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´╗┐Title: Fred Fenton Marathon Runner - The Great Race at Riverport School
Author: Chapman, Allen
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Fred Fenton Marathon Runner - The Great Race at Riverport School" ***

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FRED FENTON MARATHON RUNNER

The Great Race at Riverport School


By Allen Chapman


File uses:
   _italic_ notation



CONTENTS

CHAPTERS
    I. In the Snow
   II. The Battle Between Old Rivals
  III. Up the Mohunk on an Ice-boat
   IV. The Rescue, and a Mystery
    V. Looking Over the Course
   VI. The Wild Dog Pack
  VII. The Short-Cut Way
 VIII. The Tell-Tale Pin
   IX. At the Toll-Gate
    X. Bristles' Surprise Party
   XI. On the Green Campus
  XII. Laying Plans
 XIII. The Muffled Voice
  XIV. A Plot That Failed
   XV. Clinching Evidence
  XVI. Telling Bristles
 XVII. Lining Up for the Trial Spin
XVIII. Caught by the Storm
  XIX. The Boy in the Haymow
   XX. When the Circus Came to Riverport
  XXI. The Greatest of Days
 XXII. "They're Off!"
XXIII. The Marathon Runners
 XXIV. When Duty Called
  XXV. The Victory---Conclusion



CHAPTER I

IN THE SNOW


"Now then, let's see who can put a shot through that round hole in the
tree-trunk up there.  Take a try, Sid."

"Must be twenty yards away from here, if a foot, eh, Bristles?"

"More like twenty-five to me, Colon; and looks farther than from first
base to third, on the diamond."

"Line up, everybody, and we'll soon find out who takes the cake at making
a center shot.  But hadn't we better bar out Fred Fenton?"

"What for, Bristles?"

"Why, because he's the regular pitcher on the Riverside High School nine:
he's used to putting 'em over the plate for a steady diet."

"That's a fact, and Fred, you'll have to consider yourself handicapped in
this little contest of skill."

"Anyhow, wait till we've had our fling, Fred; and then if nobody seems to
get a bull's-eye, you might show us how to do the job."

"All right, boys, that suits me.  And while you bombard that poor old
tree, I'll be amusing myself making one good firm snowball, against the
time my turn comes."

"Go at it, fellows!  There, did you see me smack one just a foot below
the hole?  Gee! that was a sure-enough dandy hit of yours, Bristles;
closer by six inches than mine.  Everybody put your best licks in!"

The hard balls flew thick and furiously, for it happened that the rather
heavy fall of snow was just moist enough to be easily pressed into the
finest of missiles for boyish use.

Many of these swiftly thrown balls missed the tree-trunk entirely.
Others splattered here and there against the bark, leaving a tell-tale
white mark.  A few came dangerously near the yawning opening; but not a
single one thus far had managed to disappear within the gap.

The boy who had been called Fred Fenton, having manipulated a single
snowball in his hands, stood there watching the onslaught, and
occasionally speaking words of encouragement to those who were taking
part in the spirited contest.

"That was a corker, Sid Wells, and it would have done the business if
you'd only put an ounce more of speed in your throw, so as to have raised
it three inches.  Good boy, Brad, you left a mark just alongside the
hole, so some of it must have spattered in the hollow!  Not quite so
fierce, Bristles; that one would have landed, if you'd been a little less
powerful in your throw!"

Presently some of the boys began to grow weary of the sport.

"What's the use of our trying to hit that mark so far away?" grumbled
Bristles; which expression of defeat was something strange to hear from
his lips, because the owner of the shock of heavy hair that stood
upright, and had gained him such a peculiar nick-name, was as a rule very
stubborn, and ready to stick to the very end.

"Let Fred show us how!" suggested Sid Wells, who was known as the
particular chum of the pitcher, he being the son of a retired professor,
now engaged in wonderful experiments which might some day astonish the
world.

The rest of the boys seemed ready to join in the chorus, and make way for
the ball flinger.  They had watched this same Fred send his dazzling
shots over the plate with such wonderful speed and accuracy that he held
the strike-out record for the high school league.

"Remember I'm hardly in practice just now," Fred told them, laughingly;
"though Sid and myself have been putting over a few, just to warm up
these days when it feels as if Spring might be flirting with Winter.  On
that account I hope you won't expect too much from me; and give me three
chances to make a bull's-eye."

"Sure we will, Fred!" exclaimed Bristles.

"Take six if you want to," added the generous Colon, who was a very
long-legged fellow, a magnificent sprinter, with a peculiar habit of
leaping as he ran, that often reminded people of the ungainly jumps of a
kangaroo.  But he nearly always  "got there with the goods."

"No, three ought to be plenty!" declared Fred, as he prepared to send his
first one in.

It struck just below the edge of the opening, being really a better shot
than any of the scores that had marked the tree-trunk up to that time.
The rest of the half dozen boys gave a shout.

"Clipped the edge of the plate that time, Fred!" cried Bristles, whose
real name was Andy Carpenter.

"Two inches higher, and it would have gone straight in.  Now you've found
the rubber, strike him out, Fred.  You can do it!  I ought to know,
because haven't I been your backstop many a time, and watched them spin
straight across?" and Sid Wells handed his chum a ball he had squeezed
into a shape that was as nearly round as anything could be, and also as
hard as ice.

Bristles, too, presented his contribution, so that the candidate for
honors stood there with a missile in each hand.  He looked carefully at
the trees as though measuring the distance and height with that practiced
eye of his.  Then they saw him draw back his arm after the same manner in
which he delivered the ball during an exciting part of a hotly contested
game of ball.

The shot went true to the mark, and as they saw it vanish in the cavity,
a shout arose from the five boys.  This burst out in redoubled violence
when, as quick as a flash, Fred sent the second snowball exactly after
the first, so that it too went straight into the dark hole.

While they continue to express their delight, by shouts, and slapping
Fred on the back, perhaps it might be well to say a few words concerning
Fred Fenton and his friends.

They were all Riverport boys, and attended the high school there.  Fred
and two of the others were taking a post graduate course, meaning to
enter college during the following season.

In the pages of the first volume of this series, entitled "_Fred Fenton,
the Pitcher_," we had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of most of
the boys who were to play prominent parts in the events taking place
along the banks of the Mohunk River, where two other towns,
Mechanicsburg, three miles up, and Paulding, seven miles down the river,
were rivals of Riverport.

Turning from baseball, as the Summer waned, the boys of Riverport
naturally took to the gridiron, and their struggles for supremacy with
rival teams are to be found in the second story, called: "_Fred Fenton in
the Line_."

When Summer came again, other sports took the energetic lads of the river
town by storm.  With such splendid opportunities for boating, as were
presented by the Mohunk River, of course they availed themselves of the
chance to again enter into competition with those whose one ambition
seemed to be to defeat Riverport.   These lively encounters are set forth
in the pages of the third volume, entitled "_Fred Fenton on the Crew_."

The next Winter the three towns became so filled with enthusiasm over the
great advantages of athletic training, that fine gymnasiums were
organized through public subscription.  In time a meet had been
organized, and there were some fierce struggles for supremacy between the
rival towns.  Just how the boys of Riverport carried themselves in these
exciting happenings, and what measure of success perched on their banner,
you will find narrated in the pages of the fourth volume, just preceding
this book, under the title of "_Fred Fenton on the Track_."

The Winter had now almost reached its conclusion, though some of the boys
who claimed to be weather-wise declared that they would very likely have
just one more cold snap before the final break-up.

They hoped it might be severe enough to give them a last chance to skate
upon the Mohunk, and use their ice-boat again.  The ice had become pretty
"punky," as Bristles called it, with numerous airholes that threatened
disaster in case one went too close, so that for several days Fred and
his chums had avoided the river.

This trip up into the woods on Saturday afternoon had been taken just to
enjoy the first real tramp of the season, and to get together to talk of
plans for the coming Spring athletics.  As boys can never resist the
temptation to throw snowballs when the moist white covering seems just
suited to such conditions, every little while one of them discovered some
sort of target at which they could exercise their skill.

Once it had been a venturesome bluejay that had wintered near the Mohunk;
but the wary bird was awing before the first snowball struck near its
perch.  Then a crow dared them, and fled amidst a shower of missiles and
uproarious shouts, each fellow claiming that it must have been his shot
that had struck the limb just where the cawing bird had been sitting.

They were possibly two miles from town, and in the midst of the Budge
woods, a section that always had a certain charm for the boys of both
Riverport and Mechanicsburg, as it lay half-way between the two towns,
and not far from the river.

Which brief but necessary digression again brings us to the occasion when
Fred's chums were applauding his double hit, after he had sent two
successive snowballs so cleverly into the hole Bristles had selected as a
mark.

"Same old accuracy," chanted Colon.

"I'm sorry for poor Paulding, and the other town above us, when Fred
steps into the box again this year.  He's got 'em as straight as a rifle
ball.  No trouble for him to put three over when he's in a hole."

Sid Wells had hardly said this when something came to pass that was
entirely unexpected by the six Riverport boys.  Through the air a cloud
of solid icy balls came hurtling with what seemed like an angry hiss.
Some struck around them, spattering against the tree-trunks with loud
thuds; but several, being better aimed, came in contact with the persons
of the astonished boys, producing more or less of a stinging sensation,
as icy balls are apt to do.



CHAPTER II

THE BATTLE BETWEEN OLD RIVALS


"Hey!  What's all this mean?" shouted Bristles, as he dodged another
shower of smartly-thrown missiles that came from a point close at hand.

There was hardly any use asking, because all of the lads had by then
discovered the flitting forms of half a dozen boys about their own age,
who must have piled up plenty of ammunition, to judge from the reckless
way in which they were hurling snowballs in the direction of Fred and his
chums.

"The Mechanicsburg crowd, that's who it is!" snapped Colon, who, being so
much taller than the others, had a better chance to see over the tops of
the bushes.

"They're in for a snowball fight, fellows!" exclaimed Brad Morton, who
was the captain of the football team, as well as track manager in all
athletic meets.

"Give 'em Hail Columbia, fellows!  Riverport High to the fore!  Now,
altogether, and send 'em in as hot as you can make 'em!"

That was Dave Hanshaw whooping it up.  Dave had always been known as the
heavy batter when he was feeling right, and many a time had he knocked
out a home run, to the wild delight of the Riverport rooters.

The scene immediately took on a lively air.  Fred and his five chums were
feeling in just the right trim for a warm scrimmage with their
Mechanicsburg rivals, who had always managed to give them a hard task
before confessing to defeat, and were said to be breathing all manner of
threats with regard to evening up the score at the very next available
opportunity.

It seemed as though there were about the same number of lads on the other
side, and they had one advantage in the fact that, knowing of the
presence of the Riverport fellows, they had secretly prepared an enormous
number of fine round balls, so firmly pressed as to be almost as hard as
stones.

Preparation is all very good, but there is something that, as a rule,
proves even better.  This is organization and leadership, backed up by
pluck; and here the Riverside boys were in a class by themselves.

Somehow, when an emergency like this suddenly arose, they were accustomed
to looking to Fred Fenton as leader.  It may have been because Nature had
fashioned him in such a way that others readily believed in his ability
to win; past experiences had considerable to do with it, and they had
known him to carry off the honors for the home school on many a hotly
contested field.

For a short time the air was filled with flying snowballs, most of which
were fruitlessly thrown, though the better marksmen managed to now and
then get in a telling hit, that gave them more or less satisfaction.

Fred soon saw, however, that this sort of play would lead to nothing.
One side or the other might become exhausted, and call a truce; but there
would be little satisfaction in such a tame victory.  What he wanted was
an exhibition of strategy, by means of which the enemy would be fairly
routed.

"Brad, take Colon and Dave, and work off to the right, while the rest of
us turn their other flank!" he explained to the track captain, as they
dodged a new flurry of deftly thrown missiles.

"That's the ticket, and we're on to the game, Fred!" came the immediate
response, showing how ready the others were to follow up any scheme which
Fred proposed.

"Lay in a stock of ammunition first of all," cautioned Fred; "and when I
sing out, make your start.  We'll round up that lively bunch in a hurry,
mark me."

His confidence filled his mates with enthusiasm, as it always did.  A
belief in one's self goes a great way toward winning the battle, no
matter how the odds may seem to stand against success.

There was a hasty making of half a dozen balls apiece, all they could
conveniently carry, and when Fred had managed to supply himself with that
many rounds, he gave Brad the order to advance.

With new shouts that were intended to strike alarm to the hearts of the
Mechanicsburg boys, the two detachments now pushed along, making
something of a swinging movement, with the idea of turning the flanks of
the enemy.

Of course the other fellows understood just what was up, and could also
divide their force, so as to meet the conditions; but when they found
themselves between two fires, with hard snowballs striking them in the
back, their valor began to give way to uneasiness, that was apt soon to
merge into a regular panic.

That was what Fred called strategy.  It was of a different kind from that
of the great Napoleon, who used to plan to divide his enemy's army, and
then strike quickly at first one-half, and then the other, before they
could unite again.

In this case the main idea Fred had in mind was to be able to pour in
showers of missiles from two opposite quarters.  In this way, while his
own men would be scattered, and could dodge any shot that seemed likely
to cause trouble, the enemy remained bunched, and presented a splendid
target.

The thing that was likely to tell most of all was the fact that even
though a snowball happened to miss the boy at whom it had been aimed,
there was always a good chance of its finding a mark in the back of
another fellow, who, being struck so unexpectedly, must cringe, and feel
like running away.

Loud rang out the cries of the rival fighters, and all the while the
attacking force kept working closer and closer to the group of almost
exhausted fellows from up-river way.

"Soak it to 'em!" pealed Bristles, who was surely in his element, as he
dearly loved action of any sort;  "three hits for every one we've taken,
and then some.  Put your muscle into every throw, fellows!  Rap 'em hard.
They started it, and we'll do the winding up, and make the peace terms.
It's a surrender, or run away.  Now, all together again!"

By this time the Mechanicsburg boys had had quite enough.  Every one of
them was nursing some wound.  One had indeed even started off through the
woods, holding a hand to his eye, as though he had failed to dodge a
throw quickly enough; several others were hugging the tree-trunks
closely, and showing that they had had about all the snowball fight they
wanted.

There was one heavy-set but athletic looking chap who appeared to be the
ringleader of the assailants.  His name was Felix Wagner, and in times
gone by he had given the Riverport boys many a hard tussle to subdue him;
though he had a reputation for square dealing second to none.

Seeing that his side had given up the fight, since he was the only one
still hurling missiles, at the advancing enemy, Felix knew it was folly
to try to keep it up any longer.

"Hi! hold your horses, you Riverside tigers!" he called, laughingly, as
well as his almost exhausted condition allowed; "guess we've had about
all we want of this sort of thing for once.  My cheek stings like fun,
and I think I'll have something of a black eye to-morrow.  I only hope I
gave as good as I took, that's all."

"Do you own up beaten, then, Wagner?" demanded the pugnacious Bristles,
"because we're still as fresh as daisies, and bound to put it over on
you, now that you've started the fight?"

"Oh sure!  With such a crippled army, what else can a fellow do?" replied
the leader of the other crowd.  "We throw up the sponge, and wave the
white rag.  You're too much for us, that's what.  I reckoned it'd be that
way when I saw Fred Fenton was along.  He put you up to that game of
dividing your forces, and getting us under a cross-fire, I'll be bound.
And that rattled us more'n anything else you did; for when you get a
crack on the back of the head, it sort of knocks your calculations silly,
and you can't pay attention to what you're doing.  We surrender, all
right."

Besides Wagner there were some of the other baseball stars in the
defeated set---Dolan, who guarded the middle garden, Sherley whose domain
was away off in right, Boggs, the energetic shortstop, Hennessy the
catcher, who had taunted Fred and his chums So persistently whenever they
came to bat, in hopes of making them nervous, and Gould the agile second
baseman.

A number were rubbing their heads, or their faces, where red marks told
of a "strike," and while one here and there grumbled, wanting to know if
the Riverport boys put stones in their snowballs, the majority took their
punishment in good part.

"It was a lively scrimmage while it lasted, let me tell you," Fred
remarked, as he rubbed his icy hands together in order to induce
circulation.

"As fierce as any I've been in this year," admitted the big Hennessy,
whose favorite feat of throwing out runners at second had gained him a
great name, and who must have been responsible for a number of hits which
the Riverport boys had suffered during the "late unpleasantness."

"Getting to be an old story to have you Riverport fellows crow over us,"
grumbled Boggs, who had been the one to walk away while the battle was
still on; he had his handkerchief crushed in his hand, having wet it with
melted snow, and in this fashion was trying to relieve the smarting, as
well as prevent his eye from becoming discolored---something the average
boy dislikes more than almost any other punishment that can be imagined.

"Is there anything that we can beat you in?" demanded Sherley, frowning;
"because I'd give something to know it.  We've tried our level best, and
for two years now only picked up a few crumbs of comfort, while the
feast's been spread for Riverport.  And yet Mechanicsburg has just as
good athletes as you can boast.  We manage to win now and then, sometimes
by sheer hard work, and again by a fluke.  But they seem to be only the
minor events; all the big plums go to your crowd."

"That's Fred's diplomacy, Sherley, don't you understand?" said Bristles,
with one of his wide grins.  "He looks out for it that we get our best
licks in the things that count.  We've got a billiard and pool table at
our house, and when we play pool don't we go after all the big balls
first? what's the use knocking the One in a pocket, except it's your only
shot, and gives you a chance to get at larger game?"

Felix Wagner looked at the speaker, and gave a low whistle.

"Shucks!  I believe that's what's been the trouble all along," he went on
to say, presently, as though he had been awakened from a sound sleep;
"and to think none of us got on to that racket before.  Sure, we've been
chasing after the Number One ball just as hard as we have after the
Fifteen.  All looked alike to us.  Much obliged for giving me the tip,
Bristles; we'll see if we can't do better next time.  And if all the talk
about having a regular Marathon race this Spring turns out right, that's
where Riverport is going to run up against her Waterloo!"

"Glad to hear you talk so smartly, Wagner," said Fred, cheerfully, for
such methods never had the slightest weight with him, or affected his own
confidence.  "If you go at things that way, there's a chance we'll have a
glorious run, in case that Marathon race does come off.  All of us are
pulling the hardest we know how to get it fixed up; and we hope you
fellows and Paulding will put in your oars.  It will be a great event, if
we can spring it this season."

"Chances look pretty bright up our way," said Wagner, as he and his
friends prepared to start toward their home town; "and after the tip
Bristles was so good as to hand us, I wouldn't be surprised if
Mechanicsburg managed to show you down-river fellows her dust, this time
for keeps.  So-long, everybody!"

"Good talk, Wagner; may the best man win, we all say!" called out
generous Bristles.



CHAPTER III

UP THE MOHUNK ON AN ICE-BOAT


As Fred and Bristles, as well as Sid Wells, were all taking a post
graduate course, they got out much earlier than any of the other
scholars.  This was how on Monday afternoon Bristles turned up at the
Fenton home close to the river, he having arranged with Fred to have a
last spin on the ice-boat which the Carpenter boy had made himself, and
used with more or less success during the past Winter.

The weather had indeed hardened over Sunday, so that the slush was turned
into ice again.  The surface of the river was not as smooth as they could
have wished, but then since it promised to be their very last chance to
make use of the _Meteor_ that year, the boys could not complain, or let
the opportunity pass by.

"We'll have to be careful about some of the blowholes in the ice,"
Bristles was saying, as they headed for the bank where he kept his craft
in a shed he had built for the purpose, and which was close to Fred's
home.  "Everybody says the ice seems to be thin around where the water
bubbles up.  I'd hate to drop in and have to go home wringing wet, to
scare ma half out of her wits."

"Oh! no need of doing that, even if we should have the hard luck to get
wet," Fred told him.  "I always carry a waterproof matchsafe, so we could
go in the woods somewhere, start up a bully hot fire, and dry off.  All
the same, here's hoping we don't have to try that stunt out.  It sounds
well enough, but in this cold air a fellow'd shiver so he'd think his
teeth were dropping out.  We'll keep a bright watch for those same
blow-holes, believe me, Bristles."

Fred was a careful hand at everything he undertook, from driving a horse
or a car, to manipulating an ice-boat.  So Bristles, who had the utmost
confidence in his superior merits, did not feel the slightest uneasiness
as he led the way down the bank to the shed that sheltered his home-made
but very satisfactory ice craft.

Of course he had a padlock on the door.  This was not because the
sprawling craft was so very valuable;  but Bristles had expended
considerable time and money in fashioning the flier; and he did not mean
to put it in the power of any malicious boy to injure or steal, if a mere
padlock could prevent such a catastrophe.

There were some pretty mean boys in Riverport, as indeed you can always
find in any town.  The leading spirit among this class of young rascals
was Buck Lemington, who had once been the bully of Riverport, until Fred,
coming to town, succeeded in breaking up the combination that had so long
held sway.

Ever since that time the Lemington boy had lost no opportunity to try to
get back at Fred Fenton.  He had played several tricks on the other, and
his chosen friends, who also came under the condemnation of Buck; but as
a rule the vicious leader of the bad set had had these things recoil on
his own head.

Still, knowing how gladly Clem Shooks, Oscar Jones, Conrad Jimmerson and
Ben Cushing, the cronies of Buck, would seize upon a chance to destroy
his pet ice-boat, Bristles had always kept it under lock and key when not
in use.

"Everything seems to be lovely," said Bristles, opening the door of the
shed.  "Somehow I never count on finding my things as I left 'em, because
often I've seen one of that bunch hanging around the river here, as if he
were only waiting for half a chance to get even with me.  Why, each time
the fire bells have rung at night time this Winter, I've climbed into my
duds with the feeling that it was good-bye to my bully old _Meteor_."

"Oh!  I hardly think they'd dare do anything as bad as that, after the
lesson they had before," Fred went on to say, as he bent over to help the
owner drag the rather clumsy craft out toward the nearby shore.

"Well, when you're dealing with such a tough gang as that," explained
Bristles, "there's only one thing to do, and that's believe 'em equal to
anything.  I warrant you now that many a time it's only been the fear
they have for our hustling little fire eater of a police officer, Chief
Sutton, that's kept Buck and his crowd from trying a heap more stunts
than they did.  Remember when they cut the wires, and left that big
meeting in pitch darkness?  Yes, and that other time they turned loose a
dozen mice at the bazaar, and set the ladies to shrieking and fainting?
But thank goodness I've got through the Winter without losing my boat,
and I'm calling myself Lucky Jim."

They soon had the queer craft ready for service, with its mast rigged,
and the few ropes in place.  Bristles secured a couple of old
comfortables to serve them in place of cushions, which more elaborate
ice-boats carried.  These were tied on the boards in a way to suit the
needs of those who would soon be sprawled out under the swinging boom.

"If the ice were only a whole lot smoother, I'd call this a jolly day for
a spin," the skipper of the craft went on to say, while continuing his
preparations.

"Yes," added Fred, standing there, and having completed his arrangements
to his complete satisfaction,  "the sun shines with just a taste of
Springtime about it; and the breeze is neither too hard nor too squally.
It comes from the best quarter we could wish for, across from the west,
so we'll be able to run up or down the river without trying to tack, and
that's always a hard job on a narrow stream, when you're booming along so
fast."

"Well, everything's ready, Fred, so hop aboard."

"Is it up or down this time?" demanded the other.

"Whichever you say, it doesn't matter a pin to me either way," Bristles
continued.

"On the whole, I rather think we'd better head up-river this time," said
Fred.  "We went down the last trip we made, yes, and the one before that
too, because of a poor wind, and the river being wider below, so we could
tack better.  I'd like to go past Mechanicsburg and as far up as we can,
for the last time this year."

"Call it settled then, Fred.  Let's point her nose that way and get a
move on us in a jiffy."

Some small boys were skating near the shore, and had come around to watch
the starting of the iceboat, which was a familiar sight with them, though
they never seemed to grow weary of watching it go forth on its swift
cruise.  Bristles had waited only long enough to make use of the padlock
again, so that no one might meddle with such things as he kept in the
shed.  Then he was ready to raise the sail, and spin up the river like
the wind.

Just as Fred had said, they were apt to have an unusually hazardous trip
on this particular afternoon, partly on account of the rough ice opening
up chances for an upset, and then again because of the presence of so
many weak places, where the recent thaw had started blow-holes.

Of course the very swiftness of their passage would be one means of
safety; for the ice-boat could skim across a small stretch where a skater
would most surely break in.  But Fred did not mean to take any more
chances than necessity demanded;  and Bristles, though commonly known as
a reckless fellow, had promised to steer clear of any spot which his
companion told him was unsafe.

Both of the boys were very fond of this sort of sport.  It was a delight
to them to feel themselves being carried along over the ice at a merry
clip, with the steel runners singing a sweet tune, and the wind humming
through the dangling ropes.

The shore fairly flew past them, once the iceboat got fairly started; and
it seemed almost no time before they glimpsed the smoke from the
factories of Mechanicsburg, which was just three miles above their home
town, and on the same bank of the frozen Modunk.

"Keep a bright outlook while we're passing!" called out Fred; "they may
have been cutting ice up here, as they were early in the Winter, though
the openings froze over again."

"Looks a bit suspicious over to the right, and I'll hug this shore.  Give
me a call if you see any hole ahead, so I can sheer off, Fred."

"That's what I will, Bristles, you can depend on it!"

Already they had come abreast the lower houses.  The breeze had even
freshened a little, or else the bank was somewhat lower, so they caught
its full force.  At any rate, they fairly rushed past the busy
manufacturing town, where there were a number of big mills and factories,
giving employment to hundreds of hands.

"Somebody's waving his hat to us on the bank up there, and shouting in
the bargain," called Bristles, who was too busily engaged in looking
straight ahead to turn his eyes aslant.

"Yes, and I think it's Felix Wagner," admitted Fred.  "Looked like his
figure, but I can't squirm around so as to see again.  Doesn't matter
much anyway.  Hi! there, turn out a little more, Bristles; you're heading
for a hole!  Not too far, because there's another just as bad stretching
out from the other side.  Careful now, boy; a little too much either way,
and we're in for a ducking!"

"Just room enough to get through, I reckon, Fred.  Whee! that's going to
be a tight hole for us.  I hope we can make the riffle, all right!"

"Steady, a little bit more to the left; now a quick swing the other way,
and we're over safely enough.  Say, that was as pretty handling of an
ice-boat as I ever saw done.  You deserve a heap of credit for that job,
Bristles, and that's straight!"

"Thanks, awfully, Fred," said the other, in rather an unsteady voice;
"but all the same, I'm glad we're well across the narrow pass.  My heart
seemed to climb right up into my throat.  I tell you I never would have
made it only for you tipping me off the way you did."

"Yes you would, Bristles, even if you'd been alone, because you must have
seen how the lay of the ice ran for yourself.  But I hope we don't strike
another place like that above.  I don't think we shall, though they cut
ice and let it float down till it gets opposite the town; but that's done
only on one side, as a rule."

They had quickly left the smoky town far behind them, and on both sides
of the river could now be seen snow-covered farms, patches of woods,
sloping hillsides, and now and then little hamlets.  Once they passed
what seemed to be a lumber camp, at which some sturdy men were at work,
getting logs ready to float down the river with the usual Spring freshet.

Occasionally it was not so easy to make progress.  This was when the
crooked river took a sudden turn, and they had the breeze from a
different quarter.  But since Bristles knew how to manage his strange
craft very well, they overcame all such difficulties, and continued to
make rapid headway for some little time.

"The holes seem to be getting worse up around here," remarked Bristles,
after he had had to execute several speedy movements in order to avoid
running into dangerous spots.

"Yes, and as it's getting rougher in the bargain, as well as narrow
between the banks, perhaps we'd better call a halt, and start back,"
suggested Fred.

