It was really thrilling; but Frank had no desire to see anything further of his unwelcome companions. He wished he had the nerve to turn the car from the road; but the chances of being injured himself discounted this desire.
Surely there ought to be some other way whereby he could say good-bye in a hurry. They would not search long for him if he once got away. Since Jim admitted that his arm was feeling better perhaps he would try and guide the machine into Fayette. Meanwhile Frank could be trying in some fashion to warn the authorities.
The sound of their voices just reached him as he sat there thinking. They were talking low now, as if desirous of not letting him hear, but Frank possessed keen ears, and could catch certain words, especially in Jim's heavier tones.
"It's just got to be did sooner or later. He could ruin all our game if he wanted to. I've risked too much now to take chances. Don't you go to showing any of your squeamishness, Bart; I won't have it," he was growling.
They must be referring to the boy who sat at the wheel and guided the moving car. Bart evidently said something more, for presently the voice of Jim once more came to the listening ears of the one so deeply interested.
"He ain't goin' to be hurted, I tell you. But his mouth has got to be kept closed, unless you want the hull county on our heels. I seen that feller play, and I know what he's capable of doin'. So just shut up, Bart, and do what I says, hear?"
Evidently the other finally agreed to abide by the decision of his leader; for they both relapsed into temporary silence.
"I must find some chance to jump!" Frank said over and over to himself, after having heard what had passed between the two men back of him.
To do it then and there invited a dislocated shoulder when he struck the hard ground. And then again there was that ugly, shiny thing which Jim had taken such deliberate pains to show him; he did not fancy being used for a target.
"How far along are we now?" asked Jim, close to his ear.
"About five miles out of Fayette, I think?" replied Frank, who had frequently come over this some course on his wheel, and knew the country well.
"Huh! that's encouraging. Keep her going like she is, bub. You seem to know how to run a machine, all right. Steady! there comes something ahead. Give 'em the horn, boy, and steer to the right, d'ye hear! Not a peep as we pass, remember!"
Again came that wicked punch in the small of Frank's back.
"I'll remember," he said, hastily, as he turned as far out as the nature of the road permitted, and at the same time caused the horn to give a few croaks.
It was another auto approaching, as the several lights announced. Frank's heart seemed to be in his throat as the two machines rapidly approached each other. What would he not have given for a chance to shout out, and tell the parties who were in the other car that he was held under duress, and compelled to play the part of chauffeur to these fugitive rascals; but he dared not, with that desperate wounded man right at his back.
Judge to his astonishment when he saw that the other car held a number of Columbia people, among the rest Minnie Cuthbert and her father. He only had a quick glimpse of them as the two machines passed; but it was enough to show him a look of sheer astonishment on the face of the girl, which told that she must have recognized him.
"Hello! Frank!" came a voice booming after them, as the other car slowed down suddenly; and he believed that it must be Mr. Cuthbert who called, possibly influenced by Minnie.
"Silence! not a word, do you hear?" exclaimed Jim, emphasizing his words with a further display of significant pushes with that hard object.
"And keep her going, kid, keep her going right along," added the other man, grimly.
"Are they turning around, Bart?" demanded the stout party, savagely.
"Naw. Nothing doing this time. There they start up again, and headin' the other way. It's all right, pard, all right sure."
"Lucky for them it is," grunted Jim; though he sighed in relief because the peril had passed; "them fellers seemed to know you, son?"
"Yes, they are Columbia people," replied Frank, shortly, for he had experienced a bitter disappointment when he realized that this sudden little chance had slipped away without helping his forlorn cause a mite.
Three more miles or so had been passed over when suddenly there flashed into his mind a brilliant idea that promised results. Just ahead was a bridge over Juniper Creek, quite a good sized stream that flowed into Harrapin River above Clifford.
Passing down the incline that led to the bridge, Frank managed to make the car act wobbly, as though there might be something the matter. And as it ran on to the boards of the bridge itself, he brought it to a sudden stand.
"What's wrong here?" demanded Jim, angrily.
The engine had stopped working.
"I'll get out and see," observed Frank, suiting the action to the word, and opening up the hood of the car.
"Don't you try to run away, son, if you know what's good for you," said the man, after Frank had used a wrench on the engine. "Try cranking her again, and see if she refuses to work. There—hold on, you fool—why, he's crazy, Bart!" for Frank had suddenly whirled around, and taken a plunge over the side of the wooden bridge into the cold waters of Juniper Creek!
"After him, Bart! We mustn't let him get away!" exclaimed the stout man, as he hurriedly climbed out of the tonneau of the automobile.
"Not me! I ain't hankering after a cold bath just now," answered his companion, who had jumped out on the other side, and was running around.
"Run down to the bank and get hold of him, if you can!" continued Jim, harshly.
This seemed at least reasonable, and Bart had no objections to trying to do something along such lines.
"Don't see anything of him here!" he announced a minute later, as he appeared below, and ran along the bank of the stream.
The moon had gone behind a cloud, as though wishing to favor the escape of the unwilling chauffeur.
"Hang the luck! Well, come up here then, and we'll put off. P'raps I might manage with my other arm. We can't hang around here, with time flying. The town's close by. Hurry up, Bart!"
But when Bart reached his side, he found the other breathing out threatenings in a fashion that denoted a new difficulty.
"What's wrong now?" asked the slim man, who was panting from his exertions.
"That clever little scamp has dished us, that's what; carried away the spark plugs of the machine with him, and without them we might as well try to move this bridge. I was a fool to trust him one second. We've just got to find him, Bart, that's all there is to it! Either that, or walk into Fayette, and perhaps lose that train. Come on back again. You take one side, and I'll look over the other. He's there, sure, unless he got drowned, and that I don't imagine is the case."
Bart was fully awake to the great necessity of finding the boy, after hearing what Frank had done as he jumped from the car. Each of them hurried around the approach of the bridge, and slipped down the bank.
"Any sign of him over there, Jim," called Bart, as he pushed his way into the bushes and reeds that bordered the creek.
"Don't see none yet, but keep on further down. Like as not as he just drifted with the current a bit, and then crawled out. Get him, if you find his tracks, I feel like I could do something to him for playin' this trick on us. Hello!"
"What's doing, boss?" called the other.
"Here's where he crawled out, all right," replied Jim, excitedly.
"How d'ye know it is?" demanded the other, across the water of the creek.
"It's all wet. I'll follow it up, and nab him in a dozen winks. He can't have got far away, I reckon."
"What d'ye want me to do, Jim?" called his companion, after a wait.
"Go back to the bridge, and cross over here."
"All right. Keep right after him. The moon's going to come out again right soon. If you see him, give him a shot to make him stop!" and shouting in this vein, Bart turned to retrace his steps back to the bridge.
He was somewhat out of wind by the time he had half mounted the abrupt bank that served as the base for one end of the bridge. All at once he heard a sound that electrified him. It was the cranking of the car!
"Hi, Jim! here he is! Come back! He's going to leave us in a hole! Head him off up the road there! Hurry, Jim, hurry!"
The climbing man could hardly finish shouting, so short was he of breath; but perhaps it may have been the absolute necessity for prompt action that forced him to continue the balance of the sheer ascent.
The answering cries of his companion welled up from somewhere down along the side of the stream, and the crash of his plunging footsteps could be heard as an evidence that he understood the danger menacing them.
As Bart pulled himself up alongside the approach to the bridge he saw a boyish figure spring into the fore part of the damaged car. Then came a series of quick pulsations that announced the fact of the machine working, as if nothing had ever been the matter.
"He's going off with it, Jim! Stop him! He's carrying our stuff with him! Head him off! Puncture a tire for him! Give him a shot, Jim!" howled to the thoroughly demoralized Bart, starting to stagger after the retreating automobile himself, with his hands extended, as though he would fain seize hold upon it.
