The Mark of the Knife by Ernst, Clayton H. (Clayton Holt)
THE MARK OF THE KNIFE
BY CLAYTON H. ERNST
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHASE EMERSON
BOSTON LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY 1920
_Copyright, 1920_, By LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
_All rights reserved_
Published October, 1920
Norwood Press Set up and electrotyped by J. S. Cushing Co. Norwood, Mass., U. S. A.
[Illustration: IN THEIR EYES, FOR THE TIME BEING AT LEAST, IT SURPASSED THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE.]
I THE NEWCOMER
II A BLEMISH
III A PLAN AND A GAME
IV TWO VISITS AND A THEFT
V TEENY-BITS' CHANCE
VII ON THE EVE OF THE STRUGGLE
VIII STRANGE CAPTORS
IX THE GREAT GAME
X AT LINCOLN HALL
XI MYSTERIES IN PART EXPLAINED
XII A VISIT TO CHUAN KAI'S
XIII DAYS OF PLEASURE
XIV A TALE OF THE FAR EAST
In their eyes, for the time being at least, it surpassed the battle of the Marne
At the beginning of the final quarter Coach Murray sent in Teeny-bits to take the place of White
Only three of them had a chance to reach the Ridgley player
From the foot of the slide they mounted slowly, tracing backward the five double tracks
THE MARK OF THE KNIFE
Ridgley School, with its white buildings set comfortably among the maples and the oaks that crown the flat top of the hill a mile to the west of the village of Hamilton, attracts and holds the attention of all eyes that fall upon it. Partly perhaps because the dormitories and the recreation halls fit into the landscape and do not jut boldly and crudely above the trees--as so many buildings on hilltops do--there is an air of hominess and informality about the place which new visitors generally notice and mention to Doctor Wells, its head.
But it is one thing to ride up to Ridgley School in an automobile from the Hamilton Station with half a dozen other new Ridgleyites, some of whom have already become your friends, and to get your first view of the campus while cheerful voices are sounding in your ears, and quite another thing to walk up the long winding road from the village alone and to wonder as you come nearer and nearer to those neat white buildings whether you will succeed in making any friends at all among the fellows who have come up in the automobiles. Under those conditions Ridgley School might seem cold and austere and full of unpleasant possibilities.
That in fact was the situation of the newcomer who was walking swiftly toward the white buildings one morning late in September. He was entering upon an adventure that filled him with mingled excitement and gloom--excitement because of the mystery of the new life opening before him, gloom because of the necessity of giving up so much that had made him happy in the past. He went directly to the office of the Head in the building nearest the road and announced himself to Doctor Wells:
"I am Findley Holbrook."
Doctor Wells, whose face looked young in spite of the gray hair at his temples, got up from his chair and shook hands gravely. "I'm glad to see you, Findley," he said; "I hope you're going to like the school and that the school will like you. We've assigned you to Gannett Hall; I'll have one of the masters take you over and introduce you to the boys who've already come. We don't do much to-day except get settled. Did you bring your things?"
"My father is going to bring them up this noon," Findley replied. "I thought I'd better come early to start in with the other fellows."
Doctor Wells put him in charge of Mr. Stevens, who took him over to Gannett Hall, a three-story building with its ivy-covered front to the campus and its back to the tennis courts. A dozen boys were standing on the steps; they had been talking and laughing, but as the newcomer approached them with the master, their voices died away and they paused in their conversations. A black-haired boy, tall and heavily built, immediately called out:
The new boy recognized the one who had hailed him as Tracey Campbell, who had been in the class above him in the public school at Greensboro. "Teeny-bits" was the name by which Findley Holbrook had been known ever since he could remember and to hear himself thus addressed brought to him a momentarily pleasant feeling, even though Tracey Campbell had never been a special friend of his. When Findley was younger he had been so small that some one had called him "Teeny-bits" and the name had stuck. At the public school in Greensboro, in the village of Hamilton, in his home, every one called him Teeny-bits, and though the name did not apply to him now as appropriately as it had applied when he was four or five years younger, it still fitted him so well that no one questioned it.
Mr. Stevens smiled as he heard it from Tracey Campbell's lips and glanced at his young companion. A compact, slim body somewhat under the average height for seventeen, square shoulders, a very youthful mouth, eyes that seemed older than the rest of him and light brown, almost tow-colored hair, were the characteristics of Teeny-bits Holbrook that Mr. Stevens, the English master, saw. He said to himself that Teeny-bits was an apt nickname.
There were other characteristics that Mr. Stevens did not see; one of them revealed itself half an hour after the master had introduced Teeny-bits to the members of the school who occupied the third-floor rooms in Gannett Hall. The newcomer found himself possessed of a small and plain, but comfortable room, in which a bed, a chest of drawers, a table and two chairs were the chief articles of furniture. It looked out on the tennis courts and commanded a view of Hamilton village with its twin church spires sticking up through the trees like white spar-buoys out of a green sea. It made Teeny-bits a little homesick to look down there. His thoughts were quickly turned in other directions, however. Several of the boys came into his room, led by a tall, over-grown fellow who had been standing on the steps of the hall when Teeny-bits had entered. He came in at the head of the others, grinning confidently as if he were looking forward to something that would provide amusement.
"Friends," he said in the stagey sort of voice that a person might use in talking to an audience, "meet Teeny-bits--that's his name."
The boys behind the leader smiled in a way that suggested something else about to happen.
"Let me introduce myself," said the tall boy. "I'm Bassett, the Western Whirlwind, manager of Terrible Turner, the fighting bear-cat."
All of the boys laughed or snickered, and Teeny-bits smiled expectantly.
"Here is Terrible Turner himself," said Bassett, laying his hand on the shoulder of a pug-nosed lad whose freckled face wore a queer look of combined insolence and friendliness. "For the honor of the school he will wrestle you to test your mettle--he's a wrestler from way-back. Do you accept the challenge?"
Teeny-bits looked at Terrible Turner and then at Bassett, the Whirlwind.
"No," he said, "I don't want to wrestle in these clothes."
"Take off your coat, then; we consider it an insult to the whole school if you don't accept the challenge. Are you afraid of Terrible Turner? He's no bigger than you are."
Teeny-bits saw that the freckle-faced boy was in fact no larger than he, but he did not seem any the more inclined to accept the call to combat.
After waiting a moment, Bassett said in a taunting voice: "Friends, let me introduce you to Teeny-bits, the quitter."
The words had an effect that the Western Whirlwind scarcely expected. Teeny-bits solemnly pulled off his coat, laid it on the bed, and replied to the challenge.
"I won't wrestle with Turner," he said. "He's younger than I am. I'll wrestle with you."
The action that took place during the next few minutes was not quickly forgotten by the members of Ridgley School who were fortunate enough to witness it. In their eyes, for the time being at least, it surpassed the battle of the Marne.
Bassett made a scornful reply to Teeny-bits' challenge and let escape the remark that he wasn't a "baby-killer" and wouldn't wrestle any "bantams."
The words were still in his mouth when Teeny-bits launched himself upon him. There was a brief collision and with a mighty thump Bassett, the Whirlwind, hit the floor flat on his back.
A mighty howl went up from the onlookers; it carried to the farthest corners of Gannett Hall,--and there was such a note of pure enjoyment and hilarious surprise in it that every son of Ridgley upon whose ears it fell wasted no time in abandoning whatever was at hand and dashing madly to the scene of combat. As Bassett struggled to his feet all the roomers in Gannett Hall began to converge on Teeny-bits' room, and by the time the Western Whirlwind had thrown off his coat and laid hold on his opponent again, they were crowding in at the door and craning their necks to get a view of the fracas.
Bassett's face was the color of a ripe tomato; he considered that he had been caught off his guard, and the hilarious shout of his erstwhile admiring audience caused chagrin, disgust and rage to sweep over him in swift succession. He was mad clear through, and he meant to teach this impudent young Teeny-bits a lesson. He was twenty-five pounds heavier and half a head taller than the newcomer, and he had no other thought in his mind than that he could quickly regain his prestige and wipe out his disgrace,--and he meant to do it in no gentle manner. Teeny-bits should hit the floor and hit it hard, and if the fall should shake the whole building he would not care.
With a bull-like rush Bassett made for Teeny-bits, seized him with rough hands and gave a heave that was intended to finish the bout in one brilliant coup. But in some clever way his small opponent with quick work of his hands secured the under holds and though Bassett lifted him off the floor he clung on like a leech, found his feet after a second and saved himself from going down. The Western Whirlwind wrenched and twisted and heaved; he tugged with both hands, striving mightily to "break the back" of his opponent, he grunted as he worked and left no doubt in the minds of the howling audience that he meant to put an effective finish on the combat. The wonder of the crowd was that Teeny-bits did not immediately fall an easy victim. They gave him the ready sympathy that is generally accorded to the under dog.
"Hold him off, Teeny-bits!"
"Don't let him get you!"
"That's the way!"
"Trip him up!"
Those were the shouts that filled the room with pandemonium. One moment the struggling pair were over against the wall, the next they bumped the bed or knocked over a chair. Surprise showed on the face of Bassett; he could not understand how this little chap was able to keep his feet. He grunted more fiercely and tried to get a new grip, but Teeny-bits squirmed and shifted and somehow saved himself. The Western Whirlwind began to puff and wheeze; sweat came out on his forehead and his face became redder than ever. Then for an instant he let up in his heaves as if to take breath for a new and more furious attack.
It was a fatal pause. Until that moment Teeny-bits had been content to cling on and make a defensive fight of it. Now suddenly he changed his tactics to the offensive. By clever leg-work he got Bassett lurching backward. He pressed home his advantage and while a shout of amazement and delight rang in his ears, brought his big antagonist down to the floor with a jar that made the windows rattle.
Bassett, the Whirlwind, lay on his back, half dazed with amazement and feeling too weak to rise because most of the wind seemed to have been knocked out of him. Once more, as of old, David had slain Goliath, and the victor was receiving congratulations.
At that moment a boy larger than any who had been in the room pushed his way through the crowd. "No fighting in the dormitory!" he cried. "What's all this about?" And then he saw Bassett just rising weakly to a sitting posture and observed the other boys slapping Teeny-bits on the back. He gazed in doubt from one to the other and then said to the diminutive conqueror: "Did you put this big lummux down?"
"You bet he did!" cried a dozen voices.
"Well, you did a mighty good job," he declared. "You're new here, but a lot of these other fellows are not, and they know as well as I do that we're not supposed to fight or have wrestling matches in the dormitories. Get on your feet there, Bassett, and mind your own business hereafter. I know well enough that you started this. You got just what you deserved, didn't you!"
In an authoritative way that was confident without being "bossy" he ordered the boys out of the room, and when the last of them had gone and the sound of their joking remarks to the crestfallen Bassett was receding, he said to Teeny-bits:
"You must be a whale of a scrapper for your size--and I'm mighty glad you gave that fresh-mouthed Bassett a good lesson. But don't get into any more trouble with him. You know we have a sort of self-government here, and we can't be smashing up things in the dormitory. I room downstairs in Number 26. Come in sometime soon."
Later in the day Teeny-bits learned that his visitor was Neil Durant, pitcher on the baseball team, and captain of the football eleven. He was dormitory leader, which meant that he represented Gannett Hall on the self-government committee of the school. Turner, who gave Teeny-bits the information, was only one of many boys who dropped in that day to see the conqueror of Bassett, the Whirlwind. Turner--the same Terrible Turner who had been willing enough for combat earlier in the morning--confessed with a grin that he was pretty glad Teeny-bits hadn't wrestled with him! "If I'd hit the floor as hard as Bassett did, I'd bet my backbone would have been broken into forty pieces," he said. "Oh, what a pippin of a thump!"
Teeny-bits liked Turner's frank, outspoken way. He made up his mind that he liked him still better when Turner said:
"None of the fellows call me Terrible Turner, you know--that was just some bunk that Bassett invented. They all call me Snubby--on account of my nose, I guess."
That noon an incident occurred that some of the roomers in Gannett Hall noticed: just before lunch Teeny-bits' trunk came. Mr. Holbrook brought it up from the village in a buggy drawn by a sorrel horse and with Teeny-bits' help carried it to the room on the third floor. Several of the boys remembered seeing Mr. Holbrook in the Hamilton station and when Teeny-bits introduced him as his father they suddenly realized that the conqueror of Whirlwind Bassett and the bearer of the queer nickname was the son of the station agent and a native of the little hamlet that nestled at the foot of the hill.
Mr. Holbrook was white-haired and he walked with a slight limp that made him seem old. He looked at Teeny-bits' new friends with a kindly twinkle in his eyes and told them that they were all "lucky boys to go to such a fine school" and advised them to "study hard so as to be smart men." If he had not been Teeny-bits' father, they might have thought he was a queer old duffer.
When Mr. Holbrook had said good-by to Teeny-bits he went over to Doctor Wells' office and remained alone with the Head for half an hour. At the end of that time he came out and drove the old sorrel horse through the campus and down the hill toward the village. One or two of the boys who saw him wondered what he had been talking about so long with the Head.
Old Daniel Holbrook with the limp and the white hair meant every word that he had said about the boys being lucky to go to such a fine school, but he meant it particularly in the case of Teeny-bits, whose situation in life was entirely different from the situation of most of the other Ridgleyites. They came to Ridgley from half the states in the Union--from California and Ohio and the Carolinas and New York and New England--they came well-equipped and carried themselves with a manner that suggested the well-to-do homes they had left. Teeny-bits Holbrook was there because he had won the scholarship that under the terms of the endowment of the school was awarded each year to a public-school student who lived within the confines of Sherburne County. Fennimore Ridgley, whose coal mines had yielded the fortune with which he had founded the school on the hill above the village of Hamilton, had been born and bred in Sherburne County. He had long been lying in a peaceful grave with a tall granite shaft above it, but each year one of the boys of Sherburne County received a gift from him--the privilege of coming free of expense to Ridgley. For two years Teeny-bits had been going to the high school at Greensboro, covering the four miles on his bicycle morning and afternoon. Then the unbelievable had happened: he had won the Ridgley scholarship, and father and mother Holbrook, whose hearts were centered on his future, received the news as a direct gift from Heaven. Their pride in him made up for the loneliness of the house after he had gone.
The career of Teeny-bits at Ridgley was not to be without its incidents, it seemed. He had been a roomer in Gannett Hall only ten days and the feeling of newness had not worn off when the school was treated to a sensation that caused no little talk and brought him into more prominence than had the victory in the wrestling match.
On a Wednesday morning before breakfast a sheet of paper was found tacked to the bulletin board that hung inside the door of the dormitory. The message that it bore had been typed crudely as if the person who had done it were a novice in the use of the typewriter. It consisted of two straggling lines and the words were:
"Beware of Teeny-bits! Holbrook is not his name! He's ashamed to tell the truth!"
Two dozen boys saw the paper and read the message before Snubby Turner tore it down and carried it up to Teeny-bits' room. They told other boys about it and no end of talk went round the school.
"This was on the bulletin board," said Snubby to Teeny-bits. "A lot of the fellows wonder what the dickens it means."
"You're a good friend of mine, Snubby," said Teeny-bits, "and I'll tell you what it means. I wonder if Bassett put it up--but I don't see how he knew anything about me--unless Tracey Campbell told him. Tracey lives over in Greensboro and went to public school with me."
"Bassett tags around after him like a tame sheep--I don't like either one of them," said Snubby.
The story that Teeny-bits told his friend was the same story that Mr. Holbrook had told Doctor Wells.
Teeny-bits had never known who his father and mother were--and yet his mother, or at least the woman whom he believed to be his mother, lay buried in the village cemetery. Her grave was marked with a plain slab of marble in which was cut the brief inscription:
"An unknown Mother. Died August 9th. 1903."
Teeny-bits remembered well the story of that tragic day as told him by the man whom he had always fondly known as Dad,--old Dad Holbrook with the white hair and the limp. On that long-ago day a train had crawled slowly into the station at Hamilton. There was a hot box on one of the cars, and while the train waited for the heated metal to cool, a woman with a small child--a boy of about a year and a half--stepped down to the track to find relief from the stifling air of the car. The Chicago express had come hurtling down the track at fifty miles an hour. Warning shouts had gone up, but the young woman had appeared oblivious of her danger. Those who saw the tragedy were convinced that she was deaf. At any rate every one agreed that she was unaware of the oncoming express until too late. Then, sensing the danger or hearing at last the shriek of the whistle behind her, she snatched up the child and tried to leap to safety. The realization that she was too late must have come upon her, for in the last fraction of a second she tossed the child to one side. The express, grinding all its brakes in a vain endeavor to stop, had instantly killed her. The baby escaped with a few scratches.
The matter of identifying the unfortunate mother had at first seemed not too difficult, but a search of the bag that she had left in her seat in the car revealed nothing that in any way offered a clue as to who she was or whence she had come. Daniel Holbrook had attended to the burial of the unknown mother and had taken the child home, thinking their relatives would soon appear to claim him. But no one had ever come for the boy and none of the notices that the Holbrooks had put in the newspapers had brought a claimant. After a year the Holbrooks had adopted the child and had put a stone over the unnamed grave in the cemetery.
When Teeny-bits finished telling his story, Snubby Turner's eyes were round with wonder. Instead of detracting from the prestige of Teeny-bits, the story had the effect of enhancing it, and if the person who put the paper on the bulletin board intended it to effect an injury, his attempt defeated itself, for the true story of Teeny-bits rapidly spread by word of mouth and, instead of bringing him into disrepute, cast about him a certain air of mystery that caused the boys in other dormitories to seek him out to make his acquaintance. Thus, through no effort of his own, Teeny-bits Holbrook found himself somewhat of a character at Ridgley School before he had been there two weeks.
In the middle of October Teeny-bits surprised every one by going out for the football team. Even his most loyal friends thought that he had lost his senses. The team was particularly heavy this year; the first-string men were big, well-formed, aggressive players of the type of Neil Durant, who weighed one hundred and sixty pounds with not an ounce of fat, and who was quite as good a half-back, it was said, as many college players. The most that Teeny-bits could hope for was a place on the scrub, but that meant drudgery of the worst sort and a daily mauling that was enough to take the courage out of larger boys than he.
"They'll make Hamburger steak out of you!" warned Snubby Turner. "You'd better not do it."
"Good night, Teeny-bits! do you want to commit suicide!" said Fred Harper. "I'll hang a wreath on your door."
But the first team did not put an end to Teeny-bits' career. They laughed when the coach gave him a chance on the scrub one afternoon and laughed harder when he at last got a chance to carry the ball and by clever dodging succeeded in making a twenty-yard gain. He slipped out of the grasp of Ned Stillson and nearly eluded big Tom Curwood, who covered Teeny-bits so completely when he finally had him down that ball and runner were almost completely out of sight.
"He's as slippery as an eel," said big Tom.
"And so small you can't see him," growled Ned Stillson.
After that the first team watched him like tomcats watching a mouse and Teeny-bits got no chance to break away.
In the locker room after practice Mr. Murray, the coach, came over and laid a friendly hand on his arm. "Keep it up," he said; "if you weighed about twenty-five pounds more, by jingo, I believe you'd make the team."
The members of the eleven also were friendly and treated him as they might have treated a mascot in whom they had great faith. In the shower-bath room Neil Durant jumped out from under the cold spray and shook the water from his lean, firmly-muscled body just as Teeny-bits came in. The big half-back looked admiringly at the new candidate for the scrub and said:
"Good work, Teeny-bits! You're the original bear-cat all right."
Teeny-bits grinned appreciatively as he stepped under the shower. Neil stood near by, drying himself with a Turkish towel. As the smaller boy turned this way and that under the spattering water the half-back looked critically at his compact body and firm muscles. To be sure, Teeny-bits was small, but he was shaped like a young god and modeled with perfect symmetry. Something else, however, attracted Neil's attention.
"That's a peculiar mark you have on the back of your shoulder," he said, as Teeny-bits turned off the water.
"It's a sort of birthmark, I guess," said Teeny-bits. "My trademark."
What Neil Durant referred to was a five inch, terra-cotta colored blemish on Teeny-bits' smooth back. The shape of the mark was what made it peculiar. It resembled strikingly a dagger-like knife with a tapering blade and a thin handle. Once seen it was not likely to be forgotten.
In the same manner that the true story of Teeny-bits had spread through the school after his unknown ill-wisher had tried to injure his name by posting the notice on the Gannett Hall bulletin board, the news spread from boy to boy that the conqueror of Bassett and the new candidate for the scrub bore on the smooth skin of his shoulder a strange and curiously formed mark, and during the days that immediately followed Teeny-bits' first appearance on the football field, more than one candidate for the team made it a point to be present in the shower-bath room in order that he might cast seemingly casual glances at the unusual mark. Some of the Ridgleyites were more open in their curiosity and did not hesitate to question Teeny-bits, but they all received answers similar to the one that Neil Durant had received. To Teeny-bits there was nothing strange about the mark, for it had been there from the time of his earliest memory and he had thought little more about it than he had of the fact that he possessed hands and feet. Snubby Turner, whose bump of curiosity was as big as a watermelon, lingered one night in Teeny-bits' room while the new boy was undressing.
"I want to see that knife-thing on your back that I heard the fellows talking about," said Snubby frankly. "Come over under the light so I can get a good look. That _is_ queer--the hilt of the knife is curved a little just the same on both sides. It looks to me as if somebody had drawn it on your back--only the color doesn't look like a tattoo."
"Just a freak of nature," said Teeny-bits with a laugh. "I guess I was born with it."
Sudden popularity has been the downfall of many a schoolboy and many a man, but it did not seem to have any adverse effect on Teeny-bits Holbrook.
"It rolls off him like water off a roof!" exclaimed Fred Harper, who was one of the newcomer's greatest admirers. And so it seemed, for Teeny-bits went about his work methodically and seemed entirely unimpressed by the attentions of his numerous followers. He made time to do his studying and did it well, but he was not what his classmates called a "shark"; he had to work and work hard for what he got.
One morning during a class in English literature, Mr. Stevens asked Bassett to tell what he knew about the writings of Walter Pater.
"Well," said Bassett, putting on a look of extreme intelligence, "he wrote quite a while ago and he didn't succeed at first very much, but toward the end he was more successful."
"Is that all you can tell me?" asked Mr. Stevens.
"Oh, no!" said Bassett with the manner of one whose knowledge has been underrated. "He was quite a figure in his time and he wrote a lot of stuff--I think it was----poetry."
"That's enough, Bassett," said Mr. Stevens. "Holbrook, can you tell me anything about Walter Pater?"
"No, sir, I can't," said Teeny-bits.
"Thank you," said Mr. Stevens. "I'd rather have an honest answer than an attempt to bluff!"
Every one in the room looked at Bassett, who scowled back at the smiles of his classmates. "I didn't try to bluff, sir," he said to Mr. Stevens, but the English master paid no attention to the denial and every one knew that the self-styled "Whirlwind" had been guilty of treating the truth as if it had been a rubber band.
The incident was small, but it increased the enmity that Bassett had for Teeny-bits and added another score to those scores that he intended some day to wipe out.
There were others in Ridgley School who bore Teeny-bits no affection--one of them was Tracey Campbell, who had been the first to hail the newcomer by his nickname. Tracey Campbell was a candidate for the football team playing on the scrub; Coach Murray, it was said, looked with favor upon him and was about to promote him to the first eleven. But of late Mr. Murray had not paid so much attention to Campbell; his interest, as far as the scrub was concerned, seemed to be veering in another direction.
It may have been that Tracey Campbell had something in mind more than merely playing a prank when he took it upon himself on a Wednesday night to amuse some of the fellows who were lounging about the steps of the dormitories.
Old Daniel Holbrook had driven up from the station, sitting erect in the buggy behind Jed, the sorrel horse. His errand, as he had explained to Ma Holbrook, was to see how Teeny-bits was "getting along." He arrived at dusk and, after hitching the sorrel to a post outside Gannett Hall, mounted the two flights of steps to Number 34. He found Teeny-bits just beginning to study.
"Well, now, it does seem nice to see you," he said. "Your Ma and I've been kind o' lonesome, and she allowed as how I ought to pay you a mite of a call. I said as how she ought to come too, but I couldn't budge her. She said wimmen folks weren't wanted around boardin' schools."
"It's great to see you," said Teeny-bits. "The fellows here have been wonderful, but of course it isn't home, you know, and I've missed you folks a lot. I wish Ma _had_ come; you tell her not to be so bashful next time."
Old Daniel Holbrook smiled benignly. It pleased him to have Teeny-bits so obviously glad to see him and so sincerely speaking of Ma and his wish to see her.
"I suppose wimmin folks _are_ a trifle more timid than men folks about putting themselves forred," he remarked, "but when it comes to thoughtfulness you can't get 'em beat. Now take this box that she put into my hands--I don't know but what I'm entering into a conspiracy to break some of the rules of this school, but Ma just plain insisted that I bring it along and I have a _faint_ suspicion that it contains somethin' to eat. I seen her fussin' round the kitchen with choc'late frosted cake and some other contraptions, and from the size of the package I'd say she'd put most of 'em in. The question is: am I breakin' any regalations if I leave it? Just say the word, and I'll take it back home."
"Not on your life!" said Teeny-bits fervently. "You're not breaking any rules, and believe me, whatever it is, it won't last very long. I've some friends around here who would climb right through the transom if they knew that there was anything like that in this room."
"That being the case," said the station master, "here she remains. I'll put it on the table. Now tell me, how's things going?"
"It's so much better than I thought it would be," said Teeny-bits, "that it hardly seems real. I want to tell you that there are some of the finest fellows in the world in this dormitory, and the whole school is just O. K."
While Daniel Holbrook, sitting back comfortably in Teeny-bits' spare chair, listened to the newcomer's impressions of Ridgley School, a bit of action was beginning to develop outside on the campus. Tracey Campbell, strolling across to Gannett Hall with Bassett and three or four other members of the school, who for one reason or another seemed to find pleasure in the company of the two, came in sight of the sorrel horse. There was no question that the station master's steed was ungainly and that harnessed to the old-fashioned buggy he presented to persons who were straining their eyes for the ludicrous a more or less amusing spectacle. The evening was warm and Tracey Campbell had pulled off his sweater. As he went by the sorrel horse he gave the garment a snap which sent one of the sleeves flying against the animal's neck. With a snort of surprise the horse lifted his head and danced backward a step or two in a manner that called forth laughter from the group of Ridgleyites.
"Whoa, Ebeneezer!" said Campbell. "Calm yourself," And then an idea came to his mind. "Here's a chance for a little moonlight ride," he said. "Who'll come along? We'll borrow this old nag for a few minutes and tour the campus."
Bassett, who was ready for any excitement that offered itself, climbed into the buggy after Campbell, while one of the other fellows untied the hitch-rope.
"All right, we're off," said Tracey, lifting the whip from the socket and snapping it vigorously.
Old Jed apparently wasn't accustomed to the sound or the feel of the whip, for when Campbell touched his flank smartly he plunged forward and began to trot around the driveway that circled the campus.
"Some racer!" said Bassett. "Can't you get any more speed out of him than that? I'll show you how to drive him."
"No, you won't," said Campbell. "I can get as much speed out of him as anybody can. I'll bet you that if you'll get out and run, I can beat you round the campus."
"How much'll you bet?" asked Bassett.
"Oh, I'll bet you a good dinner," said Tracey.
"All right," said Bassett, and jumped over the side of the buggy.
By this time several members of the school who were passing through the campus had paused and were watching the performance. Some one called out: "Ready, get set, go!" and Bassett, who had never been much of a runner, started out at a lumbering pace around the drive. Campbell immediately brought the whip down heavily upon the sorrel's back, which so surprised the horse that instead of dashing forward in pursuit of Bassett, he did what he had never been known to do before,--put his head down and made his heels rattle a vigorous protest against the whiffletree and dashboard. Shouts of laughter rose louder and louder over the campus, and dormitory windows were thrown up here and there while the occupants of the rooms thrust out their heads to get a view of what was going on.
"Get up, you bucking bronco!" yelled Campbell, and once more brought the whip down on the sorrel. By this time, consternation and terror had taken possession of old Jed; he suddenly abandoned his kicking and set out at a gallop around the driveway. Campbell stood up like a Roman charioteer and urged his steed on, but the lumbering Bassett had gained too much of a start, and although the finish was close, the so-called Whirlwind passed the steps of Gannett Hall while the sorrel was still a length or two behind. Tracey Campbell braced himself firmly and jerked back on the reins so roughly that the horse was brought to a sliding stop.
"You win," he yelled to Bassett. "I'll buy the dinner."
Attracted by the commotion, Teeny-bits had thrust up the window of his room, and old Daniel Holbrook had joined him in looking down upon the scene. At first the station master had laughed a little and said:
"Some of your friends seem to be playing a few pranks on me."
But when he heard the noise of the whip and saw the horse jump with fright and pain, his expression had changed and he had started down to the campus. Teeny-bits followed close behind him; they had reached the steps of Gannett Hall when the spectacular finish of the race occurred. Tracey Campbell, seeing the owner of the horse, leaped out of the buggy and said facetiously:
"I just borrowed this animule of yours for a minute. He's some _racer_, I'll say."
"I'll say to you, young man," said Daniel Holbrook, "that that isn't any way to treat a horse. I don't mind a mite having you borrow my rig, but I _do_ mind having you abuse a dumb animal that hasn't any way to come back at you."
Two or three of the boys in the crowd tittered, but most of them were silent. They knew that the station master was right, and they were ashamed that they had joined in the laughter. But Tracey Campbell still seemed to take it as a joke; he looked at the station master with a grin and said in a tone which suggested that he was imitating:
"He's blowin' and puffin' _a mite_, but I guess he ain't injured none, and I reckon as how he'll pull through the crisis and amble you home if you drive real calm."