"Let's make that turn up yonder," urged the skipper.  "I remember there's
something of a wider span there, and I'd like to try swinging around
without stopping, if I can.  Last time I made a stab at doing the same, I
piled up ashore in a wreck;  but the wind's in my favor to-day.  You
can't down a Carpenter, that's all there is to it."

"Just as you say, Bristles; I'm game to stick it out with you.  Swing
over a little farther, so as to get all the space you can for turning.
Listen, wasn't that somebody screaming; or could it have been a
locomotive whistling for a crossroad?"

"I heard it too, Fred," said Bristles, hastily, "and give you my word for
it I think it came from around the bend there.  We'll turn in before you
can count twenty.  There it is again, Fred, and worse than before.
Somebody's in, the chances are, and I only hope we get on hand in time to
be of help."

As the flying ice-boat turned the bend and they could begin to see the
wider stretch of the Mohunk, both boys eagerly waited to discover what
the cause of all that screaming could be.



CHAPTER IV

THE RESCUE, AND A MYSTERY


"Look there, Fred!" cried Bristles, "over nearer the shore, to the left!"

"I see them!" replied the other, almost instantly.

"It's a girl, and she acts as if she might be trying to get at somebody
in the water," the skipper of the ice-boat shouted, as he headed the
flying craft straight toward the spot.

"Be ready to bring up in the wind, so we can tumble off, Bristles!"
advised Fred, taking in the whole situation at a glance, in his
comprehensive way.

Bristles was already so excited that he came near upsetting the ice-boat
by being too speedy about making the turn.  Both boys scrambled to their
feet as soon as they possibly could, and hurried toward the place where a
girl of about ten years of age was wringing her poor little hands, and
trying to reach a boy who was clinging to the crumbling edge of the ice.
He was up to his neck in the cold water of the river.

"Hold fast, and we'll get you out of that!" cried Fred, as they drew
near.  His quick eye had already taken note of the fact that a rail fence
came down close to the water's edge just beyond, and it was straight
toward this that he was now hurrying.  Bristles knew what he was going
for, and he kept near the heels of his chum.

The frightened girl thought they were deserting her, and redoubled her
cries.

"Help!  Oh! help us!  Please don't go away!  My poor brother will be
drowned!  He can't hold on much longer!  Oh! come back and help get him
out!"

By that time Fred had reached the end of the fence, which ran into the
water so as to keep the cows from straying out of their pasture.  He
struggled with one of the rails, and managed to break it loose.

"Get another, and chase after me, Bristles!" he shouted, as he once more
turned and hastened toward the hole in the rotten ice, where the boy, who
could not be more than twelve years of age, was trying as best he could
to keep from being drawn under by the sucking force of the strong
current.

Once close up, Fred dropped on his knees, shoving the rail ahead of him.
In this fashion he was able to push it directly to the imperiled boy.
Bristles had been so rapid in his actions that he was hardly ten seconds
behind the leader.  He immediately copied Fred's example, so that there
were now two rails reaching out in the direction of the hole, their
further ends actually overtopping the gap in the ice.

"Stay here, Bristles, and do whatever I tell you!" Fred told his chum,
when, having arranged the rails as he wished, he started out along them.

His weight being now distributed over a wide surface there was no danger
of the rotten ice giving way under him.  That is the essential point
about nearly all rescues on the ice, and what every boy should bear in
mind the moment his services are needed in order to save an imperiled
companion.

Fred was now enabled to approach the very edge of the hole, so that he
could hold out his hand to the boy in the water, who had been constantly
telling the girl to keep back lest she too fall in.  Between them it was
possible to accomplish the rescue, for while Fred pulled, the boy also
exerted himself to the utmost, and presently crawled over the edge.

"Keep your weight as much as you can on the rails, because with your
clothes soaked, you weigh twice as much as I do," Fred kept telling him;
and yard by yard he drew the other along until finally they could get to
their feet, and make for the shore.

The girl was crying hysterically now, although she had shown considerable
bravery before.

"Oh!  Brother Sammy, what if you had let go, and the current had drawn
you under the ice!  I think I'd have wanted to jump in, too, because I'd
have nothing left to live for then!" she kept repeating, as she patted
his cold hand tenderly, and tried to warm it.

Fred knew that unless something was done immediately, the boy would be
very apt to be taken down sick, after all that nervous exhaustion, and
the cold bath he had suffered.   The air was chilly, and must strike him
keenly.

"Here, you can't go home in that way, no matter how near by you live," he
went on to say, in his cheery way.

"Home!" repeated the girl, and her eyes exchanged a strange look with her
brother.  "But what can we do, for there isn't any farmhouse around here?
We were coming across the river, and Sammy went too near a hole.  Then
the ice broke, and all I could do was to scream.  He wouldn't let me come
near him, but kept trying to climb out himself.  Every time he got up on
the ice it broke again, and he went in.  Oh! it was just terrible,
terrible!  But he'll freeze now, mister, if we don't find a house soon."

"No he won't, not if we know it," said Fred.  "Here, slap your arms about
you this way as hard as you can, and jump up and down as if you were
crazy.  Never mind how it looks, if only you get the blood to circulating
good.  Bristles, it's up to you and me to start a fire booming in a
hurry."

"Here's as good a place as any, Fred, for there's plenty of loose wood
around."

Fred was already busily engaged in hunting all manner of small bits of
dry fuel under the sheltered sides of the logs, and in hollow stumps.  As
soon as he had gathered a few handfuls of this tinder, he drew out a
match, and started it burning.

Fred was a clever hand at making a fire, and this one did not fail him.
Bristles had in the meantime brought an armful of wood, and, selecting
the smaller pieces, the two soon had a fine, large blaze going, that
began to send out a considerable amount of welcome heat.

"Back up here, and see how this feels, Sammy," Fred told the shivering
lad.  When the other had done so, he added, "Now, just as soon as you
feel warm on one side, change to the other.  You know what they say, 'one
good turn deserves another,'  and here's where it applies.  Keep up your
exercising, because all that is going to help prevent you from taking
cold.  If I only had some hot tea or coffee, I'd give you some, but we'll
have to do without it, I'm afraid."

He kept talking to the boy and girl as he worked at the fire, and
Bristles continued to carry fresh supplies of wood, laboring like a good
fellow.  In this way Fred managed to learn that the name of the boy they
had rescued was Sam Ludson and that he lived with Corny Ludson; though
when he asked how far away it was they lived the answer was an evasive
one.

"A good distance away," was about all the boy would say, and Fred could
not help noticing that he again exchanged uneasy looks with his sister.

There was certainly something very queer about these two, though Fred
could not understand why they should feel backward about telling where
they lived, and especially to a couple of boys who had just done them a
great favor.

Still, Fred was not unduly curious about it.  If the brother and sister
did not want to take him into their confidence, he was not the one to
persist.  So far as he could remember, Ludson was a name he had never
heard before, so it did not seem as though they could ever have lived
around Riverport.  Bristles later on also declared that it was strange to
him, and he had been born there, while Fred was comparatively a newcomer,
having arrived only a couple of years previous to this time.

His particular business, as Fred saw it, was not to poke into other
people's private affairs, but to get the clothes of Sam dry as soon as
possible.  Then he would feel that he and Bristles had finished their
duty.

So he continued to keep the fire burning, and have Sam turned around
every little while.  At first the child steamed at a tremendous rate, but
as by degrees the moisture was absorbed by the heat, he began to feel
much more comfortable.

"I guess I'll go now, mister," Sammy remarked, finally, as though anxious
to get away from these kind friends before they took to asking him any
awkward questions.

"Just hold up a little while longer, and then you'll be all right, Sam,"
he was told by Fred, and like a great many other fellows, the boy fell
into a habit of observing the wishes of this leader among the scholars at
Riverport High.

"Whatever you say, mister, goes," he observed, with humility.  "You've
sure done me a great service, and I ain't going to forget it, either.  I
don't reckon it'll happen that I c'n pay you back, but if the chance ever
does hit me, I'm agoin' to do it, sure thing."

"Are you feeling as good as ever again, Sammy?" asked his sister, who was
rather a pretty girl, Bristles thought, as he looked her over, from the
wretched little hat she wore on her bonny brown hair, the odd cheap pin
at her throat, the faded dress, to the coarse shoes that gaped badly at
the toes.

"I certainly am," he responded, caressing the hand she had laid on the
sleeve of his ragged jacket.  Somehow it struck Fred right then and there
that mutual suffering must have drawn these two frail looking beings
closer together than the average brother and sister.

"Well, then you can make off home if you feel fit," Fred told them, "and
let me tell you my friend here and myself both feel mighty glad we
happened to be as close by as we were.  It taught you a lesson, I expect,
Sam, and you'll fight shy of blow-holes in the rotten ice after this,
won't you?"

"You bet I will, mister; and say, I guess I'm gladder'n you c'n be about
that same thing; because the river is awful swift around here, and I kept
getting colder and weaker all the while.  Couldn't have held out much
longer.  I want to thank both of you for what you did.  I ain't goin' to
ever forget it either, see if I do, though, shucks!  I don't 'spect I'll
ever have a chance to pay you back."

He shook hands with both Fred and Bristles, as did also the little girl,
now looking both grave and pleased.  Then they walked away, making for
the nearby road that led from Mechanicsburg to some other town many miles
away, and leaving the vicinity of the Mohunk.

Fred and Bristles prepared to seek once more the ice-boat, and resume
their interrupted cruise, this time heading for home.  Both of them were
thrilled with a deep satisfaction on account of having been given such a
splendid chance to effect a rescue, for nothing pleases the average boy
more than to realize that he has been enabled to play the part of a hero.

They were not the ones to boast of such a thing as that.  Indeed, neither
of them considered that they had been in the slightest danger at any
time.  Had one of them found it necessary to jump into the cold waters of
the Mohunk in order to save the drowning boy, that might have been a
different matter.

"This fire does feel pretty fine," Bristles remarked, as they got ready
to depart, "and I kind of hate to leave it, because, as you know, Fred, I
always worship a camp fire.  No need to put this one out, is there?
because it couldn't set these woods afire if it tried its best, while
everything's covered with snow.

"Ready to make the start?  What'd you think of Sam and his sister, Sadie
Ludson, eh?  Mysterious sort of pair, weren't they?  Didn't want to tell
us anything about themselves, at all.  I'm trying to knock my head and
say where I've heard that name before, but so far it gets me.  Well, we
never may see them again, so what's it matter?  I'm glad, though, you
pulled Sam out of the river.  He owes his life to you, Fred."

"To us, you mean, Bristles, for you had just as much to do with it as any
one," insisted Fred; and afterwards, whenever he told the story, he
always maintained that Bristles had stood by him, and done his share of
the rescue work.

They managed to make the return trip safely, and Bristles took it upon
himself later on to try to find out if anybody knew the Ludsons, but he
met with little success, and with Fred was compelled to put the thing
down as a mystery that could not be solved.



CHAPTER V

LOOKING OVER THE COURSE


"One thing sure, Fred, we couldn't have a better day for taking a spin
over the ground, and finding out what we'll be up against on the great
day."

"Yes, we're in luck that far, Bristles.  The only thing I'm sorry about
is that Sid couldn't come along.  What was it he told you, when you ran
across him early this Saturday morning in Bramley's sporting goods
store?"

"Why, you see," continued Bristles, as he trotted easily alongside his
friend, for they were in their running togs, and out upon the country
road at the time, "when I went to look over my outfit, I found my shoes
were partly worn, and that I needed a new pair.  I'd been looking at some
cross-country running shoes Bramley got in last week, and liked their
style.  They have a low broad heel, and spikes only in the sole.  Feel as
easy as anything I've ever worn, and don't seem to rub my heels like the
old ones always did."

"You're getting there, Bristles; keep going right along," laughed Fred,
because the other had a reputation for being what boys call "long
winded."  It sometimes took him double the time to tell a story that any
other fellow would have consumed.

"Oh!  I was only going to say Sid was in there doing something, and he
asked me to tell you to excuse him on our trial spin to-day, as his
father had laid out a little trip for him.  Sid looked mighty
disappointed, I could see.  He'd like to be along, for even if this run
of ours is only to spy out the land, it may count big."

"Well, we may have another chance to go over the route, after we know
just what the committee has mapped out," said Fred.

"This is only guess work on our part, of course," continued the other,
"but then everybody seems to think that it's bound to be the course
chosen in the end."

"Yes," Fred added, reflectively, "because it offers a great variety of
country---level roads, then trails through the woods, crossing creeks,
and after that a stretch over country roads made up of soft dirt."

"Of course they'll have stations all along the route, as usual?" ventured
Bristles.

"No question about it," Fred told him.  "That's done so every runner may
register in his own handwriting, and mark down the time he stopped at
each station.  In such a way the committee will have a complete record of
what every contestant did, and there can be no suspicion of cheating."

"Whew! you don't think any fellow would be so small and mean as to try a
thing like that, do you, Fred?"

"I'd hate to think so," returned the other, "but this is done in order
that no one may even be suspected by outsiders.  It's what you might call
an insurance against any rank work."

"How could a runner cheat, tell me?" asked Bristles.

"Well," replied Fred, "there's likely to be one or more places where he
could cut across lots and never show up at some advanced station at all.
In that way he'd be saved a mile or two of the gruelling run, and that
might be enough to give him a big lead on the home stretch."

"Then I only hope they have every kind of safeguard against cheating,
that can be used," declared Bristles, indignantly, "because for one I'd
die before I'd try to win a thing by trickery."

"I reckon everyone knows that, Bristles," Fred told him, "because there
never was a boy with a straighter record than you.  You've got faults, as
who hasn't, but being sly and tricky, like Buck Lemington, isn't one of
them."

"I hear the scheme has created no end of excitement over at
Mechanicsburg," Bristles hastened to say, turning a little red though
with pleasure, at those words of confidence which Fred gave him.

"And at Paulding I'm told the whole town is on edge, with boys in running
togs spinning along every country lane, in pairs or singly," Fred
observed.

"Well," the boy with the mop of bristly hair went on to say, "once again
will good old Riverport have to hustle for all that's going, to hold her
own at the head of the procession."

"We mustn't expect too much," said Fred, modestly.  "Up to now we've been
pretty lucky to pull down the plums, but there may come a change any day,
and we've got to show that we can stand defeat just as well as victory."

"They've got some good long distance runners over there in the mill
town," Bristles remarked, seriously.

"Equal to anything we can show, I should say, and it's going to take a
head, as well as flying feet, to beat them at the game, Bristles."

"Of course," added Fred's companion, "none of us have ever gone as much
as twenty-five miles in a single run, so we don't know what we can do,
but, for that matter, I don't believe a Mechanicsburg or Paulding fellow
has, either."

"But we mean to cover the course in a trial run before the great day
comes, you know," Fred told him.  "I'm laying great store on one fellow
we've got."

"Of course you mean long-legged Colon, Fred?"

"Yes," replied Fred, "our fastest sprinter, a fellow who can hump himself
like a grayhound or a kangaroo in action, and cover more ground at the
finish than anybody I ever saw."

"But the most Colon's ever gone is ten miles," remarked Bristles, "and we
don't know what his staying qualities are.  He may give out before
fifteen miles have been covered.  If anybody asked me, I'd say we had
more chance with a husky fellow like you, for instance, who never has
been known to get tired, and can use his head as well as his heels."

"Then there's Sid and Brad," remarked Fred, hastily, "who have made up
their minds to be in the line when the signal is given; both of them are
known to be stayers.  Of course I'll do my level best, but I hope none of
you pin your faith to a single runner.  A little team work, or strategy,
sometimes helps out in cases of this kind."

"How can that be, when everyone has to run for himself, until hopelessly
distanced, if I read the rules straight?" asked Bristles.

"Only in this way," replied Fred.  "If there are three entered from a
school, one of them might take the lead, and set the pace for a while.
When he had covered, say a third of the distance, he would fall back, and
a second forge to the front, leaving the last fellow to cover the home
stretch.  It's been done in other races, though I believe some people
frown on it.  Still, there's no ban on the practice."

"Why, no, this is a race between rival schools," said Bristles, "and
every fellow is supposed to be willing to sacrifice individual chances
for the good of the lot, just as team-work pays in baseball or anything
else."

"Well, let's cut out the talk for a while, and put on more steam,"
advised Fred.  "Here's a good chance for a spurt, down the grade, and
then along two miles of level road."

"Go you, Fred!"

The two runners went flying along like the wind until they had reached
the foot of a steep hill, which it would be folly to attempt to climb at
more than a walk.  Once beyond this, a fine stretch of country opened
before them, with farms and woodland on every side.

Fred had a pretty fair map of the region, which he had made from picking
up information on every side.  One of his motives in making this tour on
Saturday morning, was to verify its truth.  Once the route of the
Marathon race had been issued, all those who expected to compete would
have the privilege of going over the ground as often as they pleased.  If
any fellow were smart enough to discover how he could cut off a hundred
yards or two, and yet report at every station, he was at liberty to do
so.

A knowledge of the course often counts heavily in a Marathon race, as it
does in many other things.  That is why most baseball clubs play better
on their home grounds, where they know the lay of the land, the presence
of treacherous little hillocks, the usual slant of the wind, the value of
sending their balls toward a certain fence where home-runs count heavily,
and all that sort of thing.

Five miles farther on, and the boys had come to a place where Fred, on
consulting his map, observed:

"The road runs away around, and by cutting across the woods here as much
as two miles can be saved.  I understand that the contestants will have
that privilege offered to them if they choose to take it.

"Why, of course everybody will grab the chance," remarked Bristles.

"I'm not so sure about that," he was told by his companion, "and for this
reason: while the shortcut saves considerable distance, it's bound to be
harder going, and some runners might even get lost in the undergrowth, so
they'd be cut out of the race."

"Gee!  I never thought of that, Fred; but you're right."

"Then if they have a hard time breaking through," continued Fred, "and
finding the other road above the registering station, they may be winded,
so that the other fellow who's gone all the way around would be in much
better shape for a gruelling finish."

"It all depends, then, on knowing your ground?" pursued Bristles.

"And that's what we want to make sure of as we go through the woods here
right now," continued Fred.  "Both of us must take our bearings from
certain trees as we push along.  If we strike a trail that leads to the
right quarter, we'll manage to blaze it in some fashion that other
fellows would never notice, though we can put our own crowd wise to the
signs.

"Here's where the head work comes in, eh, Fred?"

"Only a small sample of it," laughed the other, "and there'll be plenty
more to follow before we win this Marathon.  If any of the opposition
crosses the tape ahead of Riverport, it'll be because they're better
runners and managers than we are, that's all there is to it.  But come
on, let's break away from the road."

Upon that the two boys entered the woods, carefully marking the spot in
their memories by noticing a certain bunch of white-barked birches that
drooped over in a peculiar way, different from anything they had thus far
seen.

Fred had his little compass with him.  He had laid out his course
exactly, so as to strike the other road at a certain spot, which it was
believed would be just above the toll-gate, where he knew one of the
registering stations was bound to be placed.

Of course they could not expect to go in a straight line, or as the crows
fly.  All sorts of obstacles interfered with such a scheme.  Now it was a
deep gully that barred their progress; a little further on they came to a
stretch of swampy ground, where a runner would find himself bogged and
placed in a desperate condition, if he attempted to push through.  But
wise Fred had early discovered what seemed to be a fairly well worn trail
that seemed to lead in the direction they were intending to go.  At times
it was exceedingly difficult to see the track, but both these boys had
keen eyes, and used good judgment, so they managed to come upon it
frequently.

All the time they continued to make note of certain landmarks that would
aid them later on, when again passing through this strip of woodland and
jungle.  Possibly there would be a mile of it, against three by the road.
Plainly then, if a runner could get through in fairly decent shape he
would have saved more or less time in so doing.

The two Riverport lads had perhaps gone half way, and were feeling well
satisfied with the progress made, when Fred stopped and held up his hand.

"Listen, Bristles!" he exclaimed, "what's all that racket do you think?"

"Sounds like dogs barking and snarling, to me, Fred."

"But away out here in the woods you wouldn't expect to hear a pack of
dogs, unless they were running wild," urged Fred, still listening.

"Whew! that reminds me of what I heard an old farmer tell in the market
one day last week," exclaimed Bristles.  "He said he had lost three sheep
this Spring from dogs, and that a pack of sheep killers was loose up
around his section!"



CHAPTER VI

THE WILD DOG PACK


"How's that, Bristles, a pack of wild dogs running around, and killing
sheep?"  Fred demanded, appearing to take uncommon interest in what his
companion had just said.

"Yes, and Fred, I honestly believe that farmer lives somewhere up in this
region, because I heard him tell about having a runaway near the
Belleville tollgate, and you know that's where we expect to fetch out on
the road ahead."

"Then that settle it, Bristles.  And there's no doubt we're hearing the
yelping of that same pack right now.  I reckon they're on some track or
other."

"Whew!  I hope it isn't _our_ track then!" exclaimed the other lad, as he
began hurriedly to look about him for a stout club, and eye the
neighboring trees, as if an unpleasant alternative had forced itself upon
his notice.

"The sounds seem to come from back yonder, where we passed along,"
remarked Fred; and as though in his mind an ounce of prevention might be
better than a pound of cure, he too hastened to pick tip a heavy billet
of wood, that was as large as an ordinary baseball club.

"But what makes dogs act that way, and go wild?" asked Bristles.  "I
never knew of any doing such a queer stunt."

"It's this way," explained the other, quickly, as though he had recently
been reading the matter up, and was full of information.  "Dogs are kin
to wolves and foxes, you know.  Fact is, many a wolf I've seen looked
just like a dog."

"Yes, that's a fact, Fred!" admitted Bristles, nodding his head, and
still noting the fact that the chorus of barks, yelps and snarls seemed
to be gradually approaching all the time.

"Well, every once in a while some dog seems to hear the call of the wild.
He takes a dislike to confinement, hates human beings, and the first
chance he gets puts out for the woods, where he lives just as a wolf
would do, by the chase.  Sometimes farmers' watchdogs that are thought to
be honest get this sheep-killing habit, and play tricks, covering their
tracks so they go a long time without being found out, and then only by
accident."

"Yes, I've heard all about that, too, Fred, but because one dog goes
wild, why should a whole lot of others follow after him, I want to know?"

"Well," continued the other, "as far as I understand it, here's the
reason.  Every dog has that same nature about him.  I've seen it proven
many times.  We had an old dog named Mose, who was never known to chase
anybody.  He used to lie there asleep on our front porch by the hour.
Then next door there was a little cur that somehow took to chasing after
wheels and wagons.  You've heard how dogs yap-yap whenever they do that,
haven't you, Bristles?"

"Lots of times," assented the other, nodding, and still earnestly
listening.

"It's about like some of that racket we hear now," Fred went on to
explain.  "They say it excites a dog like everything.  When that little
cur next door would start down the street with a yap-yap-yap, I've seen
our poor old Mose jump up, as if he'd had a signal no living dog could
resist, and go rushing out of the yard, to join in with the cur and some
others that gathered like a flash.  That's what it means."

"And these other dogs have got the fever in their veins by this time too,
eh, Fred?"

"Yes, and they are satisfied to chase around after the leader, perhaps
taking an humble part in his kills.  But Bristles, I'm afraid we're going
to see for ourselves what the pack looks like."

"You mean they're coming this way fast now?" observed Bristles,
tightening his grip on the club he had selected from many that lay under
a tree shattered by a bolt of lightning the previous Summer.

"There's no doubt about it!" declared Fred, steadily.

"Course we could shin up a tree if we wanted to, Fred, but that'd go
against my grain.  I feel like standing my ground, and trying to get a
whack at that sheep-killing leader of the pack.  Gee! wouldn't the
farmers give us a vote of thanks if we did manage to put him out of the
running?"

"We may have the chance sooner than we expected," Fred went on to say,
grimly, for the tempest of sounds seemed to be very close now, and they
could actually hear the rush of the advancing pack.

"How many are there, do you think?" asked Bristles, and if his voice
trembled a little, Fred believed it was from excitement rather than fear,
because he had seen this local comrade tested many times, and knew that
he never flinched.

"At least four," Fred replied, "because I can make out that many
different yelpings, and there may be six, with some small runts coming
along in the rear."

"I only wish I had more duds on, and a pair of leather leggings in the
bargain," muttered Bristles, glancing rather ruefully down at his bare
shins, which of course were wholly unprotected.

"Here they come!" announced Fred, suddenly.

There was a rush of pattering feet, together with a fierce series of
yelps, and then through the thicket came pouring a string of hustling
animals, heading directly toward the two boys.

"Whew! he _is_ a dandy, sure enough!" exclaimed Bristles, referring of
course to the large animal in the lead.

This was a dun-colored beast about the size of a wolf and not unlike one
in many of his attributes.  He presented a really terrifying front now,
with his open jaws that disclosed shining fangs and a red tongue, and his
blazing eyes, together with the bristles that stood up on his neck very
much like those of a wild hog.

"Give 'em a shout!" exclaimed Fred, who remembered at that moment that
most dogs have learned to respect the sound of a human voice, and this
might serve to bring about a halt in the onrush of the savage pack.

Accordingly both of the young men started swinging their clubs wildly
about their heads and yelling at the top of their voices.  This
threatening demonstration did have some effect on the milder elements of
the pack, those dogs that had been lured into wrong-doing, and were not
viciously inclined.  Three immediately fell back, and one of these even
turned tail and started to run away at breakneck speed as though the
sight of those cudgels inspired him with respect, on account of a
recollection of some previous beating.

There were three, however, that still kept on, the leader of the pack,
and a couple of others.  If ever Fred Fenton in all his life wished
heartily for a gun of some kind it must have been just then, when, with
only a single companion to stand alongside, he found himself about to be
attacked by a trio of furious dogs gone wild, and running through the
woods.

It would not have been so bad had there been only two, for then each of
them could manage an adversary;  but that odd beast bothered him.

"Tackle the leader, and leave the others to me; I'll help you as soon as
I send them flying!" was what Fred exclaimed, as the three dogs bore down
upon them.

"All right; I'm on, Fred!"

There was no time for another word, because the animals were upon them.
They came with a rush, as though furious at seeing the bare-legged boys
in their hunting preserves.  That leader must have taken a decided hatred
of all human kind, and when backed by his followers, seemed ready for any
deed of daring.

Fred and Bristles had their hands full from the very start.  It was their
object to do all the damage they could without allowing any of the dogs a
chance to sink their teeth into their legs, or leap upon their backs, as
they appeared desirous of doing.

Luckily both boys were sturdy and agile.  More than this, they realized
the desperate nature of their position, for no help could reach them
there.  If they hoped to come out of the fight with credit, they must
depend wholly upon their own valor and ability.

Bristles whacked the dun-colored beast soundly, as he made a ferocious
leap up toward his throat, and had the satisfaction of seeing him whirl
headlong.  It was only a temporary backset, however, for as soon as the
animal recovered his feet he made another mad rush, so that the boy was
kept busy prodding him, using his club right and left as an Irishman
might his shillalah, and in every way possible trying to beat the brute
off.

All the while Bristles kept up a shouting that was intended to nerve his
own arm, and possibly help to strike terror into the hearts of the
four-footed assailants.

"You will, eh?  Take that for a starter, and plenty more where that came
from!  Try to catch me off my guard, will you?  Whoop! that was a beauty
of a crack!  Hope I made you see stars that time, you snarling beast,
you!  Get back there!  Shinny on your own side, can't you?" and he gave a
sudden kick at one of the smaller dogs, that, taking advantage of the
row, had tried to creep in and nip him on the leg.

While all this was going on, Fred had his hands full with the other two
dogs.  If they lacked some of the ferocity and daring of the leader of
the pack, it was made up in the fact of their being a pair to watch, and
keep from closing in with him.

Fast his club flew, and hearty were the whacks he gave right and left.
One after the other he had sent his assailants headlong, thanks to lucky
shots.  When they returned to the scrap, they began to give evidence that
this sort of thing had begun to pall upon their liking, and this
encouraged the boy to work harder than ever.