"Good-bye, fellows; your cake is dough!" shouted the one who sprawled in the front seat of the car and guided its destinies.
Frank had purposely thrown on considerable power in making his start, for he knew what if ever there was need of haste it was right then and there. Jim was running ahead there, with the intention of cutting him off, and little though he had seen of the gentleman, he felt that he had no desire to prolong the acquaintance further.
Now the friendly moon could no longer hold back behind that floating black cloud, and with her first appearance Frank turned an anxious face toward the spot where a violent agitation in the brush announced the presence of the running Jim.
"Hold up there, boy! Put on the brake, or I'll——" but the rest was unheard, for Frank had dropped as low as he could in the front of the car, though still keeping his hands on that guiding wheel.
He heard the sharp discharge of a weapon, thrice repeated. His heart seemed to come up almost in his throat, for this thing of being under fire was a new experience for the young athlete. Perhaps the man had tried to simply puncture the tire, although this would in the end delay their departure. Frank never knew the truth in connection with the firing.
Then, in another second or two, he realized that he had passed beyond the zone of danger, with a clear road ahead of him!
He could not help giving vent to his delight in this one shout. Just half a mile further on another road branched off from the one he was flying over. He remembered that by a circuitous way it would eventually take him to Columbia, passing through first the village of Stagers, and then a larger place known as Plattville.
His pulses were bounding with triumph as he let the car out notch by notch. Why, after all, the smash could have done no serious damage to the machine. What was fifteen miles when in such a splendid traveler as this new auto of the good doctor's?
He made the turn, and presently dashed into the first village. Here he stopped at a tavern long enough to make an examination, to ascertain whether his supply of gasoline might be sufficient to carry him home. He also wished to impress the fact of his having been there upon the hotel keeper. In case anyone tried to cast any doubts upon his story, it might be well to have evidence that he had visited Stagers that night.
And during his brief stop Frank took occasion to look at the object lying in the bottom of the tonneau, and which had seemed to be especially valuable in the eyes of the two unprincipled men.
It was a common variety of grip, made of some good leather. He did not bother opening the same, thinking that possibly Doctor Shadduck might be better qualified than himself for that task, but he placed it at his feet in front.
Once again Frank was on the move. He really hoped that nothing would interfere with his reaching Columbia safely, now that fortune had been so kind.
The road was not the best possible for a machine, and often he had to slow up rather than take unnecessary chances for an accident.
Whenever he thought of the pair of rascals left behind, he laughed. He felt that he could afford to loosen up a little after such a strenuous time. But in his wet condition he found rapid traveling rather unpleasant. True, he had borrowed a heavy coat from the hotel man, to whom he had explained the case in a few sentences; but in spite of this protection, he soon began to shiver.
This compelled him to reduce speed still more. When he reached Plattville the road would be better, and besides, he might find a chance to get a drink of warm coffee or tea, if the eating-house were open at such an hour.
Cheered by this thought, he set his teeth together, resolved to stick it out to the end. But Frank was not apt to forget that ride in a hurry.
It was now a quarter to ten. He found this out by striking a match and looking at his watch, the moon having retired once more behind the clouds. But Frank was under the impression that he must be close to the town now.
"I believe I remember that windmill on the left, and the big water tank on the hill. Yes, Plattville must lie down there in the valley. Now to slip along the down grade. Just seven miles from home; but I wish I was there now," he was saying, as he passed over the crest of the elevation.
Yes, there were many lights in sight, and how they cheered him, after his lonely ride along the wretched road from Stagers. He felt like shouting again, so buoyant had his feelings become. What would Bones say when he learned the truth; and doubtless Doctor Shadduck would be pleased at getting his new car back, damaged as it was.
So Frank, running downhill, crossed a bridge, and came into the town of Plattville. On ordinary nights, doubtless, the place would be quiet enough at this hour; but Saturday was different. Quite a number of persons were on the main street, and cast curious glances at the lone traveler who had entered the town.
Straight to the leading hotel Frank went. He had been here before, and even taken a dinner once upon a time, when his club came over to play the Plattville boys.
A small-sized crowd stood around the door of the bar room. Frank could see that there seemed to be some signs of excitement, though he did not suspect that it could have anything to do with him.
Hardly had he brought the car to a stop when some of the men crowded around, and one of them shouted out:
"Hi! sheriff, here's the identical car you was readin' to us about in that ere dispatch from Columbia. And here's one of the thieves come right in to give hisself up! Surround the machine, boys; don't let the feller escape; and look out, for they do say he's a desprit case! come out here, Sheriff Tucker!"
AT THE END OF THE CIRCUIT
A tall man came running out of the hotel.
"What's that you say, boys?" he was demanding, as he advanced eagerly.
"Here's luck for you—the very car you said was stolen over in Columbia! See if it ain't, sheriff!" cried the fellow who had done all the shouting.
"It's the same make car, as sure as you live. I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be Doc. Shadduck's new one," observed the official, glancing at a yellow paper he gripped in his hand, and which, as he held it close to the one burning headlight of the car, proved to be a telegraph dispatch.
"That's right, sheriff; it is Doctor Shadduck's car," said Frank cheerfully, as he proceeded to alight.
"Hey! he's goin' to try and run for it, sheriff; nab him!" exclaimed the voice.
"You admit that this is the car stolen from Columbia this very night do you?" demanded the stern-faced man laying a hand on Frank's shoulder.
"Of course I do, sheriff; but I'm shivering all over. I've been in Jumper Creek not long ago. Come in with me while I get a cup of hot coffee, and I'll tell you the story. You ought to know me, sheriff; I'm Frank Allen. I've seen you in my father's store more than once."
"What's that. Well, I declare now if it ain't so! This is getting mighty interestin', sure. Here, Dobbs, you watch this car until I come out. Now, my boy, come along with me," said the sheriff.
"All right, sir; just wait a couple of seconds. There's something here in the car that Jim and Bart seemed to think a heap of, and so I wouldn't like to lose sight of it just now."
Saying which Frank bent down and took hold of the little leather bag. He had been surprised before to find it quite heavy, a fact that had convinced him it must hold something which had been stolen from the doctor over in Columbia.
Fortunately there was hot coffee to be obtained. While it was coming Frank entertained the kindly sheriff with a rapid account of what had happened, commencing with the duck hunt, and the finding of the stranded car on the road home.
"Well, I never!" the other kept saying, as he sat there with his eyes glued on the face of the young speaker, and drinking in his words.
When Frank told of how he jumped over the railing of the bridge that spanned Juniper Creek, the sheriff brought his hand down upon his knee with a resounding slap.
"Beats anything I ever heard, I swan if it don't! And they tell me that you captained them boys as played the Clifford football team to a stand this mornin'. I don't wonder at it; they ain't much as could stand up before such pluck! And so you went souse into the creek? Ugh! it must a been a cold bath, Frank. Go on," he exclaimed, enthusiastically.
"Oh! that's about all. I crawled out below, and when they came down to hunt for me, because I'd fixed it so the machine couldn't be run, I just crawled up the bank, jumped aboard, and was off. Jim banged away after me a few times, but he was hurt so he had to use his left hand, and I knew he couldn't hit a barn. That's all. Here comes my coffee; I only hope I don't take cold."
The elated sheriff watched the youth gulp down the hot drink, admiration in his eyes.
"I'll see to it that you have a big fur coat the rest of the way. And I'm goin' along with you, boy, to be in at the finish. This is too good to lose. Ain't had so much excitement in six months. Jim and Bart is loose on the community. I'll just have word sent around so they kin be pulled in if they try to get aboard any train."
