"Why, Nelson, what is the matter?" asked Mr. Strong, who was at the table that evening.
"I don't—ker-choo!—know!" stammered Joe. "I believe—ker-choo! ker-choo!"
"Exactly," whispered Pepper. "Very simple explanation, very."
"I—ker-choo!—I guess I had better—ker-choo!" went on Joe.
"He's 'ker-chooing' all he needs to," was Jack's comment, and this caused a general titter.
"I guess I'll ask to—ker-choo!—to be excused—ker-choo!" went on Joe, and jumping up he left the table and the room. He ran out on the campus and there sneezed himself free of the pepper, much to his relief.
Joe was about to return to the mess-hall when he chanced to see two figures sneaking along in the semi-darkness, in the direction of the woods. He was just able to make out that the pair were Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter when they disappeared behind the trees.
"Now, what are those fellows up to?" mused Joe, as he walked slowly to the mess-hall. "No good, I'll venture."
He sat down and commenced to eat. Then, of a sudden, he uttered an exclamation.
"I've got it! That's it!"
"What is it, Nelson?" asked George Strong.
"Oh—er—nothing," stammered the cadet. But when the teacher was not looking, he leaned over towards Jack.
"What is it, Joe?" whispered the young major.
"Tell Pepper I just saw Ritter and Coulter sneaking into the woods."
"You did!" Jack closed one eye. "And you think——"
"They may have learned about the barrels."
"If that is so, we'll have to watch 'em," murmured Jack, and immediately passed word to Pepper, Dale and Andy.
The cadets could scarcely wait to finish their meal, and cut themselves short on cake and pears. Pepper was the first out, but he was quickly followed by Andy and Jack.
"Let us try to surprise them—if they are after the barrels," said The Imp.
"Maybe they'll set fire to 'em before we get there," suggested the acrobatic youth.
"If they do that, I'll make 'em pay for the barrels," cried Pepper. "I am not going to put up three dollars for another fellow's fun."
"Did you pay the roofer that much for the barrels?"
The three boys hurried across the campus and dove into the woods beyond. Then Pepper put up his hand for silence.
"Let us surprise 'em if we can," he whispered.
"That's the talk," answered the young major.
It did not take the three long to reach the vicinity where the tar-barrels had been left. As they approached they saw a light flare up.
"They are setting 'em on fire!" cried Andy.
"Stop, Ritter! Stop, Coulter!" yelled Pepper. "Don't you light those barrels!"
"Ha! ha!" came from the bully of the Hall. "What's an old tar-barrel, anyway? Guess we can fire them if we want to!"
"Those are my barrels," answered Pepper.
He rushed forward, followed by Jack and Andy. But they were too late, for on the instant a big flame shot up and all three of the tar-barrels, standing in a close triangle, and filled with dried leaves, commenced to burn furiously. As the flames shot up among the trees, Ritter and Coulter backed away.
"Good-by to those barrels!" came sorrowfully from Andy. "We'll not be able to use them for the celebration to-night."
"I'll fix you for this, Ritter; and you, too, Coulter!" called out Pepper, bitterly. "Oh, what luck!" he groaned, as he saw the flames from the tar-barrels climb higher and higher. "What a grand bonfire they would have made on the lake-front!"
"Boys, this fire is dangerous!" ejaculated Jack.
"What do you mean?" came from the others.
"It is going to set fire to the woods! See, the dried leaves are catching already! If it reaches yonder cedars there will be a terrible conflagration here!"
"Phew! that's true!" came from Pepper. His merry face grew sober for the moment. "What shall we do?"
"We are not responsible," said Andy. "It is Ritter and Coulter's fault."
"But we don't want these grand woods to burn down," went on the young major. "Besides, the wind is rising and it is blowing towards the gym and the stables! The burning embers might set fire to those buildings!"
"Come on and put the blaze out!" said Andy.
"How are you going to do it? We haven't any water—and water isn't of much account against tar, anyway. Gracious, see those flames shoot up!" Jack added, as a column of fire shot skyward.
"One of the trees is catching already!" gasped Pepper. "We had better sound an alarm!"
"Andy, go back to the school and tell the others, teachers and all," ordered the young major. "Captain Putnam will know what to do. Pepper, you and I had better try to throw dirt and stones on the barrels. That will keep down the flames a little."
The acrobatic youth set off on a sprint in the direction of Putnam Hall. While he was gone the others did their best to subdue the rapidly-increasing conflagration. It was hot work, and soon the perspiration was pouring down their faces.
"It's no use!" panted Pepper, when the wind sent a sudden eddy of black smoke in his face.
"It would take a regular fire department to put out that blaze!"
"Maybe Captain Putnam will send out the bucket brigade," answered his chum.
The wind was steadily increasing, and as it whirled around it sent the sparks flying in all directions. Jack had one ember settle on his hand and Pepper was burnt on the ear. They got a good deal of smoke in their eyes and soon commenced to cough. But they kept on throwing all the loose dirt and stones possible on the fire.
"I wish the barrels didn't have quite so much tar on 'em," panted Pepper. "It's a wonder the roofer left so much inside."
"He wanted to give you the worth of your money," answered the young major, grimly.
After what seemed a long time a shout was heard, and then Andy burst into view.
"The bucket brigade is coming with pails of water," he said. "And some other cadets are to get rakes and wet swabs and shovels."
"They can't come any too quick!" answered Pepper. "See, two of the trees are burning already."
"Yes, and two others are catching!" announced Jack. Then an extra puff of wind sent all of the cadets from the vicinity of the blazing barrels.
"I suppose Ritter and Coulter didn't dream of such a fire when they started it," was Andy's comment.
"Just the same, they are responsible," answered Jack, gravely.
A yell came from afar, and soon some cadets ran into view, each carrying a bucket of water. Leading them was George Strong, who had a long-handled rake and a shovel.
"Boys! boys! didn't you know better than to light a fire here!" cried the teacher.
"We didn't do it," answered Jack.
The water was thrown on the blazing barrels, and then the teacher tried to knock them flat with his rake. But that caused a heavy shower of sparks to ascend, setting fire to some nearby bushes.
"It will be better to use the shovel," said Jack. "Dirt will put out such a fire quicker than anything."
"I believe you, Major Ruddy," answered Mr. Strong, and then he sent some cadets back for more shovels and a few pickaxes, with which to loosen up the dirt.
Soon many more cadets arrived, and with them Captain Putnam. Among the number were Coulter and Ritter, and the pair looked much dismayed.
"Say, I didn't think the fire would spread to the woods," whispered Gus Coulter.
"Hush!" warned his crony. "Don't you admit that we did it. If it comes to the worst, say it was an accident, that we were trying to light a torch, to sneak the barrels away, when they took fire."
More water was thrown on the barrels, and then a small army of cadets commenced to dig up dirt and stones, with which to cover the burning objects. This worked very well on the barrels. But to reach the trees was different. One thick cedar was blazing away like a torch—the flames far above their heads.
"Let us cut that tree down," ordered Captain Putnam.
Two axes had been brought along, and Dale used one while Peleg Snuggers wielded the other. Soon the cedar commenced to totter.
"Look out!" cried Captain Putnam, and then crash! the tree came down, directly on top of the tar-barrels. Up went a thick cloud of smoke and sparks. But the cadets were ready with dirt and stones, and the danger of a new blaze was quickly averted.
While the tree was being cut down, the cadets and teachers had been busy with pickaxes and shovels, and also with their rakes and wet swabs, and had put out much of the fire elsewhere. One more tree had to be leveled, and this work was done by Joe and Bart. Then, after five minutes more of hard work, the last of the fire was extinguished, and the crowd in the woods was left in darkness.
"Hello, it's dark enough now," cried Pepper. "We'll need a lantern to get out with."
"Here's a torch," answered one cadet, and took up a cedar bough, and commenced to wave it into a flame.
"No more of that, Bates!" cried Captain Putnam. "We have had enough of fire. We'll go back in the dark. Snuggers, you stay here and see to it that the fire doesn't break out again."
"Yes, sir," answered the general utility man.
"Here is a pistol. If it does break out, fire two shots for an alarm."
"I'll send Alexander Pop here with more water and with some lunch, for you'll have to stay all night," went on the owner of the school. Alexander Pop was a colored man who had come to the school to wait on the table.
"Yes, sir," answered Snuggers. He did not much relish remaining in the woods all night, but he felt that he had to obey orders.
One by one the cadets and the teachers returned to Putnam Hall. The conflagration in the woods had rather broken up the anticipated celebration in honor of the football victory.
"Now, I want to know who placed those tar-barrels in the woods," said Captain Putnam, when he had assembled the cadets in the school building.
"It was Jerry Cole, the roofer from Cedarville," answered John Fenwick, a small youth usually called Mumps. He was known as a toady and a sneak, and was very chummy with Dan Baxter.
"How do you know, Fenwick?"
"I saw him with the barrels on his wagon."
"Why should he put the barrels there?"
"I will tell you," answered Pepper, stepping forward. "I bought them to celebrate with to-night. I thought they'd make a dandy bonfire."
"Indeed! Then you set them ablaze, Ditmore?"
"No, sir. My idea was to roll them to the lake-shore and pile them one on top of the other."
"Then who did set them on fire in the woods?"
For the moment nobody spoke, but Pepper, Jack and Andy, as well as Joe, looked at Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter.
"I want an answer!" cried Captain Putnam, sternly. "Who started that fire?"
He looked around from one cadet to another. But nobody spoke.
A MYSTERIOUS HAPPENING
It was a rule of honor among the cadets of Putnam Hall that no student should tell on another. To do that would have been to put one's self down as a sneak, and none of our friends wanted such a reputation.
"I ask again, who started that fire?" went on Captain Putnam, with increased sternness.
"I rather think I know the guilty parties," said George Strong, who had walked away on an errand and had just returned, "Ritter and Coulter, what have you to say?"
The two culprits started, and Coulter turned pale.
"Why, I—er——" stammered Gus. "I—that is——" He did not know how to proceed. He did not dare deny his guilt, not knowing but what the assistant teacher might have seen him and his crony light the tar-barrels.
"Well, if you—er—want to know the truth, Captain Putnam, we—er—started the fire," stammered Reff Ritter. "But it was an accident."
"Yes, sir. We were—er—going to roll the barrels down to the lake—going to hide 'em so that Ditmore and his friends couldn't find 'em, you know. Well, we didn't want to get the tar on our hands, so we—er—started a little fire to see by—it was dark under the trees. All of a sudden the barrels blazed up. We—er—didn't expect such a big blaze."
"That's it," cried Coulter, eagerly. "We just made the fire at first to see by."
"Then you didn't really want to fire the barrels under the trees?"
"No, sir," came from both of the guilty ones.