Just then, imagine the delight of the two hard pressed boys when they
heard a cheery shout close by, and saw a lithe figure, also in running
trunks, come leaping toward the spot.

No need for them to ask themselves who this could be, for well did they
know the most remarkable method of getting over the ground peculiar to
Colon, and which some people likened to the singular hopping of a
kangaroo.

He already had a club in his hand, and he immediately started in to wield
it with telling effect on one of Fred's assailants.  The consequence was
that this particular dog turned tail, and ran off at top speed.  Its
mate, as though realizing the folly of keeping up an unequal combat,
hastened to do the same.

This left the savage leader of the pack alone to face three antagonists.
Fred could not help but feel something akin to admiration for the defiant
beast as he attacked first one and then another of them.  Evidently the
idea of running, and saving his hide, had not as yet appealed to the
enraged dog.

"Keep knocking him, everybody!" shrieked Bristles, now more than ever
determined on finishing the terror of the neighboring farmers.  "We've
just got to nail him, boys.  Don't let him shoot past you!  Pound him on
the head!  Knock him galleywest!  That was a socker, Fred; you've got him
down, I tell you!  Now, everyone pile in and we'll end his sheep-killing
career for him!"

There was a concerted rush from three sides.  The half dazed beast could
not recover in time to leap upon anyone of his foes, though he snapped
his jaws together so that his terrible teeth met with a clicking sound.

For a short time the clubs rained blows on his head, until Fred finally
called out:

"That's enough, fellows; he's thrown up the sponge!"

"Hurrah for us; we've cleaned the ugly pack out, boys!" cried Bristles,
thought so short of breath after his exertions that he could hardly stand
erect.

Yes, the sheep-killing dog had been slain, and while Fred was of course
very well pleased over the outcome of the fight, at the same time he
looked down with considerable respect upon the dun-colored beast that
could exhibit such desperate courage, and put up such a game defense
against three foes.

Bristles insisted upon shaking hands with each one of his mates, and then
he and Fred turned upon the long-legged Colon with a look of wonder on
their faces, as though they could not understand how it was he had shown
up at such a lucky moment.



CHAPTER VII

THE SHORT-CUT WAY


"Now, where did you drop down from, Colon?" asked Bristles.

"Me?" exclaimed the tall chum, with a broad smile on his face.  "Why,
straight from town, if you want to know.  You see, I found out, after
all, I could get off, and hurried to where you said you'd start, but
Fred's ma told me you had half an hour the lead of me.  Still, as I
happened to know the layout of the trip, I made up my mind I'd follow
along, and hump myself a little to overtake you fellows.

"But how'd you know where we left the road, and started across the
woodland, tell me, Colon?" asked Bristles;  whereupon the other nodded
his head, and looked wise.

"Oh! well!" he explained, "you see, Fred told me about where he expected
to break away and so of course I kept looking; and I saw that you'd
turned out just about under that bunch of birch trees.  Why, you left a
plain track in the dust on the road.  After that I used my eyes and my
head, and kept pushing right along.  I'm reckoned something of a scout in
the woods, you must know."

"You certainly have done a big thing in that line this time, Colon,"
asserted Fred, vigorously; "I never would have believed him, if someone
told me you'd done it.  And let me remark that you certainly came in on
us at the right time."

"I should say he did," assented Bristles, joyfully.  "I was getting tired
of swinging my club, and whacking that terrible critter.  Talk to me
about being able to stand punishment,---I never before saw a dog that
could come up fresh every time you keeled him over.  Most curs would run
away, howling like mad, but he just set his teeth, and took a fresh grip.
Whew!  I'm sure glad it's all over."

"Either of you get nipped anywhere?" asked Colon, anxiously.

"I hope not," Fred replied, "it's a dangerous thing to have a dog bite
you, because you never know what's going to happen.  Often the scratch
from the claws of a tiger or a lion is followed by blood poisoning,
because they tear their prey, you know.  I was sent over once, and seem
to have a few scratches on my shins, but they came from the stones and
thorns.  How about you, Bristles?"

"I kicked one of those smaller runts that tried to bite me, but I don't
think he got his teeth in my leg.  Those blood marks are scratches, where
I ran into the thorn bush while I was jumping around so lively.  Oh! it's
all right, and no damage done, boys.  Everything's lovely, and the goose
hangs high!"

"But what does all this rumpus mean?"  Colon wanted to know.  "Whose dogs
were they, and what had you done to make the push mad?"

Bristles undertook to tell him, passing on some of the information which
he had received from Fred.

"Now I'm posted.  I seem to get a grip on the business," Colon confessed,
"and I want to tell you I'm mighty glad I made up my mind to follow
after, and see if I couldn't come up before you got back home again."

"And believe me we're happy to know you did, Colon," Bristles assured
him, "because there's no telling what sort of a hard time we'd have been
up against, with that pack trying their level best to pull us down.  We
might have had to climb up in a tree, and sit there all night, for all we
know.  But Fred, what'd we better do about it now?"

"About what?" asked the other.

"This dog here," continued Bristles, pointing down at the animal that
looked so fierce even in death.

"I was just thinking," Fred told him, "whether we had better lift him
into the fork of a tree, so he could be found if we let the farmers know
about it, or try to drag him along to the tollgate house."

"It can't be so very far away, I should think," observed Colon, "and I'd
be willing to take my turn at dragging him there."

"Nothing like showing the proof, when you tell a whopping big story,"
declared Bristles, "and I know a lot of fellows who'll like as not lift
their eyebrows, and grin to beat the band when they hear about this warm
time we've had.  We want to be able to stamp the yarn as true as anything
that ever happened.  So take hold of one leg, Colon, and I'll manage the
other.  Sho! that's easy enough going, and for one I don't mind it a
bit."

"Call on me to take my turn any time, boys," announced Fred, as he
started off in the lead.

The wild dog pack had evidently been effectually broken up by the
energetic action of the Riverport runners.  Not a single bark or yelp was
to be heard in any direction.  Scattered to the four winds the dogs were
apt to return to their respective homes, and change their bad habits.
With the loss of their savage ringleader, the impulse to live a wild life
would possibly leave them all.

Fred once more began to figure on their course.  He knew that the faint
trail he and Bristles had been following through the woods had begun to
bear away in a quarter that made it impossible for them to pursue it any
longer, if they expected to come out near the Belleville tollgate.

Thanks to his possession of the compass, and something of a knowledge of
the general conditions, Fred was able to decide on this without much
trouble.

They did not make any attempt at speed indeed, that would have been
utterly impossible, while they continued to drag the slain dog along
after them.  Colon finally gave a hint that he was ready to abandon the
idea of showing the result of their encounter to the toll-gate keeper,
notwithstanding that through him all the farmers in that neighborhood
would eventually learn of their good luck.

"But I don't like to quit anything I've started on," objected Bristles,
when the long-legged runner had thus casually mentioned that it was no
fun dragging the big beast over rough ground.  "Think how far we've kept
it up already.  Huh! want to have that work just wasted?  Not much for
me!  If you're tired, Colon, just say the word, and I'll lug him along by
myself, or else Fred ahead there might lend me a helping hand."

"Me tired?  Why, whatever put that silly notion in your head, Bristles?
I didn't know you set such great store by showing the old thing; but
since I see you do, why of course I'm game to hold out to the finish.
Hope you don't want to get the blooming dog stuffed, and keep him mounted
in your den at home."

"Well, that'd be the limit!" exclaimed Bristles, laughing at the idea.
"I feel right now that he's going to visit me lots of times in my dreams,
with all that double row of white teeth showing, and his red lips drawn
back!  Ugh!  I'll not forget in a hurry how he looked, I tell you, Colon.
And didn't he take the punishment I heaped on him, though?  I used up
every ounce of strength I had in slinging my club.  You notice that I'm
toting that along, don't you?"

"Oh! that's the racket, is it?  A bow of blue ribbon tied to the club,
and hang it on the wall of your room at home?  Well, Bristles, I don't
blame you much, because he was an ugly customer.  If he'd ever gotten you
down, it'd been tough on you."

"Here, let up on that style of talk, will you, Colon?  It makes me have a
cold chill run up and down my spinal column.  Let's talk about something
more cheerful.  What d'ye think about this shortcut through the woods?
Fred says it's going to save a lot, and that nearly every fellow will
like as not take to it.  A mile of this goes against three by the road."

"So long as every contestant knows the ground, it might pay to take the
cut-off," Colon remarked, "but I noticed some swampy ground that I'd hate
to get lost in.  If any runner fails to show up at the tape, they'll have
to send out a searching party to look for him through this section."

"That'll be his lookout, then," observed Bristles, calmly.  "Everybody
shinny on his own side.  Preparation is part of the battle.  The fellow
who is too lazy to go over the course in advance will have to take big
chances, that's all.  He won't deserve to win."

"This is certainly a dreary place, all right," the tall runner went on to
say, as he looked to the right, and then to the left.  "Why, I didn't
know there was such a desolate stretch of woodland within twenty miles of
Riverport.  Some of it's good farming land too, if part is boggy, and
even that would make a cranberry marsh, if anyone wanted to try it out."

"It's all second growth timber, though," called back Fred, who was still
just a dozen paces in the lead, and pushing his way through brush that
often entirely concealed the ground.

"Sure it is," Bristles went on to say.  "Long ago the original timber was
cut down, and sent to the sawmills.  Listen to the frogs croaking over
that way; must be a pond somewhere around."

"I was going to ask you if you'd run across any snakes yet?"  Colon
inquired, with considerable show of interest, because, as well known
among his friends, the tall runner had always felt a decided antipathy
for all crawling things, and would never handle even an inoffensive
garter-snake; indeed, slimy greenbacked frogs he abominated, claiming
that they had the same clammy feeling as snakes.

"Why, yes, a couple whipped across the trail back there," Bristles
admitted.

"Not rattlers, I hope?" ejaculated Colon, coming to a sudden stop, as he
turned an apprehensive look upon his companion.

"No," Bristles told him, with a scornful inflection in his voice, for he
did not share Colon's antipathy toward crawling reptiles, and could not
understand how any fellow could be so foolish as to shiver at sight of a
mere wriggling object.  "Fred says it's too early for rattlers to show
out of their dens.  One was a fair-sized black snake, and the other might
have been an adder; he was short and stumpy, and had a flat head."

"Just as poisonous as anything that crawls," said Colon, with a shudder,
and an involuntary hasty look around him.  As a rule, he was far from
being nervous, and yet when a stick that had bent under Fred's weight
suddenly sprang back into shape again, the tall runner gave a low cry of
alarm, and even dropped the leg of the dog that he had been clinging to
so sturdily all that distance.

Not liking to be joked about his fears, Colon made out that a thorn had
jabbed him in the leg, and bending down he started to rubbing vigorously
at his ankle.  Bristles, apparently, was aware of the true state of
affairs, for he grinned as he waited for the other to assist him once
more.

"These thorns do stick you right smart when they get a chance at a bare
shin, for a fact, Colon," he went on to observe, grimly, "but so long as
they don't draw blood, the damage's not apt to amount to much, I reckon.
There's Fred disappeared from sight, and we'll have to hurry if we want
to catch up with him before we strike that road, which I calculate can't
be a great way off."

It happened that they were passing over some rather rough country just
then, with a number of dark-looking gullies intersecting their course.
In places it was even necessary for them to drop down into these and then
climb up on the opposite side.  This took time, but the boys fancied they
must be close to the road they had been aiming to reach.

"See anything of Fred, yet?" asked Bristles.  "You're such a tall fellow
you c'n spy a heap farther than me."

Colon looked, and then shook his head.

"He's nowhere around, as far as I c'n see," he remarked, and dropping his
share of the burden, Colon sprang back in alarm, as a voice seemed to
come up out of the very earth at their feet, saying:

"Keep back there, you fellows, or you'll be tumbling down on top of me!"

"Hello! there, Fred, where under the sun are you?" demanded Bristles,
looking around him in sheer amazement.

"I've fallen into some sort of cave here, that's all!" came back in a
muffled voice.



CHAPTER VIII

THE TELL-TALE PIN


Colon and Bristles stood there, and looked at each other in dismay, upon
hearing Fred say that he had met with such a strange misfortune.

"Well, if that doesn't beat my time!" the latter exclaimed.  "And to
think that while you and I talked back there, our chum was lying down in
some old black hole.  What if he's broken his leg, or even sprained an
ankle,---Riverport will miss a good man in this Marathon race, believe
me!"

"Let's see if we can find the hole where Fred slipped down," suggested
Colon.

"And be careful we don't go the same way, too," added Bristles, drily.

At that they started to move carefully forward, closely examining every
foot of the way as they went.  In a short time Colon uttered a cry.

"Found it, have you?" demanded Bristles, with a disappointed grunt, for
he had hoped to be the lucky one himself.

"Look there where that root sticks up!" the other called out, pointing as
he explained.  "Seems to me there might be a gap of some sort.  Let's
creep a little closer and find out.  Yes, that's the hole, and no
mistake, Bristles.  And Fred---he must have slipped down so fast he just
couldn't grab hold of anything.  If he did, it gave way, and went down
along with him."

They accordingly crept forward, and began to stare down through the
opening.

"Why, what's this I see?" ejaculated Bristles.  "Somebody's got a light
working down there, Colon!"

"It's our chum, I reckon," the tall boy told him, after another look.

"What, Fred?" persisted Bristles.  "But whatever would he be striking a
match for, I want to know?"

"To look around, I should say," Colon informed him, and the statement
seemed so simple that it apparently convinced Bristles on the spot, for
he hastened to remark:

"Well, that sure would be just like Fred now, to think of finding out
what sort of a coop he'd dropped into, the first thing.  Hello! down
there!"

"Hello! yourself, Bristles!" came back the cheery answer.

"First of all, tell us if you got hurt any, Fred!" called Bristles, who
could not get the notion out of his head that the other may have been
seriously injured.

"Why, no, nothing to mention," came the ready answer.  "A few more little
scratches, it might be, but then they don't count.  Kind of knocked the
breath out of my body at first, and took me a little while to recover,
but no damage done, boys."

"What are you doing with the light, Fred?"  Colon wanted to know.

"I only wanted to see what sort of a place this is, that's all," Fred
told him, as his match expired, and the darkness came again.

"And did you find out?" continued Bristles, eagerly, possibly his mind
beginning to wrestle with all sorts of strange ideas concerning hidden
treasure vaults, and, mysterious hiding-places where counterfeiters
carried on their illegal trade.

"It seems to be only an ordinary cave, like others we've run across,"
Fred told them.  "If you felt like coming down, I think it would be easy
enough."

"Not the way you tried it, Fred; you'll have to excuse me," laughed
Bristles.  "But I think I can feel the rough rocks here, and seems as if
a fellow as spry as Colon might manage to shuffle down.  Anyhow, I'm
going to try it.  I've got a few matches of my own in my pocket, that we
could use to look around with."

"Take it slow, and no hurry, boys," warned Fred, at the same time moving
out of the way, so that if a stone were dislodged in their passage, it
would not come in contact with his head.

For a couple of minutes there could be heard a scraping noise, as the two
boys lowered themselves down into the opening.  Fred struck another
match, which he held up in order to give them the benefit of the feeble
illumination.  Assisted by this light, both of the newcomers managed to
reach the side of their chum without encountering any serious difficulty.

"Well, here we are, fellows, all down!" Bristles declared, with a sigh of
relief.  "I only hope that when we try to climb up again, it won't be an
all day job."

"Much easier than coming in," Colon told him.  "It always is, when you're
mounting a steep cliff; because then you can see just where you're going.
When starting down you hardly know where to put each foot, and when you
look to see, it makes you giddy to find how far below the bottom lies."

"Did you see anything when you looked around, that made you want to take
a second peep, Fred?" asked Bristles, still clinging to his suspicion.

"I don't know," replied Fred.  "It's like this.  The match was going out
when I thought I glimpsed something on the rocky floor that looked like
the ashes of a dead fire!  And after that I thought I'd like to make sure
before I left here,---just to satisfy my curiosity, you know, boys."

"A fire, eh?" ventured Bristles.  "Well, since no wild animal was ever
known to start such a thing, that tells us this same cave must have
sheltered human beings some time or other."

"Hoboes, most likely," observed Colon; "trust them for finding such a
snug hiding-place, after they've gone and robbed some country postoffice,
or a farmer's chicken coop."

"I'll strike a light, then, and Fred, you show us where the ashes lie,"
and with these words Bristles drew a match hastily along the seat of his
trousers, causing it to burst into a bright flame.

"Over this way, boys," Fred told them, as he stepped across the rocky
floor of the cave that had been found in such a queer way.

It was just as he had said, for there on the stones they could see the
plain marks of a fire.  Colon knew a thing or two about woodcraft, and
the very first indication of this was when he thrust his hand into the
ashes.

"As cold as they can be," he observed, immediately.

"Which shows that the fire hasn't been burning lately at all," Bristles
hastened to add, to prove that he understood what Colon meant to infer.

"Whoever camped in here cooked a meal or two, that's plain," Fred
remarked, as he pointed to some chicken bones that were strewn around.

"Tramps, as sure as anything, and they've been raiding the hencoops
around this region, too," Colon ventured to say.

"And that poor old wild dog had to stand the blame for it all," said
Bristles.  "It's nearly always that way; give a dog a bad name, and
everybody condemns him.  For all we know, some of the sheep that have
been killed might have been pulled down by an innocent looking shaggy dog
belonging to the farmer himself, but it's so easy to saddle the blame on
the wicked one.  What was that you picked up, Colon?"

"As near as I can make out it looks like one of those tin biscuit boxes
you see at the store," the tall boy replied, holding the object up.
"It's got a rubber band around it.  Queer thing for tramps to buy.  Only
imported biscuits are put up this way, Miss Fletcher told me, and she
ought to know because she's English, and won't eat any other kind."

"Let me see that tin, will you please, Colon?" asked Fred, suddenly.

After he had looked sharply at it, inside and out, he nodded his head.

"I thought it might be like that," Fred remarked, mysteriously.  This
manner of talking caused his comrades to stare, and Colon cried out:

"Now, whatever is there about that old tin to make you speak like that,
Fred?  If you'd picked up a clue to some robbery, you couldn't look more
pleased.

"Perhaps we have," said Fred, meaningly.  "Take another look at this tin
box, both of you.  Notice how the heavy rubber band has been fastened
underneath, so it couldn't get lost.  You never heard of such a thing
being done where there were just plain crackers in a tin, did you?  Of
course not.  Well, don't you see that this would make a splendid
receptacle for papers, or securities?  And just before your match went
out, Bristles, I thought I could see a little scrap of paper sticking in
a corner.  That would prove it had held such things."

Bristles could be heard uttering a series of exclamations, as he started
to get another match going.

"If this doesn't take the cake!  Why, all of us ought to remember how old
Mr. Periwinkle complained that someone had entered his house and hooked a
sum of money, as well as some papers he kept in a tin box in his desk.
Why, this must be the same tin box, fellows!  We ought to keep it, and
show it to him."

They examined the thing once more, while the match was burning.

"Guess you're right, Bristles, and this is the box old Periwinkle kept
his valuables in," Colon pursued,  "but mighty little comfort it's going
to do him to set eyes on the same again.  Would you care to have the
shells turned back to you, after somebody'd gone and gobbled up the fat
kernel of the nut?"

"It will settle the fact that the robber, whoever he could have been,
must have stayed in this cave lately," said Fred, seriously.  "I don't
think these ashes are very old, perhaps not more than a couple of days,
at most.  So you see that tells us the thief must be around here still."

"Watching out for a bigger haul, more'n likely!" Bristles declared,
somewhat excitedly.  "I don't believe he got much at Periwinkle's place,
because the old man is poor as Job's turkey; leastways he makes out to
be, though some folks say he's a sort of miser.  But there are farmers
that keep quite a sum of money around, and it might be this hobo is
waiting to get a chance at a big haul."

"How do we know but what he aims to clean out the Riverport bank some
fine night; that sort of thing has been done lots of times in other
places?" remarked Colon.

"All of which makes our duty the plainer, boys," Fred told them, "which
is to keep this tin box, and show it to Chief Sutton.  He'll know what to
do about it, and if he says we ought to tell Mr. Periwinkle, why, we'll
take a turn up there to-night.  I heard that he'd offered a small reward
for the return of the papers, and no questions asked; which was a bid to
the thief to send the same back, and get paid for doing it."

"And to think of you falling down into this cave the way you did, Fred,"
Colon continued.  "Do you reckon that hole up there might be the only way
in and out?"

"Well, as far as I could see around, it's only a small affair, so I
wouldn't be surprised if that turned out to be the case," was the reply
Fred made.

Bristles apparently had brought a bountiful supply of matches along, and
did not mean to spare them, if by striking successive lights he could
satisfy his curiosity.

The others saw him bend forward, and act as though he had picked some
small object from the rocky floor of the cave.

"What did you find, Bristles?" demanded Fred.

"Share and share alike," called out Colon.  "If you've discovered a
diamond, why we all ought to have a part of what you get for the same.
What's that, Bristles?  Well, I declare, if it isn't a sort of breastpin,
as sure as you live!  But such a cheap affair isn't worth ten cents.  If
that's the stuff this robber has got his pockets lined with, it won't pay
the Chief much to chase him down.  Only a flimsy little old plated
breastpin, with a red stone in it.  Huh!"

But the face that Bristles turned on Fred Fenton expressed a vast amount
of uneasiness, surprise and concern.

"Gee!  I wonder now, if that could be?" he was muttering, so that even
Fred began to see that Bristles had struck some sort of clue calculated
to stagger him more or less.

"What ails you, Bristles?"  Fred asked him, pointedly, as the match went
out.

"Why, Fred, as sure as my name is Andy Carpenter, which I sometimes hear
it is, I've seen this same silly little pin before!"

"Where?" demanded Fred, almost holding his breath as though he
anticipated the answer that was coming.

"That little girl had it on the day we pulled her brother, Sam Ludson,
out of the river," was the startling reply.



CHAPTER IX

AT THE TOLL-GATE


"Are you sure of that, Bristles?" asked Fred, upon hearing his chum make
such an astonishing assertion with regard to that tawdry breastpin picked
up in the cave.

"Fred, you c'n see for yourself that while this is a mighty cheap old
thing, it's made in a queer shape," Bristles went on to say.

"All of which is true, I admit," the other confessed.

"Well, you know I've always been a great hand for noticing things," said
Bristles.

"Sure you have," interrupted Colon, who was listening intently, although
it was all "Greek" to him; "and  'specially when they happen to be
connected with a pretty girl."

Bristles grinned as he turned on the tall chum.

"Oh! rats!" he exclaimed, "you're off your base this time, Colon, because
she was a homely little thing, and with clothes on that I'd hate to see a
sister of mine wearing.  But I say again, and I'll keep on saying
it---Sadie, if that was her name, was wearing this same brooch the day we
pulled her brother Sam out of the river, when he'd broke into an
airhole."

"You understand what that might mean, don't you, Bristles?" pursued Fred.

"Why, I reckon now you're trying to make me see that the boy'n girl might
have had something to do with the stealing of Mr. Periwinkle's money and
papers," was the way Bristles answered him.

"If the girl was here, the boy must have been, too," said Fred.

"But gee whiz!  Fred, that youngster didn't look as if he had half enough
nerve to do a thing like that," urged Bristles, scornfully.

"Oh! he had nerve enough, never fear," Fred went on to remark, "for you
may remember he never gave a single peep himself, and it was the girl who
did the shouting for help."

"Might have been scared too much," suggested Colon, wanting to have some
say in the matter.

"No, I don't think he was," replied Fred, "because the girl told us he
kept urging and demanding that she hold back and not try to help him,
because his one fear seemed to be she would fall in too.  But there's one
thing we haven't seemed to figure on before, Bristles."

"Say, I just bet you're going to spring that uncle on ne," remarked the
other, with surprising quickness.

"Why not," demanded Fred, "when we have learned that Corny Ludson has
charge of the boy and girl, and must have been here in this cave with
them.  There was a man here, because I've found signs of his smoking
several cheap cigars, throwing the stubs around afterwards."

"What's that?" cried Colon, just then; "say that name again for me, won't
you?"

"Why, Corny Ludson, a man who seems to be uncle or guardian or something
to the boy we pulled out of the Mohunk, the last time we ran my iceboat
up river," Bristles informed him.

Colon looked happy.  No longer was he to remain "sitting on the fence,"
without feeling he had any particular interest in the game.
Circumstances had managed it so that he could now enter the free-for-all
race, and take his place in line.

"Now that's a rather odd name, you'll admit, boys," he started to say in
his slow, shrewd fashion, "and it's not likely that there'd be two Corny
Ludsons around this section of country; likewise having a couple of
half-grown kids along in the bargain."

"Go on, Colon; it begins to look like you knew something we want to hear
the worst way," Bristles urged.

"Here's the way it stands, then, fellows," the obliging Colon continued.
"At first I didn't just catch the last name when you spoke about Sam and
Sadie.  That is why I didn't break in sooner.  But Ludson gives it away.
He's the same man Mr. Peets the butcher was talking about one day some
little time ago."

"Yes, but tell us what he said, can't you?" urged Bristles.

"You see, I was in there waiting to be served, and the butcher was
talking with Judge Wallace.  I don't know how it came about they got to
arguing, but seemed that Mr. Peets wanted to back up something he said,
and so he started in to tell about a man that had just left the shop,
having two children along, after buying the cheapest kind of a cut.  Said
his name was Corny Ludson, and that once he used to be a rich man over in
New Brunswick, but he'd lost all he had, and now depended on his wits for
a mighty poor living."

"That all sounds pretty, interesting, Colon; but if there's any more,
suppose you get along and give us the same," Bristles told him.

"I remember I heard Mr. Peets say he didn't like the looks of the man,"
continued the one who was giving the story; "and then he went on to
explain that he considered himself a good reader of character, which
allowed him to size the said Ludson up as a trickster who wouldn't stop
at taking things belonging to other people, if he believed he could do it
without getting caught!"

"Bully!" exclaimed Bristles; "that covers the bill to a dot, doesn't it
Fred?  Sure Corny must have believed he saw a good chance to grab this
tin box belonging to Mr. Periwinkle, and not get the hooks in him.  He
did it, too, and has been living on the proceeds of the robbery ever
since."

"There must be something mysterious about the man, then," remarked Fred.
"And it might pay for someone to get in touch with the people over in New
Brunswick, so as to find out whether he did live there once, a rich man,
and why he cleared out."

"That's right, Fred," observed Bristles.  "When people fight shy of their
native place, it pays to learn the reason.  Course sometimes they have a
good cause for keeping away, but lots of 'em do so because they dassen't
go back.  But I'm meaning to keep this queer little pin."

"And if you happen to run across Sadie Ludson again, you'll give it back
to her, won't you?"  Fred asked him.

"Just what I had in mind, to a dot," admitted Bristles.  "I might tell
her where I picked it up, too, and see what she'd say."

"Well, even if you did get her to admit that she'd been here, that
wouldn't prove anything, would it?" queried Colon.

"We'd know Corny had been camping in this cave," said Bristles, sturdily,
"and from the fact that we picked up this same tin box, _empty_, it'd
look pretty much as if he ought to know something about it.  They'd call
that circumstantial evidence."

"And if the boy and girl had to be questioned by Judge Wallace they might
he coaxed to confess that they'd seen their uncle handling this tin box,"
added Fred.  "That would fix the blame without any question."

"Something may come of our find," Colon went on to say, now feeling that
he had a perfect right to count himself in the game, "and on that account
I reckon you'd be doing the right thing to keep both the pin and the box,
boys."

"And all we ask of you, Colon," Bristles suggested, "is that you stick
mum.  Let Fred run the thing.  If he wants any help, he'll tell us, so we
c'n assist."