Campbell's attitude and manner of speaking carried an open insult; it stirred up in Teeny-bits a feeling of intense rage. A great desire came over him to walk up to his rival for the football team and punch him in the head. He started forward and said in a voice which trembled a little in spite of him:
"When you speak to my father I want you"--
Teeny-bits did not finish what he had intended to say, for at that moment Mr. Stevens came briskly up to the group and in no uncertain tones demanded to know what was going on. Some one started to explain, but only a few words had been said before the English master instinctively, as it were, grasped the import of what had been happening.
"Campbell," he said, "get up to your room and be quick about it! We've had enough from you for to-night. And Mr. Holbrook, I'm sorry that there has been any trouble. I hope it was merely thoughtlessness."
"No damage done, I guess," said the station master. "I don't like to see young fellows misusing animals, but I suppose it was just a bit of high jinks, so we'll forget all about it."
The old man's sportsmanship and generosity in this last remark won for him the respect of the Ridgleyites who had remained on the scene, and the result of the incident was to make them feel that Campbell had acted with little or no decency.
Teeny-bits' first appearance on the football field and his rather spectacular work had not been a mere "flash in the pan." He had gone out every afternoon with the scrub, and the members of the first team had learned that it was just as well to keep their eyes wide open and their heads up when there was any likelihood that Teeny-bits would run with the ball. In spite of their vigilance he succeeded nearly every afternoon in making a gain that called attention to his ability to squirm through a broken field.
He did not approach the skill of some of the first team members, particularly Neil Durant, the captain, who regularly romped through the scrub as if they were wooden Indians, but he did seem to have a natural ability to dodge and to worm his way through opposing tacklers.
An incident occurred on the last Wednesday of October that had a distinct influence on Teeny-bits' career. That day before practice Coach Murray talked to the scrub in no mollycoddle terms.
"The first team isn't getting enough competition," he declared. "You fellows on the scrub go to sleep and take a nap every afternoon; you don't play the game with any heart; every time you see one of the first-string backs charging through your line, you act as if you thought you were a party of snails on a railroad track trying to tackle an express train. There's nothing to be afraid of; if any of you expect to be advanced to the first squad you'd better begin to acquire a little ambition. We have a hard game Saturday with Wilton; I want to see you chaps come back to life to-day and show me whether you are candidates for a team or for a grave-yard."
The scrub tried hard; they charged low and fast and for ten minutes prevented the first team from scoring; they even recovered the ball on a fumble and in six rushes, in which Tracey Campbell figured largely, carried the ball forward twenty yards to the middle of the field. Fred Harper, the scrub quarter-back, then snapped the ball to Teeny-bits, who eluded the opposing end, slipped out of the clutches of the left half-back and was finally downed by Neil Durant ten yards from the first team's goal line.
The scrub was within striking distance and Harper gave his signals with nervous eagerness; he felt as if his life depended on seeing the ball placed behind that goal line ten short yards away. But the first team held solidly and then on the third try Tracey Campbell fumbled the ball. Neil Durant picked it up and tucking it under his arm was off like a grey-hound. Two of the scrub tackled him, but he shook them off and ran on with every chance apparently of covering the length of the field for a touchdown. Coming from the right was Teeny-bits, but at first no one gave the new member of the scrub a thought, for Durant was a sprinter and he was going down field at his best pace. To every one's surprise, however, Teeny-bits held his position and gradually began to force Durant nearer the side line. No one else was in the race. The captain glanced sideways and saw who his pursuer was; he veered further toward the left and concentrated on speed; still Teeny-bits held his own. Then suddenly Durant, seeing that the side-line was dangerously close, shifted direction and tried to pass his pursuer. But Teeny-bits was not to be evaded; he gathered himself and plunged, and next moment the captain of the big "team" was down at the fifteen-yard line with his smaller opponent gripping him tightly around the shins. For the second time Neil Durant had a word of approval for the younger boy.
"Good work!" he said. "You got me clean."
The scrub endeavored to live up to the pace that Teeny-bits had set, but they had shot their bolt and the first team pushed the ball over in three tries and scored two more touchdowns in the course of the next fifteen minutes.
One result of the day's play was that the scrub received some well-deserved praise; another was that Coach Murray called Teeny-bits aside and said some words that sank in deeply and that seemed to the newcomer at Ridgley to carry an import that presaged the realization of one of his fondest hopes.
"Teeny-bits," said the coach. "I'm going to pull you up to the first squad; you may not get a chance to play in many of the games, but I think I can use you as a substitute back. That was a good tackle you made and a good run, but you have a lot to learn yet. One thing is change of pace when you carry the ball. If you sprint the way you do in a track dash, the men against you have a good target for a swift tackle, but if you keep something in reserve and turn it on just as you're about to be tackled, you'll do better. Watch Durant; you can learn a lot from him."
Teeny-bits walked on air on the way back to his room, but no one knew it, for it was his way not to show elation in things that concerned himself, and he told no one of his promotion, for he preferred to let the news get abroad by other means. Neil Durant overtook him before he reached the campus and walked with him to Gannett Hall. "You're always springing surprises, aren't you, Teeny-bits?" said the big half-back with a smile. "I didn't think you had so much speed."
"I don't believe I could do it again," said Teeny-bits deprecatingly.
"Of course you could," declared the captain. "Coach just told me you're to join our squad. I'm glad; I'm counting on you to do big things."
Teeny-bits looked up at his companion and said to himself that one of the biggest reasons why he wanted to do big things was to win the close friendship of this hard-fighting, clean-playing "regular" at his side. Aloud he said: "I'm going to try like thunder!"
When Coach Murray at the beginning of practice next day announced that Holbrook was to leave the scrub and join the first squad there were murmurs of approval that were joined in by nearly every one. The exception was Tracey Campbell, who considered that Teeny-bits had been unjustly promoted over his head. He determined to show up the newcomer if the opportunity came, and it was noticeable in the practice that afternoon, when Teeny-bits got a chance to play with the first team for a few minutes, that Campbell made a tremendous effort to down the new member of the squad with a crash.
Bassett was watching on the side lines and that evening he came round to Campbell's room with a proposition.
A PLAN AND A GAME
Campbell and the Western Whirlwind had certain qualities in common; both had ambitions to be "sporty." They shared an inclination for lurid neckties, fancy socks and striped silk shirts; they believed themselves wise as to the ways of the world, and each had been heard to express the opinion that Ridgley School was a "slow old dump." Campbell was the leader of the two--he dominated Bassett as a political boss dominates his hench-men. One reason was that Bassett foresaw favors to be had at the hands of Tracey Campbell.
Tracey's home was only eight miles away--just on the other side of Greensboro--and within recent years his life had been greatly changed through the fortunes of war. To many homes in the busy town of Greensboro the struggle in Europe had brought privation and to some it had brought tragedy, but to the Campbells it had brought prosperity. Campbell, Senior, was a wholesale dealer in leather; he had caught the market just right and, in the expressive words of his neighbors, had made "a mountain of money." He had moved from his modest home in the town and had built a pretentious house on a hillock two miles to the west. Those of the townspeople who had been inside "the mansion" declared that every chair and every picture on the wall was screaming aloud, "He got rich quick! He got rich quick!"
Campbell, Senior, did not believe that the son of a man who had made a million should remain in the public school, and so he had arranged to have Tracey go to Ridgley. The younger Campbell had come to the school on the hill with a certain feeling of superiority that was in no small measure owing to his belief that his father was richer than the father of any other fellow in sight.
Bassett had been brought up in a somewhat similar home; his father was a promoter of mines and oil wells and had come naturally by a bombastic manner which he had in turn passed on to his only son. The elder Bassett was known behind his back as Blow-Hard Bassett, and it was said of him that he owned more diamond stick-pins than any other man alive.
On the night after Teeny-bits had practiced for the first time with the "big team", Bassett knocked on Campbell's locked door.
"Who is it?" demanded Campbell, and slipped the catch when he heard Bassett's voice. As soon as the "Whirlwind" had stepped inside, Campbell went over to the window and resumed the occupation in which he had been engaged when Bassett had interrupted him. From the window sill he took a smoldering cigarette and, holding it in his cupped hand so that the glow could not be seen from outside, sucked in, and after a moment cautiously blew the smoke out into the night air. Bassett watched him in silence for a moment and then he said:
"They slipped something over on you, didn't they?"
"What can you expect?" was Campbell's reply. "But I can tell you this--if I don't get a fair show pretty quick, I'm going to quit--and I'll not only quit playing football, but I'll say good-by for a lifetime to Ridgley School. I'm not going to be the goat much longer--you can bet your gold pieces on that."
"You'd have been on the first team already if it hadn't been for Teeny-bits," said Bassett.
"Some day I'm going to show that fellow up," said Campbell. "It makes me sick the way the whole crowd falls for him."
"What are you going to do?"
"Well you watch and see!"
"Got any plan?"
"I have--one that will work this time." Bassett looked at his friend keenly and seeing that Campbell's face betrayed skepticism he prepared himself mentally to exercise the same talents that had made his father, Blow-Hard Bassett, a successful seller of mining stock.
* * * * *
The game with Wilton, on the last Saturday in October, was the first hard test of the season. The outcome of the struggle with Wilton had always been taken at Ridgley as an indication of the probable result of the game with Jefferson,--the final athletic event of the year and the crisis of the football season. If Ridgley pushed back the sturdy Wilton team and snatched victory from the wearers of the purple, then there were reasonable grounds for hoping that three weeks later there would be a bonfire on the campus and a midnight parade to celebrate a victory over Jefferson, the ancient and honored foe of Ridgley. If, on the other hand, Wilton showed an impertinent disregard for the best line that Ridgley could assemble and carried their impertinence to such an extreme as to romp home with the victory, the situation looked black as ink, and the tense atmosphere that accompanies forlorn hopes took possession of Ridgley School and penetrated not merely to the recitation halls, but even, it was said, to the office of Doctor Wells, the head. In such times there were mighty efforts to bolster up the spirit of the team, to feed it concentrated football knowledge and to ward off by Herculean effort the black shadow of defeat that raised its ugly head like a thunder cloud pushing itself higher and higher over the white buildings on the hill.
Before the Wilton game Coach Murray had a few words to say to the team that made every member tingle with a desire to show what he could do. When the whistle blew and the game began, Teeny-bits was sitting on the side lines with the other substitutes.
Ridgley kicked off to Wilton, and immediately received a terrific surprise. The pigskin went sailing through the air impelled by the heavy boot of big Tom Curwood; it fell into the purple-covered arms of a rangy Wilton half-back who, instead of running with the ball, immediately sent away a long spiral punt that flew over the heads of the charging Ridgley players. Neil Durant yelled out a quick warning and turned with his team-mates.
Ned Stillson was nearest the ball when it struck the ground; he intended to gather it up as it bounced, and then he meant to carry it far back toward the Wilton goal, but his calculations went wrong. His outstretched fingers touched the ball and almost grasped it, but the pigskin oval slipped from him and next instant--to the horror of the Ridgley watchers--was seized by a swift-footed son of Wilton who had come tearing downfield as if some weird instinct had informed him that Ned was to make the fatal error. Before any Ridgley player could overtake him he was lying between the goal posts with a satisfied grin on his features. The game was scarcely thirty seconds old and the score was 6-0 in favor of the invaders! A moment later the Wilton captain kicked an easy goal and the tally was seven.
Nor was that all of the misery in store for Ridgley; before the timekeeper had signaled the end of the first quarter, another disaster had occurred; and this time the element of luck, which might have been said to enter somewhat at least into the scoring of the first touchdown, played favorites no more with Wilton than with Ridgley. The home team was outgeneraled. By a series of strong rushes the visitors carried the ball sixty-five yards for a well-earned touchdown. The baffling thing about their play was a sudden shift; the quarter-back began to shout his numbers, then he yelled "Shift" and with a quick jump several members of the Wilton team took new positions; almost instantly the pigskin was snapped and before the Ridgley players had the Wilton runner down, the ball was five or ten yards nearer their goal line. That had happened again and again during Wilton's successful march to Ridgley's goal line. Wilton scored near the corner of the field and failed to kick the goal. The tally was 13-0.
The brief rest between the first and the second quarters was put to good use by Neil Durant; he got his players together and so rallied their spirits that in the second quarter they not only held their own, but gradually pushed their opponents back and back until they were threatening the line. But they did not quite succeed in scoring; with thirty seconds more to play, Ridgley had the ball on Wilton's five-yard line. It was first down. A rush through tackle failed and while the Ridgley team was lining up for another try, the timekeeper's whistle blew. The chance had been lost.
The third quarter started more auspiciously; two forward passes netted Ridgley forty yards of gain. The ball was far within the enemy territory again, but Wilton held, and on the fourth down Ned Stillson fell back and made a successful drop kick.
During the rest of this quarter there was a good deal of seesawing back and forth and neither side seemed to have the advantage, until Tom Curwood recovered a fumble on the visitors' twenty-five-yard line. Again the Wilton line held and again the Ridgley team scored by a drop kick. This time it was Neil Durant's toe that sent the oval between the uprights and over the cross-bar. The third quarter ended with the score 13-6, and Wilton's cheering section indulged in vociferous expressions of glee.
At the beginning of the final quarter Coach Murray sent in Teeny-bits to take the place of White, the left half-back, who was limping. The Wilton players glanced at the substitute and exchanged looks of satisfaction; the newcomer seemed too small to be dangerous. It was the first big game that Teeny-bits had ever been in; he was quivering with eagerness to run with the ball. But the opportunity did not seem to come; most of the time Ridgley was on the defensive, fighting desperately to hold back the Wilton plungers.
[Illustration: AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FINAL QUARTER COACH MURRAY SENT IN TEENY-BITS TO TAKE THE PLACE OF WHITE.]
When Ridgley finally did get its chance the time was slipping swiftly away, and hope was glimmering but faintly in the home stands. There was to be one more sensation, however. The ball was Ridgley's on its own twenty-five-yard line. Durant carried it forward ten yards, then Tom Curwood plunged through for five more. Then Dean called on Teeny-bits.
"Twenty-seven, sixteen, eleven," he called out, and the ball came back swiftly into his hands. Teeny-bits took it from Dean on the run and began to circle the right end of the line; a gap opened for an instant; he was through it like a rabbit diving through a hedge and with a thrill dashed on. He did not mean to stop until the last whitewashed line was behind him.
In front, the Wilton quarter-back was crouching tensely to intercept him. Teeny-bits shifted direction to pass him, but the quarter-back was not only wily, but swift; he was after Teeny-bits like a cat and began to force him to run diagonally across the field. Two Wilton players converged on Teeny-bits from the other side and one of them made a desperate tackle. Teeny-bits used his straight arm to ward off the attack and succeeded in slipping from the tackler's clutches, but the fraction of a second that he lost opened an opportunity to the Wilton quarter-back. Teeny-bits felt himself tackled heavily; he fell against the player who had first tackled him and to his utter dismay felt the ball knocked from his grasp and saw it go bounding over the ground. He lay sprawling, so tangled with the Wilton players that for the moment he could not rise. With horrified gaze he saw the leather oval roll free and he felt the overwhelming shame of one who has failed to be equal to the demands of a crisis. But his feeling of self-condemnation immediately gave way to an entirely different emotion, for a swiftly moving pair of legs incased in the Ridgley red and white came within the range of his vision. He glanced up and saw that it was Neil Durant. Two Wilton players were after the ball also, but the Ridgley captain was before them; he scooped it up and ran swiftly down the field. While the stands roared in a frenzy of delight, Neil crossed the goal line and circled round till he placed the ball squarely behind the posts. Tom Curwood kicked the goal, and two minutes later the game ended with the ball in mid-field and the score 13-13.
"I'm glad you dropped that ball," said Durant, joining Teeny-bits as the substitute half-back was walking off the field; "it came just right to bounce up into my hands."
"It _was_ lucky," admitted the candidate, "but I was mighty ashamed of myself."
"Well, it was a hard tackle," said Durant. "I don't blame you for dropping the ball."
Teeny-bits was about to make a reply when he saw coming toward them a white-haired man who walked with a limp. "There's Dad," he said, "I didn't know he was coming to the game."
Old Daniel Holbrook approached them with a beaming face. "Well, well, son!" he exclaimed, "I thought maybe you'd play, so I came to see the game."
Teeny-bits introduced Durant and tried to smother a feeling of embarrassment, the source of which he would not have cared to probe.
"Your ma, Teeny-bits, wants you should come down for Sunday dinner to-morrow," said the station master, "and she's particular for you to bring a friend. I've killed two young roosters and ma's fixin' 'em up with the kind of stuffin' you like. Now if this friend of yours here would like to come down with you I'll drive up and get both of you in the morning after church. He looks as if he'd have a good appetite."
Teeny-bits expected to hear Neil Durant express courteous regret; he did not for a moment think that the son of Major-General Durant and the most popular member of Ridgley School would be interested in visiting the humble Holbrook home. He was even a little ashamed that Dad Holbrook had extended the invitation with so much genial assurance.
"I'll be mighty glad to come--if Teeny-bits wants me to," said Durant, and Teeny-bits looked at him with such a queer expression of surprise and pleasure that Neil added: "You didn't expect me to refuse an invitation like that, did you?"
At the steps of the locker building Durant left them, and Teeny-bits remained outside for a few minutes to talk to the station master. Then he said good-by and went inside to take his shower.
He found his team-mates discussing the game in detail and bestowing praise on Neil Durant.
"Well, cap'n, old scout," Ned Stillson was saying, as Teeny-bits came clamping in, "you sure were Johnny-on-the-spot."
Though there was nothing in the words to signify actual criticism of any one, Teeny-bits felt that the real meaning behind them was that when some one else had failed, Durant had saved the day. That some one else was himself, and, though the members of the team treated him as cordially as ever, he had the unpleasant feeling that they looked upon him now as one who had failed in a crisis, and he had to admit to himself that their opinion--if they held it--was justly founded. He went back to his room and for half an hour before supper sat by his window, thinking deeply. The conclusion to which he came was this: if he ever got another chance to run with the ball for Ridgley he would squeeze that leather oval so hard that the thing would be in danger of bursting. He resolved to make no apologies to Coach Murray, but to show by future deeds that he could be trusted. When he went over to Lincoln Hall for dinner he found the fellows at his table apparently unchanged in their attitude toward him. They seemed to have forgotten that he had covered himself with no glory.
While the soup was being disposed of some one who came in late brought a bit of news that spread from table to table as if by magic. It seemed to fly from one end of the room to the other and instantly it became the topic of excited conversation. Everywhere it went it created looks of dismay on the faces of the Ridgleyites, for there was a portentous quality in it that boded bitter things for "the best school in the world."
While Ridgley had been striving mightily to hold its own against Wilton and had found its opponent so redoubtable that the tie score seemed to be fully as much as it deserved--and perhaps a little more--Jefferson, the big rival of Ridgley from time immemorial, had been winning the laurels. Jefferson had trampled mercilessly upon Goodrich Academy and with seeming ease had scored touchdown after touchdown. The final score was 34-0 and herein lay the menace for Ridgley: only a week before, Goodrich had defeated Wilton 7-0. If Goodrich were better than Wilton and Wilton were as good as Ridgley, what chance did Ridgley stand against Jefferson, which had apparently toyed with the Goodrich eleven and scored at will? It was a problem that would seem to be answered correctly only by three dismal words: None at all! A buzz of talk filled the dining hall and every one knew that Ridgley was face to face with a forlorn hope.
"Well, we'll have to fight," said Mr. Stevens, who sat at the head of Teeny-bits' table, "and fight hard--it will never do to get discouraged."
But discouragement is subtle; there was good need of something to instill spirit into the Ridgley team, for in the days that followed, rumors like the fables of old began to reach the school on the hill. It was said that tacklers found it almost impossible to stop Norris, the Jefferson full-back. Half a dozen colleges were begging him to bestow honors upon them by making them his Alma Mater. He could run a hundred yards in ten and one fifth seconds and he weighed one hundred and seventy pounds stripped. In the Goodrich game time and again he had made ten yards with two or more of the Goodrich players clinging to him as unavailingly as Lilliputians clinging to a giant. No less fearsome tales were told of Whipple, the Jefferson punter, and of Phillips and Burton, the two ends.
The punter could send a wickedly twisting spiral sixty yards, and the ends had an uncanny way of catching forward passes. Through the newspapers, through word of mouth and by letters the news arrived,--and it became increasingly disconcerting. Unless Ridgley wished to be disgraced before the eyes of the world something must be done--and done soon--to bolster up the team.
TWO VISITS AND A THEFT
True to his word, old Daniel Holbrook drove his sorrel horse up to the school at noon on Sunday and brought Neil Durant and Teeny-bits down to the little white house that had been his home for thirty years. "Ma" Holbrook was a motherly person, plump, gray-haired and smiling.
"I do hope you two are good and hungry," she said, after Teeny-bits had introduced Neil. "We'll sit right down and keep sittin' till we're full."
It came over Teeny-bits suddenly as he sat down at the oval table and faced the familiar array of thick china, glassware and inexpensive cutlery what a different life he had been leading for the past few weeks, and he glanced at Neil to see what effect this homely air of simplicity would have on the son of a major-general. But the football captain showed by neither word nor sign that he noticed anything crude or unfamiliar. Dad Holbrook whetted the carving knife briskly on a steel sharpener and stood up to attack the two roosters. He heaped a bounteous supply of white and dark meat and "stuffing" on each plate and passed it to "Ma", who put on brown corn fritters and sweet potatoes baked with sirup.
"I never saw anything look so good in my life," said Neil, and a moment later he added: "Or taste so good, either."
Ma Holbrook beamed with pleasure, and said to herself that Teeny-bits' friend was "real nice." Teeny-bits himself ate with relish and enjoyment, and at the sight of Neil's contented manner of attacking the food lost most of his feeling of uneasiness.
"Land of Goshen!" Ma suddenly exclaimed, "I forgot to bring on the conserve!" And getting up hurriedly from the table she stepped quickly out into the pantry. From that little room presently came the sound of a creaking chair, and Teeny-bits knew that Ma was standing on the seat to reach one of those richly laden jars that adorned the upper shelves, row on row. There was the scrape of a spoon against glass and then Ma Holbrook appeared in the door, bearing a dish full of a golden substance that Teeny-bits recognized as her famous preserved watermelon. No one had ever failed to become the slave of his appetite when confronted by this masterpiece of Ma's handiwork, and Neil Durant, after putting one mouthful to his lips, looked at Teeny-bits with such a blissful expression that Teeny-bits felt all constraint and uneasiness slip suddenly away.
"You can't beat it anywhere in _this_ world," he said with a smile.
It was an unpretentious sort of pleasure that Teeny-bits and his friend shared that Sunday afternoon. When the meal was over they walked lazily through the village to look at some of the old buildings that were standing in Revolutionary days and then they came lazily back and Dad Holbrook harnessed the sorrel horse and drove them up to Ridgley. Neil Durant spoke sincerely when he said:
"I don't know when I've had such a good Sunday, and as for the dinner--I could talk a week about it."
While Teeny-bits and the football captain were spending the afternoon in Hamilton, two of their schoolmates, Campbell and Bassett, were using their time, as it seemed to them, to no little advantage. Campbell had telephoned to his mother and had persuaded her to send the family automobile--a heavy, seven-passenger machine--to the school for him.
The chauffeur brought it to a stop in front of Gannett Hall at twelve o'clock and Campbell had the satisfaction of ordering the driver to take the rear seat and, with Bassett at his side, of piloting the big car out of the campus. He went by the most roundabout way and cut the corners of the gravel drives at a pace that was intended to make the Ridgleyites who were lounging in the dormitory windows sit up and take notice. After a spin out through Greensboro they arrived at the Campbell place in time for dinner and Bassett had an opportunity to see the "got-rich-quick" pictures and to eat from plates that were lavishly decorated in the best style of the shops that cater to the tastes of those persons whose family crest is the dollar sign. Bassett thought it was "grand and gorgeous" and he made a mental note of several things that he intended to have duplicated in his own home at the next available opportunity.
Campbell, Senior, was away on a business trip, but Mrs. Campbell succeeded in making the dinner sufficiently impressive. She was a large woman with a heavy, double chin and a high, somewhat whining voice which she kept in constant use. Obviously she was much attached to Tracey, and Bassett could see with half a glance that her son could, by using his talents, persuade her to do almost anything for him.
"I suppose you two are great friends," she said to Bassett. "Every one likes Tracey."
"Oh, yes, we go around together a lot," said the Whirlwind with his most winning smile.
"And are you as athletic as Tracey is?" asked Mrs. Campbell.
"Well, you see, I've got flat feet," said Bassett in a tone that implied that if he were not so afflicted he would be captain of all the major sports in the school.
"You're on the first team now, I suppose, Tracey," said Mrs. Campbell.
"No," said Tracey, "they're still making me play with the scrub."
"Why?" demanded his mother, raising her shrill voice. "You told me two weeks ago that the coach was going to promote you. What happened, will you tell me?"
"They're not giving Tracey a fair show, Mrs. Campbell," declared Bassett. "The coach has a few favorites and he can't see _anything_ that any one else does."
Mrs. Campbell let her fork fall into her plate with a clatter. "I'm going to see Doctor Wells about it!" she declared. "Such a condition is perfectly shameful! Why, it's--it's----"
"Now, mother, don't do anything like that," warned Tracey. "You'd only spoil what chances I've got."
"Well, if they can't treat you fairly, I'd rather have you leave the school. Your father will have something to say about this when he comes home. I don't doubt that he'll go right up there and make them stand around a bit."
"By the time he gets home I'll be on the team," said Tracey.
In the afternoon Campbell and his satellite rode out into the country without the chauffeur and Tracey took occasion to race any automobile that would accept an obvious challenge. It was his particular delight to drive alongside a car of one of the cheaper makes and to pretend that he was doing his utmost to pass and in that way to lure the small-car owner into competition. Sometimes he succeeded and after he had made his victim believe that the big car was about to be vanquished he would step hard on the accelerator and leave the scene of competition in a cloud of dust. On such occasions Bassett felt called upon to turn and thumb his nose at the crestfallen driver.
At dusk the pair came back to Greensboro for refreshment and Campbell declared that he would take Bassett to a "regular place."
Greensboro was a bustling town in which there were department stores, theaters and restaurants. The stores and theaters were closed, but the restaurants were open, though Sunday business was dull. Campbell drove the big car down a side street and stopped in front of a building that was decorated with an Oriental sign announcing to the world that this was the Eating Palace of Chuan Kai. "Here's where I feed you the dinner I owe you," he said.
Tracey seemed to be well known to the Oriental managers of the restaurant. Chuan Kai himself, a yellow Chinaman in American clothes, greeted him in with a smile that showed his tusks; he directed the two to a table set in a little booth that was decorated with panels showing dragons and temples. Here Tracey and Bassett lolled back at ease, ate chow mein and chop suey with mushrooms, drank tea from small cups without handles and smoked till the air of the little booth was blue.
Chuan Kai stole softly in and out and occasionally glanced with satisfaction at the two students. They were spending money freely and the wily old Oriental knew that young Campbell would drop a fat tip into his yellow palm when it so pleased him to leave the restaurant. Silently the Chinese waiters in their slippers and loose trousers slipped in and out of the mysterious regions where the strange food was prepared. Tracey, displaying nonchalance for Bassett's benefit, declared that old Chuan Kai kept "a dozen Chinks on the job", and that they all slept in rooms directly above the restaurant. The persons who sat at the inlaid tables and leaned heavily on their elbows as they scanned the much-fingered menus were a nondescript lot--some the riff-raff of the town who found it cheaper to eat at Kai's than to eat elsewhere, others, more respectable in appearance, who doubtless had been drawn to the place by curiosity.
"Do you really want to give him a good jolt?" said Bassett to Campbell.
"I told you I did."
"Then why not try my plan? I know it will work."
Bassett leaned forward and talked in low tones as if fearing to be overheard, but there was no danger of that, for the other persons in the restaurant were too much interested in their own affairs to eavesdrop on two young fellows chatting in a booth.
At eight o'clock Campbell and Bassett sauntered out and Chuan Kai received his fat tip. The big car rolled out to the "mansion" on the hillock and, when the chauffeur had been found, sped to Ridgley School. Five minutes before nine it discharged its burden at the doors of Gannett Hall.
During the week that followed there was a frenzy of football talk in every Ridgley dormitory. At chapel on Tuesday morning Doctor Wells granted Neil Durant's request to speak to the school. The football captain mounted the platform a little nervously, but he made a straightforward speech in which he appealed for more candidates for the scrub. "There are a good many likely-looking fellows in this school who have never tried for the football team," he said. "It's late in the season, but there's a chance for them now on the scrub and, if they show any real ability, an opportunity with the team. We've got to do our best to beat Jefferson this year and we can't afford to overlook good material even now, so if you want to show your school spirit come down to the field this afternoon."
The result of the speech and of numerous personal appeals was that a dozen new players appeared with the scrub that afternoon; they were not a remarkable addition in respect to quality, however, and after a couple of days of looking them over Coach Murray remarked to Neil Durant that he was afraid that none of them would "set the world on fire."
Those were days of feverish activity on the football field; the coach drove the members of the first team for all they were worth and when he thought they were in danger of being overworked from too much scrimmaging he called them together in the locker building and gave them blackboard talks. In the middle of the week he advanced Tracey Campbell and Fred Harper to the first squad; he then began to test some new and intricate formations.