Ten minutes later and Frank again jumped into the captured car. He was now warmly clad in a heavy automobile coat that would defy the bracing air as they headed for Columbia, just seven miles distant.
"We'll make it in a quarter of an hour, easy," he remarked, as the sheriff took a seat beside him.
"I reckon we oughter, Frank. I'd sure like to be in your shoes for this. They'll think more of you in Columbia than ever, I reckon," remarked the officer, as they made a flying start, amid a few cheers from the gathered crowd.
"Did you telegraph along the line about those men?" asked Frank, desirous of seeing justice meted out to Jim and his companion.
"I did, and told the operator at Fayette to pass the good word along everywhere. There's some reward out for the apprehension of them fellows, and its enough to make every chief of police keep busy in hopes of corralin' the same. Now tell me what them men looked like. That job of cuttin' the wires was a cute one. I reckon that Bart he's been servin' his time as a telegraph wireman, and knows all the dodges."
Frank could not decline, although he would have much preferred keeping silent as he drove the big car onward. The sheriff had been so kind to him that he felt as though he could not refuse to aid him in any way possible. So he described both men as nearly as he could, considering what few glimpses he had had of their faces.
The seven miles proved a short ride. Having more confidence in the machine now that the road was fine, and that hard object no longer prodded him in the back, Frank let out quite some speed in places.
"I wonder if Bones and Ralph have gotten home yet?" he was thinking, as the outskirts of Columbia came in sight.
Turning several corners, he arrived in front of Doctor Shadduck's place. The house he saw was all lighted up. And standing in front was the vehicle he and his two chums had used in their little expedition after the ducks of the marsh.
"That tells the story. Bones has arrived ahead of me, after all. Wonder if its struck him that he saw his father's new car, and me in it driving those two precious rascals off so cheerfully?"
Frank chuckled at the thought. Just then there came a big shout, as a figure rushed down the steps of the house.
"Here's the car, dad! And Sheriff Tucker's got one of the thieves in custody, too! He's carrying your bag. Hey, Ralph, come out and see the fun!"
Of course it was Bones, and since Frank was bundled up in that great wolfskin automobile coat, with a hat pulled down over his eyes in place of the cap he had lost in Juniper Creek, it was not strange that the other failed to recognize his comrade.
"Halt! hands up, Bones!" cried Frank, throwing the little leather bag forward menacingly.
"What! great smoke! if it ain't Frank—and he's brought the car and the bag back home! Ralph said he would, just as soon as he heard about it; but I was a doubter. I thought they'd just eat you alive, Frank, old boy. Where'd you get the coat, and how'd the sheriff happen on you? Did he do the rescue act?" demanded Bones, throwing his arms around the other, enthusiastically.
"Did he? Not if he knew it, young man," replied the officer himself, with a shake of the head; "but let's get inside, and the whole story can be told while Frank warms up again. Your dad must see to it that the boy don't take cold, for he's been in Juniper Creek to-night!"
"Wow! now you have excited my curiosity some, Mr. Sheriff. Hurry in, Frank, and let's hear what happened after you left us. We just got home five minutes ago, and found the whole place upset. Those slick scoundrels worked a confidence game on my governor—left him in a stupor in his private office, after supper, with the door locked, and skipped out with his new car and some valuables, including negotiable stocks worth a good many thousands, and all his expensive new surgical tools that he kept in that glass case, you remember, in his consulting room." And Bones rattled this off at a tremendous rate.
"Oh! I see," exclaimed the sheriff just then; "so that's who Jim and Bart are. A couple of smart ones have been going around visiting doctors upstate this two months past, and stealing their instruments, to sell again in New York. I reckon we'll try to make this their last job, all right."
"But your father—surely he couldn't have been lying there all this time?" observed Frank, wondering how the news could have been wired or phoned over to Plattville if this were so.
"Oh! no; Mr. Willoughby happened to drop over to ask dad something, and when they couldn't get any answer, he broke in the door of father's den. They found him just beginning to come out of his sleep, for, what do you think, those rascals had chloroformed him, as sure as you live," replied Bones.
"I understand now. Of course a general alarm was sent out for the thieves. But they couldn't have reached Fayette if they tried," laughed Frank.
"And why not?" asked Bones, quickly.
"Wires down. Bart, the fellow who wasn't hurt, shinned up a pole, by the aid of a pair of lineman's spurs he carried with him, and cut every blessed wire soon after they made me turn into that road leading to Fayette," replied Frank.
Doctor Shadduck they found pretty much himself. He greeted Frank warmly, as did also Coach Willoughby.
"He's all wet, dad; he's been in Juniper Creek, the sheriff says. There's a story back of it, and I'm just dying to hear it," cried Bones, shoving the other forward.
"First of all, please see if everything is safe here," said Frank, as he thrust the bag into the hands of the doctor.
"Everything they got, so far as I can see, is here. It's wonderful how you happened to get hold of them, and the car too," said the doctor, shaking the boy's hand again warmly.
"There's where you're mistaken, dad; it didn't happen at all, and I'd wager on it that Frank played a right hot game with those two rascals, and beat them out in a square deal," declared Bones, sturdily.
"Bully for you, Bones," remarked the sheriff; "you just bet he did. Wait till you hear the whole story. It's the greatest ever."
Of course Frank related all that had happened to him; but first of all the wise physician insisted upon giving him something that would prevent any ill effects following his cold plunge and subsequent wild ride.
Meanwhile Frank's father and mother were called over, and the story had to be told again for their benefit; though Frank tried to beg off, and declared that after all it had been just good luck that carried him through.
Perhaps it was just as well that a day of rest followed that strenuous Saturday.
Frank found himself somewhat stiff and sore when he awoke, and acting under the advice of his father he remained in seclusion the better part of the day. But the story had gone around, and the doorbell of the Allen home was kept busy throughout the whole afternoon.
Half a dozen of Frank's most intimate chums dropped in to hear the story, and Frank finally declared he would have to get it set up in type and copies struck off if the demand kept on.
There were grown people who came also. Among others was Mr. Cuthbert. Frank found his hand trembling a little nervously when he saw him, thinking that possibly Minnie had sent a message; but it seemed that if he had come over at her earnest solicitation the gentleman had been instructed not to mention that fact.
"We believed it was Frank in that car," he said, as he shook hands warmly with the boy; "and I even called out, for some of us thought he looked toward us rather appealingly; but as no answer came we concluded it must have been a mistake. To think we were so close to those wretches, and didn't suspect anything wrong. Have you heard the latest, Mr. Allen, and you Frank?"
"Are they caught?" asked Frank, instantly, jumping at the truth from the expression he saw on the gentleman's face. "So it is said; and I was told that Sheriff Tucker was the one who cornered the pair of rogues after all," replied Mr. Cuthbert.
"Hurrah!" cried Ralph and Paul and the others in a chorus.
"Well, I'm glad that it fell to my friend, the sheriff of the next county. He was mighty good to me and deserves all the reward there is coming," was the remark of the one who was supposed to be the most interested.
He was secretly bitterly disappointed because Minnie had not come over, or asked her father to carry a message. Evidently, whatever it may have been that had come between Minnie and her former friends, the Allens, it was proving an insurmountable barrier.
And on Monday when Frank went to school, as usual, he had to submit to being asked a thousand questions. Often he utterly refused to answer anything further, he became so weary of hearing about the matter.
Minnie appeared as distant as ever. But one thing Frank happened to see that gave him more or less satisfaction; and this was the utter humiliation of Lef Seller.
Lef had been standing around, listening to what was being said; and the air of utter unbelief upon his sneering face told that had he dared he would only too gladly have called the whole story a freak of the imagination; and that in reality the credit belonged to Sheriff Tucker, who had only allowed Frank to assume the laurels because he wanted to get credit at the Allen department store, where he was known to trade.