"Oh!  I'll be a clam," asserted the tall runner with a chuckle, "and once
I give my word, nobody ever knew me to break it.  But say, doesn't it
feel kind of chilly down here?   Remember we haven't any too much on in
the way of clothes, and for one I was a little heated after my run to
catch up with you fellows."

"That's where your head is level, Colon," Fred told him, "and so we might
as well climb out of this.  I'm happy to know I didn't even sprain an
ankle when I dropped down through that hole."

They found no great difficulty in gaining the outside world again, for
the stones offered a substantial footing.  So it came about that
presently the three chums were once more moving along at a fair pace,
being desirous of throwing off that chilly feeling.

It turned out that Fred's calculations were correct "to a hair," as
Bristles triumphantly declared, when they burst upon the road just fifty
yards above the Belleville toll-gate.

"That's figuring some for you!" he exclaimed, as soon as they had sighted
the inclined pole that signified the presence of the barrier where every
vehicle had to halt and pay the regular tariff, according to the number
of wheels, or of the horses it took to draw the load.

They had hung on to the defunct dog in spite of all their hurrying, for
that plan to let the farmers of the community know they were rid of their
greatest pest still clung to the boys' minds.

Bristles was looking ahead as they advanced along the road, and about
this time was heard to give vent to an exclamation.

"Would you believe it?" he cried.  "If there isn't the wagon at the
toll-gate belonging to that old farmer I heard telling about the dogs
that'd played havoc with his sheep!  And I reckon now, he'll be right
glad to see the leader of the pack laid out as we've got him!"



CHAPTER X

BRISTLES' SURPRISE PARTY


"That's a queer coincidence, if you'd care to call it by that name,"
remarked Colon, who liked once in a while to make use of some long word.

"It simply shows that we had long heads when we made up our minds to lug
this old tramp dog all the way here, just to prove our story," Fred
observed.

"That was your scheme, Fred, all right," Bristles quickly asserted.

"No more than the rest of you," he was instantly told, for Fred never
liked to be given sole credit for anything unusual, when he had chums
along.  "All the same, I guess the old farmer will be tickled half to
death to know the sheep-killing pack has been broken up for good."

"You think our knocking the leader out is going to do that, do you,
Fred?" asked Colon.

"In nine cases out of ten that's the way things go.  There's a keystone
to every arch, and when you remove that, the whole thing tumbles down."

"My idea to a dot," asserted Bristles, doggedly.  "Chances are the rest
of those curs have started on the run for their old homes before this;
and unless another leader springs up, which isn't likely, we've seen the
last of the sheep-killers.  But hold on, fellows, perhaps we can have a
little fun with the old farmer."

"How?" asked Colon, not at all unwilling.

"He doesn't seem to be about his wagon just now, you notice?" ventured
Bristles.

"Knows the toll-gate keeper right well," explained Colon, "because he's
been coming past here, year in and year out, a long time now.  Like as
not he's stepped in to sit and talk, or else sample something wet.  But I
hope now, Bristles, you don't mean to start the team off on the run, or
something like that, just to see an old man rush after 'em?"

"What d'ye take me for?" demanded the other, indignantly.  "I leave all
such mean tricks to Buck Lemington, Clem Shooks, Ben Cushing and that
crowd.  Here's where we might play an innocent little joke on the farmer,
and he'll laugh as hard as we do when he catches on.  It's the
dog---let's sneak up back of the wagon, and lift the thing in.  Then you
leave the rest to me."

Colon waited to hear what Fred said.  He was accustomed to depending to
some extent on the opinion of this chum, to whom the boys usually looked
as their leader.

"I should think that was fair enough, Bristles," Fred quickly announced.
"We're intending to give the farmer a pleasant little surprise party,
that's all.  Have it your way, then.  Here, let's move around a little,
so they won't sight us from the open door of the toll-gate house."

It was a very simple matter to do this, and presently they had deposited
the already stiffening body of the sheep-destroying dog in the bed of the
wagon, where it certainly presented a very gruesome appearance, with its
four feet sticking up in the air.

This done, the boys walked around, and onto the little porch that was
spread out before the door of the cottage.

Voices reached their ears, and it was evident that their presence had
been discovered, for two men immediately came out.  Bristles noticed that
the old farmer was even then brushing the back of his hand across his
lips, thus indicating that he had been sampling a glass of hard cider, a
specialty of the toll-gate keeper.

"Hello!  Mr. Jenks!" remarked Bristles, who, it seemed, knew the keeper.
"We're up here to look over the ground for the big Marathon race that's
coming off before long."

The farmer had started toward his team, but hearing this, he stopped to
listen.

"I reckoned as much as soon as I see you boys in your running togs," the
tollgate keeper went on to say, affably enough, "because there was a gent
up here only yesterday that said he represented the committee, and that
they expected to have what they called a registering station here at the
toll-gate, though I don't just know what that really means."

"Why, you see, in a long gruelling run of twenty-five miles," explained
Bristles, "it's necessary to have certain places a few miles apart, and
especially at turns in the course, where every contestant enters his name
in his own handwriting, as well as the time he passed there."

"You don't tell me!" exclaimed Mr. Jenks.  "But what's all that
tomfoolery for?  Strikes me they go to a heap of trouble for next to
nothing."

"Why, you see," continued Bristles, "these races have to be above
suspicion.  The committee doesn't want anybody to be able to say there
was any crooked work about the run.  The fellow who wins must have beaten
every competitor fairly.  And by this system of registering they have a
complete record of the race.  No one can cut across lots and cheat,
without its showing in the record."

"Oh! now I understand you, my lad, and I guess it's a good thing.  That
gent was a fine one, and he said I had the best---but never mind what he
said.  How far have you come this time, boys?"

"This is over half the distance," explained Fred, "and we're on the home
stretch right now.  But we're not trying for a record to-day.  Fact is,
we're just feeling out the ground.  The next time we come we'll stop only
a minute, as if we were registering, and be off, for that's when we'll be
trying it out to see what our time is."

"Oh! excuse me," said Bristles, as he saw the old farmer once more turn
toward his rig, as though he felt he must be going on, "but didn't I hear
you telling someone in the market the other day that you'd lost a number
of sheep lately?"

The old man frowned, and shook his head sadly.

"Three of my best, and I reckons that if things keep on the way they're
goin', I won't have any flock left purty soon, boy," he replied.

"And you said the damage had all been done by a pack of wild dogs, didn't
you?" continued Bristles.

"Anybody with one eye could see that, by the way the sheep was mangled,
and the pad of the prints around.  They're gettin' to be a terror up
here.  Jenks kin tell you how he's heard the lot carrying on like Cain
over in the woods there nights."

"Did you ever see the pack, mister?" asked Bristles.

"Well, I can't say as I really and truly has, son, but I do believe I
knows what the wust of the lot looks like," the farmer told him.

"How was that, sir?" asked the boy, eagerly.  He saw the old man shrug
his broad shoulders, while a whimsical look appeared on his sunburned
face.

"Jest because I set on a limb, and looked down at the critter three whole
hours, till he got so pizen hungry he slunk off, and let me get home.  He
come nigh ketchin' me afore I cud git up in a tree; and from the looks of
them ugly fangs, chances are he'd a-tore me right bad."

"Then I should think you'd know that dog again if ever you saw him?"
suggested Bristles, with a wink toward his chums.

"I hopes I'll never have the bad luck to see him alive again!" declared
the old farmer, as he started to climb up to the seat of his wagon.

"Now watch the circus!" hissed Bristles.

The farmer had just about drawn himself up when they heard him give
utterance to a startled exclamation, for he found himself facing the
uninvited passenger in the back of his open wagon bed.  Had Bristles been
more inclined to be cruel, he might have fixed the dog so that he would
appear lifelike, and in the attitude of springing.

The farmer remained there as though turned into stone.  Then he managed
to recover his wits, and burst out into a shout.

"It's the same pizen critter!" he exclaimed joyously, "and keeled over at
last!  But I'd like to know---say, you don't meant to tell me now, boys,
'twas you that done for that turrible beast?"

"Well," said Bristles, trying hard not to look too important, "they
tackled us in the woods, and it was either us or him, so we managed to
pound the leader until he kicked the bucket, and the rest of the pack lit
out.  I guess that combine's broken up for good, mister.  You won't lose
any more of your sheep, believe me."

The old man got down, and insisted upon shaking hands all around, he felt
so delighted over the new turn affairs had taken.

"And the next time I go to Riverport, I'll tell what a fine thing you
boys did up here," he remarked, as the three runners prepared to start
down the road, heading for the home town.

On the way it was finally decided that they would go to the office of the
Chief of Police and tell him about finding the empty tin box, but not say
a thing in connection with that pin.  Afterwards, Fred said, they might
see Mr. Periwinkle, So as to learn whether the tin box was really his
property.

They felt uncertain as to just what their duty might be in a case like
this, for while it seemed only right that the guilty one should suffer,
at the same time both Fred and Bristles remembered what sorrowful faces
that brother and sister had, and they could not find it in their hearts
to do anything likely to add to the burdens the children already had to
bear.

So the case rested as the days passed.  Though unknown to the boys, a
time was coming, and near at hand, when the mystery of the tin box was
bound to be explained.



CHAPTER XI

ON THE GREEN CAMPUS


A group of merry boys and girls, after school hours, had gathered on the
campus, and were chatting at a lively rate.  This was a week after Fred
and his two companions had gone over the course that previous Saturday,
to judge of the difficulties they were likely to encounter when the great
race came off.

Preparations had gone steadily on, and the time that must elapse before
the Marathon was run could be measured in days.  The greatest excitement
reigned among the young people of Riverport, and it was said that both
the neighboring towns were worked up to fever-heat on account of the
prospective race.

Mechanicsburg welcomed another chance to even the score, which had too
often been in favor of her closest rival, and even Paulding boasted that
long distance running might be called her "best hold," since she had
several lads who were apt to prove wonders at that game.

On the whole, such intense interest had never before been aroused in
school circles in the three rival towns.  Hundreds could hardly wait for
the day to come when, in the presence of unequaled crowds, the question
of supremacy would be decided once for all.

There was Flo Temple, a very pretty, attractive girl, whom Fred always
took to dances, and skated with on the river; her chum Cissie Anderson, a
little addicted to slang, though witty, and "fetching," as Sid Wells was
heard to admit many a time, even when she had rubbed it into him pretty
hard; and last, but not least, that energetic sister of Sid's, Mame
Wells, a girl who could play almost any game that boys did, and fairly
well at that.

The girls seemed to be having no end of fun about something or other, and
the crowd laughed at their sallies.  Even the victims themselves, took it
goodnaturedly, knowing that it was all in good sport.

"The chosen few who are going to do the honors for Riverport in this
wonderful race!" Cissie was saying, with a look of pretended concern on
her pink and white face.  "Don't we pity them, though, girls?  They say
they're at the training table now, and have to give up pies, and all
sorts of other good things.  Look at their faces, and see what a
woebegone expression has settled there.  Every time I glimpse at Sid and
Fred, I have to think of a funeral, or a famine."

"Yes, it must be a dreadful thing to have to actually starve yourself,
and all for the sake of getting in what they call condition," Mame Wells
remarked.  "Why, for the first time in all his life, Sid has to get up
from the table before the dessert comes on.  He says he just couldn't
stand for it to stay, and see us all enjoying ourselves while he's shut
out.  Poor boy, I wish it was over for his sake."

"Why, they'll all be like walking skeletons if this keeps on much
longer," Flo Temple, the doctor's daughter, broke in with.  "I even told
Fred he'd have to walk with a heavy cane, like an old man, before long,
and I offered him one of father's, but he must have felt ashamed to take
it, though I just know he wanted to."

"Oh! well," observed Corney Shay, slyly, "a heavy stick like that is a
mighty nice thing to have along with you, when you're coming home awful
late at night," and of course that caused a great laugh, as well as the
blushes to flash up in the cheeks of pretty Flo.

"But don't any of you try to pity us, and think we're suffering for want
of a decent meal," Fred told them.  "Training table simply means that
you've got to drop pastry, and all such silly things as that.  We eat
beefsteak and chops and eggs just as much as we want to, most vegetables,
fish and fruits, and even plain cake.  Why, it's the finest thing a boy
can do, to try training for a month, and every fellow would be better off
for doing it."

"Then the daily runs we take, and the other exercise in the bargain,"
added Sid, "is making our flesh as hard as nails.  Just feel that muscle,
will you?" and he flexed his arm as he held it out toward the gray-eyed
Cissie, who of course, after duly feeling of it, gave Sid a sly pinch
that made him jump.

Everybody knew that Fred and Flo were good chums, and were nearly always
together.  It was that very fact that had made Buck Lemington dislike
Fred so much in the beginning.  Buck had aspirations in that quarter
himself, and there had been a time, before the other boy came to town,
that he acted as escort to the doctor's pretty daughter, when they were
all much younger than now.

"I hear that the course has all been laid out at last," remarked a small
but lively high school boy, a cousin of Colon.  He really had a first
name, though most people seemed to have forgotten to say "Harrison," for
everywhere he went by the appellation of Semi-Colon, as compared with the
lengthy one.

"We were told the same thing," Flo ventured to say, "but twenty-five
miles seems a terribly long way to run.  My father is to examine every
applicant, because they say it would be dangerous for any boy not in the
best of condition to start out, and undergo the strain that a long race
causes.  So if any of you has a weak heart I'm sorry for you."

"Don't waste your pity on Fred, then, Flo," said Cissie, "because you
ought to know his heart's all right.  Besides, we've seen him put to the
test, and feel sure he'll do good old Riverport High credit.  So will
they all.  There isn't a girl in town but firmly believes the race is
bound to come to our school," and she gave Sid an arch look that caused
him to nod his head in delight.

"One thing sure," said Fred, gallantly, "every fellow is bound to make
the greatest effort of his life, after learning how the Riverport girls
have faith in him.  I can speak for myself and Sid here, as well as
Bradley Morton and Colon, who are absent.  If we all fail to land the
prize, it'll be because there are better long distance runners in the
other towns, and not on account of our flunking."

"They say that to-morrow the four who have been selected to be Riverport
entries expect to make the run from start to finish, just to get
acquainted with the course, and time themselves; is that so, Fred?" asked
Mame, who undoubtedly sincerely mourned the fact, as she had often done
before, that she was a girl, and hence debarred from all these glorious
times.

"Yes, we expect to do something like that, if the weather allows," Fred
admitted, "but of course time isn't going to cut much of a figure in it
with us.  We'll leave all that to the big day, and content ourselves by
getting familiar with the lay of the land, finding out all the bad
places, and figuring how best to save a minute here or half of one there.
That's what is going to count in the final reckoning, the chances are."

"Yes, and it stands for the Fred Fenton type of highest strategy," said
Sid, who could praise a friend without feeling the slightest touch of
envy.  "Being prepared means a heap, in war or in sporting matters.
That's one reason we're dieting right now, so as to put ourselves in the
finest possible physical condition."

"And lots of people just think when there's a Marathon race like this,"
ventured little Semi-Colon, "that a pack of crazy boys just strip to
their running togs and start pell mell across country without a particle
of system whatever.  It's all wrong, because every move is mapped out
beforehand by the wise ones.  They know just what they can do in the way
of speed, and how much reserve they're holding back against the rush over
the home stretch.  That last is where the agony always comes in,
'specially if the race is a close one.  Many a fellow's been known to
just crawl under the tape, too weak to stand up, yet wild to win."

"Well, let's hope nothing like that happens in our Marathon," said Mame,
with a solicitous look toward her handsome brother, of whom she was very
fond.

"Oh! well," Sid hastened to explain, to allay her fears, "this is only a
boys' run, you know; when regular athletes compete they set a faster pace
than any of us can show; and then the distance is generally much further
than twenty-five miles."

"Here comes Colon now," remarked Cissie, who often tormented the tall
athlete with her witty remarks.

"He looks more mysterious than ever," remarked Mame Wells, "and I
shouldn't be surprised now if Colon were hatching up some bright game for
that glorious day of the long race.  Not that he'd play any trick that
wasn't honest, but you all know how he likes to pretend to be beaten
until close to the end, and then fairly fly ahead of every competitor."

"Colon is going to make Riverport proud of him, you mark my words," said
Fred, lowering his voice, for the object of their conversation was now
close by, and covering ground at a tremendous pace with those long legs
of his, which some of the boys had often compared to a pair of
architect's dividers.

"Hello, everybody!" Colon called out, as he came up.  Then, crooking his
finger toward Fred, he went on to say, "Would you mind stepping aside,
Fred, and giving me just a minute or two?  Something important, or I
wouldn't bother you."

Of course the group of boys and girls laughed, and called them a pair of
conspirators, planning some sly game whereby victory might perch on the
purple and gold banner of Riverport High.

"What's up, Colon?" asked Fred, as soon as they were beyond earshot of
the noisy crowd, for he saw that the tall fellow looked quite serious
indeed.

"Remember what we said about that Corny Ludson, don't you, Fred?"

"Why, yes, we concluded to let matters rest, and wait to see if anything
new would turn up," replied the other, "but why do you say that, Colon?"

"Oh! because Corny's shown up in Riverport again, and it might mean he's
got another sly robbery in view," Colon calmly remarked.



CHAPTER XII

LAYING PLANS


"Did you see him yourself, Colon, or did some one tell you?"  Fred
inquired calmly, although he rubbed his forehead, as though bothered a
little by this latest news.

"Well, you know strangers don't come to town in droves these days, and so
when I happened to set eyes on a party I didn't recognize, who had just
been talking with Hi Jimmerson, the livery stable man, I asked him who it
was.  Don't know just why that bumped into my head, but I had an errand
with Hi, anyhow, you understand."

"And he told you it was Corny Ludson, did he?" asked Fred.

"Yes, that's what he did," came the ready reply.  "It seems he used to
know the man over in New Brunswick years ago.  If you and Bristles had
run across Hi when you were trying to find out something about Corny,
you'd have struck a gold mine.  He told me a lot of queer things about
him, and none of 'em that were to his credit, either."

"What did Corny want with the livery man?" asked Fred.

"Oh! tried to strike him for a little loan on account of old times," the
other replied.  "Said he'd been up against it harder than flint, and had
a couple of kids to feed, left to him by his brother.  Hi is an easy
mark, you know, with a great big heart, and he staked Corny to the extent
of a dollar, though he did tell him money was scarce, and that would be
the limit."

Fred seemed to be pondering, for he was somewhat slow about speaking
again.

"Well, it may be we've been wronging Corny by making up our minds he
stole that stuff from old Mr. Periwinkle," he finally went on to say,
"though the miser did tell us he would recognize the tin box among a
thousand.  I hardly know what we ought to do about this thing."

"If you told the Chief all you know, what d'ye reckon he'd do?" inquired
Colon.

"He's such a peppery and ready-to-act little chap," answered Fred, "that
I'm of the opinion he'd round Corny up in a rush.  That might turn out to
be the right thing.  And again there's a chance it'd play him a mean
trick.  What if he were innocent after all?  We'd feel that we'd done him
a great wrong."

This thought worked upon Colon's mind at once, for he had a very tender
heart.

"Yes," he added, reflectively.  "And then, how about that boy and girl?
Like as not they're in some place out of town, right now, depending on
their uncle to fetch home the bacon.  They'd have to go hungry a long
time if Corny were locked up in the cooler.  I'd hate to think of that
same happening, from what you and Bristles told me about the poor kids."

"That leaves us up in the air, you see," pursued Fred.  "We don't know
what our duty is---to tell the Chief, or wait to see what happens."

"Now, by that I reckon you mean wait and see if anything is pulled off
again in town, or around here?" suggested Colon; "that is, in the way of
a robbery like old Mr. Periwinkle's loss of his money and papers.  Whew!
I must say it's getting interesting all of a sudden."

"I was wondering," Fred ventured, "if Corny, provided he did rob the old
miser, and has spent the small sum of money that was taken, could have
heard that Mr. Periwinkle has said he'd pay a certain sum, and no
questions asked, for the safe return of his papers!"

At that Colon puckered up his thin lips, and emitted a soft whistle, as
if to thus display his surprise.

"Queer I never thought of that idea, Fred," he said, nodding his head in
a way to indicate that on the whole he was inclined to agree with what
his companion had advanced.

"It's always possible, you know," he was told.  "If only the papers could
be returned without Corny showing his face!  Now, he may have some sort
of a plan like that to play, which would account for his coming to town
again.  I wonder if it'd be the right thing for me to see Mr. Periwinkle,
and kind of put him on his guard?"

"Could you do it without telling him all about Corny?" demanded Colon.

"That's the question," admitted Fred.  "That's where the hitch seems to
come in the scheme.  The old miser is apt to jump at conclusions, if he
sees a chance to get his papers back, and bag the thief at the same time.
Once he suspects that I know who was in that cave where the empty tin
cracker box was found, he'll insist on sending for Chief Sutton, and
laying some sort of clever trap."

"Well, if Corny is really guilty, he ought to suffer for it; and I
wouldn't care a single pin only for that boy and girl.  If we knew where
they were kept right now, so we could bring 'em into town, and get folks
interested in putting both in good families, I'd say go ahead and have
Corny caught."

"I wonder what Bristles would say about it," mused Fred.

"Huh!  I c'n tell you that," grunted the tall boy, immediately.

"Then suppose you do, Colon."

"Bristles," continued the other, confidently, "would hunch his shoulders
this way, as he nearly always does, and then he'd say: whatever you think
is the right caper, Fred, count me in.  I'm ready to sneeze every time
you take snuff!' That's the way Bristles would talk, mark my words."

Fred laughed.  He could not help feeling flattered at such an evidence of
confidence on the part of these two chums; yet he feigned to disagree
with Colon.

"I don't know about that, Colon, Bristles has a mind of his own, and
sometimes it takes a lot of argument to convince him.  You've got to
batter down his walls, and knock all the props out from under him before
he'll throw up the white flag.  If I get half a chance to run across lots
to-night, I'll try to see him.  He ought to be put wise to what's going
on.

"That's only fair, Fred, because he was there when we struck that cave.
And if I remember aright, Bristles was the first to discover about Corny
having been the one who used that cooking fire."

"Don't pass the word around, Colon, mind," cautioned Fred.

"You didn't need to say that, my boy," remarked the other, with a vein of
reproach in his voice, "because you ought to know I'm not one of the
blabbing kind.  I c'n keep a secret better'n anybody in our class.  They
might pump me forever and never learn a thing."

"When was it you saw Corny?"  Fred asked, as though desirous of obtaining
the fullest information possible.

"Why, just a little while ago," Colon confided.  "Fact is, my first
thought was to look you up, and tell you.  I went to your house first,
because your hours are a heap shorter than the regular scholars, at
school, and they said you'd gone off an hour before.  And then, well, I
kind of guessed Flo Temple would be starting for home about this time,
and it might be you'd happen along to carry her hooks, as you always used
to.  And I was right," with a sly glance at the little packet Fred had at
that very moment under his left arm.

"Oh that's all right, Colon," he remarked, laughingly; "just from force
of habit, you know.  Flo kind of expects me to drop around, and seems
sort of disappointed when anything keeps me away.  That's the way we
spoil our girl friends, you see.  But let's speak of serious things.  I
don't see that we're called on to inform about Corny, with only
circumstantial evidence against him.  If there did happen to be another
robbery while we knew he was close by, of course then it would be another
thing.  We just couldn't keep quiet any longer."

"That's what you've decided on, then, is it, Fred?"

"Yes, to hold off, and wait," he was told in a decisive way.

"All right then, and I want to say that I think you're playing safe in
the game.  You're holding off on account of that pair of poor kids, I
know you are.  Corny c'n thank them for being let alone.  And Fred, seems
to me you're going on the policy of the old saying that tells you to give
a rascal rope enough, and he'll hang himself."

"If anything happens, I promise to go straight to Chief Sutton and put
him in possession of all the facts I know," affirmed Fred.  "And in case
I'm not able to get over to Bristles' place to-night, I'll call him up on
the wire, and tell him how the case stands."

"You'll have to be careful what you say, then," remarked Colon, with a
grin; "if you happen to have any curious old maid on your party wire, as
we have."

"Well, it saves the cost of the weekly paper, you know," laughed Fred.
"But you can make sure, Colon, if I do talk with Bristles over the wire,
I'll fix things so no one could tell what it was all about, and yet he'll
understand what I mean."

"Say I wanted to tell you, Fred, about that same Corny," Colon observed,
taking hold of his chum's sleeve, as he thought he detected an uneasiness
about Fred's actions.  Flo was looking their way, and frowning, as though
she considered that this mysterious consultation had gone on about long
enough, even if it did concern important plans for the coming Marathon
run.

"I'd be glad to hear it then, Colon," the tall boy was told.

"I didn't like his looks a little bit," Colon continued, seriously.

"By that style of talk I should imagine you thought he'd just as soon
steal from a miser as eat a square meal; is that what you mean?"  Fred
demanded.

"He looks mean as dirt," the other went on to say.  "There's a slick way
he's got of rubbing his hands together when he's talking, and looking up
from the tail of his eye, to see how you're taking his patter.  Now, I'm
only a boy, and I don't make out to be able to read character any great
shakes, but, Fred, I'd be willing to eat my hat if that Corny isn't a bad
egg every time."

"Everybody seems to think the same way there," he was told, "and I've yet
to hear the first word in his favor.  We'll consider that settled, then,
Colon.  And if you get wind of anything being pulled off around Riverport
to-night, or later on, don't let the grass grow under your feet about
giving me a tip."

"You just bet I won't, Fred.  But I hope there'll be some way of finding
out about that pair of kids.  Somehow I seem to have cottoned to 'em just
from what you'nd our other chum told me, and without ever havin' set eyes
on either the boy or the girl that I know about.  I'm meaning to sound my
ma about how it could be fixed, so they'd have decent homes, in case
anything happened."

"That sentiment does you credit, Colon, and I promise that when the time
comes, if it ever does, I'll back you up to the limit."

"Shake hands on that, Fred!" exclaimed impulsive Colon, and then and
there they exchanged a grip that cemented the bargain.

"I certainly do hope that finishes the wonderful consultation!" called
out a clear girlish voice, and Flo Temple came toward them, with a little
pout on her pretty red lips.   "We've grown tired of standing here, and
waiting, while you laid out your great plan of campaign.  I should think
there was plenty of time for all that between now and the day of the
Marathon race.  And Fred, you forget you promised to walk out in the
woods with me, and see if the first wild flowers hadn't popped up.  This
is the only chance I've had so far this week, and it'll be late before we
get fairly started."

Of course Fred declared that nothing stood in the way of their immediate
departure, and as Sid and Cissie had agreed to go along, it may be
assumed they had a merry time of it.



CHAPTER XIII

THE MUFFLED VOICE


"Fred, someone wants you on the 'phone!"

"All right, Sis, tell him I'll be right down, and to hold the wire!"

At the time his younger sister, Josie, called him.  Fred was sitting in
his own room at home.  It was around eight o'clock, and he had just been
studying, so as to get such matters off his mind until Monday swung
around again.  The next day being Saturday, he and the other selected
contestants for honors in the big race expected to cover the course at a
pretty good pace, so as to familiarize themselves with its numerous
shortcomings and advantages.

Not wishing to keep anyone waiting, and suspecting that it must be either
Colon or Bristles who had some sort of communication to make, Fred
hurried down to the lower hail where the 'phone hung.

"Hello!" he called.

Evidently the other party was waiting, for immediately there came an
answer.

"That you, Fred?"

"Yes," replied Fred, at the same time wondering who it could be, because
there did not seem to be anything familiar about the half muffled tones.

"This is Bristles!" came the voice.

"What's that?" exclaimed Fred, wondering if his friend could be trying to
play some trick on him by pretending to change his voice.

"Bristles, don't you know?  Wait a minute till I cough," and then
followed a series of explosive barks that sounded wonderfully realistic
over the wire, after which the muffled voice continued: "Seem to have
taken a beastly cold somehow, after school.  Sneezing to beat the band,
in the bargain.  But I want to see you, the worst way, Fred.  Can't you
come over to my house, for I oughtn't to go out in the night air with
this cold?"