Among the candidates who had responded to Neil Durant's appeal had been Snubby Turner. Snubby succeeded Fred Harper as quarter-back of the scrub and felt an immense elation which he intimated to Teeny-bits one afternoon on the way back to the campus.
"Keep it up, Snubby," said Teeny-bits. "You're putting life into the scrub."
"If I'll come up to your room to-night, will you give me a few pointers about running with the ball?" asked Snubby as the two approached the Gannett Hall steps.
"Come up right after supper and we'll talk for half an hour; then I'll have to study," said Teeny-bits.
Snubby Turner came--but not to talk about football. He closed the door softly behind him and looked at his friend with such a strange expression on his freckled face that Teeny-bits said:
"What in the name of mud is the matter, Snubby?"
"Do you suppose there's any one in this school mean enough to steal?" asked Turner. "When I went down to football practice to-day I left my gold watch and a purse with twelve dollars in it in the top drawer of my chiffonier. They're both gone!"
"Are you sure?" asked Teeny-bits.
"Yes, I am," declared Snubby. "Absolutely sure."
Snubby Turner was not the only member of Ridgley School who lost property during the days that preceded the game with Jefferson. His gold watch and the twelve dollars that had mysteriously disappeared from his chiffonier were the first to vanish, but they were quickly followed by other bits of jewelry and money--not only from the Ridgleyites in Gannett Hall but also from those in other dormitories.
Ned Stillson, over in Ames Hall, lost six dollars and a small gold-handled penknife that a maiden aunt had given him; Fred Harper reported the disappearance of a silver trophy of which he was inordinately proud,--a graceful little model of a sailing boat which he and his brother had won during a season of boat racing with their twenty-footer. The actual value of the trophy, aside from its sentimental value, was said to be thirty-six dollars.
In the case of Harper's loss there was an additional interest because of the fact that Fred nearly succeeded--unwittingly--in discovering the identity of the thief. His room was on the first floor of Gannett Hall, and he remembered that on the Wednesday night when the theft occurred he had left the window wide open at the time he went over to Lincoln Hall for supper. He had gone from the table early and on arriving at the dormitory had immediately entered his room. As he opened the door he saw a dark form outlined in the window and it occurred to him that perhaps one of his schoolmates was attempting to play a practical joke upon him.
"What's the idea?" he had said. "Why don't you come in the front door like a human being?"
He had expected an answer in harmony with his question, but to his surprise the person in the window had immediately scrambled out, jumped down five feet to the ground and had lost no time in running out of sight around the corner of the building. Fred Harper had peered out of the window, still thinking that he had been the victim of a prank, and had not noticed the loss of his silver sailing trophy until he had turned on the electric lights and had seen that the place where it stood on the mantelpiece was vacant. He had then dashed out of the dormitory in the hope of intercepting the fugitive as he crossed the campus, but no one was in sight except his schoolmates returning from Lincoln Hall. To these he reported his loss, and a dozen of the Ridgleyites made a hurried search of the campus; they investigated all the shaded corners and unlighted doorways but found nothing that in any way offered a clew to the identity of the mysterious thief.
Within a week a dozen other thefts had been reported, and no little talk went the rounds of the school. Poor Jerry, the grizzled old-timer, who for years had been general helper to Slocum, the head janitor, was an object of suspicion in the eyes of some of the newcomers at Ridgley. There was no doubt about it, Jerry did have a most fearsome cast of features. Mr. Stevens, the English master, once remarked that he looked like an "amiable murderer." It was an apt description. Jerry had an expansive smile, but it was bestowed only upon those Ridgleyites--masters and pupils--who, for some subtle reason, loomed high in his esteem. All others he glowered upon with an expression ferocious and uncompromising. It was said that Doctor Wells was head of the school six months before he gained the reward of the smile that Jerry bestowed on the elect. But Jerry's heart was in the right place, and the older members of Ridgley School laughed to scorn the suggestion that he had any connection with the thefts.
"I'd as soon suspect my own father as Jerry!" said Snubby Turner, "but that gives me an idea."
What the idea was he revealed to no one except Jerry himself. For some reason Jerry had taken a great liking to the genial Snubby, and when he received a call from that young man down in his basement room, his seamed features took on an expression that might have caused Mr. Stevens to add the adjectives happy and harmless to the "amiable murderer."
"I have an idea, Jerry," said Snubby. "You know some one's been getting away with a lot of valuable truck from the fellows' rooms. It would be an awfully clever stunt to catch him. Why don't you snoop around and find out who it is?"
"There's ijeers and ijeers," said Jerry. "I got my ijeers too. I ain't got no need to snoop around. I got eyes an' ears as are uncommon good, even though I been usin' the same ones for nigh on to seventy year. I got my own ijeers as to who's sneak-thieving this school and bime-by somebody's goin' to get ketched."
"What _are_ your ideas?" asked Snubby. "Do you know who's doing it?"
But old Jerry had no further enlightenment for his friend, even when Snubby pressed him further. "I got eyes an' ears," said the old man, "an' I got my ijeers too."
Doctor Wells referred to the mystery indirectly one morning at chapel. "How foolish it is for any of us to believe that we can commit a wrong and escape the penalty merely because no one sees us," he said. "Every evil deed leaves its heaviest mark not on the _victim_ of it but on the misguided person who performs it. Once in a while something happens at our school that proves anew that old, old truth."
There was absolute silence in the hall; every one knew to what the head was referring.
But other incidents of more stirring nature were under way at Ridgley School. As the impending struggle for football honors with Jefferson drew nearer, each day seemed to be more strongly charged with suspense and excitement until the very air that wafted itself among the maples and elms, which were now dropping their red and yellow leaves on the campus, seemed electric with possibilities both glorious and disastrous.
Since the game with Wilton, Teeny-bits had practiced regularly with the first squad and more than once had demonstrated that his ability to run with the ball was above the average. White, whose place he had taken in the Wilton game, recovered from his slightly sprained ankle, however, and resumed his old position as left half-back. Teeny-bits continued to be a substitute.
Tracey Campbell, who likewise had been promoted to the first team, seemed to have regained the attention of Coach Murray. On the Saturday that followed the tie game with Wilton, Ridgley journeyed to Springfield to play Prescott Academy. Ridgley won the game by the score of 17 to 0, but more than once had to fight to keep the light but active Prescott team from scoring. Both Teeny-bits and Campbell played through the whole fourth quarter and, to an impartial observer, might have seemed to display a nearly equal ability. Five minutes before the end of the game, however, Teeny-bits brought the spectators to their feet by catching a punt and dodging through half the Prescott team for a gain of fifty-five yards before the home quarter-back forced him over the side line. The spectacular thing about the run was that Teeny-bits somehow wriggled and squirmed out of the grasp of four Prescott players who successively had at least a fair opportunity to tackle him. The play did not result in a touchdown, for Prescott recovered the ball on an attempted forward pass and the game soon came to an end.
Coach Murray seemed to be pretty well satisfied with the playing of the Ridgley team. "What I liked best," he said on the way back, "was that you played an intelligent game--you took advantage of your opportunities--but let me add in a hurry that you will have to play better and harder football than you've played yet when you meet Jefferson."
On the same Saturday, Jefferson performed in a manner that brought no encouragement to Ridgley. With Norris, the mighty full-back, leading the team, Jefferson had "snowed under and buried", as one newspaper put it, the lighter Dale School eleven, which previously had won some little attention by its development of the open game, especially forward passing. Against Jefferson, Dale seemed helpless. She was stopped before she could get started; her players kept possession of the ball only for brief moments, and as soon as it came again into the hands of the bigger team another procession toward a touchdown started. The final score was 69-0, nine touchdowns and three drop kicks.
Of the nine touchdowns, Norris had made six, which was said to establish a record for school games in the state. Three goals were missed.
At Ridgley the name of Norris became a thing of dread; the leader of the Jefferson team had assumed the proportions of a Goliath.
"I'll bet Neil Durant can stop him," Fred Harper loyally declared to a group on the steps of Gannett Hall. But there was no great assurance in his voice and the answer that came back revealed the doubt that was in every one's mind.
"He can if _any one_ can."
Teeny-bits was walking up from the locker building with Neil Durant after practice when the captain surprised him by saying:
"I used to know Norris; we used to go to a day school in Washington together."
"You did!" exclaimed Teeny-bits. "What was he like?"
"It was four or five years ago and we were young kids, but I remember that Norris was gritty as the dickens; he used to play quarter-back then; of course he's developed a lot since those days."
Somehow that little incident seemed to change Teeny-bits' state of mind toward Norris; he had been unconsciously thinking of him as scarcely a human being, rather as a super-athlete who was virtually invincible. He began to develop a great desire to play against him, and then suddenly something happened that seemed to make what had been a remote possibility almost a certainty.
Ten days before the big game, during a scrimmage in front of the scrub's goal line, White's weak ankle gave way sharply beneath him with the result that the bone was cracked and White was out of the game for the season. It was a heavy blow to the team; White had never been a spectacular player, but by hard work he had earned the reputation of being the "Old Reliable" of the team. Neil Durant and Ned Stillson were better at running with the ball and played perhaps more brilliantly, but White was steady and sure. His team-mates called him "a bear at secondary defense." He had an uncanny way of guessing where a play was coming through, and he made it his duty to plant himself in front of it,--and to stop it. If he had had more of leadership in his personality, he might have made as good a captain as Neil Durant made.
Coach Murray and Neil helped him off the field, plainly showing their disappointment and sympathy.
"Two of you fellows help White over to the locker building and 'phone for Doctor Peters to come down with his car," said the coach, addressing a group of substitutes at the side lines.
Teeny-bits jumped forward, but the coach said:
"Let some one else do that, Teeny-bits. I want you out on the field."
Teeny-bits walked back to the scrimmage line with the captain and the coach. A moment ago he had been a substitute; now suddenly he had become a regular. The other members of the team had a word of encouragement for him, but it was impossible for them to hide completely their belief that a disaster had come upon the eleven. Teeny-bits was a good substitute, they all acknowledged, but as a regular against such a team as Jefferson, well, he was too light in spite of his quickness and grit.
After a quarter of an hour of practice, Coach Murray sent Teeny-bits back to the side lines and called Tracey Campbell out. A few minutes later he recalled Teeny-bits and put the team through a long signal drill in which the new plays that he had been developing were practiced again and again. Those two maneuvers on the part of the coach indicated plainly enough that he had chosen Teeny-bits as regular left half-back in the place of White and that he had selected Tracey Campbell as first substitute.
At the end of practice Mr. Murray asked Neil and Teeny-bits to stay on the field for a few minutes.
"Three or four weeks ago, Teeny-bits," said the coach, "I looked upon you as an interesting possibility for the team next year. Now you've landed on the eleven, and I'm sure you can make good. You're quick and you've got a good eye for plays, but I want you to make up your mind that you are going to show us something that you never thought you had in you. I have an idea for a surprise play that I'm going to build around you. It may prove to be pretty important in the game with Jefferson. I want you to work on change of pace and shifting direction. Neil has both better than you have, and we'll depend on him and Ned to carry the ball a good part of the time; then if we can trust you to do the rest, things will look hopeful as far as our offense goes."
For half an hour Neil went through a practice with Teeny-bits that was intended to give the new member of the team greater flexibility as a runner with the ball.
"You see," said Coach Murray, "it's like this: if a fellow runs straight ahead with the ball he makes a clear target for the tackler--in other words he's an 'easy mark.' But if he's shifty and is able to fool the enemy by putting on a little extra steam at just the right moment or by slowing down in such a way that the tackler doesn't know what to expect, he has a tremendous advantage.
"Now suppose, for example, that the opposing end comes in swiftly toward you when you have started for all you're worth around his territory. If you have something in reserve which you can turn on just at the instant he's reaching for you and if you rely furthermore on a good straight arm to take care of him when he gets too close, the chances are that you'll go through to open ground. When I was in college I remember two fellows who came out for the team. One was the 'varsity sprinter and could cover a hundred yards in ten flat. The other was a fellow of about the same build who didn't have as much speed--I think the best he could do in the century dash was eleven or eleven and a half--yet that first man failed to make the team and the other fellow, who would have been left far behind in a sprint, was a regular on the eleven for three years and could always be relied upon to do his share in carrying the ball. He had a way of running straight at a tackler and then shifting direction in such a manner that you couldn't seem to bring him down. And then, of course, he was clever in using the straight arm and he always ran with high knee-action. When you tackled him it felt just as if you were tackling a man with a dozen legs, all of which were going up and down like the piston rod on a steam engine.
"Now you get down there in the middle of the field, Teeny-bits, and try to pass Neil and me. See what you can do to keep us guessing and when you use your straight arm remember to throw your hips; don't stand up stiff like a wooden Indian target."
Teeny-bits followed directions and again and again came down upon the coach and the captain, remembering their instructions to shift, to use his straight arm, to dodge, to change his pace and to exercise every stratagem that differentiates the skilful back-field runner from the novice. He felt that he was learning real football and took each bit of advice that was offered with an intense concentration.
"I wish you could have seen some movie pictures of one of the college games that I saw last year," said Coach Murray. "It showed better than any talk could show just what I mean by change of pace. The back that made the greatest gains of any man on the field had an uncanny way of eluding tacklers. The films showed how he did it. Again and again he slowed down just before the opposing tackle reached him--when they were running the film slowly it looked almost as if he stopped--and then, when the tackler leaped forward to bring him down, that shifty runner would slip around like a fox leaping away from a dog, and on he would go, leaving the tackler sprawling on the ground. Now try it again!"
Teeny-bits put his whole soul into this practice and at the end of the half-hour felt that he was making real headway.
"You're getting it great," said Neil Durant, as they walked back to the campus together. "The coach is wonderful on helping a fellow; and you can always be sure that what he says is exactly right. When he was in college he made the All-American team two years in succession."
The game at the end of the week--the next to the last of the season--was played in the midst of a steady drizzle on a muddy field. Dale School, which had fallen such an easy victim to Jefferson, visited Ridgley and went home defeated, 21-7. Coach Murray instructed the quarter-back to use only straight plays--to reveal none of the strategy that he had been drilling into the team during the past few weeks. Ridgley made three touchdowns in the first two quarters, one each by Neil Durant, Ned Stillson and Teeny-bits. At the beginning of the third quarter Mr. Murray sent in one substitute after another until finally big Tom Curwood and Teeny-bits were the only regulars left. Tracey Campbell then took Teeny-bits' place.
With an entire team of substitutes on the field Ridgley was at first able to hold her own against Dale, but presently the visiting team seemed to see its opportunity and by persistent rushing crossed the Ridgley goal line. Had it not been for the strong playing of Tracey Campbell, the Dale team might have scored at least another goal; Campbell was the main strength of the substitutes and again and again stopped the rushes of the Dale regulars. There was no question about Campbell's right to the place of first substitute back.
After the game, Coach Murray announced the probable line-up of the team for the Jefferson contest. There were no surprises. Neil Durant, Ned Stillson and Teeny-bits were to play in the back-field with Dean, the regular quarter-back.
That week-end Tracey Campbell went home to the "mansion" on the hillock. After the game with Dale he approached Neil Durant and invited the captain to be his guest. He did not say that he was acting under orders from his father. The elder Campbell was ambitious for his son to be prominent, as befitted the scion of a man who had made a million. He had written a letter to Tracey that week in which he had devoted two pages to advice in the matter of "getting ahead." One of his bits of instruction ran as follows:
"There's one lesson you've got to learn right now--the lesson of politics. Every big man knows how to use his friends to help him along. Don't let the other fellow beat you out by getting the inside course. Get the _jump_ on him. Now this football business is just like any other business--you've got to use friends. I want you to ask that Durant fellow home over the week-end. He must have influence with the coach. Bring some others too, if you want to."
Campbell put his invitation as casually as he could. "The old man wants me to bring some one home with me this week-end," he said. "Don't you want to come? Thought we could go to a show in Greensboro and to-morrow we'll tour around in the car."
Durant looked at Campbell keenly, but he showed neither surprise nor indifference. "It's mighty good of you to ask me," said the captain, "but I can't make it; I've got to study to-night, and to-morrow I think I'd better stay at the school. Much obliged, though!"
"Sorry. Some other time will be just as good."
Campbell spoke in an off-hand manner, but his words did not express the thoughts in his mind.
It was the faithful Bassett who finally went home with Campbell and accompanied him to the theater in Greensboro. At dinner Bassett put in a few words of praise for Tracey and phrased them in such a way that without telling any actual falsehoods he gave the impression that the game with Dale had been an important one and that Tracey had been chiefly responsible for saving Ridgley from defeat.
Tracey took the compliments gracefully and even denied that he had done _quite_ as much as Bassett asserted.
"You mustn't be _too_ modest, Tracey," declared Mrs. Campbell in her shrill voice. "Take the credit that's _due_ you. I suppose this means you've won the letter that you talk so much about."
"You know about as much football as a porcupine, Ma!" exclaimed Tracey. "A fellow has to play in the Jefferson game to get his R."
"Well I'm glad you've proved that you've got the goods," declared Campbell, senior. "If you do as well in the big game I might be favorable toward giving you that racy runabout you've been nagging me to buy you."
That third week in November at Ridgley School was like the home stretch in a mile race. The finish was in sight and the victory could be lost or won by what was about to take place. The Ridgley team was trailing--every one admitted that--but by a magnificent burst of speed it might yet come abreast of its rival--and might even snatch the victory. Nothing is impossible; we can do it if we have the spirit: that was the word on every one's lips--spirit not alone in the team but in the heart of every son of Ridgley,--such a spirit through the whole school that those eleven fellows in whom rested the entire hope of several hundred should go on the field with the conviction that however well the Jefferson team played, the Ridgley team would play better.
There were mass meetings at which Coach Murray and Neil Durant and prominent members of the team spoke. All of them made the point that victory depended on the spirit of the whole school as well as on the team. At the meeting on Monday night in Lincoln Hall after Neil Durant had spoken, some one in the crowd yelled, "We want Teeny-bits," and the cry was instantly taken up by others until in the space of a few seconds the whole hall was resounding to the concerted clamor for the smallest and the newest member of the eleven.
There was some little delay, for Teeny-bits, surprised and dismayed, had settled himself lower in his seat, hoping thereby to escape detection until a demand had started for some other member of the team. But the Ridgleyites who were sitting beside him yelled, "Here he is!" and Neil Durant, perceiving him at last, leaped down from the platform and laid hold on him with vigorous hands. In a second or two Teeny-bits was standing up there facing the school with such a shout of greeting ringing in his ears that his head swam a little. There was no room for the slightest doubt that the sons of Ridgley liked this quiet, unassuming, new member of the school and that they admired his manner of saying little but doing much. The school would have excused Teeny-bits if he had stammered a bit and sat down to cover his embarrassment, but there was no need for excuses of any sort. Teeny-bits suddenly found that he had something to say and he said it in a manner that brought the already enthusiastic crowd to its feet.
"I want to tell you," he said, "that I'm glad Jefferson has such a good team; every one says it's the best their school has ever produced. That's something worthy to strive for--to beat their _best ever_--and I know that every member of our team has his mind and heart and _soul_ made up to meet Jefferson more than halfway and to fight so hard for Ridgley that when the game is over there'll be shouting and bonfires on our hill."
That was all Teeny-bits said but he spoke with a manner that almost brought tears to the eyes of those loyal sons of Ridgley whose faces were turned up toward him where he stood in the bright lights of the platform. A hoarse shout of confidence and satisfaction shook the hall.
Instead of jumping down and returning to his seat, Teeny-bits left the platform by the back way and hurried out of the building by the rear door. He wanted to be alone just then. The November night air was cool on his flushed face and he strode swiftly toward his room, thinking of all the things that had happened to him in the few short weeks since he had come to Ridgley and of all the friends he had made. Never had he seen the campus so deserted; every one was at the mass meeting, it seemed. There were lights only in the entries of the dormitories. He took a short cut across the tennis courts and approached Gannett Hall from the rear.
When the grayish-white bulk of the building was only twenty-five yards away, Teeny-bits heard a sudden sound that caused him to gaze upward. What he saw instantly dispelled from his mind the pleasant thoughts in which he had been absorbed. A window in the third story was open; stretching downward from it was one of the fire-escape ropes with which each room was equipped. Some one was letting himself downward by sitting in the patent sling and allowing the rope to slide slowly through his hands. Teeny-bits stepped behind one of the beech trees that grew close to the building. While he watched, the person on the rope came down even with the second story. There he paused, resting his feet on the ledge of a window. In a moment he had raised the sash and had climbed inside.
Teeny-bits remained behind the tree, peering upward and wondering if he had hit upon the solution of the mystery of the petty thefts. Inside the room on the second floor a dim light shone for a moment and then went out; the thief was using a flashlamp. Teeny-bits' first thought was to notify some one in authority, but he quickly made up his mind that he would do better to observe developments and to stay on watch until the thief should come out.
Close to the wall of the building grew some shrubs which seemed to offer a better vantage point from which to watch. Teeny-bits stepped quickly among them and crouched down so that, as seen from above, the dark shadow of his body would seem to be part of the shrubbery. Looking upward he could see any object on the side of the building outlined clearly against the starlit sky. Two or three minutes after he reached this new place of concealment a foot was thrust out of the second story window above him; some one climbed out and after closing the window began to clamber swiftly upward, using his hands on the rope and his feet against the wall.
Teeny-bits at once recognized the person who was performing this suspicious-appearing bit of acrobatics but he was astounded by his discovery. The person who was fast making his way upward, who even now had reached the third story and was climbing into the open window, was none other than Snubby Turner, the genial and innocent-appearing quarter-back of the scrub team. In the first place it was almost unbelievable that Snubby with his tremendous interest in the approaching football game should be absent from the mass meeting; in the second place it seemed even more incredible to Teeny-bits that this friend of his should be guilty of stealing the property of his schoolmates.
The newcomer at Ridgley remained standing in the bushes as if frozen to the spot. He was revolving in his mind many things: Snubby's seemingly frank and happy manner, the fact that it was he who had first reported a loss, his interest in the subsequent thefts. It seemed impossible; and yet here was indisputable evidence that Snubby had chosen a moment when the dormitory was deserted to break into one of the rooms.
Whose room was it, anyway? Teeny-bits, still looking upward, suddenly realized that the room into which Snubby had broken was Tracey Campbell's; confusing thoughts were still sweeping through his mind when he became aware that some one who was stepping swiftly along the walk that passed close behind the hall was almost upon him. Teeny-bits never knew just why he followed the sudden impulse that came over him. His first thought was that he did not want any one to see him standing there in the shrubbery apparently without reason; he started to crouch, but his quick movement caught the eye of the person who was passing. The footfalls came to a sudden pause, and a voice, which Teeny-bits recognized as that of Mr. Stevens, the English master, called out:
With a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, Teeny-bits stepped out of the bushes and said:
"It's Findley Holbrook--" and then, as if for good measure, he added his nickname--"Teeny-bits."
"What's up?" asked Mr. Stevens.
The question was put pleasantly, but Teeny-bits knew that behind it there must be wonder and suspicion--yes, surely suspicion--for it was not an ordinary circumstance to find a member of the school concealing himself close to the rear windows of one of the dormitories when all the rest of the school was absent at a mass meeting. For the life of him Teeny-bits could think of nothing to say--he had made up his mind instantly not to tell what he had seen--and there did not seem to be anything else left. For seconds that seemed like hours he did not answer Mr. Stevens' question and then he managed to get a few words across his benumbed lips.
"It's nothing," he said. "I just--I'm--I was coming back from the mass meeting."
Mr. Stevens looked at him keenly and laid a hand on his shoulder. "What's the matter, Teeny-bits?" he asked, and the newcomer at Ridgley knew from the very fact that the master addressed him by his nickname that he expected a straightforward answer.
Teeny-bits looked at Mr. Stevens in dumb misery and said nothing.
"Can I help you?" asked Mr. Stevens.
"No," said Teeny-bits. "Thanks, but I'm just going up to my room; that's all."
They walked round to the front of the hall together; Mr. Stevens said nothing more, and Teeny-bits ran up to his room and sat down to think. A few minutes before the impending struggle with Jefferson had filled his mind so completely that there seemed to be room for nothing else; now suddenly this other thing had come upon him and in an instant had engulfed his mind. Circumstances had involved him in a situation from which he would have given a year of his life to escape. He suddenly realized that he valued his good name above everything else.
Doctor Wells had been away from Ridgley over the week-end, to make an address in Philadelphia. He came back to the school Monday afternoon and did not get an opportunity to attend to his mail until evening. One letter that came to him contained a brief but surprising message. He read it once and then again, and forgot the rest of his mail. He got up from his desk chair and walking over to the window looked out into the night. Voices came to him faintly,--the eager, confident, carefree voices of youth. He knew that the boys were returning from the mass meeting. He turned away from the window, drew down the shade and read again the brief message.
It never took Doctor Wells long to make a decision; the course of action he determined on now he quickly put into execution. He reached for the telephone and in a moment was talking with Mr. Stevens, whose room was situated in Gannett Hall.
"Mr. Stevens," he said, "I want you to go up to Holbrook's room and ask him to come over here immediately. I'd like to have you stay with him until he starts."
Teeny-bits was not greatly surprised when Mr. Stevens came into his room a quarter of an hour after he had said good night to him. When any one was in trouble Mr. Stevens had a way of dropping round to see how he could help. Teeny-bits _was_ surprised, however, when the English master delivered Doctor Wells' message. The first thought that came into his mind was that Mr. Stevens had reported what he had seen and that Doctor Wells was calling him to his office to request an explanation. Mr. Stevens may have read his thought for he looked at Teeny-bits rather searchingly and said:
"I don't know why Doctor Wells wants to see you; I haven't talked with him since he returned except to answer the request that has just been made. If you need me in any way, let me know."
That was the second time the English master had offered himself.
"I guess there isn't anything you can do," said Teeny-bits as he picked up his hat and started out of the room. "I'll run over to the office and see what Doctor Wells wants."
Teeny-bits' heart was pounding a little as he mounted the granite steps of "The White House", as every one called Doctor Wells' home. It was always an impressive thing to make a call on Doctor Wells--and one calculated to make the blood run a little faster, whatever the errand. There was something about this summons, moreover, that gave it an unusual quality, and to Teeny-bits, who had passed through two experiences that evening, it seemed to be a climax that held for him vague and perhaps unpleasant possibilities. He rang the bell and was ushered immediately into Doctor Wells' study where the soft lamplight, the paintings on the walls and the garnet-colored rugs, which harmonized with the mahogany furniture, gave an atmosphere of dignity and refinement. One always carried himself with a certain feeling of awe--at least every member of the school did--in Doctor Wells' office. But there was no unpleasant formality in Doctor Wells' manner. He shook hands with Teeny-bits cordially, asked him to sit down and came to the point immediately.
"I received a letter in the mail to-day which has something to do with you, Holbrook. I thought you'd better see it immediately. It isn't a pleasant subject and I want you to tell me frankly what you know about it."
He handed over a sheet of paper on which were three or four lines of typewritten words. They were simple enough in their meaning, but Teeny-bits had to read them twice before he completely grasped their import. There were two sentences:
Holbrook has the things that were stolen from the dormitories. He keeps them hidden under the floor in his closet.
Teeny-bits' face became red with anger and mortification; he looked Doctor Wells squarely in the eyes and said:
"Whoever sent you this, sir, wrote a lie! He didn't dare to sign his name!"
Doctor Wells never took his eyes from Teeny-bits' face, but the expression in them underwent a slight change; it was as if he had been looking for something that he greatly wanted to see--and suddenly had seen it.
"I believe in you, Holbrook," he said. "And I want you to know that I sympathize with you as I would with any one else against whose honesty a cowardly assault has been made. One has to defend himself sturdily against such underhand attacks. Have you any enemies who might try to injure you in this way?"
"I don't know; I shouldn't think that any one in _this_ school would be mean enough to do it. Doctor Wells, I want you to come over to my room now, and let me prove that it's a lie."
"I'll be glad to," said the Head, "but we might as well wait a few minutes until the lights-out bell rings. We don't need to advertise our business to any of the fellows in Gannett Hall."
For fifteen minutes Teeny-bits sat in the study with Doctor Wells; he never remembered in detail what they talked about, but he had a vague memory that it concerned football and the game with Jefferson.
Gannett Hall was dark and quiet when the Head and the newcomer to the school stole softly up the stairs and stopped at Number 34 on the third floor. Teeny-bits unlocked the door, reached in to switch on the electric lights and stood aside to let Doctor Wells enter first. He followed and led the way directly to the closet where he kept his clothes. Swinging open the door he looked down.
At first glance it seemed that the boards were not in any way disturbed from their normal appearance, and Teeny-bits was about to speak when his eyes fell on a groove at the point where the ends of two boards came together. He had not for an instant supposed that he and Doctor Wells would discover anything in the closet, but now suddenly a great fear came over him.
"There's a mark on this board," he said, getting down closer, "and the nails have been pulled out."
A minute or two later Teeny-bits and Doctor Wells had pried up the loose boards with a heavy paper-knife from Teeny-bits' table and were gazing down at a small pile of loot which consisted of the objects that various members of the school had reported as lost. It included Fred Harper's silver sailing trophy, Ned Stillson's gold knife, Snubby Turner's watch and ten or a dozen other trinkets. Teeny-bits felt stunned. Doctor Wells had picked out the articles one after another before Teeny-bits found his voice. Then he said:
"I don't know what you think, Doctor Wells, but the honest truth is that I didn't know a thing about this. I can't even guess--"
He could say no more; his voice broke a little and he felt as if he were half a dozen years younger and about to cry in little-boy manner.