Just then Minnie happened to pass in company with her new chum, Dottie Warren; and thinking to add a drop of bitterness to Frank's cup of joy, Lef immediately posted after the two.
There were some words between them, during which it seemed as though Minnie might be accusing Lef of saying something to which she seriously objected. At any rate she walked on with her head held high in the air, while Lef shrugged his shoulders, and not daring to look toward the grinning group of boys, sauntered off.
Still, that new quarrel between the others did not heal the breach that separated old friends. Frank tried to forget, and laughed as merrily as though there was not a cloud on the horizon.
Professor Parke even called Frank into his study and requested him to relate the strange thing that had happened. The head of Columbia High School had a very tender spot in his heart for Frank Allen, not alone because he was a bright pupil, but on account of the clean character he bore among his fellows.
Coach Willoughby was staying over to see the last game of the season. He declared that while he was losing money every day he remained away from his law business, he could not find it in his heart to desert the boys until they had safely landed that beautiful silver cup in a deciding victory over Bellport.
Truth to tell, the old Princeton graduate was a thorough sport, and once he had yielded to the call of the game he could not break away.
"Don't you come out to practice for several days, Frank," he advised, "on Wednesday perhaps, when we start to go over the entire thing again and try new signals, it will be time. There are a few weak spots in the team that need help, and I'm going to devote two afternoons to them exclusively. Wander around, and limber up with walks or a bicycle ride. But please don't employ your spare time rounding up any more rascals, will you?"
"I'll try not to," laughed Frank; "but what's a fellow to do if they will persist in throwing themselves at your head?"
"That's a fact, they did kidnap you, to be sure. Well, next time try and see to it that the other fellow goes into Juniper Brook and not you. That's a dangerous trick at this cold season of the year; and especially taking a long ride afterward in an open car. I wonder you didn't come down with pneumonia, Frank," said the coach, as he threw one arm affectionately across the other's shoulders.
"Oh! everybody was so kind. I had the loan of a coat first, and an old hat; then Sheriff Tucker got me a big shaggy automobile fur coat, which with the hot coffee helped ward off a cold. Finally Doctor Shadduck dosed me good and hard. Nothing doing in that line for me this time," laughed the boy.
It was on Tuesday afternoon that the time began to drag most heavily on his hands. Paul and Ralph, together with Bones, had gone to the recreation grounds to talk over matters with the coach, and try out some new plays. Frank really knew of no one whom he cared to look up just then.
A reaction seemed to have set in after his recent excitement, and things were most woefully dull. The weather still held dry and fair to a degree that was considered extraordinary for November, usually so dismal with the approach of winter.
"I wonder if it wouldn't be worth while to take a spin on the wheel," he mused as he considered the matter; "the chances are the weather will change any day now, and then good-bye to wheeling for the season. Besides, I really believe I'd like to turn down that road to Fayette, and take another look at that old bridge. There are a few things I don't quite understand about that affair."
The thought aroused him. Again he felt the blood circulating through his veins with the old-time vigor; the stagnation had departed, and it was with considerable elation that he hurried to get his bicycle.
The fact that the bridge was a matter of ten miles or more away did not give him cause for worry. He could easily make it in an hour or less, and be back long before suppertime.
As he passed the school building he waved his hand to old Soggy, the janitor and custodian, who was busily engaged with his daily duties.
"Off after another lot, are ye?" laughed the good-natured old fellow; "well, this time bring 'em in yourself, and don't be botherin' no poor sheriff to help out. You ought to be ashamed, my boy!"
Frank knew that old Soggy would have his joke, and he only laughed in response. That was the one thing objectionable in doing anything out of the ordinary run; every person thought they had a right, either to make a hero out of him, or else sneer at the story as something like the accepted fish yarn.
His wheel was in good shape, as always; the road seemed much better for a bicycle than it had been for a car, and with the bracing atmosphere made a combination difficult to surpass. Before the hour was up he had dropped off at the bridge, and stood there leaning on the rail looking down.
"H'm! after all, it was a good thing I knew so much about this same place. If I'd jumped ten feet further along I'd have come slap down on that ugly looking bunch of rocks that stick their noses up above the water. Juniper is low, like all the other streams around here, after this dry fall. But I knew there was a deep pool right under and below the bridge."
So he mused as in imagination his eye followed his course after reaching the water. He could see just where he had crawled out, as Jim discovered later, when the fugitive was already half-way back to the road again.
"He had to run uphill, and that's one reason why he couldn't head me off, as Bart wanted him to do. Then that lame arm prevented him from shooting decently. On the whole, I guess I was mighty lucky," he concluded.
After lingering around for a short time he once more mounted his wheel and headed back toward Columbia. There were short-cuts that he knew from former usage, by means of which several miles might be saved. Something seemed to beckon him along this course, though he hardly understood why he should want to shorten his run when he was out for the exercise and air.
It was while he was traversing a farmer's lane that would bring him out on the other road, and save two miles around, that Frank for the first time noticed some one moving across a field, and heading almost directly toward him. He noted the fact with some surprise, because he happened to know that the farmer was the possessor of a very vicious bull, which he often allowed the freedom of that very pasture, in the summer and fall, for exercise, so that the boys of Columbia always went around when making for the old "swimming hole."
He had noticed the animal only a couple of minutes before, trotting around back of the haystacks that ran along one end of the field. If he ever caught sight of that feminine figure crossing his preserves there would surely something be bound to happen.
Frank, impelled by some sense of coming trouble, came to a stop and caught hold of the high rail fence to hold himself on his wheel while he looked. Somehow there seemed something wonderfully familiar about the figure of the tripping maid; and his heart seemed to almost stand still as she raised her head to look around, and he discovered that it was Minnie Cuthbert, evidently on the way to visit an uncle, who lived a short distance beyond Farmer Blodgett.
Just as he made this interesting discovery he heard a dull roar that struck a note of dismay at the door of his heart. The savage bull, whom every one feared, had discovered the fair trespasser on his preserves, and was coming on the run!
THE LIFTING OF THE CLOUD
"This way, Minnie! Run as fast as you can!"
The girl had looked back and discovered the advancing bull, which sight caused her to shriek and became panic-stricken. Fortunately the animal pursued peculiar tactics while bearing down upon his expected victim. Running forward for a short distance, he would stop to bellow furiously and toss up the turf with his short horns, upon which gilt balls had been fastened by the farmer owner.
Frank had jumped the fence like a flash, and was already rushing toward Minnie. She caught sight of him, and naturally changed her course so as to head in his direction. Perhaps just then she hardly knew who it was coming to her assistance; but turned to any port in a storm.
When they met it was at a distance of possibly thirty yards from the fence. Frank immediately clutched her arm and began to hurry her toward the haven of safety as rapidly as he could.
"Oh! Frank, he is coming faster!" gasped the girl, who had been constrained to look back over her shoulder toward the threatening danger.
"Never mind! Run! run" cried Frank, trying to instill new courage in her heart.
At the same time he knew full well that they would never be able to reach the fence and climb over before the enraged animal came up. Something else must be done. How could he attract the attention of the bull to himself while Minnie clambered over?
The question was not difficult to solve. She was, by the strangest accident in the world, wearing a red sweater that buttoned down the front. In other days they were known as Cardigan jackets, and Frank could easily remember how charming Minnie had looked many a time the previous winter in this same garment.
It was this that was adding fuel to the rage of the angry bull, always attracted by a flaming color. Frank without regard to the feelings of the astonished girl caught hold of this outer apparel, and with one effort ripped the buttons loose. It was no time for courtesy, nor could he waste a precious second in explaining just why he did this strange thing.
