"All right; I'm off."
Hodge darted out of the tent, and Frank wrapped another wet towel about his head and eyes.
All night the search for Bascomb continued, the cadets carrying on the work in relays.
Hodge had convinced Lieutenant Gordan that Bascomb had suddenly become deranged, and had succeeded in having the search instituted without telling the real cause of the disappearance.
The joy of the boys when they knew Merriwell was safe in his own tent had been boundless, but they were forced to keep it suppressed, fearing that too much of a demonstration would arouse suspicion, and create an investigation.
Davis wept for joy. At first he could not believe such good news could be true, and he had rushed straight to the tent, where Frank was already receiving congratulations.
"You don't know what a terrible load this lifts from my shoulders!" cried the little plebe, in ecstasy. "Nobody shall ever fight for me again! I can't lick anybody, but I will stand up and take my thumping when it is necessary. I am going to write to mother tomorrow that it is absolutely impossible for a fellow to get along here without fighting, and I am going to ask her to release me from my promise. I won't lie for anybody, but I am going to fight when I have to!"
"I do not believe you will be forced into many fights when the boys understand you," said Frank.
Frank reduced the inflammation in his eyes so he was able to take part in the search, and he declined to be relieved, continuing in his efforts through the entire night.
Near sunrise, with a company of plebes under his command, he was beating a piece of woods along the bank of a river about four miles from the academy. Davis was one of the company. The little fellow had grown intensely anxious for the quick discovery of Bascomb, hoping the big bully had done no harm to himself.
"If he should commit suicide, I'd feel that I must be responsible for that," said Fred.
"You are altogether too conscientious," declared Frank. "There are none of us but hope to find Bascomb all right, but no one save himself will be to blame if he has taken his life."
Birds were singing their morning songs, and there was a rosy tinge spreading upward in the eastern sky. The breath of the morning was sweet with the perfume of June; but the boys heeded none of the beauties of nature around them, for they were fearing that at any moment they might come upon some ghastly thing there in the heart of the green woods.
All at once, they did come upon a haggard, pale-faced lad, who was sitting on a fallen tree, and seemed to be waiting for them to approach.
It was Bascomb.
"I have dodged searching parties all night, and I am not going to run any——"
Thus far did Bascomb get, and then he saw Merriwell. He stopped, and his jaw fell, while he shuddered, showing the strongest symptoms of terror. His eyes bulged from their sockets, and the expression on his face was one of unutterable horror.
"Bascomb!" cried Frank. "I am glad I have found you!"
He stepped toward the big fellow, but Bascomb leaped to his feet, shrieking:
"Don't touch me! You are dead—dead! Go away!"
And then, before another word could be said, before anybody could do a thing to prevent it, Bascomb turned and fled through the woods—fled as if pursued by fiends, shrieking forth his terror.
"After him!" cried Frank. "Don't let him get away! He is so scared that he will surely do himself injury if he escapes."
The pursuit began, and Merriwell soon found that Fred Davis was rather fleet of foot. In fact, Fred was able to keep near to Frank's side.
It was a wild chase through the strip of woods. Impelled by terror, Bascomb ran as he had never run before. Under ordinary circumstances, Frank could have overtaken him easily, but this was far from an ordinary case.
At length, however, Frank and Fred began to gain on the fugitive.
Casting wild glances over his shoulder, Bascomb discovered this, and his terror knew no bounds. He had been running parallel with the river, but he suddenly changed his course and made straight for it.
"He is going to try to drown himself!" cried Frank.
Then an accident happened to Merriwell. He tripped in some underbrush, and fell heavily to the ground. When he got upon his feet, he saw Bascomb leap from quite a high bank into a deep part of the river.
Fred Davis was not far from Bascomb's heels, and he was stripping off his coat when the big fellow plunged into the water. The coat was flung aside in an instant, and then Frank saw Fred boldly plunge into the water after Bascomb.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Merriwell; "the little fellow has courage, after all!"
He hurried forward, and when he reached the bank, he saw a struggle taking place in the river.
Bascomb did not want to be rescued. Made crazy by the horrors he had experienced through the night, and by the sight of Merriwell, whom he believed a ghost, he was determined to drown himself in the river.
Three times Davis struck at Bascomb's temple with his clinched fist, and he finally landed with sufficient violence to stun the big fellow.
Then, with the skill of a veteran life-saver, the little plebe swung the heavy yearling over his back, and struck out for the bank, swept down stream by the current.
Frank ran along the bank till Davis came near enough to be pulled out with his burden, and Frank dragged both the water-dripping lads to solid ground.
"By gracious! Davis, you have proved your value this morning!" cried Frank, as he clung to the panting little plebe. "Bascomb will owe you his life, and no one can call you a coward from this time on."
The other boys came running to the spot, breathing heavily, and Frank soon explained exactly what had taken place. They looked at Davis with increased respect, and one of them proposed three cheers for "Baby," which were given with a will.
The sound of the cheering seemed to arouse Bascomb. He opened his eyes, and the first person he saw was Frank. With a moan and a shudder, he covered his eyes with his hands, gasping:
"Take him away! Don't let him touch me!"
"You have no reason to be afraid of me," assured Frank, quietly. "I am no ghost; I am alive and well."
"No, no; it cannot be!"
"It is the truth. I did not go to my death over Black Bluff, as you thought. I did fall, but I was saved by a rocky shelf."
Then Frank slowly and distinctly explained everything, finally convincing Bascomb that it was really true.
* * * * * *
The horrors of the night he had spent alone in the woods overcame Bascomb so that he was quite prostrated, having to remain in hospital several days, and barely escaping a fever.
But he was very happy to know that Frank still lived, and this happiness led to his quick recovery.
As for Frank, although Bascomb had played a most contemptible trick on him in flinging the red pepper in his eyes, he knew the bully had been punished quite enough, and he decided to let the matter drop. As it was, there were many other matters to claim his attention, some of which will be related in the next volume of this series, entitled: "Frank Merriwell's Foes."
The report of Davis' exploit in rescuing Bascomb became generally known, and, instead of being called a coward, Fred was regarded as something of a hero. The boys thought him peculiar, but there were not a few who came to uphold him in refusing to fight when he had given his mother his word that he would do nothing of the kind.
From the time that he dragged Bascomb out of the river he had very little trouble in the school, and there were ever dozens of champions ready to fight his battles when he did find it necessary to fight.
But Frank had been first to defend the little fellow, and there never came a time when Fred did not think Frank the noblest and bravest lad in all the world.