"It was a rash thing to do, to start such a blaze. In this wind you might have burnt down the whole woods and endangered the school buildings."
"I don't believe Ritter and Coulter," whispered Andy to Pepper.
"Neither do I," was the reply.
"Ditmore, you said the barrels belonged to you?" went on the owner of the school.
"Yes, sir. I bought them from the tar-roofer in Cedarville and he delivered them. We were going to have a great bonfire—and we did!" And The Imp said this so dryly that even Captain Putnam had to smile.
"Well, I presume I shall have to drop the matter," said the captain, after a few more questions. "But let me warn you all about fires in those woods in the future. If a fire gained headway here we might burn everything down to the ground."
So, from an official standpoint, the matter was dropped. Ritter beckoned to Coulter, and they hurried away, followed by Nick Paxton and one or two others.
"Well, that ends the tar-barrel celebration," said Pepper, rather mournfully. "I really ought to make Ritter and Coulter pay for the barrels."
"You won't get any money out of Ritter," remarked Bart Conners.
"How do you know, Bart?"
"Because he hasn't any. He asked for credit at the store yesterday—to buy some cigarettes—and the shopkeeper refused, saying Ritter owed him eighty cents already."
"Humph!" mused Pepper, and said no more.
"Come on—forget it!" cried Jack. "We'll celebrate anyway."
"We've got other barrels," came from Dale.
The cadets rushed out and to the lake-shore, and soon several bonfires were blazing merrily. Around these the students congregated, and sang songs and "cut up" generally. Dale had to make a speech, and the boys caught him up on their shoulders and carried him around the campus.
"Isn't it grand!" murmured Bert Field. "I am mighty glad I came to Putnam Hall."
"So am I," answered Fred Century. "It's much different from what it was at Pornell Academy."
"It was a great victory, Fred, wasn't it?"
"It certainly was, Bert. I am only sorry for one thing."
"What is that?"
"That it wasn't Pornell we beat instead of that other club."
"Oh, well, we'll get a chance at Pornell some day," answered Bert Field.
The celebration along the lake-shore lasted until half-past eleven. Then the bell was rung, and laughing and singing, the cadets trooped off to their various dormitories.
"All quiet by midnight!" came the order.
"Fifteen minutes yet," cried Andy, consulting his watch. "Whoop-la! Here goes!" And in the joyousness of high spirits he turned a handspring over one of the beds. Then he turned another spring over a table and stood on his head on one of the chairs.
"Hurrah for Snow's Imperial Consolidated Circus!" cried Pepper. "The one and only aggregation of stupendous wonders on the face of the globe! The marvelous twisting and death-defying acrobat! Walk up and see the blood-curdling exhibition! It will cost you but the small sum of a dime, ten cents; children double price, and no grandfathers unaccompanied by their parents admitted. Line will form on the left and everybody will please have his cash ready. Transfers not accepted on this line."
"Good for Pepper!" came from Jack. "When he fails as a student he can turn dime-museum shouter."
"On the right you will see our most mysterious wonder, Major Jacobus Ruddonowsky, the royal Russian sword swallower," went on The Imp, pointing to his chum. "He swallows two swords for breakfast, three for lunch and six to eight for dinner, with daggers for dessert. He is wonderfully strong, and can carry on his arms an amount of gold lace that would break a camel's back. As soon as the tent is full he will sing for you that famous ditty, entitled, 'How I Love to Line You Up When I'm Major of the Gang.'"
"Wow! that is where you caught it, Jack!" cried Dale, with a grin.
"And here we have a third wonder," went on Pepper, pointing to the football captain. "Commodore Daleo, the leather-ball juggler. The most renowned juggler of the spheroid in the world! You think it is here, but it is not, for lo! he has juggled it over the line and kicked it as high as an airship. He will show you——"
"Silence in here!" came a voice from the doorway, and Josiah Crabtree appeared. "I will have silence!"
"Oh, dear!" murmured Pepper. "Anybody got any silence to spare? Mr. Crabtree wants some."
"You must all be in bed by midnight, and the light must be out," went on the teacher. "This unseemly revel must cease!" And then he walked on, to stop the noise coming from the other dormitories.
"Say, Pepper, how do you like that?" murmured Fred.
"I knew there would be frost," sighed The Imp. "Every time old Crabtree appears we get a cold wave."
"Be thankful he didn't mark you down for extra lessons," said Andy.
"If he did that I'd rebel," returned Pepper.
After that the talk was carried on in whispers, and each cadet lost no time in disrobing. A few minutes after midnight all were in bed, and one after another lost himself in the land of dreams.
The day had been a particularly strenuous one for Jack and the young major slept soundly until the rising-bell rang loudly. Then he rubbed his eyes sleepily and stretched himself.
"Wish I didn't have to get up just yet," he murmured. "I could sleep another hour without half trying."
"Same here," responded Pepper.
"I never feel awake until after I've had a wash," came from Andy, who had just leaped up.
Soon all of the cadets in the dormitory were dressing, and one by one they washed up and went below. Andy and Jack were the last to leave.
"What's the matter?" asked the acrobatic youth, as he saw the young major searching around for something.
"I'm looking for my watch and chain, Andy."
"Where did you put it?"
"Where I always do—on the stand at the head of my bed."
"Maybe it fell on the floor."
"If it did, it isn't there now." Jack got down on his knees to look around, and then turned over the bedclothes and some other things.
"Maybe Pepper played a joke on you, Jack."
"That may be so. I'll go down and ask him about it."
The young major looked through his clothing and all over the dormitory, and then hurried below. As it was Sunday morning, there was no drill, and the cadets were gathering in the mess-hall for breakfast.
"Pepper, did you see my watch?" asked Jack, coming up to his chum.
"Your watch? No," was the ready reply.
"You didn't?" cried the young major, and now he was more concerned than ever.
"Saw it last night, when you put it on the stand as usual."
"You didn't hide it? Come, now, tell the truth."
"Honor bright; the last I saw of it was when you placed it on the stand when you went to bed."
"It's gone; and the chain with it."
"You don't mean it, Jack! Did you look all around?"
"Did you ask the other fellows about it?"
"No; but I will, right away."
The young major walked to one roommate after another and asked about his watch and chain. All denied knowing anything about the timepiece. Several had seen him place the watch on the stand at the head of the bed, but that was all.
"Well, it's a mystery what has become of it, that's sure," was Jack's comment. "It certainly couldn't walk off by itself."
"Well, a good watch knows how to run," remarked Pepper, dryly, for he couldn't help having his joke. "But, seriously, Jack, do you think somebody stole the watch and chain?"
"I don't know what to think."
"I don't imagine anybody in our dormitory would do such a thing."
"Neither do I. But the watch and chain are gone. The question is, Where?"
"Hadn't you better report the matter to Captain Putnam?"
"I will, after I have taken another look around," answered the young major, and left the mess-room just as the bell rang for breakfast.
"Why did Major Ruddy leave?" asked Josiah Crabtree, harshly, as he saw that the young officer was missing.
"He had something of importance to attend to," answered Pepper.
"Humph! It is his duty to be at the table on time, if he wants his breakfast," muttered the dictatorial teacher.
Jack did not come back for the best part of half an hour. By that time the breakfast was nearly over.
"Major Ruddy, what does this mean?" demanded Josiah Crabtree.
"A matter of importance, Mr. Crabtree," answered the young officer.
"I cannot permit cadets to come in late to breakfast."
"This couldn't be helped, sir. I will explain to you and to Captain Putnam directly after I have finished."
"Very well. If it is of real importance I will let it pass. But otherwise I shall mark you for being tardy," returned Josiah Crabtree, harshly.
Jack merely bowed and then he sat down and ate his breakfast. While he was doing so, Pepper leaned over to him.
"Find the watch?" he whispered.
"No—not the least trace of it," answered Jack.
The young major did not feel much like eating. The watch was a gold one and the chain was also of gold, and both were valuable. They had been a birthday gift from his parents.
"Say, Jack, this is as bad as my loss," came from Andy, in a low tone. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know. I want to talk the matter over with Captain Putnam first," answered the young officer.
AN INVITATION ACCEPTED
Captain Putnam looked very grave when Jack reported the loss of the gold watch and chain.
"You are certain you left them on the stand when you went to sleep?" he questioned.
"Yes, sir. Pepper Ditmore saw me put them there, and Dale Blackmore saw it, too."
"And you have looked everywhere for them?"
"I will go up and look around with you."
"All right, sir. But it will do no good," answered the young major.
"You say that all your roommates deny taking the watch and chain."
"Yes, sir. They say they didn't see the watch at all after we went to bed."
"Major Ruddy, do you suspect anybody of this crime?" demanded the owner of the school, looking Jack full in the face.
"No, sir," was the prompt answer. "It's a complete mystery to me. All I know about it is, that I left the watch and chain on the stand at the head of my bed when I went to sleep and this morning they were gone."
"Did any of the other cadets enter your dormitory during the night?"
"Not that I know of."
"They may have been skylarking and may have carried the watch and chain off by—accident, let us say," finished the captain, significantly.
"If anybody came in, nobody who sleeps in our room seems to be aware of it."
Captain Putnam and Jack passed up to the dormitory, followed by Josiah Crabtree. They were soon joined by Pepper and the other occupants of the apartment. Another search was made, but the gold watch and chain were not found, nor were any clues concerning the timepiece unearthed.
"What were the watch and chain worth?" asked Fred.
"I don't know; maybe fifty or sixty dollars," answered Jack.
"Then if they were stolen, the thief made quite a haul."
"Do you think they were stolen, Century?" demanded the owner of the school.
"Doesn't it look like it, sir?"
"But if they were stolen, who is guilty?" asked Josiah Crabtree, glaring around from one cadet to another.
For the moment nobody spoke.
"I don't suspect any of my roommates," said Jack, quickly. "I think it was done by some outsider."
"Some other cadet?" asked Crabtree.
"Possibly; or else by some of the help."
"Gracious, Ruddy, I—er—I hope you don't suspect me!" stammered the teacher.
"No, sir; I meant some of the servants."
"Ah, I see!" Josiah Crabtree looked relieved. "You may be right. Perhaps some of the new colored help took the watch," he went on, to Captain Putnam.
"I will start an investigation," returned the owner of the school.
Captain Putnam was as good as his word, and over an hour was spent in questioning the help, and the other cadets, but without results. The investigation was continued Monday morning. But not the first trace of the missing watch and chain was discovered anywhere.
"It assuredly is a mystery," said Captain Putnam at last. "What do you make of it, Mr. Strong?" he asked of his second assistant.
"It is a very unfortunate occurrence," answered George Strong. "If there is a thief in Putnam Hall we ought to locate him. As long as he remains undetected none of us will be safe."
"How are you going to catch him?"
