't know me and I don't want them to," cautioned the man, looking anxiously about him. "What you say may be true but it's too late now. Don't you feel sorry for your father, Jack?"
"You are not my father and I wish that neither my mother nor I had ever seen you. You made her life miserable, wasted the money my father had left her, ill-treated and abused her and then showed yourself what you were, a burglar and thief! Is it any wonder that my mother should want to take her first husband's name again when we moved as far away as we could from the scene of your evil deeds?"
"Maybe not," said the other carelessly. "Have you any money, Jack? I would like to have some to get me to the nearest seaport town."
"You said you were going west."
"Well, to some good and far away town, then. That will do."
"I have very little money with me but I could get it if I thought you would go away never to see my mother again. There is little use in asking you to promise for you have promised before."
"I saw you this time only by accident, Jack," replied the man. "Never mind. I will go so far away this time that you will never see me. So you would help me, would you?" with an odd smile.
"Only to keep you away from my mother," Jack answered. "You never did me any good and I have no reason to like you. If I helped you it would be for my mother's sake alone."
"And you are a prisoner here, so that you will not be able to pass the examinations?" asked the other carelessly.
"Yes, so it seems, but I do not mean to be kept here."
"You can get away now, Jack, if you wish it," said the other in a low tone. "I'll do that much for you for all that you don't do things for me on my own account. Do you wish to leave here?"
"Yes, I do."
"Then I will help you get away, will go with you till everything is safe. Maybe I did not treat your mother right, Jack. Never mind that now. I can help you and I will. Come, there is no time like the present."
The two stepped to the door when one of the rough fellows said, putting himself in the way:
"Here, Mister, you can go if you like but not the boy. We've got orders to keep him here."
"And I have a notion to take him away with me and if you oppose me it will be the worst for you."
The man attempted to argue the point and was promptly knocked down.
ON THE WAY HOME
Jack and the stranger flew out of the house, the latter saying in a low tone:
"Follow me! I know the way out of this tangle better than you do."
There was a rough road in front of the shack but lost itself in the woods in one direction and wandered off among the mountains in another so that it was necessary for one to know all its changes and branches to keep from getting lost.
The man who had been knocked down raised a shout and he and his companion set off in pursuit of Jack.
His guide ran swiftly but Jack was a good runner and kept up with him, the two pursuers being speedily left behind.
They at length came out into a more open part of the road and here the moon shone bright and gave them all the light they needed.
"Keep on this way for a time," said Jack's guide, "and we will be far enough away to elude those scamps. I don't think they care to keep up the race long in any event."
They hurried on although at a less swift pace for ten minutes and then, neither seeing nor hearing any sign of pursuit, went less rapidly.
"We can slow up a bit again in a few minutes," said the stranger. "It is a good distance from your place, I take it and you will need some time to reach it. Perhaps you can get a conveyance but the country is not very thickly settled about here."
At last, after going at a fast walk for some little time they came out into an open space where the moon shone brightly and there was an extensive view of the country.
In the distance Jack could see the river flowing on majestically in the moonlight between the towering hills which here and there cast deep shadows, here the channel being quite narrow and again widening into broad lakes where all was bright.
They were at a considerable height and, pausing for some moments and looking down upon the river he at length began to recognize certain points and said to his guide:
"I think I know where I am but it is some distance still to go where I wish to go. I can take a road through the mountain passes and reach home by daylight."
"Home?" questioned the other.
"Well, I mean the Academy. I call it home while I am there."
"It is cold and it will be colder when you get into the passes where it is dark."
"Yes, but I can walk fast. I know many of these passes and I can take short cuts. You will not wish to return to the river?"
"No, but come on, I am in haste."
They hurried on, descending a little and passed through some woods where they could not see the river.
When they came in sight of it again the man said:
"Go on and rejoin your comrades. I will go another way. You can get back from here?"
"Yes, without much trouble. Where are you going?"
"Away, where you will never see me again!" and the man suddenly darted down a forest path.
"I hope he will do better," said Jack to himself, "but I don't know. He says he has tried to do so before but he never succeeded. I hope he will do so this time but I do not want to see him again. I cannot get over my past recollections."
He took another path and at length came to a pass through the hills which would cut off a considerable distance provided he did not lose his way by taking a wrong turn and he decided to hazard it.
Overhead there were great round peaks about which the clouds always seemed to hover, about him were giant trees which seemed to be hundreds of years old and as he walked on the shadows stretched deep and mysterious before him so that he might well pause for fear of going astray or of meeting unwelcome companions.
In a short time he came out upon a level stretch of ground whence he could easily see how the land lay and pick out a path back to the river and the nearest town to Hilltop.
He set out at a good walk and reached a village below the station at the foot of the hill whence he could make his way across at about eight o'clock in the morning.
"I can get to the Academy in time for school," he said to himself, "and give somebody a surprise. I'd like to know what they are thinking of now but I know what they will think when they see me walk in to take my examinations."
He had calculated the time correctly for as he reached the top of the hill in front of the Academy and saw the well-known buildings stretching out before him he heard the warning bell which told him he must hasten.
The boys were already indoors and Jack hurried on, entered and went to the great schoolroom, taking his seat and saying quietly while all the boys looked at him in astonishment:
"I am sorry to have been detained, sir but I trust that I am in here in time for the first examination."
Then, although it was against the rules, the majority of the boys raised a joyous shout and gave three hearty cheers.
HOW IT ALL CAME OUT
There had been a good deal of anxiety the night before when Jack had failed to return and all sorts of reasons were assigned for his absence.
