But several times Hugh felt certain he detected sly winks exchanged between Nick and his apparently estranged pal; which could only mean that Leon was playing a double game. Still Hugh did not bother telling anyone about the affair of the preceding night. No harm had really been done, fortunately, and Leon might hold his evil propensities in check for a while if he had reason to fear disclosure.
The committees were wearing their badges proudly, and every member seemed desirous of doing everything in his or her power to render the athletic tournament a wonderful success. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in the county, and for that reason they were compelled to look up all manner of accounts in papers and magazines, in order to do things properly.
Mr. Leonard was a great help, for he, being a Princeton graduate, and interested in all manner of athletics for years, had kept in touch with such things. Then from various other unexpected sources assistance cropped up. Why, even old Doctor Cadmus, the leading physician of Scranton, proved to be a walking encyclopedia of knowledge concerning the management of such an event; and it turned out that several times long years before, in another community entirely, he had had full charge of just such a tournament; also that he had many articles laid away telling of the modern innovations that had displaced the older method of doing things.
After lunch the young people began to gather on the field by squads and battalions, and it was soon quite an animated sight, with the girls circulating around in gaily dressed bunches, and the various candidates going through their various stunts under the personal supervision of Mr. Leonard.
There had been more or less talk concerning the advisability of allowing school boys to undertake such a long Marathon race. Fifteen miles, many thought, was far too strenuous an undertaking for lads as yet in their teens. Full-fledged athletes only run twenty miles in all the famous long-distance races, and even at that numbers of them do not finish, the task being too much for them.
But Mr. Leonard was of a different opinion, and he had his way. One thing, however, he did insist on. This was that each and every candidate entering for the Marathon fetch along with him a paper from his family physician, stating that he had undergone a rigid examination to ascertain whether he was in the pink of condition, and without the slightest heart trouble.
Doctor Cadmus gladly examined all the Scranton fellows free of charge, and it was given out to the neighboring towns, from whence aspiring runners hailed, that the lack of such a physician's certificate would debar any candidate from the race.
Hugh, along with several other fellows, intended to take a run of from seven to ten miles over the course that Friday afternoon. They did not wish to follow out the entire course, as that might injure their prospects for the next day, so Mr. Leonard convinced them. But half the distance would be apt to keep their muscles in good trim.
Before making a start, however, Hugh wished to hang around, and watch what the other fellows were doing. He was deeply interested in the hammer throwing, as well as the sprinting, and, after seeing how well the boys acquitted themselves, felt more than ever assured that Scranton High would pull down quite a number of the fine prizes offered to successful competitors.
It was while things were thus booming that a car rolled past on the main road leading out of town. Hugh noticed it particularly, for he chanced to be over at that side of the extensive field.
There was a chauffeur at the wheel, and in the tonneau a lady and a boy sat, in whom Hugh quickly recognized Claude Jardine and his mother. She held her face deliberately away from the bright scene, as though appalled to know that so many parents in Scranton were so unwise, almost foolish, as to allow their sons to participate in such antics; and their daughters to attend the same.
But Hugh chuckled when he saw Claude give a quick look up at his mother, as if to make certain she was not looking; after which he leaned forward and stared hard and eagerly at the wonderful picture that athletic field presented. Hugh had good eyesight, and he could detect the longing expression in the effeminate features of the boy whose mother seemed bent on making him a weakling and a "sissy."
"Poor Claude, I certainly do pity you," Hugh was telling himself as the big car rolled on amidst a cloud of dust. "Deep down in your heart you are yearning to be as other natural boys are, who have red blood in their veins. If your dad had lived I warrant there'd be a different story to tell, because they say he liked all kinds of healthy sport; but, somehow, Mrs. Jardine has taken a dislike to such things that seems to keep growing stronger all the time, until it's become a regular mania with her. But unless she changes her mind there'll be a day coming when she'll bitterly regret it all. I suppose now, if she had a daughter she'd prevent her from associating with Sue, and Ivy, and Peggy, as well as all the other high-school girls whose mothers actually allow them to go to dances with us boys, and even cheer the Scranton players in a rattling good baseball game."
There was an air of feverish expectation rampant throughout the whole town, and wherever young people got together the talk was of nothing else save the great event on the programme for the next day. Even many older persons seemed to have become infected with the sporting virus, because memories of other days were being recalled; and it was remarkable how many elderly men had once been deeply interested in just such things, though, of course, along somewhat less modern lines.
Then again there was an undercurrent of talk that carried a thrill along with it. Stories that could not be confirmed, but were believed more or less, began to be circulated to the effect that some irresponsible parties meant to start something during the tournament that was calculated to bring disrepute upon the town of Scranton. It was even darkly hinted that the partly built, new, wooden fence had been set on fire as a lark; and squads of curious boys and girls even circulated along its entire length, bent upon ascertaining if such a thing could really be true.
When they failed to find any evidence of a fire, they were still unconvinced; for, of course, it would be policy on the part of the management to conceal all traces, so as to save the good name of the town.
These rumors could not be traced to any particular source, but there are always a certain number of persons who delight to circulate such stories, and, perhaps, unconsciously, add a little to the same with each and every additional telling, until a trivial happening becomes a colossal thing.
That the committee in general charge of the great undertaking cherished some sort of fear that some daring outrage might be attempted by boys who were not connected with the high school was evident from the fact that they had had warning notices printed at the office of the Weekly Courier, notifying all boys who might contemplate playing any sort of practical joke during the holding of the carnival that Chief Adolph Wambold, the head of the local police, would have his entire force on the grounds, and such offenders would be harshly treated, if detected.
The afternoon was well along when Hugh was approached by "Just" Smith, one of the candidates who meant to try for the Marathon prize.
"Several of the boys are meaning to start off on that seven-mile spin, Hugh," the other announced as he came up; "and they want you to come along. We can start together, and then separate, as we feel disposed;" and, as this suited Hugh, he agreed.
WHEN MUSCLES COUNTED
There were four of them who made the start, Hugh, "Just" Smith, Horatio Juggins, and "K. K.," the Kinkaid boy. Three of the bunch had been fielders in the baseball nine that carried off the championship pennant of the three-town high-school league the preceding summer; and, having been known as great runners, it was only natural that they had felt impelled to enter for the long-distance race.
An equal number could be expected from both Allandale and Belleville, so that with others who would feel disposed to, at least, be in at the start, though calculating to fall out after a few miles had been run, possibly a full score would toe the string at the time the great Marathon was called.
In an event of this nature a big "field" adds to the excitement of the occasion; and it is often noticed that those who have no intention of finishing usually look the most confident during the preparations for making the grand start. Well, they have no hope of getting any fun out of the race after losing sight of the crowd, and so they mean to take what they can beforehand.
Talking is almost tabooed during such a race, since every breath lost in useless conversation saps so much energy. Even on a trial run Mr. Leonard had advised the boys to separate as soon as possible, and keep some distance apart, mostly to obviate this temptation to exchange views; so that each candidate could conserve every atom of his powers.
So it came about that by the time two miles had been run Hugh found himself absolutely alone. Hugh had left the main thoroughfare, and was passing along a byroad that would take him around through the hilly country, until the Scranton turnpike was again reached.
The other fellows had the option of doing as Hugh did, or they could continue on further, and, perhaps, get a lift back home on some farmer's wagon, or possibly a car bound for Scranton. Hugh had an idea, however, that one of them was coming along the same road a mile or more behind, and that it would turn out to be "Just" Smith. Some words the other chap had uttered when they were together before starting forth on the run gave Hugh this impression, though he could not be positive about it.
At the time, it gave him little concern; but then he could not look into the immediate future, and see what it held for him. The coming of "Just" Smith would yet turn out to be an event of the first magnitude in Hugh's humble opinion; as the reader will soon learn.
Hugh was jogging along nicely, and had long ago caught his second wind. He kept "tabs" upon himself, in order to know just how his energy held out, and if he was likely to be in condition for the gruelling finish that might become necessary, over the last half mile of the long course, should a visiting runner threaten to head the list with the goal in sight, and the thousands of eager spectators bursting out with cheers calculated to thrill the heart, and give fresh impetus to wearied limbs.
