OF A HERO
AUTHOR OF “BENTON’S VENTURE,”
“AROUND THE END,” ETC.
CHARLES M. RELYEA
Copyright, 1914, by
D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Printed in the United States of America
Elizabeth Bradlee Forrest
|I.—||Rodney Climbs a Hill||1|
|II.—||Rodney Meets the Twins||14|
|V.—||Rodney Encounters Watson||48|
|VI.—||Rodney is Discovered||62|
|VII.—||Coach Cotting Exacts a Promise||79|
|VIII.—||Croquet and Confessions||91|
|X.—||Rodney Joins the Squad||115|
|XI.—||Kitty Supplies a Sensation||125|
|XII.—||Cotting is Puzzled||136|
|XIII.—||The Final Cut||148|
|XIV.—||The Twins are Bored||164|
|XVI.—||Tad in Danger||199|
|XVII.—||Kitty Climbs to the Rescue||211|
|XVIII.—||Ludlow Scores a Safety||222|
|XIX.—||Nearing the Goal||233|
|XXI.—||Cotting Tells a Story||253|
|XXII.—||The Eve of the Battle||263|
|XXIV.—||The Battle is On||285|
|XXV.—||Rodney Finds Himself||294|
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
|“Rodney, startled, whisked around”||Frontispiece|
|“Finally Jack sent a swift ball across the court”||186|
|“Very slowly Tad turned his face over his shoulder”||212|
|“Hands seized him and arms lifted him aloft”||300|
THE BROTHER OF A HERO
RODNEY CLIMBS A HILL
reenridge! Greenridge! Have your tickets ready, please!”
There was a hoarse blast from the whistle and the steamer sidled in toward the wharf. Rodney Merrill, his brand new suitcase tightly clutched in his left hand and his ticket firmly held in his right, followed the dozen or so passengers who were crowding toward where three deck hands waited to push over the gangplank. As the Henry Hudson edged up to the landing the main street of the little town came suddenly into view, leading straight up the hill at a discouraging angle until lost to sight behind the overhanging branches of great trees. Rodney thought he had never seen so many trees before. They were everywhere—elms, maples, beeches and oaks—hiding the houses spread up the side of the ridge so that only here and there was visible a gray roof or a white wall or a red chimney top. Even here by the river edge the trees seemed to be trying to dispute the margin with the wharves and buildings. Where Rodney had come from folks first built houses and then planted trees, afterwards tending them as carefully as though they were rare flowers. Here, it seemed, folks had tucked their houses away in a veritable forest. He mentally compared the leaf-roofed street before him with Capitol Avenue, back in Orleans, Nebraska. Capitol Avenue was lined with trees, too, but the trees were as yet barely twelve feet high and cast about as much shade as would a lady’s parasol.
At the left of the wharf was a ferry slip, with a little brown shed beside it bearing the legend, Greenridge and Milon Ferry Company. A handful of people waited there under the shelter and watched the arrival of the river steamer. The paddles thrashed, the steamer shivered and bumped, the gangplank thudded to the wharf, and the disembarking passengers moved forward. Rodney followed, gave up his ticket, and found himself on land. He yielded his bag and trunk check to a hackman, asked directions, and with a farewell glance at the Henry Hudson gained the shadiest side of the ascending street.
It was still only a little after two o’clock and he had all the afternoon before him. Somewhere at the top of the hill was Maple Hill Academy, for which he was bound. But, as he would undoubtedly see quite enough of that institution during the next nine months, he was in no hurry to reach it. Rodney’s father had accompanied the boy to New York and had fully intended coming to Greenridge-on-Hudson with him, but, just as they had sat down to dinner in the hotel the evening before, an imperative telegram had reached him, and this morning Rodney had boarded a Hudson River steamboat and Mr. Merrill a Chicago train. Naturally Rodney had been disappointed, but he was quite used to his father’s erratic flights from home—it was the penalty of having a father who was an important factor in a big railway system—and he had made the best of it. There had been so much to see from the moment the steamer had left its dock in the North River until it had bumped against the big piles at Greenridge that Rodney had forgotten to be lonesome. Besides, to a boy of fifteen, even though he has been brought up to be self-reliant and is fairly accustomed to looking out for himself, there is something inspiriting in journeying alone, in being thrown on his own resources. He experienced a fine feeling of independence as he loitered up the street, and perhaps was guilty of a suggestion of swagger, for which I think he may be excused.
The street—River Street was the name of it, as he soon discovered—was lined with funny, half-asleep little shops. There was nothing smart about them. Their windows looked as though they were seldom washed and the goods displayed therein were often dusty and fly-specked. And then the names over the doors amused him; as “Liverwell and Nagg, Fine Groceries and Provisions,” “Huckens and Soper, Hardware,” “Jernigen’s Pharmacy, New York Prices,” “Sauerwien’s Home Bakery” and “Fogg and Frost, Stationery, Books, Periodicals, Post Cards, Lending Library and Candy.” Hands in pockets, he looked in the windows, peered up shady side streets at the half-hidden doorways and porches of comfortable, old-fashioned houses and, in short, loafed enjoyably, finding all sorts of things to interest him in this queer, hundred-year-old-town.
Presently, when he had progressed three or four blocks up the hill, he came to an uncovered bridge spanning the railroad. Below on one side, reached by a flight of steps, was a small station. He paused there above long enough to determine in which direction New York City lay, and then, as no trains came along to offer entertainment, he went on again, up and up under the wide trees. It was rather hard climbing and the day was none too cool now that he had left the river behind. And so at the next corner he entered a drug store and sank onto a stool in front of the soda fountain. While he waited for someone to appear from the dim mysteries behind the partition at the back, he amused himself by deciphering the sign on the window. YCAMRAHP S’ELTTILOOD was about the way it appeared from inside. When he had puzzled it out he glanced around the empty store and chuckled. It was, he thought, well named.
“Chocolate ice-cream soda, please,” he requested presently, when a youth with sandy hair strolled into sight wiping his hands on a soiled white apron. “Lots of chocolate, please,” he added.
The clerk glanced doubtfully at the faucet inscribed “Choc.,” tried it and shook his head. “All out of chocolate just now,” he announced, looking dreamily across the street. “I’m going to make some more this afternoon. Something else do?”
“Strawberry,” said Rodney.
This time the clerk had better luck. While Rodney consumed the concoction, the clerk leaned wearily against the fountain and watched the street. At last, “School?” he asked.
“You an Academy boy?”
“Not yet.” Rodney glanced at the round faced clock in the center of the partition. “Not till five o’clock probably.”
“Just come, eh?” continued the clerk with a slight show of interest. “Well, it’s a pretty good school, I guess. ’Bout as good as any in New York State, they say.”
“Is it?” Rodney didn’t seem much impressed. “If I’d had my way I’d have gone to a military academy back in Michigan. But my brother used to go here and he made dad send me, too. I suppose it will do.”
“Where’d you come from?” asked the other.
“Orleans, Nebraska. Ever been out there?”
“N-no. Nebraska’s quite a ways, ain’t it? Out—out near Illinois, ain’t it? Or Texas?”
“Out that way,” replied Rodney dryly. “Sort of between those places and Oregon. It’s the finest state in the Union.”
“That so?” The drug clerk grinned. “Guess you ain’t lived in the east much, have you?”
“No, not lived, but I’ve been in about every state except Maine and Vermont and West Virginia. And Nebraska’s got them all thrown and hog-tied.”
“You must have travelled some! Ever been in Utah?”
“Several times,” answered Rodney, scraping the last particle of ice cream from his glass with a sigh of regret.
“Is that so? I don’t suppose you ever ran across a fellow named Stenstream out there, did you?”
“I don’t think so. What town is he in?”
“Town? I don’t know. One of those Mormon towns, I think. He’s a sort of cousin of mine, Pringle is.”
“Did he come from here?” asked Rodney as he drained the last drop in his glass.
“Yes, he used to work for Huckins, down the street. Always was a sort of adventurous chap, though. Nobody wasn’t surprised much when he up and lit out for Utah.”
“Utah ought to be a fine place for a fellow with a name like that,” said Rodney gravely. “What did you say it was?”
“His name? Pringle Stenstream.”
“My, this is sure one fine place for names, isn’t it?” laughed the boy.
The clerk blinked as he washed the glass. “Names? How do you mean? What’s the matter with the names?”
“Oh, they’re all right, but sort of—of unusual.”
“Stenstream ain’t unusual around here,” responded the clerk a trifle resentfully. “There’s stacks of ’em in New York State. It’s as common as—as my own name.”
“What’s that?” asked Rodney.
“Doolittle,” was the calm reply.
“Oh, is this your store?”
“Nope, it’s my uncle’s. I work for him. Gosh!”
“What’s the matter?” asked Rodney, following the clerk’s gaze through the window.
“There’s that Watson feller coming, and he always wants chocolate and I haven’t got any.”
“Give him strawberry,” suggested Rodney, amused by the clerk’s expression of alarm. “Are those Maple Hill fellows?”
The clerk nodded gloomily. “Yes, and that Watson feller’s the worst of the lot. The rest of ’em ain’t so bad.”
“Cheer up,” said Rodney. “Maybe they won’t come in.”
They did, though. There were four of them, their ages ranging apparently from fourteen to seventeen. They came in laughing and made directly for the soda fountain. As there were but three stools, Rodney got up and moved to the corner of the confectionery case, curious to see what manner of boys these Maple Hill students might be. It wasn’t difficult to determine which was Watson. He was the biggest of the four, good-looking in a heavy way, and evidently the leader of the present expedition. It was Watson who sang out a greeting from the doorway.
“Hello, Doolie, Old Top! Poisoned anyone to-day?”
Young Mr. Doolittle smiled uneasily. “You almost lost me my job that time, Watson,” he said sadly. “That wasn’t a joke, that wasn’t!”
“Wasn’t it?” laughed Watson. “It was a peach of a joke!” He had caught sight of Rodney on entering, and now he inquired confidentially but quite audibly, “Who’s your dressy friend, Doolie?”
The clerk replied in low tones, leaning across the counter. Watson grinned.
“What ho, fellows! Luck’s with us! Here’s a new one!” He regarded Rodney jovially. “Doolie says you’re a Maple Hiller.”
“Yes,” replied Rodney pleasantly.
“Fine! Welcome to our school!”
“Thank you,” returned Rodney politely.
“Well, fellows, what’ll you have to-day?” asked the clerk.
“Hold your horses, Doolie. You see,” Watson went on, turning to the newcomer again, “it’s a long-established custom here that new boys have to stand treat. You’re lucky there aren’t any more of us, isn’t he, Tommy?”
“Rather!” agreed a light-haired, freckle-faced boy of about Rodney’s age. “If he doesn’t hurry up there may be.”
“You mean,” inquired Rodney interestedly, “that I’m supposed to buy sodas for you chaps?”
“Spoken like a gentleman! Right you are, Old Top! Line up, fellows. Ice creams all around, Doolie.”
The clerk looked hesitantly at Rodney. The latter smiled but shook his head. “Suppose I haven’t enough coin, fellows?” he inquired.
“That’s all right, Doolie will chalk it up, won’t you, Doolie? Doolie’s a nice, obliging little poisoner.”
“Very glad to charge ’em,” said the clerk. “What flavors?”
“Hold on,” protested Rodney. “I’m not one of you fellows yet. I won’t be until I reach school. I guess that lets me out. Still, I don’t want to seem stingy, so I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”
“What?” asked Watson, frowning darkly.
“I’ll buy ice-cream sodas for the crowd if you’ll all take the same flavor. You—” nodding at Watson—“choose it. You’ve only got one guess, though.”
“How do you mean, one guess?”
“Why, if you call for a flavor he hasn’t got, you lose. That lets me out. Savvy?”
“Oh, that’s it? Don’t you worry, cutie. We know what we want, don’t we, fellows?”
“I want—” began a younger boy.
“Cut it! You get what I order. Didn’t you hear him say so? Doolie, you may prepare four of your finest chocolate ice-cream sodas.”
Had Watson observed the clerk’s expression during the arrangement of terms he might have hesitated about agreeing to them, but he had not. It was only when young Mr. Doolittle began to stammer vaguely that Watson scented trouble.
“What’s the matter, Doolie?” he demanded peevishly. “Four chocolates. Didn’t you hear the dressy party agree to pay for them?”
“I—the fact is, Watson—the—the chocolate is—is——”
“The chocolate is what?” asked Watson, suspiciously calm.
“Out! Oh, run away and play, Doolie! Quit your joking! Of course you’ve got chocolate! If you haven’t you’d better dig some up mighty quick, Old Top! Get a move on now! Ginger up, Doolie, ginger up!”
“I’m awfully sorry, Watson, but there ain’t any. You see, I was just going to make some when that fellow came in and——”
“Asked for it, I’ll bet a doughnut!” exclaimed Watson. “Say, you, Mr. Smart Aleck”—Watson’s jaw dropped. “Where is he?” he demanded.
“The new fellow?” replied one of the younger boys. “Oh, he just went out!”
RODNEY MEETS THE TWINS
Rodney, smiling at his thoughts, was a block away. While he was by no means running, he was at the same time proceeding decidedly faster than before. The vicinity of Doolittle’s Pharmacy was not, he told himself, a healthy locality for him just then. In fact, he was somewhat relieved when the main street, as though despairing of being able to climb any further in a straight line, broke in two like a letter Y. Once around the turn to the left he would be no longer in sight from the drug store. His instructions from the expressman had been to take the left-hand road where River Street branched. What he was to do after that he no longer recalled. Consequently when he came to a cross street that appeared to curve back toward the other branch of the Y he let it severely alone. But a few rods further on he doubted his wisdom. The stores had stopped two blocks below—he was still climbing upward, although at a more comfortable grade—and residences had taken their place. About him now were large yards, with many trees and beds of flowers; dahlias and asters and flaming scarlet sage and golden-yellow marigolds; with quiet, peaceful old-fashioned white houses with green window shutters tucked well away from the street. Ahead of him the road seemed bent on losing itself in open country, and the dwelling houses were growing scarcer. The Westcott house, whither his baggage had gone and where he himself was leisurely bound, was opposite the Academy campus; the letter from Mrs. Westcott had distinctly so stated; and as yet there was nothing even dimly resembling a campus in sight. He paused under the shade of a big elm, whose far-reaching branches had already begun to carpet the street with their rusty-yellow leaves, and looked about him.
Across the road a narrow side street, scarcely wider than a lane, according to Rodney’s notions, ran briskly downhill until it passed from sight. Rodney at once eliminated that thoroughfare from his calculations. Rather than strike downward and have to climb that hill again he would stay just where he was and starve to death. Not, however, that there was any immediate danger of that contingency, for he had managed to eat a particularly hearty meal some three hours since in the big dining saloon of the steamer. But three hours is three hours, and any normal, healthy boy can look with favor on food after a fast of that duration. So he produced a piece of sweet chocolate from a pocket, removed the tin-foil with some difficulty, since the warmth of the day had softened the delicacy to a condition of mushiness, and looked about him for a place to rest and refresh himself. A few feet farther along a big granite horseblock stood at the edge of the sidewalk—with a narrow gate in the fence behind, but he didn’t notice that—and so he sat himself comfortably down on it and proceeded to nibble. It was perceptibly cooler up here on the hill, for he was almost at the summit of the ridge that paralleled the river for many miles, and a fresh breeze was blowing along the shady street. It was still only—he looked at his watch—only ten minutes after three and he had nearly two hours of freedom yet, if he wanted it. He sighed contentedly.
While he sits there let us have a look at him. Fairly tall for his fifteen years—fifteen and a half, to be strictly accurate—splendidly healthy and capable in appearance, Rodney Merrill was on the whole distinctly attractive. Perhaps you would not have called him a handsome boy. If not Rodney would have had no quarrel with you since, in a boy’s language, handsome implies some quality of effeminacy most undesirable. He had brown hair, brown eyes—very nice brown eyes they were, too—a fairly large mouth and a full share of freckles in a face that was well-tanned, clear-cut and wholesome. And there was a self-reliant air about him that might have belonged to a much older lad. He was neatly if not strikingly dressed. A plain gray suit of flannel, a straw hat, brown shoes and black stockings, and a rather effective negligee shirt of alternating rose and green stripes on a gray ground made up his attire. Perhaps I ought to make mention of the black and white scarf from which just at present he was flecking a crumb of sticky chocolate.
Once as he sat there he thought he heard a rustling in the hedge behind him or the branches above, and looked around. But nothing was in sight. A locomotive whistled somewhere below as it passed. The trees, however, cut off his view of the railroad. In fact, from where he sat not even the river could be glimpsed, and he thought vaguely that he would like it better later on when the leaves were off and a fellow could see something. He was accustomed to wide views at home and the trees and hedges and shrubs were beginning to pall on him. He felt so sort of shut in. He finished the last of the chocolate and sighed again, this time with repletion. Then he rolled the tin-foil into a small and glittering ball, lifted his hand to toss it away——
“Was it good?” asked a voice behind him. And,
“Don’t throw it in the street,” warned another voice.
Rodney, startled, whisked around. On either side of the narrow gate was a square wooden post terminating in a flat top. On either post sat a girl. Rodney’s surprise turned to bewilderment as his glance swept from one side of the gate to the other. Each member of his unsuspected audience wore a white middy suit trimmed with red, each had yellow-brown hair, each sat with crossed feet, hands folded in lap, looking calmly down upon him; in short one was so startlingly like the other that for a moment Rodney thought he was seeing double.
“It’s all right. There really are two of us,” announced the first speaker reassuringly. “You see, we’re twins.”
“Oh!” said Rodney. “I—I should think you were!”
“Did we scare you?”
“Not much. What are you doing up there?”
“We were watching you,” replied the left-hand twin with a smile.
“Watching you eat your chocolate,” added the right-hand twin. At least, reflected Rodney, relieved, their voices were different; and, yes, when you looked closer you saw that, whereas the left-hand twin had very blue eyes, the right-hand twin’s eyes were almost black. And perhaps the latter’s nose was a little bit straighter. But for the rest—Rodney wondered how their mother told them apart.
“You were mighty quiet about it,” he commented a trifle indignantly. “It isn’t nice to sneak up and watch folks behind their backs.”
He discovered that he was still holding the wad of tin-foil in his hand and again started to toss it away.
“Please don’t throw it in the street,” said the right-hand twin earnestly.
“It is untidy to throw paper and things in the streets.”
“May’s a member of the Village Improvement Society,” explained the left-hand twin.
“Oh! What’ll I do with it, then?”
“Couldn’t you put it in your pocket until you get to a rubbish barrel?” asked the right-hand twin. “You’ll find one at the next corner, you know.”
“All right.” Rodney dropped the tin-foil in his pocket with a grin. “You’re a funny pair, you two.”
“So many people say that,” replied the left-hand twin with something between satisfaction and wonder. “I don’t see why, though. What is it that’s funny, please?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” He hesitated. “I suppose it’s your being so much alike and—and everything. Do you live in there?” He nodded toward a white house that peeked out from over the overgrown lilac hedge.
“Yes,” replied the left-hand twin. “Our name is Binner. My name is Martha Binner and hers is Mary Binner. We’re thirteen. What’s your name?”
“I think Rodney’s a very pretty name, don’t you, May?”
“Yes. I don’t believe we have ever known a boy with that name, have we?”
“You said her name was Mary,” charged Rodney.
“It is, but she’s called May. I’m called Matty. What do they call you?”
“I don’t care for that,” said the right-hand twin judicially. “I think we’ll call him Rodney, Matty.”
The left-hand twin nodded agreement. “Are you an Academy boy?” she asked.
“I’m going to be before long. I’m on my way there now. Say, where’s Mrs. Westcott’s house?”
“Oh, are you going to be a Vest?” exclaimed Matty.
“Of course he doesn’t understand,” said May. “He wouldn’t, you know.”
“I suppose not,” replied Matty. “You see,” turning to Rodney again, “the boys at Mrs. Westcott’s are called Vests. It—it’s a pun.”
“Oh, is it?” he asked. “I don’t see any pun there.”
“You don’t? Why, Westcott—waistcoat—vest! Now do you see?”
Rodney shook his head puzzledly.
“Perhaps,” said May, “you’d better let me explain.”
Matty nodded. “Yes, you always explain things more clearly than I do.”
“Well, Rodney, you know a vest is called a waistcoat, and——”
“Oh, I savvy! I’d forgotten. We call them vests where I come from. So I’m a Vest, am I? Hope I’m not a fancy one! Well, I guess I’d better pull my freight.”
“Do—do what?” asked Matty.
“Pull my freight; hit the trail; move along. Which way did you say Mrs. Westcott’s was?”
“We didn’t say,” replied Matty, “but it’s the next house to ours, around the corner on Bow Street. Must you go now?”
“I suppose so, pretty soon anyway. Won’t take me long to get there, though, I guess.”
“Only a minute or two. If you like you can go through our garden. There’s a place where you can get through the hedge. I suppose you came on the boat, didn’t you?”
“Most of the boys come on the train that gets here about four. Don’t you think the Hudson River is perfectly beautiful?”
He did, but pretended he didn’t. “Rather pretty in spots,” he answered patronizingly. “We’ve got rivers out west——”
“O-oh!” exclaimed May from her post, with a protesting wriggle. “You know it’s beautiful! It—it’s wonderful!”
“It’s called the American Rhine,” added Matty conclusively, “and I guess that settles it! And you needn’t say you’ve got rivers in your state that are finer, because you haven’t, and we don’t believe it!”
“I didn’t say in my state,” denied Rodney. “I said out west. And we have—stacks of them! They’re not so—so placid, maybe, but they’re much grander and—and picturesquer.”
“They’re not,” said Matty indignantly.
“They are,” said Rodney firmly.
“They couldn’t be! How could they? Why—why——”
“Still, Matty, we don’t know,” interposed May cautiously, “and so perhaps we oughtn’t to contradict him. I don’t think it is very nice of him to say our river isn’t beautiful, but maybe he doesn’t see beauty. They say some folks don’t. It—it’s a deficiency, you know.”
“Beauty!” scoffed Rodney. “Why——”
“Perhaps you’re right, May,” said the other twin thoughtfully. “And so—we beg your pardon for contradicting you.”
“Both of us,” added May earnestly.
“Oh, that’s all right,” replied the boy, his good nature restored. “I guess I contradicted you, too. Besides, I didn’t mean that your river isn’t a very nice river, because it is. I—I guess you might call it beautiful,” he added magnanimously.
“And of course you do have perfectly wonderful rivers in the west,” replied Matty. “We’ve read about some of them and seen pictures of them, haven’t we, May?”
“Yes, indeed. They are very fine.”
Rodney in the heat of the discussion had forgotten his announced intention to finish his journey to Mrs. Westcott’s, and had reseated himself on the horseblock. After all, there was lots of time yet. And the twins were amusing, and, as girls went, quite pretty. He had three sisters of his own and pretended to be something of an authority on girls, their ways and idiosyncrasies.
“I suppose,” said Matty, after a moment, “you are going into the First Form.”
“Yes, but I don’t know why they call it a form. Isn’t class good enough for them? Form sounds so silly. I suppose it’s terribly English. And then they call the Principal the Head Master!”
Matty giggled. “The boys call him ‘the Doc.’ And they have such lovely names for the submasters, too. Mr. Howe is ‘Gussie,’ and Mr. Stanhope is ‘P. N.’——”
“‘P. N.’?” questioned Rodney. “Why do they call him that?”
“Because he’s always saying a thing is ‘perfect nonsense.’ They used to call him that, ‘Perfect Nonsense,’ you know, but it was too long and so they shortened it.”
“I see. And there’s a teacher they call ‘the baron,’ isn’t there?”
“Yes, that’s Mr. Steuben; he’s a dear old German; we adore him, don’t we, May?”
“We adore him,” agreed the other twin firmly and calmly.
“And ‘Mike’ is awfully nice, too. That’s Mr. Kelly, the English teacher. He has such beautiful coppery-red hair.”
“Any more?” laughed Rodney.
“Yes, there’s Mr. Cooper. The boys call him ‘Chawles’ because he talks that way. We don’t like him, do we, May?”
“No, we don’t.”
“And that’s all,” continued Matty. “Except Mrs. Farron, the Doctor’s wife. She’s called ‘the Missis.’ You’ll like her awfully. All the boys do.”
“What’s Mrs. Westcott like?” inquired Rodney.
Matty pursed up her lips, shot a mischievous glance at May and replied primly: “She’s very nice.”
“Oh,” said Rodney, doubtfully.
“She is just like a mother to her dear, dear boys,” chanted May gravely, her eyes fixed on space. “It’s such a happy little home!”
Rodney started perplexedly until the twins turned to regard each other seriously for an instant and then go off into a gale of laughter that threatened to shake them from their seats.
“Oh, that’s the sort,” muttered Rodney. “Well, she can’t be a mother to me! Say, what sort of a chap is Watson? Know him?”
“Guy Watson?” Matty recovered her composure and her equilibrium and frowned. “You won’t like him, I guess. We don’t, do we, May? He’s—” she paused, searching for a word—“he’s coarse!”
“And ungentlemanly,” added May, nodding decisively.
“But I suppose,” said Matty, “we should also say that he is a very good football player. And he is on the track team, too. He’s a Third Form boy. Do you know him?”
“Not very well.” Rodney smiled. “I met him on the way up here. He and three others.” Then he recounted the incident in the drug store and the twins clapped their hands with delight.