Then late at night Dick's car was returned by a constable who said he had found it in the road just outside the town of Riverton and, recognizing it and knowing that there had been inquiries made about it, had brought it back.
This did not explain Jack's absence, however, and many telephone messages were sent to various parts of the town, enquiring for him.
Mr. Brooke reported his having been to the office and others remembered having seen him but where he had gone and why the car had been abandoned were puzzles that no one could solve.
When Jack himself appeared at the last moment and announced that he was ready to begin his examinations there was a general rejoicing but the mystery was as deep as ever for the boy would not answer any questions at the time, merely repeating that he had been detained but was glad that he was no later.
Then he set to work upon the first of his papers and no one disturbed him for two hours when he went outside and said to Percival who had finished his paper:
"Somebody did not want me to take this examination but I am taking it and that is all there is to say about it."
"But where have you been, Jack?"
"Up in the hills, miles away from here. I stayed with a hermit who might have been Rip Van Winkle himself during a part of the night and set out for Hilltop some time after sunrise, just making it in time."
"Yes, but Jack, what did you do it for?" and Dick showed that he was greatly puzzled as well as distressed. "Didn't you know that the boys would be worried?"
"I am not so fond of going off miles away by myself and then walking back as to do a thing of that sort willingly, Dick," laughed Jack. "I was run away with, abducted, kept a prisoner, released by a man who has been a prisoner himself, walked for miles through the mountain passes, stayed with a hermit and his dog and finally got back here just in time. Did you get your car?"
"Yes, and that's what worried us for we did not know what had become of you. Tell me all about it?"
"There is not time," with a laugh, "but I will tell you some things. You remember the man with the white mustache?"
"Yes, of course."
"He was up in the mountains where my captors took me and it was he who got me free and afterward left me, going I know not where. I told you I would tell you who he is one day."
"Yes, so you did but if you don't like to----"
"I don't mind telling you, Dick. The man is my stepfather and you can easily see why I was agitated when I heard that he was about and then when I met him. He has been in prison for a number of years and then my mother was happy, safe and comfortable. His being free again made me worry for I hoped that he never would trouble us again."
"So you would."
"Now he has gone I don't know where and we need not say any more or think any more about him."
"But who ran off with you, Jack, and why?"
"Men I had never seen before. They were hired by some one who does not want me to take the examinations and so lose my standing in school. It does not really matter who they are, Dick."
"It does matter to me, Jack," said Percival, excitedly, "for if I find out who they are they will be glad enough to leave the school themselves. Have you no idea, Jack?"
"Oh, I have an idea, of course, but suspicion is not proof as I told you once before so suppose we let it pass."
"Well, just as you like but that is not what I should do," returned Dick, evidently disappointed.
"But as I am the person most interested and as that is the way I feel about it, why not let it go at that?" and Jack smiled.
"Oh, very well, just as you like," and no more was said.
Dick told the other boys what Jack had told him of his adventures and many of them were for making an investigation but as Dick told them that their friend did not care for this they concluded to let the matter drop and there it rested.
Herring and Merritt and others were suspected but nothing was said to them and they kept away from Jack and his particular friends and it was not long before this affair was forgotten.
The examinations continued and at the end of them when the reports were made, Jack was found to have passed the highest of any one in his class in all but two of his studies and within one or two of first place in the others.
This would give him a good lead for the rest of the term and help him in the final examinations at the end of the school year, his standing having greatly improved since he had come to the Academy.
"You have done well, old chap," said Billy. Manners, "and I want to see you do better yet the next time."
"I am going to try to at any rate, Billy," said Jack.
"Old Bull is getting very cranky these days," Billy added. "He is getting to be more of a martinet than ever and would keep us drilling from morning till night if he had his way. I fancy he thinks this is another West Point."
"Perhaps he remembers how you fooled him with the mad dog alarm," laughed Jack.
"He did not know it at the time or I would have been put on guard duty all night. Anyhow, there will be trouble if he keeps up this everlasting drilling. I don't believe the doctor cares for it but the doctor is a good old fellow and never says anything about what any of his instructors does. He is as mild mannered as an old woman."
"How did you come out yourself in your examinations?" Jack asked.
"Pretty good, but I like fun too much to do any overtime in study. Maybe I would have done better but for that."
"Perhaps you would but I would rather have you full of fun than going about grumbling and complaining against everybody as some of the boys here are in the habit of doing."
"Yes, I know who you mean and they did not pass very high either. If they are not more studious for the rest of this term they will be told to go somewhere else at the end of it."
The work began again in a short time and Jack devoted himself as sedulously to his work as before, while, at the same time, he indulged in all the sports that boys like best and excelled in them, making more friends every day and making those he had already made more and more fond of him.
Percival stood high in his classes as usual for, as he said, he was looking for Jack to catch up with him and, therefore, wanted to keep as far ahead as possible and to make himself stronger to meet his friend when the latter should have reached his rank.
As Billy Manners had said, there seemed to be trouble brewing in the Academy, not only on account of Colonel Bull but for other reasons and those who were in the way of observing the signs closely in such institutions were of the opinion that the clouds would not be long in breaking.
Those who have been interested in the careers of Jack Sheldon and his friends at the Academy thus far may find something more of this in the next volume which is called "The Hilltop Boys in Camp," wherein are told many things now only hinted at.
"It is my opinion that if troubles do arise we will find Jack taking as strong a part for the right as he always has," said Dick to Harry and Arthur one day when they were talking of these matters.
"Then if we happen to be in the wrong he will go against us, do you mean?" Harry asked.
"I should not be surprised."
"Yes, but how do you know we will be in the wrong?"
"I don't; we must wait and see."
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