"Teeny-bits," said Doctor Wells--it was the second time that night that Findley Holbrook had been thus addressed by a person in authority at Ridgley--"I've said once that I believe in you; this doesn't shake my confidence in your honesty. I'll take charge of these things; I think you'd better go to bed now and let me see what I can do to solve the problem. I'll borrow this empty laundry bag."
After Doctor Wells had gone, Teeny-bits undressed and got into bed, but for hours he did not fall asleep. He kept thinking of Snubby Turner climbing down the fire escape. Could it be possible that the genial Snubby was guilty of stealing from his friends, of professing to have lost property himself and finally of attempting to throw the blame on another? It seemed unbelievable. But why had Snubby stayed away from the mass meeting except to break into the rooms of his classmates? It was all too confusing. Teeny-bits could evolve no satisfactory explanation. At two or three in the morning he fell into a troubled sleep during which he dreamed that he was playing in the Jefferson game and that the stands were yelling in a tremendous chorus:
"He's a _thief_; he's a _thief_!"
ON THE EVE OF THE STRUGGLE
On the morning after the discovery of the loot hidden under the floor of the closet at 34 Gannett Hall Teeny-bits awoke with the feeling that he had been experiencing a nightmare in which disaster and unhappiness had fastened a death-like clutch upon him. It scarcely seemed possible that those events with which the evening had been crowded were real.
The speech at the mass meeting, the discovery of Snubby Turner sliding down the side of the fire rope and breaking into Campbell's room, the incident with Mr. Stevens, the summons to Doctor Wells' office, the visit to Gannett Hall and the astounding secret that revealed itself when the boards of the closet were lifted,--all those events seemed like strange imaginings. Teeny-bits jumped from bed and opened the door of the closet. The little marks that he and Doctor Wells had made with the paper-knife were sufficient evidence to bring back the reality of each incident and to plunge Teeny-bits into a gloomy perplexity from which not even the crisp brightness of the November day or the prospect of the Jefferson game could divert his mind.
The worst of it was that there seemed to be nothing that he could do except await developments; he thought of going to Snubby Turner and demanding an explanation of the part that Snubby had played in breaking into Tracey Campbell's room, but he could not bring himself to make what would be nothing less than a serious accusation of his friend. He determined to wait.
Throughout the day it seemed to Teeny-bits that he was leading two lives,--the one absorbed in the personal problem that had been thrust upon him, the other concerned with the mechanical performance of the various duties that came his way. He attended classes, ate his meals and took part in the regular football practice, but his mind was elsewhere.
Coach Murray was the first to notice that everything was not quite right. When the practice was two thirds over he spoke to Teeny-bits.
"Aren't you feeling fit?" he asked.
"I'm all right," replied the half-back.
"I'm afraid you've been working a little too hard," said the coach. "We'll call that enough for you to-day."
Doctor Wells had a habit of conferring with Mr. Stevens in matters that concerned his personal relationship with the members of the school. He had a great respect for the English master's understanding of character. On Tuesday morning he summoned Mr. Stevens to his office and put a blunt question.
"What do you think of Holbrook--Teeny-bits, as they call him?"
"Why, I've always liked him," said Mr. Stevens.
"Are you quite sure of him?"
For an instant Mr. Stevens did not answer, and then he said quickly: "Yes, I----, oh, I'm sure he's all right. In fact, I've considered him as the same type--though, of course, with a different background--as Neil Durant; and you know what I think of Neil."
If Doctor Wells had noticed the slight pause which preceded the English master's reply, he gave no sign. "I agree with you," he declared. "But I want to tell you about a puzzling incident that happened last night."
Briefly, but omitting no important detail, Doctor Wells told Mr. Stevens of the unsigned letter that accused Teeny-bits, of his conference with the newcomer and of the visit to Gannett Hall. When the Head described the discovery of the stolen property beneath the floor of Teeny-bits' closet, the expression on Mr. Stevens' face changed.
"You actually found those things in his room!" exclaimed the English master. He was sitting in the same chair in which Teeny-bits had sat just twelve hours before.
Doctor Wells, sitting opposite, smiled slightly at the surprise in Mr. Stevens' voice; he had heard just such a quality of surprise mingled with indignation in the voice of Teeny-bits.
"It astonishes you as much as it did me," said the Head. "What do you think of it?"
Mr. Stevens sat and looked into the fire and did not answer the question. The room became so quiet that the clock on the mantel seemed to raise its voice,--as if suddenly it had become animate and wished to make itself heard. It ticked out a full minute and sixty seconds more and then--as it were--became silent, for the voice of the English master drowned it out.
"That put a real problem up to me," he said. "I didn't know at first what to do, but I think I see clearly now. Something happened last night--something I couldn't quite explain; I've been puzzling over it. Unless I were sure--well sure that you know just what weight to give to outward appearances, I shouldn't tell you this; everything considered, however, I think you ought to know it. The incident happened last night only a few minutes before you asked me to send Holbrook over to you."
While Doctor Wells listened with an intentness that was revealed by the lines of his contracted brows, Mr. Stevens described how he had found Teeny-bits crouching in the shrubbery behind Gannett Hall and mentioned the newcomer's confusion at being discovered.
"I've always believed that character inevitably expresses itself in a person's face," said Doctor Wells, "and I have come gradually into the conviction that I can read faces. I _thought_ I had made no mistake in this case--and I think so still. But they say there _are_ exceptions to the general rule. I don't know--well, for the present, the only thing to do is to wait. Time is a great revealer of secrets."
On Wednesday and Thursday the Ridgley football team went through light signal practice which was intended, as Coach Murray said, to "oil the machinery" and "polish off the rough spots." Thursday afternoon the whole school marched down to the field to watch the practice and to test their cheering and their songs.
At dark when the team was in the locker building Coach Murray announced that there would be no practice on Friday. "I want you to _forget football_ from now until Saturday," he said. "Imagine that no such game ever existed. To-morrow, go on a little walk somewhere or take it easy in any way you like, but don't bother your brains with any football thinking."
On Friday afternoon Tracey Campbell, at the suggestion of Bassett, decided to "forget football" by taking a little tour in his father's automobile. Tracey telephoned home, discovered that the elder Campbell was out of town, and had little difficulty in persuading his mother to send the chauffeur over to Ridgley with the car. Tracey suggested that he might take along one or two members of the football team, but Bassett made a remark or two that caused the substitute back to change his mind. After driving to the "mansion" and leaving the chauffeur, Tracey and Bassett rode out into the country and came back by the way of Greensboro. Their conversation had been none too pleasant, for there were certain things between them that furnished grounds for differences of opinion. But Bassett was clever--more clever than most of the members of Ridgley School believed him to be--and he had a way of putting his finger on weak spots and causing irritation that resulted in action. As on two previous occasions, the pair stopped at Chuan Kai's Oriental Eating Palace, and there Bassett gave voice to what he considered as a finality.
"Well," he said, "if Teeny-bits weren't on hand for the game, of course you'd play in his place, as you deserve to, and then you'd get your letter and the runabout."
"Well, he'll be there, so don't worry yourself about that," said Campbell. "He's on the inside and nothing you can do--got a match? I'm going to smoke."
"Didn't you tell me one time that Chuan Kai had a regular den upstairs where no one ever went--except the Chinks?"
"I guess so," said Tracey.
"The trouble with _you_," was Bassett's next remark, "is that you can't see a real chance when it's right in front of your nose. Now listen, and I'll tell you something."
The result of the conversation that went on between Bassett and Campbell during the next quarter of an hour was that Campbell finally got up from the table and said:
"We'll talk to Chuan Kai."
As an outcome of what passed between the two members of Ridgley School and Chuan Kai, an agreement was made which involved the payment of a certain amount of money. Chuan Kai counted the bills and slipped them out of sight within the folds of his loose-fitting coat. He had more than one reason for undertaking to help these two young members of the white race; they had money which moved from their pockets to his pockets and they had promised him more; the owner of the building in which Chuan Kai had established the business of the Oriental Eating Palace was Campbell, the leather dealer. Third reason, and greatest in the Chinese mind, was the fact that years ago, but not so long but that the memory of it was as vivid as a lightning flash on a black night, Campbell--who had not been above turning his hand to various undertakings that, though murky of purpose, were productive in returns--had circumvented certain laws that prevented a yellow man from gaining entrance to the land of the Americans. The father of this youth held Chuan Kai in the hollow of his hand, and Chuan Kai knew that a few words spoken to the enforcers-of-law would send him away from these shores, where living came so easily, back to China where stalked a specter which he had reason to fear with the fear of one whose heart trembles like the heart of a field mouse that hears the cry of the long-taloned owl. Those reasons trooped through the Oriental's mind as his black eyes shifted from the face of Campbell to the face of Bassett.
"You understand," said Bassett. "It's an initiation for one of our school societies and it must be always a secret--never tell any one we had anything to do with it. You understand?"
Yes, Chuan Kai understood; he knew English and he knew well enough what societies were; this he imagined was a "play" society, the kind with which young Americans amused themselves, quite unlike some societies he knew about.
Chuan Kai called out suddenly two words that sounded to Bassett and Campbell like "_Ka-wah changsee_", and within twenty seconds one of the Chinese waiters stood in the doorway with an expectant look in his eyes. More words of Chinese like pebbles rattling over stones and falling into water flowed from the singsong lips of Chuan Kai. The waiter went away and came back with a broad-shouldered Chinaman whose sleeves were rolled up, revealing sinewy yellow muscles. Campbell and Bassett guessed that he came from the kitchen where he had been cutting meat, for his hands were red and the apron he wore was stained. Chuan Kai spoke to these two hench-men at some length; they replied in guttural syllables that signified understanding.
A little after dark, on that same Friday evening, Teeny-bits came back from supper at Lincoln Hall and went up to his room. He had taken a walk with Neil Durant and Ned Stillson and had made up his mind that he would go to bed early and keep his thoughts away from the things that were troubling him. He had started to undress and had removed his shirt and collar, when some one shouted up from below:
"Oh, Teeny-bits, you're wanted on the telephone."
Teeny-bits pulled on a sweater and went downstairs. In answer to his inquiry he heard a voice--an unnaturally gruff voice, he remembered afterwards--telling him startling news. His father, old Daniel Holbrook, had been hurt--a train had struck him at the station--Teeny-bits was wanted at home at once.
Waiting to hear no more, he hung up the receiver and without pausing to tell any one where he was going, hurried out of Gannett Hall and ran across the campus toward the hill-road that led down to the village of Hamilton a mile away. He had covered half the distance when he saw an automobile just ahead of him standing beside the road. As he approached, he noticed that, though the lights were out, the engine was running; he determined to explain the emergency and ask for a ride to the village. He never made the request, however, for as he came abreast of the car he heard a sharp whistle close beside him and was suddenly assailed by two dark figures that sprang upon him and, almost before he could struggle, bore him to the ground.
Teeny-bits had been in many a rough-and-tumble wrestling match and was able to take care of himself in competition with any ordinary opponent, even when weight was against him; he struggled desperately, but within the space of a very few seconds he realized that he was helpless. At the first onslaught something that felt like a voluminous cloth had been thrown over his head and he found himself enveloped in its folds; he tried to cry out for help, but his voice was muffled and ineffective. Though unable to see his assailants, he kicked and struck out with desperation, but all to no avail. His feet were brought together and fastened with the same material that covered his head and pinioned his arms to his body. In a moment he felt himself raised from the ground and realized that he was being lifted into the automobile. Hands fumbled at the cloth about his head, tightening the folds over his mouth and eyes, loosening the folds over his nose so that, though he could neither see nor talk, he could breathe without difficulty.
The whole attack had been carried out swiftly, and it was so entirely different from anything that Teeny-bits had experienced that he felt dazed and bewildered. The automobile was moving rapidly now, as he could tell by its tremulous motion and its frequent lurches. No sound that would aid him in identifying his assailants came to his ears, however, and he could only helplessly await the next development. A cautious tightening of his muscles convinced him quickly that it was of no use whatever to strain against his bonds. Whoever these men were who had bound him in so strange a manner, they had done their work well. Minutes passed, and still the automobile rolled on swiftly; whither it was carrying him--north or south or east or west--Teeny-bits had no way of knowing. Finally it began to move more slowly and after a few moments vibrated as if passing over cobble-stones.
Teeny-bits knew instantly when it came to a stop, for the vibrations ceased. Only a moment passed before he felt himself lifted by two pairs of hands and a moment later realized by the sound and the motion that he was being carried up a long flight of steps. He heard a door open and shut and he sniffed a strange odor; food cooking and smoke, it seemed to suggest, but strange food and strange smoke. Another flight of steps was mounted, another door was opened, and Teeny-bits felt himself deposited upon something that seemed like a mattress. He tried to speak, to ask where he was and what his captors intended, but only muffled mumblings came from his lips. He heard the door close and knew that he was alone. A feeling of despair, the equal of which he had never experienced, swept over him; he was in the power of nameless enemies whose purposes were unknown and perhaps sinister.
For a long while Teeny-bits lay in dumb misery, while one dismal thought after another marched through his mind. On the eve of the big game--the game in which for long weeks his hopes had been fastened, first with interest and then with an almost feverish anticipation--he had been mysteriously spirited away. Now he would not even witness the great struggle between his school and its ancient rival--to say nothing of playing and winning his R. But there were other thoughts. What of his father,--old Daniel Holbrook? Teeny-bits now suspected that the telephone summons was part of a plan to entice him away from the school, but, of course, there was a possibility that an accident had occurred and that even now Daniel Holbrook was hovering between life and death, and wondering why Teeny-bits did not come to him. There was still another thought: circumstances had cast about him a cloud of suspicion which was evident to two persons whose respect he wished to retain,--Doctor Wells and Mr. Stevens. What would their feeling toward him be when they learned that he had disappeared from the school without saying a word to any one? They could arrive at only one conclusion: that he was guilty of stealing from his schoolmates and that, fearing to face the charges against him, he had run away like a coward. If the worst should happen--if he should not come out alive from the predicament in which he now found himself--his name would be remembered forever as that of one who had neither honor nor courage.
Those thoughts seemed to Teeny-bits more than he could bear, and suddenly a feeling of bitter rage welled up within him against the unknown enemy who had caused him all this misery. He could not believe that Snubby Turner had anything to do with it. The only persons in Ridgley School whom he had reason to suspect were Bassett and Tracey Campbell. He made up his mind that if he ever escaped from his present predicament he would go straight to those two members of Ridgley School and ask them point-blank if they were at the bottom of his troubles. If they could not come forth with an answer that rang true, he would give them both a thrashing that they would never forget. He would welcome a chance to meet them singly or as a pair. He began to struggle at his bonds and was soon dripping with perspiration from his efforts. After a time he saw the uselessness of it and, almost exhausted, lay breathing deeply the close atmosphere of the room.
The night before the "big game" at Ridgley School resembled the lull before a storm; word had been passed as usual that the dormitories were to be quiet and members of the school were to keep away from the rooms of the football players, who, of course, needed, on this night of all nights, a sound and long sleep. In Lincoln Hall, at meal time, there had been a hum of eager conversation: the Jefferson team had arrived in Hamilton and had gone to comfortable quarters at Grey Stone Inn, three miles from the school. They would remain at the inn until just before the game, when they would come to the field in automobiles. Several of the Ridgleyites who had been in the station at the time of the visitors' arrival reported that the Jefferson players were "huskies" and that Norris, the renowned full-back, was the biggest "of the lot." The main body of Jefferson students would arrive by special train at noon on Saturday.
Many a member of Ridgley School on this eve of the great struggle was filled with a feeling of restlessness; it seemed that the minutes were dragging with indescribable slowness, that the night would never pass and that the hour would never come when the referee would blow his whistle to start the contest upon which the Ridgley hopes and fears were centered.
Among those restless spirits who longed for some way to speed the minutes was Snubby Turner. He had gone down to the Hamilton Station and had come away not at all reassured by the sight that had met his eyes. The representatives of Jefferson School were a formidable looking lot, and it increased Snubby's peace of mind not at all to have had a close view of Norris' athletic form. He sensed a feeling of overflowing confidence in these big sons of Jefferson, and he longed to talk to some one who could dispel his doubts and drive away the insidious fears that were gnawing at what he called his "Ridgley spirit." In these circumstances he would have gone to Teeny-bits, or he might even have imposed upon the hospitality of Neil Durant,--if he had not known that loyalty to the school demanded that he should not bother any member of the eleven. He finally sought consolation by going down to the basement of Gannett Hall to pay a visit to old Jerry. He found the ancient janitor's assistant leaning back in a rickety chair reading by the light of an unshaded electric bulb. The old man put the volume down upon his knee and looked at Snubby with eyes that seemed to be gazing on distant scenes.
"What kind of book is that?" asked Snubby. "A novel?"
Old Jerry thrust his head forward slightly, as if seeing his visitor for the first time, and said:
"There's _ijeers_ in this book, I wanter tell yer. It's about an awful smart feller who had ways of his own in gettin' at the bottom o' things--kind of a detecative chap."
Snubby looked at the title and saw that it was "The Mystery of the Million Dollar Diamond."
"It does a man good sometimes to exercise his brains on meesterious happenin's," said old Jerry, "and you know we got plenty o' reason to study up things o' that sort."
"Yes, we have; but I'm not half as much interested in that stuff just now as I am in the Jefferson game. Who do you think's going to win?"
Old Jerry laid the book carefully aside on his table, looked at his questioner seriously for a moment and said:
"I got my ijeers about that too, but it don't do no good to tell everythin' that is millin' aroun' in your head. Now I once heared of a feller who had a job forecastin' the weather for a noospaper, and he'd allus say right out _positive_ whether it 'ud rain or shine--it was allus goin' to be bright and clear or dark and stormy--and along come a spell o' weather and every day for a week he said it was going to rain, and I'll be singed if there was a cloud in the sky all through them seven days--and the feller lost his job. Now the way I look at the game is this: we got a big chance to win and we got a big chance to lose, and if we do the things we oughter do it's goin' to be bright and fair, and if we do the things we hadn't oughter do it's goin' to be dark and stormy,--and I got my ijeers which is which. But, as I said, it don't do too much good to tell _everythin'_ you know."
"It'll be an awful fight," said Snubby; "a terrible fight every single minute of the time, and I'll bet you two cents to a tin whistle that when that Jefferson crowd of heavy-weights gets through they'll know they've been playing somebody. I wish there were something I could do. I'm so doggone restless that I don't believe I'll sleep a wink to-night."
Old Jerry gave voice to a cackle of mirth. "Bet you'll sleep all right," he said. "I never yet seen a feller like you that didn't sleep when the time come for it, and as for helping, I guess you'll do your part if you keep on believin' that Ridgley School can't be beat and when the game is goin' on you yell your dumdest to encourage the team."
"Well," said Snubby, "I suppose you want to go on readin' that lurid-looking book of yours, so I'll be going up to my room, I guess."
"It ain't so lurid," said Jerry, "but it's interestin' 'cause it's kind o' teachin' me how to put two and two together so's they'll figger up to make four, if you know what I mean, and then I'm a mite stirred up myself about that game to-morrer and it's quietin' to my nerves."
So Snubby Turner left his friend in the little basement room, walked quietly up the stairs to his room and made up his mind that the best thing for him to do was to turn in.
Mass meetings, preliminary games and final practice were over and everything now awaited the climax of the season. By half-past nine lights were going out in the dormitories and presently quiet reigned over the white buildings on the hill and the stars, sending down their radiance from a clear sky, presaged fair weather for the great contest. The light was out in Teeny-bits' room and no one in the school--with the exception of two persons--doubted that the smallest member of the eleven was not sleeping soundly beneath the roof of Gannett Hall.
Saturday morning dawned as fair as the fairest day in the year; there was a nip in the air that suggested winter, but as the morning wore on, the mounting sun mellowed the chill until the "old boys"--men who had played for Ridgley and Jefferson twenty years before and who had come back to view once again the immortal combat between the "best school in all the world" and her greatest rival--slapped each other on the back and said:
"Perfect football weather!"
All roads led to Ridgley--or seemed to--on this day of days. The trains came rolling into the Hamilton Station, discharged their burdens of humanity and rolled on. Automobiles by the score climbed the long hill to the school,--automobiles bearing the fluttering red of Ridgley and the fluttering purple of Jefferson. There were shouts of greeting and shouts of gay challenge, honking of horns and a busy rushing here and there that suggested excitement, anticipation and hopes built high. And then came the special train from Jefferson--the Purple Express, so named--bearing hundreds of cheering students and a brass band of twenty pieces which led the procession into Lincoln Hall to the strains of the Jefferson Victory Song,--a fiendish piece of music in the ears of Ridgley's loyal sons, a stirring pean of confidence and challenge in the ears of those who waved aloft the purple. At Lincoln Hall the Jefferson guests--according to immemorial custom--sat down to a luncheon that Ridgley School provided. A year later the compliment would be returned. The band played, the visitors cheered, the song leader jumped on a table and swung his arms in time to the latest Jefferson song,--and all Ridgley School knew that Jefferson was having the time of her life. She had come to her rival with the best team in her history and she meant to enjoy every moment of a triumph which she was confident would be colossal. In all this excitement Teeny-bits' absence was not at first noticed. At breakfast some one asked for him and some one else said:
"I guess he's already eaten and gone; he probably didn't want to listen to our football gossip."
During the course of the morning two members of the faculty called for him--Doctor Wells and Mr. Stevens. They had an identical thought in mind--though neither knew that the other was thinking it. They were busy in extending the hospitality of Ridgley to the members of the Jefferson faculty and in greeting the "old boys" who had returned for the big game, but both wanted to have a word with Teeny-bits,--to tell him that they had confidence in him and that they knew everything would turn out right in the end and that they should watch him with special interest this afternoon and knew that he would forget everything else and play his best for Ridgley. They left word for him at the dormitory.
This was no ordinary game of football--Ridgley-Jefferson games never were ordinary--and this would transcend all past contests between the two schools. Jefferson was said to be irresistible; the Ridgleyites knew that the spirit of their team was irresistible, and when two "irresistible" forces come together something must give way. From Springfield, the nearest large city, came numerous copies of the _Springfield Times_ with pictures of all the players and statistics in regard to age, weight and height. The largest amount of space was given to Norris, the Jefferson full-back, but Neil Durant came in for his share and a paragraph was devoted to Teeny-bits who was described in these words:
"The Ridgley left-half will be the lightest player on the field; he cannot be expected to do much against the heavy Jefferson line, but he has gained a reputation as a shifty runner and deserves to be watched on open plays."
At noon, when Teeny-bits did not appear for the special luncheon that was served to the members of the team in the trophy room of the gymnasium, Neil Durant and Coach Murray began to make inquiries.
Nobody had an answer.
"He'll probably be along pretty soon," said the coach. "He ought not to be late to-day, though."
When the luncheon was half-eaten Neil Durant got up and announced that he was going to send some one to look for the missing member of the team. He found Snubby Turner and asked him to run up to Gannett Hall and look for Teeny-bits.
When Snubby came back at the close of the meal with the report that Teeny-bits was not in his room and that nobody, as far as he could discover, had seen him all the morning, Neil Durant said:
"Maybe he went home. We'll probably find him down at the locker building."
But when the members of the team arrived at the field half an hour later in order to prepare themselves leisurely for the game, Teeny-bits had not appeared.
"That's mighty queer," Neil said to Ned Stillson. "I can't understand it. If he doesn't come we'll have to play Campbell in his place--and somehow I haven't much faith in Campbell. I'm going to call up Mr. Holbrook at the Hamilton station and find out if he knows anything about Teeny-bits."
In answer to Neil's call, Mr. Holbrook's assistant reported that Mr. Holbrook had gone home to dinner and was not coming back till late in the afternoon; he was going to the game.
"The Holbrooks haven't a 'phone in their house, have they?" asked Neil.
"No, they haven't," came the reply.
"Well, do you know where Teeny-bits is?"
"Why, up at the school, I suppose; I haven't seen him," was the answer.
It was evident that Mr. Holbrook's assistant had no information; Neil hung up the receiver and said to himself:
"Well, if his father is coming that's a good sign. When Teeny-bits shows up, I'll give him a lecture that'll make his hair stand on end."
At quarter-past one, when the Ridgley team ran out on the field for warming-up practice, Coach Murray looked over the squad and yelled sharply:
"Campbell, get out there in left-half and let me see you show some _pep_."
The tone of his voice was like a whiplash, and every member of the team knew that he was angry clear through.
Already the stands were beginning to fill with the friends of Ridgley and of Jefferson, though the cheering sections were as yet empty. In two long columns, stepping in time to the music of their respective bands, the Ridgleyites and the Jeffersonians were marching to the field.
Teeny-bits Holbrook was not the sort to give up hope quickly. When, after struggling vainly against his bonds, he had exhausted his strength and had at last lain back panting for breath, he had begun to think,--to try in some way to devise a plan that would offer hope of escape. But there seemed to be no possible loophole, no stratagem or maneuver by means of which he could win release. Inaction was galling, and, after lying still for a long time, Teeny-bits again began to struggle and twist and squirm. These bonds with which his arms and hands and feet and legs were fastened did not give way under his most violent efforts and, as previously, he exhausted himself before he had accomplished anything.
For hours Teeny-bits alternated these periods of struggling and resting. Twice he was aware that some one came into the room and went out,--evidently after watching him for a few moments. How much time had passed since his captors had pounced upon him on the hill road to Hamilton he had no means of knowing, but it seemed likely that more than half the night had gone.
In one of his struggles Teeny-bits rolled off the edge of the mattress on which he had been lying; to his surprise he did not fall with a crash some two or three feet, as he would have fallen from a bed of the usual height, but merely dropped a few inches before coming in contact with the floor. Evidently the mattress rested on springs that were laid directly on the boards. Teeny-bits rolled himself this way and that until he brought up against a wall. He was about to roll in the other direction when he realized that the folds of cloth that bound him were caught against something; from the feeling--the slight pull that was exerted against the movement of his body--he came to the conclusion that it was a nail. He wriggled a few inches length-wise along the wall, and the sound of ripping cloth came to his ears,--a sound that brought a thrill of hope. If the bonds that imprisoned him were too strong to be broken by the power of his muscles, perhaps he could tear and rip them by edging himself back and forth against the sharp projection which, judging by sound, had already effected the beginning of what he desired. By twisting and turning, he succeeded, in the course of the next five minutes, in gaining a certain amount of freedom for his arms.
When Teeny-bits had left his room in Gannett Hall to answer the telephone call he had pulled on a light sweater. Now it occurred to him that if he could catch the lower part of the sweater on the nail, he might, by working his body downward, pull the garment over his head and carry with it the stout cloth in which he was still swathed. At the cost of some skin scraped from his back, he got the nail fastened in the sweater and gradually succeeded in turning it inside out. In a minute or two he said to himself, exultantly, he would have his hands free, and then it would be quick and easy work to untie his feet.
At that moment, when escape was almost within his grasp, dreaded sounds came to his ears,--the opening of the door and the shuffle of running feet. Teeny-bits was in a hopeless position to make any resistance; the folds of tough cloth which had been wound about his body, pinioning his arms, had been pulled upward with the sweater until the whole mass was bunched across the top of his bare shoulders, and though he was able to move his arms slightly, he was still so tangled that he could do nothing except await whatever fate was in store for him. Two persons came into the room; he heard them speak sharply and knew then that they were Chinese; there was no mistaking the outlandish inflection of vowel and consonant. In a second rough hands were laid upon him and he was dragged away from the wall. He gave a few last futile wrenches and then lay still, face down, on the floor.
His captors had him at their mercy; they could do with him what they wished. One of them was pulling at the folds of cloth; Teeny-bits could feel the man's hands on his bare back. Suddenly the hands paused in their work; then the sweater was pushed an inch or two higher and there came to Teeny-bits' ears one of the strangest sounds that he had ever heard: an exclamation, a startled cry in syllables that, though wild and meaningless in themselves, conveyed an unmistakable effect,--discovery and the highest degree of astonishment. This strange cry was answered in kind by another voice, and Teeny-bits felt the two Chinese fumbling at his back with trembling fingers. To his surprise he realized, after a moment, that they were loosening the bonds, that they were freeing his arms and legs and removing the folds over his mouth and eyes.
In a few moments Teeny-bits sat up and looked about him; he had the same sensation that a person sometimes experiences on waking at night in a room away from home and finding the walls too near or too far and windows where they should not be. He had imagined himself in a wide, high, dimly lighted room with two villainous-looking desperadoes bending over him with weapons plainly displayed. He found himself in a low-ceilinged, box-like, little room lighted by a flaring gas jet, with two astonished-looking Chinese gazing at him with slant eyes that seemed to be almost popping from their heads. They were jabbering their outlandish tongue up and down the singsong scale as if here before them, sitting on the floor, were a new species of being, newly discovered and strange beyond imagination. Teeny-bits did not know what to make of them; he blinked his eyes and remained sitting there, wondering what would happen next. Both of the Chinese seemed to be asking him questions and they were pointing at him in a way that brought the thought to Teeny-bits that they were both insane. Then he suddenly realized what was the cause of their excitement--one of them came closer and pointed down at his shoulder--at the terra-cotta colored mark which had excited comment at Ridgley School because it so strikingly resembled a dagger-like knife with a tapering blade and a thin handle.
"What's the idea of all this business?" demanded Teeny-bits.
The Oriental who stood beside him bent down and touched the mark as if trying to discover if it were real. He called out something to his companion and a flow of words passed between them.