On the whole, Hugh felt fairly well satisfied with himself. He knew he had gone about as fast as ordinary runners would care to travel, who wished to conserve their strength toward the close of the race; and that he was holding back a good reserve stock of energy. Yes, he believed he was at his best, and if he failed to land the prize it was because some fellow was a better runner than he could ever hope to be.
Just then he heard a sound that gave him a sudden thrill. It was like a faint human cry for help, uttered in a weak voice, and seemed to come from his right.
Hugh stopped short.
His first inclination was to instantly dash from the road and endeavor to discover what caused that cry. Then he had a wave of suspicion dart over him. Could this be a sly trick on the part of some enemy, meant to lure him into the brush and rocks, where he could, perhaps, be overpowered? But Nick, as well as his two satellites, Leon Disney and Tip Slavin, had been on the grounds at the time Hugh started his run, for he had taken particular notice of this fact; consequently, it was hardly likely that they could be concerned in any practical joke; and certainly no other fellow would be guilty of such a thing.
That decided Hugh. He left the road, and started toward the spot where he judged that strange sound had welled forth. The country was exceedingly rough just there, and he fancied that some sort of deep gully, possibly a precipice, might lie off on his right, judging from the aspect of the land.
Not hearing the sound again, Hugh uttered a loud hello. Then, as he continued to press hastily forward, he once more caught the beseeching cry. It had an agonizing strain to it, and Hugh could plainly make out the words:
"Help! Oh! help! help!"
Someone was evidently in trouble, Hugh decided, accelerating his pace as well as the conditions of the rough surface of the ground permitted. He had taken pains to locate the cry this time, and was, therefore, altering his course just a little.
Again he called, and once more received a reply, more fearful than before:
"Hurry! Oh! hurry, before it gives way, and I'm lost!"
It sounded more like the voice of a girl than anything else. Hugh was thrilled at the bare thought of one of the opposite sex being caught in a trap whereby life itself was imperiled.
He had been ascending all this time. From a single look, which he cast over his shoulder, he could see the road he had lately come along, trace its course, in fact, until it was lost at a bend half a mile away.
He noted that a runner had just turned that same bend, and was jogging along in a rhythmic, contented fashion, as though satisfied with the progress he was making; although "Just" Smith would have to speed up considerable on the morrow if he wished to be anywhere near the head of the procession when the race neared its close. Hugh, somehow, fixed the fact of his comrade's presence on his mind. He even mentally figured just how long it was likely to take the other to reach the spot where he himself had left the road; for, perhaps, that circumstance might loom up large in his calculations.
Then he arrived at the brink of what seemed to be a precipice. The presence of this told Hugh plainly the nature of the task that awaited him. Someone had undoubtedly fallen over the brink, and was, even then, hanging on desperately to some jutting rock or bush that represented the only hope of safety from a serious fall. He threw himself down and thrust his head out over the edge. What Hugh saw was enough to give any boy a thrill of horror. Some ten feet below the top a human figure sprawled, kicking with his legs in the endeavor to find a brace for his feet. He was clinging to a bush that seemed to be growing from the face of the precipice, and which Hugh could see was slowly but surely giving way, one root after another losing its grip in the soil and rocky crevices.
Hugh recognized the imperiled boy instantly, though utterly amazed at his discovery; he could not understand for the life of him how Claude Jardine, of all fellows in Scranton, could be placed in such a dreadful predicament.
But Hugh did not waste a single precious second in trying to solve that puzzle; it could be all made plain after he had managed to save the poor chap.
"Stop kicking, and keep perfectly still, Claude!" he instantly called.
"But it's going to give way, and let me drop!" wailed the terrified boy.
"It'll do that all the sooner if you keep moving as you are," Hugh told him sharply, with the tone of authority that one accustomed to command might use. "I'm coming down after you, so don't be afraid. Can you hold on just ten seconds more?"
"I'll try to, but, oh! hurry, please!" came the trembling answer.
Already Hugh was passing over the edge. He took care not to make a false movement, for the precipice was all of forty feet in depth, and a fall on the rocks below was bound to be a serious matter.
To lower himself to where the imperiled boy clung he had to take advantage of numerous projecting points of rock that offered him a foothold, or a place where he could hang on with his hands. Hugh was as nimble as any boy in Scranton, which fact proved of great advantage to him just then. Had it been otherwise, he might have himself fallen, and there would then have been a double tragedy.
Somehow, through Hugh's mind flashed the memory of how Claude's doting mother had always, on every occasion, condemned all athletic exercises that were intended to build up the muscles, and give new power to the body. It seemed the irony of fate that the life of her precious boy was now going to hang upon the ability of Hugh Morgan to sustain himself, and the weight of another, there upon the face of that rocky precipice! Perhaps in times to come Mrs. Jardine would discover how false her ideas were, and experience a radical change of heart. The opportunity which Hugh had once sighed for had come to him in a most wonderful way.
He succeeded in making his way down in safety, though once he slipped, and had a thrill of alarm pass over him. Now he found himself alongside Claude. The boy's face was the color of ashes; Hugh had never looked upon a corpse in all his life, but he could not help comparing Claude's pallid countenance to one.
He was glancing around with the eye of a general who lets nothing, no matter how trivial, escape him. Just a foot below Claude's dangling toes there was a narrow ledge. If only both of them could find lodgment upon this; and have some hold above for their hands, they might maintain their position until Hugh's shouts attracted "Just" Smith to the spot, and he could do something to aid them.
"Listen, Claude," he said earnestly. "There's a way to save you, if only you keep your head about you. 'Just' Smith is coming along the road, and I'll shout out to guide him here so he can help us."
"But—the bush is going to give way right off!" gasped the terrified boy.
"Well, below us there's a ledge where we must plant our feet, and hold on," continued Hugh, convincingly. "I'm going to drop down to it now. Then you must try to lower yourself along the bush, inch by inch, until you feel the ledge under you. Don't be afraid, because I mean to grab hold of you; but when you feel me touching you, above all things don't let go above, or you'll throw us both down. Now, be ready, Claude; and, remember, it's going to be all right. Keep cool!"
Of course, Hugh only said that last to reassure the poor chap. Claude was already cold with fear, as cold as an icicle, in fact; and quaking with fear in the bargain.
It was easy enough for Hugh to drop down another foot or so, until he felt the solid little ledge under him. Indeed, had it been necessary, such an agile fellow very likely might have continued all the way down to the base of the precipice.
His next move was to find a firm hold for his left hand, to which he could continue to cling while he sustained much of the weight of the other boy, after the weakened roots of the bush gave way entirely.
Claude was trying to do what he had been told, though in rather a bungling fashion. Inch by inch he allowed the bush to slip through his hands, looking down as well as he was able at the same time, in order to ascertain just how near he might be to that same ledge Hugh had told him of.
THE CRISIS IN CLAUDE'S LIFE
Hugh kept a watchful eye on that bush. He knew it was going to give way presently, when, unless Claude had managed to secure a fresh grip on some object with his poor scratched hands, he was likely to be dashed downward.
Fortune was, however, kind in that respect, for there chanced to be a nice projection of rock, somewhat in the shape of a horn, just in the right place for Claude to seize upon, and which would help sustain his weight. Hugh knew very well, though, that most of the burden would fall upon him; and he, therefore, prepared to accept it.
"Here, reach out with your left hand, Claude, and take hold of this rock. Your feet are both safely anchored on the ledge. Keep up your grit, and everything will be all right yet. Do you understand what I'm telling you, Claude?"
"Yes, I do, Hugh," chattered the other, for his teeth were rattling together in a way that reminded Hugh of the "Bones" at the end of a minstrel line; if he had ever seen a Spanish stage performance he would have said they made a sound like castanets in the hands of the senorita who gave the national Castilian dance.
Claude really managed to carry out that part of the task with a fair amount of success. His other hand still gripped the bush, which continued to gradually give way under the long and severe strain.
Hugh braced himself. He had taken as firm a hold as was possible, and had his other arm thrown around Claude.
"Steady, now, Claude, it's almost gone. When you feel it give way, try and make use of your right hand to find some other rocky point where you can hold on. I think there's one such on the other side of you. Above all, don't struggle, or you may throw me off my balance, and then it's good-bye to both of us. Now, be ready!"