“How perfectly splendid!” cried Matty. “Think of anyone getting the best of Guy Watson like that!”
“He will be awfully angry, though,” said May. “I think you should look out for him, Rodney. He won’t be satisfied until he gets even with you, will he, Matty?”
“No, I’m afraid he won’t.” She regarded Rodney gravely and shook her head. “I’m afraid you’ll have trouble with him. But perhaps—Who do you room with?”
“Room with? I don’t room with anyone, I suppose!”
“Oh, yes you do. You have to.”
“I do?” asked Rodney gloomily. “If I’d known that I wouldn’t have come. I didn’t want to, anyway!”
“Oh, but you’ll like it after awhile, really!” assured May earnestly. “And if they put you in with a nice boy—Matty!” May’s eyes grew round. “It’ll be ‘Kitty’!”
“Of course it will! Jack Leonard’s gone, hasn’t he?” Matty clasped her hands in ecstacy, her blue eyes dancing. “You’ll room with ‘Kitty’!”
“Who’s ‘Kitty’?” asked Rodney suspiciously. “A freak?”
“‘Kitty’ is Phineas Kittson,” began May, “and he’s——”
“No, May, no!” cried Matty. “We mustn’t tell him! It would just spoil it!”
“So it would,” agreed May beamingly. “Oh, wouldn’t you love to be there, Matty?”
“You mean when——”
“Oh, wouldn’t I?” She gasped. “If we only could!” She turned to Rodney and clasped her hands ecstatically. “Oh, Rodney, it’s going to be such fun!”
Rodney arose and observed them disgustedly.
“I’m going,” he said.
“And this is Rodney Merrill!” exclaimed Mrs. Westcott, beaming upon him as she swept into the parlor with rustling skirts. “I’m so glad to see you! And how nice to get here early! Doctor Farron has told me all about you, my dear, dear boy, and we’re going to make you so happy here at our wonderful school, so very happy!”
And Mrs. Westcott, shaking hands, beamed harder than ever. She was a tall, thin woman with prominent features and a dark blue silk gown that rustled. It was in that order that Rodney noted those particulars. Her face was kindly if not very attractive, and her voice quite pleasant.
“You had a comfortable journey, I hope? Won’t you sit down a moment, Rodney? This is our parlor. We meet here in the evenings and have such pleasant, homelike times. One or two of my boys sing very nicely.” Mrs. Westcott sank rustling into a chair, folded her thin hands in her lap and beamed. “The Doctor said you were fifteen. That is right, I presume? Yes. And you’re to be a First Form boy? Yes. Isn’t that splendid? I hope you will like us all very much. I have such a fine family this year, such dear, dear boys! Perhaps you’d like to go up and see your room? Your trunk and bag came and are awaiting you upstairs. This way, if you please, Rodney.”
And Rodney, who had just seated himself uncomfortably on the edge of a chair, arose and followed. The room, he had to acknowledge to himself, was really rather jolly. It was at the back of the house but had windows on two sides, each of which looked out upon the campus. It was very nearly square and of good size. The furnishings were neither elaborate nor particularly new, but there was a generous study table covered with green baize—interestingly adorned with cabalistic marks and ink stains—a sufficiency of chairs, two single white-enamelled beds, two tall and narrow chiffoniers, and a bench which, evidently of home manufacture, stood under the side window and did duty as a window-seat. The floor was uncarpeted, but rugs, the kind that are woven of old carpets, lay about the floor. Everything was immaculately neat and clean. There was something about Mrs. Westcott that forbade the thought of dust or grime.
The walls were painted a light tan, and the woodwork about the room was of varnished pine. The effect, with the rugs, whose predominant color was brick-red, was decidedly cheerful. There were no pictures—Rodney learned that denizens of the Westcott Cottage were not allowed to hang anything on the walls—but the back of one of the chiffoniers held a number of photographs.
“This will be your side of the room,” announced Mrs. Westcott. “When you have unpacked your trunk I will show you where to put it in the storeroom. In the closet”—Mrs. Westcott swung open the door—“you will use the seven hooks to the left and half the shelf. Clothes that are not in present demand should be kept in your trunk. You will be able to get to it whenever you like. We have no washstands in the room as the boys use the bathroom, which is just across the hall, you see. In the coat-closet downstairs you will find blacking and brushes for shoes. I hope you will keep your shoes looking nice. I am very particular about that. We have a regular bathroom schedule in the morning. Each boy is allowed ten minutes by the clock. Your time will be from seven-twenty to seven-thirty. You will find the schedule on the door. That is all for now.”
Mrs. Westcott, who had delivered the foregoing in the manner of one repeating a well-learned lesson, paused for breath.
“Who’s the other chap in here?” asked Rodney, who, hands in pockets, was still examining his quarters.
“Your roommate,” said Mrs. Westcott, beaming again, “is Phineas Kittson. Such a dear boy! You’ll like him, I know. He is a year older than you, and in the Second Form. I hope you will be great friends. Phineas is—” Mrs. Westcott paused and seemed searching for just the right word. Finally, “so interesting!” she ended triumphantly. “Not exactly like my other boys, you know, rather—rather exceptional. We all expect great things from Phineas some day. He has such a—a remarkable mind! Now perhaps you’d like to unpack and arrange your things. The rest of my boys will be along very shortly. Two have come already, but they’ve gone out. If you want anything, Rodney, you’ll find me downstairs. Make yourself at home, my dear boy.”
When Mrs. Westcott had gone Rodney subsided into a chair and grinned at the empty chiffonier. “She’s going to make me happy if it kills me, isn’t she?” he inquired of the chiffonier. Then, with a chuckle, he arose and again made the circuit of the room, testing the bed by punching it, pulling open the drawers of the chiffonier, and pausing at each window to take in the view.
The window at the rear, just at the foot of his bed, looked over the back yard and across the intersection of two tree-lined streets. Beyond that the foliage cut off his view, although he glimpsed the copper-roofed turret of a building a block or so beyond. From the side window the school buildings in the campus were in plain sight across the street. There were four of them, all of red brick and limestone; a large one in the center of the group with a tower at one end, two others nearer at hand, and a fourth at the farther side of the campus. The middle one Rodney rightly surmised to be the recitation hall and the others dormitories. Maple Hill took care of one hundred and fifteen pupils, of which number but ninety could be accommodated in the dormitories. The newcomers usually had to go to one or other of the half dozen private houses which, while run independently of the Academy, were, as Rodney discovered later, very much under the Head Master’s supervision. From the side window Rodney lounged across to Phineas Kittson’s chiffonier and viewed the collection of photographs there. Finding those but mildly interesting, and having by this time returned to where his trunk and bag reposed upon a rug near the hall door, he bethought him of unpacking. The bag was quickly emptied and then he tackled the trunk. It wasn’t easy to decide which things should remain in it and which should be stowed in his half of the much too small closet. And he was still in the middle of his task when voices and laughter and many footfalls below told him that the rest of the household had arrived. He paused with a Norfolk jacket, which had twice made the journey to the closet and return, in his hand to listen.
“Hello, Mother Westcott! What’s the good word with you? Got anything to eat?”
“That’s so, Mother, we’re starving! Look at my poor thin form! Does it not move you to tears of pity? Say, Mother, got any cake?”
“Shut up, Tad, and get out of Pinkie’s way! That’s my trunk, Pinkie, the one with the lock busted. You know my room. Say, Pete, lend me a half till to-morrow, will you?”
Now and then Mrs. Westcott’s voice was to be heard, but for the most part the boys’ laughter and chatter filled the house. Presently heavy steps on the stairs indicated the ascent of Pinkie with a trunk. Close behind him other steps sounded and a voice called:
“Jack, we’ve a new one! He’s in with Kitty!”
“Shut up! He’ll hear you,” a low voice warned.
“What of it? I haven’t said——” But the rest was drowned in the general noise. There were three other rooms on the floor and the new arrivals distributed themselves therein, still, however, keeping up their conversation.
“We’ve got new curtains, Warren!” announced a triumphant voice.
“Get out! They’ve just been washed. I’ve got a new spread, though. Mother always did love me best!”
“What do you think of that for favoritism! I’m going to kick! It isn’t fair——”
“Got my bag in there? Pinkie says he——”
“Heads out, fellows! See who’s coming!”
Rodney could hear the rush to the front windows, followed by applause and cries of “Good old Kitty!” “Breathe deep, Kitty, breathe deep!” “What’s your time, old man?”
Presently the last arrival entered the house and Rodney heard Mrs. Westcott exclaim: “Why, Phineas, how well you look! You dear, dear boy, I’m so glad to see you back again.”
A deeper voice answered, but as the uproar in the other rooms had begun again Rodney heard no more. Desperately he doomed the Norfolk jacket and the trousers that went with it to the trunk again, and began to arrange his shirts in the second drawer of the chiffonier. Rodney was rather proud of his collection of shirts. Most of them had been bought in New York and were things of beauty, especially the negligees, which ran to color combinations of lavender and blue, pink and green and old rose and gray stripes. He was assorting them carefully and approvingly and had for the moment forgotten everything else when footsteps at the doorway caused him to turn his head. What he saw was sufficiently interesting to put the shirts out of mind. Not Mrs. Westcott, who was beaming from the threshold, but the boy who was with her. Rodney, staring wonderingly, thought he had never seen a more remarkable person in his life. And he went right on staring, most impolitely, but quite excusably, until Mrs. Westcott’s voice broke his trance.
“Rodney,” she announced, “this is Phineas Kittson. Phineas, dear, this is Rodney Merrill, your new roommate. I just know you’re going to be such good friends!”
“Great Scott!” thought Rodney.
Phineas Kittson, or Kitty, as he was called, was sixteen years of age, but looked a year older. He was large—perhaps bulky would be the better word—very broad shouldered, very deep chested. His legs were short and so were his arms, giving him the appearance of being all body. He had a large, round face, somewhat sallow, but not unhealthy, of which the principal features were his eyes and his mouth. The eyes were of the palest green and unusually prominent and caused him to look as though he had just made a most astounding, stupendous discovery and was on the point of breaking into excited announcement of it. He wore a pair of rubber-rimmed spectacles with big round lenses, which magnified his eyes to an uncanny extent. His mouth was wide and very serious, turning down at the corners as though in gentle disapproval of the world. His nose was not remarkable, but appeared to belong on someone else, being small and narrow and seemingly quite lost on such a broad expanse. His hair was dark brown and stood in need of trimming. It also appeared to stand in need of brushing, but later Rodney found that brushing had little effect on Phineas Kittson’s hair. Its constantly touseled appearance was due to the fact that it had never decided in which direction to grow and so was trying them all. There was a tuft over his left eye that grew straight, a tuft over his other eye that grew down, a patch on the top of his head that curled to the right, and a patch over one ear that shot straight out. And there were other patches that were still experimenting.
Phineas wore a suit of some indescribable shade of grayish green which looked as though he had slept in it, and carried in one hand a much worn suitcase and in the other a brown straw helmet with a green-lined brim and a metal peak on top for ventilation. Afterward Rodney made the discovery that his hands were very small, as were his feet, and that of the latter the left one was encased in a dusty black Oxford and the right one in a low-cut Blucher that had at one time been tan.
“How are you,” said Phineas, advancing and shaking hands. “Glad to know you.” He had a deep, pleasant voice and spoke slowly, pronouncing each word very distinctly. When he had shaken hands he looked Rodney over attentively with his startled eyes and asked, “Ever try inhaling?”
“I don’t smoke,” replied Rodney disapprovingly. The green eyes blinked.
“Not smoke, air. Fresh air. Try it. Fine for the lungs. Take long walks and inhale. Expand. Nothing like it, Merriwell.”
“Merrill,” corrected Rodney, amused.
“Beg pardon. I don’t remember names.” He placed his hat on the table, sat down, got up, saw that Mrs. Westcott had gone, and sat down again with a sigh. “Twelve minutes, twenty-eight and two fifths,” he said.
“Indeed?” asked Rodney politely.
Kitty nodded gravely. “I’ve done better than that by nearly two minutes. In the winter. Air’s better then. Lungs work better. It follows, of course.” He seemed to demand an answer and Rodney nodded gravely, too.
“Naturally,” he agreed. “What the dickens are you talking about?”
Kitty viewed him thoughtfully. “My fault,” he said after a moment. “Thought you knew. Walking up the hill, you know. Station to house. Twelve minutes, twenty-eight and two-fifths.” He pulled a stop-watch from his pocket and studied it. Apparently satisfied, he clicked the hands back into place again. “Warm to-day. Heat enervates the air. There’s a difference. You’ve noticed it, I guess.”
“I can’t say I ever have,” replied Rodney, turning again to his shirts. “Must be quite a climb up that hill, though. Did you lug that bag with you?”
“Yes. Forgot I had it. That counted against me, of course.” He looked for a moment at the suitcase. Then, “Funny about my trunk,” he meditated aloud.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Rodney indifferently.
“Left it in New York. Ferry station. Forgot to recheck it. Got any collars?”
“What size do you wear?”
“Oh, thirteen or fourteen, I think. I’ll borrow a couple. Thanks, Morrill.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Rodney dryly. “It’s Merrill, though.”
“Of course. Beg pardon. What time is it? I forgot to wind my watch yesterday.”
Before Rodney could oblige him with the desired information there was a sound of approaching footsteps and voices in the hall, and in a moment half a dozen boys whose ages varied from fourteen to seventeen years flocked in. In deference to the stranger their entrance was quite decorous. One boy, a youth of Rodney’s own age, was grinning broadly, but the rest were politely serious.
“Thought we’d come in and get acquainted,” announced the eldest of the six, a tall, nice-looking chap of seventeen, who was evidently the leader at Westcott’s.
“Hello,” responded Kitty. “Funny about my trunk——”
“Never mind about your trunk,” laughed another visitor. “We’ve heard all about it, Kitty. I wonder you didn’t forget to bring yourself!”
The others chuckled, and Rodney, a trifle embarrassed, smiled. The boys seated themselves here and there about the room and there was a painful silence. Kitty, viewing them absently, was apparently deep in thought. Finally, with a laugh:
“Come on, Kitty,” said the eldest youth. “Introduce your friend.”
“Eh?” Kitty looked vaguely around the room until his eyes encountered Rodney, still standing at the chiffonier. “Oh, yes. Beg pardon. This chap’s name is—er—” Kitty paused at a loss and turned inquiringly to Rodney. “What is it, now?”
“The same as it was a few minutes ago,” laughed Rodney. “It’s Merrill, Rodney Merrill.”
“Glad to know you,” replied the older boy. “My name’s Billings. This grinning ape is Mudge. Mr. Greenough is the thoughtful gentleman at your left. Over there are Hoyt, Trainor and Trowbridge. There’s no use waiting for Kitty to introduce. He’d fall into a trance in the middle of it.”
Kitty smiled untroubledly. The others, having nodded, or, if near enough, shaken hands, laughed. The irrepressible Mudge—Tad, for short; Theodore Middlewich for long—removed the last vestige of restraint.
“Welcome, Merrill, to our happy little home,” said Tad. “Hope you’ll like us and our quaint ways. Pete, get up and give Merrill a seat, you impolite loafer.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to sit down,” replied Rodney. “I was putting my things away.”
“Don’t let Kitty impose on you,” advised Tom Trainor, a slender, light-complexioned chap. “If you don’t watch him he will have his things all over the place. Sometimes he forgets which is his own bed and goes to sleep in the other one. You got here early, Merrill.”
“I came on the boat from New York. It was very nice.”
“It’s nice enough once—or even a couple of times—” said Hoyt, a short chap with a snub nose and a bored expression. “After that it’s monotonous.”
“I’d hate to be world weary as you are, Warren,” said Jack Billings, dryly. “Well, we’re having early supper to-night, fellows, so we’d better move along. Come in and see us, Merrill, when you get straightened out. By the way, it’s Faculty Reception to-night; about seven-thirty; better come along and meet the tyrants. We’re all going—all except Kitty.”
Kitty looked across in greater surprise than ever and blinked. “Thought I’d go,” he said.
“You think so, but you’ll forget it,” laughed Jack.
After the visitors had dispersed to their own rooms, Phineas turned to Rodney and said, “I haven’t a very good memory for some things. Sometimes I forget. They like to joke about it. I don’t mind, of course. It amuses them, Maynard.”
“I see.” Rodney didn’t correct him this time. What was the use?
RODNEY ENCOUNTERS WATSON
School began on Wednesday, and by Friday Rodney was pretty well settled down in his groove. Finding his place at Westcott’s was easy enough. As it happened he was the only First Form boy there, although Tad Mudge, Warren Hoyt and Tom Trainor were of his age. Phineas Kittson and Pete Greenough were sixteen; Eustace Trowbridge—called Stacey—and Jack Billings were seventeen. On the whole they were a nice lot of fellows, Rodney thought, although they were rather different from the boys he knew at home. He liked Jack Billings immensely; everyone did, he found; and he liked Tad Mudge and Pete Greenough and Tom Trainor. Warren Hoyt he thought disagreeable. Warren put on airs and pretended to be bored by everything. Stacey Trowbridge was a quiet fellow who kept to himself a good deal and was hard to know. Rodney thought that he would probably like Stacey if he ever got really acquainted with him. As for Phineas—well, Rodney realized that he would have to make the best of that strange roommate of his. Not that Kitty caused any trouble. He didn’t. Let Kitty alone and Kitty let you alone. He seemed to live in a different altitude from the others, on some higher and finer plane. He studied a good deal, had a wonderful memory for lessons, and stood well in class. When he was not poring over his lessons he was either exercising or reading books on physiology, hygiene and kindred subjects, of which he possessed a veritable library. When Kitty exercised he hung a pedometer from his belt, took a stop-watch in hand, and walked violently about the country for hours at a time. Kitty’s theory, as Rodney soon learned, was that if a fellow developed his lungs properly his other organs would look out for themselves. He talked a good deal about something he called “glame,” and inhalation and expansion and contraction, and Rodney got rather tired after a while of those subjects. But, on the whole, Phineas was a well-meaning, good-humored chap who bothered no one and who was quite contented to be left to his own devices.
The entering class that year numbered twenty-seven. Rodney had a chance to look them over Thursday evening when the new First Form held a meeting in the Assembly Hall and organized. A fellow named Sanderson was elected president, and a youth named White was chosen for secretary and treasurer. Rodney took small part in the proceedings, but met, after the business meeting was over, quite a number of his classmates. They seemed a decent lot, he thought. They ranged in age from twelve to fifteen and hailed from seven States, most of them living within a half day’s journey. Rodney was the only Nebraska representative and came from farther away than any of them, except one boy whose home was in Colorado.
So far he had not again encountered Guy Watson, and was rather glad of it. Not that he was physically afraid of Watson, but he anticipated trouble sooner or later, and, being a sensible chap, preferred to avoid it as long as possible. One thing that amused Rodney was the fact that no one had as yet connected him with his brother, who had graduated from Maple Hill four years previous. Sooner or later fellows would discover that the famous Ginger Merrill and the unknown Rodney were brothers. Until they did Rodney was satisfied to remain in obscurity, having no desire to shine in reflected glory. He hadn’t been there twenty-four hours before he heard Stanley’s name mentioned—they didn’t call him Stanley, however; he was Ginger to fame. At Maple Hill they compared every promising football player with Ginger Merrill, and each year’s team to the team that Ginger had captained four years before. Of course, Rodney knew that that remarkable brother of his had been something unusual on the football field, but he didn’t realize Stanley’s real greatness until he reached Maple Hill and heard fellows hold forth. They spoke of Ginger almost with bated breath, at least with a pride and reverence that warmed Rodney’s heart and made him wonder if fellows would ever speak like that of him after he had been gone four years. If they ever did, he reflected, it would not be because of his prowess on the gridiron, for football had no place in Rodney’s scheme. He liked to watch the game and could get as excited and partisan as anyone over it, but as for playing—well, one football hero was enough in a family, and Rodney had confined his athletic interests to baseball and tennis. Of those he was fond, especially tennis. He rather prided himself on his tennis. He had tried football, had even played a whole season on a team composed of grammar school youngsters in Orleans, but he had never become an enthusiast, nor ever made a name for himself. If someone, ball in arm, ran the length of the field and fell triumphant over the goal line, it was never Rodney. Rodney played in the line, took his medicine unflinchingly, did his best to give as good as he got, and was always somewhat relieved when the final whistle sounded. No, it wouldn’t be for his football prowess that posterity would remember him.
Rodney had an interest in life, however. He liked to learn things, all sorts of things; mathematics even. History had no terrors for him. He could even find reasons to remember dates. Latin he liked immensely, and Greek he found absolutely romantic, although, what Greek he knew he had picked up almost unaided. Modern languages—well, a fellow had to know French and German, of course, but Rodney was less enthusiastic about them. Geography, physics, even botany—all was grist that came to his mill. This love of learning he had inherited from his father. Mr. Merrill had started in life as a farmer’s boy, and by sheer passion for learning things had climbed up and up until to-day at forty-five he was the actual if not yet the official head of one of the biggest railroad systems of the country. Of Mr. Merrill’s five children, two boys and three daughters, only Rodney had succeeded to his father’s thirst for knowledge. Stanley was smart enough and had managed to do fairly well at his studies both at school and at college, but, to use his own expression, “he was no shark.” Stanley was far more contented in the Omaha office of the railroad than he had been in the classrooms. Perhaps Rodney’s youngest sister, Eleanor, was more like Mr. Merrill than any of the children save Rodney; although aged thirteen, her thirst for knowledge took the form of ceaseless questioning.
At grammar school, back at home, Rodney’s friends and companions had viewed his studiousness with surprise, and for awhile with disapproval. Finding eventually, however, that aside from his strange love for lessons he was very much the same as they were, they forgave him his peculiarity. But at Maple Hill scholarship was not regarded askance. In fact, Maple Hill rather went in for learning, and Rodney found himself in congenial surroundings. Maple Hill had its own local idiom, and in its language to study was to nose, and one who was of professed studiousness was a noser. Doubtless the word was suggested by the expression “with his nose in his book.” At all events, Rodney became a noser, and settled down quite happily and contentedly.
Of course, just at first there were some lonesome hours. In fact there was one whole day of homesickness. That was Thursday. On Thursday Orleans, Nebraska, seemed a terribly long way off and the trees sort of smothered him, and the cool, crisp breeze that blew along Maple Ridge brought an ache with it. But somehow on Friday morning it was all different. He awoke to find Kitty lying on his back in the middle of the floor, chastely attired in a suit of white and pink pajamas, going through his first exercises. He had different ones for almost every period of the day. Just now he was stretched at length, inflating and deflating his lungs and making strange, hoarse noises in his throat. Rodney looked on for a moment in amusement, and then suddenly discovering that the sunlight streaming across the foot of his bed was very bright, that the morning air held an invitation, and that he was most terribly hungry, he made a bound that just cleared Kitty’s prostrate form and was ready for anything that fate had in store. And fate, as it happened, had quite a number of things up its sleeve.
After breakfast—and, oh, how he did enjoy that meal—he had only to cross the road, enter through a little revolving stile in the fence, and follow a path for a short distance across the campus to reach the classrooms in Main Hall. He went alone because none of the other Vests were ready. It was the custom to wait on the porch of the cottage until the morning bell began to ring and then make a wild dash for the hall, arriving there just as the last clang sounded; you say ‘Good morning, sir,’ and be quick about ten minutes before the hour, but they were not deserted. Main Hall entrance was a sort of general meeting place for the boys, a forum where all sorts of matters were discussed before, between, and after recitations. This morning the wide stones held some twenty youths when Rodney approached. Two First Formers, sticking close together for companionship, nodded to Rodney eagerly. He had met them last evening, and now he would have joined them if fate hadn’t sprung its first trick just then.
“Hello, little brighteyes!” greeted a voice. The appellation was novel to Rodney, but the voice had a familiar sound and so he turned. The speaker was Guy Watson. He was grinning, but Rodney didn’t like the expression back of the grin.
“Hello,” he answered quietly, and crossed over to join his classmates.
“Not quite so airy, please,” continued Watson. “A little more respect, sonny. Now, then, try it again.”
He lolled over in front of Rodney, a frown replacing the grin.
Rodney was puzzled. “What is it you want?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t want, you fresh young kid. I don’t want any of your cheek. Get that?”
“I haven’t cheeked anyone,” protested the other. “You said ‘Hello,’ and I answered you.”
The boy next him was nudging him meaningly, but Rodney was still at a loss. Watson sneered.
“Innocent, aren’t you?” he demanded. “Don’t they teach you manners where you live? Where is that, anyway?”
“I live in Nebraska,” answered Rodney.
“Nebraska, eh! Out with the Indians. Well, of course you wouldn’t know any better. So I’ll explain to you, Mr. Wild West, that here at Maple Hill a First Former says ‘Sir’ to Third and Fourth Form fellows. Get that?”
“Yes, thanks. How was I to know you were a Fourth Former, though?”
There was a ripple of amusement at that and Watson flushed. “You’re supposed to know, kid. It’s your place to find out. Now, then, let’s try it again.”
“Try what again?”
“You know what I’m talking about! Now you say ‘Good morning, sir,’ and be quick about it.”
“Oh! That’s it? Why, good morning, sir. How do you do?”
“Cut the flip talk, now!” warned the older boy angrily. “You’re too smart for this place, anyway. You need taking down, you do, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you got what you need; I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“Oh, let him alone, Guy,” protested another boy. “He’s new yet.”