Another effort and the sweater was in his hands. Minnie seemed to realize by now what he had in his mind, for a weak little smile appeared on her white face as she looked up at him.
"Run straight to the fence and climb over! I'll follow you, but never mind me! Quick, Minnie, do as I say!" he exclaimed.
There was unconscious authority in his voice, just as when he called to his players on the diamond or on the gridiron. Minnie ran on, obeying his instructions thus far. She undoubtedly expected that Frank meant to cast the offensive red sweater on the ground, so as to attract the attention of the beast for a dozen seconds, time enough to allow of his finding safety beyond the barrier.
As she neared the high rail fence she turned her head again to look. To her horror she saw Frank standing there, waving the scarlet jacket wildly to and fro. He was challenging the oncoming bull to make a run at him, actually endeavoring to attract the animal's attention, so as to give Minnie ample time to escape.
Even as she stood there with quaking knees, staring, she saw Frank suddenly and nimbly jump aside, and avoid the first mad rush of the bull.
"Oh! Frank; run! run! He will kill you!" she shrieked, wringing her hands hysterically; all the past forgotten in that one minute of terror.
"Get over the fence! Get over the fence! The longer you delay the worse for me! Climb over, Minnie!" came back the answering shout, as Frank poised himself to repeat his former tactics.
Crying, she obeyed, though it seemed as though her half-blinded eyes could hardly show her how to catch hold of the various bars; but presently she had succeeded in gaining the outside of the enclosure, and through the spaces between the rails she looked again, her heart almost standing still with dread.
Frank was still on his feet, though he had been put to his best efforts in order to escape those threatening horns.
"Now run, Frank! I'm over the fence!" she cried at the top of her voice.
"All right! I'm coming!" he replied, as best he could, for his antagonist just then made another vicious lunge, and it was only by a shave that the athletic boy managed to escape those golden balls that surmounted his massive head.
Now that he had accomplished the main object of his labor Frank could devote his energies toward his own escape. When the bull passed him he turned and bolted in the direction of the friendly fence. The distance was too great to think of making it in one run. As he flew along he expected to hear the pounding of the bull's hoofs on the hard turf behind him, nor was he mistaken.
"He's coming, Frank! Oh! be careful!"
Minnie was calling this in trembling tones, and yet Frank paid little or no attention to her warning, for he had to depend upon his own instincts just then. At the proper instant he whirled around. Already he had stamped the situation in his mind, and knew to a fraction just how far away the fence lay.
Again he managed to escape the rush of the beast. Had he been an experienced Spanish bull-fighter he could hardly have done better. And again he changed his position. All he wanted was one more chance, and he knew he could win out. This time the animal, growing more and more enraged, came within a foot of striking the boy, who was beginning to get winded with his efforts.
"Now!" cried Minnie, who seemed to recognize the opening when it appeared.
Already was Frank in full motion, sprinting for the near-by fence with all his might and main. He reached it even as the bull was bearing down after him. One tremendous effort and he had mounted the rails to fall in a heap on the other side—safe! The bull came to a sudden halt within the enclosure, and vented his fury in more bellowing and tearing up of the turf.
Minnie was at the side of her champion in a moment.
"Oh! Frank, are you hurt?" she exclaimed, as she caught hold of him in her anxiety; and almost breathless as he was, the boy could not help feeling a thrill of satisfaction at the prospect of the breach between them being healed in this wonderful manner.
"Not a bit, Minnie, only short of breath. Here's your sweater, safe and sound. Excuse me for taking it in that rude way, but you see there wasn't much time for explanations," he managed to say, as he started to put it on her again, an operation to which she submitted with pleasure.
"And now," said Frank, as arm in arm they started to walk away from the scene of the adventure, he rolling his wheel as he went, "what was all this trouble about, Minnie? What terrible thing have I done to make you treat both Helen and myself so? Neither of us have the least idea, and she's very unhappy over it. Please let me know."
Minnie looked troubled, and yet a gleam of hope began to appear in her gray eyes.
"Oh! if you only could explain it away, I'd be so glad, Frank; so glad," she said.
"Is it anything that Lef Seller has been saying about me?" he asked, shortly.
"No, no. This is a matter that concerns only you and I. It was about a letter you wrote, a note rather, that was intended for Helen, and which—Oh! I don't know what to make of it, I've tried so hard not to believe you meant it; but every time I look at that note it stands out so plain, and gives me a shock."
She clung to his arm, and let her head sink as she spoke. Frank knew that she was crying softly, too, and he was the most mystified boy that could be found.
"A note that I wrote to Helen, and about you! Why, Minnie, surely you must be mistaken. I don't ever remember doing anything of the kind!" he declared.
"But I've got it still, Frank, right here in my little bag. Ten times I tried to destroy it, and just couldn't," she exclaimed, looking up at him.
"Let me see it, please," he said, his eyes filled with wonder. With trembling hands she opened the little bag, to which she had unconsciously clung through all her recent peril. From this she took a folded piece of paper, that had apparently been frequently handled, to judge from the creases.
When Frank examined what was written upon it his face first took on a look of astonishment, and then amusement.
"I see," he said, slowly, "this is evidently about half of a page, and torn in a diagonal way. Notice Minnie that it is only a portion of a note. There is another half, which will give it an entirely different version! I admit that I wrote this note to Helen in school one day. Then I changed my mind, and tore it in half, intending to destroy it. Where did you happen to find this piece, Minnie?"
"On the floor in the hall. Soggy was sweeping out when I went back for something I had forgotten. Just by accident I saw your writing, and unconsciously stooped to pick it up. Oh! Frank, what a cruel shock it gave me," she said.
"Well, as near as I can remember, I tried to thrust both pieces into my desk. This one must have fallen to the floor either then or later, and was swept out. Perhaps the other half may still be there, Minnie! Will you go with me around to the school now? The sooner this strange thing is cleared up the better."
"If you say so, I'll be glad to go, Frank. But it's enough for me to hear you say that it was not intended to warn Helen against me," she replied, smiling up through her tears.
"Wait and see the proof first," laughed Frank.
They reached the high school building in due time. Soggy, the janitor, was just about locking up, and upon hearing their request readily allowed them to enter. Going straight to his desk, Frank fumbled around inside eagerly, and then with an exclamation of triumph drew out something.
"There, look!" he exclaimed, as he fitted the ragged edges of the two pieces of paper together on the top of the desk. "You see they match perfectly. Now read out loud what I was writing to my sister that day, and changed my mind, intending to talk with her when we got home."
And Minnie read this:
HELEN Don't believe all you hear. In the first place it's nonsense to think that you could expect the truth from one so shallow as Min erva Stone. I never liked her. She may seem all right as a friend, but I'd advise you to have little to do with her. She says one thing to your face and another to your back. I'm afraid she's deceptive, and that's about the meanest trait any girl can have. Bett er let your new friendship gradually cool, and drop her altogeth er. Honestly, to tell the truth, I think Minnie Cuthbert ought to be en ough chum for you. FRANK.
When she finished this she looked up at him with tear-steeped eyes.
"We're friends again once more, Minnie, are we not." he asked, smiling.
"Yes, good friends; true friends, I hope Frank!" she replied as they clasped hands, and a pair of happy gray eyes looked up shyly into the darker orbs of the boy.
HOW BELLPORT BUCKED THE LINE
As so frequently happens, Thanksgiving Day was overcast and cold, the air having a tang as of threatening snow.
"Bully football weather!" shouted the fans, as they crowded into the great park-like field at Columbia; the toss of a coin during the week having given Frank's team the privilege of playing on their home grounds.