Hugh's calculations proved to be correct, for the bush gave way, and fell with a clatter of small stones and loosened earth, down toward the bottom of the steep declivity. Claude uttered a cry of dismay when he felt his support gone; but luckily he gripped the rocky knob with his left hand more convulsively than ever, while Hugh sustained him to the best of his ability.
"That was well done, Claude," Hugh now told him, his main object being to put a little more confidence in the other boy, and thus lighten his own load. "We'll manage to cling here for a bit longer. When I think 'Just' Smith is getting near by I'll let out a whoop that is bound to fetch him to our assistance."
One, two, three minutes passed. It was very trying to Hugh, and already his muscles began to feel the undue strain keenly. But he gritted his teeth, and waited, as it would be only a waste of breath and energy to shout before the next runner was close enough up to locate the sound.
Claude was shivering as though he would shake to pieces. He had received a dreadful fright, for a fact, and it was having its due effect upon his never strong frame. What would his doting mamma think, and say, Hugh told himself, almost with a chuckle of amusement, could she see her darling then and there, and realize how his very life depended upon the strong muscles and will to do things that Hugh Morgan had developed in himself?
How slowly the seconds passed! Hugh was trying to count, so as to judge when the Marathon runner would be likely to have covered that half-mile, and be at the spot where he, Hugh, had left the road.
When, finally, the time had expired he again spoke to Claude.
"Don't be startled, Claude, because I'm going to shout out. Hang tight, now!"
With that he sent out a whoop, and coupled it with the name of "Just" Smith. There was no immediate response, but then Hugh had already discounted this in his mind, remembering how he also had come to a sudden stop, and listened as though unable to believe his ears.
Again he shouted, and once more uttered the name of the other boy. This time there came a speedy reply.
"Hello! that you, Hugh?"
"Yes, and I want help right away!" answered the boy who clung there with a burden on his hands. "Turn out of the road to the left, and hurry here. I'm down a precipice, Just. Keep coming, and I'll guide you all right."
So Hugh continued to utter loud shouts every dozen seconds or so. He could catch the calls of the advancing runner, and knew from their increasing loudness that he was gradually getting closer.
Then, looking up, he saw a head projected over the brink above. He could easily understand how "Just" Smith's eyes must have almost started from their sockets when discovering the dreadful position of the pair below; and especially after he had recognized Claude Jardine, the last fellow in the wide world whom he would have expected to see in such a fix.
"H-h-how in the wide world did you get down there, Hugh?" gasped the boy who leaned over the brink.
"I came down after Claude here, who'd fallen over, and was hanging to a bush that was giving way," explained Hugh. "And now it's up to you to get us both out of this scrape, Just."
"Oh, if only I had a rope!" cried the other, apparently nonplussed.
"Well, wishes won't make one," said the practical Hugh; "and so we'll have to do without. But if you look around sharply I think you'll find a long pole there, for I remember noticing something of the kind."
The boy above vanished for a brief period, which seemed ages to the anxious Claude; and even Hugh counted the seconds, for the strain was something serious. Then again that friendly head appeared in view.
"You were right, Hugh!" called the Smith boy; "there was such a pole handy, and I've got the same right here now. It's plenty long enough to reach down to you; but I'm wondering however I'll be able to draw two of you up."
"I don't expect you to, all by yourself, Just," Huge told him. "Poke the end of it down here, and keep a good stiff grip on the butt. Then we'll hold on, and find places to set our feet. Inch by inch, and foot by foot, we'll manage to climb up. You can help a little by keeping the stick coming, you know."
"I get you, Hugh!" snapped the other eagerly; "and it's sure a right good scheme. But be mighty careful you don't slip, either of you. That fall'd break bones, even if it didn't kill you outright."
"Don't worry about us, Just Smith; pay attention to your part of the contract, and things are bound to work out first-class. Lower away, and don't poke us off our perch, please. We've only got a risky hold below here."
So saying, Hugh encouraged the other two to do their part manfully. Even Claude was shivering less than before, as though a breath of renewed confidence might have been installed in his heart by this close contact with such a stalwart chap as Hugh Morgan. It was going to be the turning point in Claude's career, of that Hugh felt positive. After this thrilling experience he was bound to awaken to the fact that he was not like other boys of his age; and demand of his mother that she permit him to participate in the life-giving outdoor sports that are a part and parcel of boy nature.
They began to climb. It was slow work, but Hugh would not be hurried. Better that they waste time in gaining each foot than by an unwise step ruin all. What matter if that arm of his was almost numb with pain, and he had to press his teeth firmly together in order to continue to hold up Claude? If only the other had been a normal boy he could have helped himself wonderfully; but, as it was, he seemed as weak and helpless as a kitten that had never opened its eyes as yet.
Well, half of the distance separating them from the top had been safely navigated, and so far no accident had occurred. Hugh kept encouraging his charge from time to time; and then speaking words also to the laboring, anxious boy above, directing him just how to proceed.
Finally they reached the top. Hugh still ordered "Just" Smith to hold the pole as he had been doing. Then he managed to push Claude up so that he could crawl over the edge, which the other did in a speedy manner, bordering on the ludicrous.
Then, to the surprise, as well as delight of Hugh, what did Claude do but turn and stretch out a helping hand, as though his first thought was to assist his rescuer to top the rise; indeed, Hugh's one arm was so utterly gone that he could hardly count on it for a single thing. Hugh would not be apt to forget this action on the part of the "sissy"; it proved what he had all along more than half suspected, that Claude really did have the making of a genuine boy in him, given half a chance for it to show itself, and the seed to germinate. And Hugh determined that he would make it his particular business to see that there came a change in Claude's dreary life. His mother could hardly refuse anything asked by the one to whom she owed the life of her son.
Soon the trio lay upon the ground, breathing hard, and trying to talk at the same time. Both Hugh and "Just" Smith were consumed with curiosity to know how Claude happened to get into such a strange predicament, and he hastened to explain.
After all, there was nothing so very singular about it. His mother had stopped in to see an old nurse, who had been in the family many years but was at the time lying sick at her sister's place. Something influenced Claude to get out of the big car to take a little stroll. Perhaps the sight of all those happy lads running and jumping and throwing weights had made him feel more than ever his own narrow, confined life, kept out of the society of all the other boys after school hours, and made to play the part of a "mollycoddle," as Roosevelt called all such fellows who have never learned how to take care of themselves when a bully threatens.
Unused to the woods and hills, of course the first thing Claude did was to lose all sense of direction. He became alarmed, and that made matters worse than ever. So he had roamed about for almost a full hour, dreadfully tiring his poor feet and limbs, since he had never before in all his life walked so far and done such vigorous climbing.
Then he had come to that precipice, and, thinking he might glimpse the cottage where the old nurse lived, somewhere down in the valley, he had incautiously crept too close to the brink, when his weight caused a portion of the soil to give way. Finding himself falling, Claude had clutched desperately around him, and, as it happened, his fingers gripped a friendly bush, to which he continued to cling even as he struggled to better his condition and shouted as best he was able.
Hugh finished the story, to the edification of "Just" Smith, who admitted that if it had not been for the courage and muscular ability of Hugh the other boy must long ago have fallen to the bottom of the awful precipice. And Claude, shivering as he afterwards looked up at the forty feet and more of rocky wall, vowed he would never rest satisfied until he too had learned how to develop his muscles so that if ever again caught in a similar scrape he might have a fighting chance for his life.
The two boys eventually found the cottage, although Mrs. Jardine and the car had gone down the road hoping to overtake Claude, though they were expected back again later; so, leaving Claude there, Hugh and "Just" Smith continued their seven-mile run.
STARTLING NEWS FROM THE JUGGINS BOY
That was the telephone bell ringing.
"Hugh, will you answer it, since the chances are the call is from some one of your numerous boy chums?" the voice of Mrs. Morgan came from the dining-room, where she was looking after the silver and china, after washing up the supper dishes, for they temporarily chanced to be without a hired-girl.
Hugh guessed as much himself. He had already been called to the phone several times since arriving home after his seven-mile spin. Once it had been Claude's mother, begging him to be sure and call at her house early in the morning, because she wanted to have a good, long, earnest talk with him about Claude's future; and also to let him know how brimful of gratitude a mother's heart could be toward the brave boy who, at the risk of his own life, had saved her only child for her.