“And he’s fresh, too,” answered Watson. “He can’t get off any of his funny pranks with me, though.”
“That’s just his breezy Western way,” laughed the boy who had spoken. “He’ll get over it.”
“You bet he will! And let me tell you something, kid, whatever your name is. You owe Doolittle for four ice-cream sodas and you’d better trot down and settle. First Formers aren’t allowed to have tick.”
“I don’t owe Doolittle a cent,” replied Rodney firmly. “And if he waits for me to pay him he will wait a powerful long time.”
“Oh, you’ll pay all right,” laughed Watson. “You thought you’d played a funny trick, didn’t you? Well, you got stung, kid.”
Rodney shrugged his shoulders. Watson, he decided, was getting tiresome.
“Don’t do that!” exclaimed the other sharply.
“Don’t shrug your shoulders at me! You pay Doolittle what you owe or I’ll pay you what I owe. Understand?”
“What’s the row, Guy?” asked a quiet voice. Jack Billings suddenly appeared at Watson’s elbow.
“Hello,” grumbled the latter. “It’s none of your affair, Jack. This kid’s been getting fresh, that’s all.”
“Merrill’s in my house,” responded Jack, gravely. “What’s wrong, Merrill?”
“You’d better ask him,” answered Rodney resentfully. “He’s been nagging me for five minutes.”
“Oh, drop it,” advised another youth. “Let up, Guy, and forget it.”
“Don’t you get fresh, too, Billy,” warned Watson, turning to the speaker. Billy laughed.
“All right, Mister Grouch. Want me to say ‘Good morning, sir?’”
“I want you to mind your own business.” Then, turning to Jack, “If this kid’s in your house you’d better teach him a few things, such as respect to upper form fellows, Jack. If he opens his mouth to me again I’ll punch his fresh young head for him!”
“Then I’ll punch yours,” said a deep voice.
Watson swung around, looked, grunted, and grinned. Phineas Kittson, blinking hard behind his goggles, viewed him calmly.
“Merrill’s a friend of mine,” went on Kitty. “Good fellow. Roommate, fellow Vest, and all that, Watson. Mustn’t thump him, you know. I’d make trouble.”
The assemblage, which had been increasing every moment, burst into a shout of laughter. “Good old Kitty!” “Don’t hurt him, Kitty!” “How are the lungs this morning, Kitty?”
“I’ll punch you, too, if you get gay, Kittson,” Watson informed him. Then he swept the laughing throng with his gaze. “And if any of you other fellows are looking for trouble——”
But at that moment the bell in the tower overhead began to clang, and Watson’s belligerent voice was drowned. The boys swarmed up the steps and into the hall, still laughing and joking. Rodney, following, found Jack Billings beside him in the press. Jack put an arm over the younger boy’s shoulders.
“Keep away from Watson, Merrill,” he said kindly. “He’s got a mean temper. And don’t answer back. And never act fresh, Merrill.”
“I didn’t! At least, I didn’t mean to. He came up and——”
“All right. You can tell me about it some time,” interrupted Jack. “Scoot along now. If he tries to make more trouble for you, get away from him and come to me.”
And, with a smiling and reassuring nod, Jack pushed Rodney toward the stairway.
RODNEY IS DISCOVERED
“Thanks for—for what you said to Watson,” said Rodney when, after morning school, he was once more in his room in the cottage. Kitty, pulling a heavy sweater over his touseled head—he had a theory that the sort of sweaters that buttoned up the front were not as good as the old style—emitted an unintelligible reply from the woolen folds. “It was mighty nice of you,” went on Rodney, watching with fascination the gradual appearance of Kitty’s moonlike face above the neck of the garment.
“Nothing at all,” panted Kitty. “If he touches you come to me. Overbearing fellow, Merrill.”
“Y-yes. He doesn’t seem very popular either, Kittson.”
Kitty considered. “Don’t know about that. Pretty well liked, I believe. Fellows understand him. Plays good football, you know. Too bad, though, about his lungs.”
“What’s the matter with them? You don’t mean he—he’s consumptive?”
“Worse,” said Kitty solemnly. “Undeveloped. Never exercises them. Too bad. I’ve spoken to him often. Begged him. No good. Laughs at me. Show him some time, though. Where’s pedometer?” And Kitty, armed for the fray, strode out.
Rodney saw him a moment later from the window. Head and shoulders back, the faded brown turtle-neck sweater enveloping most of his body, Phineas Kittson disappeared rapidly from sight down the street, determination in every stride. Rodney smiled as he lounged back to the table and searched for a book.
“Queer old duffer,” he murmured.
Later Jack Billings sought him out and heard his story of the trouble before school. “I don’t see that you were much at fault,” he said finally. “Still Watson had an excuse, Merrill. You see, First Form fellows are supposed to be respectful to the upper form fellows; that is, the Third and Fourth Formers. It isn’t necessary always to say ‘Sir’ to them, but it’s proper to be respectful. Of course, when you get to know an upper form fellow it’s different. For instance, you needn’t stand on ceremony with me. None of the fellows in the house do, because we all know each other pretty well. But if I talk to a lower form chap from one of the dormitories or another house, I expect him to stick the ‘Sir’ on. I dare say it’s sort of a silly idea, but it’s the custom.”
“I didn’t know about it,” said Rodney. “I wouldn’t have minded saying ‘Sir’ to him if I’d known that was what he wanted. The trouble is, he’s peeved with me about that—that drugstore affair. And he says I’ve got to pay Doolittle for the sodas they drank. That isn’t fair, because I stipulated——”
“Where do you get hold of such big words, Merrill?” laughed Jack. “Go on. You ‘stipulated’?”
“That if the fellow didn’t have what they called for the first time I wasn’t to pay. And Watson said chocolate and he was out of that, and—and so it’s got nothing to do with me!”
“And you knew there was no more chocolate and knew that Watson always asked for it,” commented Jack, smiling. “On the whole, Merrill, I don’t think it would do you any harm to have to pay. It was—well, it was a little bit too tricky. Don’t you think so?”
Rodney considered. “Maybe it was,” he acknowledged at last. “But I don’t think he had any right to ask me to stand treat, Billings.”
“Yes, he had a perfect right. It’s a custom and customs are laws that haven’t grown up. While you’re here at Maple Hill you’ll have to play the game the way we play it, Merrill. Now, if I were you, I’d drop down to Doolittle’s this afternoon and pay up that score. If you’re short of cash I’ll let you have it.”
“I’ve got plenty, thanks. It wasn’t that.”
“And that reminds me of another thing you ought to know,” continued Jack. “First Form fellows are not allowed to have credit at the stores. It’s in the rules. Perhaps you didn’t notice it.”
“I did, but I wasn’t trying to get credit. I didn’t intend to have them charge those sodas to me. They hadn’t any right to, either.”
“No, not according to the terms of the agreement. But you played a pretty sharp trick on Watson and he got back at you with another. I don’t think there’s much choice between you. Take my advice and settle. Then keep away from Watson until he has forgotten all about it.”
“Well,” said Rodney unwillingly. “All right. I’ll pay. And after I do he’s got to let me alone.”
“Watson? He probably will,” returned Jack soothingly. “Don’t let him worry you.”
“He doesn’t,” said Rodney stoutly. “I’m not going to. He’s a regular bully, though.”
“He isn’t so bad really, Merrill, after you get to know him a little better. He’s hot tempered and he can be as mean as a pup when he wants to be, but—well, I’ve known Guy to do some very decent things. Besides, Merrill, it’s a mighty good idea not to start off disliking anyone. You usually find out later that you are wrong, and then you’re a bit sorry. And besides that, disliking folks hurts you more than it does them.”
First football practice was held that afternoon, and Rodney, nothing loth, accepted Tad Mudge’s invitation to walk over with him. Tad had taken a great liking, it appeared, to the new Vest. Tad was only five months older than Rodney and seemed even younger. He was a gay-spirited, happily irresponsible youth with a ready laugh and an inexhaustible flow of conversation. Tad was in the Second Form and roomed with Eustace Trowbridge, who was as quiet and reserved as Tad was talkative and frank.
“Leave your books here,” instructed Tad, piling his own on the marble slab above the big radiator in the entry of Main Hall. There were many other piles there already and Rodney added his. “No good going over to the house,” continued Tad. “Just wastes time and wears out shoe leather. Come on.”
There was a winding driveway that encircled Main Hall and led on one side to East Hall and on the other to West Hall. The third dormitory, known as Beecher, stood nearer the front of the campus. Tad, however, didn’t trouble to follow the curve of the gravel road, but struck off straight for the gate. There were several small signs near at hand bearing the words: “Keep Off The Grass.” Rodney nodded at one.
“Don’t those mean anything, Mudge?” he inquired.
Tad glanced at them contemptuously. “Oh, those!” he answered. “Those are for the faculty.”
A gate at the back of the campus opened into Maple Street. Tad led the way across the leaf-strewn road and through another gate opposite. Here a wide walk ran straight between hedges. On one side was a stone and shingle cottage, which Tad explained was Doctor Farron’s residence. Rodney couldn’t see much of it for the shrubbery, but what little was visible looked very attractive. A little further along there was a break in the hedge, and another path led across an expanse of turf to a two story building with a copper-roofed turret in the center. This Rodney recognized as the building he had seen above the trees from his window.
“That’s the gym,” said Tad. “It’s a peach, too. We’ll have a look at it after practice.”
“Are those tennis courts beyond there?” asked Rodney.
“Yes. Do you play?”
“Yes, do you?”
“I taught McLoughlin all he knows,” laughed Tad. “We’ll have a game some day. Take you on to-morrow morning if you like.”
“I’d like to very much. I guess you’re better than I am, though.”
Tad observed him thoughtfully and shook his head in doubt. “I don’t know. You look dangerous, Merrill. Say, what’s your other name? Roderick, isn’t it?”
“That so? That’s some name, isn’t it? How’d you like to go through life with Theodore pinned to you?”
“Seems to me I’ve heard of a Theodore who made quite a stir,” replied Rodney.
“You mean Teddy? Bet you they’d have given him a third term if his name had been John or William. Theodore’s a beast of a name. I’m going to call you Rod. It’s easier than Merrill.”
They had come to another street and another gate and in front of them spread a wide field of closely cropped turf that was just beginning to lose its summer green. Two stands flanked a blue-gray running track, within whose oval the white lines of a newly marked gridiron shone brightly. Already the scene was a busy one. Practice had not actually begun, but many candidates were on hand and a greater number of fellows were grouped and strung about the edge of the field to look on.
“That’s a dandy field!” exclaimed Rodney admiringly as his gaze went off across to where a line of young willows marked the further side of the enclosure.
“Almost seven acres,” said Tad proudly. “Bet you there isn’t a better field in the country. And look at the view!”
Rodney obeyed. From where they stood near the entrance they could look down over the dwindling houses of the end of the village, and follow the course of the Hudson for many miles as like a broad blue ribbon it wound slowly and majestically northward between sloping hills of forest and meadow.
“That’s Milon over there,” explained Tad. “And Wickerstaff further along. If you look sharp you can see Bursley. See where the railroad goes through a cut there? Then look above and just a little to the right. That’s it. You can see three or four of the buildings.”
“I do, but what is it? Bursley, I mean?”
Tad stared. “Why, Bursley School!”
“Oh!” But Rodney still looked mystified. “It is—is it a good one?”
“A good one!” groaned Tad. “It’s fierce! It’s our hated enemy, Rod. We loathe it! That is, we do theo—theo—what’s the word I want?”
“Yep, theoretically. Between you and me and—and the grandstand, it’s a pretty fine place. They’ve got us beaten all hollow on buildings and such things, only we don’t acknowledge it. But they haven’t a field that can touch this. They’ve got more fellows than we have, but at that we manage to wallop them about as often as they wallop us. I think they’ve done us up at football fourteen times to our twelve. Something like that. They beat us last year and three years ago. There was once though when we got ’em three years running. That was when Ginger Merrill— Say, your name’s Merrill, too, isn’t it?” Tad turned to observe Rodney curiously. “Do you play, too?”
“Football? Not much. I’ve tried it but never made it go very well. I like baseball though.”
“So do I! They can keep their old football; give me baseball every time! I played substitute outfielder last year on the second nine. Not that I don’t like to see a good game of football, though. This fellow, Ginger Merrill, I was speaking of was a wonder! Of course I never saw him; he was before my time; but I’ve heard fellows talk about him. They made him captain in his Third Form year! We beat Bursley that year and the year before and the year after. He was captain two years and I guess that shows that he was pretty good, eh?”
“I should think so,” replied Rodney as they moved on toward the gridiron. “He must have been popular.”
“He was. I guess he was the most popular fellow we’ve ever had here. You want to speak soft and cast your eyes down when you mention him. He’s a sort of Saint, Saint Ginger!” And Tad chuckled. “Funny your name should be the same though,” he went on presently, when they had paused at the inner edge of the running track and Tad had acknowledged the salutations of numerous comrades. “He doesn’t happen to be a relation of yours, does he?”
“This Ginger chap? Why, do I look like him?” Rodney smiled.
“I’ve only seen his pictures, but—but I kind of think you do—just a little. Still I guess if you were related to him you’d know it. So would we,” he added with a laugh. “You’d be likely to mention it!”
“Who’s the tall fellow in the funny sweater?” asked Rodney.
“That’s Doyle. He’s captain. What’s the matter with the sweater?”
“Nothing except it’s a funny color.”
“It’s just faded. It used to be light green. I suppose you know that the school colors are green and gray? Green for the maple trees and gray for the rocks.”
Rodney nodded. “What’s Bursley’s color?”
“Punk! Red and blue. There’s Cotting, our coach. They say he discovered Ginger Merrill.”
“Discovered him? How?”
“Why, saw that he had the making of a good player and—and trained him. Taught him all he knew, they say.”
“Rot!” said Rodney. “Stanley knew football before he ever saw Maple Hill!”
“Well, I don’t know. That’s what I heard.” Tad swung around suddenly and stared at his companion. “Look here, how the dickens do you know so much about Ginger Merrill?” he demanded in surprise.
“Why—you told me about him, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t tell you his name was Stanley, I’d forgotten it, they always call him Ginger; I didn’t tell you he knew football when he came here.”
“Didn’t you? I suppose—I’ve heard lots of fellows speak of him. What’s Cotton doing?”
“His name is Cotting,” answered Tad, still eyeing Rodney speculatively. Finally, when the other had refused to meet his glance, he turned to look at the coach. “He’s taking the fellow’s names. A lot of them are new boys. Why don’t you have a try, Rod?”
“No good. Besides I’m a bit young yet for the team.”
“Cotting likes to catch them young. Stacey began in his first year, and now look at him.”
“Where?” asked Rodney.
“I mean look where he is on the team. Only a Third Form fellow and first string quarterback!”
“Do you mean Stacey Trowbridge?” asked Rodney in surprise.
“Of course. The chap I room with. Why not?”
“Why—why, no reason at all, except—why, somehow he seems so—so sort of quiet and——”
“Oh, he doesn’t talk much, but he can think like—like a judge! Jack says we have a well balanced room; says all the talking’s done on one side and all the thinking on the other!” Tad laughed. “But Stacey is a wonder at football. You wait till you see him drive the team some day. I guess it’s just because he doesn’t talk much that fellows listen when he does.” Tad was silent a brief moment. Then, “Guess I’ll try that myself,” he added thoughtfully.
The candidates, who had gathered around the coach, were now dispersing in squads to different parts of the field. In all there seemed fully sixty of them, and Rodney expressed his surprise.
“Oh, most of them don’t last long,” replied Tad carelessly. “After three or four days Cotting will make a cut, and then a lot of them will retire to private life. Finally he gets down to about thirty-two or three. Then he divides that bunch into two teams, a first and a second. Watch Tyson punt. He’s got the ball now. He’s a daisy at it. Look at that! The chap running to catch it is Wynant. He didn’t get it though. Gordon cut in on him.”
“Does Billings play?” asked Rodney.
“No, Jack’s baseball captain this year. He’s a dandy fellow. Don’t you like him?”
“Immensely. He gave me a lecture this noon.”
“Jack did? What about?”
“Oh, about not disliking fellows at first, till you get to know all about them. Other things, too.”
“Who is it you dislike? Me?”
“No, that Watson chap.”
“Oh, yes, Pete was telling me about Watson ragging you before morning school. Watson’s like that. Still—” Tad thought a moment. “Jack’s right though. Watson isn’t a bad sort after all. I’ll tell you something——”
But Rodney didn’t hear it just then for Tad’s voice died away. A few feet distant Cotting, Captain Doyle, and Guy Watson were standing just inside the side line. “There he is now,” murmured Tad.
“And he looks as though he wanted to jump on me again,” added Rodney. “Come on. I promised Billings I’d keep away from him.”
Rodney turned to stroll away, Tad following, when a voice called:
The boys turned. Captain Doyle was coming toward them, followed by the coach and Guy Watson. “Wait a minute, Tad,” said Doyle.
“Want me to take your place to-day, Terry?” asked Tad.
“Not to-day, Tad.” The football captain was a tall well built boy of eighteen with coppery-red hair, gray eyes and a pleasant and unmistakably Irish countenance. “Introduce your friend, Tad,” he added, with a glance at Rodney.
“This is Merrill, First Form. Rod, shake hands with Captain Doyle.”
“Glad to know you,” said the captain. Then, turning to Coach Cotting, who had joined them, “It’s Merrill, all right, Coach.”
Cotting smiled. “Thought I wasn’t mistaken,” he said, studying Rodney with frank interest. “Shake hands, boy. Your brother and I were pretty good friends.”
Rodney flushed. “Yes, sir. I—I’ve heard him speak of you.”
COACH COTTING EXACTS A PROMISE
Rodney felt rather than saw the look of hurt surprise and disgust on Tad’s face, but the incredulous astonishment that sprang into Watson’s countenance he viewed with secret satisfaction. Doyle’s surprise was less but his interest greater, while the coach showed only pleasure in the meeting. Mr. Cotting looked about thirty and was small and wiry, with keen gray eyes in a thin and deeply tanned face. He had a pleasant smile and a pleasant voice and spoke quickly and incisively.
“And how is that brother of yours, Merrill? Doing well, I hope.”
“Yes, sir, Stanley’s getting on finely. He’s in Omaha, in the railroad office. He’s assistant to the Traffic Manager.”
“I’d like to see him again. He’s never been back but once since he left us. Then he came up one fall and helped with the coaching for three or four days. You look like him in the face, but you’re built lighter.”
“Look here,” interrupted Watson, “do you mean that this kid is Ginger Merrill’s own brother?”
“Certainly,” replied Mr. Cotting. “I knew it the moment I set eyes on him. Why didn’t Ginger let us know you were coming, Merrill?”
“He—he wanted to, sir, but—I asked him not to.”
“I see.” The coach smiled. “Wanted to avoid publicity, eh? But how is it you’re not out to-day? You play, of course.”
“No, sir, that is, not well.”
“How old are you?”
“Fifteen, sir. I’ll be sixteen next January.”
“You’ve got lots of time then. You’d better come out to-morrow and let me see how bad you are.” He smiled encouragingly.
“I’m pretty bad,” answered Rodney. “And I don’t care much for football,” he added apologetically.
“Nonsense!” This was Captain Doyle, and he spoke impatiently. “You don’t expect us to believe that Ginger Merrill’s brother isn’t a born football player. Where have you played?”
“At home, Orleans, Nebraska.”
“I mean what position, Merrill.”
“Oh, guard and tackle. I’ve never played much. I’m—I’m no good at it, sir.”
“Well, you haven’t any objection to proving it to us, have you?” asked the coach with a laugh. “You come out to-morrow, Merrill.”
“I—I’d rather not, sir, if you please.”
“Rather not!” The coach stared. Watson laughed. Captain Doyle exclaimed impatiently. “Come, come, Merrill! That’s no way to act,” protested Mr. Cotting. “The school needs good material. You may not be a wonderful player now, my boy, but, for that matter, neither was your brother when I first saw him. But he buckled down and learned. You can do the same, I think. Anyhow, it’s up to you to try. Of course, if you really find you can’t make a go at it, there’s no harm done and it’s nothing against you. But you really ought to try, Merrill. You owe it to the school—and to Ginger.”
“He knows I’m a duffer, sir; he says so himself,” answered Rodney sadly.
“He does?” Mr. Cotting seemed impressed by that and looked Rodney over again doubtfully. “Well, you are fairly light, but—hang it, Merrill, you look intelligent and you’re well put together and seem healthy. You come out to-morrow and report to me. If you can’t show anything I’ll let you go. That’s a bargain, eh?”
“Very well, sir,” answered Rodney.
“Look here,” said Doyle, “if you haven’t played football where’d you get those muscles and that chest?”
“Tennis, I guess. And I’ve played baseball a little, too.”
“That settles it,” grunted Watson. “Never knew a tennis player that was any good at football. I guess the kid knows what he’s talking about, Coach.”
“We’ll see. To-morrow, then, Merrill.” The coach nodded, smiled and turned away. Doyle and Watson kept pace with him. Tad turned to Rodney indignantly.
“You’re an awful liar, Rod!” he exclaimed.
“I didn’t lie,” replied Rodney calmly. “I didn’t say Ginger wasn’t my brother. You asked if we were related, and I just asked if I looked like him.”
“Well, you let me think so,” grumbled Tad.
“What if I did?” asked Rodney cheerfully. “That isn’t lying, is it? If I didn’t care to own up to it, that’s my business, isn’t it?”
“Well, I don’t see why you’re ashamed of it. Gee, if Ginger Merrill was my brother I’d be strutting around and clapping my wings and crowing all over the shop!”
“Oh, no you wouldn’t,” laughed the other. “Besides, you see what’s happened. I knew that would be the way of it if they found out.”
“What has happened?” asked Tad.
“Why they think I can play, and they’re making me try it. I can’t play, and they’ll find it out, and then they won’t have any use for me at all.”
“How do you know you can’t play?” asked Tad. “Why Cotting can make a football player out of—out of a piece of cheese!”
“Thanks! I’m not a piece of cheese, though. It would take fifty Cottings to make a football player out of me, Mudge. And besides that I don’t want to play football!”
“Oh, that wouldn’t matter. If you can play you’ll have to. Maple Hill expects every man to do his duty. You’ll learn all right, Rod. Bet you’ll be on the second team before the season’s over!”
“Don’t talk silly! And look here, Mudge, use your brain, can’t you? Don’t you see that even if I did learn a little football the school would expect a whole lot of me just because I’m Stanley Merrill’s brother? And I couldn’t deliver the goods, and everyone would be disappointed in me. That’s why I didn’t want to play at all.”
“But if you’re Ginger’s brother,” replied Tad confidently, “you must know how to play. It stands to reason. Or, as Kitty says, ‘It follows.’ Maybe you think you can’t play football, but it’s in you somewhere, Rodney, old boy, and Cotting will get it out! Don’t you worry!”
“You make me tired,” sighed Rodney. “I wish I’d never come here. I haven’t got time for football anyway. I want to study.”
“You want—to—what!” exclaimed Tad incredulously.
“Study. That’s what I came here for, isn’t it?”
“My word!” Tad looked at him sorrowfully. “You’re a queer one, Rod. You don’t want folks to know you’re Ginger Merrill’s brother; you don’t want to be a football hero; and you want to study! Honest, old man, you positively alarm me! I don’t know whether I ought to associate with you. Suppose I caught it, too!”
“I guess it wouldn’t do you any harm,” laughed Rodney. “Where are you going?”
“Over here. Come along.”
Tad made straight for a group of boys near the center of the sideline, a firm grip on Rodney’s arm impelling that youth to follow. What followed was distasteful to Rodney, distasteful and embarrassing. Tad hailed the biggest boy of the group when a few yards away.
“Fielding! Want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Merrill, First Form. He’s a brother of Ginger Merrill. Shake hands with Fielding, Rod. And this is Sykes, and Canterbury, and Jones, and Kemp.”
Between names Rodney’s hand was shaken by different members of the group, who expressed surprised delight at meeting him and hurled questions. Rodney, very red of face, muttered politely and, when it was over, turned upon Tad in wrath. “What did you do that for?” he demanded. “I felt like a perfect fool!”
Tad grinned. “You needn’t, Rod. We’re none of us perfect!”
“Well, I’ll thank you to mind your own business after this, Mudge,” replied Rodney crossly.
“Look here.” Tad turned upon him soberly. “You are Ginger Merrill’s brother, aren’t you?”
“Then fellows have a right to know it. They want to know it.”
“It’s none of their business——”
“You bet it is! We’re proud of Ginger Merrill here and if Ginger Merrill’s black cat or his skye terrier came here we’d want to know it. That’s why I introduced you to those chaps.”
“I don’t thank you,” returned Rodney, ungraciously. “And I’ve had enough of this. I’m going back.”
Tad, hands in pockets, watched Rodney’s back for a while with a puzzled frown on his face. Then he whistled expressively, shrugged his shoulders and turned again to watch practice.
Rodney, thoroughly angry at he didn’t quite know what, left the athletic field behind him, and instead of entering the back campus, as the ground containing the head master’s house and the gymnasium was called, turned to the right on Larch Street and wandered down it, kicking the dead leaves out of his path. He was heartily sick of hearing the name of that tiresome brother of his. If, he told himself savagely, anyone said ‘Ginger Merrill’ to him again to-day he’d—he’d strike them! The last thing he wanted to do was to join the football candidates, and here he was pledged to appear to-morrow afternoon for practice. And he didn’t even possess a pair of football trousers. He wished heartily he had kept away from the field.