There was even a greater crowd present than on the occasion of the game with Clifford. This struggle was to effectually decide the ownership of that coveted silver cup, and the championship of the tri-school league for the season.
Everybody who could possibly get there was present. The grandstand seemed to be a waving mass of color with the various little flags, and the gay wraps of the school girls, intensely interested in this battle of brawn and skill between their brothers.
Naturally those from Clifford gathered together for the most part; and Bellport had sent an enormous delegation to whoop things up for her sturdy team.
Indeed, those Bellport players did look like a serious proposition as they scampered back and forth across the field before the time for play had arrived. Many a timid heart among Columbia's friends felt as though the chances were very much against such a victory as had been won over Clifford.
Such enthusiasm as abounded! Cheers arose everywhere. Bands of students went about, headed by some valiant cheer captain, and made all other sounds insignificant beside their clamor, as they chanted their school yell in common, or sang the favorite songs of their classes.
"We're going to see a hot old game, anyhow!" cried Buster Billings, as he sat on the bench in the grandstand, being reckoned of little account as a football player, however much he might shine in baseball.
"What's Bellport's line-up? Seems to me nearly every face here is familiar; and I reckon their entire baseball squad has qualified for the gridiron," remarked another observer.
"Just as you say, there's not a fellow missing," sighed Buster; "but then, none of them happens to be gifted with the heft that fastened its fatal clutches on me at an early age. I'd give the world to play football, but though they've tried me several times, it's always back to the scrap heap for poor Buster boy."
"Well, they left me out this time, too; my first half in the game with Clifford wasn't a howling success. But at any rate I'm a sub, and if a few of the boys get carried off the field they may call on me," and Jack Eastwick patted his chest in anticipation of the slaughter to come.
For the concluding tussle of the High School League the contending teams presented this line-up:
Allen, Captain. West. R.H.B. L.H.B.
Shadduck. Oakes. Harper. Bird. Daly. Shay. Morris. R.E. R.T. R.G. Center. L.G. L.T. L.E.
Clay. Coddling. Smith, Jr. Lacy. Alpers. Macy. Smith, Sr. L.E. L.T. L.G. Center. R.G. R.T. R.E.
Banghardt. Bardwell. L.H.B. R.H.B.
Lee, Captain. F.B.
The same referee officiated who had managed the game with Clifford so well. And the coach of each team was busily engaged giving the last instructions, since the time specified for the opening kick-off was very near.
Columbia was not boisterous, but there was a look of grim determination visible on the faces of Frank Allen and his fellows that counted for much.
"It's better to shout after you're out of the woods, fellows," said the captain, as he drew his squad around him for a last word ere going upon the field.
This time Frank was lucky, and won the toss. He immediately selected the goal from which the cold November wind blew, as that gave Columbia considerable advantage to start with, though it would be evened up later when the second half brought about a change in base. Still, by then the wind might have died out, and the advantage lost.
Lee opened matters with a beautiful kick, but the oval was captured, and it came Columbia's turn.
Comfort smashed out a fine one, sending the oval far down the enemy's territory. And so fast did the other Columbia fellows chase after it, that when Bellport secured the ball through a clever catch, they found no chance to do anything more than return the kick.
After that the fight was on. Columbia sent the ball back into the territory of the enemy, and at such a bewildering angle, thanks to the wonderful spiral kick of Jack Comfort, that the player who attempted to clasp it in his arms allowed it to get away.
"Go it, you tigers!" shrieked many in the crowd, as they saw several Columbia men making furious efforts to reach the rolling oval before any of the enemy could throw themselves upon it.
But Coddling was there in time to drop on the ball, though hardly had he done so than Shadduck landed on his back, together with various others belonging to both teams.
Now Bellport had the ball, and there was great curiosity to know what success they would have in bucking the Columbia line. Report had it that never had Bellport been so strong in her line of attack; and Clifford enthusiasts had warned their neighbors of what was in store for them this day.
Bellport rushed into the fray. The artful Lacy, he who had played such a clever game as shortstop in the baseball tournament the preceding season, snapped the ball to Snodgrass, who plunged straight for the middle of the Columbia line backed up by a solid wedge that seemed capable of carrying the heavy quarter-back through.
There was a confused mass of struggling players, and a great cloud of dust, in which figures were to be seen pushing this way and that.
"He's down!" shouted hundreds as the dust passed off with the wind, and they could see the situation again.
"But he took several yards with him, and Bellport has the ball. What d'ye think of that sledgehammer way of carrying things, eh? Wait till Snodgrass and Banghardt and Bardwell get working together, and you'll see the Columbia defense crumple up like dead leaves in a fire!"
Of course it was a Bellport admirer who said this; but those who heard only laughed and waved their Columbia flags the more fiercely. They had full confidence in their boys, and knew what Frank could get out of them in an emergency.
Once more the teams were lined up, watching each other like so many wild animals, hungry and eager. Lee shouted out some signals in his sonorous voice. It sounded very like the previous set, but only those in the secret could know whether the slight difference meant a new change of action or not.
Then the ball was put in play. Like lightning it passed from Lacy's hands. Snodgrass made out to receive it, and once more plunged for the center, as if intending to break through, with several of his fellows backing him up. The deception was so complete that the vast majority of the audience really believed he carried the ball with him.
So a great whoop went up when he was dragged down by one of the Columbia tacklers.
"But look at Smith, Sr., running! He's got the ball, fellows! He's after a touchdown, and he won't be happy till he gets it! Wow! that's going some!"
"He'll never make it! There's West in the way, and Allen bearing down on him like a pirate ship under full sail! What did I tell you? That Ralph West is the best tackier in the county! They made no mistake when they booted Tony Gilpin out and made room for West. Where is the ball now, fellows?"
"Under Smith, Sr., and on Columbia's twenty-five yard line!" admitted Buster Billings, unwillingly.
"And Bellport has still another chance to carry it over! If the wind was favorable Lee could boot the pigskin across your goal, and not half try. But I guess they'd rather depend on breaking through, or getting around the ends. Keep your eyes on those boys, for they're as full of schemes as an egg is of meat."
"That sounds encouraging. I was afraid our fellows might have too easy a snap, and disappoint their friends by not half trying. Just wait yourself, Bellport. It was the same thing in baseball last summer; and yet Columbia flies the banner, all right. You may be treated to some surprises yourself, old chap," remarked Buster, condescendingly.
Again the scrimmage was on. The Columbia tigers were so fast on their feet that Clay, who got the ball this time, was unable to accomplish much before they pounced upon him and bore him heavily to the ground.
"How's that?" shouted Buster, "our fellows just eat up such easy plays. Bring out some of your fancy stunts, and do something, can't you?"
Three minutes later and the ball came to Columbia. It was time, for Bellport had, by a series of bull-like rushes, carried it over the twenty-yard line.
"Now to get back some of that lost ground. There they go! See Shadduck run, will you? He's Mercury, with wings on his feet! Look at him dodge that left guard! Say, he's going to make it yet, as sure as you live he is! Bully boy, Bones! Go it! Go it, you darling! Oh! what a heart-ache I've got! He's over the line, boys; over the line! A touchdown for us to start things!" and Buster danced in his excitement, like a rubber ball.
"No he ain't," snarled a Bellport backer, "they downed him before he got there! Notice that just three of our fellows are settin' on his back. He tried mighty hard, but they nailed him a little too soon!"
"You're mistaken. He held the ball over the line, and it counts for Columbia, as you can see if you look again," remarked Mr. Allen, who was sitting near.
"That's so," grumbled the discomfited Bellport man, "and with that wind it's goin' to be as easy as pie to boot the ball over for a goal. Shucks! what ails our fellows to-day? They never did sloppy work like that with Clifford."