Hugh had promised he would see her, although he expected to be very busy on the morning of the athletic tournament and then expressed the hope that Claude and herself would honor the tournament with their presence. This she hastily assured him she meant to do, because it was now borne in on her heart that she had been making a terrible mistake in reference to the way she was bringing up her darling Claude.
Needless to say, Hugh had chuckled joyously after that little talk. He guessed he would have little trouble now in removing the scales Mrs. Jardine had allowed to cover her eyes with regard to the benefits to be derived by any boy, no matter how weak he might be, through a judicious system of athletic exercises, the same to be lengthened as he gradually grew more capable of standing fatigue.
"Hello!" Hugh called.
A voice he immediately recognized as that of Horatio Juggins greeted him. "That you, Hugh?"
"Just who it is; what's the matter, Horatio? Feeling the effects of your little jog this afternoon? I hope not, for your sake, to-morrow."
"Oh! come off, Hugh," the other quickly replied. "I'd be a fine candidate for a fifteen-mile Marathon race, wouldn't I, if seven miles knocked me out? I'm as fit right now as a fiddle. But Hugh, can you come right over here now? Something dreadful has happened."
Hugh had a chilly feeling pass over him. It seemed as though some sort of bad news was coming. Had the great meet been called off, for some unknown reason or other? Somehow that struck him first as a dire possibility, since it would grievously disappoint thousands of eager boys and girls, not to mention many older folks with young hearts.
Now Hugh had intended to take that evening quietly, resting after his strenuous afternoon, and absolutely refuse to allow Thad, or any other fellow, to coax him outside the door. But already this resolve began to weaken. That dim mention of some possible tragedy happening started him going.
"Of course I can come over, Horatio," he told the boy at the other end of the wire; "and I'll do so right away on condition that it's no joke. Tell me what's up first."
"Oh! I meant to do that, Hugh," his friend hastened to say, and Hugh could detect a tremor to the boyish voice that told of excitement. "You see, it's K. K."
"What's happened to him?" demanded Hugh, his mind instantly suggesting all manner of terrible possibilities, from a sudden attack of sickness to an accident whereby his life might be in danger; for with boys these things sometimes happen as unexpectedly as a flash of lightning from a clear sky.
"Why, he never came back again from that run this afternoon, Hugh!" Horatio was saying, in an awed tone now.
"What's that you're telling me?" exclaimed the astonished Hugh. "I thought I saw K. K. with some of the other fellows when I was starting home just before dusk came on, though, of course, I may have been mistaken about it."
"You were, Hugh, you certainly were," Horatio assured him in a softened tone. "His own mother ought to know, hadn't she? Well, she's over here at our house right now, crying her eyes out, and imagining all sorts of terrible things. You remember the Kinkaids live close by us; and she knew her boy was going to take the run this afternoon along with me, so she thought I could tell her if anything had happened to detain him. Why, she says K. K. never missed his supper before in all his life. It'd have to be something fierce to keep him away from his best meal of the whole day."
Hugh was thinking swiftly. He realized that this was no little matter to be dismissed as unimportant. Something certainly must have happened to detain K. K. for all this time. Several hours had elapsed since the other fellows reached the terminus of the long run at the athletic grounds. Why then had not K. K. shown up?
"Keep the rest till I get there, Horatio!" he told the other.
"Then you're sure coming, are you, Hugh?"
"Right away," Hugh added.
"Well, I'm glad, because you'll know what to do about it. And there's something else!"
"I've got something to tell you that, say, I didn't have the heart to explain to K. K.'s mother, because she's bad enough frightened as it is; but it's looking particularly ugly to me, now that he hasn't come back. Oh! perhaps there is more'n a grain of truth in all those terrible stories those hayseeds tell about that place!"
Hugh put up the receiver with a bang, made a dash for his cap, slipped on his sweater, for he knew the night air was cold, and then shot out of doors. Somehow those last few words of Horatio, breathing of mystery as they did, had excited his curiosity until it now reached fever-pitch.
As he knew of several short-cuts across lots it took him but a few minutes to arrive at the Juggins home. Horatio was waiting at the door, and must have heard him running up the steps, for he instantly opened it to admit him.
"Gee, but I'm glad you've come, Hugh!" was his greeting. "She's in there with mother, and taking on awful about it. It's a dreadful thing to see a woman cry, Hugh. And I'm afraid there may be a good reason for expecting the worst."
"Tell me what you've got up your sleeve, Horatio," snapped Hugh, "and quit giving all these dark hints. You know something connected with K. K. that perhaps no one else does."
"Guess I do, Hugh; for he confided in me, and told me not to say anything to the rest. Oh, how foolish it was for K. K. to think he could do that big job two days in succession; but he said he was feeling equal to nearly anything; and just had to make the try, since the notion had gripped him. But come on over to my den, Hugh, and I'll tell you all about it. Then you must decide what's best to be done; and say, I hope you can soothe Mrs. Kinkaid a bit in the bargain."
Ten seconds later and the two boys found themselves ensconced in the room Horatio called his "den," although it was also his sleeping apartment. But he had fixed it as near like a boy's ideal of a lounging-place could be, the walls carrying the customary college pennants and a great variety of other things besides that gave them a rather crowded appearance. Evidently Horatio believed it added to the charm, for he never entered that "sanctum" without an involuntary smile of appreciation.
Horatio closed the door softly after him. Hugh had also noticed how he did this just as carefully when admitting him to the front hall; and as though he expected that this must have aroused a certain amount of curiosity, Horatio hastened to explain.
"You see, the poor woman is so excited, and in such a nervous condition, that she jumps up at the sound of a door closing, and starts to rush out into the hall, believing that Justin has got back home and hurried over to acquaint her with the joyous fact. Each time her disappointment leaves her worse than before. She will be needing Doctor Cadmus if this keeps on, as sure as anything."
"Well, what is it you want to tell me, Horatio?" demanded Hugh, not even taking the trouble to drop down into the chair the owner of the "den" shoved toward him; for it seemed as though he must soon be on the jump—there was evidently something hanging over their heads, which would be needing prompt attention.
"Why, it's just this, Hugh," began the other. "K. K. took a foolish notion he'd like to say he'd gone over the full course just for practice. And, Hugh. he told me he meant to make use of the short-cut that crosses the old haunted quarry!"
Hugh started, and looked serious.
"Then, if anything has happened to K. K., it must have been while he was crossing that mile tract between the two main roads," he went on to say, without hesitation. Horatio nodded his head eagerly.
"I jumped to that same conclusion, Hugh, only I didn't dare mention it to Mrs. Kinkaid. I thought you ought to know first of all, and decide on the program. It's terrible just to think of it; and K. K. actually pretended to make light, too, of all those stories the farmers have been telling about that awful place."
"Hold your horses, Horatio!" Hugh exclaimed. "When I said that I wasn't thinking of ghosts, or anything else unnatural. I meant that in all probability poor K. K. met with some ordinary accident while on that stretch, and has been unable to continue his run. He may have tripped on a vine he failed to see, and either broken his leg, or else sprained his ankle so badly that he can't even limp along. I've known such a thing to happen—in fact, once I got myself in the same pickle, and had to crawl two miles to a house, every foot of the way on hands and knees, because the pain was frightful whenever I tried to stand up. Well, the chances are K. K. has had such a thing befall him."
Horatio heaved a tremendous sigh, as though quite a weighty load had been taken off his chest.
"You make me feel a heap better, Hugh, when you're so positive," he hastened to admit. "I was afraid it might be something even worse than a sprain; but never mind what I thought. The question now is, what ought we do about it?"
"There's only one thing that can be done," Hugh told him in his customary straight-from-the-shoulder fashion, "which is for some of his chums to organize a searching party, get the old Kinkaid car out, and go up there to look over that abandoned road from one end to the other. We'll find K. K., or know the reason why."
"That sounds good to me, Hugh!" declared Horatio, always ready to follow where a bold leader showed the way; "and perhaps we may have an opportunity to discover whether there is any truth about those queer happenings the farmers keep telling of whenever the old quarry is mentioned in their presence."
"We'll not bother our minds about fairy stories," Hugh assured him. "What we're meaning to do is to look for a practical explanation of K. K.'s holding out. And, mark my words, the chances are ten to one we'll find the poor chap groaning alongside that road somewhere. But let's get busy now, Horatio!"