Teeny-bits stood up stiffly and began to pull on his torn sweater, while the two Chinese watched him with fascinated eyes.
"Why did you bring me here?" he demanded. "Are you _crazy_, or what _is_ the matter with you?"
The two Chinese blinked at him vacantly; either they did not understand English or pretended not to. Suddenly one of them got down on his knees and began a queer song-like jabbering in which his companion joined.
Teeny-bits did not wait to listen, but began to move toward the door; he expected the men to jump in front of him and bar the way, but neither of them stirred until he was actually stepping out of the room. Teeny-bits ran stiffly down a dimly lighted flight of steps, then down another flight and out into a dark alleyway. Behind him he could hear the soft pattering of feet; the two Chinese were not far in the rear. Determined to waste no time in escaping, he dashed down the alley and came into a dark street; he ran faster and faster as the stiffness in his legs lessened, turning into one street after another, and he did not stop until he was breathing hard and had left the place of his captivity several hundred yards behind. He looked back then and listened. Apparently he had distanced pursuit, for no sounds of pattering feet came to his ears and he caught no glimpse of the two Chinese who had acted so strangely.
At any rate he was free,--though he did not know where he was; the streets down which he had been running were deserted; the houses were of brick tenement structure and stood close together. He went on at a swift walk, turning every few steps to look over his shoulder, and presently he came to a building which he recognized. It was the market that faced Stanley Square in Greensboro, a yellow brick building with a tall tower and a clock. As Teeny-bits gazed upward, trying to read the position of the hour hand in the half-light of the street lamps, the big timepiece boomed out two strokes. It was two o'clock.
Teeny-bits turned south along Walnut Street in the direction of Hamilton. When he had attended the high school in Greensboro he had gone twice each day on his bicycle over the four miles of road between the village and the bustling young city. He now set out at a swift walk, and as soon as he had passed the outskirts of Greensboro, he jogged along at a pace that kept him warm, in spite of his scanty attire and the nipping air.
Twice, while still on the city streets, he had passed belated pedestrians and once he had glimpsed a policeman under a street lamp. He had not paused, however, for his one desire was to get home and to discover if his father had been injured. It had occurred to him that perhaps he should report his experience to the police, but the thought then came to him that they might detain him,--and the one thing that he wanted now was freedom. So he went on swiftly toward Hamilton and before three o'clock was approaching the house that he had always known as home. All of the windows were dark,--a reassuring sign. If anything terrible had happened, surely there would be a light in the house.
Teeny-bits went round to the rear and tried the kitchen windows till he found that one was unlocked. Cautiously he let himself in; he did not intend to waken father and mother Holbrook unless there was evidence that something had happened. The kitchen was warm, and the cat, which always slept in a chair beside the woodbox, jumped down softly to the floor and came over to rub her body against his leg. Teeny-bits reached down and stroked the cat's soft coat; somehow, the contented purring of the creature convinced him that nothing was wrong in the house. He unlaced his shoes and tiptoed upstairs; in the hall he paused to listen; the quietness of the house was broken only by a faint but regular breathing; it came from the bedroom where old Daniel Holbrook slept. So all was right, after all.
With a great feeling of relief, Teeny-bits groped his way along the hall to the rear and opened the door to his own room. Suddenly he felt very tired and it seemed to him that he could not get into bed quickly enough. He pulled off his clothes, raised one of the windows, and in a moment had settled down upon the comfortable mattress and had pulled the covers up to his chin. He said to himself that he would sleep a little while and early in the morning hurry up to the school. A pleasant feeling of relaxation stole over him, his thoughts merged into drowsy half-dreams and almost immediately he sank into a slumber deeper than any he had experienced for many days.
He slept on and on; morning light came softly in at the curtained windows; in the front of the house his father and mother rose and went downstairs, and after a time old Daniel Holbrook went leisurely to his duties at the station. Still Teeny-bits slept his deep sleep and only the cat knew that he was in the house.
Just after twelve o'clock Daniel Holbrook came home to dinner; he stopped in the back yard for an armful of wood and entering the kitchen, dropped it in the box beside the stove. The rumble penetrated to the rooms above, and Teeny-bits sat up abruptly in bed, wide awake in a flash. This was the day of the big game; it was morning; he must hurry up to the school; he began hunting in the closet for fresh clothes and pulling them on in desperate haste. He was two thirds dressed when his door was pushed slowly open and father and mother Holbrook peered cautiously in; the look that he surprised on their faces was so ludicrous that he laughed.
"Land sakes alive, Teeny-bits!" cried Ma Holbrook. "What a tremulo you gave me. How'd you get here? Your pa and I heard you movin' around and I thought sure it was burglars!"
Teeny-bits sat on the edge of the bed and laughed and laughed,--it seemed so good to see them both alive and well; and old Daniel Holbrook, holding the dangerous-looking stick of wood that he carried up from the kitchen to use in dealing with burglars, slapped his thigh and laughed harder than Teeny-bits.
"Don't tell me you've been here all night!" he said at last.
"I came in through the kitchen window after you were asleep and I didn't want to disturb you," said Teeny-bits. "I was looking for a good sleep before the big game."
"I guess you got it _all right_," said Daniel Holbrook.
"What time is it?" asked Teeny-bits.
The station agent hauled out his big silver watch, looked at it critically and announced: "Twenty-nine minutes past twelve."
"Past _twelve_!" repeated Teeny-bits. "It can't be."
Daniel Holbrook swung round the face of the watch and proved the correctness of his statement. "Kinder late for a boy to be gettin' up," he remarked with a chuckle.
Teeny-bits had made an instant resolve that this kindly couple who were father and mother to him should not be burdened with his troubles. He jumped to his feet and cried:
"The game starts in an hour and a half; I've got to hustle up there."
"Not until you've eaten," said Ma Holbrook, firmly. "Dinner's ready this minute."
Teeny-bits did a bit of swift mental calculation; the team was already at lunch; he could not reach the gymnasium in time to be with them; it would be better to eat here and join the squad at the field.
"I don't want much," he said. "Just a little and then I'll have to go."
"I'll hitch up Jed," said Daniel Holbrook, "and we'll all ride up together; your ma and I were intendin' to start pretty soon, anyway."
Thus it happened that Teeny-bits Holbrook rode up to the game behind the sorrel horse and arrived at the locker building fifteen minutes before the contest was scheduled to begin. While the sound of the preliminary cheering and singing rang in his ears he pulled on his football togs in frantic haste, dashed out of the building and ran along behind the stands until he came to the opening that led underneath to the field itself. He appeared at the players' shelter just as Coach Murray was about to shout out the order for Neil to bring the team in off the field.
Mr. Murray's features wore an expression that was sterner than any that had been seen on his face that fall. The Ridgley team had been experiencing a species of stage fright. It seemed that Neil Durant was the only one of the back-field who could hold the ball. Campbell and Stillson and Dean had fumbled again and again, and Campbell was the worst of the three. When the coach saw Teeny-bits he closed his mouth with a click and looked the left-half back through and through with eyes that blazed; he laid rough hands on the newcomer's shoulders and said in a voice that rasped:
"Do you want to play in this game?"
As Teeny-bits had come running from the locker building and heard the volume of cheering, the fear had grown larger and larger that he was too late--that the game had started, that he had lost his chance. He felt an overwhelming eagerness and he meant every word of his answer to Coach Murray's question.
"I think I'll _die_ if you don't let me," he said, and his face wore such a look of earnestness and appeal that the coach's grim expression relaxed a little.
"Don't stop to explain why you 're late--I hope you have a good excuse--but run out there and tell Campbell to come in."
THE GREAT GAME
Teeny-bits raced out on the field as if he had been shot from a cannon. The greeting that the team gave him was very different from the one that they had accorded him that day a few weeks before, when he had run out to take his place as a regular after the injury to White.
"Here's Teeny-bits!" some one yelled.
A chorus of shouts greeted the half-back, and Neil Durant came running to meet him halfway.
"I ought to _murder_ you right now," said the captain, "but I'm so glad to see you I'll wait till after the game. Gee, I'm _glad_ you've come."
By this time half a dozen of the team were slapping Teeny-bits on the back and he had slipped into his position behind the line. Campbell had needed no word to inform him that he was relieved of his duties at left-half; he had given Teeny-bits one startled glance and had headed for the side line. Dean called out the signals while the team ran through a series of plays. "Come on now; we're all here; let's go," cried Neil, and the team responded with a snap. The Ridgley cheering section had noticed the advent of Teeny-bits and a buzz of conversation went around, for his absence during the warming-up had been the subject of increasing comment.
Down at the other end of the field the Jefferson team was running through signals and trying punts and drop kicks. Simultaneously the teams ceased their practice and gathered at the two benches at opposite sides of the field. Neil Durant, Norris and the referee then met in mid-field and flipped a coin for choice of goals. There was little advantage, for almost no wind was stirring, but Norris, who won the toss, quickly chose the south goal and a moment later the two teams ran out and took their places. Ridgley was to kick off to Jefferson.
Neil Durant helped Ned Stillson set the ball on the mound of earth and Ned drew back a few yards. A hush had settled over stands and field; down in the shadow of the south goal posts stood Norris, bending slightly forward, eager to get the ball in his arms; in front of him were his team-mates spread out to cover their half of the field. Just beyond the center was the line of Ridgley players. Suddenly these eleven players moved, the referee's whistle cut the hush, the ball went sailing down the field and shouts arose from every quarter of the stands. The moment had at last arrived; the big game was on.
Teeny-bits felt keen and fit; his long sleep had completely refreshed him. As he raced down the field one thought was in his mind: to get into the play and tackle whatever Jefferson man caught the ball. Ned Stillson had made a clever kick-off; the leather oval flew to the right of Norris and settled into the arms of one of his team-mates, who had dashed forward only ten yards when Neil Durant met him with a clean, hard tackle and brought him solidly to earth. Even such a small incident as that evoked a howl of delight from the Ridgley stands, for such was the reputation of Jefferson that there were those who fearfully expected to see the wearer of the purple dash through the whole Ridgley team and score a touchdown at the first effort. The cheer leader ordered the short Ridgley yell for the team and the stand responded with a hoarse roar. There was scarcely a son of Ridgley gazing down on the field but whose teeth were gritted together, whose breath was coming fast, and whose voice as he shouted encouragement to the team was like the voice of a man hurling defiance to a mortal enemy.
As the two teams lined up for the first scrimmage, Teeny-bits got his first close view of Norris. The famed full-back of the purple was of about Neil Durant's height, of an impressively powerful build, but not so heavy as to appear sluggish. He looked the Ridgley team over with steady, appraising eyes; his face was keen and determined,--the very look of him indicated that he was on the field for business.
The Jefferson quarter was snapping out the signals; his voice cut the medley of shouts that echoed back and forth across the field like the shrill voice of a dog barking in a tempest. Suddenly the ball moved and the first scrimmage was on. The Jefferson right half-back had the ball and the play was aimed at center; big Tom Curwood, however, was equal to the occasion; he stopped the play before the purple-clad son of Jefferson had covered a yard beyond the Ridgley line.
A second wild howl of delight went up from the Ridgley stands; those two small incidents, the quick downing of the runner after the kick-off and the stiff stand of the Ridgley line on this first play from regular formation, had brought a sudden feeling of confidence. Down there on that white-lined field the wearers of the red had begun to show that they could hold their own. But the next play--an end run by the left-half, who made seven yards and advanced the purple within two yards of first down--brought a thunderous roar from the other side of the field.
The Jefferson captain now stepped back into kicking position. The ball was snapped as if for a punt, but Norris, instead of kicking, started around the Ridgley right end. Neil Durant went over swiftly, but one of the Jefferson backs formed perfect interference and the big wearer of the purple, evading the Ridgley end and the captain went through into an open space,--and almost before the Jefferson stands had begun to shout encouragement to him had covered twenty yards.
It was Teeny-bits running diagonally across the field who finally made the tackle. To the Ridgley left-half a strange feeling had come as he saw Norris break away; it had seemed to him, for a brief instant, that anything he could do would be of no use whatever. In the next moment he found himself almost upon Norris and before he had time to think he had made a tackle that turned the despairing groans of the Ridgley supporters into a yell of relief. The great Jefferson full-back had been stopped dead by the smallest man on the field. Norris got to his feet and looked at Teeny-bits with the same expression of interest that had appeared on the faces of the Ridgley regulars weeks before when Teeny-bits had made his first appearance with the scrub.
"Some tackle!" he exclaimed, and grinned, as much as to say: "Well, well, that's pretty good for a little fellow."
In the scheme of plays as outlined before the game by Coach Murray, Ridgley when on the defensive was always to keep an eye open for Norris. Neil Durant had been told off to watch the Jefferson captain; it was his duty to shift his position always in accordance with any shift that Norris made. Of course the Ridgley ends--and every member of the team for that matter--had been drilled to be "in" on every play; upon Neil, however, had been placed the responsibility of seeing that the purple leader did not escape into an open field. But if Ridgley was watching Norris, Jefferson was watching Durant, and Neil found himself, as the game went on, more and more the target of Jefferson players who were quick to realize that Durant had been given the responsibility for stopping their captain. When Norris carried the ball, Neil, coming in swiftly to intercept him, time and again found his way blocked by a Jefferson player who flung himself across his path.
After the twenty-yard run by the Jefferson captain there was a succession of line plunges which gained first down for the purple; then came another end run by Norris which brought the ball beyond the middle of the field. Here the Ridgley team made a stand that the newspaper reporters later described as a "stone-wall defense"; after three tries Jefferson had succeeded in advancing the ball only five yards. Whipple, of the purple team, then sent a long spiral punt down the field; the leather oval flew over the head of Dean, rolled across the goal line and was brought out twenty yards to be put in play by the Ridgley team.
For the first time Ridgley had an opportunity to carry the ball, and the cheer leader, who had been gyrating frantically in front of the stands where the red color was waving, called for a cheer with three "Teams" on the end.
Dean gave the signal for Ned Stillson to carry the ball. Ned responded by dashing into a hole that big Tom Curwood made for him at center and, to the unmeasured delight of every son of Ridgley, advanced seven yards before he was brought to earth. On the next play Neil Durant slid around right end for a first down and it was now the turn of the red to wave aloft its colors. The Ridgley quarter-back then gave the signal 7, 16, 11, which indicated a double-pass play. The ball came back to Stillson who, after starting toward the right end, passed to Neil Durant who was going at a terrific pace in the opposite direction. Teeny-bits' duty was to form interference for his captain and he suddenly found himself "Indianizing" the captain of the Jefferson team. It was perfect interference and although Teeny-bits felt somewhat as if he had come in contact with a charging locomotive he experienced a thrill of utter joy as he felt the big Jefferson captain come down upon him and saw Neil Durant break through. The Ridgley captain used his straight arm on one Jefferson player, dodged another, and crossed line after line with two wearers of the purple fiercely pressing him. No Ridgley player was within reach to form interference, however, and after one of the Jefferson men had made a desperate attempt to tackle and had rolled on the ground, the other coming up swiftly brought Neil down on the thirty-yard line.
Every one on the west side of the field was standing up, and here and there hats--not always those which belonged on young heads--were being thrown into the air. More than one gray-haired man was yelling like a red Indian on the war path. A feeling of confidence that the victory would rest with Ridgley swept from one end of the stands to the other. Friends and strangers were making happy remarks to each other to the effect that this would be a glorious day for the school on the hill.
The triumphant feeling was short-lived, however, for on the next play the Jefferson left end came in swiftly and downed Ned Stillson, who was carrying the ball, for a loss of three yards.
A forward pass, Dean to Durant, gained five yards, but the next play met with a stiff defense and Neil Durant determined that the time had come to attempt a drop kick. He fell back a few yards, looked for a smooth spot upon which to drop the ball and a second later delivered the kick. The Jefferson ends had come in so fast, however, that Neil was forced to send the ball away hurriedly, and the leather flew wide of the goal posts.
While the ball was being brought out to the twenty-yard line, Norris gathered his players around him for a few seconds. What he said apparently had an immediate effect, for when the play continued, Jefferson seemed to be filled with a new spirit. From the twenty-yard line the eleven invaders advanced down the middle of the field, mostly by line rushes. At that point they tried a forward pass, and the ball, when it came to a stop, rested on the Ridgley thirty-five-yard line.
Teeny-bits was breathing hard; he had thrown himself into each play with every ounce of strength and determination at his command and more than once had helped retard the advance of the purple. Neil Durant, too, had been strong in defense, but the Jefferson team could not be denied. From the thirty-five-yard line the purple started a play which brought gloom to the Ridgley stands. Norris ran with the ball round right end, somehow succeeded in evading the Ridgley primary defense, dodged both Durant and Teeny-bits and before the horrified eyes of the members of Ridgley School dashed madly down the field, over the goal line and round until he had placed the ball squarely behind the goal posts. On the black scoreboard a white figure 6 appeared after the name of the visiting school and a few moments later it was replaced by a 7.
Jefferson kicked off to Ridgley and the game was on more fiercely than ever, for Neil Durant's team meant to lose no time in winning back the superiority which had seemed to be theirs in the opening moments of the quarter, and the Jefferson players, for their part, meant to amplify their advantage until it assumed the proportions of the triumph, upon the attainment of which they had set their hearts.
All other games--their long succession of victories--were forgotten; the result they achieved against their ancient rival would overshadow everything else.
Ridgley was forced to kick after gaining one first down, by means of a forward pass, and the ball, once more possessed by Jefferson, was soon making an advance which influenced some one with a raucous voice in the purple stands to yell out in a lull of the cheering:
"It's all over, boys. Bring the undertaker!"
It did appear that Ridgley was in for a sorry time. Norris was living up to his reputation and seemed, in spite of the valiant efforts of every Ridgley player, to have luck always on his side. Once Stillson and Durant collided as they were about to tackle the Jefferson captain and the result was a twenty-yard gain which placed the ball again within the shadow of the Ridgley goal posts. Straight line plunges in which all of the Jefferson backs shared brought the ball to the Ridgley five-yard line for first down. Here the team that represented the school on the hill made a stand for three downs, but on the fourth attempt Norris, unexpectedly trying the end when a line plunge was anticipated, gained across the Ridgley goal line and brought the score to 13.
"Make it a lucky number," Teeny-bits heard the Jefferson captain say to Whipple who was preparing to kick the goal.
The Jefferson player followed the instructions of his captain to the letter,--and the man at the Scoreboard put up the number 14.
Certain weak spirits in the Ridgley stands now looked at each other with faces which showed plainly that hope had fled from them, that they now knew that the Jefferson menace which had been built up week after week by rumor and also by fact, as represented in scores, was real,--that the purple team was invincible, that Ridgley had met the irresistible force and could not by any alchemy of spirit turn defeat into victory.
Old football players, veterans of school and college struggles, looked down admiringly on the finely-polished team-work of the Jefferson eleven and said to themselves that this was _good football_ judged by _any_ standard.
A few minutes after the kick-off following the second score of the Jefferson team, the quarter came to an end and the teams exchanged goals. In the short rest period Neil Durant gathered his players about him and said a few things that every member of the eleven long remembered.
"Is there any one here," he asked, "who hasn't _more_ fight in him than he has shown yet?"
"We've just _begun_ this game and we haven't had our chance to show them what we can do when we carry the ball. We're going to _hold_ them first and then we're going to _show_ them something they've never learned."
They were commonplace words, but they came from the bottom of Neil Durant's heart and were delivered in such a manner that every member of the team gained fresh confidence and put back out of the realm of his thoughts the growing fear of defeat.
The ball was in Jefferson's possession at the middle of the field. On the very next play the purple left-half fumbled, and Neil Durant swooped down on the bouncing ball like a hawk on a sparrow.
The error seemed to "rattle" the Jefferson team. Dean called for an end run by Neil Durant and the captain responded by dashing forward for a fifteen-yard gain. Stillson then added five, and Teeny-bits, who was called upon to carry the ball for the first time, wriggled and dodged through the Jefferson team to the fifteen-yard line before he was stopped. In an attempt to surprise the enemy, Dean called upon Teeny-bits again, but this time the half-back was stopped almost before he was under way. Stillson, who carried the ball next, did better and reached the ten-yard line. Neil Durant then made a line plunge through an opening that the reliable Tom Curwood created and planted the oval five yards from the goal line for a first down. Jefferson made a strong stand, but in four tries the Ridgley team advanced the ball until it rested a few inches over that last white line, the crossing of which spelled a score.
The old-timers in the stands now settled into comfortable positions and said to each other: "This _is_ a game!"
Neil Durant's trusty toe sent the ball between the uprights and the game stood 14 to 7. Through the rest of the second quarter the red team and the purple team combated each other on equal terms. Neither seemed able to break the defense of the other and when the whistle sounded for the close of the first half they were fighting on equal terms in the center of the field.
While the stands were singing their songs and exchanging cheers between the halves the two teams rested in the locker building and listened to what their respective coaches had to say.
Coach Murray made his remarks short and to the point. He was entirely satisfied with the way the team had been playing; he knew that they could win. He warned them to watch Norris on every play and at the same time to beware of the Jefferson half-backs, who had proved their ability to carry the ball. He once more repeated one of the first things that belonged to his football creed: to watch the ball all of the time and to be ready, as Neil had been in the case of the Jefferson fumble, to take advantage of any "break." He also remarked on Dean's good judgment in running the team and said that he was glad the quarter-back had not attempted the trick play which the team had practiced during the last three weeks.
"The time will arrive for that in this second half," he said. "Be ready when it comes."
So deeply was Teeny-bits absorbed in the game that he had failed to notice that Campbell was not with the team until Curwood called attention to the fact that the substitute half-back was not in the locker building.
"I guess he's sore," some one remarked. "He thought he was going to play until Teeny-bits showed up."
All those events that had taken place during the past week seemed to Teeny-bits more like dreams than realities; the one thing that filled his mind now was the game and the conviction that Ridgley, in spite of the score against her, could and _would_ win. He had thrilled to Neil Durant's and Coach Murray's words and could hardly wait for the second half to begin.
Within a few minutes they were on the field again, spread out to receive the kick-off from Jefferson. The whistle sounded and the ball was in the air, whirling end over end; it fell into the arms of Ned Stillson, who ran swiftly behind the interference formed by his mates only to come to earth with a thump as a heavy Jefferson guard broke through and made the tackle.
On the next play Dean exhibited a bit of good judgment that worked to the advantage of the Ridgley team: noticing that the Jefferson quarter was dangerously close to the line he saw the chance to slip a punt over his head. The stratagem worked; the punt that Neil Durant sent away quickly sailed over the quarter-back's head and rolled down the field to the Jefferson five-yard line. The quarter ran after it, made a quick scoop, and attempted to come back but was stopped before he had taken half a dozen steps.
Fighting hard, the Ridgley team prevented the visitors from advancing and forced them to kick from their own goal line. Neil Durant caught the punt at mid-field and dashed forward ten yards before he was checked. The moment seemed ripe for a strong Ridgley advance, but Norris and his men met the attack with a stiff resistance and threw back the first two attempts for a loss of three yards. Dean, in glancing over the enemy's line, then saw the opportunity for which he had been waiting; the time had arrived to try the surprise play. He gave a signal which brought a thrill to Teeny-bits.
In the two forward-pass formations that the Ridgley team had used earlier in the game Neil Durant both times had been the man to receive the ball from Dean. The members of the team now took somewhat obvious positions and the Jefferson eleven immediately assumed that a forward pass was being contemplated. One of the tackles even voiced his warning: "Look out for a pass!" and Norris shifted his position slightly to keep an eye on the Ridgley captain. Teeny-bits' duty was to dash through to the left and to get into the open space beyond the Jefferson line.
The preliminaries of the play worked to perfection. At the snap of the ball Neil Durant started swiftly to the right and drew after him the major part of the Jefferson secondary defense. For the moment Teeny-bits seemed to have been forgotten: it did not occur to the purple players that, with the big captain running swiftly into position to take the pass, his smaller back-field team-mate would be the one to receive the oval.
As Dean seemed to be in the act of hurling to his captain, Teeny-bits won through to an open space; suddenly the quarter-back shifted and shot the ball, bullet-straight, into the hands of the half-back. Teeny-bits was running toward the Jefferson goal almost before he felt the hard leather touch his fingers; now or never was the instant to use every atom of his body in the one purpose of reaching the goal posts that were straight in front of him,--so near and yet so far away.
The whole Jefferson team realized in that fraction of a second when they saw the ball sail into the half-back's arms that their advantage, their prestige and their hope of glory in the annals of Jefferson football were at stake. They were after Teeny-bits like wolves on the trail of a rabbit, but only three of them had a chance to reach the Ridgley player. The first of these--the quarter-back--made the fatal mistake of underestimating Teeny-bits' speed. The half-back shifted direction slightly and eluded the grasp of the purple player. The other two were slightly in the rear and their only chance was to come up from behind and overtake the runner by superior swiftness. But they were not equal to it, and, although they tried valiantly and held their own, they did not succeed in gaining on the carrier of the ball as he crossed one white mark after another.
[Illustration: ONLY THREE OF THEM HAD A CHANCE TO REACH THE RIDGLEY PLAYER.]
A roar like the pounding of a mighty sea against a craggy shore sounded in Teeny-bits' ears, but it seemed to him distant and detached from the thing he was doing. For the moment he was a living machine of speed with only one thought in his mind,--to reach that last white line, to cross it and to plant the pigskin ball behind the padded goal posts. He did it,--and lay panting on the ground while Neil Durant came running up and slapped him on the back and said words to him which Teeny-bits never remembered.
The captain kicked the goal which tied the score while a continuous din of unorganized shouting rose from the Ridgley stands. It was no moment for organized cheering. The cheer leader himself was leaping up and down, throwing his megaphone into the air and emitting war whoops which were drowned and assimilated by the volume of shouts that echoed back and forth.
The old-timers up there in the stands now began to breathe fast; this was not merely a _good_ game of football, it was a _wonderful_ game, a struggle in which extraordinary playing and fine spirit and brains and courage were united to make a combat that would live long in the memory of every person who witnessed it.
Up where the red was waving aloft, a white-haired man who did not understand the plays of football very well suddenly found that he had grasped the idea of this magnificent game. He was thumping the back of some one whom he had never seen before and giving voice to such yells of delight that the motherly-looking woman who sat beside him said to herself that he must suddenly have gone out of his senses.
"Teeny-bits did something wonderful, then, didn't he?" she shouted in his ear, and old Daniel Holbrook, her husband, shouted back:
"You bet your _life_ he did; it was Teeny-bits; he ran all the way over the home plate or whatever they call it and made a score. I dunno but he's won the game _all by himself_."
In another part of the stands Doctor Wells was sitting beside Mr. Stevens.
"That was a magnificent run!" exclaimed the Head. "Magnificent! I declare--well--now we're even."
"Yes, we're even!" said the English master. "And I've discovered something."
"Well, they say that the head of this school never gets excited, but just now when Teeny-bits was running you nearly pushed me out of my seat--and I _think_ I heard a yell that came from your direction."
"Did I shout?" asked the Head.
"'Shout' isn't the word," said the English master. "_Yell_ with a capital Y describes it."
"Back in '86, I used to play half-back myself," said Doctor Wells. "Here we are; they're at it again."
Ridgley kicked off to Jefferson and immediately was subjected to a fierce assault that taxed the utmost powers of endurance to withstand it. The Jefferson team was fighting harder than ever and playing with machine-like smoothness. They carried the ball for twenty-five yards and then punted, and downed Neil Durant in his tracks. Ridgley fought hard to advance the ball and gained a first down, then, meeting with no further success, punted. And so the ball see-sawed back and forth until the piping whistle of the timekeeper announced the close of the third quarter.
A feeling of great happiness and determination had been filling Teeny-bits' mind during these last few minutes. At the same time a curious impression had been making itself felt upon him,--an admiration for this big captain of the Jefferson team who fought so hard and so cleanly, who rallied his men after each successful assault by the Ridgley team, and like Neil Durant, inspired them to fight harder and harder.
There was no need for talking now. In the brief interval before the last period of the game began, Neil Durant, looking at his team-mates, saw in their faces determination and confidence. Nothing that he could say or that _any one_ could say would alter their conviction that victory _must_ rest with the red.
That last period was a phase of the game that could justly be called a climax. It began with a steady and determined march of the Jefferson team which, starting from the twenty-yard line, carried the ball forward by line plunges, by forward passes, by end runs and by sheer, dogged determination on and on until the purple eleven was within the very shadow of the Ridgley goal posts and Jefferson seemed to have the victory within her grasp. A terrific run by the captain planted the ball on the Ridgley four-yard line for a first down, and there was no person shouting for the purple who did not believe that he was about to witness that most glorious of football events--a well-earned touchdown, after a magnificent march the length of the field.
Big Tom Curwood was battered, the guards beside him were battered and the tackles crouched low as if they would welcome a chance to lie down flat on the brown earth and rest. Neil Durant spoke a word and they stiffened, the secondary defense moved closer to the line and the whole team in one mass met the Jefferson charge. Once, twice, and three times the purple backs plunged into the red line and each time they carried the ball forward a little more than a yard.
On that third try the referee dived into the mass in a manner that suggested to the watchers that the score had been made, but when he finally got his hands on the ball it was apparent that Jefferson still needed a few inches. The signal came quickly and the two avalanches of bone and muscle plunged against each other. The pile subsided and one after another the players on the fringe drew away until the referee could see the ball. There was a moment of tense expectancy and then the official waved his arm in a direction that brought forth a vast yell of joy from the Ridgley stands. Jefferson had been held; that leather oval had failed by inches to cross the last thin smear of white.