"I don't know. We might try to trace up the watch and chain through the authorities."
"I hate to let the authorities know anything has been stolen in the school. It gives us a bad name in public." The two men were alone, so they could speak freely.
"It will give the school a worse name if we don't get the watch and chain back. I am afraid Major Ruddy can hold you for the worth of them."
"He can, and I expect to pay for them if we don't get them back. I will think it over, and perhaps I'll report the loss."
Later on, the authorities were notified that a watch and chain were missing. No details were given, but the police were asked to look out for the watch and chain in pawnbroking establishments and elsewhere.
"I shall also offer a reward," said the owner of the school, and the next day a bulletin was posted, offering a reward of ten dollars for information leading to the recovery of the timepiece and conviction of the thief.
"It's tough to go without your watch, Jack," said Pepper.
"Captain Putnam is going to loan me one for the present," was the young major's reply. "It's only a silver affair, but he says it keeps good time, and that's the main thing."
A day or two after the reward was offered, Jack, Pepper and Andy received an invitation to take dinner at Point View Lodge with the Fords and spend the evening there. The weather was now growing colder and the Fords expected before long to close up their summer home and move to the city for the winter.
"Say, this is all to the merry!" cried Pepper, as he read the invitation. "Of course we'll go."
"If Captain Putnam will let us," added Andy, anxiously.
"I think he will," returned Jack. "He is so cut up over this watch affair I think he will do almost anything for me."
The three went to the captain and showed the invitation, and were told that they could go to Point View Lodge, but that they must be back at Putnam Hall by ten o'clock.
"It's lucky we can go in our uniforms," said Pepper. "Otherwise I suppose we'd have to go in full dress, eh?"
"How are we going to get to the Lodge? We can't walk."
"Might hire a carriage for once."
"Too slow. The Lodge is so far off. We could make better time on our bicycles."
"But if it rains—or snows?"
"Then we'll have to take a carriage."
The three cadets watched the weather anxiously. It remained clear and cool up to the afternoon of the day they were going and then grew cloudy.
"Looks like rain or snow to me," announced Jack.
"Oh, don't croak!" cried Andy. "It's a bit cloudy, but that's all. I guess it will hold off until morning."
"Got your bicycle ready for the trip, Andy?" questioned Pepper.
"Sure, I oiled up this morning. How about you?"
"Ready since yesterday, and Jack's wheel is ready, too," was the answer. "Oh, say, don't you anticipate a dandy time at Point View Lodge?"
"Yes, indeed! The Ford girls are just all right."
"Best ever!" chimed in Jack.
"Don't forget to fill your lamps!" cried Andy, as he turned away.
"Mine is full," answered Jack.
"I'll see to mine," came from Pepper. "Glad you mentioned it. It will be quite dark on the road to-night, and I don't want to run in a hole and take a header."
"None of us want to do that. We'd look fine going into the Lodge with our faces and hands all dirt and our uniforms torn."
The cadets hurried away in various directions. They had been talking in the gymnasium, near one of the dressing-rooms, and they did not know that anybody else was near. But Mumps, the sneak, had overheard every word. As soon as they had gone, the younger cadet hurried off toward the boathouse. Here he found half a dozen students assembled, including Ritter and Coulter.
"Say, do you fellows know that Ruddy, Ditmore and Snow are going out to-night?" he said. He always loved to tell the news, and thought himself quite important in so doing.
"Where to?" asked one of the cadets.
"To Point View Lodge—the place where the Ford family live. They've got an invitation to dinner."
"Lucky dogs!" came from another cadet. As he spoke he looked at Reff Ritter, but that individual merely scowled, and took surreptitious whiffs at a cigarette he was smoking.
"How are they going to Point View?" asked another who was present.
"Going on their bicycles," answered Mumps. "It's quite a ride, isn't it?"
"Oh, not for them. They can make it in half an hour if they try. But they'll find it pretty dark to-night, I'm thinking," added the cadet, with a glance out of the boathouse window at the leaden sky.
The talk continued and Ritter listened closely to every word. Then he arose and motioned to Coulter, and the two walked outside.
"Did you hear what Mumps said?" he asked of his crony.
"About those chaps going to the Fords' home?"
"What of it?"
"I was thinking we might spoil their fun."
"And get caught, as we did with the tar-barrels," grumbled Gus Coulter.
"We'll take good care that nobody sees us this time."
"What are you thinking of doing?" asked Coulter, curiously.
"Come with me and I'll tell you," answered Reff Ritter, and took his crony by the arm. Slowly they walked across the campus, and as they did so Ritter unfolded a plot that had just then come into his head.
"What do you think of it?" he asked, after he had finished.
"Very good; if it will work, and we are not caught."
"We'll not get caught if you'll do as I say. Listen, Gus, all you need to do is to stand on guard, to give me warning if anybody comes. I'll do the rest."
"When do you want to get to work?"
Reff Ritter looked around anxiously. It was cold on the campus and growing darker rapidly. Only a few cadets were in sight.
"Come on now," he answered. "We'll see if the coast is clear."
They walked to the end of the gymnasium building, where, in a long room, the bicycles of the students were kept. It was pitch dark inside and not a soul was in sight.
"Now, you remain outside," said Ritter. "If you see anybody coming begin to whistle 'Yankee Doodle,' as loud as you can. Don't wait for me, for I'll go out the back way."
"All right. But let me know when you are through," answered Coulter, somewhat nervously.
Coulter took his stand outside of the building and peered forth eagerly in the darkness. Only three cadets were in view and they presently entered the school building. Then ten minutes went by—a long wait for the youth who was aiding Ritter in his plot. Then Reff came quickly from the gymnasium.
"Anybody around?" he asked hurriedly.
"Have you finished, Reff?"
"Did you get at all three of the wheels?"
"I sure did. Say, they will have their own troubles, see if they don't!" chuckled the bully. "But come on before anybody sees us," he added, and stalked away in the darkness, with his crony beside him.
THE WORK OF THE ENEMY
It was not until a few minutes after five o'clock that Jack, Andy and Pepper hurried down to the gymnasium, to get their wheels. At the last moment Andy discovered that one of his buttons was loose and had to be sewed on, and Jack had trouble with the new cap he was going to wear. It was a trifle too large and he had to place a strip of paper under the band to make it stay on his head properly.
"It certainly feels like snow," said Pepper, as the three got out their bicycles. "I am sure we'll get a snowstorm before long."
"I don't care, if only it holds off till we get back," returned Andy.
They lit the acetylene gas lamps, with which their wheels were provided, and then ran the bicycles down to the roadway.
"Have a good time," cried Stuffer, who had come out to see them off.
"Don't worry about that," replied Pepper, gaily.
"I'll wager you'll have a dandy spread," went on the lad who loved to eat.
"Wish you were along, Stuffer?" asked Jack.
"Do I? Well, now, don't mention it!" and Stuffer's eyes fairly watered in anticipation.
"I'll bring you something if I get the chance," sang out Pepper, as he gave his bicycle a shove and leaped into the saddle. "So-long!"
Jack and Andy followed their chum, and with a parting cry to Stuffer, all three pedaled along the highway leading to Point View Lodge. It was now night, but the three gas-lamps lit up the road so well that they had little difficulty in finding their way.
"We are not due until six o'clock," said Jack. "So we can take it easy. No use of getting into a perspiration over it."
"We'll not sweat much to-night," answered Pepper. "Too cold. I move we keep at it until we reach that old barn near the Lodge. Then we can rest a bit, so that we won't appear at the place all out of breath."
Two miles were covered, and then they came to a place where the highway was unusually rough.
"Let me go ahead and pick the way," sang out Andy, and forged to the front.
"Better slack up a little!" returned the young major. "No use of taking chances when we have plenty of time."
Scarcely had he uttered the words when there came a cry from the acrobatic youth. His wheel commenced to wobble and twist. Over into some bushes he shot, to fall with a crash in their midst.
"Hello, what's the matter with you?" sang out Pepper, and leaped quickly to the road, an example followed by Jack.
"Bicycle has gone to pieces, I guess," spluttered Andy, as he essayed to scramble out of the bushes.
"Are you hurt?" demanded Jack, anxiously.
"Only a few scratches, Jack. Say, that was a narrow escape, wasn't it?"
"Thought you said your wheel was in good condition," came from Pepper.
"So it was when I looked at it this morning."
"What's wrong now?"
"The handle-bars are loose for one thing. I don't know what else is wrong until I look it over."
The machine was brought forth from the bushes. The lamp-glass had been smashed and the light had gone out. Andy stopped the flow of acetylene gas, and then his chums turned the rays of the other lamps on the disabled bicycle.
"Handle-bars loose and also nuts on the front wheel!" cried Andy, after an examination. "Say, I believe some enemy did this!"
"Who?" questioned the young major.
"I don't know. Maybe Ritter, or Coulter."
"Hurry up and tighten things," cried Pepper. "We don't want to be late."
"Better be late than have a nasty tumble," returned Jack. "While you are at it, Andy, better look the whole machine over carefully."
"I will, Jack. And maybe you had better look your machines over, too."
While Andy was fixing his bicycle Pepper and the young major inspected their own bicycles.
"Well, I never!" gasped The Imp, as the light fell on his rear wheel. "Another quarter of a mile and I would have had a spill and no mistake!"
"Same here!" came from Jack. "Oh, isn't this the worst yet!"
"What's wrong?" queried the acrobatic youth.
"The back wheel is loose, and two of the sprockets of the sprocket-wheel have been filed down, to let the chain slip," answered Pepper.
"And my handle-bars are loose and the chain all but filed in two," cried Jack. "Boys, this was done on purpose!"
"Of course!" came from both of the others.
"Done by our enemies!"
"Ritter and his cronies."
"Well, we'd have to prove that," answered Andy, slowly.
"Don't you believe it, Andy?"
"I do; but that isn't proof."
"And that isn't getting us to Point View Lodge," came from Pepper. "I guess we'll have to walk!" he added, with something like a groan.
"Walk! We can't walk that distance," replied the young major.
"Well, we can't trust ourselves on these machines. We might if we had lots of time, but that we haven't got."
The three cadets stared blankly at each other. Here they were on a lonely road, and what to do none of them knew.
"Oh, if I only had Ritter here wouldn't I punch his head good!" muttered Pepper.
"Ritter will keep. Let us look over the machines and make up our minds what is to be done," said Jack.
The more they inspected the wheels the more hopeless appeared the task of fixing them up so they could be used.
"We simply haven't got time to bother with them," announced Jack. "We've got to get to the Lodge some other way."
"Well, what way?" asked Andy.
"I wonder if we could hire a rig at the next farmhouse."
"Well, we can try that," answered Pepper.
Trundling their bicycles, they hurried along the country road until they reached a farmhouse.