"Now, you mean, Bristles?"

"Sure, right away.  It's only eight o'clock, and I've got something to
tell you that'll make you sit up and take notice.  Excuse me while I bark
a few times, Fred," which he accordingly did in a way that made the other
remove the receiver from close contact with his ear.

"Well, you do seem to have a good dose of it, Bristles," Fred remarked,
laughingly, when the bombardment had finally ceased.  "I'm almost afraid
that cold will be catching over the wire.  Hope it won't be anything
serious, old fellow."

"Oh!  I'm not bothering about that, Fred," he was told, "but I'm just
aching to tell you something great.  You'll be tickled half to death when
you hear what it is.  Never mind asking me, either, because I won't
whisper a word over the wire."

"All right, then, Bristles."

"You'll sure come, Fred?" anxiously asked his unseen chum.

"Why, of course I will," Fred hastened to assure him.  "I meant to run
over to your place to-night, anyway, because I've got a little news you
ought to hear."

"And Fred, you'll take the short-cut, of course?"

"It's mighty seldom I go any other way, Bristles.  Why do you ask?"

"I was only afraid you might have some errand down-town that'd take you
the long way around, that's all, Fred.  Now, hurry up, because I'll bust
if I have to hold this great thing in much longer.  So long, Fred!"

As the thick voice ceased to come over the wire Fred put the receiver on
the hook, and there was a little frown on his face.

"Now I wonder if he's happened to learn about that Corny Ludson, and
means to explode it on me?"  Fred was saying, as he picked up his hat.
As he did so, his glance happening to fall upon a heavy cane with a
crooked handle belonging to his father, he took possession of it.

Perhaps it was the recollection of what pretty Flo Temple had said when
jokingly telling him that he would presently be needing a walking stick,
if he kept on dieting for the Marathon race, that suddenly tempted Fred
to take this cane, for he had certainly never done it on any previous
occasion.

Later on he was inclined to believe there might be some truth in that
fable of the sea, to the effect that there is a "little cherub aloft,
looking after the affairs of poor Jack," and keeping him in times of
sudden peril.  At any rate the sudden whim of Fred's, when he thought to
play a joke on Bristles, and pretend that he needed a crutch or a cane,
since he was becoming lame and decrepit, was fated to turn out one of the
finest things he ever did.

When Fred stepped out of the front door, he found that it was fairly
dark, as the moon happened to be past its full, and consequently had not
as yet appeared above the eastern horizon.

When Fred and Bristles wished to exchange visits they were in the habit
of taking a short-cut, that saved considerable distance.  It wound in and
out over the open lots, though there was only one fence to climb.  So
frequently had the boys made use of this way, in their endeavor to save
themselves from needless steps, that they knew every foot of it like a
book.  Indeed, a plain trail had been worn by these innumerable trips.

Bristles had often declared he could go from his house to that of Fred
with his eyes bandaged, and never once get off the track.  No doubt it
was the same way with the Fenton boy, who had impressed every little
peculiarity of that short-cut on his mind.

Swinging the heavy walking-stick around by the crook, Fred hurried along,
climbing the fence on the other side of the road.  Just at that moment he
chanced to notice a figure coming up the street, and while astride the
topmost rail of the fence he stopped to see if his suspicions were
confirmed, for he thought he ought to know that peculiar gait.

When the other started in at the Fenton gate Fred called softly:

"Hello there, Colon!"

The tall figure turned around at being thus addressed from across the
street.

"That you, Fred?" he asked, starting to cross over.

"Nobody else," replied the other, with a chuckle, "and you happened along
just in the nick of time, let me tell you.  I'd have been gone in three
shakes of a lamb's tail."

"Going across lots to Bristles's shack, I reckon?" ventured the tall boy,
as he reached the side of his friend.

"Just what I'm meaning to do," he was told.  "Bristles called up before I
was ready to start across, and wanted me to hurry over.  Said he had
something to tell me that was simply great."

"You don't say!" exclaimed Colon.

"And I've been wondering whether he could have learned about that man
being in town," continued Fred.

"Meaning Corny?" queried Colon.

"Yes," Fred replied, still sitting on the rail of the fence.  "If you saw
him, there'd be a chance that Bristles might have heard something along
those lines.  You know he's the greatest fellow going for picking up
information about all sorts of things."

"It might be," mused the other, "and we could have some fun with Bristles
by springing the racket on him before he got a chance to let the cat out
of the bag."

"You'll go over with me, then?" asked Fred.

"That's my present intention," said Colon.  "Fact is, I strolled around
to see if you expected to drop in on Bristles, and put him wise.  Didn't
have anything else to do, this being Friday night, you know.  And I'm
that full of the race I seem to want to talk it over all the time.  But
what are you carrying that heavy walking-stick for?  Hope there wasn't
any truth in what Flo Temple said, and that you're getting weak in the
knees, Fred?"

"I just happened to remember all that joshing," Fred told him, "when I
saw dad's stick.  So I picked it up, thinking I'd play a joke on
Bristles, and make out to be lame.  But looks a little as if we mightn't
have Bristles along with us to-morrow."

"How's that?"  Colon wanted to know, instantly.

"Why, it seems he's gone and taken a terrible cold all of a sudden," Fred
told him.  "You'd never have guessed who it was talking over the wire to
me.  He had to tell me who it was."

"When was this?" asked Colon, "because I called him up after I got home
this evening, to sort of say we _might_ be around, and I didn't notice
anything out of the way with him then."

"Is that so?" remarked Fred, as though a little puzzled.  Then he added,
"Oh! these colds in the head come on with a rush, sometimes.  He barked
like a dog, and I even had to hold the receiver away from my ear.  I told
him he'd give it to me over the wire.  But chances are he'll not be in a
fit state for a twenty-five mile run to-morrow, more's the pity.  It's
queer about that heavy cold taking him so sudden, though, come to think
of it."

"He wanted you to come over, you say?" continued Colon, as he threw one
of his long legs across the top rail, and prepared to follow Fred, who
had already dropped down on the other side of the fence, and was in the
field that was to be crossed first of all, in following the short-cut to
the Carpenter home.

"Yes, that was why he called me up," replied Fred.  "And he kept urging
me not to hold off a minute, because he said what he had to tell was so
important he'd just burst if he held in much longer.  And then he wanted
to make sure I'd take this path across lots."

"But why would he say that, Fred?" continued the tall boy, as side by
side they started off, with Fred keeping on the path, which could be seen
readily enough in the starlight, once his eyes had become accustomed to
the night.

"He said, Colon, he was afraid I might try to kill two birds with one
stone, and go down-town first, to do some errand, and he just couldn't
wait a minute longer than was necessary."

"Huh! that's funny," grunted Colon, as though he failed to understand
exactly why the said Bristles should have been so very particular.

They walked along, with Colon clutching the left arm of his chum, for he
depended upon Fred to show the way, not being very familiar with the
crooked path himself.

They kept on talking as they walked, for there were any amount of things
that interested them jointly, from the mystery concerning the actions of
Corny Ludson, to the plans they had in mind concerning the winning of the
glorious Marathon.

Here and there clumps of bushes caused them to turn aside, but that was
the way the trail ran, very much like what Fred called a "cow-path."
Indeed, it meandered along in a zigzag fashion, though always heading for
the opposite side of the field.

The two boys were just in the act of passing the densest patch of bushes
that the cow-pasture boasted, when without the slightest warning three
figures suddenly confronted them.  They leaped from the covert where they
had been lying concealed, and, as though all their plans had been
arranged beforehand, two of the figures instantly sprang past, so that
from all sides of a triangle Fred and Colon found themselves furiously
assailed.



CHAPTER XIV

A PLOT THAT FAILED


Although taken completely by surprise Fred and Colon were not the kind of
boys to flinch, or run from sudden danger.

They could see that the three fellows who surrounded them were gotten up
just as might have been expected under such circumstances.  When men or
boys lay out to do a mean thing, they generally try to arrange it so that
their identity may not be disclosed.  These fellows had their hats drawn
low down, their coat collars turned up, and, unless Fred's eyes deceived
him, they also had handkerchiefs or some other kind of disguise fastened
over the lower part of their faces, just as they may have read of
desperate footpads doing out West, when holding up stage coaches.

There was really no time to note anything more.  Uttering all sorts of
angry cries in falsetto voices, the assailants bore down upon the two
chums.

"Whoop! give it to 'em, Fred!" cried Colon, his long arms immediately
taking on the appearance of a couple of old-fashioned flails, such as
farmers used before the time of machine threshers.

Fred was already busily engaged.  A thrill of satisfaction seemed to fill
his boyish heart over the inspiration that had caused him to pick up that
heavy walking-stick before sallying forth to cross over to Bristles'
house.

It was certainly a handy thing to have around just then, with the odds
against them, and that whirlwind attack on in full force.

After Fred had swung his stick a few times, and several loud thumps told
that it had landed on each occasion, grunts began to change into groans.
Of course it hurt, no matter where it landed, and once a fellow ran up
against such punishment, the chances were he would not feel just the same
savage inclination to press the attack that he had before "taking his
medicine."

Colon, too, was doing gallant work, though he possessed no club or cane,
and had to depend upon his fists alone.  He was tall, and had a terrific
reach, so that he could land his clever blows without being severely
punished in return.

One thing the two chums were careful to do,---not separate.  Although
they had had no chance to settle on any plan of campaign, they seemed to
just naturally understand that in their case union meant strength.
Accordingly they kept back to back, and in that way managed to hold off
all assailants.

Afterwards Colon used to say that their defence had been conducted along
the famous "hollow square" plan, peculiar to British troops for
centuries, in that they kept their faces to their foes, and their lines
intact.

Of course this sort of vigorous work could not last very long.  It was
too one-sided, with Fred pounding two of the unknown fellows with his
father's walking-stick, as though that might be the regular mission of
such heavy canes.

There was a final scramble, in which blows were given and taken on both
sides.  Then a gruff voice, considerably the worse for wear and lack of
breath, gasped out:

"Scoot, fellows! it's all off!"

Immediately the three mysterious assailants turned and ran away.  Fred
noticed with more or less satisfaction that a couple of them seemed to
wabble considerably, thanks to the whacks he had managed to get in with
his heavy stick.

"Go it, you cowards!" shouted Colon after them.  "For three cents I'd
give chase, and hand you a few more good ones.  But unless I miss my
guess, one of you'll have a black eye to-morrow, for I plunked you
straight.  Whew!  I'm out of wind with all that rapid action work, Fred!"

Fred himself was breathing rather hard, because of the way in which he
had been compelled to exert himself in the melee.  So neither of them
made the slightest move to advance any further, content to stand there,
puffing heavily.

Then Colon began to chuckle, louder and louder, until he broke out into a
hearty laugh, at the same time doubling up like a hinge, after an odd way
he had.

"Got 'em going and coming, didn't we, Fred?" he wanted to know, when his
merriment had subsided in some degree.  "They caught us napping, that's
right, but say, did it do 'em much good?  Not that you could notice.  Let
me tell you that's a sore lot of fellows to limp all the way home to
Mechanicsburg to-night."

"What makes you say that, Colon?"

"About Mechanicsburg, you mean?" remarked the tall boy.  "Why what else
would we think, but that the trick was planned, and carried out by some
of that gang of up-river fellows?   Haven't we run up against the same
lot before, and would you put it past them to try to lame a fellow, so he
couldn't take part in a race, and let their side have a clear field?
Huh! easy as falling off a log to see how the ground lies."

"But Colon," objected Fred, "remember what Felix Wagner said to us about
playing the game fair and square?  I don't believe he'd descend to any
such mean dodge as this, nor most of the other fellows up
there---Sherley, Gould, Hennessy, Boggs and then some.  If this was a
set-up job, I'd rather believe it originated nearer home than
Mechanicsburg."

"A set-up job!" roared Colon.  "You never heard of one with more of the
ear-marks of a lowdown game than this has.  Why, they planned to get you
to cross here all by yourself, and then lay you out so you couldn't run
for a month.  Didn't I see how they kept kicking at my shins all the
time, and I reckon that's what they did with you.  I've a welt on my leg
right now from a heavy brogan;  and I'd like to bet you they put on that
sort of foot-wear so as to make their kicks hurt like fun."

"Yes, they did seem to keep kicking at me, every chance they found,"
admitted Fred, as though partly convinced by the other's argument.

"See?" flashed Colon.  "I told you how it was.  They had that all laid
out, and after it was carried through you'd be laid up and lame for the
whole of the Spring.  When a fellow means to run a twenty-five mile race,
he's got to keep in tiptop condition right along, or he'll get soft; and
if you couldn't practice every day, why what would be the use of your
starting in?  Five miles would make your ankle so sore you'd have to be
carried home on a hayrick."

"They tried their level best not to give themselves away," continued
Fred.

"Hardly ever used their voices,---only when they just had to grunt and
groan, after you touched 'em up with that bully walking-stick.  Fred."

"And," continued Fred, "they had their hats pulled down over their faces,
collars turned up, and some sort of thing over their chins, so their best
friend wouldn't have recognized one of them."

"Oh! it certainly was a pretty smart trap, and it failed to work on
account of a few things the plotters hadn't thought of," observed Colon,
with a vein of satisfaction in his voice.

"One of which was my great luck in having you along with me, Colon."

"Oh!  I don't know that that counted any to speak of," objected the
other.  "Why, when I saw the way you slung about you with that
walking-stick, Fred, I knew as sure as anything they were in the soup.
And chances are, it'd have been just the same if you'd come along here by
yourself.  The biggest piece of luck you had was when you took that
notion to carry your dad's heavy cane."

"Perhaps you're right, Colon," admitted Fred, as he felt of the heavy
stick, and then remembered with what a vim he had applied it without
stint wherever he could get an opening.  "And I ought to really thank Flo
Temple for that, oughtn't I?  Only for the way she joked me about needing
a crutch or a cane, I'd never have thought of playing it on Bristles.
And I want to tell you I'd hate to have this thing laid on me, good and
hard.  Wherever I struck, it's raised a whopping big welt, I calculate."

"Well, if you could tell from the way they hollered every time it struck,
that goes without saying," laughed Colon.  "And I'll have lots of fun out
of this, every time I think of it.  Did you hear what that leader said
when he knew they'd have to own up beat? 'Scoot, fellows!  it's all off!'
I guess it was, for if they'd held out much longer, we'd have floored the
whole bunch."

"I was wondering what his voice sounded like," said Fred.

"Oh!  I'd take my affidavit that he had a hickory nut in his cheek right
then, so as to disguise his voice, if he did have to speak any," Colon
went on to say, and in this way proving that he was ready to give their
unknown assailants credit for utilizing every possible device that would
insure the successful carrying out of their miserable scheme.

"I knew a fellow who did that same thing once upon a time," Fred hinted.

"Yes, and it was somebody we happen to know right well, too," agreed
Colon; "in other words, Mister Buck Lemington, the clever and
unscrupulous son of Sparks Lemington, one of Riverport's leading
citizens, and a chap who lies awake nights hatching up plans for getting
the better of a friend of mine."

"Hold on, Colon, go a little slow about accusing anybody before we've got
the least bit of evidence.  This might be a different crowd.  Perhaps
it'll turn out they're from Paulding, where I've heard there's a certain
sporting element that's taken to betting on baseball games and athletics
and such things, now that horse racing and making pools have been knocked
out by law."

"Shucks! now, I hadn't thought of that before," assented the tall boy, in
a grudging fashion, as though he disliked giving up any cherished idea
that may have seized upon his mind with conviction.  "And if they've gone
and put up money on Paulding breasting the tape first, why, of course
they might plot to do something to lame the best runners in Riverport and
Mechanicsburg.  But Fred, in that case they'd be apt to send men here to
knock you.  These were boys!"

"Yes, that's so, Colon, and it looks like a weak link in the chain,
doesn't it?  But since the game didn't pan out the way they thought it
would, perhaps these fellows will fight shy of trying anything like it
again.  We'll take a look around to-morrow, and see if we can notice any
signs of their being on the hurt list among Buck's crowd."

"That's the ticket, Fred!" said Colon, jubilant.  "That black eye would
tell the story, wouldn't it, now?  And then if Clem Shooks or Oscar Jones
is seen to limp painfully, and grunt every step he takes, that ought to
mark him as one of your poor victims."

"The whole three of them galloped off, didn't they?" asked Fred just
then.

"I should say they did, and as fast as they could skip.  But what makes
you ask that, Fred?"

"I thought I heard a movement in this patch of bushes here, that's all;
but it may have been a bird or a rabbit.  Shall we start along now,
Colon?"

"Just give me half a minute, will you, Fred?" begged the tall chum, who
was fumbling in his vest pocket.

"What do you want to do?" asked Fred.

"Oh, strike a match, and take a little peep around," he was told.  "Never
know what you might strike.  Remember picking up a sleeve button once,
after I'd been set on by a couple of fellows in the dark; and it gave the
game away.  Oh! yes, I returned the button, but my bruises felt a heap
better after I'd given the fellow a double dose."

He immediately snapped the match off, and began moving around close to
the bushes.  Fred heard him sing out before half a dozen seconds had
passed.

"Well, this is great luck, Fred!" Colon exclaimed.  "Here I've found a
hat trampled in the dirt.  Maybe now that will tell the story.  Hold it,
please, while I strike another match.  Let's look inside.  What's this I
see?  First thing is the well known trademark of our enterprising
Riverport hat dealer.  Then here's some initials in gold fixed inside.
What d'ye make 'em out to be, Fred?"



CHAPTER XV

CLINCHING EVIDENCE


"As near as I can make out, they're C.J.," said Fred, after he had taken
a look, before the match flickered, and went out in the night breeze.

Colon burst into another laugh.

"Told you so, Fred!" he remarked, triumphantly.  "You don't need to guess
twice to know whom that set belongs to.  Let me mention his name to
you---Conrad Jimmerson, and this is what proves it.  I'd just keep that
old hat, and make him eat it, if I were you."

There was another rustling in the bushes, and Fred glanced that way as
though a trifle suspicious, but made no move to investigate.

"Oh!  I don't know that I'll go as far as that," Fred observed, "because,
while a fellow may have to eat crow once in a while, swallowing his own
hat would be asking too much of him.  But there's another way to rub it
in."

"How?" asked Colon.

"Suppose now I took this hat to school Monday," continued Fred, seriously
enough, "and told the story of how we were waylaid by three mysterious
chaps, who did their level best to injure us about the shins, and without
any doubt meaning to knock us out from taking part in the big race?
Don't you think nearly everybody would be warm about it?"

"Hot about the collar as they could be, and ready to take it out of the
hide of the three guilty ones, if only they knew who they were," the
other boy affirmed in his positive way.

"Well, I might put this old hat on exhibition, and ask every boy to take
a good look at it before seeing the tell-tale initials inside.  Then we'd
hear what they thought, and if any of them recognized the same.  In that
way, Colon, it ought to be easy to run down the rascal."

"Yes," added the tall boy, "and once you nailed him, it wouldn't be so
hard to make him own up who his cronies were.  He's a coward, when you
pin him down.  I'd dare him to stand up and have it out with me.  Then
p'raps it was C.J. who rammed his old eye so hard against my fist, trying
to feaze me.  Oh! the evidence is going to accumulate against him like a
regular old mountain.  There's that rabbit of yours moving again, Fred.
Queer all this row didn't start him off, isn't it?"

"I just happened to think," remarked Fred, "that we're on a false
mission, after all."

"Right now, you mean, don't you, Fred?"

"Yes, because it wasn't Bristles at all I was talking with, but one of
this same crowd.  No wonder his voice sounded so queer to me, and
muffled."  Then Fred had to laugh, after which he went on to say, "And to
think how sly he was making out the cause of it to be that sudden cold
he'd taken."

"That was a mighty clever dodge, let me tell you," Colon went on to say.
"You see, he knew you'd notice the difference in voices, for even over
the wire it's easy to recognize a friend's way of speaking; so he fixed
it up, with a nut in his cheek, and then told you about the cold."

"And that cough, why, I tell you it was splendidly worked, and whoever
carried it out was a sharp one, Colon."

"However do you guess it was done?" asked the tall chum.

"Well, there must have been a fourth member of the gang, who had his part
of the game to play.  Chances were he was to go into some place downtown
where they have a public 'phone booth, at exactly eight o'clock, and call
me up.  The other three were to be hiding here before that time, waiting
for me to cross over.  And I must say it worked out to a charm---only for
the walking-stick, and you, Colon.  They didn't figure on my receiving
such important reinforcements at the eleventh hour, as to turn the tide
of battle."

"Talk to me about Blucher coming up to help Wellington at Waterloo, you
were in just as good luck to-night.  And the French didn't feel any more
sore when they had to run, than Buck and his pals do right now.  I'd give
thirty cents to see what the lot of them are doing this very minute;
rubbing their bodies, and saying everything mean about us they can think
of.  Ho! ho! ho!"

Colon seemed to extract a considerable amount of amusement out of this
unexpected happening.  He evidently considered that he had been in for
more or less luck simply because he happened to be in Fred's company when
the other ran into the ambuscade.  Colon was not averse to an occasional
measure of excitement, and although not all considered a pugnacious
fellow, he could at the same time hold his own when difficulties arose.

"Of course," pursued Fred, "if I thought it worth while I could easily
find out who sent that message to me, and played the part of Bristles."

"You mean by going to telephone headquarters, and learning who connected
with your number tonight about eight; is that it, Fred?"

"And after they had told me it was, say, Dudley's drug store," Fred
continued, as if figuring it all out, "I could step in there and ask
Gussie Lightly what boy used the booth about that time."

"Easy enough, because of course Gussie knows all the boys about town, and
if it was Ben Cushing or Clem Shooks or Oscar Jones, he could tell you
right off the reel.  Why don't you do it, Fred?"

"I may when I get home, because it can all be done just as well over the
wire you know," the other replied.  "Gussie is a good friend of mine, I
feel sure, and if only he knew what a mean game had been set up on me,
he'd do anything to square matters."

"And at school Monday," Colon suggested, "it might be a good thing for
you to be able to prove it was one of Buck's cronies that talked with
you, making out to be Bristles, who hasn't any cold at all."

"I'm glad of that, too," Fred observed, "because I was feeling that he
couldn't go along with us tomorrow on the trial spin."

"It was a dirty trick, Fred, but I must say pretty well worked out.  I
can see the fine hand of our old friend, Buck, back of it all.  There
isn't another fellow in all Riverport who could get up such a
combination.  Buck's as full of schemes as an egg is of meat.  That's why
the others all flock after him.  He's got the brains, and carries the
money too."

"Now, while it seems that Bristles didn't call me up, and beg me to come
over, as we're already part way there, we might as well finish the lap,
Colon."

"Oh! you know I gave him to understand that maybe we might run in on
him," he was told by the other.

"But it's too bad," remarked Fred, grinning broadly.

"About what?" demanded his friend.

"We're going to be badly disappointed, I'm afraid."

"We are, eh?  I'd like to know how that comes, Fred?"

"Why, we laid out to hear the most thrilling thing that ever happened,
you see," the other told him, in a voice of mock disappointment.  "When
Bristles with the muffled voice and the bad cold told me he'd just burst
if he didn't have someone to confide in right soon, he got me worked up
to fever pitch.  Now I've had to cool down.  There isn't going to be any
development.  Our hair won't have to stand tip on end like the quills of
the fretful porcupine.  In so many words, Colon, it's all off, you know."

"I'm afraid it is, Fred," admitted the other, sadly, "and I'm some
disappointed, too, because you had my curiosity whetted up.  Why, I
couldn't begin to tell you all I expected to hear when Bristles got busy.
Course, knowing about that Corny as you did, it was easy to figure out
how he might be the one Bristles meant to tell about.  Well, that ends
it, and Fred, hadn't we better be hunching out of this, if you think
there's no more hats or other trophies of the great victory lying
around?"

"Yes, we'll be over at Bristles' place inside of five minutes more," Fred
announced.

"If he happened to have his window open I wouldn't be surprised if he
heard us carrying on high over here in the field," suggested Colon, and
there was an air of expectancy in his voice, as though such a thing would
not have been at all unpleasant to him.

"One thing sure," Fred asserted, confidently, "he'll kick up an awful row
just because he didn't happen to be in the little affair.  Bristles never
wants anyone to get ahead of him, when there's action stirring."

"No more he does," Colon echoed.  "Here, suppose you keep this old hat.
I'm given to being careless, and I'd be apt to drop it somewhere.  No
danger of you doing that, Fred; you're always as particular about such
things as an old maid."

"You can make your mind tip that when the evidence is needed to show up
the owner of this hat at school, it will be forthcoming.  I'll take it
home with me, and keep it safe and sound."

The two boys were already moving off, heading across the field.  They
could easily see the lights in the Carpenter house, which was only a
short distance away, though if one went around by the road it would take
some fifteen minutes to make the journey.

They did not bother to look back after they had quitted the vicinity of
the big cluster of bushes.  Had they done so, and the starlight been
strong enough for them to see as a cat does at nighttime, Fred and Colon
might have discovered a bare-headed figure that came creeping out of the
bushes.  This wretched person looked after them with more or less
grumbling and complaining, as though not at all relishing some of the
things so recently spoken by the two chums.



CHAPTER XVI

TELLING BRISTLES


"Hello there, Fred, and you too, Colon; glad to see you both!  Step in,
and come upstairs with me to my den, won't you?"

In this fashion did Bristles meet the two visitors at the front door, and
convinced by the warmth of the reception that they were going to be
welcome guests, Fred and the tall boy fell in behind the one who had
admitted them.  Presently they found themselves comfortably seated in
such chairs as decorated the so-called "den," which was a small room on
the top story, where Bristles kept his belongings and did his studying.

"Glad to see your bad cold is a lot better, Bristles!" remarked Colon,
with a sly wink over toward Fred, who chuckled.

Bristles of course looked puzzled.

"I suppose that's, some sort of a poor joke," he ventured, cautiously,
glancing from one to the other of his visitors; "but me, I'm groping all
around in the dark, and don't seem to catch on.  S'pose you open up, and
explain how it works, Colon."

The tall boy allowed his eyebrows to go up as though tremendously
surprised.

"Do you mean to tell me, Bristles Carpenter, that you didn't call up
Fred, here, a little while back, and while begging him to hurry over, as
you had something important to explain, say you'd taken such a cold you
could hardly speak plain?"

"What, me?  Say, you're dreaming, Colon.  I never said a word of that,
and right now I haven't got the least bit of a cold!" exclaimed the
other, indignantly.  At the same time he began to show a certain amount
of curiosity, for his good sense warned him there must be a story back of
Colon's strange accusation.

"And you didn't interrupt yourself several times to say, 'Oh! excuse me,
while I cough!' and then start in whooping it up so hard Fred here had to
take the receiver down from his ear or go deaf?"

"Oh!  Come off, and tell me what all this silly stuff means!" demanded
the still more mystified boy.  "Has anybody been playing a rousing good
joke on Fred, and making out to be me?"

"That's about the size of it, isn't it, Fred," Colon assented, eagerly
enough.  "It was a rousing enough joke, while it lasted, but the trouble
is that it turned out to be one of those back-action, kicking jokes, that
turns on the jokers, unexpected like.  This one left a black eye, and a
whole lot of black and blue marks behind it---that is, we believe so, and
have a pretty good reason, too."

"All right, now tell me what it all means, please," Bristles pleaded,
seeing that the tall chum was really in earnest.

Colon explained, and as he finished, the astonished listener demanded:

"But what d'ye reckon it all means?"

"Both of us noticed that their main plan seemed to be to kick at our
shins every chance they got," explained Fred, "and Colon says they had
heavy brogans on, too.  It's a hard thing to say, Bristles, but we
honestly believe they meant to lame us, so we couldn't be in shape to run
to-morrow, and perhaps at the time of the great Marathon, too."