He passed one intersecting street which, he knew, would take him back to Westcott’s, and kept on. He wasn’t ready for home yet. There would probably be fellows about and he wasn’t in the humor to talk to them. At the next corner progress ahead was closed to him, and having the choice of turning to left or right, he turned to the left. A block further on he realized that the street looked strangely familiar, a fact explained when he sighted a granite horseblock set at the edge of the sidewalk in front of a narrow gate in a lilac hedge.
“I hope,” he muttered, “I don’t run into those silly twins.” And then in the next instant he found himself hoping he would. Somehow he felt a desire to unbosom himself to someone sympathetic, and girls, even if they did hold strange views on a good many subjects, were sympathetic. So when he reached the gate he looked through, and there on the croquet lawn which he had traversed the other day were the objects of his thoughts. They didn’t see him and he stood for a moment and looked and listened.
“I’m very sure, just as sure as I can be, that you haven’t been through the middle wicket,” declared one of the twins—he hadn’t the faintest idea at that distance which twin she was!
“And I’m perfectly certain I have been,” declared the other with equal firmness. “I came across there after I sent you into the geranium bed and got in position for the side wicket——”
“And I came over here on my next shot. And then you went through the side wicket and your next shot took you over there——”
“And I went through the next turn!”
“You didn’t, because I hit you and took my two shots——”
“But you left me in position and I went through!”
“Oh, I do wish there was someone here to settle it! I’m just as sure as sure that I’m right!”
“And so am I! I suppose we’ll just have to begin over again.” Rodney could hear at the gate the sigh accompanying this. “This makes three times that it’s happened. We never will get a game finished!”
“Because you always forget what wicket you’re for.”
“No, because you forget.”
“We-ell, come on, then. It’s your first again.” One of the twins sent her ball toward the further stake.
“Tell you what you do,” said Rodney. “Get a couple of clothespins, tie different colored ribbons on them and then, when you go through a wicket, stick your clothespin on it.” He was enjoying the looks of surprise on the faces of the twins. “It’s a good scheme, really.”
“It’s—now whatever did he say his name was?” exclaimed one of the girls.
“I forget. I remember we said it was an unusual name, though,” was the reply. The two viewed each other doubtfully.
“I think it was Reginald.”
“Anyway, it began with an R!”
“It’s Rodney,” laughed that youth. “May I come in?”
CROQUET AND CONFESSIONS
“Of course. We are trying to remember your name. That’s why we didn’t invite you in. How do you do?”
“Fine.” Then he remembered his tribulations of a few minutes ago and added, “That is, pretty fair.” He closed the gate behind him and joined the twins, who had started down the path to meet him. “You must be hard up for something to do,” he said with a superior air, “if you have to play croquet!”
“We’re very fond of it,” replied the blue-eyed twin. “Do you play?”
“I used to sometimes,” answered Rodney carelessly. “It’s a girl’s game though.”
The blue-eyed one—he remembered now that she was Matty—smiled. “Would you like to play a game?”
“I don’t mind. I’ll stand you two.”
“I think we’d better each play separately,” said Matty. “You see, May and I play pretty well. We do, don’t we, May?”
“We do,” replied the other gravely.
“All right,” Rodney laughed. “Each for himself then. Have you another mallet and ball?”
May supplied them from a box on the floor of the tumble down, rustic summer-house nearby. “I’ve brought you green,” she announced. “Somehow you suggest green to me, Rodney. Does he to you, Matty?”
“N-no, I think brown,” answered the other twin reflectively. “Perhaps a greenish-brown, though.”
“Oh, I’m not as green as I look. Who goes first?”
“May does. She plays red. Then you come next. Then I play.”
May took the first two wickets in one, got into position at the third wicket with the next shot, went through it with the next and then placed her ball in front of the middle arch. Rodney negotiated the first two wickets cleanly but his next shot left him badly placed for the third and his attempt to go through resulted disastrously. His ball glanced off a wire and rolled into the path of the on-coming Matty. When she arrived she hit the green ball, skillfully sent it to the further side of the third wicket, went through herself, hit him again, sent it into the path and herself to the middle wicket, played off May’s ball for two wickets and finally landed within a yard of the further stake. Rodney frowned as he recovered his ball. Evidently these young ladies knew more about croquet than he had ever dreamed of.
May cleverly got herself into position again and Rodney rolled short. Matty hit the stake, took the next two wickets at one stroke and crossed to the further side arch. May reached the first of the double wickets on her next play. Rodney got into position for his third. He was still at the middle wicket when Matty, closely pursued by May, struck the home stake.
“These wickets are awfully narrow,” murmured Rodney. “Want to try again?”
“We’d love to if you’re not tired,” replied Matty. “I’m sorry you had such poor luck, Rodney. And then of course, you’re not used to the grounds. There’s a lot in being used to the grounds, isn’t there, May?”
“Lots,” agreed May. “It’s your first, Rodney.”
The second game resulted as disastrously for Rodney as had the first, and when it was over he had the grace to acknowledge that the twins were “some players.”
“I thought I knew a little about the game,” he said ruefully, “but I guess I don’t. You girls play better than anyone I’ve seen play.”
“We play a good deal,” replied May. “Almost every day in summer. Practice makes perfect, you know.”
Rodney wished she hadn’t used the word practice. It reminded him unpleasantly of what awaited him on the morrow. His face clouded up and he sighed. Matty, seeing his expression, imagined him tired and suggested a rest. So they went into the summer-house, which was almost enveloped in honeysuckle vines, and sat down on the curving seat.
“How are you getting on at school?” asked Matty politely.
“All right, I guess. The studies aren’t hard.”
“Probably that’s because you are naturally smart,” responded the girl. “You impress us as being clever. Doesn’t he, May?”
“You do,” said May. “We both said so the other day.”
“And, Oh, please tell us how you like your roommate!” And Matty clasped her hands eagerly. May giggled. Rodney frowned at the levity.
“He’s all right,” he replied. “Sort of a peculiar fellow, but I rather like him.”
“And how are his lungs?” asked May very, very solicitously.
Rodney grinned. “All right, I guess. He wants me to take walks with him. Says it would do me a lot of good.”
“Perhaps it would,” said Matty, “although you don’t look very weak. You’re not, are you? May and I decided that you looked rather athletic. Do you go in for football or baseball? Anything besides croquet?”
Rodney caught the little mocking gleam in the girl’s blue eyes and flushed uncomfortably.
“That’s all right about the croquet,” he said defensively. “If I played half as much as you kids——”
“He’s quite right, Matty,” declared May. “I think you should not have said that.”
“I was just in fun,” replied the other twin contritely. “I’m sure you’d play the game beautifully if you had more practice.”
“I guess,” said Rodney, mollified, “I’d never get good enough to beat you two. I’ve never played very much. Out home I used to play with my sisters sometimes. They like it.”
“Where do you live?” asked Matty. “We meant to ask you the other day.”
“Orleans, Nebraska. Ever been in Nebraska?”
Each shook her head. “We haven’t travelled much,” confessed May. “After we finish High School, though, we’re going abroad with mother. Have you ever been in Europe?”
“No. Don’t want to. What’s the use?”
“Oh, but think of seeing the pyramids!” exclaimed Matty.
“And the tomb of Napoleon!” said May with calm rapture.
“And the Alps!”
“Piffle!” grunted Rodney. “What’s the Nile? Ever been down the Missouri and Mississippi? They’ve got the Nile beaten to a thick froth! As for the Alps, why, you could set them down in the Rockies and never be able to find them again! Say, ever see the Grand Canyon, you girls?”
They shook their heads in unison. They did almost everything in unison.
“Well that’s something worth while! You come out in my part of the world and I’ll show you things that’ll make your eyes pop out. You won’t think about Europe after that, nor Africa either!”
“But—but the antiquities!” said Matty.
“All right. We’ve got antiquities in our own country, haven’t we?” asked Rodney indignantly. “Look at the cliff dwellings!”
“What are those?” asked May.
“There it is!” he exclaimed triumphantly. “I knew it! Never heard of the cliff dwellers! That’s always the way with folks who spout about Europe. They don’t know what—what’s in their own country!”
“We will read about them,” replied May untroubled. “We will find a book in the library that tells about them. Please remind me, Matty.”
“You’d better,” grumbled Rodney. “Learn about your own country first, that’s what I say!”
“Of course,” agreed Matty, “only—well, we might not have another opportunity to go abroad for years and years, and so it wouldn’t do not to go just because we hadn’t seen those places you spoke of, would it?”
Rodney agreed that it wouldn’t. After that they talked of many things out there in the summer-house, while the sun sank lower and lower over the trees. And finally, just as Rodney had secretly hoped it would, the story of his dilemma came out. He wanted sympathy, and he received it, but he was a little bit annoyed at the manner in which the twins clasped their hands and said “Oh!” quite breathlessly when he told them that he was a brother of Ginger Merrill’s.
“Think of that!” exclaimed Matty, who was the first to recover from her surprise. “Aren’t you proud?”
“No, I’m not,” returned Rodney, speaking in very bored tones. “I wish Stanley had never been at school here.”
“Why, Rodney!” This was May, scandalized. “How can you say such a thing? Just think what it is to be the brother of a real hero like Ginger Merrill! You can’t mean it!”
“Do, though,” grunted Rodney doggedly. “I’m sick of hearing about him and sick of seeing his pictures all over the shop. And look what a mess I’m in on his account. Got to go out to-morrow and fall around on a slippery old football and get bruised up. I can’t play and I told them so, but it didn’t do any good.” He kicked exasperatedly at the mallet he held. “I’ve a good mind not to go at all!”
“Oh, Rodney!” cried Matty. “You must! Think what a splendid thing it will be to get on the team and play against Bursley and maybe win the game for us!”
“Tell you I’m no good at it!” said Rodney impatiently. “I’ve tried it. Besides, I don’t want to play football. I won’t have time.”
“Why won’t you?” asked Matty.
“Because I want to study. I’m going to try for a scholarship. I’m willing to try for the baseball team and I like to play tennis, but I don’t want anything to do with football.”
“But—but—you ought to, Rodney! Your duty to the school——”
Matty looked pained. “But you did ought to——”
“Had ought to, I think,” corrected May.
“Should ought to,” laughed Rodney. “Oh, well, I’ll have to see it through, I guess. After I’ve been out a few days they’ll be glad to let me alone. Only that’s going to get fellows sort of down on me. They’ll say ‘Ginger Merrill’s brother is an awful duffer. He can’t even hold the ball!’”
“But I don’t believe you’re nearly as bad as you try to make out,” said Matty, smiling. “How could you be? Ginger Merrill’s brother——”
“There you go! I wish they’d forget I’m Ginger Merrill’s brother. You, too. I’m going home.”
“Well, it was very nice of you to play croquet with us, wasn’t it, May?”
“It was,” agreed May promptly and calmly.
“And to-morrow, if mama will allow us to, we’ll go over to the field and watch you practice.” And Matty smiled encouragingly.
“Rather you didn’t,” replied Rodney gloomily. “So long.”
He squirmed through a thin place in the hedge that separated the Binner’s garden from Mrs. Westcott’s yard, and entered the cottage. Mrs. Westcott, as luck would have it, was seated in her private parlor at the left of the door, and at sight of Rodney hurried into the hall.
“My dear, dear boy!” she exclaimed rapturously. “I’ve just heard the news!”
“What news, ma’am?” asked Rodney unsuspiciously.
“Why, that you are Stanley Merrill’s brother! Why didn’t you tell us?” She had both his hands now and was beaming radiantly upon him. “Just to think that we never suspected it! Why, I can’t tell you how proud I am, Rodney! Your dear brother used to come very often to my house to see my boys, and he and I were the best of friends! And to think that you are his brother!”
“Yes’m,” replied Rodney flatly. “It—it’s quite remarkable.”
“Guess who we’ve got here in the house!” exclaimed Pete Greenough, encountering Jack Billings in front of the cottage just before supper time that evening. Jack, who had been playing baseball, carried a favorite bat in one hand, and now he raised it threateningly.
“Go ahead with your joke,” he said grimly.
“It isn’t a joke at all,” Pete protested. “It’s something about this chap Merrill. Tad just told me. Who do you suppose he is?”
“No, Merrill, you silly goat!”
“His name is Rodney Merrill,” replied Jack calmly. “He lives in Orleans, Nebraska, and he is a younger brother of Ginger Merrill, of blessed fame!”
“Oh, somebody told you!” exclaimed Pete disappointedly.
“No, I guessed it, two days ago. I heard Merrill say he was from the west and I stopped in at the office and looked him up. Then I got an old catalogue and found that Ginger came from the same town. After that it was only necessary to compare their looks.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell a fellow?”
Jack shrugged his shoulders as he entered the gate. “He didn’t seem to want to have it known, Pete, so I kept still.”
“That’s what gets me,” said Pete. “Why the dickens did he keep so mum about it? Anyone would think he was ashamed of it! Say, it’s a bit of a feather in our hat, isn’t it? Having Ginger Merrill’s brother in our house, I mean.”
“Why, yes,” answered Jack, taking a seat on the top step and studying a nick in his bat. “It’s going to be a little hard on Merrill though,” he added soberly.
“This being Ginger’s brother. Fellows will expect a lot from him, won’t they?”
“I guess so,” acknowledged Pete thoughtfully.
“Yes, and from what I see of young Merrill he’s just a decent, ordinary sort of kid. That’s what I mean. If he doesn’t turn out a great football player or a great something else, the fellows are going to be disappointed in him. Besides that, Pete, he stands a pretty good show of getting a swelled head on his brother’s account, eh?”
“Oh, we’ll look after that,” returned Pete confidently. “If he shows any of that sort of thing we’ll take it out of him. He doesn’t yet, though, does he? His keeping quiet about Ginger looks as if he was sort of a modest kid, eh?”
“Unless he did it to get a better effect, if you see what I mean.”
“Can’t say I do, Jack.”
“We-ell, he must have known that it would come out sooner or later. Maybe he thought if he kept quiet about it it would make more of a sensation when it did become known.”
“That’s only what might be, Pete. I’m not saying it’s so. From what I’ve seen of Merrill I rather like him. Perhaps a little too—too independent, but a decent sort for all that. What he’s got to be made to understand, Pete, is that being Ginger Merrill’s brother butters no parsnips; that if he’s going to make good he’s got to forget that and dig out on his own account.”
“Going to tell him so?”
“Me?” Jack shook his head slowly. “No, at least not in so many words. Perhaps a hint will do him good some time though. I don’t believe in interfering much, Pete. Every fellow has his own row to hoe, and you can’t help him very much. For my part, I shan’t say anything to him about his brother. Better let him think we don’t care much about whose brother he is. Who made the discovery, Pete?”
“Cotting. Tad says Cotting knew him the moment he saw him, and came up and shook hands with him.”
“Oh, is Merrill out for the team?”
“Not yet. He and Tad were looking on. He’s going out to-morrow though, Tad says. Cotting wouldn’t take no. Merrill says he can’t play, but Cotting wouldn’t believe him. Neither do I. Stands to reason that Ginger Merrill’s brother can play football, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t see why, Pete. Anyhow, I hope he makes good. It’ll save him a lot of trouble if he does. Let’s go and wash up.”
Rodney came down to supper looking self-conscious in spite of his efforts not to. He suspected that all the other fellows in the house had learned of his relationship with the redoubtable Ginger, for Kitty had shaken him gravely by the hand ten minutes before and assured him that he considered it an honor to have Ginger Merrill’s brother for a roommate. Kitty also declared that the records showed Ginger to have had one of the finest chest developments in the history of the school, a fact which ennobled that youth more in Kitty’s estimation than all his football prowess. Pete Greenough, reading Rodney’s expression aright, recalled Jack’s theory and concluded that perhaps after all young Merrill wasn’t such a modest kid as he had thought. At table, however, not a word was said about Ginger Merrill until Mrs. Westcott herself brought up the subject. Wasn’t it delightful, she asked, to have dear Stanley’s brother with us? Whereupon Jack said:
“Pass the bread, please, Tom,” and Warren Hoyt expressed the hope languidly that Merrill could chase a pigskin half as well as his brother had. That gave Rodney the opportunity he wanted.
“I can’t though,” he said bluntly. “I’m no good at football and I don’t want to play it. I told Mr. Cotting so but he insisted that I was to come out to-morrow. I won’t stay long though.”
“No, he will drop you quick enough if you can’t deliver the goods,” said Tom Trainor. Tom spoke from sad experience. Stacey Trowbridge looked across from the other end of the table.
“You’ve played, have you, Merrill?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, a little. Enough to find out I’m no good at it.”
“You can’t tell,” said Pete. “Cotting has a way of making the most of fellows, I guess.”
“He makes mistakes sometimes though,” said Tad Mudge gravely. “He let Tom get away.”
There was a laugh at this sally, which Tom joined in good-naturedly, and the conversation wandered to other subjects. After supper Rodney and Tad made up their tiff.
“Sorry I was so grouchy,” said Rodney.
“That’s all right. I don’t blame you, Rod. I guess I was rather fresh anyway. Want to take a walk?”
By the next morning Rodney’s fame had spread throughout the school. Fellows nudged each other at sight of him and whispered when they thought he couldn’t see. But Rodney did see, or at least knew it somehow, and was half pleased and half annoyed. He was glad that fellows held his brother in the esteem they did and hoped that some day they might like him half as well, but it was a little bit annoying to be looked on as Ginger Merrill’s brother, as though he was of no importance on his own account. One of the submasters, Mr. Steuben, who was known as the Baron, shook hands with him and told him pleasant things about Stanley, and inquired solicitously after that youth.
“We vare friends, your great brother and I,” said the Baron, smiling through his thick lenses. “Ven you write to him you must tell him I still think of him. And tell him also, that I am so glad to have his brother here to teach him the German and the physics.”
Rodney and Tad went over to the gymnasium at three, Rodney lugging a bundle of football togs donated by Tad. The new boy had never been inside the gymnasium before and he was both surprised and impressed by the elaborateness of it. Apparently it contained everything desirable. Big windows threw light everywhere and even the darker corners under the running gallery were walled with white glazed brick so that even there one could see perfectly. The big floor of white oak shone with cleanliness and even the chest weights and more complicated apparatus that lined the walls were miraculously free from dust. In the dressing and bath rooms the floors were of concrete, and wherever possible concrete brick and steel took the place of wood. There was a fine batting cage in the basement, a bowling alley and smaller rooms for fencing and boxing. A staircase of steel and slate led from the entrance hall to the second story where a low-ceilinged room held a rowing tank and several rowing machines. Doors led from the upper hall to the running track, and Tad pushed them open and the boys descended the sloping curve at the turn and viewed the gymnasium from the gallery railing.
“Looks bigger from here, doesn’t it?” asked Tad. “Those little black dots painted on the floor are to show you where to stand in gym class.”
“What’s the circle in the middle?” asked Rodney.
“For basket ball. We used to play it a lot, but faculty got down on it and now it’s barred, except for scrub playing. We used to have some hot old games with Bursley. Fellows got hurt a lot though. Bursley played too rough,” Tad chuckled.
“Meaning Maple Hill didn’t?” asked Rodney with a smile.
“Oh well, when the other fellow starts something you’ve got to keep up with him,” responded Tad with a grin. “I guess it was about an even thing.”
Back in the hall Tad drew Rodney’s attention to a cabinet against the wall under the broad, high window. “Trophy case,” he explained. Inside, behind the glass doors, were a dozen or more footballs, each inscribed with the score of the game in which it had been used. “The winning team keeps the ball, you know,” said Tad. “Look at this one over here. ‘M. H. 28; B. 9.’ That was a peach of a game, I’ll bet. That was the second year your brother was captain. And here’s the one the year before. ‘Maple Hill 12; Bursley S. C.’”
There were baseballs there, as well, and a few hockey pucks, and against the back of the case some faded silk banners whose gold lettering was well nigh illegible. The latter, Tad explained, were old track trophies and dated back to what he called the dark ages. On the walls about the trophy case and all the way down the stairs were hung dozens of group photographs—football teams, baseball teams, track and field teams, rowing crews, hockey teams, basket-ball teams. Under each photograph was set down the year and, in most cases, cabalistic letters and figures, as, under one group of lightly-clad youths, the inscription: “M. H. 64½; B. 31½.”
“That’s the 1911 track team,” said Tad. “They slammed it into Bursley good and hard, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” murmured Rodney. His gaze had wandered to a group of football players, eighteen sturdy looking youths in togs of whom the center figure, holding a football on his knees, looked strangely familiar. It took a second look to identify the youth as Ginger Merrill, for Ginger in the picture looked years younger, and of course was without the carefully cared for mustache that nowadays adorned his upper lip.
“That,” said Tad at Rodney’s shoulder, “was the team that won 12 to 6. That was your brother’s first year as captain. He was only a Third Former then. Here he is the year before that.”
Rodney looked where Tad pointed, and finally distinguished his brother peering over the shoulder of a comrade from the rear row of the group. He looked in that picture scarcely older than Rodney himself at the present moment. Tad exhibited him several more times—as captain of the victorious eleven which had sent Bursley down to defeat by the 28 to 9 score, as a substitute on a hockey seven, and as a member of a baseball team which had met defeat.
“Seems to be all over the shop,” grunted Rodney. “Wonder if he ever did a lick of work when he was here.”
“Who cares?” asked Tad flippantly. “He did a heap of things that counted just as much.”
“Better not let any of the faculty hear you say that,” laughed Rodney. “They wouldn’t agree with you.”
“Faculties never did agree with me,” responded Tad, leading the way down stairs. “I can’t stand the things. I’m in favor of abolishing ’em, Rod.”
RODNEY JOINS THE SQUAD
“Well, Stanley used to tell wonderful yarns about this place,” said Rodney as they reached the lower hall, “but I didn’t believe quite all he said then. I do now. It’s certainly a fine building. Still——”
“Still what?” asked Tad jealously.
“Well, I don’t see what the idea is in putting so much expense into a gymnasium, Tad.”
“We-ell, it seems to me that a building that is used so little——”
“Used so little! Say, you want to come over here some evening next week and see the gymnastic class at work! And pretty soon they’ll begin the regular gym work. I guess, Rod, this place is as much used as any building here. Why, I’ve seen this dressing-room so full in spring that you couldn’t move around without treading on some fellow’s toes!”
Tad secured a locker for Rodney and the latter changed to his football garb. The trousers were a bit too tight at the waist, but by lacing them not quite close they answered very well. The jacket fitted better. As for jersey and shoes, Rodney furnished those himself. Before he was dressed the other candidates began pouring into the room, and the place, which had been almost deserted when the two boys arrived, hummed like a beehive. Guy Watson nodded to Rodney as he took a seat on a neighboring bench, and to Rodney’s surprise the nod seemed to express toleration rather than dislike. Captain Doyle came up and said a few words, and Stacey Trowbridge smiled gravely across at him. A big chap with a good-natured round face that broke into a dozen creases when he laughed was Pounder, who played center. “‘Two Hundred Pounder,’ the fellows used to call him,” explained Tad, “although he only weighs a hundred and seventy or so. He’s a dandy center. The fellow with the bandage on his head is Roger Tyson, left half. He’s a wonder. If we had ten other fellows like old Roger we’d beat everything of our size in the country.”
“What’s the matter with his head?” asked Rodney.
“Hurt it yesterday. Got an awful crack, they say. It was after you went. He was down and out for five minutes. Are you all fixed? Let’s start along, then.”
“I’m going to put you with the kindergarteners to-day, Merrill,” announced Mr. Cotting when Rodney reported. “I guess you won’t stay there long. Don’t try to overdo it to-day. Save your muscles. Gordon, will you take charge of Merrill, please? By the way, you might give me your name and so on first.” And the coach drew out his memorandum book and Rodney supplied answers to the questions he put. Then he trailed off with Gordon, who was fullback on the first team, and joined a group of tyros at the further side of the field. Most of them were Fourth Form boys, although there were three or four older youths in the squad. Gordon was extremely patient, but it wasn’t difficult to see that he didn’t love his task. Teaching the rudiments to a group of beginners is rather uninteresting work. Rodney passed the ball, caught it, fell on it, practised starts, and went through the usual programme that afternoon. In comparison with the performance of the others in the squad his efforts were almost brilliant and Gordon viewed him with hopeful interest. Once when the ball had eluded him and dribbled its way to the sideline, Rodney, rescuing it, heard his name spoken, and looked up to discover the twins standing nearby.
“You’re doing beautifully!” called Matty with enthusiasm. “We’re awfully proud of you, Rodney, aren’t we, May?”
“Awfully,” agreed May, calmly emphatic. “And we were sure all the time that you could play, Rodney!”
“This isn’t playing,” scoffed Rodney. “Anyone can do this sort of thing!”
He was glad when it was finally over and he could retire to a bench under one of the stands, draw a blanket around him, and watch the first and second squads trot about the field in signal work. On the other side the twins were still looking on, Tad Mudge and Warren Hoyt in attendance. The twins were not the only representatives of their sex present, for amongst the spectators from outside the school Rodney saw quite a number of girls. Later Rodney joined the twins and Tad—Warren Hoyt had taken himself off—and walked to the gymnasium steps with them.
“How did it go?” asked Tad with a grin.