"Looks as if they were all out or gone to bed," was Jack's comment, for not a light showed about the place.
"We'll soon know," returned Pepper, and he pounded lustily on the front door.
There was no answer to this summons, and he pounded again. But nobody appeared.
"Gone away for the day, I guess," he said. "Now what?"
"Let us leave our wheels in the barn," said Jack. "We can come back for them any time."
This they did, and after a look around the place, to make certain nobody was there, they passed out on the road once more. Pepper looked at his watch.
"Fifteen minutes to six," he announced.
"Oh, we'll never get there on time," groaned Andy.
"We'll be lucky if we get there at all to-night," answered the young major.
"They are looking for us by now," came from Pepper. "Wonder what they will think when we don't show up?"
"They'll think we are pretty mean, I guess," answered the acrobatic youth.
"Here comes some kind of a turnout now!" cried Pepper.
He pointed down the highway. They could see a lantern swinging idly to and fro. It was hung under a farm-wagon, and presently they saw the turnout, drawn by a pair of good-looking horses. The wagon was filled with barrels of potatoes, and on the seat sat a raw-boned old farmer, half asleep.
"Hello, there!" challenged Jack out of the darkness. "Hold up a minute, please!"
"Hi, what's this, a hold-up?" exclaimed the old farmer, and then of a sudden he reached between the barrels of potatoes and brought forth a long horse-pistol and pointed it at them.
"Don't shoot!" cried Pepper, thinking the old fellow might be just scared enough to pull the trigger of his ancient weapon. "This isn't any hold-up."
"Who be you?" and the farmer peered forth anxiously in the darkness.
"We are cadets from Putnam Hall."
"Oh! I see! Waal, don't ye try to play no trick on Ezra Cole, or I'll let fly with this hoss-pistol, sure ez you're born!"
"We don't want to play any tricks, Mr. Cole," answered Jack. "We are in trouble, and I was wondering if you could help us out."
"Wot's the trouble?"
In as few words as possible the young major and his chums explained the difficulty. The old farmer listened with interest.
"I know Mr. Ford; he buys garden sass from me," he said.
"We don't know how we are going to get to the Lodge, unless we can find somebody to drive us over," said Pepper. "Could you do it, if we paid you?"
"Wot, with this load o' potatoes? Not much!"
"Couldn't you leave your potatoes here?" asked Andy. "I'll give you fifty cents to drive me over."
"And so will I," added Pepper.
"That will be a dollar and a half for the three of us, Mr. Cole," put in Jack.
"Hum!" The old farmer began to look interested. "It's a putty stiff drive to Point View, an' I'd have to come back fer the potatoes."
"Make it two dollars!" cried Jack. "And do it as quickly as you can."
"Hum! Got the cash with you, young man?"
"Yes, here it is!" And the young major held up two one-dollar bills.
"All right, I'm your man!" cried Ezra Cole. "I ain't in no hurry to git to hum, an' two dollars ain't picked up every day. Jest wait till I drive in an' leave my potatoes where they will be safe."
"Might leave 'em with our bicycles," said Jack.
"So I will."
It did not take the old farmer long to unload his barrels of potatoes. Then he swept out his farm-wagon and spread some horse-blankets for the boys to sit upon. They leaped in and he took up the lines once more.
"G'lang!" he shouted to his team and cracked his whip, and off they went along the road at a good gait.
"Great Julius Caesar!" cried Andy, after a quarter of a mile had been passed. "Talk about bumping the bumps! This road has 'em beaten to a frazzle!"
"Getting your money's worth, Andy?" asked The Imp, with a grin.
"Ain't no springs on this wagon!" said Ezra Cole, with a grin. "But don't you mind; it will give you a fine appetite fer that dinner when you git there!"
"It will, if it doesn't knock out our teeth so we can't chew!" murmured Jack.
On and on they rattled at a good pace until the lights of Point View Lodge shone in the distance.
"Just drop us off at the gate!" cried Jack. "We don't want to ride up to the piazza in such a rig as this."
"Why, hello, have you arrived at last?" cried a voice from out of the darkness, and then Laura and Flossie appeared, standing by the gate. The three cadets looked glumly at each other, and then Pepper commenced to snicker and all burst into a hearty spell of laughter.
AT THE FORD MANSION
"Don't you admire our very fashionable turnout?" questioned Pepper, as he came forward and shook hands with the girls.
"It's the latest in carriages," came from Andy.
"Oh!" murmured Laura. "Did you really come all the way from Putnam Hall in that?"
"It must have been hard riding," was Flossie's comment.
"No, we didn't come all the way," answered Pepper. "We'll tell you about it later," he added. Then Ezra Cole was paid. The old farmer lost no time in driving away.
As the girls and boys walked slowly toward the mansion the cadets told the particulars of the breakdown on the road.
"And you really think some of your rivals did it?" questioned Laura. "How mean!"
"I'd never speak to them again," added Flossie, with a flash of her eyes.
"Well, we'll talk a whole lot to 'em," answered Pepper, grimly.
"But you have got to prove them guilty first," said Laura.
Once at the mansion the situation was explained to Mr. and Mrs. Ford, and the boys were conducted by a servant to a bathroom, where they might wash and brush up and make themselves otherwise presentable. They did not linger long, and when they came below, the folding-doors to the dining-room were opened and the butler announced dinner.
It was a jolly meal, and the cadets were made to feel perfectly at home. Mr. Ford asked them how they were getting along in school, and was surprised when told that they hoped to graduate from the Hall the following June.
"We shall miss your visits to the Lodge," said Mrs. Ford.
"You'll have to visit us anyway—if you get a chance," said Laura, and all of the cadets said they would remember her kind words. Then they talked about old times, and especially about the time when the boys had visited the Lodge and killed the tiger that had escaped from the circus, as related in "The Putnam Hall Cadets," and of how the girls had visited the cadets in the woods, when the boys had run away from the Hall, as told of in "The Putnam Hall Rebellion."
"I'd like to go to a boarding-school," said Flossie. "It must be lots of fun!"
"Fun and work, mixed," answered Andy.
After the dinner, over which they took their time, the young folks gathered around the piano and sang and played, and they also had several dances, with the old folks looking on. All too soon it came time for the boys to go back to the Hall.
"I have ordered the auto around," said Rossmore Ford. "John can take you back, and he can also stop for your bicycles, if you wish."
"Thank you very much," answered Jack. "We'll ride home in the auto with pleasure. But I guess we had better let the bicycles rest to-night where they are; eh, fellows?"
"Yes," answered Pepper and Andy.
A little later the cadets said good-night. The big touring car was brought around and they got in the tonneau. Then the chauffeur turned on the power, and away they shot into the darkness, the girls crying a good-by after them.
"Well, we had a dandy time, in spite of the breakdown," remarked the young major.
"But we have got to find out who played this trick on us," came from Pepper.
"That may be easier said than done," said Andy. "Whoever was mean enough to play such a trick will do his best to lay low."
When the boys got back to the Hall they found that the majority of their friends had gone to bed. Only Stuffer Singleton was up, reading a novel by the light of a wax-candle he had smuggled up to the room.
"Hello! have a good time?" queried the boy who loved to eat, as he cast aside the volume.
"Bang up," answered Jack, and then he went on quickly. "Stuffer, were you near the gym this afternoon?"
"Somebody was mean enough to tamper with our bicycles," answered the young major, and gave a few particulars.
"Oh, you can bet it was the Ritter crowd, or Ritter alone," said Stuffer, quickly. "It would be just like them to do their best to spoil your fun."
It was not until two days later that Jack and his chums had a chance to go for their broken-down wheels. They found them exactly as they had been left, and explained to the owner of the barn how they happened to be there.
"It's all right," said the farmer. "You can leave them here a month if you want to." He knew Captain Putnam well, having sold him some straw for the school stables.
The cadets had to trundle the bicycles back to Putnam Hall and then had many hours' work in fixing the wheels so they could be used again.
During those two days the youths made many inquiries, but were unable to get a clue as to who had played the trick. Ritter and Coulter "laid low" and kept out of their way.
Following the game with the Dauntless Club came several other football contests, and Putnam Hall won two games and lost one. Then the weather turned off cold, with a promise of snow in the air.
During those days it must not be supposed that the search for Jack's gold watch and chain was abandoned. It was continued with spirit, but no clue was brought to light.
"It's as much of a mystery as the disappearance of my things when the horse ran away with me," said Andy. "I don't suppose I'll ever hear of those things either."
"Yes, but that was different, Andy," said the young major. "You were on a public highway, where anybody might pick up the things, supposing you merely dropped them. But I was right here, where everybody is supposed to be honest."
"It gives the school a black eye, doesn't it?"
"That's it. I know Captain Putnam feels terrible about it, too."
"Do you suspect any of the hired help?"
"I don't know what to think."
The weather grew colder rapidly, and one morning the cadets arose to find the ground covered with snow to a depth of several inches.
"Hurrah!" shouted Fred. "See the snow! Doesn't it look inviting?"
"Want a roll in it, Fred?" questioned Bart Field.
"Not exactly. I was thinking of a snowball fight."
"That's the talk! Let us get up a fight after school hours!" cried Bart Conners.
Pepper was at the window. Slyly he raised the sash and scooped up a big handful of snow from the broad ledge outside. Andy was nearby, bending over, lacing up his shoe.
"Welcome to the snow!" cried The Imp, gaily, and let a portion of the frozen mass slip down the acrobatic youth's collar.
"Wow!" snorted Andy, straightening up with a jerk. "Hi, you, what do you take me for, an ice-box?" And he commenced to squirm as the cold snow ran down his backbone. Then he made a dive for Pepper and chased The Imp around the dormitory. Over two of the beds they flew, and then brought up in a corner with a crash.
"Have mercy on the furniture!" cried Joe Nelson.
"Don't knock over the table!" added Stuffer.
"Give me that snow!" cried Andy, and managed to get a small portion from Pepper. "How do you like that?" And he plastered the snow in The Imp's left ear.
"Hurrah! Snow from Snow!" cried Jack.
"'Twill warm Pepper's blood, so it will!" was Emerald Hogan's comment.
More snow had been scooped from the window-sill by Fred and Joe, and soon a battle-royal was in progress in the dormitory. But it came to an abrupt end when Dave Kearney appeared.
"Stop it!" cried the young sergeant. "Crabtree is coming!"
"All over!" whispered Jack. "All as orderly as lambs!" And at once every cadet settled down and started in an orderly fashion to finish his morning toilet.
"What was the noise in here?" demanded Josiah Crabtree, as he threw open the door and strode into the dormitory.
He glared around savagely, but nobody answered him.
"I demand to know what was going on here!" he continued.
"Mr. Crabtree, did you speak to me?" asked Pepper, meekly.