The next event in this struggle between the red and the purple was a kick from behind the goal line by Neil Durant,--the longest punt that had ever been seen on the Ridgley field. It flew for sixty yards, went over the head of the Jefferson quarter and rolled down the field end over end. The purple player finally overtook it and attempted to recover the lost ground, but Ned Stillson checked his career and Jefferson lined up on her own thirty-yard line. She bravely attempted to repeat her heartbreaking advance and gained a first down; but the Ridgley team suddenly became an impenetrable barrier. A punt a moment later fell into the arms of Teeny-bits, who carried it back fifteen yards to his own forty-yard line.
As the teams lined up Neil Durant said, loud enough for the whole two elevens to hear, "Now comes our turn," and the fight for a decision began anew. Three substitutes came in now to bolster the Jefferson line, and Coach Murray sent in two Ridgley players to take the place of the left tackle and the right end, who were evidently pretty far gone.
In eight plays Ridgley advanced the ball thirty-five yards with Teeny-bits figuring in two, Stillson in two and Neil Durant in four. The captain then made a plunge through center and before he was stopped had planted the ball on Jefferson's eight-yard line. Teeny-bits tried to squirm through the purple line but was thrown back. Stillson gained two yards and Dean, who had reserved his captain for the final efforts, then gave the signal that called upon the full-back to carry the ball. Neil went into the line as if he had been hurled from a catapult. He dove into the opening that Tom Curwood, with a last burst of desperate strength, had made, took three steps and was astride the goal line. Norris made the tackle, but he was an instant too late; the big captain of the Ridgley team fell across the line and hugged the leather oval close to the brown earth while pandemonium reigned and the members of the red team hurled their headgears into the air.
Neil limped when he got to his feet and motioned to Tom Curwood to make the kick. Big Tom wobbled out in front of the goal posts and tried his best to add a point for the glory of Ridgley, but his foot wavered and the ball flew to the left of the goal posts. On the Scoreboard the figures remained: Ridgley 20--Jefferson 14.
The kick-off, two or three plays,--and then the timekeeper blew his piping note which brought to an end the struggle that was the true climax of all the games that had been played by the red and the purple since one school had stood on the hill above the town of Hamilton and another school had stood among the elms that sheltered the sons of Jefferson.
AT LINCOLN HALL
For a few seconds after the game ceased members of the two elevens sat or lay in the positions that they had occupied when the whistle had announced the expiration of time. They felt somewhat dazed,--on the one side overwhelmed with the wonderful thought that victory was theirs; on the other stunned with the bewildering thought that the impossible had happened, bringing defeat and disappointment.
Teeny-bits felt as if he wanted to rest where he had fallen in the last scrimmage with his body against the brown earth and let the happiness of victory sink in slowly, but suddenly he was aware that a howling mob had descended from the stands, that the members of the Ridgley team were surrounded by frenzied schoolmates who were insisting on lifting them up on their shoulders and carrying them off the field. He saw Neil Durant struggling in the grasp of half a dozen yelling Ridgleyites and the next moment felt himself lifted bodily and carried forward jerkily. He tried to resist but did not have the strength; and so he let them raise him up and transport him where they wished. It was a queer sight that met his eyes as he looked round him and saw his team-mates' heads and shoulders bobbing up and down above the milling crowd.
Never had Ridgley enjoyed a triumph more. Old-timers and young fellows alike were joining in the snake dance. Old Jerry, the janitor, was there prancing about in a comical, stiff-legged way; Mr. Stevens and half the faculty were there and every member of the school, while mothers, sisters and friends looked down from the stands and wished that they too might join the whirling mob.
The members of the team finally escaped from those who wished to honor them and made their way to the locker building where they sat and talked for a few minutes, regained their breath, rubbed their bruises and looked each other over. Outside they could hear the howling of the paraders and the booming of the bass drum as a line was being formed to march from the field to the school.
Meanwhile the Jefferson team, occupying another part of the locker building, was making ready to leave. In the shower-bath room the members of the two teams came together and exchanged such words as befit losers and winners when the fight has been fair and square and fast from beginning to end. While Neil Durant was dressing, Norris came over and held out his hand.
"Neil," said the captain of the Jefferson team, "I didn't believe that you could get away with it and I want to tell you that I think you have a great team. I never played against an eleven that could begin to equal it."
It was not easy for the Jefferson captain to say those words and it was not easy for Neil to reply.
"Oh," said the Ridgley captain, "I guess the breaks came our way. I feel as if I had been playing against a bunch of Bengal tigers. If we ever played again you'd probably trim the life out of us."
"I'd like to meet that little chap who played left-half for you," said Norris. "I never quite saw his equal."
Neil Durant called Teeny-bits, and the half-back shook hands with the captain of the Jefferson eleven.
"When you came on the field," said Norris, "I said to myself, 'I guess we can stop that fellow all right,' but before we got through I dreaded to see the quarter pass you the ball."
Teeny-bits did not know what to say, but he laughed and looked the big fellow in the eyes and remarked that he had had a "lot of luck" and that every time he tried to tackle Norris he felt as if he were trying to hold up a steam engine.
"Well," said Norris, "it's all over and I wish I were going to see more of you fellows. Why don't you come down to see me, Neil, and renew old times, and bring Holbrook along?"
After he was gone Teeny-bits turned to Neil and said, "I call that one fine fellow. He ought to have come to Ridgley."
According to its immemorial custom the Ridgley team, whether or not it was victorious in the struggle with its ancient rival, met in Lincoln Hall for a banquet a few hours after the close of the game. On this night while the rest of the school was busily engaged in heaping up piles of wood, rubbish, barrels and every imaginable kind of inflammable material, the members of the team gathered to discuss the victory and to hear the speeches that Coach Murray, as toastmaster, called for with the voice of authority. Any member of the eleven whom Mr. Murray singled out knew that it was his duty to get up on his feet and attempt to make a speech, although it probably was a much more difficult thing for him to do than to break through the Jefferson line.
Neil Durant had his say and thanked the members of the eleven for their loyalty and courage in a way that made them feel more than ever that he was the best captain in all the history of Ridgley football. Ned Stillson tried to keep out of sight by slumping down in his seat and getting behind big Tom Curwood, but Coach Murray singled him out and ordered him to stand up and make a speech. Every one laughed at Ned, and big Tom Curwood thought that the right half-back's attempt at oratory was so funny that he laughed louder than any one else until he heard Coach Murray's fatal words: "All right, Tom, you're next!" whereupon his features "froze" in a look of embarrassment. The roar that went up when Tom's face became suffused with red nearly caused the big center to claw his way out of the room and escape to the outer air. He cleared his throat two or three times and then, much to the surprise of every one, went through the ordeal as if he had prepared his speech hours in advance.
"I want to tell you fellows," said big Tom, "that I was scared pink, blue and green when that game started--those Jefferson linesmen and those husky back-field runners of theirs looked so fierce. I really wasn't afraid of them but I _was_ afraid of the thought that we were going to get licked. What really woke me up and made me feel that those fellows couldn't do a thing to us was to see the way Neil Durant and young Teeny-bits got going. I want to tell you that when I saw the captain go larruping into that bunch and when I heard the thump that Norris made when Teeny-bits brought him down I said to myself that I ought to be in a nursery for infants if I couldn't do a little rampaging on my own account. I know I didn't do a thing except let 'em walk over me, but I wasn't scared after that first minute and I knew that we couldn't lose if Neil and Teeny-bits didn't get laid out."
To Teeny-bits it was a surprise to hear his name linked in this way with that of his captain. In his own opinion he had, aside from the one fortunate play in which he had crossed the Jefferson goal line, contributed very little to the Ridgley victory, but as the evening went on and one player after another joined his name with that of Neil Durant, he saw that these big fellows with whom he had been so closely associated during the past few weeks felt, for some miraculous reason, that he had helped them to maintain their spirit and to carry the fight to Jefferson.
When it came Teeny-bits' turn, Coach Murray said: "We'll now hear from the chap who nearly gave us nervous prostration by forgetting that Ridgley was going to play a little game of football to-day."
As Teeny-bits stood up he thought of telling the members of the team why he had been late to the game, but he instantly decided that it was better to make his explanation alone to Neil Durant or the coach. He merely said:
"I had a pretty good reason for not getting to the field before I did,--I am going to tell Mr. Murray and Neil about it later. I haven't much to say regarding the game except that I knew we could win because we had the spirit to do it and because Neil was showing us the way all the time. To play on the eleven which beat a team that fought as hard and as clean as the Jefferson crowd is an honor that makes me dizzy. I began to dream about it a few weeks ago; now that it's come true I can hardly believe it."
Teeny-bits sat down and a few moments later the balloting began to elect a new captain for the Ridgley team. It was Neil Durant's last year and the big leader of the red eleven, before starting the procedure that would result in the choosing of his successor, said to his team-mates:
"It is our custom, as you all know, to choose a football captain at the dinner following the Jefferson game. It has always been done without nominations--simply by balloting. I'll pass around these slips of paper and I want you to write on them the name of the man who in your opinion, regardless of friendship, will make the leader who will best carry on Ridgley football tradition."
All of the members of the team knew that this was coming, of course, and they took it solemnly and in silence. There were no suggestions passed from one to another; each received a paper from the captain, wrote down a name and returned the folded slip to Neil, who made a second round of the big table. The captain turned the ballots over to the coach who quickly unfolded and counted them. When he was through, of the fifteen ballots--one for each member of the team who had played in the big game--fourteen were piled in front of his right hand and one remained in front of his left hand. He whispered a word to Neil Durant who immediately got to his feet and said:
"Fellows, you have elected a _real_ leader; one who has grit and spirit and who always thinks of the team before he thinks of himself, a fellow who does much and says little; Teeny-bits Holbrook is the captain of the Ridgley eleven. In view of the fact that he is the only one here who voted for some one else we'll call it a unanimous election."
Teeny-bits looked from one face to another with such an expression of bewilderment and astonishment that every one knew that he was dazed with surprise. They were all looking at him and he realized that they counted on him to say something. He got up and attempted to fulfil their expectations but he never was quite sure what he said, although he knew that they cheered and yelled and that presently he sat down. Within a few minutes Coach Murray brought the banquet to a close and they all went out to watch the celebration which was already well under way.
The band that had done almost continuous service during the afternoon had been retained and was now engaged in booming out--somewhat raucously and discordantly but nevertheless effectively--the Ridgley songs, principally the Ridgley victory song. Above the din sounded the _boom_, _boom_ of the bass drum--not always in time with the music--and the members of the team discovered that Snubby Turner had persuaded the "artist" who wielded the padded sticks to relinquish his noise-producing instruments and that Snubby, at the head of the band, was drumming away to his heart's content and every few seconds giving voice to a yell that expressed his supreme happiness in the outcome of the afternoon's struggle. Every one laughed at Snubby and felt himself inspired by the example to yell louder and contribute with more abandon to the demonstration around the fire.
As Teeny-bits looked at Snubby, he said to himself again that it was impossible that this genial and loyal son of Ridgley was guilty of stealing from members of the school or being in any way connected with the incidents that had contributed to his own former unhappiness. He made up his mind that he would, within the next twenty-four hours, have a talk with Snubby and attempt to arrive at an explanation of the mysterious events which were still puzzling his mind.
Until midnight the red sparks mounted above the tops of the Ridgley maples,--mounted until they seemed to join with the stars that on this crisp autumn night looked down from clear skies upon the scene of revelry.
Only two members of Ridgley School were absent from the celebration and no one at the time missed them,--Tracey Campbell, substitute left half-back of the football team, and Bassett, the self-named Western Whirlwind.
Parades and speeches and cheering, torchlight wavering against the white buildings, huge banners held aloft with the stirring figures, 20 to 14, emblazoned in red upon them, and then gradually as the night grew old, a lessening of sound and a dimming of light,--that was the way of Ridgley's festivity. Finally the members of the school made their way back to the white dormitories; the great day was over; the pleasure that remained was the pleasure of retrospection, of thinking over each detail of the victory, of re-living the struggle and of reading the accounts of the game in the newspapers. In those papers the sons of Ridgley were destined to find not only the glowing account of the game, which they knew would greet their eyes, but also news of a startling and unexpected nature.
MYSTERIES IN PART EXPLAINED
On the morning following the Jefferson game, Ridgley School, somewhat stiff after the strenuous hours of struggle and victory, but feeling utterly contented with the world and more than ever convinced that there was no school quite like the one that stood on the hill among the maples, awoke and prepared to settle itself leisurely to the enjoyment of glorious memories. The first person who opened a newspaper intended to undergo the pleasant experience of allowing the lines of printed words to recall to mind the deathless moments of Ridgley accomplishment and triumph. After his eyes had taken in the headlines that announced the victory of the red, however, they were arrested by heavy type that announced a tragedy. Two members of the school had been the victims of an accident and one of them had lost his life. The reporters' story of the occurrence read as follows:
"On Saturday afternoon while Ridgley was earning its triumph over Jefferson and while the sounds of cheering echoed across the field, death came to one member of the school and serious injury to another. No one witnessed the tragedy. Mr. Osborne Murchie, while driving along the State road from Greensboro to Springfield yesterday at about three o'clock, came upon a seven-passenger car which had crashed through the railing and had rolled down the embankment at the beginning of Hairpin Turn and lay at the bottom of the gulch in a demolished condition, with two young men pinned beneath the wreck. With the aid of a friend who accompanied him, Mr. Murchie pried up the car and removed from beneath it the dead body of a young man which was later identified as that of J. M. Bassett, a student at Ridgley, whose home is in Denver, Colorado. The other young man, Tracey Campbell, son of the prominent leather dealer, who was unconscious and suffering from severe injuries, was conveyed to the hospital at Greensboro, where it is said that he has a fair chance of recovery.
"There are certain matters in regard to the tragedy that have not yet been explained: first, why on this day when all members of the school were attending the game at Ridgley Field were these two students driving _away_ from the school? No one has been able to tell where the young men were going or how the accident occurred. The assumption is that while traveling at high speed they attempted to take the sharp turn too swiftly. The machine, which was wrecked beyond repair, belonged to the father of Tracey Campbell."
The news flew from room to room, from dormitory to dormitory, with the rapidity of wireless. It was as if the story had suddenly been blazoned across the clear November sky above the Ridgley campus; in one moment, it seemed, the whole school knew that Whirlwind Bassett had come to his end under tragic circumstances and that Tracey Campbell was lying in the Greensboro hospital with an even chance of recovery. It was difficult at first for many a member of Ridgley School to believe that the tragic news was true,--so vivid is life, so unreal seems death. They could not quite imagine Bassett--Whirlwind Bassett--lying dead out there at the bottom of Hairpin Gulch.
Certain incidents which previously had seemed quite unworthy of attention now assumed proportions of importance. A third-year student named Gilmore who had sat in the Ridgley stands beside Bassett recollected that the self-styled "Whirlwind" had risen from his seat at the start of the game, had made his way out of the stands and had not returned. Fred Harper and one or two others of the Ridgley football substitutes remembered that Campbell, after coming off the field when Teeny-bits had arrived, had slipped out through the opening under the stands and had not returned. Most of the members of the squad remembered that Campbell had not appeared at the locker building during the rest-period between the halves and recollected that it had occurred to them that he was "playing baby" because of the fact that he had lost his chance to start the game. There seemed to be no sufficient explanation, however, of the simultaneous exit of Bassett and Campbell. The last person who had seen them, according to rumor, was one of the ticket-takers at the field-gates who said that just after the game began he caught a glimpse of Campbell driving his father's big car down the street toward Hamilton with some one beside him in the front seat.
To certain members of Ridgley School the tragedy served as a last link in a chain of circumstantial evidence that had gradually been involving Campbell and Bassett. Among those persons were Neil Durant and Snubby Turner.
On the previous evening Teeny-bits Holbrook had not been so absorbed in the celebration that he had not found time to say to the captain and the coach what he had in his mind. While the sounds of the revelers still rose over the campus the three had gone into Neil Durant's room, and there Teeny-bits had told of the false telephone message, of the struggle in the road, of how his unknown assailants had carried him away and kept him prisoner, of his fight to escape, of the strange action of his Chinese captors when they discovered the mark of the knife, of his escape and finally of his return to the Holbrook home and his long sleep.
"It sounds like a pretty wild story, I know," he had said to his two friends, "but it's true, every word of it, and I don't know why in the world it all happened or whatever made those Chinamen let me go when they saw my birthmark."
Coach Murray and Neil Durant had readily admitted that they thought it was an extraordinary story but the idea did not enter their minds that it was not true in every detail, for they knew that what Teeny-bits Holbrook said could be relied upon to the minutest detail. For half an hour they sat talking it over, suggesting possible motives and trying to fathom the meaning of the mystery. Two things Teeny-bits did not mention: the incident of finding Snubby Turner breaking into Campbell's room and the accusatory letter that had led to the discovery of the stolen loot. Those things, he felt, were matters not to be discussed even with two such good friends as Mr. Murray and Neil Durant. There was one person, however, with whom he wished to discuss that phase of the strange circumstances in which he had become involved; he had already made up his mind that very few hours should pass before he would have a heart-to-heart talk with Snubby Turner. He was weary, however--bone and muscle and brain weary--and as the sounds of the celebration diminished he mounted the stairs to his room for a well-earned sleep.
In the morning Teeny-bits went to see Snubby Turner early,--before the newspapers brought the first information of the tragedy. Snubby, still in his pyjamas, let the new captain of the Ridgley eleven into his room and blinked happily at his visitor.
"Oh, what a _day_, and oh, what a _night_!" he said. "It was the best thing that ever happened and I'm glad I didn't miss it." Then genial Snubby held out his hand to Teeny-bits and added: "Ridgley owes you a lot and I'm _mighty glad_ that the fellows made you captain. Every one says that you're the man for the job."
Teeny-bits was embarrassed by Snubby's words, for they made it all the more difficult to say what was in his mind.
"Thanks, Snubby," he said, and paused,--"I came down here because I wanted to ask you a question that has been bothering me for nearly a week. You remember last Monday night when we had the mass meeting?"
A queer look came over Snubby's face. "Yes, I remember that night all right."
"Well," said Teeny-bits, "you know the fellows got me up on the platform and made me say something, and then, instead of sitting down, I went out and started to come back to the dormitory. That was about nine o'clock and no one was stirring on the campus because all the fellows had gone to the mass meeting."
Teeny-bits was silent for a moment as if waiting for Snubby to say something, but Snubby only continued to look at him with the same queer expression of expectation that had come into his face at first mention of the mass meeting.
"Well," continued Teeny-bits, "you know, something happened. I was coming along pretty close to Gannett Hall when I saw some one sliding down a fire-escape rope and getting into Campbell's window. Of course, that made me think of the things that had been stolen from the fellows' rooms and so I stepped into the bushes out there behind the dormitory and waited until the fellow came out and I saw who it was."
"Yes," cried Snubby, whose face had suddenly become red, "and of course you've been thinking all this time that I was the one who got away with the money and things?"
"No!" said Teeny-bits. "There's where you're wrong; I haven't been thinking any such thing. I _know_ that there's some other explanation and I want you to give it to me, Snubby,--for more reasons than one. I'll tell you something that I'm sure you don't know. That same night, Doctor Wells called me over to his office and showed me a letter that some one had written, saying that _I_ was the one who had stolen the things."
"That _you_ were the one?" echoed Snubby with a look of amazement.
"Yes," declared Teeny-bits, "that I was the one, and of course I told Doctor Wells that it wasn't true and he believed me, but it said in that letter that the things were hidden under the floor of my closet and when Doctor Wells and I went up to my room after the lights were out in the dormitories, we found all that stuff, including Harper's sailing trophy, Ned's gold knife, your watch and all the other trinkets that anybody has missed ever since things began to disappear!"
"But that didn't make Doctor Wells believe that you had stolen the stuff!" cried Snubby. "_He_ wouldn't think just because----"
"But something else happened, too," said Teeny-bits. "When I was crouching in the bushes behind the dormitory and just after you had crawled back into your room that night, Mr. Stevens came along and found me there, and I couldn't make any explanation, you know, and so I don't see how they could help thinking that I did it--because Doctor Wells always talks things over with Mr. Stevens."
"Why didn't you tell them that you had seen me coming down that fire-escape?" demanded Snubby.
"You know why I didn't do that," Teeny-bits replied, "and you know that I knew you were all right, but for _heaven's sake_ tell me what it's all about, because I want to get this mystery out of my mind and have it over with."
"I can see the whole thing as clear as crystal now!" exclaimed Snubby, "but I guess I was an awful fool to take such a chance in breaking into Campbell's room. It was Campbell and Bassett that I was after. Old Jerry put me wise to something he had overheard them say, and, like a chump, I was trying to do a little private detective work because I wanted to get back my watch and all those other things. Now _this_ is all I know about it and I am terribly sorry that I went butting into things and was responsible for bringing trouble to you----"
Snubby Turner was not destined to continue his explanation at that moment, for before he had time to go on with what he had in mind the sound of excited exclamations came from the corridor, and some one, after knocking loudly on the door, turned the knob and thrust in his head. Teeny-bits and Snubby saw that it was Fred Harper.
"Have you heard the news?" the newcomer cried. "Bassett's been killed and Campbell's in the hospital pretty nearly done for, too! It's in the newspapers. Look here!"
Behind Fred Harper were half a dozen other Ridgleyites, and Snubby Turner's room quickly became crowded with members of the school whose attention had been attracted by the exclamations. Meanwhile Snubby Turner slipped out of the room and ran down to the basement to consult Jerry, the janitor's assistant; he remained in the old fellow's box-like room for several minutes.
The result of the conversation that went on between them was that old Jerry pulled a celluloid collar out of a pasteboard box and announced gruffly and with unmistakable determination that he was "goin' over to see the Doctor." It was not often that old Jerry adorned his neck in any manner, and now he felt that it was entirely unnecessary to put on a tie. The shining collar itself fastened with a button which, if not gold at least had the appearance of the precious metal, was evidence that he was bound upon an important mission and when he arrived at Doctor Wells' house and rang the door bell his fearsome features wore such a murderous expression that the maid who came in answer to his summons was startled.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I wanter see the Doctor!" said Jerry and glowered so fiercely that the girl started to close the door.
With surprising agility the old man thrust his foot into the crack and when the girl said: "The Doctor is very busy; he's received some bad news and he won't want to talk with you," old Jerry repeated: "I wanter see the Doctor!" and added an imperative "_Now!_" which caused the girl to come to the conclusion that here was a determined and desperate man. She announced to Doctor Wells that "that terrible looking old janitor" was outside and that he was "bound to come in."
Doctor Wells immediately came out to the door and ushered old Jerry into his office where the grizzled janitor's assistant sat on the edge of one of the big chairs and, holding his hat in his hand, announced to the head of the school the following:
"I got my ijeers and they ain't no _common_ ijeers either, Doctor."
"I know you have, Jerry," said Doctor Wells, who from twenty years' acquaintance with the old-timer was aware that no small matter had induced him to invade what he had always considered as no less than sacred territory.
"Yes," said Jerry, "ijeers are common until they get backed up by _facts_, Doctor, and then they's uncommon. The boys was tellin' me the news about Bassett and Campbell. I says I knew them birds wouldn't come to no good end. I ain't one to talk agin one of them as has passed on, Doctor, but them was bad birds. Here's how I come to know it. I got eyes and ears sharper'n Tophet, even if I be nigh on to seventy and perhaps a little more, and I heard things along back that sot me to suspicionin' them two, and I kind o' says to myself it was my duty to the school to detect around a mite and find out what was goin' on. They didn't like Teeny-bits at all--not at all. They had it in for Teeny-bits (for some reason old Jerry added an l to Findley Holbrook's nickname) from the very start, and one night when I was standin' in a dark corner of the corridor I heared Bassett sayin' he'd get even with him. And then after the money and contraptions begun to disappear from the rooms I overheared 'em talkin' again and what they says, Doctor, was this: 'I got 'em in there all right. Now all you need to do is write the letter on your father's typewriter. No one'll know.'"
"Who said that?" demanded Doctor Wells.
"Them two birds I'm tellin' yer about,--Bassett, the feller they called the Whirlwind, and Campbell. Now I ain't no reg'lar detecative, Doctor, but I got my _ijeers_, and that sot me to thinkin' hard and I knew somethin' uncommon suspicious was goin' on. A friend o' mine who was kinder detecatin' round as my assistant, you might say, slid down a fire-escape rope about that time and climbed into Campbell's room, but he didn't find nothin' and come away empty-handed."
"Who was that friend of yours?" asked Doctor Wells. "Was it Teeny-bits?"
"Now, Doctor," said old Jerry, "I ain't aimin' to keep anythin' back twixt you'n me, but there's certain things, you understan', that I can't--it wan't Teeny-bits----but further'n that----"
"All right, Jerry," said the Head. "I respect your point of view. Go on with your story."
"Well," said Jerry, "this friend of mine come to me this mornin' and says that Teeny-bits got accused of stealin' them things from the boys and that somehow or other all those gold trinkets and contraptions got found under his closet floor, and I wanter tell you, Doctor, that this Teeny-bits _didn't do it_ and that them two bad birds, Campbell and Bassett, was at the bottom of all this deviltry, and there ain't been two sich underhanded, reckless, _good-for-nothin'_ fellers in this school sence I took position here twenty year ago."
"Jerry," said the Doctor, "I value your judgment and I thank you for coming to me in this frank way and giving me the benefit of your ideas."
The interview was over. Old Jerry left the office of the Head mumbling to himself: "I got my ijeers and sometimes, by gorry, they's _uncommon_ ijeers."
While Jerry had been talking with the Head, Snubby Turner, who had finished his explanation to Teeny-bits, had sought out Mr. Stevens and had said to him:
"I have just been discovering some things that make it necessary for me to tell you that last Monday night, while the football mass meeting was going on, I slid down a fire-rope and crawled into Tracey Campbell's room to see if I could discover if he was the one who had been stealing things from the fellows' rooms and that while I was doing it Teeny-bits came along and saw me, though I didn't know it at the time,--and that is the reason why you found him out there behind the dormitory."
"Turner," said the English master, "you've told me something that I am more than glad to hear. It clears up one element in a puzzling situation. I'm beginning to see light."
On this Sunday, Ridgley School, expecting to settle down into a comfortable enjoyment of the football triumph, found itself involved in a sensation which was the source of rumors that flew from dormitory to dormitory and from room to room with incredible rapidity. All day long hints, suggestions, stories--the product of fact, hearsay and fancy--were exchanged by every son of the school. At the morning service in the chapel Doctor Wells referred to the tragedy in grave terms.
"Unexpectedly," he said, "while we have been rejoicing over our victory, death has taken toll from among us; one of our number has passed suddenly from this world into the world beyond. By this tragic circumstance our thoughts are sobered and we find ourselves face to face with a sad and bitter incident--the termination of a life while it was still incomplete and unformed. I hope that the whole school will refrain from useless comment and will form no harsh or unjust judgments. This is a time for charity of thought."
Doctor Wells found many duties to perform in connection with the tragedy. Not until evening was he able to do what he had had in his mind to do from the moment when old Jerry called at his office. Another bit of news that came from Mr. Stevens--information that concerned Snubby Turner--had given him additional incentive to finish one phase of an unpleasant matter quickly. After the evening meal that night he summoned Mr. Stevens and Teeny-bits to his office, and there put certain questions to the new captain of the Ridgley eleven that brought out the whole story of the incidents that had occurred on the night before the big game.
Sitting in front of the open fire, Doctor Wells put his fingers together in the pose that was characteristic of him when he was deeply immersed in thought. The clock on the mantel piece ticked loudly in the silence of the room and Teeny-bits and Mr. Stevens sat pondering as profoundly as the Head. After a time Doctor Wells spoke, slowly, as if he were alone and were merely voicing the thoughts that flocked through his mind:
"This is the strangest series of circumstances that has come to my attention since I have been at Ridgley. It is hard to understand why two young fellows should harbor such an animosity for any other member of the school."
"Well," said Mr. Stevens, breaking in when the Head paused, "this Bassett was a strange character; there seemed to be something lacking in his nature; I shall have to admit that, although I made it a point to study him, I quite failed to understand him. I don't think you knew that on the day when Holbrook arrived at Ridgley, Bassett did certain things which resulted in a struggle, and that Holbrook got the better of him in a way that humiliated him before most of the roomers in Gannett Hall. Almost any young fellow would recover from a thing like that and very likely become good friends with his conqueror; in this case, however, it seems to have started a germ of jealousy and desire for revenge which grew out of all proportion to the incident. And then, of course, Campbell was displaced on the team by Holbrook. From what I know of those two young men I have come to the conclusion that Bassett, in his crafty way, had a certain strength of character which allowed him to dominate Campbell, whom I have always thought of as much the weaker mentally of the two. A psychologist could probably have told us strange things about Whirlwind Bassett."
"What is done can't, unfortunately, be undone," said the Head. "I regret more than I can say that we were not able to nip all this trouble in the bud--catch it at the beginning and prevent the tragic ending of it all." Doctor Wells sat up a little straighter in his chair at that moment and looked at Teeny-bits. "Holbrook," he said, "I want to tell you that I appreciate the fine sense of loyalty to a friend that prevented you from telling Mr. Stevens that you had seen Turner breaking into Campbell's room. That would have explained something that puzzled us. But we respect you for your silence."
"I knew that Snubby was honest," said Teeny-bits, "and, although I couldn't imagine why he was doing it, I couldn't suspect him."