TO THE RESCUE OF K. K.
Hugh would really have been better satisfied if he could have hurried away without seeing K. K.'s mother. He feared that she might delay progress more or less, and at such a time every minute counted.
But at the same time he realized that the poor lady was in a dreadful state of mind. It was necessary then that he try and soothe her anxiety, for, as Horatio knew very well, Hugh Morgan had a way of making other people feel the utmost confidence in him.
"Well, let's see K. K.'s mother, Horatio; but we mustn't waste much time. We'll have to get her permission to run the car. I only hope there's a decent supply of gas aboard, or in the garage."
Accordingly, Horatio led him into another room, where they found Mrs. Kinkaid in a dreadfully nervous condition. She jumped to her feet on discovering that Horatio had another boy with him, and then upon seeing that it was not the one her heart was yearning after she uttered a pitiful wail, and fell back into her chair again.
Hugh wasted no time, but commenced telling her something of what he had heard from Horatio, connected with K. K.'s foolish determination to take in the entire course as though in the race.
"Of a certainty he's fallen and sprained an ankle somewhere along that cross-country road, Mrs. Kinkaid," he ended with. "We mean to gather a few of the fellows, and if you'll give us permission to use your big car we intend to run up there and look that road over from end to end. There is no doubt but what we'll find K. K. and fetch him back with us. So please try and feel that things will turn out all right. Make up your mind we won't come back without him, that's all there is to it."
Somehow the very confidence shown in Hugh's words seemed to pass along to the almost distracted lady. Her eyes lighted up with renewed courage, and she even smiled, though wanly, it must be confessed. But then Hugh was pretty much of a magician in regard to arousing a feeling of hope in the most depressed mind.
"You are a thousand times welcome to the car," she hurriedly assured him; "and anything else you might want. It is dreadfully unfortunate Mr. Kinkaid is away on one of his usual business trips to the west, or he would insist on going with you. But I feel certain, Hugh, you will manage things splendidly, and a mother's prayers will go after you, that you may not only find my boy, but that he may not have been seriously injured."
"Then we'll not linger any longer, ma'am," said Hugh, eager to be on the move.
Horatio wrapped himself up warmly, and the two of them shot out of the door.
"Now, what first, Hugh?"
Hugh seemed to have mapped out a plan of campaign in his mind, for he answered without hesitation.
"We must pick up several of the fellows—Thad for one, then Owen Dugdale would be another good hand at hunting for a lost party; and, well, Julius Hobson for the third. That will make five in all,—enough to search the quarry road from end to end. Besides, we ought to carry several lanterns, because, while there is a moon, I reckon we'll find it far from light along that overgrown trail."
"You just think of everything, Hugh," remarked Horatio, wonderingly.
"Let's get the car, first of all," Hugh continued shrewdly, "because it can save us many steps in picking up the other fellows."
By this time they were at the Kinkaid home. Horatio was well acquainted with the premises, as he had played with K. K. since they were small boys together. Hugh had been told where the key of the garage was hidden, and quickly discovered it hanging on a concealed nail.
"Wait till I throw the switch, and light up," said Horatio, for they had electricity at the Kinkaid place, and, of course, a bulb lighted in the garage was considered much safer than a lantern.
As soon as the illumination came both boys set about examining the big touring car that occupied the garage.
"Bully!" ejaculated Horatio, after making the rounds with suspended breath; "all the tires are as hard as anything. How about the supply of gas, Hugh?" for his companion had occupied himself with making an examination of the tank.
"Plenty to carry us up and back twice over!" cried the delighted Hugh. "This is what I call great luck. I was afraid there would be a tire that needed changing; or else no gasolene at all. K. K. didn't realize how kind he was to himself when he fitted up the old car so handsomely, for some purpose."
"Oh!" chuckled Horatio, "mebbe I know why. You see, there's going to be another barn dance next Tuesday night up at Bailey's, and I think K. K. asked a girl to go with him and Peggy Noland and Owen Dugdale. Yes, he even told me there was still room for two more, if I could coax somebody to keep me company."
Hugh busied himself in starting the car going. He knew considerable about mechanics, as most boys of the present generation do, since automobiles have become so very common. Running it out of the garage Hugh bade Horatio "hop aboard," which that worthy did without a second invitation.
"Better get Thad first of all, I reckon," suggested Hugh, as though he might even have figured out how best to save themselves from any unnecessary delay; "then we can clip around to Julius Hobson's place, and pick up Owen last on our way out of town."
The program suited Horatio first class. Indeed, he had such perfect confidence in Hugh that anything the other said carried conviction along with it. It is a fine thing for any boy to have aroused such a spirit of trust in the minds of his comrades that they look up to him as a sort of natural leader, and obey his slightest wish without hesitation. But Hugh bore his honors with humility, and never attempted to display the attributes of a czar.
Great was the astonishment of Thad Stevens when he found two excited fellows demanding that he bundle up and go with them for a night ride up to the abandoned quarry that had gained such a bad reputation among the country folks residing roundabout.
The story was partly told in rapid-fire style, enough of it, at least, to cause Thad to bounce into his heavy coat, and provide himself with a lantern. He expected to become better informed from time to time as they pushed along the road.
Next came Julius Hobson. They found him at home also, and, of course, he was duly worked up on hearing how poor K. K. had never returned home from his run over the long course of fifteen miles. When he heard that they needed lanterns Julius produced a new electric flashlight which he had received for a birthday present, and Hugh said it would do very well as an additional means of illumination.
Last of all they stopped at the home of Owen Dugdale, the dark-faced lad who lived with his grandfather in a big house, and about whom there had at one time been quite a little halo of mystery hanging. ["The Chums of Scranton High on Deck."]
Again was the main fact mentioned concerning the necessity for a searching party starting forth to find poor K. K. Owen did not have to be urged to join the bunch; indeed, he showed himself eager to accompany them.
"I can fetch a lantern, if you want me to, Hugh," he observed; "and say, do you know I'm of a mind to carry my new shotgun that I had given to me just last month, when Grandfather concluded I was old enough to want to go hunting. If we have to chase all around through that place there's so many queer stories told about we might as well be fixed so as to protect ourselves."
"Huh!" snorted Horatio Juggins, skeptically, "I've always heard that ghosts don't mind ordinary birdshot any more'n an alligator would. But then fetch it along, Owen; it'll no doubt make us feel a little better when we find ourselves up in that terribly lonely tract of country. And who knows but what there might be a stray wildcat abroad in those woods. Such things have been heard of, and I even saw the skin of a whopper shown in the market."
So Owen carried out his design, and when he got aboard the big car he took with him not only a lantern, well filled with oil, but also his brand new twelve-gauge shotgun.
At last they were off. Every fellow felt a peculiar sense of exhilaration that possibly even bordered on anticipation, take possession of him; for the future was there before them all unknown. Who could say what strange adventures might befall them before this undertaking was finished?
Of course they had the headlights turned on at full force, and Hugh at the wheel found no difficulty in keeping the middle of the road. He did not mean to pursue a reckless pace, because, if they met with an accident it would spoil all their plans. Better to go at an ordinary rate of speed, and make haste slowly, so to speak.
Meanwhile there was a clatter of tongues aboard the big car. Julius, Thad and Owen had dozens of pertinent questions ready to fire at Horatio, who was kept busy making illuminating replies. Thus the trio learned how K. K. had unwisely determined to cover the entire course and only whispered his intention to his chum, Horatio, at the same time binding him to silence, for fear lest Mr. Leonard put a damper on his plans by vetoing the scheme in the start.
Then suggestions began to flow like water after a storm. All sorts of possibilities covering such a strange disappearance were advanced. Owen believed that Horatio was not far amiss when he declared there might be something in that ghost business, after all; and that poor K. K. had found it out to his cost; though, beyond this broad statement, Owen declined to commit himself, because he, of course, could not imagine what a genuine ghost would look like, in the daytime at that; or what such an apparition would be likely to do to a boy who had had the ill-luck to fall into its clutches.
A dozen additional ideas were advanced, some of them bordering on the absurd and others really plausible. The unlimited resources of a boy's fertile mind in conjuring up remarkable explanations in a mysterious case like the one now engaging their attention had not yet been reached at the time Hugh suddenly announced they were close to the place where the abandoned quarry road started in from the thoroughfare they were then following.