"There was a reason, they say. Clifford claims that her signals were sold to Bellport. Anyhow, there's going to be nothing of that kind to-day, but clean fighting. There goes Frank to kick goal, and he'll do it, too," answered Buster.
The goal was made easily, thanks to the favoring wind. Then again the ball was put into play, and fierce ran the rivalry. Sometimes the fighting was on Columbia territory, and then again the tide of battle shifted until it was Bellport's line that was threatened.
Now and then the cheers of the enthusiasts arose and swelled over that fiercely-contested field like thunder. Back and forth they swung, both now doggedly determined. A score of plays were made that brought out cheers from the spectators, regardless of school affiliations; for they liked clean football, and could applaud clever work, even on the other side.
When the heart-rending agony was finally relieved by the referee's whistle announcing the end of the first half, that score of six by Columbia was the entire counting!
WON BY FOUR INCHES
"See 'em getting Hail Columbia from their coach because they made that fool play! Next time it'll be different," growled the unhappy Bellport backer.
"I hope so," replied the cheerful and optimistic Buster, composedly.
Frank, as he came in from the field, dusty and disheveled, looked eagerly at a certain part of the grandstand where Helen sat alongside her chum Minnie. Immediately both girls waved their flags at him, and called out something, which, of course, was utterly drowned in the furious shouting that arose.
But Frank would ten times rather have heard what they said than to listen to the cheers of the multitude; for he knew that love and friendship endure, while the admiration of the crowd is as fickle as the weather, praising one day and on the next condemning.
Both teams held earnest consultations during the interval between the halves of the game. New plays were planned whereby advantage might be taken of some supposed weak spot in the line of the enemy's defense. And singular to say, not a single change had as yet been made in the line-up, something remarkable indeed, when in other days half a dozen casualties must have resulted from those furious clashes. Doubtless there were those who suffered in silence, fearing lest they be taken out, if their real condition were made known; and every man was wild to finish in what promised to be the most exciting football game that had ever happened in the tri-school league.
"There they go to take position. Now for another heart-breaking period of suspense. But they've got the advantage. It's an up-hill fight for Bellport; six to nothing, and half the time gone. If they can only keep the others from scoring it isn't necessary to make any more," said Buster to Jack Eastwick.
"No chance for me to get into this game. That Shay is a sticker. But I candidly admit he's something of an improvement on myself, and I hope he holds out. But mark me, Buster, there's going to be some changes before the game ends," remarked the other, confidentially.
"What makes you say that, Jack?" asked his friend, curiously.
"Because those Bellport bulldogs have got blood in their eyes now. The coach has been combing them down, and they're just bound to carry things before them, or die trying. It's going to be hotter than ever, Buster."
"But Frank has been saying things, too. And our boys have the benefit of the experience of one who was a terror on the lines of Princeton, my especial friend, Coach Willoughby," remarked Buster, proudly. "He's set 'em up a few capers that are going to surprise our good Bellport friends. I'm game to stack up on Columbia. I only hope some of those Bellport players like Bardwell and Banghardt don't try foul tactics on us, like they did in baseball, that's all."
"The referee has his eye on 'em. He has been warned, and let them try it at their peril. If those two dangerous half-backs are put off the team it'll go to pieces in a hurry, mark my words. That's what I'm expecting it to end in."
But Jack was mistaken. Bellport knew the folly of attempting anything that had a suspicious look. Brawn and strategy and agility must carry the day, no matter which side won.
Shrilly blew the whistle, and once more the ball, yellow no longer, for it had been ground into the dirt, sailed through the air. There was an exchange of punts that ended when Bellport held the pigskin on her forty-yard line and the signal came for a play around Columbia's left end.
"Watch out now, fellows!" warned Frank Allen. "Don't let 'em get through, or past you."
"Eighteen—twenty-seven—sixty—all together—fourteen!" chanted Snodgrass, and back the ball was snapped to him. In a flash he passed it to Bardwell, who started as though to circle Shadduck at right end. And then that trick, so often worked, so effective when it comes out right, and so futile when it does not, was tried. Bardwell passed the ball to Banghardt on the run, and the left-half started for the end where Morris was.
How it happened none of the Columbia players, not even Morris himself, could tell, but he was drawn in by the double pass and his end was free to be circled by Banghardt. Even the Columbia two half-backs were fooled, and no excuse for it, either, as they admitted afterward, for they had often worked the play themselves. Be that as it may, Banghardt was past, and with no one between him and the goal line but Comfort.
But the full-back was a tower of strength, and with eagerly outstretched hands he waited the oncoming of the left half.
"Get him, Comfort! Get him!" pleaded the crowd.
Straight at the full-back came Banghardt, and then, with a sudden shifting, he turned aside, and Comfort grasped only the empty air, while the man with the ball, amid the wild, excited cries of the adherents of his school, while the grandstands fairly rocked under the impact of thousands of stamping feet, touched down the pigskin.
"Touchdown! Touchdown for Bellport!" howled the enthusiasts, while the dazed Columbia team crawled out of the scrimmage and wondered how it had happened. So, too, did some of the Bellport players themselves wonder, for the play had come like a flash from a clear sky.
The goal was easily kicked, tying the score, and then the big crowd sat up and wondered what would come next.
"It's going to be a hot game all right!" was the general verdict.
"Here's where we beat you, Columbia!" called a Bellport supporter, as he turned to Buster with a grin on his face. "Oh we've got you in a hole dead sure. We've got your number."
"Oh, have you!" retorted Buster. "Wait. Don't count your chickens until they're out of the woods."
After the kick-off there followed some line smashing tactics on both sides. Once Bellport was penalized for off-side play, and once Columbia lost the ball for holding in the line. Bellport was later penalized ten yards for a second offense in off-side work, and then the players seemed to realize the importance of being careful, and they got down to business.
How they ever stood the smashing, banging tactics, the fierce tackling, the eager runs, the line bucking, the giving and taking, only one who has played football, and who knows the fierce joy of the game, can understand. Nervous women cried out in alarm as they saw the struggling mass and heap of boyish humanity. There were several times when the play had to be stopped to allow the dashing of cold water over some unlucky chap, to bring him out of a half faint, and the number of lads who lost their wind, and had to have it pumped into them by artificial respiration was many.
But no one was seriously hurt, though Coddling had to leave the field because of a broken finger and Harper was replaced at the Columbia right guard because he was so disabled from a fierce piling-on of players that he was useless in the line.
Ten minutes more to play, and the score tied! Back and forth the players had surged, up and down the field, now kicking, now plunging into each other's line, now circling the ends. It was the most fiercely contested game that had ever been played in the league. The Columbia-Clifford contest was as nothing to it.
"Hold 'em, Tigers! Don't let 'em score again! Rip out another touchdown! Go at 'em!"
How the cohorts of Columbia begged and pleaded! No less did the friends of Bellport.
A touchdown, a field goal, or a safety for either side now would win the game and the championship. Which would it be? To which side would it go. A thousand admirers of either team asked those questions.
Bellport had the ball, and had, by a smashing rush, carried it three yards through Columbia's line. It was on the latter's forty-yard line now, but it had been there before, and had not advanced much farther. That last attack, though, had had power behind it.
"Look out!" warned Frank. "They may do us!"
The play looked to be another rush on the part of Bellport, and with fierce and eager eyes her opponents watched for the slightest advantage. Bardwell came on with the ball like a stone from a catapult. He hit the line between Shay and Daly, but he did not go through. With desperate energy, borne of despair, the guard and tackle held.
And then, wonder of wonders, probably because he was dazed by the impact with which he hit the line, Bardwell dropped the ball. Like a flash Daly had fallen on it.