"I spoke to you all!" thundered the teacher. "What were you doing in here?"
"I am dressing, Mr. Crabtree," answered Andy.
"I am dressing, Mr. Crabtree," came from Jack.
"I am dressing, too," put in Fred.
"And so was I dressing," said Stuffer, with a smile.
"And I was dressing," supplemented Pepper. "Come to think of it, I rather fancy we were all dressing. You see, we always do dress when we get up in the morning, Mr. Crabtree," he added with a simple smile.
"I want none of your impudence, Ditmore."
"Oh, dear, was I impudent?" murmured The Imp. "I didn't know it. I beg ten thousand pardons—yes, a million, if you'd rather, sir."
"Be quiet, you—you forward boy! Something was going on in here! If I find out what it was, I shall punish all of you!" And having thus delivered himself, Josiah Crabtree strode out of the dormitory, banging the door after him.
"Isn't he an angel!" murmured Andy.
"The sweetest teacher that ever grew!" returned Pepper.
"I'd like to know how long Captain Putnam will put up with him," was Jack's comment.
"I don't believe it will be very long," answered Fred.
The cadets finished their dressing and hurried below. On account of the storm the morning drill was held in the gymnasium, and then the young soldiers marched to the mess-room. On the way several could not resist the temptation to pick up some snow and throw it at each other.
"Hi, you stop that!" roared Reff Ritter, as a snowball took him in the neck. "Who threw that?" he demanded; but nobody answered him. "I believe it was you, Ditmore!" he went on, turning an ugly look on Pepper.
"That's one for tampering with our bicycles, Ritter," retorted Pepper.
It was a chance shot, taken on the spur of the moment, but it told. Reff Ritter started and turned pale.
"Who—er—told you I—er—tampered with your bicycles?" he stammered.
"Never mind who told me, Ritter. We are going to get square with you, and don't you forget it."
"Who said I touched 'em?" grumbled the bully.
"Never mind about that."
"You are trying to corner me, that what's you are up to!" grumbled Ritter. "But you shan't do it! I never touched your wheels, and you can't prove that I did. Now don't you throw any more snowballs at me, or I'll report you." And then Ritter hurried into the mess-room as fast as he could.
Pepper, Jack and Andy looked at each other.
"He is guilty, I know it!" said Pepper firmly.
"I believe you," answered the young major; and Andy nodded his head to show that he agreed with his chums.
THE SNOWBALL BATTLE
"Now then, fellows, for the greatest snowball battle of the age!"
"Here is where Company A smothers Company B!"
"Rats! You mean that Company B will bury Company A out of sight!"
"Hi, Major Ruddy! What side are you going on?" queried Bart Conners, who still commanded Company B.
"He is coming on our side!" answered Henry Lee, the captain of the other company.
"Well, I can't fight on both sides," answered the young major with a laugh.
"Go with the company that wins!" suggested Pepper, with a grin.
"Toss up a cent for it," suggested Andy.
"All right, I'll toss up," answered Jack, and did so, and it was decided that he should fight with Company B.
"Good enough!" cried Pepper, who was in that command. "Now Company A is licked, sure!"
"Not much!" was the answer from Stuffer Singleton. "We'll win, sure!"
"We will, unless you stop to eat a doughnut!" put in Joe Nelson, and at this remark a general laugh went up, for Stuffer had once lost a long-distance running race because he stopped on the way to devour some cookies he had in his pocket.
It was after school hours, and the cadets had gathered on the field where, during the summer, corn had been raised. It was to be a battle between the two companies of the school battalion, with the company captain as leader on each side.
The preliminary rules were speedily arranged. Lines were drawn at either end of the field, about five hundred feet apart. In the center, about a hundred feet apart, two other lines were drawn. Along the latter lines the cadets arranged themselves.
"Now then, fighting will begin when the school-bell rings out four!" cried the cadet who had been made referee. "The company that chases the other company over its back line wins the contest. No fighting with anything but snow allowed. Anybody using his fists, or a stone, or a lump of ice, will be ruled out of the contest."
With all possible speed the young soldiers started to supply themselves with snowballs, and soon each had ten to twenty in his hands and pockets and under his arms or at his feet.
"Get ready!" shouted Bart, as he glanced hastily at his watch.
"Give it to 'em hot when the bell rings!" came from Henry Lee.
Half a minute more and the Hall bell commenced to toll out the hour. The bell had not yet ceased to ring when there came a grand shower of snowballs from each company. The shower was so thick that a few of the snowballs hit each other.
"Forward!" shouted Captain Bart.
"Forward!" echoed Captain Henry.
And then the two long lines of cadets rushed forward over the snow-covered field until they were within thirty or forty feet of each other. Then came another shower of snowballs.
"Wow!" yelled one cadet. "Oh, my nose!"
"Caesar's helmet! That hit me in the eye!" came from another.
"Say, don't try to knock out all my teeth!" added a third.
"Charge!" yelled the captain of Company A. "Charge! Get 'em on the run right now!"
"Stand firm!" came from the commander of Company B. "Now then, fire!"
The rush of Company A was met with an extra heavy volley of snowballs. The cadets staggered under the onslaught and then came to a halt.
"Now then, up and at 'em!" yelled Captain Bart. And yelling like wild Indians, his command charged on Company A. The snowballs flew thick and fast, and slowly but surely Company A was forced to give ground until it stood on the line from which it had started. But by that time Company B was out of ammunition and had to pause to manufacture more snowballs.
In the ranks of Company A were Ritter, Coulter and Paxton. Paxton had of late somewhat dropped the others, but Reff and Gus were as thick as ever. They were now standing side by side.
"Say, I'd like to give it to Ruddy and those others," muttered Coulter.
"So would I," whispered Ritter in return. "Confound 'em, I'd like to know if they really know the truth about the bicycles."
"I don't see how they found out; nobody was around when you fixed 'em up."
"Maybe somebody was spying; that sneak of a Mumps, for instance."
"If he was, and told on us, I'll fix him for it."
Both cadets were making snowballs near a hollow. As Ritter scraped the snow up he uncovered several jagged stones.
"Say, look here!" he whispered, and pointed at the stones. "Let's fix up some special snowballs for Ruddy & Company!" he added with a knowing look at his crony.
"All right; but be careful you are not caught," answered Gus Coulter.
Both cadets got down close to the jagged stones and adroitly slipped several of them into the snowballs they were making.
"Wait till we are pretty close," directed Ritter. "Then let drive for all you are worth."
"Who will you aim at?"
"Ruddy and Ditmore."
"All right, I'll aim at Snow; and I'll let Ruddy have one, too."
Again came a ringing war-cry, and in a moment more the battle was continued. Back and forth swayed the lines of cadets, first towards one end of the field and then towards the other. It was plainly to be seen that the commands were about evenly matched.
"How long is this battle to last?" questioned Joe Nelson.
"Half an hour," answered Fred Century, who was beside him.
"Time is almost up, then," came from Bert Field, who had been fighting so hard he was almost out of breath.
"Five minutes more!" came from the referee. "Now then, if either side is going to do something, pitch in!"
"Forward!" came simultaneously from both captains, and forward plunged Company A and Company B, and the snowballs commenced to fly as thickly as before. Neither side would give ground, and at last the two lines were within fifteen to twenty feet of each other, right in the center of the field.
The time was almost up, and each command was getting rid of the last of the snowballs, when Jack saw a snowball leave Coulter's hand and sail swiftly towards Pepper. The Imp did not see it until it was quite close to him and failed in his attempt to dodge. The snowball hit him full in the temple and over he went as if struck with a club.
"Pepper!" cried the young major in horror, and started to rush to his chum's assistance, when another snowball came flying through the air. It struck Jack over the ear, and he, too, went down, all but knocked unconscious.
A bugle blew, and the great snowballing contest came to an end.
"A tie! A tie!" was the cry. "Neither side wins!"
"Let the two captains shake hands and call it off!" said one cadet.
"I'm willing!" cried Bart, readily.
"So am I," added Henry, and then the pair shook hands, while a great cheer rolled up from both sides. But the cheer came to an abrupt end when Fred Century cried out:
"Pepper Ditmore is hurt!"
"And so is Major Ruddy!" came from Emerald Hogan.
A crowd quickly gathered around each wounded cadet. Pepper had a nasty cut over the left eye and Jack had a lump behind his right ear.
"They must have been hit with soakers," was Dale's comment, as he bent over Pepper.
"Looks as if Pepper was hit with a stone," came from Andy.
"A stone!" cried Bart Field.
"Yes, a stone! That cut was never made by a snowball, or a piece of ice, either!"
"Shall I get a doctor?" asked Stuffer, anxiously.
"Oh, are they as bad as that?" asked Bob Grenwood.
"I don't know," answered Bert, soberly. "Wait a minute and we'll see if they come around."
"Oh, what a crack!" murmured Jack, and then he sat up and stared around him. Pepper was also stirring and he slowly put one hand to the cut on his temple.
"Let us carry 'em to the Hall," suggested Bert. "It's getting too cold out here and besides, they are all in a sweat from the snowballing."
When Pepper was picked up, Andy saw something lying beneath him in the snow. He picked it up.
"Hello! look here!" he called out, and held the object up.
"Where did it come from, Andy?"
"It was under Pepper's body. I believe it was in the snowball that hit him!"
"Who would be so mean?"
"I rather guess I know," answered Pepper, and looked around for Ritter and Coulter, but the bully and his crony had disappeared.
Pepper and Jack were carried tenderly into the Hall and placed in easy chairs in the reception room. Presently both had recovered consciousness fully, and each had his head bound up in bandages.
"Phew, but that was a crack I got!" sighed The Imp. "I thought a rock had hit me!"
"It was Coulter who threw that snowball," said the young major. "I saw him do it, and I was running to help you up when I got struck myself, and went down."
"And I am pretty sure Ritter hit you, Jack," came from Andy. "Anyway, I saw him aiming for you just before you staggered and fell."
"Andy, those fellows must have hit us with stones!" muttered The Imp.
"I feel sure they did. Ritter struck me with a snowball, on the hand, and it left a deep scratch. Now, no ordinary snowball would do that. Besides that, I picked up a sharp stone from where Pepper was lying."
"It was against the rules of the contest to use stones," put in Dale, who was near.
"Sure it was!" cried Stuffer. "If those chaps really used stones they ought to be punished for it."
The news quickly went the rounds, as was to be expected. When Henry Lee heard it he quickly sought out Captain Bart.
"I hope you don't think I allowed any such underhand work," he said anxiously.
"Not for a minute, Henry!" cried the captain of Company B. "If Ritter and Coulter did it, they did it on their own responsibility. I think them just mean enough, too, for they are down on Major Ruddy and Pepper Ditmore."