Bristles clenched his hands, and looked savage.

"Well, what d'ye think of that now for a savage trick?" he exclaimed.  "I
wouldn't believe it of those Mechanicsburg athletes, who've always seemed
a pretty decent bunch of fellows."

"Hold on," said Fred.  "Go a little slow, Bristles."

"What for?" demanded the other, impetuously and fiercely.

"Because you're making the same mistake Colon here did at first," he was
told.

"About the boys up the river, you mean, Fred?"

"Yes.  It isn't fair to accuse them without any proof," the other told
him.

"But the Paulding crowd---" stammered Bristles, evidently taken aback.

"Get closer home," warned Colon.  "What d'ye want to go climbing all over
the country for, when you've only got to use your nose to smell a rat
right in old Riverport!"

"Jupiter Pluvius! you must mean our old friend, Buck!" ejaculated
Bristles, his elevated eyebrows indicating his astonishment.  "Tell me
about that, will you?  Has he actually come to life again, and been up to
his old tricks?"

"We're dead sure of it," Colon told him, nodding his head at a lively
rate.

"Then chances are you recognized one of the bunch?" suggested Bristles.

"No," said Fred, "we couldn't do that very well, because they changed
their voices, and had their faces hidden by their hats, coat collars, and
even some sort of cloth that seemed to be tied about their jaws.  But
after the scrap was over, we picked up a clue that we think will give the
game away."

"What, Fred?"

"Take a look at this old hat, Bristles," continued the other, as he drew
the article in question from his pocket.

"Well, I'm looking at it," he was told.

"Ever see it before?" asked Colon, eagerly.

"Of course I wouldn't like to raise my hand, and swear to it," remarked
Bristles, slowly, "but I want to say this looks mighty like a
yellow-colored hat I've seen a certain fellow wear, time and again."

"Suppose you go a little further, then, and mention his name," proposed
Fred.

"Conrad Jimmerson!" promptly replied the other.

Colon laughed gleefully.

"Now turn the hat around, Bristles," he cried, "and look inside!"

Upon doing so the other uttered an exclamation.

"Here they are, two letters that give the thing away---C.J. as plain as
print could be!" was his cry.

"Glad that you think the same way we do," Colon told him.  "And now, I
reckon you wonder what Fred's going to do about it."

"If it were myself, I'd take this hat to Cooney, and ask him if it was
his," Bristles went on to say, in his fiery fashion.  "Course he'd have
to acknowledge the corn, and then I'd proceed to give him the licking he
deserves."

"We'd kind of expect that of you, Bristles," remarked Colon,
magnanimously, "but you see, Fred'n me, we made up our minds that we'd
given that bunch a pretty good layout as it was.  What they need is
something to show the people of this town what a tough lot that Buck
Lemington is dragging around with him."

"But how could you do that?" the other asked.

"Fred thought of taking the hat to school, and telling the story around,
to the teachers and the pupils," Colon explained, in his accommodating
way.  "When they learned how these toughs meant to injure Riverport's
chances of winning the great Marathon, just to gratify a little private
spite, the town would soon get too hot for Buck and his cronies.  They'd
have to emigrate for a little while, till the storm blew over."

"That sounds good to me!" declared Bristles, changing his way of
thinking, for while a very determined boy, he could always be reached by
argument, and was open to conviction,  "and I hope you carry the plan
out, Fred.  I'd just like to see those boys put under the ban for a
while.  Some of them by rights ought to be in the State Reformatory,
according to my notion.  They're getting too fresh with what they call
their pranks, and don't even stop at endangering human life."

"Well, of course we're glad that you haven't such a terrible cold,
Bristles," remarked Fred, "but all the same Colon here is sorry for one
thing."

"What might that be?" asked the said Colon.

"You see," continued Fred, "after I told him about how you called me up,
and wanted an interview right away, because you had something important
to tell, Colon here began to get terribly excited.  He kept wondering
what it was you meant to explain;  and I know that after we'd run that
mob off, nearly the first thing he said was that he felt cheated out of a
sensation, because you didn't want me so bad after all."

At that Bristles laughed loud and long, at the same time looking queerly
at his guests out of the tail of his eye.

"Too bad to disappoint you, isn't it, fellows?" he went on, in a tone of
mock sympathy, "but say, maybe I might scare up some little news after
all, that'd kind of take the place of the thrilling story they hatched up
for me."

"Let it be on the strict level then, Bristles," warned Colon, severely,
as he shook his forefinger at the other; "we don't want you to invent any
old yarn just to please us."

"What I'm going to tell you," began Bristles, very solemnly, "is straight
goods, believe me.  I don't know whether Fred here will think it of much
importance, but late this afternoon I chanced to run across an old
acquaintance.  Guess who it was, boys."

"Huh!  I bet you it was Corny Ludson!" exclaimed Colon, quick as a flash.

Bristles started, and looked keenly at the long-legged chum.

"Well, you hit mighty close to the bull's-eye, then, Colon," he remarked;
"but you forget I never saw that same Corny Ludson in my life that I know
of, and so how could he be an old acquaintance.  But he's got a little
girl named Sadie, a niece, or ward, or something like that, you may
remember."

"Then you saw her?" asked Fred, eagerly enough, for he had been wondering
lately what could have become of those two children.

"Not only saw her," continued the other, "but talked with her."

"Tell us about it, Bristles," urged Colon.

"Why, it was this way," began the other, complying briskly.  "She was
just coming out of the cheap grocery, and had several bundles in her
arms, as if she might have been buying bread, and some such things.  I
knew her just as soon as I set eyes on her, for she wore that same old
frowsy red dress, and had a little tad of a shawl pinned over her
shoulders.  The poor thing looked like a wind'd blow her away, with her
thin, pinched face, and big startled eyes."

"Oh! let all that drop, Bristles," expostulated Colon.  "What we want to
know is, how did you come to speak to her, and did she remember you?"

Bristles was bound to tell his story in his own way.  Without paying any
attention to this nagging on the part of the tall chum, he kept facing
Fred, and went on deliberately.

"There was a horse and buggy standing at the curb, and say, you never in
all your life saw such a dilapidated outfit.  Talk to me about the famous
'one hoss shay,' it couldn't have been a circumstance beside that rig.
Everywhere the shafts were tied up to hold, the harness patched till it
looked all strings, and the animal, well, he was a walking skeleton.  Any
other time I'd have laughed myself sick, but I couldn't do that then,
with that poor little thing being the one that drove such an outfit."

"What did you say to her?" asked Fred.

"Oh!  I said 'howdy-do, Sadie, don't you remember me?' and she looked
scared at first, and then she actually smiled.  She said she hadn't
forgotten the two boys on the river, who had been so kind to Sam and her.
I asked her where she'd been all this time, and she looked kind of
confused and said, 'Oh! around everywhere!'  as if they might be a pack
of regular Gypsies, and never knew what it was to have a home of their
own."

"But you say she had some sort of a rig with her," expostulated Colon at
this point of the narrative,  "and wouldn't that look as if they'd
squatted down somewhere or other, for a spell?"

"Maybe it would," replied Bristles, "but the chances are they only
borrowed the outfit for the occasion from some poor farmer, paying for
its use by fetching him home some supplies from town.  But just then I
remembered about that pin we found in the cave, and I took it out of my
pocket, unwrapping the paper, and all of a sudden holding it before her."

"Did she recognize the breast pin?"  Colon asked.

"You'd have thought so by the way her little face lighted up," said the
other, "and reaching out the hand that didn't carry a package, she took
bold of it.  Then I made a fool move, just like my silly ways.  I sprung
the trap too soon!"

"You told her where you'd found it, said you thought it might be hers,
just because you remembered her wearing something like that, didn't you?"
asked Fred.

"Sure I did, and you just ought to have seen the scared look that came
over her face," Bristles admitted.  "She looked all around as if she was
afraid that Corny'd be popping up, and then shook her head again and
again, saying the pin wasn't hers.  But, Fred, I know the poor little
girl was telling a fib, because she was afraid if she owned up to the old
piece of fake jewelry that she seemed to value so much, it might get
somebody in a peck of trouble;  and we know who that is, don't we?"

"We certainly do!" replied Fred; and he started to tell Bristles how
Colon learned Corny Ludson had also been in Riverport that afternoon,
acting in a suspicious manner.



CHAPTER XVII

LINING UP FOR THE TRIAL SPIN


The next morning opened cloudy, and rather warm for the season, much to
the regret of all those fellows who had planned to take a spin over the
twenty-five mile course laid out by the committee of arrangements.

So long as it did not rain, they were not to be kept from carrying out
their ambitious plans.  About eight o'clock Bristles and Colon, standing
in front of the picket fence that divided the Carpenter garden from the
road, saw Fred coming up the street.

"There's Fred," announced Colon, "and I hope Sid shows up soon, because
we'd better be making an early start."

The way in which he looked up at the sky when saying this caused Bristles
to instantly remark:

"Now, I reckon you're thinking it's going to rain on us before we get
back home again.  That left leg of yours that you got hurt once, is a
regular old barometer, it seems, Colon."

"I don't know just how it comes," admitted the other, "but nearly every
time it gets to itching and burning, we do have a spell of bad weather.
Over at my house when they see me rubbing that leg, they begin to hunt up
rubbers and raincoats to beat the band.  It's gotten to be next door to
infallible, dad says."

"All right, we'll forgive you if you do bring a dash of rain to-day,"
warned the other, "but be mighty careful how you let that leg get to
itching toward the end of next week.  Why, a rain'd play the dickens with
all our plans for that glorious long run."

"You don't smash a thermometer every time it tells you how hot or cold it
is, do you?" demanded Colon.  "Then why d'ye want to blame things on my
leg barometer?  Just as if it had anything to do with the weather, 'cept
to warn you ahead.  Seems to me I ought to have a gold medal, instead of
abuse.  But here's Fred, and looking as if he was in apple pie trim for
making the grand rounds to-day."

Of course all of them were in their running outfits, which consisted of
trunks, sleeveless jerseys, shoes with spikes in the soles, and an excuse
of a hat, though Bristles declined to wear anything on his mop of hair.

"All here but Sid, now, Fred," announced Colon, as the other joined them.

"We're a little ahead of the time that was set," remarked Fred, who
seemed to be unusually sober it appeared to the sharp-eyed Colon, "and
Sid will be along soon.  I saw him heading for town, and he called across
lots that he had a little errand, but would join us as soon as he could
get back home, and pile into his running togs.  Let's sit down somewhere,
and take it easy, boys."

"A good idea, too," commented Bristles, "because, with a twenty-five mile
run before us, we'll have all the standing on our feet we want.  Chances
are it'll be a pretty tired bunch of boys that'll turn up here some hours
from now."

They found a place to settle down, and after a little talk about the
weather, during which Colon was called upon to once more prophesy as to
the chances for rain, he suddenly turned to Fred, to say:

"What's bothering you this morning, Fred?"

"Why do you ask me that?" returned the other, with a little smile.

"Well," Colon continued, "I'm used to watching faces, and it struck me
when you came up, there was a worried look on your face.  Hope you're not
feeling anyway off?"

"Never felt in better condition in my life," Fred assured him.  "One or
two little bruises from that business of last night, but nothing to
mention, and I don't expect to even think of them again."

"What happened, then?" asked Bristles.

"Only that our house was entered last night!" Fred observed, calmly.

The other boys gave expression to their astonishment in various
exclamations.

"Burglarized, you mean, Fred?" cried Colon.

"Well, yes, I guess you might call it that, though it seems only one
particular thing was carried off," Fred replied.

"You've got us guessing good and hard," said Bristles.  "Was that your
dad's pocketbook, his watch, the piano, or what could it be?"

"A hat," explained Fred.

Bristles and Colon fairly gasped upon hearing this.

"D'ye mean to tell us, Fred, that a desperate burglar would take all the
chances of breaking into a house where he might get shot, just to steal a
hat!" Colon demanded, as though suspecting they were being made the
victims of a joke, although as a rule Fred seldom allowed himself to
attempt anything of the kind.

"Sometimes even a hat may be a mighty important thing, if you stop to
think of it, fellows," he informed them.

"Great smoke!  Fred, do you mean that hat?" exclaimed Bristles, suddenly
remembering something.

"The one we picked up on the battlefield!" added Colon, helplessly.

"That's the one I mean," they were told by the other, with a positive
tone that could not be mistaken.  "When I got home I tossed it onto the
hall table.  It wasn't there this morning, and I asked the girl, and
everyone about the house if they'd seen it, but nobody had.  And what was
plain evidence of a robbery was the fact that a window was found open in
the sitting-room, which my dad says he is sure he shut and locked before
he went to bed."

"It was Cooney Jimmerson, of course?" suggested Colon.

"He's always been too clever with his fingers," Bristles gave as his
opinion.  "Maybe you remember, Colon, because it was before Fred's time
here, how Cooney used to sneak into the coat-rooms at school, and go
through the pockets of our reefers looking for pennies or tops or any old
thing.  He got in a peck of trouble on account of his sly tricks.  If
anybody could turn the catch of a window, and crawl in, I'd put it up to
him."

"But Fred, how would he know you'd found his old hat?" asked Colon.

"We'll have to guess at that," he was told.  "Look back, Colon, and
you'll be likely to remember that several times we heard a rustling sound
in that clump of bushes, while we were standing there talking, after
finding the hat."

"Yes, and you thought it might be only a rabbit, or a chipmunk, or
something like that," assented Colon, promptly.

"Now that the hat we were keeping as evidence has been stolen from my
house," Fred continued, "I'm more than sure that must have been Cooney
himself.  He'd missed his hat, and afraid that we might find it, he came
creeping back to get into that bunch of brush, where he could hear every
word we spoke.  So he knew I was keeping his hat to prove who was in the
crowd that tackled us unawares."

"He just knew that if his hat were ever shown, he'd be in the soup,"
observed Colon, "so he thought it worth while to take all kinds of
chances in the hope of copping it again.  But let me tell you, the boy
who'd open a window, and creep into a neighbor's house night times, is
pretty close to the line.  He's on the road to being a regular
professional thief when he grows up, because it shows he likes that sort
of thing."

"You know they say, 'as the twig's inclined, the tree is bent,'" Bristles
told them, ponderously, "and we all can guess what'll become of Buck
Lemington some day.  He'll either make a striking figure in finance, or
else head some big swindle that'll send him up for twenty years."

"But with the evidence gone," Colon remarked, "of course that ends the
plan to show Cooney up at school?"

"Yes, and that was what he took such big chances for," Fred admitted.
"We might tell the whole story, but without any positive evidence there
would always seem to be a weak link in it.  Some folks might even say we
were prejudiced.  They'd rather believe the attack came from one of the
other towns.  People always like to believe bad things about rival places
rather than the home town.  So we'd better shut down on that hat part of
the story, and keep it quiet."

"Course it doesn't matter if we let it be known we were set upon, only we
mustn't say we suspect any particular boys," Colon went on to remark,
with a little confusion that told Fred he must have already been telling
something about the encounter, though not mentioning names.

"Call that settled, then," Bristles added, "but it's too bad, when you
had the case framed up against Cooney for fair and keeps.  He'd have
found himself the most unpopular fellow in Riverport, that's, right."

"The main thing with me," Fred explained, "was the hope that when
everybody got to pointing the finger of scorn at Cooney, he'd feel so
mean and small that, not wanting to stand for all the abuse alone, he'd
up and confess that it was Buck who had started the racket.  But as our
plans have missed fire, we'll have to forget all about it.  We've got our
hands full as it is with this race, and getting ready to do our level
best to win."

"I think I see Sid coming," Colon told them just then, and as he had an
advantage over the rest by reason of his long neck, nobody disputed his
word.

"We haven't forgotten anything, I hope?"  Bristles observed, as they
arose to their feet, and began to stretch themselves, boy fashion.

Fred carried a little pouch at his side that he did not believe would
interfere at all with his running, though of course even this would be
discarded when the great Marathon test was on.  In this he carried
matches, a small but reliable compass, and a few simple remedies that
might come in handy in case any of them happened to be seized with colic
or cramps from drinking water when overheated.

"Nothing that I know of, Bristles," Fred announced, as he touched this
small pouch which, in the woods among old hunters would probably be
called a "ditty-bag," and contain all manner of little odds and ends
likely to be needed from time to time.

Sid was now running.  The mere fact that he might be a little behind time
would hardly seem to be sufficient excuse for his starting off in this
way.  Fred eyed the newcomer as he approached them.  He fancied that Sid
was bringing news of some kind.

Sid was breathing a little fast.  That was to be expected in the start,
though when he got his "second wind" he would very likely be good for a
long, hard run.

"Give me five minutes, fellows, to rest up in, so we can all start even,"
Sid went on to say, "and besides, I've got something to tell you."

All of them dropped down again on the fresh green grass that the recent
warm weather had caused to sprout forth luxuriantly in places.

"We're listening," Bristles told him, placing the cup of a hand back of
his ear, as though he wanted to make sure of not losing a single word,
while Colon assumed an eager attitude, with his eyes glued on Sid's
flushed face.

"None of you happened to go down-town this morning, I reckon?" was the
first thing Sid said, and as three heads were vehemently shaken in the
negative, he continued, "Well, then it'll give you something of a
surprise to know that it's happened again."

"Not a fire in the high school?" exclaimed Colon, for a serious event of
this kind had taken place in the near past, that had created something of
a panic in Riverport.

Sid shook his head in the negative.

"This was a robbery," he went on to say, in a way that gave the other
three a severe shock; "just as when old Periwinkle was robbed.  This time
it was Mrs. Merriweather, the rich widow, who owns so many houses, and
gets her rents in on the first.  Somebody broke in there, and she never
knew till this morning that her desk had been pried open, and three
hundred dollars taken!"



CHAPTER XVIII

CAUGHT BY THE STORM


"That settles it, boys!" said Fred, compressing his lips.

"Some more of Corny's smart work, I guess you mean?" ventured Bristles.

"Well, we happen to know he was in town again yesterday afternoon, and
putting things together, it looks bad for Corny," Fred explained.

"And I take it you mean to do what you said," Colon remarked; "that is,
you promised us if there was another robbery, and that man was seen
around, you'd tell everything to Chief Sutton and let him start a hunt to
find Corny?  Have I got it straight, Fred?"

"You certainly have, Colon, and that ought to be attended to before we
start out on our run," Fred continued.

"Sure thing, because when a fellow has broken open a house and taken as
much as three hundred dollars in cash, he's likely to get busy right
away, and hide somewhere.  That other time it was in a cave, and now
Corny may have another secret den.  It'll be up to the Chief to locate
him."

"But I say, Fred, I hope now this won't interfere any with our plans
to-day?" expostulated Bristles, while both Sid and Colon immediately
looked anxious.

"Only to hold us back ten minutes or so," Fred told them.

"You won't bother going to town, and seeing the Chief personally, will
you, Fred, when we've got a 'phone handy right here?" demanded the
Carpenter boy, starting in the direction of the front gate close by.  The
others followed.

"I could answer all the questions he'll want to ask, over the wire just
as well as if I were down at headquarters," Fred announced, at which an
expression of relief was seen to sweep over three eager faces.

Fortunately the head of the local force was at his desk, engaged in his
customary morning duties.  Fred lost no time in getting down to facts,
and from what the other boys, listening close by, heard him say, his
astonishing communication must have created quite a lively panic at
headquarters.

For some time after telling what they had learned when passing through
that particular stretch of woods the week before, Fred was kept busy
answering questions.  He explained just why they had seen fit not to
mention the matter before, and the reason that ban of secrecy was now
removed.

When finally Fred hung up the receiver, and turned around with a smile on
his face, as though perfectly satisfied with what he had done, not more
than ten minutes had elapsed since their entering the house.

"Thank goodness that business is over with," he remarked, "and now it's
up to the police to find the thief,---if they can."

"Huh! my opinion is that this same Corny is a heap too smart to be nabbed
by a country cop," asserted Colon, and Chief Sutton, who was a very
consequential little officer, would have felt terribly hurt could he have
heard the disdainful laugh that went around at these scornful words.

"But let's be making a start!" begged Colon, anxious to be up and doing,
for he had told the others he felt like a wild colt that morning, being
fairly crazy to get to running.

In five minutes they were far beyond the town limits, running two and two
along the road, and taking things fairly easily in the start.

A wise athlete never pushes a willing horse to begin with.  After getting
well warmed up, it is safe to increase the pace, always holding in the
very best for the emergency that is apt to come in every race, some time
or other.

Several miles were soon put behind them.  Fred and Colon led, with the
other two at their heels, and all running easily.  Indeed, though it is
not considered the best thing to do when running, the two leaders
occasionally exchanged a few words, cutting their sentences down to as
brief a span as possible.  As a rule they maintained silence, each having
his teeth set, and breathing through his nose as much as he possibly
could.

These lads had learned all the known rules affecting long distance
running, and they had also found more or less benefit from practicing
them.  Time did not enter into their calculations on this occasion, to
any great extent at least.  Of course they sprinted occasionally, and the
minutes were noted at such times in an effort to learn a little about the
probable period between certain points, where they figured on making
their gains.

Possibly of the four Bristles showed more signs of being pressed than any
of them.  He had always been a short distance runner, like Felix Wagner
of Mechanicsburg, but this year both boys hoped to break into the long
distance class.  Neither Bristles nor Sid happened to be built just right
for such a task.  On the other hand, Colon was long and rangy, and
capable of tremendous speed, while Fred had the staying qualities so
necessary in Marathon runners.

As a rule it will be found that the best long distance runners are the
stocky, small men, like the wonderful Englishman, Shrubb, who astonished
everybody in our own country by his great record some years back.  While
hardly reckoned small, Fred Fenton was in just that same class, for his
muscles were as hard as they could possibly be, and he always kept
himself in prime condition for work.

When, after a certain length of time, the four boys arrived at the birch
trees by which Fred had marked the place where they could turn into the
woods in attempting that short-cut, they had seen no other competitor on
the road.  No doubt at some time during the day all of those who meant to
take part in the great run expected to cover the whole course, so as to
get familiar with its peculiarities, but Fred and his mates were just as
well pleased not to run across any of them thus early in the morning.

"Now, here's where we want to keep our eyes about us," remarked Fred, "so
as to know the trail by heart.  All of us but Sid have already been
across to the other road, but on that account don't think you know it
all.  Observe everything around, and make a mental map of the course.
It'll be a great help, I tell you."

"Point out the blazes you were speaking about, so I can watch for them,"
Sid asked them, as they stood there in a bunch, breathing hard, and
cooling off, for it had been a warm run, and the atmosphere felt
unusually heavy.

"There's one good thing," Fred went on to say, "we don't have to pay any
attention to the other side of the trail.  What I mean by that is this:
lots of fellows can take notice of how a trail looks, and think they've
got it down pat in their minds, but let them start back over it, and the
landmarks will never be the same, so it's the easiest thing going to get
lost on the return trip, where the blazes you made fail to show.  It
happens that we have to pass through here only one way."

"Great Caesar! wasn't that a growl of thunder?" cried Colon in dismay.

"Nothing more nor less than that," replied Fred, "and if thunder stands
for anything, we're going to get that rain after all."

"Shucks! why couldn't the measly old storm have held off till we reached
home?"  Bristles wanted to know.  "Here we are more'n ten miles away from
town, and dressed in the airiest duds going.  If we get soaked, we'll be
shivering like fun."

"What's the answer, Fred?  Tell us your opinion, and whether we'd better
turn back, or try to push on through this neck of woodland and marsh?"
When he put this question, Colon betrayed a trace of uneasiness, for the
prospect was not a very pleasant one, no matter how they looked at it.

"There's no use turning back," the leader explained, "because the nearest
house would be several miles away.  I don't know just how it might be if
we kept along the road here.  But there's that tollgate and shanty on the
other road; if we could only make that, we'd find shelter."

"Move we try," snapped Bristles, who was for action all the time, and
liked to settle questions as Alexander is said to have cut the Gordian
knot, decisive work, rather than sitting down to unravel problems.

There being not a single dissenting voice raised, the proposition was
declared carried, and with that the four runners plunged immediately into
the heavy undergrowth alongside the road.

Fred used his eyes and his memory to advantage.  He knew that it would
not do to make any mistake, and be lost in that jungle.  With a storm
coming on, the fierceness of which none of them could more than guess,
the one thing they must make sure of above all others was to stick to the
trail through thick and thin.

"Say, it's beginning to rain!" called out Bristles, from the far rear,
Sid being just in front of him, and Colon back of the leader's heels.

"What makes you say that?" asked Colon, who did not like to be told of so
disagreeable a fact.

"Felt a drop on my face," Bristles explained, "and you could too, if you
tried.  There! that was another!  It is starting in, boys, believe me!"

"He's right about that," Fred called back over his shoulder.

They could run only a small fraction of the time while threading the
winding trail through the woods, so that hurrying was utterly out of the
question.  Thunder had been heard several additional times, and it seemed
to be coming closer, if its increasing rumble counted for anything.

The drops began to fall faster and faster, and it became evident that in
a few minutes they could expect a downpour.

"One good thing," said the cheerful Sid, "we won't be apt to ruin our
best Sunday go-to-meeting glad rags by getting them soaked."

"Good for you, Sid!" called out Fred, "always seeing the silver lining of
the cloud, no matter how dark it grows.  Whew! that was close by," he
added, as a loud crash of thunder sounded.

The rain fell in sheets for a short time; then the thunder died away,
though there was no let-up to the fall of water.

"I think we're close to that poor farm," was the announcement Fred made,
as he noticed several landmarks that he remembered well.

"Bless you, Fred, for saying that!" cried Colon, "because I'm shivering
as if I'd drop to pieces.  What do I see over there on the left right
now?"

"It's the old rookery of a barn!" Fred told him.  "Come on, we'll crawl
in, for it's perfectly safe, now that the lightning has gone.  By
bunching together under the hay, we'll warm each other, more or less,
while we wait for the rain to stop."

They saw no sign of anyone around, and as their necessity was very great,
the four thinly clad and shivering runners crept under the hay, where
they huddled together as Fred had advised.



CHAPTER XIX

THE BOY IN THE HAYMOW


"This is a whole lot better than out there in the downpour," Colon was
heard to say, after they had been cowering in the hay for a short time,
keeping as close to one another as they could so as to gain additional
warmth.

"I should say it was," acknowledged Sid, "and Bristles here is a regular
toaster in the bargain.  He's as snug and warm as a stove.  I'd like to
come over and bunk with you, Bristles, some of the coldest winter
nights."

"Any boy ought to be warm that's got a decent amount of flesh on him!"
declared the one in question;  "now, here's Colon who's so thin he hardly
throws a shadow at noon; you couldn't expect him to do anything but
shake."

"I'd hate to try to sleep in this old place nights," observed Colon, who
had been thinking of other things, it seemed, than warmth.  "Chances are
she's plum full of rats and mice.  If you listen real hard, you'll hear
'em carrying on right now, squealin'  and squawkin' like."

Accordingly all of them now turned their attention to listening, this
avowal on the part of Colon having aroused their curiosity.

"There!" cried the tall boy triumphantly, "didn't you get it that time;
and wasn't that a plain rat gurgle, though?  They c'n make the queerest
noises, seems like, when they want to."

Fred started to move.

"That was no rat, boys," he remarked, in a tone of conviction.

"Wasn't, eh?" exclaimed Colon; "then what'd you call it, Fred?"

"A groan!" replied the other, immediately, at which the others began to
sit up, and in various ways denote newly aroused interest.

"A groan, Fred!" echoed Sid.

"Do you mean a human groan?" demanded Bristles.

"There it is again," Fred told them; "if you pay attention, you'll soon
say what I do---that it is a human groan."

"But whoever would be grunting like that in this old rookery, I'd like to
know?"  Bristles continued as though unable to fully grasp the idea.