"Our ball!" he fairly howled, and when the crowd knew that they went wild—that is, the Columbia contingent.
But the time had slipped by. There were but three minutes more of play.
"Quick now, fellows. Line up! Get a touchdown!" begged Frank. "Break the tie!"
Into the play plunged the doughty captain himself for a ten-yard gain, for the shock of surprise at their misfortune still held the Bellport players spellbound.
"Another like that!" cried the throng.
A fake kick netted eight yards additional, and then followed more line bucking.
"A goal from the field," suggested Wallace, when time was taken out to allow Alpers to get back his end.
"No, straight up the field—rush it!" ordered Allen.
Once more he made a slight gain.
"One minute more!" warned the time-keeper.
"Oh, can we do it!" panted Wallace.
He called on Ralph West for a straight plunge between guard and tackle. The plucky left-half drew a long breath, and gathered himself for the tremendous energy he knew would be needed. They were but four feet from the goal line. The ball must be shoved over if human lungs and muscles could stand the terrific strain a moment longer.
Amid a solemn silence came the signal. Like a shot West plunged forward, with the ball tightly tucked under his arm.
Into the line he went, smash bang! Oh, what a great hole there was torn for him by the strenuous Shay and Daly! Through it West went, and in vain did Lee and Bardwell try to stop him. As well try to stop a rushing torrent as the Columbia players now. They were going to have that touchdown or tear up the goal posts.
With the quickness that argued how well he knew the need of haste, West placed the ball down beyond and over his head after he had fallen in a fierce tackle. Over the line—over—ah, was it over? The chalk-mark was obliterated at this point. Was it over?
"Touchdown!" howled the Columbia players madly.
"Never. It's not over!" retorted Bellport's men fiercely.
There was a wild dispute, and in the midst of it the whistle blew, ending the game.
Who had won? It would take a measurement to decide. The linesmen came hurrying up, while the crowd chaffed at the delay and did not know who to cheer.
Anxiously the measure was taken, and while hearts wildly beat the announcement was made.
"The ball is over by four inches. Columbia wins the touchdown!"
"Eleven to six!"
"The silver cup is ours!"
And then such a riot of wild cries, such stamping of feet, such waving of banners and streamers of ribbon! The great championship game was won by Columbia! Columbia!
"Columbia! Columbia the Gem of the Gridiron!" came the eager shouts. And the players filed off the field.
THE MESSAGE FROM TOKIO.—CONCLUSION
That Thanksgiving night Columbia went wild.
True, the first snow of the year began sifting down, and the ground was covered with a white mantle; but such a little thing as that could not quench the ardor of those happy fellows. And so for hours the town resounded with cheers and songs, while in several places great bonfires along the banks of the Harrapin told of the general rejoicing.
How could they help it when Columbia High had completed the greatest year in all her history—first there was the winning of the baseball championship; then came the hotly contested inter-school rowing races, in which she won new laurels with her young athletes; and last but not least, both Clifford and Bellport had gone down to bitter defeat before her gridiron warriors!
Frank would have begged off, but even the girls insisted that it would be a shame to spoil the fun. So he had to join in the festivities, and shout with the rest of Columbia's brave sons and fair daughters, as the gigantic procession wound in and out through all the town, greeted by answering cheers from the equally enthusiastic fathers and mothers from the windows.
"There's only one more thing we ought to scoop in this year," said Paul Bird, as he and Frank stood with the girls and watched the antics of Herman Hooker and his band of comical players, wherein the most astonishing stunts were indulged in with amazing instruments manufactured for the occasion.
"You mean the hockey championship, I suppose?" returned Frank, smiling.
"Yes, and from the expression on your face, old fellow, I'm of the opinion right now that you mean to have a look-in on that later on when the river is frozen again."
Frank laughed and nodded.
"Some of us have been talking it over. You know Clifford has been unbeaten in that line for years. They have the best skaters up there in the State, they claim. If we think to accept their standing challenge this year it's up to us to put a better team on the ice than last season," he remarked.
"Well, they did snow you under, for a fact. But experience showed that there were two fellows on your team who ought never to have been there. They lost the match through their clumsiness. Isn't that so, girls?" demanded Paul.
"Everybody said so," declared Helen; and Minnie nodded her heard to indicate that she was of the same opinion.
"Then it must be so," laughed Frank. "But those fellows are not on the team this year. We've been keeping quiet about who is going to play. The committee have selected a certain number of players, and the best will be chosen in time. Mark my words, Paul, we mean to try and give Clifford the biggest kind of a fight this winter. Whether we can win or not depends on many things. Time will tell."
And time did tell, for what manner of hockey was played that winter on the ice-clad surface of the neighboring Harrapin can be found recorded in the next volume of this series of High School sports, entitled: "The Boys of Columbia High on the Ice; or, Out for the Hockey Championship."
When the first of December came around shortly after that great Thanksgiving Day game, Ralph West sought out Frank once more. His face told of excitement, and Frank was consequently ready to expect some important news.
"Did you get your usual monthly allowance from Uncle Jim's office?" he asked.
"Yes, yesterday. I suppose he left word before he went that it should be sent while he was away. But I've heard from him direct," replied Ralph, his face glowing with the eager light of anticipated happiness.
"You have? A letter from China or Russia or Siberia, which?"
"You're away off, Frank. This was a cablegram. I just got it at the office, for I have wandered in there often in hopes of such a thing, and know the operator. It was from Tokio, and I suppose your Uncle Jim must have followed Mrs. Langworthy and her brother Arnold Musgrove there. Perhaps they gave up all hope of getting to Russia through China. I don't know how that is, but here's what it says," and he handed a message to Frank, who glanced down at these words:
"Leave here next steamer for States. Mrs. Langworthy accompanies me. Keep up a good heart, for there is much joy in store for you. JAMES DECATUR ALLEN."
"Hurrah! that's glorious news, old fellow! From my heart I congratulate you! Now, I know Uncle Jim well enough to feel sure that he'd never cable like that unless he was absolutely positive of his ground. Like as not, that monster of an Arnold—why wasn't his name Benedict like the Revolutionary traitor, has confessed; for you don't notice his name among the expected travelers."
"Well, I don't know how I'll ever be able to stand the weeks that must pass before they get here in Columbia. You must help me, Frank, you and Helen," declared Ralph, gripping the hand of his chum almost savagely.
"We will, all right. The time will fly, because you're anticipating happy news. Just think of the extravagance of Uncle Jim, sending nearly thirty words in a cablegram. It costs twenty-five cents a word to London, and goodness knows how many times that from Tokio here. He knows what he's doing though, and I warrant you it's the lady's money that pays for that cablegram," whereupon Ralph impulsively raised the paper to his lips and kissed it, then blushed like a girl.
With such good and true friends around him, it may be sure that Ralph was not going to be left alone much of the time. They made him join in all their sports, and with the coming of winter a dozen new things presented themselves to the boys and girls of old Columbia High.
Minnie was happier than ever, since that little shadow was removed, and her former warm, friendly intercourse with Frank and Helen renewed. Many times she thought of how valiantly Frank had stood there, holding the attention of that terrible bull, so as to allow her time to clamber out of harm's way; and never without a shudder, as she contemplated what a terrible thing might have happened had the boy slipped when avoiding those rushes of the enraged animal.
Never would she allow that old red sweater to leave her possession. The very sight of it always made her sigh with satisfaction. It had undoubtedly had much to do with the savage attack of that animal, whose pasture she so unwittingly invaded; but had that event not happened, perhaps the mystery of that torn paper would never have been explained.
Nothing could again cause her to ever doubt the fidelity of Frank Allen; and to the end of the chapter they must always be, as she had said that day, "good friends, true friends!"