"We just passed the twin oaks I remember stood alongside the road on the left," he explained, at the same time slowing up considerably; "and they are close to the turning-in place. I noticed them in particular, you see, because I didn't want to lose even three seconds when on the run, in searching for some sign of the spot; though, of course, I could have looked for the marks of our tires left there at the time we came back from our nutting excursion, and went through to the other road. Yes, here we are right now, and I'm going to turn in, boys."
He negotiated the turn without accident, though the branches of the trees did scrape against the sides of the car in a way that made some of the occupants shudder; for already they were beginning to feel a trace of the uneasiness that their gruesome surroundings were apt to arouse within their boyish hearts.
THE SEARCHING PARTY
"Hugh, it looks like we mightn't need those lanterns after all," remarked Horatio, after they had gotten well started along the dimly seen quarry road.
Indeed, the brilliant headlights of the big car illuminated a radius of considerable size ahead of them and around. Every tiny twig was thrown out into bold relief, as though a powerful sun had found a way of forcing ingress through the canopy of leafless branches overhead.
"Not just at present, perhaps," replied the driver at the wheel; "but they may come in handy yet. We'll wait and see."
Owen sat beside Hugh, the other three occupying the tonneau of the car. There was abundance of room for all, and some to spare. Owen held his new shotgun in his hands and he kept a close watch upon the road ahead, just as though that idea connected with a ferocious wildcat might have taken hold on his mind, and he believed there was a possibility of such a thing coming to pass.
Hugh drove with exceedingly great care, and made no attempt at speed. Indeed, such a thing was utterly out of the question, with that rough road to follow and the necessity of keeping a constant vigilant outlook, lest they collide with some tree. When the quarry was in full operation automobiles were an unknown luxury; and certainly no provision had ever been made for such a contraption passing along that crooked trail, with its numerous sharp curves intended to avoid natural obstacles. Three separate times already had Hugh brought the car to a full stop, and even caused the engine to cease its throbbing. This was done in order that all of them might strain their hearing, in hopes of catching some faint sound to tell that the missing boy whom they sought was close at hand.
But only disappointment succeeded each attempt to pick up information. They caught the dismal hooting of an owl in some dead tree not far away, but certainly such a doleful sound did not raise their spirits materially. Several times while they were moving along Owen had seen a movement amidst the brush that gave him a little thrill; but the glimpses he obtained of the disappearing animal convinced him in one instance that it was a red fox that scurried off in alarm; while on the second occasion he rather imagined it was only a ring-tailed raccoon scuttling away and badly frightened by the intense white glow that had suddenly penetrated his dark quarters.
If there was a wildcat within twenty miles the spot they certainly never knew of it, because no such beast of prey disclosed its presence to them while they continued on their way.
But then there were plenty of thrills for the boys. Not only did the weird hooting of that horned owl come to make their flesh creep, but now and again they detected strange sounds that may have been caused by limbs of the trees rubbing together in the night breeze, but which had a wonderful resemblance to human groans.
They had been pursuing their way along for some little time without much attempt at conversation; but it is pretty hard for a parcel of boys to remain long silent, no matter what the provocation. And Horatio, for one, felt urged to free his mind of certain fancies that had taken lodging there.
"I say, fellows, doesn't this beat everything you ever saw all hollow?" he went on to say, for there was really no need of their keeping quiet, since they had not started out to steal a march upon any enemy,—only to find poor lost K. K. "Just listen to that awful groaning sound, will you? If I didn't know it was caused by the limbs of trees sawing across each other in the wind I'd think somebody was almost dying."
"At another time I guess we wouldn't bother our heads about such a silly thing," observed Julius Hobson; "but, of course, our minds are full up with what may have happened to our comrade, and all that noise makes us shiver a heap; it's so suggestive, so to speak."
"Oh! what did you think you saw then, Owen?" gasped Horatio, as, chancing to fix his gaze on the other, he noticed him suddenly elevate his gun, as though tempted to shoot the same.
"It was only a frisky rabbit, after all," he announced calmly enough. "I was just covering him to find out how easy I could nail the rascal, if only I was out hunting game instead of a lost boy. And we'd have had rabbit stew at the Dugdale home to-morrow, let me tell you, Horatio, if I'd cared to let fly, for I had him covered handsomely."
"Well, please don't do it in a hurry again, Owen," asked Horatio, settling back once more, and hoping his throbbing heart might not beat so loudly that any of his comrades could hear it pounding against his ribs. "Remember this is no ordinary patch of woods we're in right now. All sorts of stories have been told concerning the country up here; and in passing through after nightfall we're doing what a big bribe couldn't tempt any farmer's help to try. But, Hugh, don't you think we must be getting pretty near that place by this time?"
"Just about two-thirds of the way, Horatio," he was informed. "That leaning tree we passed is exactly three hundred and thirty-seven paces from the place we left the road."
"Well, what do you think of that for looking ahead, fellows!" ejaculated Horatio. "Hugh here took all the trouble to count the steps while passing through, the day he came up to examine the ground. That's what I call preparedness, and I guess it counts in a race, just as much as in getting ready for war."
Hugh laughed as though momentarily amused.
"Well, they're both in the same category, Horatio, if you look at things from the right point of view; rival armies and rival athletes contending for the prize which in both cases would mean victory. Looking ahead is a useful hobby, and it's served me handsomely on many an occasion. I consider no time wasted that is employed to insure success; even if you never need the information you've picked up it adds to your stock of knowledge; and no fellow can have too big a fund of that."
"Then we ought soon to be getting there, at this rate," continued Horatio. "Let's hope nothing happens to our old car. We'd have a jolly walk back to town if we broke down here and couldn't fix things. I'd prefer making a fire and spending the night in the woods to taking such a tramp, which would debar us from all hope of making that big run to-morrow."
"With K. K. out of the game the chances for Scranton High begin to flicker some," admitted Julius. "He was showing unusual stamina right now, and secretly I was backing K. K. to bring home the bacon for our school. Of course, with Hugh and Horatio and 'Just' Smith still in the ring it isn't hopeless by any means; but they do say those Allandale chaps have unearthed several wonders at long-distance running, and they are dying to knock Scranton down this time."
Again Hugh stopped the car and bade the others listen.
"It isn't that I thought I heard anything suspicious, fellows," he went on to explain, when they manifested a certain amount of excitement; "but, on general principles, I think we ought to stop oftener, and find out if there's anything doing."
After testing their combined hearing to the limit, and without any success, Hugh again started up. It was Thad who spoke next, and apparently he had been considering something that he would like to have made clear.
"What if we pass all the way through to the other road, without learning a single thing, Hugh?" he went on to say; "do you mean to give it up, and head for home then and there?"
"Well, I should hope not, Thad!" burst out Horatio; "we're none of us built that way. Because a fellow gets a single knock-down in a fight ought he to throw up the sponge right away, and own himself beaten? Why, we started out to find K. K., and sleep isn't going to visit my eyes this night until we succeed. That's the way I look at it, and I reckon the rest of you are in the same boat."
"If such a thing should happen, Thad," said Hugh, sturdily, "we'll simply turn around and come back again; only, under the new conditions, some of you will have to turn out with the lanterns, and search alongside the road as we go slowly along."
Horatio gave a gasp that was plainly audible.
"Do you really mean, Hugh," he went on to ask, in a voice that trembled more or less despite Horatio's effort to control the same, "that you half expect to find K. K. lying alongside the road, either dead, or else insensible from the pain of his broken leg?"
"Well, I wasn't just thinking things would be as bad as all that," Hugh hastened to say. "What I had in mind was the chance of coming on his footprints, and then trying to follow the same. We could easily tell them, for K. K. had on his running shoes, you remember. By tracking him, step by step, don't you see, we could tell just where he met with his trouble, even find out, perhaps, the nature of his accident, and continue to follow him up."
"That would suit me first rate," said Julius, promptly; "and my fine electric hand-torch might come into play with a vengeance. There's nothing better going for following a trail in the dark, because the light is focussed, you see, on a small compass. Why, you can pick up night-walkers like everything when the fishing season's on, by using a flashlight. I could even find a needle in a haystack, I believe, with one of these jim-dandy contraptions."