Rodney shrugged. “All right. I’ve been through it before. I’m sort of weak in the knees, though.”
“We thought you played very nicely indeed,” said Matty. “We watched you all the time. You did much better than those other boys.”
“I should think I might,” laughed Rodney. “They were all beginners, I guess.”
“They want us to play croquet,” announced Tad. “I said I would if you would. Want to?”
“Why yes, if there’s time. Won’t it be pretty late?”
“Not if you get a move on,” answered Tad. “We’ll go ahead. You hurry up and come over. Matty and I will stand you and May. I’m a fierce player, but it’s good fun.”
It was good fun, although there was only time before supper for two hard-fought games, both of which were won by Tad and Matty. It was Matty, however, who really won, for Tad was even weaker than Rodney with a croquet mallet. Matty, playing rover, came back and nursed Tad’s ball through the wickets, and while May later performed the same service for Rodney, the luck was against them and they had to accept defeat. On the way across to the cottage Tad observed:
“I didn’t know you knew the Binner twins. Where’d you run across them?” Rodney explained and Tad laughed at the picture of the girls seated atop the fence posts. “They’re funny kids. They’re good-hearted, though, and lots of fun. Rather pretty, too, eh?”
“I suppose so,” Rodney replied indifferently. “Have they a father? I never hear them speak of him.”
“No, he died a long time ago I think. And Mrs. Binner is a sort of an invalid, never goes out much, except to drive in a carriage. They say she’s awfully nice, but I’ve never seen her. The kids go to high school and are so smart that they jump a class every year, I guess.”
“They ought to be through pretty soon, then,” laughed Rodney. “If they’re as clever in school as they are at croquet I can understand it.”
“Say, can’t they play?” asked Tad admiringly. “Of course, it’s only a girl’s game, but—hang it, it makes a fellow sort of mad to have those kids beat him every time! And they can play a pretty decent game of tennis, too. There’s a neighborhood court over on Dunn Street. Some time we’ll take the twins and have a four-handed set. By the way, we didn’t get our game this morning. I forgot it, did you?”
“Yes, until about noon. I’ll play you to-morrow, if you like.”
“To-morrow’s Sunday, you idiot.”
“Well, we’ll try it some other time. I hope we have something good for supper. I’m starved!”
Rodney’s first Sunday at school passed quietly and uneventfully. There was church in the morning for everyone, the boys walking to and from their chosen place of worship with one of the submasters. Tad confided to Rodney that there were more Episcopalians than any other denomination in school because the pews in the Episcopal church had higher backs and you didn’t have to sit up all the time. In spite of that attraction, however, Rodney joined the group of fellows who, in charge of Mr. Cooper, attended service at the little white Methodist church down by the river. It was a long way down there and a longer way back, and when Rodney gained the cottage once more he was quite ready for the Sunday dinner, which at Mrs. Westcott’s was a very elaborate meal. Rodney topped off with two dishes of ice cream and two slices of cocoanut layer cake and then went upstairs and tried to write a letter home. But it was a wonderful, warm September day and the outdoors called him. So, after a brief struggle, he took his tablet and fountain pen downstairs and found a shady spot under a pear tree at the side of the house. Before he had written more than “Dear Mother and Dad,” however, he was joined by Tom Trainor and Pete Greenough. A few minutes later Tad added himself to the group, and Rodney laid his letter aside. For an hour and more they lay on their backs on the grass and talked, discussing idly and lazily all the hundred and one subjects of interest to boys, from the incidents of church going to the college football situation, including the catching of black bass and the best way to get money from parents.
“I used to write that I wanted to get my hair cut,” confided Tad reminiscently, staring up into the branches. “That did pretty well when I was a youngster——”
“What are you now?” asked Pete Greenough slightingly.
“Shut up! Finally, though, mother wrote me that she had been keeping a record and that I’d had exactly fifteen haircuts in four months, and she was afraid my hair might get discouraged and then I’d be bald. So I had to think up something else.”
“What?” asked Tom Trainor interestedly.
“Subscriptions to school societies and things. At Christmas vacation father asked me how many societies I belonged to, and I forgot and said one. That spoiled that.”
“You know you were lying,” said Pete severely.
“Ye-es, I suppose I was, in a way. But I didn’t think of it then, honest. I don’t do it any more. Now when I want extra money I write and tell the truth.”
“What do you say?” asked Rodney.
“I tell them that Pete has borrowed all I had!”
“What do you think of that?” asked Pete indignantly. “I only owe you seventy-five cents. And I’ll pay you the first money I get, you fresh kid!”
“Please don’t Pete!” begged Tad. “If you do, I’ll have to think up something else.”
“Just lend it to me instead,” suggested Tom helpfully. “I don’t mind.”
“That wouldn’t be lending,” replied Tad. “That would be giving it.”
That letter of Rodney’s didn’t get written until evening.
KITTY SUPPLIES A SENSATION
On Sunday Rodney had returned from church by way of River Street and the sight of Doolittle’s Pharmacy had reminded him that he had not yet kept his promise to Jack Billings. So on Monday he slipped down the hill between Latin and English recitations to settle his indebtedness. Young Mr. Doolittle didn’t remember him until Rodney recalled the circumstances and informed him that he wanted to pay for the four ice-cream sodas.
“Oh, you were the fellow that played the trick on Watson, eh?” asked the clerk with a chuckle. “Say, maybe he wasn’t peeved about it!”
“Was he? Well, he got them anyway.”
“Yes, he made believe he was going to pay for them himself, and then when he and his friends had drank ’em he said I was to charge ’em to you.”
“That’s all right. Forty cents, wasn’t it?”
“He’s all the time doing things like that,” continued the clerk grievedly. “Did I tell you about the time he got a bottle of liniment off the shelf and emptied it into the sarsaparilla tank when I wasn’t looking? Well, he did. And Deacon Whittier and Si Moon——”
“What?” laughed Rodney. “Who’d you say?”
“Si Moon; keeps the livery stable,” replied the other, puzzled by the boy’s amusement. “Know him?”
“No, but I’m going to start a list of names. You’ve got some corkers around here! What do they call Mr. Moon for short? Sirocer?”
“They call him Si,” replied the clerk with the hauteur of one who discovers that he has made a humorous remark and doesn’t know what it was. “Don’t know what you mean about Si Rocker.”
“Never mind. What happened to old Si-moon?”
“He was sick as a horse, he and the Deacon, too. And——”
“Perhaps it was horse liniment?” suggested Rodney gravely.
“No, ’twa’n’t, it was Hipplepot’s Embrocation. I know because I found the bottle behind the fountain there. ’Most half empty it was, too. Might have killed ’em!”
“How did you find out Watson did it?”
“Why, he’d been in here a while before, and I just naturally suspected him. And when I asked him he owned right up.”
“Well that was honest anyway, wasn’t it? He might have told a lie about it.”
“Watson wouldn’t,” said the clerk grudgingly. “I’ll say that for him. He’s a terror, all right, but he owns up to things. I nearly lost my job that time, though.”
“Too bad. Well, here’s the money. Just cross off that bill, will you?” and Rodney laid a half dollar on the counter. The clerk looked at it doubtfully.
“What’s that for?” he asked.
“Why, to pay for those sodas.”
“Oh! They’re paid for. Thought you knew. Watson came down Saturday and paid for ’em.”
“He did!” Rodney stared and thoughtfully returned the money to his pocket. “I wonder what he did that for?”
“I don’t know. Said something about only being in fun the other time. I just took the money and was glad to get it. There’s lots of fellows up to school don’t pay up as well as he does.”
Hurrying back up the hill Rodney wondered why Watson had changed his mind, and debated whether to speak to him about it. He finally decided to let the matter drop. Whatever Watson’s motive might have been, Rodney had an idea that the older boy wouldn’t care to be thanked.
It was two days after that that Phineas Kittson startled the school and provided several days of amusement by announcing his candidacy for a position on the football team. Rodney learned of it first. He found Kitty frowning over a book of football rules that afternoon after practice. Kitty looked up as Rodney came into the room, nodded, and went back to his study. Rodney observed the blue covered book curiously, until in a moment Kitty asked:
“Merrill, what do you mean when you say a ball is ‘dead’?”
“Why, that it isn’t—isn’t playable. Like when the fellow who has it is tackled, you know, or when it goes over the goal line.”
“Oh. Seems to me the person who wrote these rules tried to make them as difficult as possible. All mixed up, I call them. Silly.”
“Aren’t thinking of playing, are you?” asked Rodney smilingly.
Kitty turned down the corner of a leaf and nodded slowly. “Yes, I’ve decided that I’ll have to try,” he replied calmly. “Got more time this year. Reading in a paper yesterday that football is great developer of the lungs. Don’t see why it shouldn’t be, eh? Course, a fellow couldn’t rely on football alone. Have to take regular exercises, too. It follows. But in its way, don’t see why football wouldn’t be—er—beneficial. Would it seem so to you, Merrill?”
“Yes.” Rodney struggled to keep from laughing. “Yes, I’d say football might develop the lungs beautifully.”
“Shall try it. Been trying to get the sense of that.” He nodded at the rule book. “Guess you have to play the game to learn what it’s all about though. Complicated. Contradictory. Can’t make heads nor tails of it. What do you wear?”
“Oh, you wear canvas breeches and a canvas jacket thing that laces up the front. And a jersey underneath. And long stockings and shoes with cleats.”
“Mm, that depends. Twelve dollars will do it, I guess.”
“Buy them in the village?”
“I think so. Yes, Tad told me I could get most everything here. I forget what the name of the shop was.”
“Porgan’s, I guess.”
“Or Humpernickle’s,” suggested Rodney with a grin.
“Don’t know that. Think I’ve seen footballs and such things in Porgan’s. Where’s Humpernickle’s?”
“Search me,” laughed Rodney, “but I’ll bet there’s a place of that name here somewhere. When you going to start, Kittson?”
“Me? Oh, tomorrow, I guess. What do you do? Any—er—formalities?”
“N-no, just—just go over to the field dressed for play and tell—” Rodney’s grin wouldn’t be suppressed any longer—“tell Mr. Cotting you want to try for the team.”
“I see. All right. Much obliged. Mind going down to Porgan’s after school and helping me buy things?”
“Glad to,” replied Rodney gravely. “I say, do you mind if I tell the fellows about it?”
Kitty stared across in mild surprise. “About me? No.” The tone implied that Kitty didn’t see why he should mind! “Tell ’em if you want to. Not important though, is it?”
“Oh, well, I only thought that—that they’d like to know.”
“Suppose they would. What time is it? Half past five! I’m late this evening!” And Kitty gravely threw aside his jacket, pulled his faded brown sweater over his head, attached his pedometer to his belt, and set forth on his final stunt of the day, which was a little jaunt down to the river and back up the hill at top speed.
Rodney left the room close on the heels of Kitty and burst into Jack Billings’s room. Only Tom Trainor was there, Tom bending over a book with both hands clutching desperately at his hair.
“Busy,” grunted Tom, without looking around.
“Don’t care if you are,” answered Rodney. “You aren’t too busy to hear some news.”
“Yes, I am. Don’t want to hear any news. Get out, Rod!”
“It’s about Kitty.”
“Nothing is news about Kitty,” scoffed Tom. But he stopped tearing his hair and looked around. “What is it?”
“He’s going out for the team!”
“He is! Honest injun, Tom!”
“Whoops!” Tom’s chair went over with a crash and he flew to the hall. “Fellows! Pete! Stacey! Everybody this way!”
“Shut up!” came a wail from the closed door of Pete Greenough’s room. But Stacey answered, and he and Tad tumbled into the hall. “What’s up? Where’s the fire?” asked Tad.
“News, fellows! Glorious news! Kitty——”
Pete, who had opened his door and stuck his head out, groaned and started back.
“Hold on, Pete! Wait till you hear it! Kitty’s going to play football!”
There was a moment of intense silence. Then shrieks of delight broke forth, and Tom and Tad clasped each other ecstatically and danced along the hall. At that moment Jack Billings and Warren Hoyt appeared on the stairs, and the news was broken to them very gently by five voices shouting in unison. After that they piled into Jack’s room and laughed and joked to their heart’s content.
“I know where I’m going to be to-morrow afternoon at three-thirty,” announced Tad. “Right on the sideline, fellows, where I can see it all!”
“That’s where we’ll all be!” gurgled Tom. “And he’s going down to Porgan’s after school to-morrow to buy an outfit. Let’s all go along and help, fellows!”
But Jack demurred. “That would be too strong,” he said. “It is funny, but we don’t want to hurt old Kitty’s feelings. It’s going to be funny enough anyway, without that.”
“That’s so,” Stacey agreed. “Besides,” and he smiled in his quiet way, “he might take offence and quit then and there.”
Further discussion was halted by the sound of steps on the stairway. The fellows grinned at each other and Warren Hoyt called: “Is that you, Kitty? What’s this Merrill’s telling us?”
Kitty appeared at the doorway, breathing deeply and perspiring freely, and observed them anxiously through his spectacles.
“About football?” he inquired. “Yes, I’m going to try it. I’ve read that it is fine for the lungs. May be wrong though. What do you think, Stacey?”
“Nothing better,” replied Stacey gravely.
“I think it’s fine of you,” said Tad earnestly. “Cotting will be so pleased, Kitty!”
“Think so?” Kitty looked modest. “Of course I don’t know much about it. Learn, though, I guess. Understand strength and stamina are requisites of football. Got ’em. You fellows know that.”
“You bet we do, Kitty! I’d back you against Sandow any old day,” declared Tom. “My word, but it’s a bully thing for the team!”
“Don’t know about that. Afraid it’ll take me a while to learn the—er—fine points, eh?”
“Pshaw!” said Warren. “A fellow of your ability can learn the game in a day, Kitty!”
“Suppose you’re kidding me,” replied Kitty good-naturedly. “Don’t mind. May be an ass, but I’ll have a try at it.”
And Kitty, nodding with a final owl-like stare, took himself off.
COTTING IS PUZZLED
News travels fast in school, and by ten o’clock the next morning it was known from one end of the campus to the other that Kittson was going to report that afternoon for football practice. The result was that every fellow who could possibly get to the field was on hand long before the fateful hour of three-thirty. Tad, who had the effrontery to walk to a point of observation some ten feet away, declared later that it was worth a thousand mile journey to see the expression on Coach Cotting’s face when Kitty informed him that he would like to try for the team, please. Kitty, in brand new football togs, with his trousers at least six inches too long for his short legs—there had been no time to alter them—and his knotty calves incased in green stockings, was a sight to behold. And yet there was no suggestion of self-consciousness about him. Had you attired Kitty in the uniform of a Scotch Highlander or a Turkish bashi bazouk he would have shown no awkwardness. Kitty had a mind above clothes.
Coach Cotting, maintaining his composure with the utmost difficulty, entered Phineas Kittson in his red book and consigned him to the awkward squad. Rodney, who had just been promoted from that aggregation, mourned the fact. He wanted so much to be near when Kitty fell on his first ball.
The school at large cheered when Kitty followed his companions down the gridiron, and after that, flocking closely along the side line, they watched his every performance and offered him enthusiastic applause and encouragement. Kitty knew well enough that he was being joshed, but he didn’t mind. Fellows were always poking fun at him for one thing or another. Let them! Kitty had his own ideals and pursued them, his own views and held to them. No, Kitty didn’t mind much. Not nearly so much as Gordon. The fullback stood the ribald shouts and laughter and cheers as long as he could, and then walked over to the throng and informed them that this was football practice and not a funny show, and that if they didn’t shut up he’d have Cotting put them out and close the gates. After that practice proceeded more decorously.
Meanwhile Kitty was having his troubles. But the queer thing about Kitty was that he had a funny notion that troubles were things you could get the better of if you put your head down and worked hard. So Kitty did as he was instructed to do to the best of his ability, using up a good deal of unnecessary strength in the doing, and was perhaps after all no more awkward than half a dozen others in the squad. And Gordon, who had smiled for a while at first, soon came to admire the fellow’s dogged courage and perseverance, and was extraordinarily patient and gentle with him toward the last. By that time the novelty had worn away for the spectators and the crowd had thinned out, and Kitty’s return to the gymnasium in the wake of the others was unattended by any demonstration. On the next day he was again the cynosure of all eyes, as Tad so aptly put it, and again on the day following. But after that the school decided that the fun had worn thin.
On Friday Coach Cotting made the first cut, and some dozen youths abandoned aspirations for that season. Strange to say, however, Kitty, at the good-natured solicitation of Gordon, was retained and became a fragment, a rather weighty fragment, of the third squad. Rodney, too, was retained, and whether he was glad or sorry he couldn’t make up his mind. He was confident that he would never survive the next cut, and he begrudged the time that practice took from his studies, although for that matter he couldn’t honestly say that his class standing was suffering any. On the other hand, he had discovered to his surprise that he was getting not a little interested in football. He rather liked the camaraderie of it, and the feeling of well-being that followed a hard afternoon out there on the yellow turf and—yes, and he would have been less than human otherwise—he liked the knowledge that less fortunate fellows observed him with respect as one who had succeeded where they had failed, and as one chosen to uphold the gridiron honor of Maple Hill. And all the time he was growing to like it better he was telling himself that no matter how hard he tried or how hard Coach Cotting tried he would never become anything more than an indifferent player. But meanwhile he did as best he could, and Cotting and Captain Doyle puzzled over him considerably.
“He knows football,” said Doyle one day when he and the coach were discussing Rodney, amongst other candidates, “but he doesn’t seem to get beyond a certain point. He plays as well and not much better than he did the first day, as far as I can see.”
“I can’t make him out,” acknowledged the coach. “He seems willing enough to learn, and he seems to try hard enough, but he gets no—no ‘forrader.’ Why?”
Doyle shook his head. “Blessed if I know. Guess he lacks football instinct.”
“‘Football instinct,’” echoed the coach smilingly. “You’ve been reading stories, Terry. ‘There ain’t no such critter’ as football instinct. Instinct is a natural impulse. You may say that a boy has a natural impulse toward athletics and, if he happened to come of athletic parents, you’re probably right. But football hasn’t been played long enough in this country to generate instinct, if you see what I mean. Perhaps in another hundred or two hundred years boys may be born with football instinct, but not now, Terry.”
“Well, it’s something,” replied the other vaguely, “and Merrill doesn’t seem to have it.”
“Call it football sense,” said the coach. “He does as he is told and as he has been taught, but he appears to have no initiative. In other words, if he found himself during a game suddenly in a position where he had to depend on his own resources, mental and physical, he’d likely fail right there. Strange, too, that I was speaking to Mr. Howe about Merrill yesterday. Howe has him in two classes, I think. He said he’d never found a boy with a greater aptitude for learning nor one with a more retentive memory. But then perhaps that proves my contention. Merrill, I dare say, lacks imagination. Well, we’ll keep him along for another week or so and see what happens.”
Maple Hill went down the river a few miles on Saturday and played her first game of the season. Her opponent was Phoenixville High School, an aggregation not at all formidable. In fact the contest was looked upon as nothing more than a slightly glorified practice, and for that reason Coach Cotting took along two complete elevens and used every player at some time during the game. Phoenixville managed to score a touchdown as the result of a fumble by a Maple Hill substitute near the end of the last period, but the Green-and-Gray ran up twenty-eight points and was well enough satisfied. Neither Rodney nor Phineas was taken along that day. How Kitty spent his afternoon I don’t know; probably, however, in taking a little ten mile jaunt around the country; but Rodney, after declining the invitation of Tom and Pete to follow the team as a rooter, remained at home and joined Tad and the twins at tennis. Rodney had Matty for a partner, and there were two hard fought sets. For some reason Rodney’s strokes were less certain than usual and, although he played perhaps as well as Tad, the opponents won each set, the first 7–5 and the second 9–7. Matty was not up to her sister on the tennis court, and May’s better playing accounted for the double victory. They had a jolly time, however, and afterwards Tad played host at Doolittle’s and they consumed ice-cream sodas and talked over the contests. Tad insisted that playing football had injured Rodney’s tennis.
“It always does,” he said. “Your arm gets sort of stiff and set, you see. A fellow has to keep his wrist pretty supple to do good backhand work.”
Rodney agreed that possibly football was to blame. “As soon as they let me go, I’ll try you again,” he said.
“Don’t worry. They won’t let you go, Rod. Why, you’re doing finely, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m playing about as poorly as the rest of the duffers in the second squad, I suppose. I guess another week will settle me.”
At this there were lamentations from the twins. They had, it seemed, made up their minds that Rodney was to be a football star like his famous brother. “You oughtn’t to talk like that,” Matty protested earnestly. “You—you must think you’re going to do well, mustn’t he May?”
“Yes, indeed. What we think we are,” replied May gravely.
“I think,” laughed Rodney, “that I’m full of soda.” He pushed his glass away.
“Don’t you like it?” asked Matty, viewing his unemptied glass.
“Yes, but I’ve got to walk up that hill yet. I’m thinking about that.”
“You don’t have to go back yet, do you? Let’s you and I play against them at croquet. It’s only fair we should beat them at something!”
So presently they toiled up the street to the little side gate in the hedge, and after recovering from their exertion—for thirty games of tennis leaves one rather disinclined for further effort for awhile—they played three fairly hard games of croquet, of which Rodney and Matty managed to win two.
A week later autumn announced her arrival. Rodney awoke one morning to find a brisk wind blowing and the trees nearly bare of foliage. Yellow and red and russet-brown leaves frolicked along the roads and there was a keen nip in the air that lent zest to living. After that football practice was less like hard labor, and the players didn’t come off the field bathed in perspiration and feeling as though they had emerged from a particularly strenuous Turkish bath. That afternoon Coach Cotting drove his charges hard. As soon as the candidates reached the field they were put to work punting or catching, all, that is, save Stacey Trowbridge and Roger Tyson, who put in the time trying goals from the field. At last, when all the players were out, there was one lap around the track at a fast jog, the pace being set by Mr. Cotting, who, clad in a faded green jersey and an old pair of gray flannel trousers, trotted at the head of the bunch. For several minutes one heard only the fall of many feet on the cinders, the swish-swish of rasping canvas, and the breathing of the runners. When the circuit was complete the several squads assembled quickly and, under the direction of shrill-voiced quarterbacks, went through twenty minutes of signal work. Then:
“All right!” called the coach. “Get your head guards!”
That was the signal for scrimmage, and the fellows hurried to the sidelines and donned the black leather helmets. Somehow, everything to-day was done on the jump. The brisk weather was incentive enough, and the coach’s perfunctory “Look alive, fellows!” was quite unnecessary. Later, though, when the second squad backs appeared to have lost some of their snap, the coach’s voice rang out harshly enough.
“Stop loafing, you backs! If I catch you at it again out you come! And you don’t go back! Now get into it!”
The warning had the desired effect, for Coach Cotting kept his word and every fellow knew it.
The third squad went over to the practice gridiron and played the Third Form Team, and both Rodney and Kitty got into the game and enjoyed it thoroughly. The Third Form Team had had only a few days of practice under the direction of one of the submasters and so were not formidable opponents. The third squad scored almost at will, and in some fifty minutes of actual playing ran up forty-nine points against their opponents, who, taking a long chance on a forward pass that ought not to have worked but did, crossed the third squad’s goal line for a solitary touchdown.
THE FINAL CUT
Meanwhile, across on the main gridiron, Mr. Cotting was hammering speed into his teams. The formation used this year for the backfield differed somewhat from that of the previous season and the players were having difficulty with it, simple though it was. The left half, fullback and right half lined up behind quarter in a slanting tandem in the order named, left half being to the left of quarter, the fullback behind him and the right half at his right. From this formation the order to shift—which became “Hep!” in the quarterback’s vernacular—was followed by one or two quick jumps to the right or left as the signal demanded. It was a good “shift formation,” since it allowed the backs to get into position for the play very quickly, and at the same time was capable of all sorts of combinations. A jump to the right by the tandem changed what seemed like an attack on the right of the opposing line to an attack on the left, and, since it was only necessary for the backs to come to momentary pause before the ball was snapped, the enemy had short time in which to change its defence to meet the play at the threatened spot. Even when the shift had taken the backs to the right of their quarter there was, however, no certainty that the play would hit that side of the line. Often enough left half and fullback would plunge around quarter for an attack on the opposing tackle, while the right half caused a diversion by banging straight ahead. Or sometimes it was the left half who faked an attack on the other side, leaving fullback and right half to charge at the enemy’s center. And it lent itself excellently well to end running besides. But it was new as yet and Coach Cotting had much fault to find with the execution of the plays. And he wasn’t over kind that afternoon to the forwards of either team.
“Where were you going that time?” he demanded sharply of Tyson after a line plunge had been smothered by the second.
“Through guard, sir.”
“No, you weren’t! You were over here at tackle. Why didn’t you follow your signal?”
“There was no hole at guard, sir. That man was in the way, and so——”
“I don’t care who was in your way, Tyson! The signal told you to carry that ball through guard. If the hole wasn’t there for you that’s none of your business. That’s up to the linemen. You go where you’re supposed to. Now, then, whose place was it to open up that hole? Yours, Doyle? All right, then it’s up to you. Now try it again. And don’t try to push them back; get down and lift ’em up!”
The play was tried again, and this time a second squad back plunged through and upset the runner in the line. The coach jumped into the mêlée.