Doctor Wells' comment was short. "You did right. A suspicious nature is one of the meanest things in the world." Again the Head was silent for a time and then the expression of his face changed. "Now about this Chinese business," he said; "I can understand the motive that was behind spiriting you away, but when I come to the rather extraordinary means of your escape, Holbrook, I will admit that my abilities as an amateur Sherlock Holmes are too feeble. As I understand it from what you have told us, these two Chinese in this Greensboro place seem to have been strangely affected by the mark on your shoulder. Have you any explanation of that?"
"I don't know whatever got into their heads," said Teeny-bits. "It's beyond me. They jabbered away at a terrible rate in Chinese and acted as if they were frightened."
"What is the nature of this mark?" asked Doctor Wells. "If you don't mind telling me."
"Why, it's nothing," said Teeny-bits, "except a mark that looks like a knife; a lot of the fellows have thought it was queer when they saw it in the shower-bath room, but I never thought much about it because it's always been there and didn't seem particularly strange to me."
"Mr. Stevens," said Doctor Wells, "I think you and Holbrook might go over to Greensboro sometime this week and see what you can find. It won't do any harm at least to try a little amateur detective work. I wonder----"
Doctor Wells paused as if he thought it would be better not to say what was in his mind. He had been about to mention something in regard to the information that old Daniel Holbrook had given him on the opening day of school,--the story of the accident at Hamilton station which had caused the sudden death of the unknown woman who was supposed to be Teeny-bits' mother. It had occurred to the Head that it might be just as well not to talk over those matters in the presence of Teeny-bits.
When Mr. Stevens and Teeny-bits got up to go Doctor Wells shook hands with them gravely.
"Holbrook," he said, "I haven't told you something that was in my mind last night when I heard the news that came from the football banquet. I was greatly pleased to learn that the Ridgley eleven had chosen you as captain. I know that you will make a leader of whom we can be as proud as we have been of Neil Durant."
Later Doctor Wells found occasion to tell Mr. Stevens the thing that he had omitted: the history of Teeny-bits' unexplained origin. With this information stimulating his mind to solve the mystery, the English master suggested to Teeny-bits that they lose no time in visiting Greensboro.
A VISIT TO CHUAN KAI's
On Monday afternoon Mr. Stevens and the new football captain journeyed to the thriving young city. They went first to Stanley Square. Starting from the yellow brick market building with the tower and the clock, Teeny-bits attempted to retrace the steps that he had taken on that night when he fled from the place where the Orientals had held him prisoner. They went down one street and up another, turning this way and that, until Teeny-bits finally stopped and said:
"I'm afraid I can't remember just which way I came. I was pretty excited and I ran down these streets as fast as I could and it was dark, and I didn't think much about remembering where I came."
"Well," said Mr. Stevens, "there's one thing we can do. We'll ask the officer over there on the street corner where the Chinese places are, and perhaps that will lead us somewhere."
"At any rate," said Teeny-bits, "it must be very near where we are now, because I know I came from this general direction and I covered about the same amount of ground that we have covered since we left the square."
In answer to their inquiry the police officer informed them that there were four Chinese establishments in the city--two laundries and two restaurants.
The laundries proved to be near the center of the town, one on Main Street, the other on Clyde Street. Mr. Stevens, and Teeny-bits looked both of these establishments over, but Teeny-bits quickly announced that neither of them could be the place they were seeking. They were small and both were across the electric car tracks from Stanley Square. Teeny-bits remembered that on the night of his escape he had crossed no tracks until he reached the square.
The first of the restaurants which they visited backed up to the Greensboro River, a shallow stream which wound through the town. There was an alley in the rear which to Teeny-bits looked somewhat like the one down which he had hastened while the two Chinese had come pattering after him, but he did not remember that he had seen any water. They went inside, however, and questioned the wrinkled yellow man who, thinking them customers, came to take their order. He answered them in pidgin English, and Teeny-bits became convinced, after they had looked about the place, that this was not the scene of his imprisonment on Friday night.
They then went to the Oriental Eating Palace of Chuan Kai, but at Mr. Stevens' suggestion, before entering the restaurant, made a complete circuit of the building and examined its outward appearance. In the rear there was an alley.
"This looks like it!" declared Teeny-bits, and then he added: "But I couldn't swear that it's the one."
"Why don't we go up those stairs there and see what we find," said Mr. Stevens. "It's trespassing, I suppose, but all in a justifiable cause."
Quickly they let themselves in the rear door and began to mount the steps.
"That night," said Teeny-bits, "I remember that I came down two flights; this might be the place, but of course I didn't stop much to look around."
At the top of the second flight Mr. Stevens and Teeny-bits came to a narrow hallway from which opened two doors. Mr. Stevens knocked softly on the one at the right and, receiving no answer, pushed it open. They had expected to find no one in the room; to their surprise, a Chinese who had been lying on a "double-decker" bunk jumped down to the floor and stood looking at them with astonishment and fear in his face.
"This isn't the room, and I don't think I ever saw this fellow before," Teeny-bits whispered to the English master.
"We're looking for two Chinese who were in one of these rooms last Friday night," said Mr. Stevens to the Oriental. "Perhaps they're in the other room."
It was evident that the Chinaman who confronted them with startled eyes did not understand much English. He made no reply and continued to stare at them as if he thought it inexplainable that two white men should suddenly invade his sleeping quarters.
Mr. Stevens backed out of the room and somewhat to Teeny-bits' surprise immediately tried the other door. It opened upon a small square room, empty except for a table and four chairs which were arranged as if for a game of cards. Teeny-bits had expected to see a mattress lying on the floor, but nothing of the sort greeted his eyes and no one was in the room.
"This looks like the place, but somehow it seems changed," he said to Mr. Stevens.
At that moment they both heard a cry in Chinese and, as they whirled round, an answer came from the floor below and the sound of feet pattering down the stairway.
"There!" exclaimed Mr. Stevens, "I'm afraid your friends are running away. That fellow in the other room has given the alarm. Let's go down to the restaurant quickly and see what we can find."
Chuan Kai met the two with an inscrutable countenance. There was something about his eyes, however, that suggested to Teeny-bits and Mr. Stevens that he was not wholly unprepared for their call.
"Last Friday night," said the English master, "this young man was kept for several hours in one of the rooms upstairs. We should like to talk to the two Chinese who were kind enough to permit him to escape."
"No unne'stan'," said Chuan Kai, wrinkling his lips in a manner that showed his yellow teeth.
Mr. Stevens was patient. He repeated his request, laid his hand on Teeny-bits' shoulder, pointed toward the ceiling as he mentioned the room above and then held up two fingers as he spoke of the Chinese who had been present when Teeny-bits escaped. The only answer was a puzzled frown on Chuan Kai's wrinkled features; either the old man was bewildered by the request of his visitors or he was a good actor. Suddenly Mr. Stevens decided the latter, for he spoke rapidly and with considerable force:
"I think you understand English all right. Now tell me, where are those two men of yours? If you will let me see them quickly perhaps we can agree not to trouble you further. Now then, where are they?"
Chuan Kai smiled with such ingenuousness as he could summon. "Ai," he said. "You like to see my boys?"
He turned away from them quickly and cried out something in Chinese, at the same time throwing back a door which led to the kitchen.
"Come, look, _see_," he said as he turned back to Teeny-bits and Mr. Stevens. "You like see all boys."
In the kitchen which was disclosed to view were four Chinese in loose-sleeved shirts and aprons. They were engaged in cutting up meat and in mixing food over the fire. Among them Teeny-bits did not recognize either one of the Orientals who had acted so strangely at the sight of the knife mark.
"I don't think they're here," he said to Mr. Stevens. "As I remember it they were bigger than these fellows."
The English master turned to Chuan Kai and said, "We don't intend to cause you any trouble. This young friend of mine has a mark on his shoulder which looks like a knife. Two of your men acted strangely when they saw it. What can you tell me about it? Don't be afraid to speak up."
Chuan Kai and his four employees looked at their American visitors with every semblance of frank amazement and bewilderment.
"Well, we'll try one thing more," said Mr. Stevens. "Pull off your coat, Teeny-bits, and let them take a look at that mark."
Teeny-bits quickly threw off his coat and unbuttoned the soft collar of his shirt until he could pull back the linen and show the mark of the knife. The effect was more than the English master or Teeny-bits expected. The four Chinese, who had been observing in apparent astonishment this sudden performance on Teeny-bits' part, gazed at the mark and began to jabber among themselves in a manner that showed plainly enough their excitement and agitation. One of them even took a step nearer as if to obtain a clearer view. Chuan Kai, however, quickly brought their demonstration to an end. He exclaimed sharply in his singsong language and stepped toward them in a manner that had only one meaning,--a threat of violence. Instantly the four Chinese resumed their work over the meat and the kettles, and although they rolled their black eyes furtively toward Teeny-bits and the English master they said nothing more, nor could they be induced to show further sign of excitement.
Chuan Kai himself muttered in Chinese. Finally he smiled craftily, shrugged his shoulders and said to Mr. Stevens, "Where did boy get mark? These fellas (pointing to the four Chinese) think it's funny."
"Why do they think it's funny?" asked Mr. Stevens. But the Oriental had no answer to that and took refuge again in his assumed or actual unfamiliarity with English. For several minutes Mr. Stevens tried to get something further from the Chinamen but was unsuccessful and finally said to Teeny-bits who had buttoned his shirt and put on his coat:
"Well, I guess we've found out as much as we are able to from these fellows. Let's be going."
Chuan Kai, following them out to the street, was obsequiously polite. He even gave them a little box of Chinese nuts and candied fruit and pressed it upon them when they at first refused to accept it.
The result of the visit had not been satisfactory. Teeny-bits had been unable to discover either of the Orientals who had held him prisoner. Perhaps, as Mr. Stevens had suggested, these two had escaped down the alley when the young Chinese whom they had encountered in the upper room gave his cry of warning. The only significant incident had been when the four Chinese had shown excitement on viewing the mark on Teeny-bits' back.
"Of course, we could swear out a warrant and have the police investigate this whole matter," said Mr. Stevens, "but I am afraid that that would get us nowhere, for as you say, it would be pretty difficult for you to identify those men and we couldn't even prove that it was at Chuan Kai's place that you were held prisoner. I guess the next thing for us to do is to wait for some word to come from Tracey Campbell."
But no word of explanation came. For a few days Tracey Campbell lay in a semiconscious condition; he then grew rapidly better and at the end of the week was removed to the Campbell home.
The leather dealer, who had been away on a business trip at the time of the Ridgley-Jefferson game, had, of course, been summoned back to Greensboro by telegram. Twice he came to Ridgley School for a conference with Doctor Wells. His attitude on the occasion of his first visit was one of indignation and arrogance. He indicated to the Head that Ridgley School was responsible for the whole tragic incident and that explanations were in order. When he learned that his son was under accusation and that there was evidence to give weight to the case, his attitude underwent somewhat of a change. He was still in a warlike mood, however, and left Doctor Wells with the promise of getting at the root of the whole matter and exonerating his son. On the occasion of his second visit, however, his attitude was quite different. He now wished to hush up the whole affair and treat the thing as an unfortunate incident which could not be too quickly forgotten. Tracey Campbell would not return to Ridgley School. As soon as he recovered sufficiently to travel his father intended to send him to Florida. From certain remarks that the leather dealer made, it was evident to Doctor Wells that Tracey had confessed his part in the theft of the trinkets and money. In regard to the charge of being implicated in the kidnapping of Teeny-bits, Mr. Campbell declared that nothing had been proved against his son and in his opinion it was doubtless "all a story made up by that young Teeny-bits fellow in order to curry favor and win popularity."
And so the matter was left as far as the Campbells were concerned, though it was said that Mrs. Campbell called Doctor Wells on the telephone and in her shrill voice denied vigorously that her son had acted in any manner unbecoming to "the son of a gentleman" and that for her part she thought that the school was a poor one and that she wished they wouldn't have such games as football "which work the boys up to excitement and get them into a dangerous state of mind." No one took the pains to ascertain whether Tracey Campbell was actually expelled from the school or had merely been withdrawn. At any rate Ridgley School would see him no more and as the days went on, it seemed less and less worth while to investigate the circumstances which preceded the Jefferson game by calling upon Tracey Campbell to confess further details.
The visit of Bassett Senior to the school--Blow-Hard Bassett as he was known in certain sections of the West--was sadder and more pathetic. He was a big man who dressed gaudily; even the tragedy had not served to remove wholly from his appearance the garish quality that proclaimed his type. To Mr. Stevens and Doctor Wells his visit was a startling exemplification of that old saying: "Like father, like son." When they talked to him it was as if they were talking to Whirlwind Bassett grown into a man of fifty. His visit was an unpleasant incident,--he showed so plainly that he had made a failure of his duties as a father and he groped so helplessly in his grief for the reason why his boy, whose body he would carry back to the West, had by his own acts brought an unhappy termination to his career.
"I never understood him," he said to Doctor Wells, "and I suppose I haven't been just the right kind of father for him. He didn't have any mother after he was four years old, and even when he was a little feller I never seemed to have much luck in making him mind me. He was always doing something to cause a commotion of some sort, like running away or getting into mix-ups--nothing very bad, you know, just such things as young fellers are apt to do. Sometimes I talked to him but it never made much impression."
As Blow-Hard Bassett looked out of Doctor Wells' shaded windows there was a hint of moisture in his eyes. "He was a determined little feller," he remarked after a moment, "and when he'd get a notion in his head it seemed like nothing would shake it out. I remember one time when a mongrel dog that they had out on a ranch where we were staying bit him on the wrist and the little chap--I guess he was only eight years old--came bawling to me and says, 'He bit me, Pa; you've got to kill him!'
"I said, 'Don't you see, it was your fault; the dog wouldn't of bit you if you hadn't been teasin' him,' but he kept on begging me to kill the mongrel and when I wouldn't do it, he decided to take matters into his own hands--and what do you suppose he done? He got a six-shooter out of a holster that one of the cowboys had left lyin' around an' come up behind that dog while he was sunnin' himself beside the ranch house and blowed out his brains! You see, he just made up his mind to settle with that dog, and nothing that any of us could say made a bit of difference. I always thought he was going to be a smart man, but I never could get close to him, so to speak. It was just as if he belonged to some other man, and now, of course, I can't help wishing that I had somehow got to understand him better."
There was not much that Doctor Wells could say after that except to extend his sympathy and to express the wish that it had been possible for others as well as the father to understand and help the youth who had come to his untimely end.
November, with each day crisper than the last, slipped into December and one morning the school awoke to find a thin sifting of snow over the brown grass of the campus and the bare branches of the maple trees. The Christmas vacation suddenly became the subject of conversation, and to Teeny-bits it seemed that every one had a plan that promised pleasure and recreation. He felt a little lonely at the thought of seeing all these friends of his depart for the holidays and leave him to spend the vacation alone in the quiet little village of Hamilton; and then one evening after the last mail, Neil Durant came into his room with two opened letters in his hand.
"A couple of invitations," he said. "It's all fixed up, Teeny-bits. You're going home for Christmas with me and we're going up to Norris' place in the mountains for some winter sports. You remember he spoke about getting together, after the game. I thought then that I'd like to renew old times and now he writes that he wants us to come up to his place, which is a wonder, way back in the hills where there's great skiing and snowshoeing."
To Teeny-bits it seemed suddenly as if he had been dreaming and hoping for a long time that this very thing would happen. It was a wonderful chance for a good time--but it was to prove more than that for the new captain of the Ridgley football team.
DAYS OF PLEASURE
The holiday migration from Ridgley School began six days before Christmas. Within a few hours the dormitories on the hill, which for months had resounded to the sound of voices, suddenly became silent and almost deserted; a few members of the school lingered and half a dozen of the faculty remained to spend a part or all of the vacation on the hill, but the great majority set forth to the four quarters of the wind. Among those who took the morning train on that day of great exodus were Neil Durant and Teeny-bits Holbrook. Within three hours, as the engine dragged its load westward, the Ridgleyites who at the start had crowded two cars had diminished in number to no more than a score. Every large station along the way claimed two or three and as they left they shouted back farewells and, loaded down with suitcases, went out to greet the friends and relatives who had come to meet them. They all had a word for Neil Durant and Teeny-bits--a special word it seemed--for there was no question that recent events had ripened the friendships and enhanced the popularity of these two members of "the best school in the world."
What happiness this was, Teeny-bits said to himself, to be going on a vacation with a fellow like Neil Durant and to have evidence at every moment of the friendship of such a "good crowd" as these fellows who were piling off the train and yelling out their good-bys. It all made him feel how much the last three months had brought into his life, how much he owed to the generosity of old Fennimore Ridgley who, though long ago laid to rest in his grave, had made it possible by his gift for Teeny-bits to come to Ridgley School.
At two o'clock the train pulled into the station of Dellsport where Teeny-bits and Neil said good-by to the half dozen of their schoolmates who were going farther west. They found waiting for them in a closed car Mrs. Durant and Sylvia Durant, Neil's sister, who immediately made Teeny-bits feel at ease by talking about school affairs. It had been a tremendous disappointment, it seemed, to both Mrs. Durant and Sylvia that they had been unable to come to the football game which had resulted so gloriously for Ridgley.
"If it hadn't been for the influenza," said Sylvia, "you would have heard some terrible shrieking on the day of that game--I know I'd have yelled loud enough so that every one would have heard me, because there was nothing in the world that I wanted quite so much as to have Ridgley come through. And when we got Neil's telegram maybe I didn't make the windows rattle! And mother _almost_ yelled, too."
"We had a terrible quarrel over the newspaper the next day," said Mrs. Durant, "and I finally compromised by letting Sylvia read the whole story aloud, so we know just what happened and how one of you evened the score at the crucial moment and how the other fellow carried the ball across at the end of the game."
Almost before Teeny-bits realized it he was talking to these two pleasant persons as if he had known them all his life.
"I want you to act just as if this were your own home," said Mrs. Durant when she had led the way into the Durant house on Bennington Street. "I shall have to call you Teeny-bits--and I hope you won't mind--because Neil has always spoken of you that way in his letters and 'Mr. Holbrook' _would_ sound formal, wouldn't it?"
"It would make me feel like a stick of wood," said Teeny-bits. "I don't think any one ever called me that in my life. I've just been Teeny-bits and I guess I always shall be."
But Teeny-bits Holbrook could not help contrasting this luxurious home where every reasonable comfort was in evidence, where there were fireplaces and soft rugs and rich paintings, with his own poor little home in Hamilton where Ma Holbrook did the work and with her own hands kept everything shining and clean.
For six days he lived a life that he had never lived before. They skated at the country club where the new ice had formed over an artificial pond, drove out in the car over frozen roads to Waygonack Inn for dinner and danced in the evening, went to the theater and "took in", as Sylvia called it, two or three parties that were important incidents of the holiday festivities at Dellsport. Everywhere they encountered jolly crowds of young fellows and girls.
"Every one seems to fall for you, Teeny-bits," said Neil to the new captain of the Ridgley team one day, "and they all call you by your nickname. If you stayed round here very long you'd have them all wearing a path to our front door."
"You know why it is," replied Teeny-bits, "it's because I'm a friend of _yours_."
"You're off the track," said Neil, "you're _wild_, man. You've got a way with you without knowing it, and as for the girls around here--oh, my heavens!"
"I never realized before what an awful kidder you are, but anyhow I know I'm having the time of my life," said Teeny-bits.
But in spite of the gayety, Teeny-bits thought often of Ma Holbrook and old Dad Holbrook who for the first time in many years were spending Christmas alone. Early in the week he went down to the Dellsport shops with Neil and selected presents which he thought would please them both.
On the day before Christmas, Major-General Durant, who had been attending a conference in Washington, came home. Teeny-bits had expected to stand in awe before this high official of the United States Army; he was therefore somewhat surprised to find him a genial, easy-to-talk-to man who took obvious delight in getting back to the freedom and informality of his home. He was full of stories and keenly interested in Ridgley School affairs. He himself was the most prominent alumnus of Ridgley and had many an incident to tell Neil and Teeny-bits about the days when he himself had played on the football team.
Christmas passed all too quickly. The Durants celebrated it in the good, old-fashioned manner with a big tree in the living room where a roaring fire of logs sent myriads of sparks leaping up the chimney. There were gifts from all the family to Teeny-bits and not the least appreciated of the presents that came to the visitor was a pair of fur-lined gloves from Ma and Pa Holbrook, just such a pair as they would select,--warm and substantial.
Sylvia Durant seemed to have a way of understanding what a person was thinking about. "Isn't that a good present!" she said. "They're so warm and comfortable feeling. They'll be just what you'll need for the winter sports up at the Norris place."
There was not so great a difference after all, Teeny-bits said to himself, between this Christmas and other Christmases; though the surroundings were different, the same genial, kindly spirit brooded over this luxurious home in Dellsport as always brooded at Christmas time over the humble home in Hamilton. He could shut his eyes and imagine that Ma and Pa Holbrook were in the room taking it all in and looking about them with beaming faces.
And then it was all over. On the morning after Christmas Major-General Durant went back to Washington and Mrs. Durant and Sylvia went with him to spend the rest of the holidays in the Capitol City.
Neil and Teeny-bits, having seen them off, prepared to start northward to the Norris place in the Whiteface Mountains. Teeny-bits felt none too glad to leave the Durant home; those six days had been filled to overflowing with happiness.
"You're coming again," Sylvia had said, and when Teeny-bits had replied, "I hope so," she had added, "Why, of course you are. Every one wants you to."
It was a four-hour run by train to Sheridan and an hour by sleigh to the Norris cabin at Pocassett, a little settlement of camps and cottages at the foot of the Whiteface range of mountains. In the early afternoon Neil and Teeny-bits had arrived in the snow-covered country and were receiving the greetings of their Jefferson School friends. Ted Norris had driven down to the station to meet them in a two-seated sleigh and had brought with him Whipple, whom both Teeny-bits and Neil remembered as the Jefferson punter.
"How do you fellows feel--pretty husky?" asked Norris as they were going back toward the mountains. "Some of the crowd up at the camp want to tramp over the range on snowshoes to-night if it's clear and I didn't know but what we'd join them."
"That sounds good to me," declared Neil. "Teeny-bits and I have been leading the social life down in Dellsport and we're all fed up with parties and so on."
"Sounds good to me, too," said Teeny-bits, although he had to admit to himself that he wasn't exactly "fed up" with the good time in Dellsport.
The Norris place was a cabin built of spruce logs with an immense stone fireplace at one end of a long living room,--a comfortable backwoods place where one felt very close to the out-of-doors. Here the new arrivals found awaiting them Phillips, another member of the Jefferson eleven, and an athletic looking middle-aged man whom Norris introduced as his uncle, Wolcott Norris. There was no one else at the cabin except Peter Kearns, the cook and helper.
"It's all fixed up for to-night," said the older Norris; "we're going up the gulf and over the shoulder of Whiteface and then down to the Cliff House, where a sleigh will meet us and bring us back."
That evening tramp over the slopes of Whiteface Mountain was the beginning of a wonderful series of winter sports at Pocassett. The party that made the climb consisted of the six from the Norris place and twice as many more from other cabins and cottages that nestled in the snow at the foot of the mountains. While the growing moon hung overhead and shed its silver radiance over the white world, the snowshoers climbed the gulf by way of a trail that led among spruces and hemlocks, then up and out to the great, bare shoulder of the mountain. Gaining the ridge, they crossed and went plunging, sliding and leaping down in the soft snow that clothed the farther slope. It was a night to make one's blood run fast, and the whole crowd came back to the settlement at Pocassett in high spirits. The days that followed were filled with similar sports,--skating where the snow had been cleared from the surface of the Pocassett River, snowshoeing in all directions over the hills, fishing through the ice at Lonesome Lake and Wolf Pond and, on one or two nights, get-togethers with the crowd of young people who were occupying other camps near by.
Teeny-bits soon discovered that the vigorous, middle-aged man who had been introduced to him that first day as Ted Norris' uncle was in reality taking the place of the Jefferson football captain's father, who had died several years before. It seemed to him that here was the most intensely interesting man he had ever met. He was a mining engineer, and from little things that were said now and then it was evident that there was scarcely a quarter of the world into which he had not penetrated. A casual remark about India aided by a question or two from Phillips and Neil Durant brought forth a story of a trip into the jungles of that distant country; at another time the sight of a bare mountain-side called forth reference to a snow-covered range in China and led to interesting details of life in the Far East.
"Sometime you will have to take us on a trip to Japan or China or India or somewhere," said Ted Norris one night when the six of them were at supper.
"Well," said the mining engineer, "I'd like to do it. Who knows, perhaps sometime I can."
Teeny-bits Holbrook would have liked nothing better than to "pump" this man who had traveled so much, for he found stories of far lands intensely interesting, and when the first mishap of the vacation occurred he was somewhat envious of the victim, to whom it opened up an opportunity for closer acquaintance. On Thursday Neil Durant, in trying out a pair of skis on a steep slope behind the camp, crashed into a thicket of young pine trees and, although he came through with a grin on his face, he discovered that he had sprained his ankle and would not be able to join the crowd on the ski party that had been planned for Thursday evening. Wolcott Norris announced at supper that he also would stay behind; and thus it happened that the former captain of the Ridgley team sat with his bandaged ankle propped up on a chair in front of the fireplace while Wolcott Norris settled back comfortably to enjoy an evening of conversation. They talked about many things--travel, business, college and sports--before the subject got around to the Ridgley-Jefferson game.
"You know I was there," said the mining engineer, "and I don't think I ever spent a more interesting two hours. You fellows certainly had the game developed to a fine point and though of course I, as an old Jefferson boy, was yelling hard for the purple, I couldn't help handing you chaps a bit when you came through. And your friend Teeny-bits--now that I know him--measures up to the idea of what he was like, which I got from watching him play."
"Yes," said Neil, "he comes through--you can always count on him. Every one down at school fell for him from the start, partly, I suppose, because he was different from most of the fellows and then, of course, because he made good. Certain things about him attracted attention before he'd been in school very long."
"Well," said Neil, "a lot of things--one is the knife mark on his back."
"The what?" asked Wolcott Norris.
"Why a sort of birthmark that looks like a knife."
The mining engineer had been looking into the embers of the fire rather dreamily and talking in a low tone to Neil. He now half turned round and said in a voice that showed more than casual interest, "Tell me about it. It sounds interesting."
"Well," said Neil, "it's a mark, sort of brick colored, on his shoulder, that looks exactly like a knife or a dagger. I noticed it one day in the shower-bath room when Teeny-bits first came out for the football team."
"Has he always had it?"
"Yes, I guess so. I suppose it's just chance--the shape of it, but it is such an unusual looking thing that the fellows got interested in him and then of course there was the story about his mother being killed in a railroad wreck. That got around school some way; Teeny-bits himself told it, I think; so there isn't any harm in my repeating it. Some mighty nice people in Hamilton picked him up after a train accident which killed his mother and took him home. They finally adopted him, and gave him their name when they weren't able to find any of his relatives, and of course the mystery of that made the fellows all the more interested in him."
While the former captain of the Ridgley team had been saying these words the mining engineer had looked at him with an intentness that Neil had attributed to the fact that Teeny-bits' story was as interesting to him as it had been to the sons of Ridgley.
"You said that it was his mother who was killed in the railroad accident?"
"Yes," replied Neil, "I guess they never found out what her name was. That seems pretty horrible, but the Holbrooks, who adopted Teeny-bits, are mighty fine people. Daniel Holbrook is the station agent at Hamilton."
The mining engineer settled back in his chair, sighed rather heavily and gazed once more into the embers of the fire. "Well, Teeny-bits is a fine chap," he said finally, "and I don't wonder that the fellows fell for him."
"He nearly caused me nervous prostration," said Neil, "when he didn't show up at the game until the last minute, and the story about what happened to him and how the Chinese who had kidnaped him acted when they saw the knife mark on his shoulder is one of the strangest things I ever heard."
Wolcott Norris got out of his chair so quickly that Neil looked up in surprise. "What happened about these Chinese?" asked the mining engineer. "When did they come into it and _how_ did they act?"
"That's another bit of mystery," said Neil. "There were a couple of fellows at school who didn't like Teeny-bits for one reason or another--jealousy, I guess--and according to general belief they patched up some kind of ridiculous plot to get Teeny-bits away from the school while the big game was being played. One of them was Teeny-bits' substitute and would have played if Teeny-bits hadn't been there. Maybe you read in the papers about the accident in which a fellow named Bassett was killed and another named Campbell got pretty badly hurt. Those were the two fellows--they wrecked a big machine running away after Teeny-bits showed up at the game. At least every one supposed they were trying to make a get-away. All Teeny-bits knows about the thing is that some one sent him a fake telephone message that his father--that is, old Daniel Holbrook--had been hurt, and when Teeny-bits was on the way home some men pounced on him and carried him over to Greensboro and shut him up in some sort of Chinese place. They had him all tied up and fixed so that he couldn't get away, they thought; but Teeny-bits squirmed around and tore his sweater half off and finally got almost loose, when back came two of these Chinamen and were tying him up again when they saw this mark on his back and they began to act as if they'd been mesmerized or something. They jabbered away and pointed at the thing, and while they were going through these tantrums Teeny-bits just walked out of the place and came home."
"That _is_ strange," said the mining engineer, "_mighty_ strange. Didn't he find out why they were frightened or what was behind it all?"
"No," said Neil, "I think the matter was sort of hushed up. They did a little investigating and it didn't seem to get them anywhere, and I guess the people at the school thought it wasn't worth while to follow it up any more. No one doubts that this Campbell fellow and Bassett were behind the business, and as far as the Chinese go I guess they were just superstitious or something. You must know them pretty well--you've traveled over there so much. Don't you?"