"All right, Julius, we'll appoint you head tracker, then," chuckled Horatio. "But, after all, perhaps we'll run across our comrade yet, before we get out of this tangle. We're about to come to the most critical point of the entire trip, remember, for the old quarry is just ahead of us."
Horatio chanced to be on the side of the car toward the quarry. He was not spending nearly so much time now looking ahead, leaving that task to his chums; even while talking he kept his eyes fixed upon the dark expanse that represented the surrounding woods, anticipating catching a glimpse of something, he hardly knew what, at any moment now. Doubtless all those silly yarns retailed by the ignorant gossiping farm-hands in the market-place in Scranton, while they tried to outdo one another in matching fairy stories, must have been circulating through Horatio's brain just then. The heavy atmosphere of the deserted stone quarry, and its lonely surroundings, added to the mysterious disappearance of K. K., combined to make him peculiarly susceptible to such influences as see ghosts in every white object that moves in the darkness.
This being the case with the Juggins boy it was not to be wondered at that there could be traced a vein of actual gratification in his voice when he suddenly electrified his companions by exclaiming:
"Hugh! fellows, I tell you I saw it right then, just as that Swanson farmhand vowed to me he did once on a time this last summer—it was a light, waved up and down, back and forth, and just like they teach you when you join the Signal Corps, and learn how to wigwag with a flag or a lantern. It came from right over yonder, where we all know the old quarry lies! And I'm not fooling, either; cross my heart if I am!"
PROWLING AROUND THE QUARRY
Everybody was staring hard by the time Horatio finished. Hugh, of course, had immediately stopped the car on the road, so that they were now stationary.
It chanced that the spot was one of few where a glimpse of the quarry could be picked up, as the boys had discovered at the time they passed along this way, when we overtook them on their nutting trip.
Seconds crept past.
Each boy could measure time by the beating of his wildly accelerated heart, and as these were throbbing at the rate of something like a hundred pulsations per minute it can be easily understood that "things were going some," to quote Horatio, when afterwards telling the story.
Then all of them saw what the first discoverer had attempted to describe. They stared as though fascinated. Truly Horatio had said well when he spoke of the odd movements of the mysterious light; for it moved swiftly up and down, then sideways, and in eccentric circles, after which it vanished as suddenly as it had come into being.
Some of the boys sighed, as though being wakened from a dream. Horatio, of course, was full of deepest gratification, since he had detected a skeptical air in the actions of Thad and Owen, which seemed to place him in the light of one who "saw things where none existed."
"There, didn't I tell you?" he exclaimed, triumphantly. "And, say, wasn't that—eh, party, whoever he might be, making some sort of telegraphic signals with his old lantern or torch?"
"Hugh, what do you think?" demanded Thad. "You're up in all that kind of wigwag signal work, and perhaps now you could tell what it means."
"I lost some of it, I'm sorry to say, fellows," observed Hugh, gravely; "but all the same I caught enough to tell me that waving of a light was meant as a signal message, though who sent it, and to whom, is all a mystery."
"But could you make out enough of the message, Hugh, to give you any idea what it stood for?" persisted Thad.
"Yes, I believe I did," the other admitted, solemnly, so that each of his chums bent closer to catch the next words that fell from his lips. "I'm certain it spelled out the word 'help,' for one; and I thought another was 'quick'!"
"Oh! what do you think of that?" gasped Horatio.
"The mystery deepens," added Owen, dramatically, just as he had probably been accustomed to reading in some story of excitement.
"Of course," continued Hugh, immediately, "we've got to take a look around that same old quarry, and see what's going on. Somebody's holding the fort there, even if it is said to be deserted. Who and what he can be, of course, remains to be seen; but I'm not taking a bit of stock in those old wives' yarns about a ghost, remember, Horatio."
"Then we'll have to leave the car on the road, won't we, Hugh, when we tackle this big job?" questioned Owen.
"Of course; and since I marked the best spot where anyone could make their way along to the face of the quarry, we must start up again, and keep moving till we strike that place."
"But, Hugh, do you think the—er—party making those signals with a light could have noticed our illumination, and that message was meant for us?" Horatio went on to ask, solicitously.
"I'm not prepared to say," he was told, "though I don't see how anybody with eyes could miss discovering us coming along. And, besides, the old car makes plenty of noise in the bargain, to attract attention. So it looks as if he did know, and was trying to talk to us."
All this only added to the thrill that was forever passing through each and every member of the night expedition. It would be manifestly impossible to describe their mixed feelings as they advanced slowly along the rough road so long abandoned to nature. A dozen times Horatio believed he heard cries; why, it seemed as though the air must be filled with uncanny sounds, for his lively imagination was working at race-horse speed just then.
The car stopped short.
"Wow! what's happened now, Hugh?" whispered Horatio.
"We've arrived at the getting-out place, that's all," came the steady reply, as the chauffeur caused the engine to cease working and then proceeded to leave his seat, after his companion had jumped out.
The lanterns were now lighted and the electric torch made ready for use. If hands trembled considerably during this operation, causing several matches to be used before the desired results were obtained, could anyone blame Owen and the other possessor of a lantern? It was a most remarkable thing that no one evinced the slightest disposition to stay by the car, and guard it against thieves. It was a case of "follow the leader," and where Hugh went they were all bound to go also. To be honest, the chances were that Horatio, for one, could not have been coaxed to separate himself from the company of his four chums; because there was a great deal of truth in that old maxim, "in union there is strength."
Hugh now led the way. He had been given one of the lanterns with which to light a passage across the heaps of broken stones, earth, and rubbish, cast there at the time in the remote past when the quarry was in full blast, with workmen delving into the hillside, blasting away sections through the use of dynamite or powder, and sending out many wagon-loads of building-stone each of the six working days of the week.
They did not string out in single file, but kept bunched together. Indeed, this came through no accident, but there was a method in their madness; because, you see, no fellow would want to be the hindmost in the file.
Hugh showed a wonderful amount of knowledge of the place, considering that he had never before in his life placed a foot upon the ground and had to depend entirely on his former observations. But he kept on as straight as could be expected, and presently Owen managed to muster up courage enough to say in a low and most carefully guarded tone:
"Hugh, did you take note of the exact spot where the light showed up? I'm asking because you seem to be heading direct for somewhere."
"I believe I know where it was," Hugh told him simply. "You see, I noted several things about the face of the quarry that day we stopped to look it over; and when I saw that dancing trail of fire I figured out that it must be at just such a place, which spot I'm heading for right now. And just as you spoke I had ample proof that I was right in my guess."
"Why, what happened, Hugh?" demanded Horatio eagerly.
"I caught a faint glimpse of light up there," Hugh told him. "I wonder none of the rest of you happened to notice the same. It made me think that some person might be in one of those holes we saw in the face of the wall—caves, the natives call them, Horatio says. As this was somewhat deep only a tiny bit of illumination escaped, and you could just detect that when at a certain angle. Stop short, now, and see for yourselves, for there it is again!"
Thrilled to the bone they stood and gaped. Hugh was pointing with his disengaged hand, half holding the lantern back of him so that its glow might not further interfere with their view.
"You're right, Hugh; that's surely what it is," agreed Thad, almost immediately; and each of the other three went on record with a corresponding affirmative.
"Then the next thing for us to do is to find some way of climbing up to that same fissure," the leader explained, showing that he meant to lose no time in trying to open negotiations with the unknown denizens of the quarry, whose actions were becoming more and more mysterious as time passed.
"Which means that we're going to beard the tiger in his den," quoth Owen, gripping his gun more firmly as he edged a little closer to Hugh; for since he was the only member of the expedition who could be said to possess a weapon it was proper that he should be found in the van at such a crisis.
They walked on, not hastily, and showing no outward sign of the tumult that must have raged in each boyish heart. Now it was no longer possible for them to discern that faint glow; but such a little thing did not daunt them. Hugh had marked well the exact location of their objective point, and Hugh seldom made mistakes, those other confident fellows were telling themselves as they cheerfully trudged along.
The foot of the cliff was at hand. Rains and winds and snow avalanches had, during the years that had passed since the hands of men worked those diggings, served to cut loose great quantities of debris from the face of the height, so that here and there at the foot irregular pyramids of earth and rocks could be seen. Hugh now seemed to have turned his attention from above and was bending half over, as though examining the ground. Owen knew what this meant. The other anticipated finding a track leading directly to the route by means of which that cavern halfway up the cliff might be easiest attained.