“Who got through then? Watson? That’s the way to do it, Watson!” He thumped the second squad man on the back. “That was dandy! You keep on playing like that and I’ll have you over on this side, by jingo! Now, then, you first team, what have you got to say? Who let that man through? That was you, Pounder. Look at him! Weighs half what you do! Now you fellows quit this half hearted playing and get down and work! I want to see that play go and go right! Same signals, Quarter! And make it good!”
“A formation! 34—45—87! Hep!”
Back came the ball to Stacey, away plunged the fullback, the pigskin went to Tyson at a hand pass and, following in the wake of the big fullback, the right half tore through for three full yards, in spite of the fact that the second knew where the attack was coming and had concentrated its secondary defence there. The players scrambled or were pulled to their feet, panting, and Mr. Cotting voiced approval.
“That’s better, fellows! Put some punch into it! All right now! Fourth down and six to go!”
Then, with Gordon back and his arms outstretched for the ball for all the world as though he meant to dropkick it over the crossbars, now only twenty odd yards away, the pigskin went to Tyson again, and that youth skirted the second team’s right end and, with the coach crying “Cut! Cut!” finally found his opening and cut for a good twelve yards and a first down.
And so it went for thirty minutes or so of the hardest sort of work, with no let-ups. When a player showed signs of exhaustion he was sent off and a substitute summoned on from the waiting line at the edge of the field. There was no loafing that afternoon. And all the time the coach’s sharp voice barked criticism or censure or, less frequently, commendation. “Clean up that line, Second! Get under ’em! Put ’em back!” … “Ball! Ball! Bring it back five yards here, First. Don’t let me catch you doing that again, Watson! All right. Third down and five to go!… Rotten! Rotten, Second! Look where your guards were playing. Spread out your line! Try that again!” … “Signals! What are you giving ’em, Trowbridge? What? On their twenty yard line? Use your brain, man!… Fuller! Fuller! Come in here and play left tackle! Show these fellows how to hold that side of your line!… Low, low! Play low, Second! That’s better!… Wynant, where were you then? Fall asleep, did you? Start with the ball, man! You were all out of the play!”
And even when finally the scrimmage was ended, the first having earned a touchdown and a field goal and held their opponents scoreless, there was still work for the centers, backs, and ends. The other players trotted breathlessly back to the gymnasium, but a dozen or so unfortunates remained for punting practice, the centers to snap back the ball to the punters, the backs to catch and run the pigskin back, and the ends to get down under the kicks and head off the catchers. It was almost dark when the last thump of boot against ball was heard and Mr. Cotting let them go. In the locker room at the gymnasium fellows grinned tiredly at each other, and shook their heads as if to say, “Don’t ask me what got into him to-day! All I know is I got mine aplenty!”
But an hour or so later, refreshed by showers, trooping into supper, the hard words and hard knocks were all forgotten, or, remembered, had lost their sting. “That was some practice, old man! Say, didn’t he rub it into us for fair? Bet you, though, we learned more than we have all season so far, eh? He’s a little wonder when he gets het up, what?” And bruises were exhibited proudly, vaingloriously, while a wonderful glow of wellbeing encompassed their wearied bodies as they satisfied gigantic appetites, and already they were thinking of the morrow and looking forward eagerly to the next practice, each fellow resolved in his heart to “show him a few things next time!”
It’s a wonderful game, this football; wonderful for what it will do for flabby muscles and hollow chests, but more wonderful still for what it can do for flabby characters. There’s young Jones, for instance, who came to school with a quick and mighty ugly temper, an intolerance of anything savoring of discipline, and no especial ambition beyond doing as he pleased and being as selfish as fourteen years of spoiling at home had taught him to be. And there’s young Smith, fat and flabby and lazy when he came up, with only a sneering laugh for the form of school patriotism that caused other boys to keep their bodies clean and healthy and to toil on gridiron or diamond or cinder path for the glory of the school. Don’t look the same to-day do they? They fought and struggled and matched muscles and wits against each other this afternoon for a solid hour or more, took hard knocks and gave them, sweated and panted for breath, and rolled in the mud of a wet field, lost their tempers perhaps now and then for a brief instant—they’re only youngsters yet, after all. And now, side by side, they’re talking it over, laughing at the mishaps, criticising the misplays, praising each other’s good feats, each feeling for the other the respect—yes, and the affection, too—that every brave warrior has felt for a worthy opponent since the world began. Yes, it’s a wonderful game, this football, a gentleman’s game.
Who misses or who wins the prize,
Go lose or conquer as you can;
But if you fail or if you rise
Be each, pray God, a gentleman!
Young Jones learned to accept criticism and submit to authority, to govern his temper and consider the welfare of someone other than his own selfish little self. I fancy it didn’t come very easily, just at first; it was probably something of a shock to him to discover that on the football field he was only one, and an inconsiderable one, of many, and that no one cared a straw if he got a black eye. But he learned and profited, and it did him a heap of good. And should you ask him to-day about the young Jones that he used to be he’d probably tell you frankly and succinctly that that boy was “a selfish little brat!” And Smith worked the flabbiness out of his body and his mind, and got rid of his fat and his laziness together. It didn’t take him long to discover that his fellows had scant sympathy for his views, and that his sneers met only disgust and dislike. Doubtless he would have found himself ultimately without the aid of football, but football turned the trick very expeditiously. Smith, they say, is in line for the captaincy now. Success to him!
The second game of the season was played with Mumford Preparatory School, and in the fourth period, when Maple Hill was two scores to the good, Rodney had his first experience on the firing line. He and two other third string men went in for a few minutes, just before play ended. Rodney was trying for halfback. He was given the ball but once, since Maple Hill was on the defensive most of the time he played, and then managed to get the two yards required for a first down. An instant later the whistle sounded and Maple Hill was the victor by a 15 to 5 score. But if that brief experience in the line up had not especially advanced Rodney’s chance of being retained, although he could not be certain of that, it had left him with a redoubled desire to make the team. Figuratively, he had smelled the smoke of battle, and he wanted to fight again.
And so it was with not a little anxiety that he awaited the next cut in the squad. This had been looked for on Friday but had not come, and it was now whispered about that it would be made Monday. On Sunday Rodney observed to Kitty:
“Well, Kittson, I suppose you and I will get our walking papers to-morrow. For my part it’ll be rather a relief—” There he stopped, realizing that he had been about to say something very far from the truth. Instead he ended: “A relief to know.”
Kitty, engaged on a letter, looked up and blinked through his spectacles. “How do you mean, Merrill?” he asked.
“Why, Cotting’s going to make another cut to-morrow, they say.”
“Cut? You mean he’s going to let some of the football players go?”
“Yes, some of the second squad fellows. He’s got too many, you see.”
“Really? Think he will keep you, don’t you?”
“I don’t believe so. I don’t see why he should. He’s got five perfectly good backs without me.”
“Oh, I hope he will,” said Kitty earnestly. “I—I’d feel a bit lonesome if you weren’t there, you know.”
Rodney stared. Then he laughed. “Well, you seem pretty sure of your place, Kittson! It might just be that we’d both get fired.”
Kitty stared untroubledly and shook his head gently. “I don’t think so. Team needs fellows like me. Too many weak chaps on it. Cotting’s sensible, eh? You’ll see. Maybe I might say a good word for you, what?”
“I don’t think you’d better,” replied Rodney soberly. “I hope he does keep you, Kittson.” And, after a moment spent in reviewing the events of the last week of practice, “I don’t see why he shouldn’t, either,” added Rodney thoughtfully. “You’ve shown up pretty well, by Jove!”
Kitty blinked agreement. “For a beginner, eh? Seems so to me. May be mistaken, though. Hope not. Like the game. Fine for the chest. Fine for the whole body. Surprised me, really, what a lot of exercise there was in it!” Kitty took a long, deep breath that threatened to expand his lungs beyond the capacity of his Sunday waistcoat, and patted his chest approvingly. “Great for the lungs, Merrill!”
Monday afternoon Rodney entered the gymnasium in a funk. He had watched Tracey and two other Vests start along, and then, keeping behind them, had followed. He wanted to be alone when he faced the little black bulletin board in the entrance of the gymnasium. But in spite of his scheming he wasn’t, for when he swung open the big outer door and passed into the little lobby inside, two boys were in front of the board. One was Guy Watson and the other Peterson, the right end. There were so many notices of different kinds posted on the board that Rodney couldn’t see, from where he stood a few feet away, whether the announcement of the cut had been posted. He waited with his heart thumping a little harder than usual, for the others to move away. And then he heard Peterson say, with a laugh:
“Kittson! Well, what do you know about that, Guy?”
“That’s Gordon’s doings,” growled Watson, with a shrug of his broad shoulders. He turned then and saw Rodney, and nodded. “Hello, Merrill. Want to see the list?” he asked. “You’re down. Come on, Jim.”
They went on through the swinging doors, leaving Rodney alone in the lobby. So he and Kittson were both dropped! Well, now that he knew, it wasn’t so bad. And it had been foolish of him to expect anything else. Only—well, he had expected, or at least hoped! There was no especial reason now for reading the list, since Watson had told him, but he felt a desire to see for himself. As he stepped to the board he wondered why Watson had not taken the opportunity to sneer a little. He didn’t read the heading, but began with the names, which were arranged alphabetically. “Anson, Atwell, Browne, Burnham, Doyle——”
“Doyle?” Rodney read it again. How could they drop Doyle? Then his eyes flashed to the top of the sheet and he read:
“Football candidates. The following are retained. Cotting, Coach.”
With a leap of his heart Rodney’s eyes swept down the list. “Johnson, Kittson, Merrill——”
He wasn’t dropped! He still had a chance!
For a full minute he stood there with his eyes on that one word, stood there until the sudden turning of the big latch behind him warned him that others were coming. Then he pushed on through the swinging doors, turned to the stairway, and took the stairs at four bounds, stopping, however, at the foot to pull his features into an expression of becoming calm before he entered the dressing-room. The room was well filled, for most of the thirty-two fellows who had been retained were already there, but the first figure that Rodney’s gaze fell on was Phineas Kittson, Phineas in his new togs, now somewhat soiled, with his ridiculous trousers dropping half way to his feet. Kitty smiled and blinked at his roommate, and as Rodney joined him he said:
“Saw your name on the board up there, Merrill. Awfully glad. Cotting’s sensible, though. Said so right along. Better hurry. Most half past.”
Rodney got into football attire in record time, his heart beating a very happy tune, and raced across to the field. Stacey Trowbridge saw him and walked to meet him.
“Glad you made it, Rodney,” he said kindly. “Good luck to you.”
Then he smiled and walked away. It was the first time Stacey had called him by his first name. Rodney felt happier than ever, and a little bit proud. To-day practice went with a vim. Even tackling the dummy seemed rather good sport, and usually most of them hated it. There was a full twenty minutes of scrimmage later. Rodney and Kitty were on the second team, Kitty as substitute guard and Rodney as substitute left half. Both got into the play in the second ten minutes and both performed acceptably if not brilliantly. The coach seemed to take a good deal of notice of Phineas, and more than once instructed him. Slowness, Rodney gathered, was Kitty’s failing. Had he but known it, lack of initiativeness was his own trouble. More than once he was stopped with the ball for the simple reason that, finding himself unable to gain where the signals indicated, he slowed up, at a loss, and was brought down.
“Why don’t you fight, Merrill?” demanded the second team quarter once. “Hang it, what do you stop for? This isn’t a game of tag!”
And Rodney, returning to his position, would make up his mind to do better the next time. And when the next time came he would fail in just the same way.
The first team ran away with the scrimmage game that afternoon, piling up four touchdowns and kicking three goals after them, while the second failed to get nearer to the other goal than the twelve yard line. Two days later the tables were turned, for the second kept the first from crossing their goal line, and then in the last two or three minutes of play sent a neat kick from the field over the cross-bar. Rodney played fifteen minutes that day, but I can’t honestly say that much of his team’s success was due to his presence. Rodney had a whole lot to learn yet. But “old Kitty” was making good.
THE TWINS ARE BORED
Brother Stanley wasn’t a very good correspondent. Rodney had written him a whole long, newsy letter a fortnight after he had arrived at Maple Hill and had sent him weekly messages in his epistles to his parents, but it was not until well toward the last of October, by which time Rodney had been a Maple Hiller for over a month, that a reply arrived from Ginger. And after he had read it Rodney didn’t know whether to be most amused or most annoyed.
Dear Kid [Stanley wrote],
I meant to answer your letter long ago, but I’ve been awfully busy at the office and outside it, too. Of course the mater and dad have kept you posted on home news. Not much goes on there anyway. Even Omaha’s pretty dull this fall. Well, I’m glad you’ve got shaken down so well at school. It’s a great little school, and I hope you appreciate the advantages you are getting there. I tell you, Rod, if I had it to do over again I’d make a lot better use of my time than I did both there and at college. A fellow never knows until it’s too late what a lot of chances he is wasting at school. But you are more of a grind than I ever was—you call it noser at Maple Hill, don’t you? And I guess you’ll do better in the study line. I see by your letters home that you’ve gone out for football. More fool you. You haven’t the making of a good player, as I’ve told you lots of times and you’re just wasting your time. I tell you football takes a lot of time away from study just when a fellow needs it most. At the beginning of the year a fellow ought to pay a lot of attention to study, or else he gets in wrong and queers himself at the start. You take my advice, Kid, and let football alone. You say Cotting made you come out. That’s like old Cot, too. But if he hasn’t found out yet that he’s wasting his time on you, you tell him I say he is and that he’s to let you go. Wait until spring and try for baseball. You’re a pretty good baseball player for a young fellow, and you might make good there. But you stick to study this fall and winter. If you don’t you’ll have to answer to me when I see you, Rod. I’m not going to have you get through there and not learn anything. I’d like to get back east for some of the big games next month, especially our game with Yale and your game with Bursley. Hope you fellows wipe the earth with them. Give my best to Cotting and tell him he’s to come out here this winter and see me. Tell him I’ll show him a good time all right. Best to the Baron, too, and any of the others that may remember me. Now, Kid, you do as I say and quit trying to play football. You’re not built for it in the first place, and then besides you haven’t the head for it. Cotting’s an ass to waste time on you, and I guess he’s doing it as a sort of favor to me. I wish he wouldn’t because it’s no good. You tell him I say so. Write and tell me how things are shaping, and send me a school paper once in a while. Here’s a fiver which may help out. Be good and work hard.
That letter sounded so much like Stanley that Rodney had only to close his eyes to get a mental picture of that big brother of his frowning over the paper as he set down all that virtuous advice. Rodney smiled as he read it over again and noted the lack of punctuation and the slovenly composition. The writing of English had never been one of Ginger’s accomplishments, and Rodney had often wondered how the former had managed to get through four years at school and a like term at college without showing any improvement in that art. But his smile disappeared as he finished the letter for the second time, and a frown took its place. On the whole he thought Stanley had a good deal of cheek to write him that he was no good at football, or at any rate to be so cocksure of it. He guessed that Stanley had forgotten that he wasn’t much of a player himself until Mr. Cotting had taken hold of him. He thought that his big brother was a bit more conceited than he had suspected. That remark to the effect that Mr. Cotting was probably encouraging Rodney merely as a favor to Stanley indicated it.
“I’d just like to make good to show him that he doesn’t know it all,” muttered Rodney. “He seems to think he’s the only one in the family that’s good for anything. Maybe if Mr. Cotting takes as much trouble with me as they say he did with Stanley, I’ll do mighty nearly as well. Anyway I don’t intend to quit just because he says so. And I’ll tell him so, too!”
But by the time Rodney got around to answering that letter his annoyance had decreased to such an extent that he could write quite good-naturedly. “I don’t think he took me on just on your account,” he wrote. “They say here that he likes to get hold of fellows in the first year, catch them while they’re young, you know, and nurse them along. That’s about what he did with you, isn’t it? Of course I don’t expect ever to be a wonder at football, but I like the game, and as long as Cotting wants to keep me on I’ll stay. Maybe, though, I’ll get fired before the season’s over. But they made the last cut the other day and I survived it. Everyone here seems to think I ought to know how to play just because I’m Ginger Merrill’s brother, and of course that is nonsense. Still I may learn in time. Anyway I’m having a lot of fun out of it so far. And a lot of work, too. Cotting’s a bear at making the fellows work. We’ve got an average team here this year, they say. Doyle is a dandy captain, and the fellows think a lot of him. So far we haven’t developed our attack much. Cotting has been hammering defence into us right along, and I think we’re pretty well developed that way. He’s teaching us a shift formation that’s a peach. I wish you might come on for the Bursley game, Stan. Can’t you do it? They’d make a regular hero of you, I guess. I wouldn’t wonder if the town would hang out flags and meet you with a brass band. Try to come, please. I saw a lot of pictures of you in the gym awhile ago, groups, you know. Gee, but you were a funny little tyke, weren’t you?”
Rodney smiled maliciously as he wrote the latter sentence. He could imagine Stanley’s gasp as he perused that bit of cheek from his kid brother. You see Rodney’s awe of Stanley was fast disappearing.
He confided the tenor of Stanley’s letter to Tad, reading a few choice bits of it to that youth, and Tad was properly indignant and outraged. “What’s he think you are, anyway?” he demanded. “A babe in arms? I’d write back and tell him to chase himself around the block, I would! That’s the trouble with older brothers though,” he continued feelingly. “They’re all alike. I’ve got two and I know! They think a fellow can’t do anything on his own hook, and want to fill you up to the chin with their silly advice. You take it from me, Rod, it doesn’t do to humor ’em. You’ve got to sit on ’em hard just about so often. That’s the way I do. And say, you go ahead with your football and show Ginger that he isn’t the only fellow who can play the game. Why shucks, Rod, I’ll bet you anything you’ll make his record look like a punctured tire by the time you’ve been here three more years!”
“No, I shan’t do that,” answered Rodney, “but I might make the team. And that would be something, wouldn’t it?”
“Open his eyes a bit, I guess,” replied Tad, with a chuckle. “Funny how your older brothers don’t seem to think it’s possible you can be any good at anything! You’d think they’d take it for granted that if you were their brother you’d be bound to be a wonder, if you see what I mean.” Tad paused to silently con his sentence. Rodney nodded his comprehension and Tad went on, relieved. “But they don’t. They think they’re all to the good themselves and that you’re a sort of idiot. Not flattering to them, I say. But they’re all proper fools.” He shrugged his shoulders hopelessly over the incomprehensibility of elder brothers, slipped a hand into Rodney’s arm, and led him down the steps. “Come on over and see what the twins are up to,” he suggested.
The twins were up to nothing, as it proved. They were frankly bored. As it was Sunday afternoon, croquet was naturally an impossibility and they were seated on the porch, in a sunny angle, each with a book turned face down on her knees. They hailed the appearance of the two boys with all evidences of pleasure as the latter slipped through the hedge, but warning gestures of fingers to mouths cautioned the visitors to be quiet. Matty jumped off the porch and met them half way across the grass.
“Mama’s asleep in there,” she whispered hoarsely, pointing to a nearby lower window of the house, “so we mustn’t make any noise. Let’s go over to the summer-house.”
“Let’s take a walk,” said Tad as May joined them. “The summer-house is too near, and Rod’s such a noisy fellow he might wake your mother up.”
Matty observed her sister doubtfully. “Do you think she’d mind?” she asked.
“I don’t believe so. Not if we told Norah we were going and didn’t stay very long. I’d love to go. We’ve been just bored to death ever since dinner, haven’t we, Matty?”
“Bored stiff,” responded Matty inelegantly and emphatically. “You run and tell Norah, May, please.”
A few minutes later they made their escape through the narrow gate and turned northward along Hill Street.
“You see,” confided May, “it was the dumplings.”
“What was the dumplings?” asked Rodney, perplexed.
“That made us bored. They always do. We’re very fond of them, and Norah gives them to us for Sunday dinner quite often. But she oughtn’t to, because they make us feel very bored.”
“Bored is a new name for it!” laughed Tad. “I’d call it indigestion!”
“Oh, but it really isn’t! At least, I don’t think it is. Do you, Matty?”
The blue-eyed twin gazed doubtfully into the distance and laid an inquiring hand on the front of her white gown. “I—I don’t know, May. It might be. I think—I think I did feel sort of queer inside after the third dumpling.”
“After the third!” exclaimed Tad. “Great Scott, how many did you eat?”
Matty turned surprised eyes to him. “Why, I ate four, and May ate—how many did you eat, May?”
“Only three to-day,” was the virtuous reply. “Sometimes I eat five. They’re rather small dumplings, Tad. But to-day I—I began to feel bored quite soon.”
“I should think so! I’d be ‘bored’ after two of the things, I guess,” said Tad with a grin. “I think a walk is just what you girls need.”
“I suppose dumplings are a little indigestible,” acknowledged Matty. “But they’re awfully good. Norah puts lots of cinnamon in with the apple and we have just heaps of hard sauce. I think, May, that there were several left over. They’d be nice cold for supper, wouldn’t they?”
“Talk about a boy’s appetite!” said Tad despairingly. “Gee, we don’t know anything about stuffing ourselves, do we, Rod?”
“How would it do,” suggested Rodney, “if we—if we had those cold dumplings when we get back?”
Matty and May clapped their hands and laughed. Tad smiled and winked at Rodney. “Not a bad idea, that,” he answered. “Just to keep the twins from killing themselves, eh?”
When they were a good two miles into the country, with the river lying below them silver-blue in the afternoon sunlight, Matty announced that she was no longer bored. May, too, thought she had recovered from her affliction, and so they wheeled around and started homeward, those cold dumplings seeming to beckon from the distance. When they got back to the house Mrs. Binner had finished her nap and had retired to her room upstairs and there was no longer any necessity for keeping quiet. The twins left the two boys in the tumble-down summer-house and went on to find Norah. When, a few minutes later, they returned, they bore a tray on which were the cold dumplings, a generous portion of hard sauce, saucers and spoons, a pitcher of water and four tumblers. You just had to have water when you ate dumplings, May asserted. Cold apple dumplings may not appeal to the reader, especially when eaten out of doors on a late October afternoon with a westerly breeze sending shivers up and down one’s spine in spite of a heavy sweater, but they tasted awfully good to the boys, and even May and Matty managed, without much apparent effort, to dispose of one apiece. Finally, surfeited, they laid the remains of the feast aside and sank back in comfort.
“How do you feel, Tad?” asked Rodney with a sigh of repletion.
“I feel—I feel just a tiny bit ‘bored,’” answered Tad. “I also feel as if it will be quite unnecessary for Mother Westcott to prepare any supper this evening for me.”
Rodney agreed as to that, and for a few minutes the conversation dealt desultorily with all sorts of subjects, from the chill in the air to the outbreak of mumps in Beecher Hall, where several of the First Form youngsters were confined to their rooms. Tad chuckled.
“Yesterday Tommy Sands went over in front of Beecher and yelled ‘Heads out!’ And when about eight or ten kids came to the windows with their faces tied up, Tommy pulled a nice big lemon from his pocket and held it for them to see. They say you could hear the groans ’way over at East Hall!”
“That was a mean trick,” laughed Rodney. “Mumps are—is—which should you say? Mumps are no fun, or mumps is no fun?”
“I think mumps are singular,” hazarded May. “I mean, is singular.”
“Plural,” said Tad. “Mumps is a disease of the parrot glands——”
“Of the what glands?” demanded Rodney.
“Parrot, I think. These glands here, anyway.”
“Parotid, I think. Well, anyway, as I started to say, mumps is no fun, and——”
“That doesn’t sound just right, does it, May?” said Matty. “‘Mumps is.’”
“Ever have them?” asked Tad.
The twins nodded gravely. “Yes, we had them together—” began Matty.
“Oh, you had them together all right,” laughed Tad. “You do everything together, you two!”
“Yes, and we had whooping-cough together,” replied May, “and measles and scarlet fever——”
“It was only scarlatina, though,” interrupted Matty apologetically.
“And mastoids!” added Matty triumphantly.
“I don’t see but what you two kids have been pretty well through the list,” laughed Tad. “Ever have charley-horse?”
“What?” asked Matty.
“Don’t mind him,” said Rodney. “You get it playing football, when you bruise your hip. Hello, there goes Kitty! Let’s call him in. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” said the twins in unison.
So Rodney hurried to the gate and brought back Kitty, who, clad for walking, with his faithful pedometer at his belt, was very red of face and moist of brow.
“Had a dandy stroll,” declared Kitty as he joined the others in the summer-house. “Went all the way over to Finger Rock and back.”
“Finger Rock!” exclaimed Tad. “Why, that must be five miles!”
“Just about.” Kitty consulted his pedometer. “A little less, I think. This thing says nine and about a half. Fine day for walking, though.”
“Isn’t it?” agreed Matty. “And—and are your lungs pretty well, Phineas?”
Kitty nodded gravely. “Yes, thanks; can expand eight inches now. Never felt better than I do this fall. Think football is good for me, too. Think I can observe a slight—slight benefit.”
“What is Finger Rock?” asked Rodney.
“It’s wonderful!” declared Matty, and May nodded agreement. “It’s down the river nearly to Thurling. Haven’t you ever seen it?”
“I’ve never been further that way than we went this afternoon,” replied Rodney.
“Oh, but you can see it from the field,” said Tad. “They call it Finger Rock because it stands up like—like a sore thumb! It’s ’most a hundred feet high, isn’t it, Kitty?”
“Eighty-six feet, they say. Quite sheer, though.”
“Quite—what?” asked Rodney.