"If they are guilty, I'd like to have them court-martialed!" muttered the commander of Company A. "Such underhand work is a disgrace to Putnam Hall!"
"Wait and see if it can be proven," answered Bart Conners. "Then, if it is proven, we'll read Ritter and Coulter a lecture they won't forget in a hurry!" he added significantly.
IN WHICH MORE VALUABLES VANISH
That night it snowed again, and in the morning the storm raged furiously around Putnam Hall, so that the landscape on all sides was completely blotted out. The cadets had to remain indoors, and it was hard work to keep a path clear to the gymnasium and the stables.
"We'll be snowbound and no mistake," observed Andy. "Well, I don't care much; it will give me a chance to catch up in my lessons."
"Very far behind, Andy?" asked Jack.
"More than I like to think about, Jack. I want to graduate with honor, you know."
"Oh, we all want to do that."
"How's the head?"
"Still sore. But I guess I'll be all right again in a few days."
"How about you, Pepper?"
"I'll be all right, too, Andy. But it was a fierce crack!" added Pepper, as his hand went up gingerly to his plastered-up cut.
"Going to lodge a complaint against Ritter and Coulter?"
"What good would it do? We can't actually prove that they used stones?"
"Let it pass. If we make a complaint it will only stir up more bad blood," said the young major. "But in the future I am going to watch Ritter and Coulter pretty closely."
The boys were kept at the Hall for all of that week, getting no further than the gymnasium for recreation. The wind blew furiously at times, so that the snow was piled up into numerous drifts, one reaching almost to the top of the carriage-shed, and another completely hiding the posts of the gate entrance.
"This must be tough on some of the farmers," observed Dale. "Think of trying to get the milk to the station in such weather."
"Well, a farmer usually has enough to eat," answered Stuffer. "That counts for a good deal. Now if a fellow was snowbound and didn't have any grub——" He did not finish but shook his head dolefully. To Stuffer such a fate was beyond words.
As was to be expected, Ritter and Coulter kept out of the way of Jack and Pepper. Once the young major met the pair on the stairs, but they simply glared at him and passed on before he could say a word.
During all this time Captain Putnam had been doing his best to solve the mystery concerning the disappearance of Jack's gold watch and chain. But, though all the hired help and the cadets and teachers were watched and questioned, nothing of importance came to light. Peleg Snuggers said he had once seen a strange man near the stables, and Captain Putnam wondered if that individual could have sneaked into the school and committed the robbery.
"But if he did that, why didn't he take more?" he said, in speaking of the matter to George Strong.
"I am sure I don't know, sir," answered the teacher. "For the matter of that, why wouldn't any thief take more, if he had the chance?"
"I give it up, Strong. This thing makes me feel sick."
"Well, we must keep our eyes open," answered George Strong; and then the conversation changed to the lessons for the next day.
On Tuesday morning, Pepper chanced to go to a bureau-drawer in which he kept his collars, cuffs, neckties and jewelry. He commenced to look for something and ended by turning out everything in the compartment.
"What's wrong, Pepper?" asked Jack. "Lost some diamonds?"
"It's my ruby scarfpin, Jack. Did you see it?"
"No, not for some time. Did you have it in that drawer?"
"When did you wear it last?"
"The night we took dinner with the Fords."
"Are you sure you put it back when you came home?"
"Positive. I keep it in this case," and Pepper held up an empty jewelry case.
"Gracious! This is becoming interesting!" murmured the young major. "First my watch and chain and now your scarfpin!" He looked pointedly at his chum. "Pepper, do you think——" He stopped short.
"Think what, Jack?"
"Oh, I'd hate to say it, Pepper," and the young major shrugged his shoulders.
"Were you going to mention Ritter and Coulter?"
"I was. But maybe it wouldn't be fair. It's a terrible thing to think anybody a thief."
"That is true. But maybe they took them as a joke and hid them."
"That is past a joke."
Pepper continued to hunt around until it was time to go below. Then he marched straight to Captain Putnam's private office.
The captain listened with a sinking heart to what the cadet had to say. It was terrible to think that a thief was at large in the school and could not be caught.
"You are positive that you had the scarfpin when you came home, Ditmore?" he questioned.
"And you put it in the case in the drawer?"
"Was the drawer locked?"
"Part of the time. Sometimes I forgot and left the key in the lock."
"What sort of a scarfpin was it?"
"It was a sort of a clover effect, of gold, with a ruby and three small diamonds."
"And how much was it worth?"
"I believe my mother paid thirty-five dollars for it. It was a Christmas gift, so I am not sure about the value."
"Well, take another look for it and report to me again to-morrow," answered Captain Putnam, with a heavy sigh. Then, of a sudden, he added: "Do you suspect anybody of taking the scarfpin?"
"I have no clue whatever to the theft," answered Pepper, slowly.
"But have you any suspicions, Ditmore?" And the master's voice grew a trifle stern.
"Only in a general way."
"Please explain yourself."
"I—er—I hardly know what to say, sir," stammered Pepper. "There may be nothing in it at all."
"In what? Come, out with it."
"Why, you see, sir, some of the cadets in this school are not good friends with me and Major Ruddy, and maybe they thought they would play a trick on us by taking his watch and chain and my scarfpin."
"Humph! a mighty poor trick! Who are those cadets?"
"I don't want to accuse them, Captain Putnam."
"I understand. But who are the cadets?"
"Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter."
"Oh, yes, I remember now. You and Major Ruddy have had quite some trouble with them in the past."
"Yes, sir. But I'd hate to think they did such a mean thing as this," added Pepper, hastily.
"Well, take a look around and report again to-morrow," returned Captain Putnam; and then closed his desk slowly and thoughtfully.
Pepper did take a look around, but it was of no use. Not a trace of the missing scarfpin could be found.
"This certainly beats the nation!" remarked Dale, when the cadets were talking the affair over. "First Andy loses his jewelry, then Jack, and now Pepper. Wonder if I hadn't better put my cuff-links in the captain's safe?" And he cut a wry face. "They cost me a dollar and a quarter."
"I'll wager Captain Putnam would give a good deal to catch the thief," remarked Stuffer. "Say, Pep, I hope you don't suspect anybody in this dormitory?" he added anxiously.
"No, Stuffer," was the quick answer. Then Pepper broke into a grin. "Of course, if it was a doughnut, or a pie, I'd suspect you right off!"
"Huh! It's no crime to take something to eat!" grunted Stuffer.
"I'd hate to think any cadet was guilty," came from Emerald. "'Twould blacken the character of the whole school, so it would!"
"Well, Jack and Pepper have some bitter enemies," said Dale, significantly. And all present knew to whom he referred.
"Well, you can't always tell," said Dale, and shrugged his broad shoulders.
At that moment Fred Century came hurrying into the dormitory.
"Have you heard the latest news?" he cried.
"No, what is it?" questioned Andy.
"Maybe we are going to have an extra holiday," suggested Pepper.
"Better yet, maybe old Crabtree has resigned," added Jack.
"Perhaps Fred is going to give us a spread," came from Stuffer. "I'd like that first-rate."
"No, the news is more important than all that," came from Fred.
"Well, what is it, Fred?"
"Don't keep us on pins and needles any longer!"
"Well, the news is, that there have been more robberies committed here," answered Fred.
"More robberies!" came from half a dozen throats.
"Yes. The teachers were going to keep the thing quiet, but it leaked out through Mumps and Nick Paxton.
"What has been taken now?" asked Jack, curiously.
"A watch, a scarfpin, and a five-dollar gold piece."
"And who was robbed?" burst out Andy.
"The watch was taken from Paxton, the scarfpin from Ritter, and Coulter lost the five-dollar gold piece."
"Is it possible!" murmured the young major, and then he looked meaningly at his chums. Here was news indeed!
"When did you learn of this, Fred?" asked Dale.
"Just a few minutes ago. Mumps told me, and Paxton told Frank Barringer. Ritter, Coulter and Paxton went to the office to report. Mumps said Ritter was as mad as hops. Ritter's watch was only a silver affair, but he says it came down to him from his grandfather and was valuable as an heirloom."
"Well, this is certainly getting interesting," was Pepper's comment. "If that thief isn't caught he'll end up by cleaning out the whole school."
"After this, I am going to hide my valuables," said Dale.
"Ditto here," cried Stuffer. "I haven't got much, but what I own I want to keep."
A little later the cadets filed out of the dormitory, leaving Jack, Pepper and Andy together.
"Well, I am mighty glad I didn't accuse Ritter and Coulter," said the young major. "This puts something of a different light on the subject."
"But who is guilty, do you think?" asked Andy.
"I don't know what to think," answered the young major.
"This will drive Captain Putnam wild," came from Pepper. And he was right; the master of the Hall was worried as he had never been worried before. He made a rigid investigation, but it brought nothing new to light. According to the stories told by Ritter, Coulter and Paxton the articles stolen had been taken from their bureau-drawers, and that was all those cadets could tell about the mysterious affair.
"We must set a strict watch, Captain Putnam," said George Strong.
"And we must catch that thief," added Josiah. Crabtree, sourly. "I—I shall be almost afraid to go to sleep after this!" he added nervously.
"If these thefts keep on I don't know what I am going to do," said Captain Putnam, and his voice had a sound of despair in it.
For several days nothing was talked of at Putnam Hall but the mysterious disappearance of the students' watches and jewelry. The cadets could not get the matter off their minds, and as a consequence recitations became very poor.
"I shall offer a substantial reward," said Captain Putnam, and one afternoon a notice was posted in the school proper and in the gymnasium, offering one hundred dollars for information leading to the capture of the thief.
"Say, I shouldn't mind earning that reward!" murmured Dale.
"A fellow could have no end of a good time on a hundred dollars!" murmured Stuffer. "Think what a spread he could give!" And his eyes sparkled in anticipation.
"It would be a bad thing for Stuffer to get the reward," came from Andy.
"Why, I'd like to know?" demanded that cadet.
"Because you'd eat yourself into a state of acute indigestion."
"Rats! I don't eat any more than you do," grumbled Stuffer.
"Well, I don't see any chance of your getting the reward," was Jack's comment. "That thief had hidden his tracks well."
With the deep snow on the ground, drills had to be held in the gymnasium, and several contests were also arranged. The cadets got up a tug-of-war between one team headed by Pepper and another headed by Dale, and the excitement over this contest waged so high, that the thefts were, for the time being, forgotten.
The tug-of-war was held late one afternoon in the gymnasium. A line was drawn on the floor and the long rope laid across this. On either side wooden cleats were nailed down, so that the contestants might brace their feet.
The two teams consisted of eight cadets each. With Pepper were Andy, Jack, and Fred Century, while on Dale's side were Bart Field, Bart Conners and some other cadets already introduced.
"Now, then, Pepper!" cried one of his friends. "See what you can do!"