And, as often happens, such reasoning proved to be the wisest thing the searchers could have undertaken, for hardly had half a minute elapsed than Hugh was heard to give vent to a low ejaculation of gratification.
No one spoke, but they understood that he had found the trail he was looking for. Indeed, he at once started to move along, still bending over, and holding his lighted lantern low, so that its none too good illumination would best serve him.
Now they reached a sort of strange little gully, where the silt had washed down more heavily during the period of erosion than at any other place. Looking up, the boys could see that it afforded a steep but accessible avenue by means of which an agile person could ascend the otherwise impregnable height towering above their heads.
Hugh halted not, but started up. Owen came close behind him, holding that formidable shotgun so that he could thrust it ahead of his leader should an occasion arise necessitating action. But Hugh had already warned him not to be rash, and under no condition to dream of firing until he himself had given the order.
It was a queer little procession that crept up that steep trail in the gully formed by Nature during the heavy storms of summer and winter. The twin lanterns glimmered and flickered as the night wind puffed the tiny blazes; and ahead of all lay the white glow of the electric hand-torch, showing them how they were now almost at the end of their trail.
Yes, the fissure extended straight into the face of the cliff. Hugh was taking them directly to the place where undoubtedly the mysterious unknown had stood on a sort of rocky platform, and indulged in all those queer telegraphic code motions with a light of some sort.
A FRIENDLY GHOST
Hugh led the way straight into the fissure. As they proceeded they could see the light ahead growing stronger. Low sounds, as of voices, also led them onward; and then, upon turning a bend, they came upon a sight that had them all staring with wonder.
It was indeed a cave, and of considerable dimensions. A wild beast would have delighted in such a den in which to hide from the rigors of winter, but to boys accustomed to the luxuries of home life it would doubtless have few attractions, especially after the novelty of camping-out had worn off in a week's time.
It was a fire that burned which gave the light. A pile of dry wood, mostly broken branches of dead trees, showed that the occupant of the cave had laid in a supply against a rainy day.
There, sitting with his back against the wall, was their missing comrade K. K. His face looked unusually white, and bore an expression of acute pain, which, however, he manfully tried from time to time to dismiss by a ghastly grin, altogether assumed, since he certainly was in no mood for laughing.
They could see that his left leg was bandaged in some manner, as though he might have broken the bones, and someone had tried to bind up the limb. Even with that superficial glance Hugh marked the fact that this had been done in a fashion indicating considerable previous experience along such lines.
And then they turned their attention upon the other party, the mysterious one who doubtless had found poor K. K. helpless on the ground and borne him to this cavern in the quarry. He was indeed a wild-looking party, with long, unkempt hair and a sunburnt face in which his glowing eyes were deep-seated. There was that about him to convince Hugh instantly he must be deranged, although just then the man bent over poor K. K. solicitously, and seemed to be tenderly doing something calculated to ease his pain.
Hugh coughed, meaning to draw attention to the fact of their arrival. The man immediately stood up and bent a searching look upon the five lads. Perhaps he had been hearing K. K. tell how some of his chums would certainly be coming to search for him, and, therefore, even though he might wish to remain in his hidden retreat undisturbed, he manifested no hostility toward them, simply folded his arms and, stepping back, watched their approach.
Hugh made gestures to indicate that they were peacefully disposed. In doing so he purposely used the signal code and spelled out the one word, "friend." He saw the wildman's thin face take on a sudden gleam of awakened interest, and he nodded his head in the affirmative, as if to reassure Hugh that they were not unwelcome. From this the boy knew the stranger must at some time have been in the army, and that even while his brain was resting under a cloud he could still send and receive messages such as had been at one time his daily avocation.
They reached the side of their unfortunate companion. He held out a hand to welcome Hugh.
"Oh! I'm mighty glad you've come, fellows, I can tell you," he told them, with a tremor in his voice. "I've had a rotten time of it all around, and suffered terribly. You see, I made a fool of myself, and tripped over a vine, so that I was thrown into a gully, with my left leg under me. Snapped both bones, he says, just above the ankle, and a fine time I've got ahead of me this winter, with no skating, hockey, or anything worth living for. But then it might have been worse, because my neck is worth more to me than my ankle. But now I do hope you can get me home. I never wanted to see home and mother one-half as much as now."
"Yes, we've come in the big car, K. K.," Hugh assured him. "And we'll fetch you home right away. You ought to be looked after by Doctor Wambold; broken bones are not things to be trifled with, and while this party seems to have done the best he could it can only be a makeshift."
"Don't you believe it, Hugh," said the injured boy warmly; "why, he's a regular jim-dandy about such jobs. I bet you he used to be an army surgeon in his younger days, from hints he's let drop. And then he knows the Signal Corps work right off the handle to boot, even if—well, I won't say what I meant to. He's been so kind and considerate to me; my own father couldn't have been more tender. I've guessed the secret of the old haunted quarry, Hugh!" which last he almost whispered in the other's ear.
"Yes, I can say the same," muttered Hugh, "because, as soon as I saw that he was using the regular army code of signals, I remembered about hearing how a certain family over near Hackensack had an uncle who used to be in the Signal Corps and was also later on an army surgeon, but who had suffered a sunstroke, and, well, was said to be a bit queer."
"Yes," whispered K. K., "this is the same party. His name, I remember, was Dr. Coursens, and there was some talk last summer about his having got loose from the house and being drowned, they believed, in the river, though his body was never found. Just to think of it, he's been hiding here ever since, picking up his living almost like a wild animal. Why, right now his clothes are nearly falling off his back, and if he tries to hang out here much longer he'll be frozen to death. But, Hugh, we must let his folks know where he is so they can come after him. I believe, his mind is beginning to get a little clear again, for at times he talks quite reasonably."
This was all mighty interesting to Hugh, and he determined that he would let no grass grow under his feet until he had seen to it that the man with the deranged mind was once more restored to his family. But the first thing to be done was to get poor K. K. safely back home.
So he turned to the man and spoke to him, telling him that they wished to get their comrade to the car, and at the same time thanking him warmly for all he had done. Not a single word in reply did Hugh receive. The man listened and nodded his head, as though he could dimly understand what the boy was saying. Evidently he was in something of a dazed condition, if, as K. K. affirmed, his senses were beginning to assume a normal condition after years of darkness.
It was a terrible job getting K. K. down from that elevated place. The man showed them how best to manage. He seemed really solicitous, and it could be seen that he had taken quite a liking to K. K. during their brief intercourse, since the latter had been found groaning on the ground.
Eventually the level below the cliff was attained. Poor K. K. had groaned many times, hard though he fought to repress the sounds, for it was unavoidable that he should receive many jostlings while being transferred to the lower level.
Then they made their way across the open space, and finally arrived at the waiting car, in which the injured youth was deposited and made as comfortable as the conditions allowed. The deranged man watched all this with a wistful gleam in his eye. He had fled from his kind while still gripped in the darkness of madness, but with the first glimmer of reason being seated once more on its throne he commenced to yearn after human fellowship again.
Since the boys had all taken such a deep-seated interest in the matter it may be proper before the "ghost" of the haunted quarry is dropped altogether from the story to state that the very next morning Hugh went over to Hackensack and electrified the Coursen family with certain remarkable news he brought. It ended in their all starting forth and arriving at the quarry. They found the demented man awaiting their coming as though he had guessed what Hugh had in his mind. More than that he greeted them soberly, and called each member of the family by name, something he had not been able to do since that dark cloud descended upon his mind years back.
There seemed reason to believe that in due time Doctor Coursen might regain his full senses again and spend a few years more with his delighted relatives before the end came.
Hugh, of course, learned all about him and how he had served years in the army, first as a sergeant in the Signal Corps, and later on becoming a surgeon of considerable reputation before the accident in the tropics deprived him of his reason. Perhaps it had been the utterly helpless condition of poor K. K., when he came accidentally upon the injured boy, that had strongly appealed to the surgical spirit that still lay dormant in the brain and fingers of the insane man and which had been the main cause of the light of reason returning—surgery had been his passion, and the familiar work took him back to other days, apparently.