Apparently the mining engineer did not hear Neil's question, for he had turned again to the fireplace and was gazing into the embers in an abstracted manner. Neil did not feel like interrupting. For several minutes the room was silent, then Wolcott Norris suddenly turned and asked:
"When was that crowd coming back?"
The ski party on that night consisted of the three Jefferson football players, Teeny-bits and two brothers by the name of Williams who were from a camp a quarter of a mile down the valley. They planned to go up over the shoulder of Whiteface in the brilliant moonlight and shoot down a long, bare slope which was known as The Slide, where years before an avalanche had torn its way downward leaving bare earth in its wake. This V-shaped scar on the face of the mountain was now covered with a smooth expanse of snow--an ideal avenue for a swift and thrilling descent of the mountain. Teeny-bits had done more skiing in the last few days than he had done before in all the years of his life and had become enthusiastic over the sport. The sensation of sweeping down a slope and of speeding on with increasing swiftness until it seemed as if one were actually flying filled him with exhilaration and the real joy of living. He had never tried anything as steep as The Slide, but he had no fear of the place, and when, after a somewhat laborious climb, they had reached the peak and stood gazing down on the white way that stretched before them, he was eager to be off for the descent.
"Don't take it too fast," said Norris, "the slope is steeper than it looks. If you should want to slow up you can shoot over to the side and work against the slope a little."
The moon, now almost at the full, was shedding its ghostly light over the snow-covered mountains; by its brilliance the ski runners could see the surface of the slide, unbroken save for an occasional spruce which, having taken root in the scarred soil, was now thrusting up its dark branches through the blanket of white. Norris was the first to take off. He shot downward and as he gained momentum sent back a cry that floated up eerily. Teeny-bits poised at the edge and took a deep breath. This was living. Down there, growing smaller and smaller, a moving speck that seemed a mere shadow on the snow, was a new friend of his. It seemed strange that this was one of the outcomes of the Jefferson-Ridgley game: that from so desperate a struggle had arisen this opportunity to know the leader of the purple for whom he held a growing admiration. A fellow who fought so hard and so cleanly, who took defeat so wonderfully and who made such a good pal was only a little less to be admired than Neil Durant. Perhaps there was not any real difference in Teeny-bits' feeling for the two.
"I'm off," cried Teeny-bits; "see you at the bottom," and giving a strong thrust with his pole sent himself out upon the smooth surface.
With body bent slightly forward he took the first gentle slope and felt the exhilarating sensation of gathering speed as his skis carried him away from his friends. It was something between flying through the air and riding on the top of an undulating wave of water. Following Ted Norris' example he sent a shout back to the group on the crest and then gave himself completely to the joy of meeting each surprise of the snow with the proper adjustment of body and limbs that would enable him to make the descent in one unbroken slide. He had never taken so swift a flight,--it was as if he were rushing through space with scarcely any realization of the landscape round him.
Midway in The Slide, Teeny-bits suddenly found himself dodging a thicket of small spruce trees. He escaped them by swerving quickly, but he went too far to the left. Other small trees confronted him; his body brushed sharply against the branches, and then looming before him was an old monarch of the forest that somehow had escaped when the slide had scarred the mountain-side. Its gnarled branches, standing out vaguely in the half-light of the moon and stars like the arms of an octopus, seemed to Teeny-bits to rise up and seize him. He had the feeling that something was lifting him into the air, that he was going up and up into the silver face of the moon. It seemed also that at the same time there was a flash of light followed immediately by darkness.
One after another the ski runners at the top of The Slide took off and shot swiftly down the slope. None of them saw the huddled form at the foot of the ancient oak and it was only when the four had joined Ted Norris at the bottom of The Slide that they realized that something must have happened to Teeny-bits.
"Didn't any of you see him on the way down?" asked Ted Norris. "Maybe he broke his skis."
"He would have yelled at us, wouldn't he?" said one of the Williams brothers; "we'd better go back and look around."
It was not a difficult matter even in the indistinct night light to follow the marks of the skis. From the foot of the slide they mounted slowly, tracing backward the five double tracks and finally coming to the sixth, halfway down from the crest.
[Illustration: FROM THE FOOT OF THE SLIDE THEY MOUNTED SLOWLY, TRACING BACKWARD THE FIVE DOUBLE TRACKS.]
"Here they are," said Norris. "Here's where Teeny-bits swerved over toward the left."
Almost before the words were out of his mouth he gave a startled exclamation that brought the other four quickly to the foot of the oak tree, where, with arms stretched out in front of him, lay Teeny-bits. He had fallen in such an apparently comfortable position that it seemed to the five ski runners that he could not be badly injured, but when they turned him over they saw the dark mark of blood on the snow and became assailed with a great fear that the worst thing they could imagine had happened. Ted Norris' voice trembled a little as he said to the others, "We must get him down to the house as quickly as we can. Here, help me pick him up."
It was a strange procession which went down the slope of old Whiteface Mountain on that winter night,--an awkward looking group that made progress slowly because of the burden which it bore.
"You'd better go ahead to the Emmons place and get Doctor Emmons to come up to our camp quickly," said Norris to the older of the Williams boys. "You ought to get there about the time we do, and tell him to bring stimulants and everything that he may need."
Back in the Norris cabin Neil Durant had found that conversation between himself and the mining engineer lagged. For half an hour the elder Norris had sat apparently absorbed in his thoughts, and twice when Neil had made remarks he had answered in a manner that showed his mind to be far away. Neil himself was indulging in reveries when the sudden interruption came,--a sound of voices outside the cabin, an exclamation, a quick thrusting in of the door, and then the noise of persons talking awkwardly, as those who carry a heavy burden. The two at the fireplace turned in their chairs and saw immediately that something serious had happened.
"He crashed into a tree on the big Slide," said Ted Norris. "His body seems warm but we're afraid that--well, just look at his neck; it moves so queerly. Doctor Emmons ought to be here any minute. Bert Williams went down ahead to get him."
Within the space of a second, it seemed, Wolcott Norris had taken charge of the situation. Teeny-bits Holbrook was laid out on a cot which they brought in from one of the sleeping rooms and placed in front of the fire, and here a quarter of an hour later Doctor Emmons made his diagnosis.
"No, his neck isn't broken," said the surgeon, "so you needn't worry about that, and you can see from the color of his face that he isn't in immediate danger. He has a concussion, which isn't necessarily serious,--though that's a pretty bad blow he received on his head. Now with your help, Mr. Norris, we'll look him over for further injuries. There may be some broken bones to contend with also."
Without loss of time the surgeon, aided by the mining engineer, removed, most of Teeny-bits' clothing and began the process of examination by which he quickly established the fact that no bones had been broken and that the only injury from which Teeny-bits was suffering was the one to his head. During this examination one slight incident attracted the attention of Neil Durant and his friends who stood about speaking to each other in whispers. It occurred when Wolcott Norris, following instructions from the surgeon, with trembling hands uncovered Teeny-bits' back and revealed the dagger-like, terra-cotta mark upon his bare shoulder. For an instant the mining engineer had seemed about to faint; he wavered on his feet and groped suddenly for the support of a chair-back. To the watchers it had appeared that he had become momentarily unnerved by the unexpected accident, or that perhaps he had seen something in Teeny-bits' condition that was unfavorable. The surgeon, however, had quickly reassured them as they pressed forward a little closer by saying:
"He's sound from top-knot to toe except for that ugly smash on the head. Now we'll put these blankets over him and keep him quiet. If the concussion isn't bad he'll become conscious before very long."
But hour after hour passed and Teeny-bits did not regain his senses. He lay in a stupor, occasionally muttering thick and unintelligible words.
"There's no need of you fellows staying up," said Wolcott Norris at midnight. "The doctor and I will be here with Teeny-bits and the best thing you can do is go to bed."
After a time the Williams brothers went home and Whipple and Phillips followed the mining engineer's advice. Neil Durant and Ted Norris, however, refused to leave the room where Teeny-bits lay. They sat together by the fireplace and waited for an encouraging word from the surgeon.
"I know he'll pull through," said Neil. "He's as tough as a wildcat."
"Some boy!" said the big son of Jefferson. "He's the real goods. Oh, he's got to come out of it."
Finally these two friends, who had fought each other so valiantly only a few weeks before, dozed off sitting there side by side, with the ruddy light of the fireplace on their faces.
They awoke simultaneously. The gray light of morning had begun to penetrate the camp windows, and Teeny-bits was sitting up on the couch, looking about him as if he had been awakened from a puzzling dream.
"What did I do with the skis?" he asked and, raising his hands to his bandaged head, gazed at his friends in bewilderment.
The doctor and Wolcott Norris, Neil and Ted were beside the cot in an instant.
"It's all right, old man!" said Neil. "You got a thump on your head coming down the slide."
"It feels----" Teeny-bits began. But his head was too heavy; the shadow of a smile crossed his face and lying back on the pillow he closed his eyes.
"We must keep very quiet," said the surgeon. "He'll sleep now and be the better for it."
A TALE OF THE FAR EAST
It was as Doctor Emmons predicted: Teeny-bits slept half the morning through and awoke with a clear look in his eyes that indicated at once to his friends that his dazed condition had passed.
"What did I hit?" he asked.
"A big oak tree," said Ted Norris.
"I knocked it down, didn't I?" asked Teeny-bits. "My head feels as if I did."
His friends laughed with a happy abandon in which there was a quality that expressed release from a great fear.
Under the doctor's orders Teeny-bits remained in bed the rest of the week, though he declared on the second day that he was feeling fit and wanted to get up. Meanwhile the holidays came to an end. Phillips and Whipple departed for Jefferson School and at the same time most of the other vacationers in the Pocassett settlement went their various ways. Neil Durant and Ted Norris, however, insisted on staying until Teeny-bits was entirely recovered. A part of each day they sat about the cabin talking over school and college life.
"If you fellows would only wait a year I might go to college with you," Teeny-bits said one day, half jokingly.
"I might do it at that," said Neil Durant. "Father has been talking to me about staying out a year and working before I start in."
"That's not a bad idea," said Wolcott Norris. "Most of the fellows to-day enter college with a pretty vague notion of what they're going to do and it might help a lot to get out and work for a year or so before you continue your education. I think it would be time well spent."
The conversation was brief, but it began something which was destined to come to pass.
During these days while he was recovering, Teeny-bits had the opportunity to accomplish the thing for which he had envied Neil Durant on the night of the accident,--to become better acquainted with Wolcott Norris. While Ted and Neil, who had recovered from his sprained ankle, were out on snowshoes and skis, the mining engineer and the new captain of the Ridgley team spent many hours together. The admiration that Teeny-bits had felt for this man with the straight figure and the keen eyes steadily increased. Here, he said to himself, was a man whose character showed in his face and whose life any one would do well to imitate. There was something about Wolcott Norris that inspired Teeny-bits with a feeling of confidence, and somewhat to his surprise he found himself telling the mining engineer things that he had never told even to such good friends as Neil Durant or Snubby Turner,--confidences about his own feeling toward the other members of the school, hopes for the future and something of the ambitions for the attainment of which he meant to strive. For some reason which he could not analyze it seemed entirely natural to be conversing intimately--even after such a short acquaintance--with Wolcott Norris.
"You two fellows seem to be getting pretty chummy," said Ted Norris one afternoon when he and Neil came in and found Teeny-bits and the mining engineer engaged in conversation. "What's all the deep talk about?"
"Why don't you pull up some chairs and sit down?" asked Wolcott Norris.
It was just at the beginning of twilight and the flickering fire was already making shadows on the beamed ceiling of the cabin. Neil and Ted Norris pulled off their leather coats and stretched themselves out comfortably with their feet toward the blaze.
"Now," said Ted, looking at Wolcott Norris, "is the time for you to spin us a yarn."
"Yes," replied the mining engineer gazing at the three of them with an expression that they later remembered, "I guess this _is_ the time to spin you a yarn."
To their surprise he got up abruptly from his splint-backed chair and went out to his bedroom. As he returned he was thrusting something into his coat pocket.
"After I got through Jefferson," he said, when he was sitting in front of the fireplace once more, "I went to technical school to study engineering--mining engineering--which meant that when I started out to work I traveled round the country from one place to another, and within a short time I had a commission to go to China. When I went I took some one with me."
Wolcott Norris paused and for a minute or two gazed straight before him. None of the three listeners interrupted the silence; there had been a quality in the mining engineer's voice which had made them feel that they were about to hear something unusual.
"Here's her picture," he said, and took from his pocket the object he had placed there on entering the room a few moments before. He handed it to Teeny-bits, who bent forward a little so that the glow from the firelight fell on the photograph. Neil Durant and Ted Norris leaned toward him and the three of them saw the likeness of a young woman with smiling eyes and fine, clear features.
"Mighty nice looking," said Neil Durant. "She reminds me of some one I've seen before, I can't think where."
There was a slight unsteadiness in Wolcott Norris' voice when he spoke again, but he overcame it and went on with his story rapidly.
"We were married just after I got my new job, went out to San Francisco and sailed for China on the Japanese steamer _Tenyo Maru_. It was a wonderful world to us then--more wonderful than I can describe to you. Rain or shine, every day was a perfect day, and we sailed on and on in that little old steamer out across the Pacific until we came at last to Asia. For several months we were in Shanghai at the headquarters of the company, then they sent me up into the province of Honan to a little place called Tung-sha on a tributary of the Yangtse in a country that was pretty wild.
"There was gold and copper back in the hills and the company intended to carry on extensive operations if the ground proved worth while. How strange it seemed to us to find a bit of a foreign colony--a handful of Americans and British and French, missionaries and representatives of the company--set down in a region that for no one knows how many thousand years had belonged to the yellow men. You go about in China and you see those old, old temples and the weather-worn houses and the ancient hills, bald and bare, and you feel as if antiquity were casting a spell over you. A person who hasn't lived among the Chinese can't imagine what a strange, superstitious people they are; more than any other race on the face of the earth they are bound to the past--and I suppose when we came up there to Tung-sha and began to dig tunnels in their hills we were breaking the precedent of the past. Still we didn't really expect any trouble--and for many months all went smoothly. Some wonderful things happened up there in that out-of-the-way corner of the world. We lived--Marion and I--in a three-room bungalow with a roof that sloped like the roof of a temple, and here that first springtime something very fine came into our lives--a son was born to us. He was a husky little youngster--and maybe he couldn't yell!"
Wolcott Norris laughed.
"I remember that Ho Sen, my Chinese servant boy, used to say when the baby howled 'Nice stlong lung; he'll glow nice, big man! And by Jingo! How that little chap did grow! Those were days crowded with happiness and before we knew it we'd been in Tung-sha more than a year. The mine was beginning to require additional machinery and everything looked good for the future. We were so contented there in our bungalow that I suppose we never thought of anything happening to burst our bubble of happiness--at least I don't remember that any worries troubled our minds."
The mining engineer paused in his story and passed his hand across his brow. A minute went by, during which the hushing sound of the fire alone broke the stillness of the room. Teeny-bits, Neil Durant and Ted Norris sat without moving; their eyes were on the red and yellow fireplace flames, but what they saw was a bit of the old Chinese Empire, in-land on a tributary of the Yangtse--and a bungalow at Tung-sha. The mining engineer was silent so long that finally they looked up--and, seeing the expression on his face, looked quickly down again--as those turn away their faces who look by mistake too deeply into the intimate thoughts of another.
"Bad water and Red Knife wrecked Tung-sha," said Wolcott Norris abruptly. "The water was contaminated somehow--typhoid got into it. Our little colony was hard hit and when that second summer was over the youngster I told you about didn't have any mother--she was sleeping the long sleep out there at the foot of the Tung-sha hills."
The mining engineer's voice had grown thick--it was as if another person were speaking.
"I should have told you more at the start about Red Knife," he said. "He was a Chinese robber--the chief of a gang of hill-men who for years had levied tribute from those poor, ignorant people of Honan. His name was a living terror--I have never seen such abject fear on the faces of human beings as one day when a rumor passed among our mine workers that Red Knife was in the hills near by waiting to pounce down upon them. They reminded me of sheep huddling together to escape wolves.
"From the time when the company first started operations at Tung-sha we realized that this bandit was working against us--for the reason, of course, that he knew we would lessen his power. I questioned Ho Sen one day and learned that Red Knife had sent word around that if the 'foreign devils', as he called us, dug further into the hills man-eating dragons would come out and destroy the villages. We had to pay extra to get labor after that."
"Why did they call him Red Knife?" asked Neil Durant.
"Because that was his symbol--a red knife--and his followers were said to carry red-bladed daggers.
"Red Knife chose his time well. He came down on our little settlement at the height of the typhoid scourge. It was only a few days after Marion had been buried and I was up at the mine attending to some last arrangements so that I could leave. I had made up my mind to take Winslow--that's what we'd named the little boy--out to Shanghai, for Tung-sha was no place for a motherless youngster. In broad daylight I heard the natives wailing and yelling, and then the mine workers began to cry out that Red Knife had swooped down from the hills. The white men who were with me pulled out their guns and we ran down to the bungalows. We were too late, however; Red Knife had come and gone--and with him had gone Ho Sen and the boy. Three or four of the natives lay in the street with their throats cut and the rest of them were so frightened that at first I couldn't get them to tell me anything, but finally I made out that Red Knife's men had carried the baby away in a basket and that Ho Sen had gone with them, voluntarily or as a prisoner I did not know.
"I can't tell you just how crazy I was. I remember that I grabbed up a handful of shells for my revolver and ran up toward the Hai-Yu Gap where the natives said Red Knife and his gang had disappeared. I remember also that Hartley, the surgeon, and a Frenchman ran after me and tried to pull me back, and when I wouldn't come with them that they ran along beside me. But I guess I out-distanced them, for after a time I was running alone up the dry bed of a stream where the Hai-Yu Gap cut the hills. I meant to get the boy and bring him back, but I suppose I might as well have tried to follow a black tracker into a tropic jungle as to follow the trail of Red Knife through those Tung-sha hills.
"I don't know how far I went. When night came I was lost--scrambling in the dark over bare rocks, slipping into gulleys and fighting my way out again. I suppose I made a terrific clatter and that Red Knife's men heard me coming when I was a long way off. At any rate they got me when I was off my guard--the yellow men pounced on me from behind the rocks and, though I think I did for one or two of them with my gun, they knocked me over the head. When I came to I was in the dusky interior of a stone house, bound and utterly helpless."
Wolcott Norris got up abruptly from his chair and, walking over to the window, looked out into the twilight at the snow-covered Pocassett landscape. When he came back to the fireplace he said to the three listeners who had followed them with their eyes but had not stirred:
"Maybe you've read of the devilish ingenuity of some of these Chinese brigands--there are wild stories and some are true and some are not, but the torture that Red Knife put me to in that stone house up beyond the Hai-Yu Gap was worse than death--or so it seemed to me.
"He was a short, broad-shouldered wretch with a thin, hairy mustache that curled round the corners of his mouth. That mouth of his and his black, slant eyes were the most vivid expressions of cruelty that I have ever seen. When I first saw him I thought of Genghis Khan, that ancient conqueror who is said to have slaughtered five million persons while he ruled over China. Red Knife brought in Ho Sen and my little boy and he made Ho Sen, who was trembling like a leaf, interpret the things he wanted me to know.
"'Foreign devil,' he said, 'what is worth more than your life to you? Ai, I know. This child is worth to you more than your life, therefore will I take him away.' And then he uncovered the baby's back and showed me a livid mark on the little chap's shoulder. 'See,' he said, 'he belongs to Red Knife now; he wears Red Knife's mark. My women will be _very_ good to this little son of the foreigner. We will bring him up in our band; he will be clever like the white man. Who knows, perhaps he will be as good a thief as Red Knife himself!'
"I tried to think of something that I could say or do that would move this wretch's heart, but it was of no use. Poor Ho Sen was frightened to death, and when I begged him to try to escape and bring help from the village I little thought that he could do anything.
"'Take the boy back to the village,' I said to Red Knife through the interpreter, 'and do with me as you will.'
"'Yes, I will do with you as I will,' was his answer. 'I think I will put you in a hole in the ground and perhaps I will give you a toad and a lizard to keep you company. Red Knife wants no one to be lonely.'
"Red Knife--I've always supposed--did intend to put me out of the way by some diabolical method of his own. And then the idea of holding me for ransom apparently occurred to him, for he kept me in the stone house back in the hills day after day. Two or three times when I saw Ho Sen I begged him to run away from the bandits and take the little boy with him and tell my friends in the village where we were, but Ho Sen only looked at me and trembled. I couldn't much blame him for being terrified.
"One night there was a jabbering and yelling round the stone house and I thought Red Knife had killed Ho Sen, for I saw him no more. Two days later there was more commotion and the whole band began to prepare to depart. I hoped that an expedition had come from the town--and that in fact was actually what happened. Some of the Imperial Government troops led by the white men were on Red Knife's trail, but Red Knife knew those hills too well. He and his gang went farther back and took me along, helpless. The horrible part of it all was that the little boy seemed to have disappeared, and when I asked what had become of him these yellow men only jabbered at me in their outlandish tongue. We traveled all day and all night and finally camped in some limestone caves. There I became very sick and I hoped that I should die because the future didn't seem to hold anything at all for me. I know I was delirious for a long time; things seemed very hazy--a confused coming and going of the natives and the jabbering of their singsong voices. Perhaps that sickness was what saved my life, for when I came to the end of my delirium I was lying there deserted in the limestone cave. I suppose Red Knife thought that the 'foreign devil' was dying and that I was only an encumbrance in his retreat. I don't know how long I had remained in the cave and I can't tell you how I managed to make my way out of that wilderness of hills and dry river beds, but Providence must have guided me, for I finally stumbled down into the village of Tung-sha and found Hartley, the surgeon, and three or four of the Europeans still there.
"I was delirious again for a time and didn't know what went on around me. But Hartley pulled me through and I found myself asking what had happened. They told me that the native troops of the Imperial Government had come up and that the foreign colony had led an expedition back into the hills. They hadn't been able, however, to overtake Red Knife and had finally abandoned the expedition partly because of the doubtful loyalty of the Chinese troops, who weren't over eager to chase Red Knife. That whole region in those days needed only a spark to set it aflame against all foreigners.
"There was one surprising bit of news, something that gave me a great desire to live. Ho Sen, poor, faithful Ho Sen, had escaped from Red Knife. He had come crawling to Hartley's bungalow at midnight several days after the raid, carrying in his arms the boy, and had fallen unconscious at the doorsteps. Hartley took them in and found the boy little the worse for his experiences, but Ho Sen died that same night and had been in his grave more than two weeks when Hartley told me the story. Meanwhile they had given up hope of ever seeing me alive again, and when the colony decided that it was unsafe for the women to stay at Tung-sha any longer they sent the boy down to Shanghai with an American missionary by the name of Singleton, who was going back to the United States. She had become deaf during her service in China and was returning to the States for treatment.
"Of course I started for Shanghai as soon as I was able to get about, going down the Yangtse in a river boat. But again I was too late. When I arrived I discovered that this Miss Singleton had gone to the office of the company and on their advice, after she had reported my death, had taken the baby with her when she sailed for San Francisco. She had the address of my brother--Ted's father--and said that she would deliver the child to them in New York. That's about the end of the story, except that I was never able to trace Miss Singleton beyond San Francisco. In Shanghai I came down with typhoid and was delayed three months in getting back to America. Then I discovered that my little son never arrived in New York--as far as any one knew--and the result of the investigations that I carried on through the police and private detective agencies established only the fact that the young missionary was on the steamer when it arrived at San Francisco and that she and the baby disembarked with the other passengers.
"I said that was pretty nearly the end of the story--but you know I've never quite given up hope of sometime finding that boy of mine."
"Will you let me look at that picture again?" asked Neil Durant.
As the mining engineer took the photograph from his pocket and handed it to Neil, Teeny-bits asked a question:
"That mark," he said in a voice that was peculiarly tense, "what was it like--was it--?"
"Yes," said Wolcott Norris, "it _was_ like the mark that I saw on your shoulder when Doctor Emmons...."
"Look!" Neil Durant suddenly broke in. "I know _now_ where I've seen the person that resembles this picture--it's _you_, Teeny-bits! Her eyes and mouth--just look!"
Teeny-bits gazed at the picture and finally raised his eyes to those of Wolcott Norris. He opened his lips to speak, but no sound came from them. For the moment his thoughts were too full to find expression in words.
"It seems--" he said unsteadily after a time, "like something I've been dreaming, and now I know why I've had such a strange feeling toward you--just as if you were my older brother--or my--my father. To-morrow when Neil and I go back to Ridgley, will you come?"
"Yes, Teeny-bits, I'll come," said Wolcott Norris, "and we'll go over to Greensboro and have a talk with those Chinese that Neil told me about."
Ted Norris jumped to his feet as if he had suddenly come out of a trance. "By thunder!" he cried, "my head is swimming round in circles, but I've just enough of a grip on my brains to see that you and I--that we--oh, shucks!--put it there!" And the big fellow thrust out his hand to Teeny-bits.
Next day the Norris cabin at Pocassett was closed. Ted Norris went back to Jefferson and the other three traveled on toward Ridgley School. At the Greensboro station Teeny-bits and Wolcott Norris left the train and made their way to the Eating Palace of Chuan Kai. There the mining engineer, who knew how to talk to an Oriental, very quickly discovered that the proprietor of the establishment was a native of the Honan Province; that Shanghai and the Yangtse and Tung-sha were places not unknown to them, and then suddenly he put the question toward which he had been leading the conversation. When Chuan Kai had left China was Red Knife, the robber, alive? Chuan Kai started at the name and answered quickly:
"He is a devil! He will never die."
"And that was why your men acted strangely when they saw the mark on the young man's shoulder? They are from your region, too, and they know Red Knife's mark. It frightened them to find it on an American over here on this side of the world. That's all right. We've learned all we wish to know and you need have no fear, Chuan Kai, that any harm will come to you."
The Oriental had shown clearly that the mining engineer had hit upon the truth; there was no necessity of wasting more time in Greensboro. A little later Teeny-bits and Wolcott Norris were in the Hamilton station greeting Pa Holbrook, who insisted on taking them home to supper. No one could be more hospitable than this kindly old couple who made no excuses for the humbleness of their home and who gave to every one who entered it the true feeling of welcome. They accepted the mining engineer as a friend of Teeny-bits. Ma Holbrook said to herself that here was "a real fine man" and Pa Holbrook's mental comment was that he was a "genuwine gentleman." Teeny-bits could see that these two persons, to whom he owed so much, approved of Wolcott Norris, but he was filled with uneasiness at the thought of telling them what he knew must be told.
It all came out very simply after the meal was over. The story seemed to tell itself. Teeny-bits started it and Wolcott Norris helped him out, and when it was all done and Ma and Pa Holbrook grasped the full import of its meaning, there was no unpleasant scene.
Ma Holbrook put her handkerchief to her eyes, and the station agent said, "There, there, mother, don't cry."
"I'm not really crying," declared Ma Holbrook. "I'm just a little bit weepy, I'm so glad for Teeny-bits."
Pa Holbrook took the mining engineer's hand in his two old, gnarled ones and said something that made Teeny-bits very happy:
"Ma and I are old folks and we've kind of worried, you can understand, about Teeny-bits not having any family when we pass on. He's _everything_ to us, and of course this coming so sudden sort of works Ma and me up a mite, but when we're used to it we'll be the happiest people on the face of the globe to know that our boy has a real dad like you."
"I know what we'll do," said Ma Holbrook suddenly, "Pa and I will sort of adopt you, too, Mr. Norris. It don't really seem that you're much more than old enough to be Teeny-bits' brother, anyway."
At that the mining engineer got up and stood over by the window blowing his nose. When he turned round there was a redness about his eyes, and his voice was husky:
"It's a wonderful thing to me to know that Teeny-bits has had you two to look out for him all these years, and it's the best compliment I ever had for you to say that you'd like to adopt me too. We'll share Teeny-bits together and I'll be satisfied if I can make him care as much about me as he cares about you."
Teeny-bits felt that he ought to say something, but for the life of him he could not speak a word. He looked at these three persons who meant so much to him, he thought of all the things that had come to him since that first day when he climbed the hill to Ridgley School. The whole of it seemed to pass before his eyes like a panorama suddenly displayed. How much had happened! How many new friends he had made! How much life held in store for him!
Ma Holbrook broke the trend of Teeny-bits' thoughts.
"Now," she said, smiling through the tears that still gathered in her eyes, "what are we going to call you?"
Teeny-bits laughed. He could speak now. "Why, Ma," he said, "there's only one thing to call me; I've been Teeny-bits all my life and I want to be Teeny-bits still."
_By_ CLAYTON H. ERNST
_Illustrated by G. A. Harker_
"Clayton H. Ernst has avowedly written his story, 'Blind Trails,' for 'Boys from 12 to 18,' but the blood of any grown up who fails to find a thrill in the adventures of young Hal Ayres must be thin indeed. 'Blind Trails' is a far more interesting and better written story of adventure than many of those recently offered for full grown readers."--_The New York Sun._
"A story full of thrills that will keep the boy of 12 years or more curled up in the chair before the fire long after bedtime."--_The Philadelphia North American._
"A well-written and exciting story of a fight over the possession of valuable lumber lands. It is a book far better than the usual run of those intended for boys in the 'teens."--_The Saint Louis Star._
"'Blind Trails' is one of the best of the season's tales for big boys of sub-college age. It is well written, with real conversations and skillfully suspended interest, and more character-drawing than is usual in such stories."--_The Boston Herald._