"Don't give him a chance, Dale! Yank him right over the line!" cried one of Dale's friends.
"I'll bet Pepper Ditmore loses," said Nick Paxton, who was present. Ritter and Coulter had said they did not consider a tug-of-war between such teams worth witnessing.
Frank Barringer was timekeeper and referee, and at the appointed hour he made both teams line up and catch hold of the rope.
"All ready?" he asked.
There was a moment of silence.
"Drop!" was the cry, and on the instant both teams tightened their holds on the rope and dropped down on the wooden cleats.
"Hold them, Pepper!"
"Don't let 'em haul you up, Dale!"
"Glue yourself down, Jack!"
"Stone foundation, Fred! Stone foundation!"
So the cries ran on, as the two tug-of-war teams held on to the long rope like grim death, each team determined not to give in an inch.
For fully five minutes the rope remained as when the teams had first dropped. Then, of a sudden, Dale gave a hiss and up came his men, to haul in on the rope several inches and then drop as before.
"Hurrah! that's the way to do it!"
"Every inch counts, boys!"
"Watch your chance for another!"
"Get it back, Pepper! Get it back!"
There followed another tense strain. Then Dale's team came up once more and brought rope in another six inches.
"That's the way to do it! Now then, a good, stiff pull and you'll have 'em over!"
"Wake up, Pepper! It's time you and your men got on the job!" cried Henry Lee.
"I knew Dale's team would win," said Paxton.
Hardly had Paxton spoken when Dale's team came up for another haul. But this time Pepper and his men were on the alert, and in a twinkling they commenced to haul in—six inches, a foot, a foot and a half and then two feet—and then they dropped, the strain being as much as they could stand.
"Hurrah! Look at that!"
"They got back all they lost and more!"
"Hold 'em, Dale! Stone foundation!"
A great many cries arose. Dale and his supporters braced back as well as they could. Then Dale gave the word to come up for another haul.
Back and forth went the rope, the center knot first on one side of the line and then on the other. For several minutes it looked as if Dale's team might win. But then the tide turned again, and with a strength that was surprising, Pepper's team gave "a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together," and brought the center knot over the winning line.
"Hurrah! Pepper Ditmore's team wins!"
"Say, that was a great tug, wasn't it?"
"My foot slipped!" said one of Dale's supporters.
"So did mine," same from a cadet on the other side.
"It was a fair contest," said Frank Barringer. "Pepper Ditmore's team wins. My private opinion is, both sides did well," he added.
"They certainly did," was Mr. Strong's comment. He had watched the contest with interest.
After the tug-of-war came a contest on the flying rings. Here Andy was in his element, and the acrobatic youth easily outdistanced all of his competitors.
"Very good, indeed, Snow," said the gymnastic instructor. "Really, you go at it as if you were a professional."
"Say, Andy, some day you can join the circus," suggested the young major.
"Maybe his folks came from a circus," sneered Nick Paxton. "It isn't fair to bring in a professional."
"Sour grapes, Paxton!" cried Stuffer. "You know that Andy Snow's father is a business man in the city. Andy just takes to gymnastic exercises, that's all."
"Humph! I don't think such an exhibition much!"
"Just the same, Paxton, you'd give a good deal to do as well," retorted the youth who loved to eat, and turned his back on the other cadet.
Thanksgiving came and went in another storm. The snow was so deep that getting away from the Hall was out of the question, so those who had planned to go home for the holiday were somewhat disappointed. But Captain Putnam provided good cheer in abundance, with plenty of turkey and cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and nuts. For the evening the boys got up an entertainment in the assembly room, with monologues and dialogues, and also some singing by the school Glee Club, and some very good violin and mandolin playing. Pepper, Jack and Andy took part in the entertainment, and everybody but Josiah Crabtree enjoyed the exhibition. Crabtree did not believe in such "tomfoolery," as he expressed it, and told Captain Putnam the cadets should have given a Shakespearian recital, or something like that, instead.
"Perhaps so, Mr. Crabtree," answered the master of the Hall. "But as the boys are virtually snowed in, I thought I'd let them have a little fun."
After Thanksgiving the cadets settled down to the grind once more, counting the days to Christmas, when they could go home for two weeks.
"I've got to go to Cedarville," said Jack, one afternoon, after the snowstorm had cleared away. "Who will go along? I am going to walk it, just for the exercise."
"I'll go!" cried Pepper.
"So will I!" added Andy. "Where are you going?"
"To the shoe shop and the postoffice."
The three cadets were soon on the way, Fred Century and Bert Field pelting them with snowballs as they left. It was cold but clear, and all were in the best of spirits.
"I see they've got a new man of all work around the school," observed Pepper, as the three trudged on. "I hope Captain Putnam doesn't think of discharging Peleg Snuggers."
"That new man is a sly kind of a fellow," came from Andy. "I was walking through the hallway last evening and he came up behind me as silently as a cat after a mouse."
"I've got my own idea about that man of all work," said the young major, with a faint smile.
"What do you mean, Jack?"
"If I tell you, will you keep it to yourself, both of you?"
"Sure!" was the prompt answer.
"Well, I don't think John Smith is a man of all work at all."
"He isn't?" cried Andy. "Then what is he?"
"I think he is a private detective."
"Oh, Jack! can that be possible!" ejaculated Pepper. "But it must be so, for I watched the fellow last evening, and he didn't do much work, and he didn't seem to like it that I had an eye on him."
"Of course, if he is a detective, Captain Putnam has engaged him to clear up this mystery of the robberies," said Andy. "Well, I don't blame the captain, for this is surely going to give the school a bad name."
"Don't breathe a word of this to any one," went on Jack. "Of course, if the thief knew a detective was so near he'd be more on guard than ever."
"I only hope he gets the rascal, whoever he is."
"Wonder if it can be one of the cadets?" mused Andy.
"I don't know. It is either some cadet or else one of the hired help. But it is an awful state of affairs," answered Jack.
"By the way, Jack, how about the new election of officers?" said Pepper, a little later. "Going to try for the majorship again?"
"No. Why should I? I've been major long enough. I believe in giving the other fellows a show."
"Who, for instance?"
"Well, I'd like to see Bart Conners made major. He's one of the best soldiers we have, and he keeps Company B up to the scratch."
"Bart is all right. But what about the other fellows?"
"Well, I am not so anxious about the captaincies. Let the best fellows win."
"I think Reff Ritter would like to be a captain or major."
"He never will be—he can't get the support. Why, hardly any of the cadets go with Reff any more. Even Paxton seems to have dropped him. About the only close friend he has is Gus Coulter."
"Maybe the boys have dropped him because his father is no longer rich."
"No, I don't think that, for quite a number of the cadets are far from rich and yet they are considered good fellows. It's Ritter's ways. He is too domineering. The fellows won't stand for his bullying manner."
"When does the election take place?"
"The tenth day of December—a week from next Wednesday."
"And you are sure you don't want to run again, Jack?"
"Yes, quite sure, Pepper. You can run if you want to." And the young major smiled broadly.
"Not for me!" cried The Imp. "I'd rather have my fun. And, by the way, I've got an idea for some fun with old Crabtree," he added suddenly.
"What is it?" questioned Andy, eagerly.
Pepper closed one eye suggestively.
"Just you wait and see," he answered. "Crabtree is going to wake up to a big surprise some morning—and when he does, well, maybe he'll stop chewing his victuals for awhile!"
A CURIOUS MEETING
As the cadets were good walkers it did not take them long to cover the distance to Cedarville. They stopped at a shoe store, and at a candy store for some chocolates, and then started for the postoffice.
"I guess Jack is looking for a letter from his best girl," remarked Pepper, with a grin.
"Maybe you're looking for a letter yourself," returned the young major.
"No such luck," and The Imp heaved a deep sigh. "None of the girls ever write to me."
"Rats!" came from Andy. "I saw you get a letter from Flossie Ford only a few days ago."
"I am looking for a check from dad," said Jack. "I want it to buy Christmas presents with."
"Better early than too late."
The three cadets entered the local postoffice. As they did so they came face to face with a big cadet, who was carrying a dress-suit case.
"Why, see, it's Dan Baxter!" cried Andy.
"Hello, Baxter, coming back to Putnam Hall?" queried the young major.
"I am," was the short answer of the bully.
"Been away quite awhile," put in Pepper.
"Yes," answered Baxter, shortly, and without another word he hurried out of the postoffice.
"Not very sociable," remarked Jack, dryly.
"He acts as if he had something on his mind," said Pepper.
"I wonder if he will be as bullying as he used to be," mused Andy.
"If he is, he'll get punched," answered Pepper. He had not forgotten his former encounters with Dan Baxter.
"It's queer that Baxter and Ritter don't hit it off better," said Pepper, while Jack was asking about letters. "They seem to be two of a kind."
"They are in some ways," answered Andy. "But, somehow, I think Ritter is the worse of the two."
In a moment the young major came up. He was smiling broadly.
"Here's the letter from dad, and what do you think? He sent me a check for ten dollars more than I asked for! Isn't that fine?"
"Best ever," answered Pepper.
"I'd like the same kind of a check," returned Andy.
"While you are wishing, make it double the amount—it doesn't cost any more," chattered The Imp.
From the postoffice the cadets strolled down the main street of the village, and then turned a corner near which were some new buildings.
"There is another cadet!" cried Jack, pointing ahead. "Hello, where is he going?"
He and his chums looked and saw the boy in the uniform of a Putnam Hall student enter an unfinished building. He was accompanied by a heavy-set man wearing a long overcoat and a soft hat. The two were in earnest conversation.
"That looked like Reff Ritter to me," cried Pepper.
"It was Ritter," answered Andy.
"Who was the man?" asked the young major.
"That is what I want to know!" cried Andy. "Say, I'm going to follow them!"
The acrobatic youth was plainly excited, and his chums could not help but notice it.
"What are you going to follow them for, Andy?" asked Jack.
"I want to see that man."
"Do you know him?"
"I don't know—yet. I want to find out."
"If we follow them Ritter will think it mighty queer," was Pepper's comment.
"I don't care—I want to get a good look at that man," answered Andy, doggedly.
The acrobatic youth led the way and his chums felt compelled to follow. Ritter and the stranger had passed between two buildings. They found a side doorway of one structure wide open, and stepped into a lathed but unplastered hallway. Andy bounded up on an unfinished front piazza and stepped through an open casement into a lathed but unplastered parlor.
"Shall we follow?" asked Pepper of Jack.
"Might as well," returned the young major. "Andy may get into trouble with Ritter, and if so we want to be on hand to help him."
Ritter and the man were talking in a low tone, so that what was said could not be overheard. They had stepped into the house to get out of the keen wind that had sprung up. Andy tiptoed his way across the unfinished parlor and applied his eye to a crack where a lath was missing. He watched until the man shoved back his soft hat and turned his face around. Then he uttered a low cry.