"For my part," said Fred, bluntly, "I can't explain it.  How about you,
Colon?"

"Yes, how is that, Colon?"  Bristles hastened to add, as if to lend
weight to the sudden demand.

"Me?  What should I know about a groan, except that I happened to be the
first one to notice the same, and thought it was rats fighting?"  Colon
expostulated.

"Well, for one thing," Fred told him, "we happen to know that some time
ago you had a strong notion you could throw your voice, like the fellow
on the stage who makes the dummies in the trunk talk, and say funny
things.  And it struck me that perhaps you might be trying it out on the
dog, meaning your good and faithful chums."

That aroused Colon as few other things might have done.

"Give you my word of honor, Fred, I never thought of such a thing," he
said, in the most tragic of ways.  "You c'n put your ear close to my
mouth, and wait till it sounds again, when you'll find I haven't got any
hand in that grunting.  Maybe it's a poor pig that's half drowned by the
rain coming into its pen near by."

"I know how hogs grunt," Fred told him, "and it wasn't along that line at
all.  This must be a human being in pain!"

"Whew! if we don't just strike queer happenings wherever we go!" declared
Bristles, though from his wide-awake manner it was evident that he did
not feel at all averse to these lively episodes coming right along, but
rather enjoyed the excitement they brought in their train.

"We ought to do something, oughtn't we, Fred?" asked Sid.  "If it did
turn out there was a sick man in this old shook, and we learned later
that he'd died for want of a little attention, we'd feel mighty sorry."

"First of all, back out, everybody," said Fred.  "Then once clear of the
mow, we can talk it over, and lay some sort of plan.  Push along there,
Bristles, you're blocking the line of retreat."

Of course Bristles would not stand for this, and so he began to back out,
following the line of least resistance, which in this case was the tunnel
by means of which they had crept under the haymow.

Once free and clear, the four runners clustered together, and proceeded
to listen attentively again, almost holding their breath in the effort to
locate the sound that had startled them so.

"There it is, boys!" exclaimed Fred.

"And louder than before," added Colon, "though that may be caused by our
coming out from under the hay."

"No, we're certainly closer to it than before," Fred affirmed, "and that
proves it to be over this way."

He started slowly forward.  The others followed, it is true, but
strangely enough not one of them seemed overly anxious to outdistance
Fred, and occupy the position of leader.

It quickly became patent that Fred was right when he said the sound came
from that end of the old barn, because, as they continued to advance
slowly they could hear it louder and louder.  The rain had dropped to a
mere drizzle, showing that the storm was about to cease shortly, possibly
with the same speed that had marked its opening.  As the big drops ceased
pattering like hail on the roof, sending many a little rivulet through
the holes, they could hear much more easily.

"I see something, Fred!" whispered Colon, in a hoarse tone.

He pointed with a trembling finger as he spoke, and directed by this
sign-post all of the other boys were able to distinguish an object that
seemed to be extended on the hay.

"Looks like a man or a boy!" gasped Bristles.

"I think it is a well-grown boy!" Fred declared.  "And now let's find out
what ails him, that he keeps on groaning like that."

He held back no longer, but made straight for the object that had caught
their attention.  As they came up, all of them could see plainly enough
that it was a human being, a fairly well-grown boy, who was lying there
on his face.

With every breath he seemed to groan, more or less, and occasionally this
would rise to a louder key.  This latter was the sound that had reached
them while they were under the haymow.

Now Fred was bending over the recumbent figure.  Gently but firmly he
started to turn it over, when a yell broke out.

"My leg!  Oh! my leg's broke all to splinters!" they heard the unknown
shriek.  Then he seemed to shut his teeth hard together, as though
determined that not another cry should leave his lips if he died for it.

Fred had always taken more or less interest in matters pertaining to
surgery, at least as far as it is desirable that a boy should dabble in
such things.  He had borrowed many books from Dr. Temple, and on two
occasions had set a broken arm in a fashion that won him words of praise
from the physician.

"Let me take a look at your leg, please," he said, soothingly, as he bent
down over the half-grown boy, who might be the hand about the poor farm,
for he looked thin, and illy nourished, as far as Fred could see at a
glance.  "Perhaps I can be of some assistance to you, poor fellow.  I
know a little about setting bones, and such things.  And we promise to
stay with you, and do what we can to help."

He proceeded to make an examination without any delay or squeamishness.
The result was that he discovered a serious fracture of both bones of the
leg.  Fortunately the break was some inches above the ankle, and if
properly attended to, would not result in any permanent injury.

Fred did all that was possible under such conditions, while his three
chums hovered near, ready to lend a hand whenever he asked it.  The
injured boy cried out and moaned a number of times during the time Fred
was working, but after Fred had made the rudest kind of a splint, and
wrapped the leg with some rags torn from an old linen fly-net that was
hanging from a hook near by, the wounded lad admitted that he felt a
"heap better."

For the first time Fred began to take notice of him other than as a
patient.  He found that the boy kept his head lowered, as though
endeavoring to avoid curious eyes, and Fred wondered why this should be
so, when they had certainly proven themselves to be very good friends of
his.

The mystery was, however, soon explained, when Colon was heard to give
utterance to a sudden exclamation, and cry out:

"Why, what's this?  I've sure met this chap before, or my name isn't
Colon.  It's Tom Flanders, don't you see, Bristles?  He's been gone from
home a long while now, and his folks didn't know what'd come of him, and
to think that he's been working on this measly little old farm in the
bush here all the time."

Fred became intensely interested in his patient.  He had not happened to
know the Tom Flanders mentioned, but then he had heard more or less about
him.  It was easy enough now to know why the other was so embarrassed.
He had been hiding from everybody, no doubt working here under another
name, and hearing not a word as to how affairs in Riverport were
progressing.

"Are you Tom Flanders?" he asked the other, quickly.

The wounded boy had turned white and then red several times under the
flow of fear, distress and other emotions.  He now looked into Fred's
eyes boldly.

"I s'pose it ain't no use in denyin' that same, because Bristles
Carpenter and Colon here know me," he went on to say, doggedly, after
drawing a long breath.  "Might as well own up anyway, 'cause I reckon I'm
goin' to die.  They can't send a dying boy to the Reform School, can
they?"

"Have you been working here at this place ever since you disappeared from
Riverport?" asked Bristles.

"Jest about all the time, and gettin' nigh starved in the bargain, 'case
they ain't got enough here to feed us," the boy replied, dejectedly.

"First of all," said Fred, "get that idea out of your head that you're
going to die, just because of a plain fractured leg.  In a month from now
you'll be walking around again, and before three months are gone, you
wouldn't know anything had ever happened to you."

"That's right kind o' you to say such nice things, mister," Tom Flanders
muttered, "but a feller that's headed straight for the Reform School
ain't carin' much whether he lives or dies."

Fred looked around at his three chums.

"We'd better tell him, hadn't we?" he asked, in a whisper.

"Sure, the poor fellow's suffered enough as it is, I reckon," Bristles
replied.

"Just what I say too," added Colon.

"So go ahead, Fred, and open his eyes.  I only hope it'll be a lesson
he'll never forget, and start him along a different road after this," Sid
gave as his opinion.

"Look here, Tom," began Fred, "you've been hiding-out for weeks now, and
all the time believing that they'd send you to the electric chair or the
Reform School at any rate, just because you deliberately shoved that
little Willie Brandon into the river, and it looked as if he had been
drowned.  But Tom, they worked over him long enough to bring him back to
life again.  You ran away before anyone could tell you, and your folks
have been nearly crazy trying to find you.  Tom, you can come home again,
and nobody's going to punish you.  It's all right, Tom, and we'll see
that you get to where your folks can have you, before to-night!"

The wretched boy looked at Fred for a full minute as though he could
hardly believe the glad tidings;  then he began to cry like a baby.



CHAPTER XX

WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME TO RIVERPORT


"You'll go home if we can get you there, won't you, Tom?" asked Fred,
after a little time had clasped, and the poor fellow on the hay seemed
better able to reply, having mastered his emotions.

"I'd be a fool not to say yes!" he exclaimed, eagerly.  "'Specially when
you tell me my folks they want me home again.  I've lived a dog's life
ever since I run away.  Hain't never dared to ask about news from
Riverport, 'case I reckoned Chief Sutton he must be alookin' everywhere
for me.  I'll go home, and thank you, fellers; you jest better b'lieve I
will!"

That settled one thing; Fred knew he could not expect to finish that run.
Indeed, the roads were not in the best of condition after the storm for
anything like comfort, and perhaps it might be just as well for them all
to give up trying to foot it along the rest of the course.

Having hastily considered this matter, he broached the subject to the
others.

"Let's look at the thing, boys," he began, as they gathered around him,
knowing that a plan of campaign was being considered.  "What we wanted
most of all was to get familiar with this cut-off up here."

"No trouble about the rest of the route," ventured Colon, "because it's
going to be along the open roads, and every fellow can get it down pat
from studying the map they've posted.  But this cut-off is left blank."

"Meaning that you can go all the way around, making three miles, or else
take your chance in cutting across country," Bristles added.

"Well, my plan is something like this," continued Fred.  "Let's pick out
the first good afternoon next week, get a car from somewhere, if we can
borrow one, and run up here.  Then we can cross over to the toll-gate,
and back again.  That ought to fix things so we'll never miss the way
when the big date comes along."

"Hear! hear!" cried Bristles.

"We like your plan, Fred," replied Sid, "and for one I'm ready to call
this run off.  The weather is against us, and we'd have a high old time
splattering through the mud for about thirteen miles."

"Besides," added Colon, "we think we ought to be along when you take Tom
Flanders home to his folks.  I happen to know how bad they've felt about
his being gone!"

That seemed to settle the matter in so far as continuing the trial spin
went.  Fred was not sorry, because he felt that he would enjoy having his
cheery chums along with him.

"Then the next question is, how we're going to get home?" and he turned
to the injured boy, to say; "You haven't told us just how you came to
break your leg, Tom, and why you didn't manage to crawl to the house so
as to get help?"

"I knowed the old man an' his wife they was all away to-day, that's why,"
was the reply Tom made; "an'  as for my accident, it happened so quick I
couldn't hardly tell about it.  Reckon I ketched my foot in some loose
board up in that leetle loft, where I was adoin' somethin'.  Fust thing I
knowed I felt myself flyin'  every which way, over the edge, and kim down
on the ground, with my leg doubled under me.  Then I jest seen things
aswimmin' all around me.  Guess I fainted, for next thing was when I kim
to, an' found myself groanin'  bad.  When I moved ever so little it nigh
made me jest scream."

"How long do you suppose you've been lying here?" asked Bristles, softly,
for he had been much affected by what he saw and heard.

"Mebbe hours, for all I know, Bristles.  They went off jest after
daylight, meanin' to take the load to Peyton, where they deals in the
grocery line.  Wouldn't let me do it, 'case they meant to buy the old
woman a 'frock, you see.  Is it near night time, now, Bristles?"

"Oh! no, the morning isn't more than half over, Tom," replied Bristles.
"But how about some sort of rig we could borrow, to give you a lift to
Riverport?  Have the old couple taken the only outfit along.  Tom?"

"I hear a horse munching hay over there somewhere," announced Colon.

"Yes, there is a critter in here," Tom admitted, with the nearest
approach to a smile that had thus far come upon his wan and pain-racked
face; "and under the shed stands what you might call a wagon, if you shut
your eyes, an' didn't care much what you was asayin'.  If old Dominick
didn't keel over, and kick the bucket on the way, he might pull us ten
miles or so; always providin'  you give him some oats before you started
him, and then kept temptin'  him on the road with more of the same."

Bristles gave a shout.

"Oh! we'll fix old Dominick, never you fear, Tom.  I'll look up the oats
right away, and let him get busy, while the rest of you pull that wagon
out of the shed, and find something in the way of harness.  We don't care
a red cent for looks, as long as we get there.  The end justifies the
means.  You remember we learned that lots of times at school.  Get a move
on, boys; everyone to his duty!"

Thus inspired, and spurred on, the others hastened to do their part.  Two
of them hunted until they found the lean-to, under which a ramshackle
wagon stood that excited the laughter of Colon.

"If Bristles thought the vehicle that little girl had along with her in
Riverport was a terror, what'll he ever say to this?" he remarked, after
he had doubled up several times in explosive merriment.  "Now, if the
hoss is anything like what Tom says, I c'n see what a sensation we'll
kick up when we strike town.  Why, they'll ring the fire bells, and get
the chemical engine out to parade after us.  Guess they'll think the
circus has struck Riverport early this year."

Meanwhile Bristles had succeeded in discovering a small amount of oats in
a bin, and he emptied a generous lot of these in the trough of the
antiquated looking horse.  The animal had started whinnying the instant
he heard the boy moving over in that corner, where he must have known the
grain was kept, though he seldom had more than a handful at a time.

It was a whole hour before they managed to get the rig fixed up.  Indeed,
only by the united efforts of all the boys was the bony horse dragged
away from his feed trough, where he had kept munching the oats
delightedly.

Then they hunted up all the old horse blankets, and empty gunny-sacks
they could find about the place, and made a soft bed in the wagon.  A
stretcher was also improvised from some boards, and when four of them
took hold they managed to carry poor Tom to the nearby vehicle, and
deposit him on the sacks.

Being guided by directions which Tom gave them, they found how a road
wound through the woods to the road, striking the main thoroughfare just
above where they had come out on their previous trip, and with the
toll-gate in sight.

"Here's where we gain something, boys," Fred told them, "and this Good
Samaritan job may count in our favor next week when we make that run."

Fred had been thoughtful enough to write a little note, addressed to the
owner of the wretched outfit, whose name it seemed was Ezekial Parsons.
In it he explained just how they happened to find poor Tom, and that they
had borrowed the rig to get him to his home, where he could have proper
care.

He had also promised that the horse and wagon should be returned in due
time, and hinted that his father and mother might be expected to run up
and make the acquaintance of the old couple who had been so kind to Tom,
although not really able to keep a hand about the place.

The man at the toll-gate stared, as well he might, when that antiquated
rig came in sight, with the four boys partly bundled in faded horse
blankets and gunny-sacks.  The weather had not yet cleared, and the air
was chilly for fellows as devoid of clothing as runners always are.

When he heard about the accident that had happened to Tom, he was loud in
his praise of the action of the boys in giving up their trial spin just
to get the injured boy home.

"If I had a hoss myself, I'd gladly loan him to you, boys," he told them.

"Oh! never fear but we'll be able to get there before sun-down,"
laughingly declared Fred, while Bristles ran around in front, and held
the measure of oats close to the nose of the horse, starting him to
snorting wildly, and taking a step forward in the effort to obtain the
feed, kept so tantalizingly just beyond his reach.

Bristles continued backing away, and always keeping just so far in front,
so that the horse was impelled to move along quite briskly.  If he lagged
at any time the measure was moved closer, and once Bristles even let him
thrust his nose into it.

On the wagon the boys had a very merry time of it, singing, and laughing
at the actions of the poor old horse.

"Please don't excite him too much, Bristles," begged Sid, "for he's
likely to strain so he'll smash this beautiful harness all to flinders."

So they kept up the work, Bristles and Colon between them dancing on
ahead, and tempting the animal between the shafts to renewed exertions.
With that measure of oats held within smelling distance of his nose he
kept plodding steadily along, and mile after mile was placed in their
rear.

Once they halted, and watered old Dominick at a wayside spring, besides
letting him have a delightful five-minute communion with the oat crop.
Then the forward movement was begun, again, and the boy who held the
measure of oats continued to dance just ahead of the deluded Dominick.

It was about two o'clock on that Saturday afternoon when a great
commotion broke out in the outskirts of Riverport.  Boys and girls
flocked to the spot, and loud cheers rent the air.  Indeed, plenty of
people actually made sure that the circus must have arrived ahead of
time, and as this was an event in which every citizen was supposed to be
interested, since he would be compelled to take his youngsters to the
show, plenty of men were in the throng that gathered.

Dogs barked, chickens set up a cackling and crowing, and there was a
perfect Bedlam of sounds along the main street.  Down this came that
wonderful vehicle with sundry creaks and dismal groanings, as though
threatening to break down at any minute.  Ahead strode a boy in running
costume, tempting the tired old horse to walk along by holding a peck
measure under his nose, and occasionally just letting him snap up a few
of the oats.

Three other fellows sat in the wagon some of them trying to keep warm by
covering themselves with gunny-sacks, and all laughing, and joining in
the cheers of the crowd.

Of course everybody thought it was only a boyish prank, but when they saw
the old wagon draw up in front of the Flanders home, and then those four
boys start to gently lift a figure out from the bed of the vehicle, the
noise ceased as if by magic.

"Why, it's sure enough Tom Flanders come back home, after his folks had
given him up for lost!" one good woman told a new arrival.  "They do say
Fred and the running boys found him up-country, where he'd broke his leg.
Poor fellow, he looks that peaked and pale I reckon he's had a terrible
time.  And see how his maw hangs over him, like she was the happiest
woman in all Riverport this day.  And we all hope that Tom'll turn over a
new leaf after this, and make his folks proud of him.  But wasn't it fine
of Fred and his friends to bring him home that way?"

And certainly, when those four lads witnessed the wild delight of that
mother and father at having their only son restored to them again, as
well as noted how the erring boy cried when he allowed himself to be
carried into the house, none of them had the slightest reason to regret
that circumstances had caused them to take refuge from the storm in that
old barn standing near the trail through the woods.



CHAPTER XXI

THE GREATEST OF DAYS


When the day set for the great Marathon race came around, everybody in
Riverport agreed that the weather clerk had certainly outdone himself in
order to give the runners an ideal occasion.  There was not a cloud in
the sky.  Then, while the air was sparkling and inclined to be cool, the
breeze was not so strong that it would make running difficult.

Early in the day crowds began to arrive from the two neighboring towns.
They came in all manner of conveyances, from farm wagons to the finest of
automobiles.  Music could be heard in the air, for the Riverport Brass
Band had decided to honor the great occasion by playing at intervals all
day long.

Ample preparations had been made for seeing the grand finish, which, as
with the start, was to take place on the great level commons bordering
the town, and alongside of which the main road ran.

Here a grand stand had been erected for the use of the honored guests
from Mechanicsburg and Paulding, as well as several other smaller places,
each of which was also sending its quota of eager eyed strong-lunged boys
to root for their favorite team.

The race was scheduled to start at exactly one o'clock.  This had been
settled on as the best hour, since it would allow everybody who expected
to be present to reach town, and also give the runners plenty of time to
cover the course.

No doubt that morning dragged along worse than any boy in Riverport had
ever known time to drag before.  They wandered back and forth in droves,
all excited, and anxious to hear the latest reports concerning the
condition of those who were expected to compete.

Several startling rumors were circulated.  One was to the effect that
Colon had been taken with cholera morbus in the night, and was a complete
wreck that morning, which would eliminate him from the race.  Another
went on to tell how Fred Fenton had cut his foot, when chopping wood just
to keep himself in condition, and it would be utterly out of the question
for him to enter the competition.

These things gave the loyal rooters for Riverport a terrible shock, and
messengers were instantly dispatched to the homes of the two heroes to
ascertain whether there could be any truth in the wild rumors.  When they
came back and reported that both Fred and Colon were in the pink of
condition, and simply taking things easy so as not to tire themselves out
before the time, the shouts that arose caused people to rush to their
doors and windows, wondering if the race had been prematurely started.

Still the crowds kept pouring into Riverport, until the streets became
fairly congested with the throngs.  Business, except for feeding this
vast multitude, and selling them little flags and buttons, seemed to be
absolutely suspended, so that many stores were shut up at noon, not to be
opened again until the question of supremacy had been fully settled.

Fred had not forgotten to get that forlorn rig back to the owners, and in
so doing he had had occasion to make the acquaintance of the old couple.
His father and mother drove up that very Sunday afternoon, and from what
Fred heard them say after returning, he felt sure that things were going
to improve very much with the Parsons.  Mrs. Fenton expected to get a
number of her friends interested in some fancy work she had examined, and
there were numerous other ways by means of which the couple could be
assisted without allowing them to feel that they were objects of charity
to the community.

Of course the four boys had managed to secure a car, by means of which
they ran up on Wednesday afternoon after school hours.  There was time
enough before the shadows began to gather for them to go over the cut-off
several times.  They examined every foot of the way, and just as Fred had
said, it was found that by following the obscure road that led from the
Parsons farm to the main highway above the toll-gate, they could save at
least seven precious minutes.

This was bound to be of considerable importance to them, provided none of
their rivals from the other towns discovered the same thing, for of
course it was expected that nearly every contestant would take advantage
of the cut-off.  Indeed, very likely all of them had been prowling around
before now, the idea being to become familiar with the ground.

Fred had called the others up over the wire about the middle of the
morning, and what Colon called a  "grand powwow" was held at his house.
Sid, Bristles and Colon gathered there to talk matters over with Fred,
and learn if any new development had taken place which might prove
important in the result.

Of course, after the start it was supposed that every contestant would
run his own course, and hence Fred believed it to be good policy that the
Riverport contestants should be in full sympathy with the plan of
campaign.

Some of the other high school boys, particularly chums like Brad Morton,
who had expected to be in the race until he sprained his ankle and had to
give up all hope of competing, Dave Hanshaw, Semi-Colon, Corney Shays,
and Dick Hendricks, hung around the Fenton house, hoping to get an
occasional glimpse of their representatives, who, they knew, were in
consultation.

At half-past eleven Fred gave his three friends a little lunch, but he
had exercised great care with regard to the character of the food, which
his mother prepared with her own hands.  It was calculated to give them
endurance without any bad after effect.

"We're all invited over to Sid's house for dinner to-night, remember,"
Fred told them, as they sat around the table, with the rest of the family
waiting on them just as though they might already be looked upon in the
light of heroes, "and let's hope we'll have a jollification there, with
the prize for winning the Marathon in the safe keeping of good old
Riverport High for this year."

"So long as we win, and fairly at that," said Sid, "none of us cares very
much who crosses the line first, though of course everyone hopes to have
that great honor.  But from what I know of this bunch, there isn't a
single fellow present who would hesitate to eliminate himself, if by
doing so he could advance the interests of the school!"

"Hear! hear!" cried Colon, "that's our sentiment, every time, Sid.
Riverport High first, and self next in this sort of rivalry.  And believe
me, we're going to keep that Marathon prize right here in town this
year."



CHAPTER XXII

"THEY'RE OFF!"


"Somebody please give me the official list of entries; I'm not sure I
have it right," and as Cissie Anderson said this she looked around her at
the clump of enthusiastic school friends, both boys and girls,
surrounding her seat in the grandstand.

There were Flo Temple, Mame Wells, and several other girls, as well as
Semi-Colon, Cornelius Shays and a few other fellows who believed in being
comfortable during the long wait, while the contestants were absent.

"That's me, Cissie," Semi-Colon spoke up, flourishing a paper proudly.
"I've just come from the blackboard where they've posted the names of the
entries.  You know each school was to be limited to four contestants?"

"Yes, but please give me the list," said Cissie, impatiently.  "They're
beginning to gather around the starting line, and I want to be sure I've
got everything correct.  Just think how small I'd feel if I cheered the
wrong one."

"You can cheer everybody," Flo told her, "until the time comes to welcome
the first runner, and then Riverport hopes to do herself proud."

"Mechanicsburg has four entries," Semi-Colon announced, purposely raising
his rather puny voice so that every one within a radius of twenty feet
might profit by his knowledge,  "and they are Dolan, Wagner, Waterman,
and Ackers.  The last named is called the Mechanicsburg Wonder, and they
all say he's going to win this Marathon in a walk."

At that there were scornful exclamations from the faithful Riverport
rooters.

"We've seen Ackers run plenty and good, when he played left tackle on
their football eleven!" announced one boy, jeeringly.

"And if I remember rightly he didn't run fast enough to make many
touchdowns, eh, fellows?" exclaimed another Riverport student.

"You wait and see, that's all!" they were told by an indignant girl
nearby, who undoubtedly had her home in the up-river town.

"Yeth," added her companion, a boy who lisped terribly, but was not
prevented by this affliction from speaking his mind in behalf of his
native town, "they thay thosth that laugh lasth laugh loudetht.  Justh
wait, and thee which thide of your mouth you laugh from, fellowth."

"Well, I've got Mechanicsburg down all pat, Semi-Colon," observed Cissie,
who had smiled sweetly while this side talk was going on, "and now how
about Paulding?"

"Only three entries there," the answer came, "because Ogden was hurt on a
practice run yesterday afternoon, and it was too late to grind a
substitute into decent condition."

"Then they are Collins, Everett and Badger; is that right?" asked Cissie,
as she poised her lead pencil over her little pad.

"Correct," Semi-Colon announced.  "You all know who Riverport's boys are
going to be, but all the same I'll just mention them.  Their names seem
to roll off my tongue as easy as anything---Sid Wells, Colon, Bristles
Carpenter, and last hut far from least, our splendid all-around athlete,
Fred Fenton."

There was a generous clapping of hands around that section of the
grandstand; although the pair from Mechanicsburg looked scornful, and
shrugged their shoulders in truly loyal style, for they were faithful
rooters for their home town.

"There is no such thing as a handicap in this race, I understand?"
remarked a gentleman who apparently was a stranger in the vicinity, for
no one seemed to know him.

"Oh, no sir, such a thing isn't ever considered in a Marathon race,"
Semi-Colon immediately told him.  "Every tub has to rest on its own
bottom, and the fellow who can stand the gruelling run best is going to
come in ahead of the string."

"There are eleven entries, I believe you said?" continued the gentleman,
who was evidently looking for general information, not being much of a
sporting patron, "and if they all start out in a bunch, I should think
there might be some little confusion."

"Not at all, sir," the boy assured him.  "Each runner has a big number
fastened to his breast and back, so that he can be known at a distance.
In that way the judges can see any trickery that may be attempted.  And
besides, although they may start off in a clump, before three miles have
been run the chances are they'll be strung all along the road, and with
numerous little hot sprints to get the lead."

"And while waiting for them to come in sight, what is going to happen
here?" continued the gentleman, waving his hand toward the open space
before the grandstand where preparations had evidently been made for
other entertainments.

"Oh! amuse the crowd, and keep them from getting too anxious," Semi-Colon
told him, readily enough, for his greatest delight was to spread
information.  "The committee on sports has arranged several comical
entertainments.  There's going to be several sack races to begin with;
climbing the greased pole for another thing; catching a greased pig for
another; and a three-foot race to wind up with."

"A three-foot race!" repeated the gentleman:
"I don't know that I've ever heard of that; would you mind explaining a
little further, my lad?"

"Oh! the contestants are entered in pairs, you see," Semi-Colon told him.
"They are bound together that way, one fellow having his left leg
fastened to his partner's right.  It's a great sight to see how they
blunder along, and fall all over themselves.  I know some fellows who
have been practicing the stunt;  but even then, in the excitement they're
apt to get into a terrible muss."

"Well, all that ought to keep the people in good humor while the time is
passing, I should think," the stranger remarked, laughingly.  "And now,
would you mind telling me a little about the rules of the great race?  I
understand that the course covers twenty-five miles in all?"

"Yes, sir, if any contestant chooses to go over the entire distance," he
was informed by the willing Semi-Colon, who kept one anxious eye on the
spot where the various runners were now gathering, as though the time for
starting might be drawing very close now.

"What do you mean by saying that, please?  Is there any way by which they
may shorten the distance?" continued the gentleman.

"That's just it, sir; at the upper end they can cut off three miles by
taking a short-cut through the woods and along the border of a marsh,
coming out on the other road at the toll-gate, and then turning toward
home."

"I understand what you mean, and I suppose that every one will undertake
that shortening of the journey?"

"Well, I hear there's some talk of a Mechanicsburg fellow who means to
run it out on the road all the way," Semi-Colon told his persistent
questioner.

"What reason would he have for doing so, son?"