“Straight up and down,” explained Tad. “I guess not many folks have ever climbed to the top of it, although you can get up about half way without much trouble.”
“I’ve been on top,” said Kitty. “Twice.”
“Oh, run away!” exclaimed Tad.
Kitty nodded soberly. “Fact. Last year, and then about three weeks ago. Hard work, though.”
“I’d like to see it,” said Rodney. “Will you show it to me some day, Kitty?”
“Yes, any day you say.”
“He will walk you to death,” warned Tad. “I say, fellows—and young ladies—wouldn’t it be fun to take some lunch and go down there some day? Have a sort of picnic, you know. What do you say?”
“We’d love to!” cried Matty. “Wouldn’t we, May?”
“Love to,” echoed May ecstatically. “But I don’t suppose mama would let us do it,” she added doubtfully.
“I wonder if she would,” mused her sister. “Anyway, we could ask her. When would we go, Tad?”
“Why, I don’t know. You fellows have practice in the afternoons, don’t you? We might go some Saturday morning and get back about two. We could hire a rig——”
“Oh, it would be so much more fun to walk,” said Matty.
“Walk! All the way there and back?” Tad groaned. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, “All right. I’m game if you are. Will you come along, Kitty?”
“Thanks. Like it very much.” Kitty looked both surprised and gratified at being included.
“Let’s make it next Saturday morning,” suggested Rodney, “and get a good early start so we can get back in time for the game in the afternoon. You ask your mother, Matty, and see if you can go.”
“We have our music Saturday mornings,” said Matty sadly.
“Then I guess we’d better wait until spring,” responded Tad with a somewhat relieved tone in his voice.
“Perhaps, though,” said May thoughtfully, “we could get Miss Mapes to let us have our lesson Friday after school. We could ask her, Matty.”
So, in the end, it was agreed that the twins were to try to arrange things so that they could get away next Saturday morning, and that, if they were successful, the party was to start out for Finger Rock at half-past eight, or as soon after as possible. Then, the twins having volunteered to attend to the luncheon, and the boys having indicated their preferences in the matter of viands, the assemblage broke up, Kitty by this time being thoroughly chilled through, and the boys retired to their own premises by way of the hedge.
“We’ll let you know to-morrow noon,” called Matty from the porch.
“All right,” answered Tad. “And I say, Matty! If we do go, keep away from dumplings the day before, please!”
They could hear the twin’s laughter as they gained their own side of the hedge.
The fall tennis tournament began the day following. Both Tad and Rodney had entered, Rodney at Tad’s earnest solicitation. “You see,” Tad had explained, “I want to feel that there’s some one in the tournament I can beat!” This was sheer bravado, however, since in the two or three contests which the two had waged together Rodney had easily shown his superiority, in spite of the fact that he seemed to have lost some of his former dexterity. There were nearly a hundred entrants, and, since it was a handicap affair, some very good matches were played the first part of the week. Rodney met and defeated Sanderson, the First Form president, on Tuesday, while Tad, who had drawn a bye, didn’t meet his first antagonist until Wednesday. Then he barely scraped through, losing one set, two games to six, pulling out of the next, six to four, and finally winning the third, nine to seven. Owing to the epidemic of mumps, which had ceased to be a joke, since by the middle of the week fully twenty boys were down with the malady, the original drawings for the tournament were sadly interfered with, and match after match had to be postponed. Even the class football teams suffered, the First Form team being shorn of five of its players and having to give up practice for the time, and the Second Form team being scarcely better off. In order to keep the disease from spreading any further the faculty placed a ban on visiting. But in spite of that precaution new cases cropped out day by day, and fellows were seen surreptitiously feeling their necks and testing themselves with pickles and lemons. Even the school team was not exempt, for Jim Peterson was missing from practice on Thursday, and investigation showed that James was marooned in his room in East Hall, his jaws tied up in cotton and gauze. Westcott’s escaped the malady, although there was an anxious time when Warren Hoyt had a sore throat, and Pete Greenough moved out of Number 2, bag and baggage, until the doctor allayed his fears. Tad declared that for his part he’d rather like to have mumps so that he wouldn’t have to attend recitations for a week or so, but it was noticed that when Warren was under suspicion Tad gave him a very wide berth.
The tennis tournament dragged along to the middle of the second week. Tad met his Waterloo on Friday when he was opposed to a Fourth Form youth named Wallace. Wallace played at scratch, and Tad’s one-half of fifteen couldn’t save him from a severe drubbing. Rodney lasted until Tuesday and the semi-final round, and put up a game fight against Jack Billings. Rodney, like Tad, had a handicap of one-half of fifteen, and Jack played at scratch. It was the latter’s service that finally won for him. After getting the first set, 6–4, Jack let down, and Rodney captured the first three games before Jack recovered. Then, on his own service, Jack secured the fourth game and the sixth. Rodney got away with the fifth and seventh, and then broke through Jack’s service and won the eighth, winning the set 6–2, much to the surprise of the gallery, which included Tad and the twins, and Jack as well. The third set see-sawed, Jack winning on his service and Rodney on his, until the games stood seven all. Then Jack’s age and experience told and he literally wore his opponent out. Rodney lost the next game 15–40, and then, on his own service, gave Jack an ace by double faulting, smashed the next return out of court and was 0–30 before he knew what had happened. But after that he managed to draw even by two fine serves that Jack failed to handle, and the game stayed at deuce for fully ten minutes. When finally Jack sent a swift ball across the court that Rodney missed by a hair’s breadth and so ended the match, there was a good round of applause for both players. Jack reached a brown hand across the net and said, as Rodney shook it:
“Finally, Jack sent a swift ball across the court”
“Sorry, Rod. You deserved to win. You gave me the hardest tussle I ever had, I think.”
“Thanks,” replied Rodney. “Glad you won though, Jack. Hope you keep going, too. Only——”
“What?” asked Jack, with a smile, as he vaulted the net, towel in hand.
“Only I’m sorry you won’t be here next year,” said Rodney. “I’d like to try you then.”
“Try me in the spring,” laughed Jack. “I wouldn’t wonder if you could do it then, Rod!”
Rodney was glad he had secured a cut from football practice that afternoon, for he was pretty well worn out. However, a shower helped matters a deal, and after they were dressed he and Jack strolled down the hill to Doolittle’s and Jack treated to sodas. On Friday, Jack met Hanford, the school champion. Rodney didn’t see that match, for it was played during football practice, but most of the other Vests were on hand to applaud and encourage their leader. In the finals the match was three sets out of five, and Jack, who started off with a rush, played Hanford off his feet for two sets and seemed, as Tad put it when he related the details later to Rodney, to have the title holder “agitated to an emulsion.” But Hanford wormed out of the third set 7–5, secured the fourth 9–7, and then ran away with the deciding set, allowing Jack but three games, and securing his right to the championship for another year.
On Monday, Matty had announced that Mrs. Binner had consented to the proposed expedition to Finger Rock, and that Miss Mapes, the piano teacher, had obligingly transferred the Saturday morning lesson to Friday afternoon. Consultations between the twins and Tad had followed at intervals during the week, and at a little before nine on Saturday morning the five set off on the picnic. The luncheon had been thoughtfully divided into separate packages and each of the party carried one. Kitty, for once minus his beloved turtle-neck sweater, led the way at a business-like pace which soon drew groans of protest from Tad.
“Look here, Kitty,” he said when they had traversed perhaps a mile of the way, “this isn’t any cross country race, you know. We aren’t trying to establish a new record. I love to walk, but I don’t want to overdo it. I’ve been warned by the doctors not to overtax my strength. Let’s pause here a minute and admire the beautiful view. Let’s pause several minutes. I’m in no hurry. In fact I love to pause!”
Rodney and the twins seemed as willing as Tad to seat themselves on a rock beside the road. Kitty blinked in mild surprise. “I wasn’t walking fast, was I?” he asked solicitously.
“What do you call it?” panted Tad.
“Why—er—I call that just an amble.”
“An amble! Jumping Jehosophat! I’d like to see you when you were in a hurry then!”
Kitty smiled leniently.
“You can see the Rock now,” said May to Rodney, and his four companions obligingly pointed it out to him. As, however, he attempted to follow each finger and attend to all directions at once, it was several minutes before he actually discerned the object of their journey. When he did it looked rather disappointing. From a distance of three and a half miles Finger Rock was merely a point against the sky, its base hidden by a belt of woods that intervened. Presently they went on again, more leisurely now, Kitty looking around every little while to make certain that the pace was not exhausting his companions. He held forth for a quarter of a mile on the benefits of walking, and instructed the others how to hold their bodies, how to move their legs, and which part of the foot to walk on in order to derive the greatest good from the exercise. Tad listened with suspiciously profound attention, but the others soon wearied. When Kitty had concluded, Tad undertook to walk according to instructions received and the result was so mirth provoking that Matty had to sit down on a stump beside the road and recover. Kitty, however, only smiled tolerantly. He was quite accustomed to having his hobby made sport of. It didn’t hurt him any if others played the fool.
It had been quite nippy when they had started out, but as the sun climbed higher the chill gave way to a genial warmth and the frozen surface of the road began to thaw, making the walking rather slippery in places. A beech grove was a mass of gold, across a field to the left, and further inland the edge of the forest showed all shades of vermillion and scarlet and russet yellow and green. On the river side of the hill a rocky pasture had grown up in young oaks, and these supplied a tone of brown-pink, as Matty, who dabbled in paints, called it, that quite drove that young lady to despair.
“Isn’t it wonderful, May?” she exclaimed. “Did you ever see such a color? I—I wouldn’t know how to get it at all.”
“I’ll pick a few leaves for you,” volunteered Tad, “and you can take them home with you.” But the leaves on nearer acquaintance quite failed to produce the effect of the trees at a distance, and Matty discarded them and went on with many backward glances, murmuring to herself, totally absorbed in the problem. At their left the Hudson was in sight much of the way, winding and twisting, at times broadening out into small inland seas across which ridiculous ferry boats plodded. Now and then a white sail broke the intense blue of the surface and once a river steamer passed down, brave in white and gold. There were several raids on wayside orchards, and Tad, who constituted himself general sampler for the expedition, was biting into and discarding apples all the way along. Unfortunately, by the time he had tasted an apple and found it satisfactory the tree it had come from had been left several hundred yards behind them. But Tad, ever hopeful, set his eyes on the next orchard and tried again. Except that he worked up a slight stomach ache eventually, their raids were rather unproductive. May, who looked on trespassing as a crime, held her eyes askance when the others wandered from the road, and only accepted the fruits of transgression under protest. She appeared to enjoy what fell to her share, however as well as any of them.
It was well into the middle of the forenoon when they finally tramped over a crest of the road and saw Finger Rock rising into the air a quarter of a mile ahead. A lane, which ran from the main road along the back of a farmyard, wound uphill to a wooded plateau and from the summit of the latter Finger Rock stood up for all the world like the sore thumb of Tad’s description. It looked from that distance like one huge lump of rusty pink granite set on end, but Kitty explained that it was in reality a number of ledges heaped up together, and rattled on quite knowingly about glaciers and moraines. The lower part of the Rock was scantily clothed with scrub trees, bushes and grass, but the upper half of it was bare of all vegetation save moss and lichen.
“How big is it on top?” asked Rodney as they turned into the lane to the excited barking of a dog in the farmer’s yard.
“About twenty feet across,” answered Kitty. “It’s uneven though; lots of loose rock up there.”
“We couldn’t get up, could we?”
Kitty shrugged. “You and I could; Tad, maybe; the girls couldn’t.”
“I should think not!” said Matty. “I wouldn’t try it for anything. Would you, May?”
May replied vehemently that she certainly would not. Tad observed Kitty indignantly.
“You say you and he could, but I couldn’t? Why couldn’t I, I’d like to know?”
“Didn’t say you couldn’t,” replied Kitty, blinking. “Said you might. Don’t believe you could though, Tad.”
“Why not?” challenged Tad.
“Takes strength and plenty of wind. You haven’t the lungs, Tad.”
“What’s the matter with my lungs?” inquired Tad irritably.
“Undeveloped,” responded Kitty calmly.
“Undeveloped, your grandmother!” Tad struck himself sharply on the chest and went into a fit of coughing. “There’s no—nothing the mat—matter with my—my lungs! And just to prove it I’ll climb that old Rock and show you!”
“Better wait until after we’ve had lunch though,” Rodney laughed. “If you fell off you’d miss the eats.”
“Well, I guess that would be wiser. Might as well be sure of my lunch. Where will we eat it? Ought to have some water, too.”
“There’s a spring over there,” replied Kitty, with a nod toward the edge of the woods a few hundred feet away. “And there’s a ledge about fifteen feet up on the other side that we can get to easily. Good view from there. Plenty of room, too.”
So they followed a path that led around the base of the Rock through sweetfern and small bushes until Kitty indicated a place where by following the lower face of the Rock up and around it was not difficult to climb. Kitty led the way up the well worn trail, Tad followed, and Rodney went last to give a hand now and then to the twins. A few minutes of climbing and scrambling brought them to a jutting ledge about ten feet broad, carpeted with grass and Christmas ferns, and somewhat littered with the remains of former repasts. A blackened cranny against the overhanging face of the Rock showed where a fire had been built at some time.
“They had courage to lug wood up here for a fire,” said Tad. “Wish they’d left some, though.”
“We haven’t anything to cook,” objected Matty.
“No matter. A fire is always good fun. We might boil water, anyway. Can you go on up from here, Kitty?”
“Yes. Climb around that corner and then up about twenty feet. After that you work around to the left on some crumbly rock, and then go up where there’s a sort of fissure. That brings you pretty nearly to the top. There’s a bit of hard climbing after that though, about ten feet or so.”
Tad walked to the further side of the lunching place and cast a speculative eye up the face of the cliff. Then he looked down at his rubber soled shoes and nodded.
“Looks easy,” he said carelessly. “I’ll try it after luncheon I guess.”
“You may if you like,” said Rodney, who had followed him to the edge. “I wouldn’t go up there for fifty dollars!”
“It isn’t so awfully hard,” said Kitty. “Got to keep your head, though. Mustn’t slip, either. Might have a bad fall.”
Rodney looked down for some fifteen or twenty feet and shuddered. “You might,” he agreed dryly, “even from here. If you fell further up I guess you’d never know what struck you.”
The twins were already undoing the parcels and arranging the luncheon, and Kitty volunteered to go for water. As, however, they had brought along nothing larger than tin cups it was decided that they should do without water until they wanted it, and then each one should go for his own. “We can bring up enough for Matty and May in a cup,” said Rodney. But Tad instantly declared that if he didn’t have a drink at once he wouldn’t be able to eat a mouthful, and so presently set off down the path with four cups to fill.
Kitty and Rodney helped set the viands around on paper napkins and box covers. There were sandwiches and hard boiled eggs, doughnuts—Tad had insisted on doughnuts—and cake, a jar of currant jelly, olives, pickles, and bananas. They were observing the spread approvingly when the sound of scrambling footsteps reminded them of Tad. He was toiling up the path, two cups of water in each hand, pausing at intervals to maintain his equilibrium, and grunting fearsomely. Now and then the water from the cups splashed out into his shoes or on to his shirt. By careful management he finally attained to within a few yards of the ledge, and just as those on top were about to accord congratulations something happened.
I think Tad stumbled over a rock. At all events he waved his arms wildly, distributing the contents of the tin cups in a shower about him, strove heroically to recover his balance, failed, and toppled against the side of the path, while the cups went bounding and clattering down the rock. Tad’s descent to a sitting posture was gradual and extraordinarily deliberate. Clutching wildly at the air, an expression of bewildered surprise and dismay on his face, he sank slowly down the face of the rock, his feet slipping from under him in spite of all his efforts to find foothold. When he finally brought up his feet hung over the edge of the path and he was seated quite cozily and comfortably with his back to the rock for all the world as though he had settled there purposely to observe the view. Up above three faces struggled against the laughter that would not be denied. Only Kitty remained grave. He blinked with mild surprise. It was Tad who relieved the situation. Finding his progress down the rock at an end, he looked about him and then at his bespattered clothes. Finally, with a grin, he raised his gaze to the quivering faces above him.
“‘Water, water everywhere,’” he quoted pathetically, “‘and not a drop to drink!’”
Whereupon Rodney and the twins laughed until the tears came, and Kitty, after consideration, smiled as if in duty bound. Then he went down and helped Tad to his feet, rescued the tin cups, and set off himself for the water. Five minutes later, sitting up there in the sunshine with a mild autumn breeze fluttering the paper napkins about, they lunched hungrily, enjoyably, laughing and chattering and voting the picnic a huge success.
TAD IN DANGER
It was high noon before, satisfied to repletion, they leaned back against the big Rock and viewed apathetically the scattered remains of the feast. The remains weren’t many, however. A five mile walk on a crisp October morning is calculated to produce a very gluttonish appetite, and even the twins had surpassed themselves. Tad, watching them alarmedly, had feared that they would become ‘bored!’
“Someone,” he murmured sleepily, “ought to clear up that mess. You’re nearest to it, Rod.”
“Lazy duffer!” murmured Rod, depositing with an effort a crumpled wad of napkin and a banana peel in one of the cracker boxes and then subsiding again.
“Don’t overtax your strength,” warned Tad. The twins giggled. Kitty, alone of the five, seemed unaffected by the general lassitude. He sat erect and blinked solemnly at the autumn world as though planning new feats of pedestrianism. Rodney, watching him lazily, expected any moment to see him jump up and stride off toward the horizon. Presently Tad, who had apparently gone to sleep, broke the silence.
“There was a young fellow named Tad,
A worthy and excellent lad,
He went off with a bunch
And ate too much lunch,
And the fate of that Tad lad was sad.”
Matty sat up and clapped her hands. “Let’s all do it! Let’s all make limericks. You make the next one, Rod.”
“Too full for utterance,” muttered Rodney.
“Please try. Then Phineas will and——”
There was a choking gurgle from Tad. Matty observed him inquiringly. “Nothing,” he murmured. “I—I was just laughing at something funny.”
“Now,” continued Matty, wrinkling her forehead, “we’ll be very quiet while everyone composes.”
“I,” remarked Tad, “shall compose myself to slumber.”
“Here’s mine,” announced Rodney. “There was——”
“Oh, wait a minute,” exclaimed May. “Let’s give a prize for the best one! Shall we?”
“What’s the prize?” asked Tad. May looked about in search of it.
“Banana skin,” suggested Rodney.
“No, a beautiful silver cup,” replied May, “engraved with the winner’s name.”
“Where do we get the cup?”
“Right here.” May picked up one of the tin cups and flourished it.
“How beautiful!” murmured Tad, seeking a more comfortable position for his head. “I’ll take it now, please.”
“Indeed you won’t!” said Matty. “You wait until we’ve said our verses. Now go ahead, Rod, please.”
“I guess I’ve forgotten it now,” replied Rodney, wrinkling his brow. “No, I haven’t. Here it is:
“There was a young fellow named Mudge
Who tried up a steep hill to trudge,
He fell on his back
With a horrible crack,
And was heard to exclaim, ‘Oh fudge!’”
The twins clapped loudly, but Tad said it was a perfectly rotten limerick.
“Better than yours, though,” laughed Rodney.
“Nothing of the sort! Mine was an exceptionally fine example of the art of—ah—composition. Mine had—had poetic qualities. Hand over the prize, if you please!”
“I’ve got one,” announced Kitty somberly. “It isn’t very good, though.” He blinked about the circle, and Matty murmured that she was sure it would be a very nice one indeed.
“There was a boy named Merrill
Who climbed up a rock like a squirrel——”
Kitty paused there, whether to receive applause for the ingenuity of the rhyme or to grope for the rest of the verse they didn’t know. The twins, however, encouraged him with expressions of delight, and after a moment he continued:
“And when he was on top
Of the very big rock
He shouted aloud in his peril!”
Kitty finished with a flourish and beamed self-approval. The applause was deafening. Tad said it was magnificent.
“Now it’s up to you girls,” said Rodney.
“I’m ready,” replied May. “Are you, Matty?”
“Yes, but you go ahead, May.”
“Well.” May took a long breath, fixed her eyes on the edge of the horizon and began:
“There was a young lady named Matty
Who left home looking very natty——”
“May Binner!” interrupted the subject of her poetic effusion, “if you use ‘fatty’ I—I’ll——”
“Not going to,” replied May triumphantly.
“But when she got back
She had torn her new sack,
And her mother said, ‘My, you look ratty!’”
“Clever but inelegant,” remarked Tad.
“I don’t think ‘ratty’ is a very nice word to use,” objected Matty. “Besides, I don’t wear a sack!”
“That’s just a metaphor,” returned May serenely. “I couldn’t very well make ‘dress’ rhyme with ‘back,’ could I?”
“It’s a perfectly good limerick,” laughed Rodney. “And I think it’s the best yet.”
“Wait!” cried Matty. “I’ve got a new one. Listen:
“There was a young lady named May,
Who didn’t know just what to say,
So the words of her verse
From bad grew to worse,
And her friends from her side turned away.”
“Too pathetic,” decided Tad. “A limerick should be cheerful, I think. That last line brought tears to my eyes, Matty.” But for some reason Kitty approved enthusiastically of the latest attempt and clapped loudly.
“We’ll have to vote to see who gets the prize, I guess,” said Rodney. “Who do you say, Tad?”
“It isn’t over yet,” announced Tad, pulling himself to a sitting posture. “I have another one.”
“But you’ve had your turn,” protested Matty.
“No, that was before the contest started. Shove the prize this way and lend me your ears. All set? Go!”
“There were two twins named Binner,
You couldn’t tell which was the thinner,
With one accord
They said, ‘We feel bored,
We had apple dumplings for dinner!’”
“Here you are!” laughed Rodney as he tossed the tin cup across. “Catch! You win!”
Tad caught the prize deftly and bowed, hand on heart. “I thank you all,” he said. “Words fail me with which to express my—my appreciation of this honor you have done me. Perhaps the intrinsic value of this beautiful prize is not great, but as a—a recognition of poetic genius, as you might say——”
“Wouldn’t think of saying it,” interrupted Rodney.
Tad cast a reproachful glance at him. “You have caused me to lose the thread of my discourse. I think I’ll climb the Rock now.” He pulled himself to his feet with a sigh and looked contemplatively at the crag which towered above him.
“Don’t be a chump,” advised Rodney. “You’re too full of food to climb anything. Besides, we’d hate to have to carry you all the way home. It’s a longish way, Tad.”
“Please don’t try it,” begged Matty. “We’d so much rather you didn’t, Tad.”
“My ability as a mountain climber has been assailed,” responded Tad firmly. “Old Leather Lungs over there thinks he’s the only one who can pull off a little stunt like this. Now you fellows just watch your Uncle Theodore!”
Tad took a pull at his belt, groaning over the operation, and stepped jauntily toward the place where an ill-defined track crept away over the face of the Rock. Kitty watched him blinkingly.
“Think you can do it?” he asked.
“One more insult from you, Kitty, and I’ll hurl you into yon bottomless depths! If I couldn’t climb to the top of this twopenny old Rock, I’d resign my presidency of the Alpine Club. You fellows are evidently not aware that I am the original monkey when it comes to climbing!”
“We didn’t know just what kind you were,” murmured Rodney, “but we knew you were.”
“Please don’t try it, Tad,” said Matty. “We’ll be just worried to death, won’t we, May?”
“Worried to death,” echoed May.
“Shucks! Don’t be silly. This isn’t any kind of a trick. Anyone else coming along? You, Kitty?”
Kitty shook his head. “Guess not. I’ve done it twice. Don’t believe in exercise too soon after eating. Be careful near the top, Tad. It’s hard going. If you want help, sing out.”
“What’ll you do? Come up and boost me?” Tad laughed as he laid aside his coat. “Here goes, then!”
He swung off from the ledge, found a footing on the narrow trail that led steeply away around the corner of the Rock, and in a moment was out of sight.
“He’s a silly ass,” grumbled Rodney. “What did you let him do it for, Kitty?”
Kitty looked surprised. “Me? Didn’t tell him to do it, did I?”
“No, but you could have stopped him. If he falls and hurts himself——”
“I just know he will!” sighed May. “I—I feel it.”
“If he does, he will feel it,” muttered Rodney, trying from the edge of the jutting ledge to catch a glimpse of the climber. But Tad was out of sight, and Rodney sat down again to wait his return. “We ought to be starting back pretty soon, too,” he grumbled, studying his watch. “It’s almost twenty to one.”
“Won’t take him long—if he does it,” said Kitty. “Don’t believe he will, though. He’s eaten too much lunch. It follows.”
“If we went down on the ground we could see him,” suggested Rodney. But Matty, who was clearing up the débris of the feast, demurred.
“I couldn’t watch him, Rodney. I—I’d scream!”
“I do wish he’d come back,” sighed May.
“Ten minutes,” prophesied Kitty calmly.
“Well, we’ll get ready to start along,” said Rodney, “so we won’t waste time when he does get down. It would be a funny note though if he got up there and couldn’t climb down again!”
“I don’t think it would be funny at all,” responded Matty severely. “It would be perfectly horrible.”
“Anyway, it would sort of delay the game,” agreed Rodney. “Listen! Did you hear anything?”
The twins shook their heads.
“Did you, Kitty?”
“Not sure. Maybe he called to let us know he’s on top.” Kitty filled his lungs and let out a bellow that might have been heard half way to Greenridge. “O Tad! Tad Mudge!” Then they listened. A faint hail came back to them around the elbow of the Rock.