"See anything, Andy?" whispered Pepper.
"That man—he's the same fellow—I feel sure of it!" gasped the acrobatic youth.
"What are you talking about?"
"That man! Don't you remember how the horse ran away with me and I got caught in the tree and was knocked unconscious? Don't you remember my telling how I had seen a man ahead of me just before the accident? Well, that is the man!"
"Are you sure?"
"I think so. Of course, I didn't get a very good look at him—I had my hands full with the horse. But I think that is the man."
"Then maybe he robbed you, Andy!"
"Maybe he did."
"Don't say that unless you are sure of it," warned Jack. "It's a serious accusation and may get you into trouble."
"Oh, I know enough to go slow," answered the acrobatic youth.
Ritter and the stranger had turned to the rear of the house and the watchers saw something passed between them. Then, a minute later, Ritter turned and hurried off by a back way, while the stranger turned to leave by the way he had come.
Andy was undecided what to do, and while he still hesitated the man came through to the front of the house.
"Hello!" he cried, as he caught sight of the three cadets. "What are you doing here?"
"Perhaps we might ask the same question," returned Jack, as he saw that Andy did not know what to say.
"Have you been following me?" demanded the man, suspiciously.
"Why should we follow you?" asked Pepper.
"No reason at all, so far as I know. I only asked the question," and now the man tried to speak as carelessly as possible.
"I saw you come in here a few minutes ago and I followed, because I want to speak to you," said Andy, shoving to the front and eyeing the fellow closely.
"What do you wish to speak about?"
"Haven't I met you before?"
At these words the man started, but quickly recovered.
"I don't think so," he answered slowly, looking Andy straight in the eyes. "You see, I am a stranger in Cedarville."
"Didn't I meet you in September, on the road back of Putnam Hall school?" asked the acrobatic youth, sharply.
"In September?" The man shook his head slowly. "No, I wasn't here in September—I was in Boston."
"You are sure about that?" demanded Andy.
"Certainly I am sure," growled the man. "Do you doubt my word?"
"If it wasn't you it was a man who looks very much like you," said Andy, pointedly. "Will you tell me your name?"
"It's none of your business, boy! I never met you, and that settles it. I'm in a hurry now, I've got to get to Ithaca, so I'll thank you to let me pass." And so speaking the stranger brushed forward. Andy put out his hand, as if to detain him, but then changed his mind. In a moment more the man was hurrying down the street. He turned the nearest corner without looking back.
"I believe he is the same fellow, and I believe he robbed me!" cried Andy.
"Possibly he is, but you are not sure of it," answered the young major. "And it would be foolhardy to have him arrested when you have no evidence against him."
"He acted as if he was scared," came from Pepper. "That growl of his was all put on."
"I wish I had forced him to give me his name and address."
"You can get that from Reff Ritter."
"Providing Ritter will give it," added Jack. "He may be as backward about it as the man was himself."
"Why should he be, if the man is honest?"
"Perhaps he won't want it known that he met the man," said Pepper. "He came in here rather sneakingly."
"Where did Ritter go?"
"To the Hall, most likely. It's time we got back, too."
The three cadets left the vicinity of the unfinished buildings and were soon on the way to the school. As they trudged along they talked over what had happened, and also discussed the arrival of Dan Baxter.
"Baxter will try to stir things up," said Jack. And he was right, the bully did stir up the whole school, but it was not until the next term, after the young major had left.
About half the distance to Putnam Hall had been covered when the three cadets discovered a crowd ahead of them.
"Who are those fellows?" asked Pepper.
"Pornell Academy lads," announced Andy. "And see, they have spotted us!"
He was right, the other crowd, nine strong, were students from Pornell. They were led by Roy Bock and a fellow named Grimes. They had been good-naturedly snowballing each other, but now they stopped.
"Three Putnam Hall cadets!" cried Bock. "Come on, fellows, here's a chance for sport."
"Let's snowball 'em good and proper!" exclaimed Grimes.
"Everybody on the jump!" yelled another Pornell youth.
"Let's surround 'em," was the suggestion offered.
"We'll hammer the daylights out of 'em," came from one lad, who could only be brave when backed up by a crowd.
"Yes, surround 'em, don't let 'em get away!" cried Bock. "Come on!" And he led the way on the run, making snowballs as he moved.
ABOUT A SET OF TEETH
"I am afraid we are in for it!" whispered the young major, as he saw the rush of the Pornell students, each armed with all the snowballs he could carry.
"Shall we run away?" asked Andy. "I guess we can run as fast as they can."
"Never!" replied Pepper. "I am going to the Hall and on this road."
"So am I!" added Jack.
"Then let us rush 'em?" suggested Andy. "We can't stand and fight nine of 'em—we'll be snowed under."
"Rush it is," returned the young major. "Wait till I give the signal."
On came the enemy, and soon the snowballs were flying at a lively rate. It was growing dark, but the aim of the Pornell students was good and the chums were hit several times. They threw snowballs in return, hitting Bock in the breast and Grimes in the chin.
"Come on, throw 'em over!" roared Bock. "Roll 'em in the snow!"
"And stuff some snow down their backs!" added Grimes.
"Now then, all together!" cried Jack. "Keep as close as possible! One, two, three!"
Side by side the three chums bounded forward, straight for the line of Pornellites. They came on swiftly and took the enemy by surprise. Jack bumped into Bock, hurling him flat, and Pepper bowled over Grimes. Andy bent low and caught another student by the legs, sending him over into a fourth, and both went flat. Then the three cadets caught a fifth and ran him along the road and into a hollow, where he went into snow up to his waist.
"Stop 'em! Stop 'em!" was the cry, but the Putnam Hall boys could not be stopped. Turning, they delivered a parting shower of snowballs, and then ran on, in the direction of the school.
"I guess the Pornell fellows will remember that for awhile," panted Pepper, when they felt safe.
"And just think of it—three to nine!" chuckled Andy.
"They thought they had us dead to rights," came from Jack. "Well, I guess we showed them a trick or two they won't forget right away."
"Are they following us?" asked the acrobatic youth, looking back.
"I reckon not," replied Pepper, "Must have had enough," and he smiled broadly.
The three cadets were tired out from their long walk and the contest on the road, and when the school was reached all were glad enough to sit down and rest previous to having supper. Andy looked around for Reff Ritter, but that cadet kept himself out of sight.
"I'll see him after supper," said the acrobatic youth.
It was not until nearly bedtime that he got a chance to question the bully. He followed Ritter up to his dormitory, which chanced just then to be unoccupied.
"Reff, I want to talk to you," he said, when the bully was on the point of closing the door in his face.
"What do you want, Andy Snow? I'm not feeling well to-night, and I am tired out from a walk I took to Cedarville."
"I won't keep you long, Reff. I want to ask you about the man you met in Cedarville? What's his name?"
Reff Ritter stopped short and showed that the question took him by surprise.
"Man I met?" he stammered.
"Yes, the man you met at the new buildings in Cedarville."
"Who said I met any one?"
"We saw you, I and Major Ruddy and Pep Ditmore."
"Huh! Been spying on me, eh?" And Reff Ritter's face took on its old look of sourness.
"It was an accident. But I want to know who that man was."
"I have my reasons."
"I don't see that I am called on to answer your questions, Andy Snow. If I want to meet anybody I'll do it."
"Then you refuse to tell me who the man was?"
"Tell me why you want to know and maybe I'll tell you who he is," answered the bully, after studying the acrobatic youth's face for a moment.
"Very well. Do you remember the time the horse ran away with me and left me unconscious on the road?"
"I heard about it."
"Well, just before I was knocked unconscious I saw a man on the road ahead of me."
"I think it was the man you met this afternoon."
"That man?" cried the bully, and now he showed a sudden interest.
"Yes, and that is why I want to know his name, and where he comes from."
"You must be mistaken, Snow. That man doesn't belong around here."
"Where is he from?"
"I think he comes from Boston, but I am not sure."
"And his name?"
"Why do you ask these questions? Do you think he had something to do with your being thrown from the horse?"
"No, not with being thrown from the horse, Reff. But, if you'll remember, when I came to my senses my watch was gone, also my stickpin and eight dollars in bills."
"And you think that man took them?" questioned Reff Ritter, in a voice that sounded strained.
"I won't say that until I know more about the man. If you say he is a good, honest man, why then I'll be bound to believe I am mistaken."
"I don't know much about him, but I don't think he is a thief," answered the bully, slowly. "His name is Smith, Cameron Smith, and he is a commercial traveler. I only met him twice, once about two weeks ago and to-day. He knows my—er—my uncle, and is doing some business for him, and he wanted to see me about it, that's all. But I am sure you are mistaken about his robbing you."
"I didn't say he robbed me,—in fact, I am not positive he was the man I saw on the road."
"I don't think he was near Cedarville at the time. He spends most of his time around Boston. Is that all you want to know? If it is, I'm going to lie down and try to get some sleep," went on Reff Ritter, passing his hand over his forehead.
"Yes, that's all," answered Andy, shortly. "Much obliged." And he left the dormitory.
He was not at all satisfied with the way Reff Ritter had acted. Evidently the bully was much put out over the fact that his meeting with Cameron Smith was known.
"He didn't say much about what business he had with the man," mused Andy. "It all sounds rather fishy to me. Wish I had some way of finding out more about this Cameron Smith. Guess I'll write to some of my friends in Boston and see if they can find out anything about him." And Andy sent a letter the very next morning.
On this same day Pepper had a sharp wrangle with Josiah Crabtree. The dictatorial teacher accused Pepper of copying an example in algebra from another cadet, and a bitter altercation followed.
"I didn't do it, and I don't want you to say so!" flared up Pepper, his cheeks aflame.
"Ditmore, be silent!" roared Josiah Crabtree. "Not another word, or I'll send you to Captain Putnam!"
"I don't care—I didn't copy!" muttered Pepper. "It's a shame to say I did!"
"You'll stay in after school," commanded Crabtree, majestically.
The accusation, and the fact that he had to stay in when the others were allowed to go out and have their fun, did not suit The Imp at all. While he sat in the classroom all alone, he thought again of something that had come into his mind before.
"I'll do it!" he said firmly. "I'll do it to-night! I'll show him that he can't accuse me for nothing."
Since the fall term at Putnam Hall had opened Josiah Crabtree had been making frequent trips to Ithaca, to a well-known dentist located in that city. Although many of the cadets did not know it, a few, and among them Pepper, were aware that the teacher was having a new set of false teeth made. Now the teeth were finished, and Josiah Crabtree was wearing them with great satisfaction and not a little pride. He fancied that the new teeth added not a little to his personal appearance.