"The old one of the hare and the tortoise, sir," the Riverport student
remarked, with a shrewd look.  "You see, there's always some chance that
the fellows who try to make that cut-off may get confused, and lose their
way.  If they strike the other road below the toll-gate, why they're
compelled to go all the way back so as to register."

"Register!" exclaimed the other, in a puzzled tone.

"Why, it's this way," he was informed by the willing and talkative
Semi-Colon, "the committee has laid out registering stations at certain
places along the course, where every runner has to sign his name in his
own fist, also the exact time of his arrival; then he is at liberty to
shoot off again as he pleases.  One of these is just below where the
cutoff begins, and another at the toll-gate on the home road."

"Oh!  I begin to grasp what you mean now," the stranger in Riverport
remarked, as he nodded his head.  "All this is done so that there shall
not be the slightest taint of unfairness or cheating about the race?"

"You better believe there won't be, sir!" declared Cornelius Shays.
"Nobody will ever be able to say Riverport won on a foul, or by taking
any unfair advantage of her rivals.  It's going to be a clean game and a
great victory!"

"When they line up, please tell me the numbers of your friends, and also
those from the other schools.  I happen to have a pair of field-glasses
with me, and when the first runner comes in sight away up the road
yonder, I may be able to return your kindness by telling you positively
what his number is before you could distinguish it with the naked eye."

"There they are lining up now, Semi!" exclaimed Cissie, eagerly, and as
Sid Wells was a very particular friend of hers, it can be set down as
certain that her eyes picked him out of the eleven just as quickly as his
sister Mame could have done.

Accordingly, as the line swayed there, with the contestants listening to
the last plain instructions from the master of ceremonies, warning them
of what penalties would be sure to follow any fouling in the race,
Semi-Colon told the stranger in Riverport just which number represented
each entry.

"The first four numbers belong to Mechanicsburg, you see, Ackers leading
as One, Dolan Two, Waterman Three, and Wagner Four.  Then come our
fellows, with Sid Wells Five, Fred Fenton Six, Colon Seven, and Bristles
Carpenter Eight.  Number Nine is Collins of Paulding, with Everett Ten,
and Badger Eleven.  There is no Twelve, you see, sir, because Ogden is
knocked out."

"Hold up now, Semi-Colon, they're going to make the start, and we don't
want to keep hearing you talking forever," a boy in the second row behind
called out; at which the shortened edition of the Colon family cast an
aggrieved glance back that way, but nevertheless held his tongue.

"Now, watch, he's going to fire the pistol!" gasped Cissie Anderson, with
her eyes fairly glued upon the line of young athletes who expected to
compete for the honor of winning the great Marathon.

Then came a spiteful little crack of the pistol the starter had been
elevating.

"They're off!" shrieked hundreds of voices, and a tremendous billow of
cheers rang out, to send the eleven runners on their way with a firm
determination lodged in each and every breast to strain himself to the
utmost in order to be the fortunate winner.

Up the road they went at a furious speed, bunched together in the
beginning, yet with several already showing signs of breaking away, and
taking the lead.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE MARATHON RUNNERS


The same general principles that might apply in a mile run, or a two
hundred yard dash, would not be worth while attempting in this long race.
Those contestants who managed to cover the entire distance were bound to
be so exhausted when the last mile was reached that they could not be
expected to have much stamina left, so as to make a "Garrison finish."

On this account there would be little holding back on the part of the
runners.  Besides, they knew that it would be desirable if there was a
break in the bunch in the early stages of the game.  There would thus be
no crowding, the weaker falling back, though still keeping on in the hope
that something might happen to the leaders when their chances would still
be good.

Here and there along the first five miles little groups of schoolboys had
assembled in order to cheer their favorites along.  They did not string
out any further than this because everyone wished to hurry back to the
"Green" in order to see something of the humorous contests, as well as to
be in position there when the first tired runner turned the bend half a
mile up the road.

Some of these enthusiastic boys even ran alongside for a short time, as
though in this way they could put fresh heart in their chums.  To their
credit be it said that not in a single instance did they offer to detain
one of the rival runners, or interfere in the slightest degree with his
free passage; though of course in their partisan fashion they managed to
send out a few taunts after him, to the effect that he was only "wasting
his time."

During that five miles those who remained in the lead could be counted on
the fingers of one hand.  They were Ackers, Colon, Fred Fenton and
Badger; and this alignment at least gave promise of a keen competition
between the three rival schools, since each of them was represented
there.

About this time Fred picked up, and pressed Ackers hard.  He was
following out the plan that had been arranged between himself and his
chums, whereby the one who was reckoned the most dangerous of all
outsiders might be harried.  Fred had never really run in a race against
this so-called "Wonder," and he was anxious to discover just what he had
in the way of speed.

Of course he knew at the same time that it was endurance that would be
apt to win this race.  Speed is all very well, and in part quite
necessary, but with twenty-five miles to be covered the main thing is
always staying qualities.

So he and Ackers had a merry little sprint, in which Fred gained until he
passed the other.  Upon that, Ackers, realizing that this sort of thing
if persisted in would utterly ruin his chances, even though Fred dropped
out also, fell back to his old style of plodding steadily along in a
regular grid, just content to keep ahead of the other two.

Fred kept on increasing his lead until he had some little ground between
himself and the Wonder.  One of his reasons for doing this was to be able
to register at the road station just short of where the cut-off came in.
He hoped to be able to vanish under the marked birch trees before Ackers
could sight him, and in this way make the other choose his own place for
leaving the road.

If Ackers went in below, he would strike the marsh, and in this way block
his own progress but no doubt Ackers knew this, since he and his friends
had been down to examine the course, and must have done considerable
prowling around here.

Upon arriving at the station, Fred lost not a second in seizing the
pencil offered to him by the waiting keeper, and jotting down his name,
as well as the time indicated upon the face of the little clock that was
placed in plain view.

He did not say half a dozen words to the other, because he felt that he
needed every bit of his breath.  There was a runner just turning the bend
below, and from his number being One he knew that it was the "terrible"
Ackers.

So off Fred bounded, and the keeper, looking after him smiled with
satisfaction, he being a Riverport gentleman, and reckoned very fair and
square.

"In splendid shape after running more than ten miles, I should say," he
told himself, "and this other fellow coming on like a whirlwind seems to
be just as well off.  There's a third close behind him, too.  That makes
it an interesting and exciting race.  I'm only sorry I have to be up
here, and wait for the last to come past before I can jump in my car and
speed back to town to be in at the finish."

Fred had figured closely, for when he reached the birch trees Ackers had
not as yet appeared around the bend above the station.  In this way he
was able to plunge in among the bushes without giving the other runner an
opportunity to follow him, something Fred did not wish to have happen.

Once in the woods, Fred pushed on steadily.

He knew that speed was not of so much value to him now as accuracy.  If
he became confused in his bearings, and lost the trail, it would ruin his
chances for coming in ahead of his competitors.

Accordingly Fred bent every energy to observing where he was going.
Colon would be sure to follow in his track, regardless of what Ackers had
done.  By taking that road leading from the old farm of Ezekial Parsons,
where they had found Tom Flanders lying in the haymow with a broken leg,
they believed they could gain from five to eight minutes on anyone who
pushed through the thickets and trailed around the tongue of the marsh.

One thing Fred was glad of,---the favorable condition of the weather.  He
could not help remembering how that early Spring thunderstorm had burst
upon them at the time he and his chums were investigating this region for
the first time.  What a lucky thing it was the weather clerk had ordered
up such a grand day for the long race, with the sun not too hot, and
never a cloud in the blue sky overhead.

Fred, though keeping all his senses on the alert, so that he might see
the "blazes" made on their former trip, and not lose his way, was
nevertheless not blind or deaf to other things around him.

He loved the wide open woods, and was never so happy as when surrounded
by their solitude.  The cawing of the crows, the tapping of the
sapsucker, the rat-tat-tat of the bold red-headed woodpecker inviting
insects in the rotten limb to look out, and he gobbled up, the frisking
of the red squirrel as he darted like a flash around to the other side of
a tree trunk---all these and more he noted as he pushed sturdily forward.

Once arrived in the vicinity of the old, ramshackle barn where he and his
comrades had sought shelter from the rain, Fred planned to leave the
zigzag trail and take to the farmer's road.  This would bring him to a
point just above the toll-gate where the next registering booth was
located.

As the old couple had been made aware of the stirring event of that
particular day, Fred would not be surprised to see them on the lookout,
ready to give him a cheery wave of the hand as he passed by.

He counted himself as lucky to get along over that rough section of his
journey without any accident.  There was always a possibility of catching
his foot in some unseen vine, and finding himself thrown violently to the
ground.  Even a slight injury to his knee might work to his disadvantage,
since it was bound to cripple him at some time during the remaining
thirteen or more miles that must be passed over before the goal was
reached.

Now he discovered a stump of a tree that had been cut down recently, and
which he remembered lay close to where they were standing at the time
they headed for the shelter of the old barn.  This assured him that he
must have covered the worst of the trail, and was about to strike easier
going.  Fred thought he would not be averse to this, since it had been
hard pushing through the scrub, where lowhanging branches of trees
continually threatened to strike him in the eyes, and all manner of
hidden traps awaited the feet of the unwary.

He did not doubt in the least but that by taking the road he would so
increase his speed over one who stuck to the crooked trails, that he must
arrive at the toll-gate station quite a little time ahead of Ackers.

Well, every minute would be apt to count, for like each one of the other
Riverport contestants Fred had been told all sorts of amazing stories
about the ability of the Mechanicsburg "Wonder" to recuperate, and come
in at the end of a long race apparently fresh.  That had been one of the
reasons for his brush with Ackers;  he had tried to run him off his feet,
and test this feature of his make-up.

There was the old barn at last.  Fred saw its familiar outlines with the
greatest satisfaction.  So far as he could tell he had carried out every
part of his work with clock-like fidelity, for he had counted on reaching
this point at a given time, and expected to be registering again far in
advance of all others.

Bursting from the shelter of the woods Fred gave a single glance back of
him.  He saw no sign of Colon, and yet felt positive that the other must
even then be threading his tortuous way through the undergrowth, and
would arrive within a few minutes at most.

Of course it was far from Fred's policy to wait for his chum.  If Colon's
wind and endurance stood the severe test, he would have the chance of
overtaking any who might be ahead of him, during that run home.
Otherwise he must "take his medicine;" but it would be the utmost folly
for the leader to waste even five seconds for the privilege of exchanging
a few sentences with his chum.

They had arranged all this in advance, and meant to keep strictly to the
line of action laid out.  Should Fred falter in the last mile, and the
wonderful Ackers begin to overhaul him, Colon hoped to be within striking
distance.  If he were in fit trim, he could then outstrip the
Mechanicsburg contestant by a display of some of that queer jumping style
of running that had been likened to the progress of a kangaroo.

A shout told Fred that the old farmer and his wife were on the watch, and
had recognized him.  They were standing in the doorway of their humble
cottage, and waved to him as he flitted past.

He only turned to answer their greeting, and having by then reached the
private road which connected the farm with the main thoroughfare, started
along it.  Now it was possible for Fred to increase his pace to a regular
run, though there was still a necessity for keeping his eyes about him,
since the way was far from being smooth.

As he reached a point where a turn would shut out a view of what lay
behind, Fred glanced back over his shoulder, wondering if Colon might be
in sight.  There was no sign of the long-legged runner, however.  Fred
whipped around the curve.

He was wondering how Ackers was running, and he really hoped that the
Mechanicsburg runner might not lose himself, in his eagerness to shorten
the distance across lots.  That would take all the snap out of the race,
making it a dead sure thing for Riverport, with two of their entries
leading on the home stretch.  Fred thought of those thousands of eager
spectators, and how bitterly many of them were sure to be disappointed if
there was no hot finish to the grand Marathon, with the winner just
nosing in as it were, amidst the most intense suspense.

All at once Fred became conscious of a new sound nearby.  This time it
did not have any connection with the voices of the woods.  On the
contrary he believed it to be the agonized cry of a child.

It grew louder as he ran along, proving that he must be rapidly
approaching the spot where something was going on.  Fred remembered that
stirring event on the frozen river, when he and Bristles had been able to
rescue the boy who had fallen in through the air-hole.  Somehow it struck
him that he was listening once more to the plaintive voice of little
Sadie Ludson as she cried so pitifully for help.

Increasing his speed, Fred presently burst into full view of what was
going on there under the trees, and his whole soul filled with
indignation as well as anger as he comprehended the reason for those
pleading cries.



CHAPTER XXIV

WHEN DUTY CALLED


"Oh! please don't strike him any more!"

That was what Fred heard in the shrill voice of Sadie Ludson, and every
word seemed to be filled with frantic fear.  One look had told the
Marathon runner why the girl betrayed such terror.  She was clinging
desperately to the uplifted arm of a hulking man, who clutched a stick in
his hand.  This he had undoubtedly been bringing down with more or less
force upon the writhing figure he held with his other hand, and which
Fred immediately recognized as the unfortunate boy Sam Ludson.

Of course he did not need to be told that the man must be Corny Ludson,
the uncle and self-styled guardian of the two wretched children.  From
his appearance it looked as though Corny might have been indulging a
little too freely in strong drink.  This probably had the effect of
dulling his wits, and making him more of a brute than he might be when in
his proper senses.

At any rate he was engaged in whipping poor Sam to his heart's content,
possibly for some slight infraction of the law he chose to lay down for
the guidance of the pair over whom he had control.

The girl tried her best to keep the angry man from continuing his rain of
blows.  He growled at her and shook her hand off, after which he
proceeded to use the rod of correction again.

Fred could hear the writhing boy groan, and cry out, in spite of all his
efforts to keep from giving tongue.  The girl continued sobbing, and
vainly trying to prevent further punishment.  Even as Fred came in sight
of the scene the infuriated man, as if bothered by the way she interfered
with his wretched work, gave her a fling that sent the girl headlong to
the ground.

When she struggled to her knees, she was holding a hand to her head, as
though she had hurt it by rough contact with the stones.

Fred Fenton's blood fairly boiled.  He forgot all about the fact that he
was engaged in a great Marathon race, and that his school looked to him
to do everything that was honorable in order to win the victory.

The sight of that great brute abusing these two children whom a
misfortune had placed in his power was too much for him to stand.  No
matter if a dozen races had to be forfeited, Fred could never run past,
and feel that he had done right.

None of the actors in the thrilling little drama had so far discovered
him, for he had come pattering softly along the road.  He immediately
turned aside, and leaped straight for the spot, meaning to hurl himself
on the man, and endeavor to overcome him.  The fact that Corny had been
drinking, and seemed a bit unsteady on his feet, was likely to aid Fred,
he believed.  It would have been all the same had other conditions
prevailed, for the boy was fully aroused.

Although the girl had been crying so frantically, it had not been in
hopes of anyone hearing and coming to the rescue.  She was simply trying
to influence the man to forego his use of that stick, with which he had
amused himself, making cruel welts upon the tender flesh of the
struggling and helpless boy.

Fred rushed upon Corny like a young whirlwind.  The girl was the first to
notice his coming, and she could not help giving a cry of delight.  This
it turned out was the worst thing that could have happened, for it must
have reached the ear of the man, warning him in time to turn and see
Fred.

The runner had gone too far now to hesitate, and so he continued his
forward progress.  He sprang straight at Corny, and received a
half-hearted blow from the other, who was really too much surprised at
sight of the boy to get himself in full readiness.

They clinched, and struggled desperately.  The man was of course much the
stronger of the two, but his condition took away considerable of this
advantage, so that after all the match was not so unequal.

Fred knew that his best chance was simply to push the other back by the
sheer weight of his attack, in the hope that Corny might catch his heel
in some upturned root, and measure his length on the ground.

The boy had been released, of course, for Corny needed both hands with
which to defend himself.  Immediately the girl threw a protecting arm
around her gasping brother, and the pair crouched close by, watching with
startled eyes as the terrible struggle went on.

As it began to look as though their young champion might fail in his
attempt to subdue the ogre, the girl, who apparently had more spirit than
her brother, crept out and tried the best she could to offer Fred a stout
stick which she had picked up from the ground.

Desperately as he fought, Fred was himself beginning to believe that he
might not be able alone and unaided to subdue the other, who was really
next door to a giant in size.  In his proper senses Corny Ludson would
undoubtedly have been equal to several boys like Fred, but he had put
himself in the power of a master inclined to weaken his resources.

Failing to run across a friendly projecting root that would do the
business for the clumsy feet of the struggling man, Fred began to believe
he would be compelled to accept the stick which Sadie was holding out,
and use it on the other's head.

As he fought, Corny was wild with rage, and uttering all sorts of ugly
threats as to what he would visit upon the head of this rash boy who had
attacked him.  It was plainly evident that the man was in a dangerous
mood.  This told Fred he would be justified in doing almost anything, in
order to save those children, not to speak of himself.

In the struggle he had not come off without several knocks himself, and
there was always a chance that the man might succeed in clutching him by
the throat.  The consequences of such a happening appalled Fred, and,
resolved to end the battle once and for all, he watched his opportunity,
and the next time they whirled close to the crouching figure of little
Sadie, he snatched the stick out of her hand.

It took all of his nerve to be able to actually strike the man on the
head.  Indeed, the act sent a cold chill all through him, for never
before in all his life could Fred remember of having struck anyone with a
club.

Though the blow was hardly more than a severe tap, it crumpled Corny up,
all the same.  Fred felt him become immediately limp in his grasp, and as
he drew back the man fell to the ground in a dazed condition.

"Good shot!" exclaimed a well-known voice close by, and Colon came
limping up.

At sight of his chum Fred uttered an exclamation of dismay.

"Oh!  I'm sorry I did it;" he declared; "if I'd only known you were so
near by, I'd have held out a little longer, and that's right, Colon."

"Well, that would only have made me do the little act then," said the
other with a grin, "and p'raps I'd have tapped him harder than you did.
I guess his head's all fuddled anyway, and that just finished the
mix-up."

He turned to look at the boy and girl, who were again clasped in each
other's arms.

"I reckon now these must be Sam and Sadie, aren't they, Fred?"  Colon
went on to say, though besides being lame he was also rather short of
wind, truth to tell.  "I know the man all right, to be that ugly Corny.
And what was he doing to make you jump him, Fred?"

"Beating the boy while the girl tried to hold his hand," the other
replied as he frowned down upon the prostrate bully.  "When he flung her
to the ground, it was the last straw for me, and---well, you saw what
happened."

"He'd been drinking pretty heavily, hadn't he?"  Colon continued, "but
able to put up a stiff fight for all that.  Well, you got the better of
him, Fred, and this ought to wind up his treating these children as he
does.  You know the police are looking out for him right now.  I wouldn't
be a bit surprised if they could tell us all about the doings of Corny,
and whether he did those jobs of robbery."

He limped toward the boy and girl, and as before it was little Sadie who
spoke up without hesitation, to say:

"He is our uncle, and he treats us very bad.  Yes, and he takes things
that belong to other people.  We know because we've watched him counting
the money, and he always gets mad when he sees us looking on.  He had
some papers in a tin box too; they are in his pocket right now.  Oh! we
hope you can take us away from him, for he beats us cruelly."

"There, didn't I tell you so, Fred?" exclaimed Colon, triumphantly, "and
between us now, we've got to fix it so this old scoundrel doesn't get a
chance to beat Sam again, or rob another farmhouse.  I'll manage to fix
him up, somehow or other, and stay here to watch him.  You go on and win
this race for Riverport, Fred."

"But how about you, Colon?"  Fred hastened to say, between his set teeth;
"I'm sure you've set your heart on coming in ahead of the string, just as
much as anyone."

Colon shook his head sadly.

"The game's all up with me, Fred!" he exclaimed, hurriedly; "I must have
run a measly thorn in my foot just about the time I heard you scrapping
with that man.  Didn't you notice how I had to limp?  Why, I couldn't
keep up the pace for three miles more.  No, you've just got to leave me
to take care of this scamp.  I saw some wood choppers coming through the
Woods back there, and can call them up after you go."

"But I hate to do it, Colon; it's a terrible disappointment to you," Fred
told him, knowing the other as he did.

"Forget all about me, and think only of winning that prize for Riverport
High!" the tall chum exclaimed, and then actually pushing Fred away from
him, he continued, "Now be off with you, Fred, and please, oh! please
beat that Mechanicsburg Wonder over the line!"

Fred saw that there was nothing else he could do.  The boy and girl were
safe, and Colon had commenced making ready to tie the man's hands behind
his back with a stout red bandanna handkerchief he carried.  Then, too,
Colon had seen several husky wood-choppers nearby, who could be depended
upon to lend a helping hand.

Just as Colon had said, there was indeed need of haste.  All these
happenings had consumed more or less time, and possibly Ackers would have
registered at the toll-gate station before Fred, reached there.  So
waving his hand to his chum in farewell, Fred shot away down the road,
running with the speed of the wind.

Colon looked after him with a smile on his face.  If he felt a keen
regret that misfortune had tossed him out of the great race, he certainly
failed to show it.

"I surely believe Fred will come in first, if anybody can beat that
Wonder they boast so much about," he was telling himself, as he worked
with the make-shift bonds.

Then as he caught sight of moving figures back among the trees, Colon
shouted until the three woodchoppers came hurrying up.  It did not take
him long to let them know that if they helped get the man, now coming
back to his senses, to Riverport, it would be the best day's work they
had done that year.

And on seeing how happy Sam and his sister looked at the prospect of
being forever relieved from the brutal guardian who had made life so
terrible for them, Colon must have realized that there may be
compensations, even for a fellow who has been cheated out of his chance
to win a Marathon race.



CHAPTER XXV

THE VICTORY---CONCLUSION


"Oh! there's the cannon!  A runner must be in sight!"

When that great assemblage heard the deep boom of the big gun belonging
to the local artillery company, every eye was instantly focussed on the
bend of the road half a mile away.  Yes, a runner had suddenly turned the
corner, and was heading in a direct line for the finish!

He ran in a wobbly fashion, as though utterly fatigued, a fact that was
apparent to everyone.  They could hear the far-off howls of those who had
waited up the track to welcome the runners.  A crowd followed his
progress, but was wisely prevented from breaking in upon the roadway, so
that those in the grandstand were enabled to see all that went on.

"Oh! who is it?" cried Cissie Anderson shrilly, as she stood up, everyone
being on tiptoe with excitement.

"Fred Fenton!" shouted Cornelius Shays, apparently taking it for granted
that their favorite athlete would be the first to come in.

"No! no, it can't be Fred, because he was Number Six, and that seems more
like a Seven!" another boy shouted; at which Flo Temple turned really
pale with bitter disappointment, for she had hoped it would be Fred.

"Colon!  Hurrah for Colon!" whooped several enthusiastic Riverport
rooters.

"Look again, and perhaps you won't crow so loud!" the saucy girl from
Mechanicsburg exclaimed, her eyes dancing with eagerness.  "I've got
pretty good sight, and that looks like a Figure One to me.  Besides, I
ought to know how Billie Ackers runs, for he happens to be my own
brother!"

The stranger in town had raised his field-glasses meanwhile, and he
hastened to remark, turning sideways toward Flo Temple and Cissie:

"Yes, that is a Figure One, most assuredly!"

As though the adherents of the up-river school had discovered this
gratifying truth for themselves, wild cheers now began to be heard,
coupled with the Mechanicsburg favorite school song, sung by a glee club
that suddenly sprang into view, waving flags, and throwing up their hats
in enthusiasm.

"It's the Mechanicsburg Wonder!"

"We told you he had their measure taken, didn't we?" shouted Sherley, the
football quarterback.

Boom!

"Another runner has just turned the bend, and see him gaining on Ackers,
would you?  Why, what's this I see---that number looks like Eleven, and
didn't Badger of the Pauldings carry that?  Will you see him tearing off
the space on your tired-out Wonder?  It's good-night to Ackers,
Mechanicsburg!"

"That may be, but where do you fellows here in Riverport come in?"
shrilled the girl from up river whose brother was plainly being beaten.

Boom!

"Oh! there's a third runner in sight, and just see how he is tearing
along like a scared wolf.  We ought to know that style, Riverport, and
nobody but Fred Fenton could show such terrific speed at the close of a
twenty-five mile race.  That's because he pays more attention to
condition than speed!"

"Will he overtake the other runners before they get to the goal?"
shrieked an almost crazy rooter, as he stood on his seat, and waved both
arms wildly again and again.

Thousands of anxious eyes watched the approaching figures of the three
contestants.  It was still an open question who would come in ahead.  The
Wonder was evidently at almost his last gasp, while Badger, the Paulding
runner, could hardly be said to show much better form, for he too wobbled
constantly from side to side, as though kept going only by sheer grit.

Fred, coming strong from the rear, was speedily overtaking them both.
When Badger, looking over his shoulder, saw this, he started a feeble
little spurt, but it excited only derisive whoops from the frenzied
crowd.

"No use, Badger, you've shot your bolt!  Give way to a better man!"
shouted the captain of the Riverport cheer squad through his megaphone.

"And look at the poor old riddled Wonder wobble, would you?  There, if he
hasn't taken a header in the bargain!  It's all up, boys, all over but
the shouting!"

"Oh! the poor fellow has gone down in a heap!" gasped Flo Temple, as
Ackers after stumbling fell to his knees in his weakness.

"Look at him trying to get up, but he can't do it!" cried Cornelius
Shays.  "The tape is only thirty feet away, and Ackers is trying to crawl
there on his hands and knees.  Now Fred is on him, and has passed to the
front, with poor Ackers rolling over like a log in a dead faint!"

Such a tumult of wild shouting as broke out when Fred Fenton, pale of
face, and bearing the marks of his hard run in the agonized expression of
his face, staggered past the judges, and fell into the arms of several
friends who were anticipating some such collapse at the end of the
fiercely contested Marathon.

Nor were the plucky Ackers and Badger forgotten by either friends or
rivals in the many wild cheers that followed.

"Where's Colon?" a dozen people were asking anxiously, for a strange
rumor had flashed around through the great crowd, to the effect that
because the second favorite had not shown up at all, he had fallen and
broken his ankle.

Fred quickly set these stories at rest by telling just what did detain
Colon, and how having been injured by running a thorn in his foot, he had
decided to stay there by the two children to watch the man who had been
caught beating the boy.

Later on, of course, all of those who had been left up in the woods
arrived in town, having been met on the way by Chief Sutton in a car, and
given a lift.  Colon saw to it that the three woodchoppers were well paid
for their part in the affair.

Fred walked home with Flo Temple that evening, not a particle spoiled,
she really believed, on account of all the praise showered upon him by
the pleased partisans of Riverport High.

Other rivalries would likely have to be settled between these neighboring
towns, with their lively high schools, but it would be a long time before
the assembled crowds could ever experience such tremendous excitement as
came about when Fred Fenton caught up with Badger and the Mechanicsburg
Wonder on the home-stretch of the twenty-five mile Marathon, and managed
to win by a scant fifteen feet.

Corny Ludson being taken in charge by the police was in due time placed
on trial charged with serious offenses.  There was no difficulty in
proving him guilty of both robberies, and of course he received a long
sentence, which would keep him from preying on the public, or annoying
the children left in his charge by an unsuspicious brother.

Upon investigation by Judge Wallace it was found that while he had really
been the legally appointed guardian of his nephew and niece, and had
squandered all the spare money he could get his hands on, there was quite
a snug amount in securities that he could not touch.

This would be ample to provide Sam and Sadie with all necessary comforts
while they went to school, and grew up.  They were speedily placed in a
comfortable home with an old couple who would take the part of parents to
them, and it may be easily understood how from that time on both of them
rested in the belief that there was no fellow in all Riverport quite the
equal of Fred Fenton, because he had had so much to do with bringing them
their present happiness.

They do say that Flo Temple inclines the same way, for she and Fred
continue to be good friends, and are seen together at all the dances, and
other entertainments.

The End





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