“Are you on top?” shouted Rodney.
“No-o-o!” was the faint response.
“Are you all right?” bellowed Kitty.
There was no reply for a moment, and then,
“No-o-o!” came the reply.
The four on the ledge looked at each other apprehensively.
“Perhaps he didn’t understand what we asked him,” said Rodney nervously.
“Maybe—maybe,” whispered May, “he’s fallen! Maybe he’s lying down there on the ground all broken to pieces.”
“May!” said her sister sharply. “Don’t be silly! Ask him again, Phineas.”
“Tad, are you all right?” shouted Kitty.
Kitty pulled his cap on firmly, threw off his coat and kicked his feet out of the heavy shoes he wore. “You go down and see where he is,” he said to Rodney. “I’ll climb up.”
KITTY CLIMBS TO THE RESCUE
In a flash Kitty was off the ledge and worming his way with hands and feet up the side of the Rock. Rodney, followed by the twins, hurried down the path to the ground below and then around to the other side. The first thing they saw was Kitty, scrambling fast about fifty feet up the ledge, and then their gaze found Tad. He was flattened against the face of the Rock at what looked a fearsome distance from the earth. Both hands were clutched desperately at the stone, and one foot was thrust into a crevice. But the other foot hung in the air. Evidently he could find no support for it. The summit of the Rock seemed to be about ten or twelve feet above his head. The twins gazed upward with white and horrified faces. Rodney put his hands to his mouth and called:
“Can you hold on, Tad? Kitty is coming up!”
Very slowly Tad turned his face over his shoulder, but made no attempt to look down at them.
“Very slowly Tad turned his face over his shoulder”
“Guess I’ve got to!” he called rather faintly. “Tell Kitty to hurry up!”
“He’s almost to you now,” shouted Rodney encouragingly. Then he moved around and hailed Kitty. “He’s all right so far, but he wants you to hurry, Kitty!” There was no response from Kitty, but the latter went on steadily, his stockinged feet finding incredible footholds, and his hands seeming to glue themselves to the sheer surface of the granite. A jutting elbow of rock still hid Tad from his sight as, reaching the shallow fissure, he used knees as well as feet and found himself presently but a scant four yards from the summit. Then it was plain to be seen why Tad had come to grief. After emerging from the fissure, instead of keeping straight up he had worked to the left, taking advantage of a crack into which he could thrust his toes, evidently in the expectation of reaching a projecting point of rock some twelve feet beyond. Had he gained the boulder he could easily have pulled himself to the top and so gained the final summit. But, unfortunately, the crack had narrowed speedily and at last, having set his right foot on the last foothold, he could go no further. Nor, since his grip of the rock above him was none too secure, did he dare remove the weight of his body from that right foot to work back the way he had come. All this Kitty saw, as, panting with the rapidity of his ascent, he paused at the top of the fissure. Tad was about level with him, but separated by some eight feet of rock.
“Keep your head,” he said shortly. “Be there in a minute.”
“Hello, Kitty!” Tad tried to speak lightly, but the strain of sticking there like a limpet to the almost straight up and down face of the ledge was beginning to tell, and his voice shook a little. “I’m in a fix,” he added. “Can’t get one way or t’other. See any place I can stick this left foot, old man?”
“No. Stay where you are a minute. Can you hold on?”
“Got to, haven’t I?” responded Tad grimly. “If you can do anything, Kitty, do it quick, though. My fingers are numb, and this right foot of mine is about all in.”
“All right.” But Kitty, frowning and blinking, studying the situation with sharp, quick glances, was stumped. To reach Tad from above seemed the most feasible plan, but in that case he would have to lower a rope or something to the other, and Kitty much doubted whether Tad would be able to grasp it, or, having grasped it, be able to hold on to it long enough to be pulled over the edge. Kitty knew from experience just how a fellow’s muscles felt after clinging to one position for many minutes. To reach Tad by following in his footsteps across the rock was easy, but what help could Kitty lend him when he was there? Kitty’s gaze fell finally to the ledge below Tad’s precarious perch, and at that moment Tad spoke again.
“You there, Kitty?” he asked. Evidently he was afraid to turn his head to look for fear the movement would dislodge one of the straining hands.
“Yes,” replied Kitty.
“Can’t you—do anything?” panted Tad anxiously.
“Yes. Hold on a minute more, Tad.”
“I will—if I can,” answered Tad in a weak voice.
“You’ve got to,” said Kitty. He was already scrambling back down the fissure. Rodney, watching below with a thumping heart, groaned. It looked as though Kitty had given up. But at the bottom of the fissure Kitty paused, gripped the rock with both hands, and sent one gray-stockinged foot searching to the left for a projection. At last he found it, tested it, paused an instant, and then wormed his body from the fissure and out against the blank wall of rock. The granite was loose and crumbly thereabouts and a little shower of gravel trickled down. Kitty studied the rock beyond. Here and there small inequalities gave faint promise of affording hold for feet and hands, but from where Rodney stood below the journey across that steep face of rock looked hopeless and foolhardy. Matty and May had ceased watching. At a little distance under the shadow of the Rock they stood white faced and miserable.
“Kitty’s trying to get across to him lower down,” announced Rodney to them. “I don’t see how he can do it though. It doesn’t look as if—” Rodney’s voice broke off short and a gasp escaped him. Kitty, in taking his weight from one foot, had placed too much reliance on a tiny projection above him and a nodule of granite had broken off in his hand. For an instant he had swayed dangerously before, summoning his strength, he had thrown his body against the rock. Then during a heartbreaking moment he clung there while his disengaged hand travelled here and there above him, the clutching fingers seeking a new hold. They found it at last and Rodney’s fast beating heart leaped with relief. How Kitty ever made the journey across that seemingly smooth face of granite will always remain a mystery to the others. Afterwards Kitty himself acknowledged that he didn’t believe he could do it again, adding with conviction, “Sure I don’t want to try!” But across it he went, at a snail’s pace to be sure, but steadily. And at last he was directly under Tad, and by reaching one hand upward could touch that youth’s heel.
“I’m under you, Tad,” panted Kitty.
“I know,” answered Tad.
“Hold on a second longer while I get my breath,” instructed the rescuer. There was no reply to this. Tad had no energy to waste in talk. Kitty remained very still while one might have counted fifty. Then, flattened against the wall of rock, his stockinged feet set on tiny roughened angles and the fingers of his left hand clutching a point of rock above his head, he reached his right hand upward until it was under Tad’s hanging foot.
“My hand is under your left foot, Tad,” he said quietly. “Find it.”
Very gingerly Tad moved the dangling rubber soled “sneaker” to and fro, until at last it settled into the palm of the upstretched hand.
“All right,” instructed Kitty. “Put your weight on it slowly.”
“Can you hold it?” asked Tad anxiously.
“Yes. All ready? Now!” He braced himself as the weight of Tad’s body came against him. His toes were cutting cruelly against the rough granite, and his left hand strained about its precarious hold.
“Now move your other foot further to your right and get a new grip with it. Straight along, Tad.”
There was a groan from above. “It’s numb,” said Tad. “I can’t feel anything.”
“Do as I say,” said Kitty gruffly. “Find the crevice with it. Got it?”
“I—I think so.”
“Put your weight on it carefully and see. I can’t look up.”
There was an instant of silence. Then,
“It’s all right,” sighed Tad. “I’m going to get a new hold with my hands, Kitty.”
“One at a time,” said Kitty. “Go slow. I can hold you for awhile.”
“I’ve moved one,” said Tad presently. “It—it’s sort of weak though, I guess——”
“Work the fingers and get the blood back. Better?”
“Now get your other over.”
The weight on Kitty’s hand increased for an instant. Then Tad announced that he had moved his left hand over. “I guess I can get that foot into the crack now,” he said nervously.
“All right. Go easy though. Try your weight on the other first. How is it?”
“All right. Here goes, Kitty.”
There was a moment of hesitation. Then the weight on Kitty’s hand was gone, there was a gasp from Tad, and Kitty, finding a hold with the released hand, dared to look up. Tad’s feet were both thrust into the crevice, and Kitty gave a sigh of relief. Tad’s legs were trembling and Kitty could hear his quick breathing above him.
“Stay where you are now until I tell you to go on,” said Kitty. “You’re perfectly safe, but you’d better rest a bit.”
“I—know,” replied Tad faintly.
There was a hail from the ground. “Are you all right, Kitty?” shouted Rodney anxiously.
“Yes! Be down in a minute or two. Get my shoes and the coats from the ledge, Rod! Now then, Tad, start along to the big crack in the rock. Make sure of your holds, though, before you put all your weight on them. I’ll follow below, and if you want help, sing out.”
Tad made slow work of it, but at that it was all Kitty could do to make similar progress. Tad had easy going compared with Kitty, and it was only the fact that his nerves were pretty well unstrung and his muscles quivering that allowed his rescuer to reach the fissure at the same moment. Once there Tad braced his knees against the sides of the cavity and looked for a moment very much as though he was going to faint away.
Kitty, seeing the danger, shouted a warning from below.
“None of that, you idiot!” he called sharply. “Brace up or you’ll fall! Here, put a foot on my shoulder for a minute. Now take a dozen good long breaths.”
“I—can’t!” muttered Tad.
“You can! When I count now! One—two—three— Doing it?”
“Yes, but—it makes me dizzy.”
“Stop, then, and close your eyes a minute. If you’d take decent care of your lungs,” went on Kitty grumblingly, “they wouldn’t mind a little pure air!”
“Old—Leather Lungs!” murmured Tad with a very wan smile. Kitty grunted.
“Come on down now. Feel pretty good?”
“I guess so. Yes, I’m all right. Go ahead, Kitty.”
Tad followed to the end of the slanting fissure and then began the scramble down and around the corner. When they were near the ledge Kitty called, “Don’t try getting to the ledge. Come straight down. There’s good going. Watch me.”
Tad watched and followed and in another minute the two boys dropped into a bed of sweet fern, Kitty on his feet and Tad on his back. “Don’t mind—me,” muttered Tad, closing his eyes. “I—I’m sort of done up, I guess.” Then his white face suddenly went whiter still and Matty, who, closely followed by May, had run up in Rodney’s wake, exclaimed, “Oh, Rod, he’s fainted!”
LUDLOW SCORES A SAFETY
“Won’t hurt him,” said Kitty. “Get some water, someone.” May and Matty dashed helter skelter in the direction of the spring before they realized that they had nothing to bring water back in. Rodney, however, who had brought the cups from the ledge when he had gone for the coats, tumbled them out of a box and sped after the girls. When they got back Tad’s eyelids were already fluttering, and when Matty had applied her handkerchief, dipped in water from a cup, to Tad’s forehead the latter heaved a deep sigh and looked about him.
“Where the dickens—” he began. Then recollection returned and he frowned. “Gee, I went and fainted, didn’t I?” he asked disgustedly. “Ain’t I the fine little hero? Say, let’s go home!”
“Don’t get up yet,” begged Matty. “You’d better rest awhile. Hadn’t he, Phineas?”
“Yes. Got a long walk ahead. Better have a good rest.”
“Put your head in my lap, Tad,” said Matty, seating herself on the ground. “You’ll be more comfortable.”
“Oh, thunder!” said Tad, with a sheepish grin. But he allowed Rodney to hitch his shoulders up, and Matty squirmed nearer, and Tad’s head went back with a sigh.
“I say, Kitty,” he said after a moment, during which the color began to creep back into his cheeks.
“That’s all right,” answered Kitty gruffly. “It wasn’t anything.”
“Oh, Kitty!” said May.
“Yes, it’s all right now,” responded Tad gravely, “but there was a time when I thought it wasn’t going to be. I—I’m sorry I made such an ass of myself, fellows—and ladies. I hadn’t any business trying it. I’d never done any climbing before.”
“Yes, you certainly were an ass,” agreed Rodney severely. He as onlooker had perhaps felt the nervous strain more than Kitty himself, and was inclined to be a bit cross. “We told you not to do it.”
Matty gazed at him reproachfully, and May murmured, “Don’t, Rod!” But Tad smiled. “That’s so. I own up. You may kick me when I get up.”
“I don’t want to kick you,” responded Rodney grudgingly, “but I do think—” However Matty’s imploring gaze moved him to silence. Kitty, blinking at Tad, said,
“Foolish thing to try if you’ve never done it. Thought from what you said you had. Otherwise I wouldn’t have let you try. It follows.”
“You were certainly a brick, Kitty,” said Tad feelingly. “And I don’t know how to thank you. I guess if you hadn’t got along about when you did—” Tad paused, shuddered and then smiled. “I guess Stacey would have had to find a new roommate, what?”
“Oh, Tad!” murmured May.
“Shut up!” growled Rodney.
“All right. Say, you fellows, what time is it?” Tad sat up suddenly and stared anxiously while Kitty pulled leisurely at his fob. “What? ’Most one? Say, you fellows will be late for practice!”
“Can’t be helped, I guess,” answered Kitty. “Besides, there isn’t any practice today. We play Ludlow. Won’t need us anyhow.”
“I tell you what,” said Tad. “The rest of you start along. I—I’m a bit weak on my pins yet, but I’ll follow in a little while. Maybe I’ll catch you up.” He winked at Rodney. Kitty shook his head.
“Better keep together, I guess,” he said. “No hurry. Plenty of time. Think so, Rod?”
“Yes, Cotting won’t mind for once if we don’t report on time.”
They rested there fully a half-hour. Then Kitty, who had taken command of the situation the instant he had shed his shoes to begin his climb to the rescue, gave permission to start homeward. By that time Tad seemed quite himself again, and the first thing he did was to walk around the Rock and follow with his eyes the course of his climb and of Kitty’s. It looked pretty high up from down there, and the wall of granite seemed even more perpendicular than it really was. Tad shook his head.
“I don’t see how I got as far as I did,” he said.
“Neither do I,” returned Kitty. “You got off the track after you left the fissure. Ought to have gone almost straight up. See that three-cornered rock sticking out at the left? That’s the way. Instead you went off across that face. Risky. Might have fallen. Next time——”
“Huh?” demanded Tad.
“Next time,” repeated Kitty, blinking.
“There isn’t going to be any next time,” replied Tad with emphasis. “I don’t believe I was cut out for a mountain climber.”
“Next time,” continued Kitty as though he had not heard, “pull yourself until you get your knee over that three cornered rock. After that the ledge slopes more and you can crawl up. Not very hard.”
Tad observed the rock in question thoughtfully, darted a look at Kitty and nodded. “All right. If I ever do try it again, Kitty, I’ll remember.”
“You will,” said Kitty. “Sooner or later. They always do.”
“If you ever do, Tad,” said Matty severely, “I—I’ll never, never forgive you!”
Tad made no answer, but a few moments later when they were descending the hill, he paused and looked back at Finger Rock. “It doesn’t look so hard from here, does it?” he asked Rodney, who had stopped beside him. “And I hate to be beaten, Rod. I wouldn’t wonder if Kitty is right.”
“He says they always try again sooner or later. Somehow, I think I’d like to have another go at it some day.”
“If you do you’re a silly ass,” replied Rodney. “Come on.”
The journey back seemed twice the length of the morning trip, and all save Kitty were thoroughly weary when the turret of the gymnasium showed at last over the bare branches of the trees. Kitty seemed as fresh as ever, and Tad, who had naturally felt the walk more than any of the others, observed him disgustedly.
“Kitty,” he said, “you make me tired. Anyone, to look at you, would think you’d just walked around the block! Don’t you ever get enough?”
Kitty blinked gravely. Then he nodded uncertainly. “Y-yes, sometimes. When I do twelve miles at a good clip I—I get quite fatigued.”
“Fatigued!” Tad groaned. “What do you know about that? If he walks twelve miles he gets fatigued, Rod! Honest, Kitty, you ought to see a doctor about it. You need building up!”
Kitty actually smiled. The idea of his going to a doctor was really funny.
The game with Ludlow Academy had started when they reached the corner of Larch Street; they could hear the piping of the whistle and the cries of the players, and once a half-hearted cheer from the Maple Hill supporters. The twins declined an invitation to see the contest, declaring that they must hurry home for fear that Mrs. Binner was worrying about them, and Tad volunteered to go along as escort. Kitty and Rodney turned into Larch Street and hurried toward the field. They had not gone far, however, when Tad shouted to Kitty and they stopped and waited for him.
“I don’t believe I half thanked you, Kitty,” he said earnestly and embarrassedly. “I do though, awfully. What you did was terribly plucky, and—and I certainly do appreciate it. I guess—I guess you saved my life, old man.”
Kitty, to his horror, found himself shaking hands.
“You’re welcome,” he muttered. “Nothing at all, really. Glad I could help. I—er—we’d better get along, Rod. Cotting will be mad. See you later, Tad.”
And Kitty hurried away with evident relief, leaving Rodney to smile at Tad and then follow. Rodney caught Kitty at the gate.
“Seems to me,” said Kitty, “we’d better not say anything about what happened, eh? Might—might make a rumpus. Faculty might stop fellows going to the Rock. Better keep mum, eh?”
Rodney laughed as they entered the field. “Much you care about that, Kitty. All you’re afraid of is that fellows might find out what a blooming hero you are.” Then he added teasingly, “I’m going to tell all about everything, Kitty.”
“If you do,” said Kitty earnestly and convincingly, “I—I’ll lick you!”
Their explanation to Mr. Cotting, which made no mention of the real cause for tardiness, passed muster, although the coach didn’t hesitate to assure them that if it occurred again they’d lose their places. Today, as it happened, their services were not in demand until late in the last period of the contest. They watched the game until the first half ended and then followed the team to the gymnasium and got into their togs. Maple Hill had piled up twenty-one points against Ludlow in those first two ten-minute periods, while Ludlow, with a very weak line, had proved even weaker on attack than defence and had failed to score. But in the third period a miserable fumble by Fuller, who had taken Wynant’s place at right half, gave Ludlow her chance. One of her forwards fell on the ball on Maple Hill’s twenty-two yard line. Two attacks on the ends of the Green-and-Gray line failed of results, and a forward pass struck the ground. On the fourth down Ludlow sent back her quarter to try a field goal. It was an easy task, but the quarter was slow, and the ball was partly blocked and came to earth near the five yard line. Stacey Trowbridge got it on the bound, but before he could run it back he was tackled by a Ludlow end and thrown across the goal line for a safety. Maple Hill was disgusted and Ludlow jubilant. Her two or three dozen rooters on the further side of the field managed to make a deal of noise in celebration of those two points.
But that was the last of the visitors’ success. From then on Maple Hill, peeved by the mischance that had allowed such a weak team to score upon her, literally ripped the Ludlow line to pieces and scored almost at will. Thirteen points in the third period and six in the fourth—Cotting sent in seven substitutes in that last ten minutes—piled up a grand total of forty, against which Ludlow’s two looked less objectionable. Kitty and Rodney each had a few minutes of work in the final period, but neither was in the lineup long enough to distinguish himself. After the game was finished Stacey was very glum over that safety, and refused to be comforted although Kitty and Rodney on the way back to Westcott’s ventured consolation.
“If you hadn’t grabbed the ball one of the Ludlow chaps would have got it and scored a touchdown,” said Rodney. “Better to let them have a safety than that.”
“I ought to have seen how near the line I was,” replied Stacey gloomily. “I ought never to have let him throw me over it.”
“Shucks! What’s two points, Stacey?”
“A whole lot when they shouldn’t have scored, Rod! It was a piece of bonehead work, that’s what it was.”
“Don’t think,” observed Kitty, “that I’d worry much about it; not if I’d played the way you played today. Silly, I call it!”
“Do, eh?” Stacey smiled for the first time since the occurrence. “What do you know about football anyway, Kitty?”
Kitty blinked several times before he answered. Then, “Not much, maybe. Learning though. Still, fellow doesn’t have to know a heap of football to know that it’s no use troubling over spilled milk. Doesn’t get you anything. Waste of energy. Bad for you.”
NEARING THE GOAL
But life wasn’t all football, nor all play, nor all thrilling rescues from danger. They believed in hard work at Maple Hill, and shirking study was a thing severely frowned upon. Since the system followed showed at the end of each week the class standing of every student, it wasn’t possible to get very far in arrears with lessons. More than one football aspirant was forced to retire from practice, temporarily at least, during the season. Rodney was not one of these, however, for in spite of the demands made on his time by gridiron work he managed to keep well up with his studies. But it meant bending over his books lots of times when the other Vests were at play, and it wasn’t long before the word went around that Ginger Merrill’s brother was a good deal more of a noser than a football player. Not, though, that the school in general thought less of him for that reason, for Maple Hill fellows held studiousness in respect and honored the student who stood high in class. But I think they were a little bit disappointed, nevertheless. Perhaps they reasoned that there were plenty of fellows to maintain the school’s prestige for brains, while Ginger Merrills were few and far between.
But Rodney got on. He made new friends day by day and when, toward the last of October, a boy named White, who had been elected secretary and treasurer of the entering class, was forced to leave school because of illness, Rodney was the unanimous choice of his classmates for the vacant office. As the position was largely honorary and entailed very little labor, Rodney accepted. More than one boy told him that had it been known prior to the class election that he was Ginger Merrill’s brother he would have been made president. Whereupon Rodney smilingly declared that in that case he was glad it hadn’t been known. And meant it, too.
October sped quickly. Maple Hill met rival after rival on succeeding Saturday afternoons, marked up three victories and one defeat, and fixed her gaze on the final contest of the season, the game with Bursley, now only a matter of three weeks away. Rodney found time to play a little tennis, sometimes with Tad alone on the school courts and sometimes with the twins, joined in several diversions of the Vests, and so did not want for recreation. For, to be quite truthful, being a member of the football team, even if only a substitute on the second, is not by any means all recreation. There’s pleasure in it, but the hard work outweighs the fun. There were discouraging moments when even Rodney almost wished he were out of it. Almost, but never, I think, quite. At such times it was Matty who bolstered his failing hopes and supplied encouragement. Both the twins were determined that Rodney should win glory on the gridiron, and enjoyed in anticipation the prestige to be theirs when, having snatched his team from defeat by some brilliant run through a tangled field or some mighty plunge through a close defense—you see the twins read their football stories—they might proudly lay claim to his friendship. The twins were properly romantic, in spite of a big leaven of practicality, and hero worshippers of the most enthusiastic sort.
Meanwhile Rodney tried very hard. There was no one on either team more willing to learn, more anxious to listen to instruction and profit by it. And there was no one who seemed to fail as sadly. Cotting still had hopes of him, and gave him plenty of opportunities to show that he had the making of a football player. Sometimes Rodney did things that almost justified the coach’s belief in him. More often, however, he stopped just short of fulfillment.
“If he’d only think for himself!” grumbled Mr. Cotting.
“If he’d only fight!” responded Terry Doyle.
“It isn’t that. He can fight. But he doesn’t seem to know when it’s time to.” Cotting shook his head for the twentieth time over Rodney’s shortcomings, and then, as always, added leniently, “Well, we’ll give him a little more time. He may find himself yet.”
But if Rodney had his times of discouragement, not so Phineas Kittson. Kitty went serenely ahead, overcoming all obstacles in much the same way as a strong-headed bull might walk through a fence by the simple expedient of putting his head down and not thinking of splinters. Kitty put his head down and kept going. In the middle of the month he ousted Farnham from his place at left guard on the second, and the school, which had begun by laughing, now regarded him with awed delight. He made a good guard. His weight, and there was lots of it, was set low, and an opponent could no more put Kitty off his feet than he could upset one of the pyramids. And Kitty developed what Cotting had called football sense. He played his own position nicely, was as firm as a rock on defense and as relentless as a freight engine on attack, and he helped his center wonderfully. Slow he was, and the coach despaired of his ever being otherwise, but it was the slowness of one who performs thoroughly. Kitty as a football player was no longer a joke.
And he took it all with a lack of either modesty or conceit that was delightful. To Kitty it was a matter of course. To sum up the situation in his own words, Cotting was sensible, what? The word serene best describes Kitty’s course and Kitty’s attitude, and only two things disturbed that serenity in the least. One was the fact that he could not wear his spectacles when playing—he had tried it with disastrous results—and the other that practice seriously interfered with his walks. The fact that football was proving a very good lung developer, though, partly reconciled him to the latter objection. But having to go without his spectacles was a more serious matter, for Kitty was lamentably near sighted and for a while felt quite helpless. Tad’s suggestion that he wear automobile goggles that strapped around his head was not accepted seriously.
Maple Hill played Dudley Academy to a standstill the last Saturday in October, and as Dudley had a strong team that had proved hitherto well nigh impregnable the Green-and-Gray was well pleased. After battling for three ten-minute periods and struggling through six minutes of the final quarter, holding her opponent scoreless during that time, Maple Hill at last worked her way down to Dudley’s eight yard line, and then sent Gordon plunging through the much-boasted Dudley line for the only touchdown of the game. The fact that Tyson, who was called on to kick goal, failed miserably in the attempt, took away none of the glory of the hardest fought contest of the season. So Maple Hill saw November come in and the Bursley game approach with confidence.
But Fortune is always playing tricks, and football teams are seldom exempt from them. Four days after Dudley turned homeward with trailing banners, Wynant, right halfback on the first team, developed a fine case of water on the knee. That meant the substitution of Fuller and the withdrawal of Anson from the second team to the first. It also meant the promotion of Rodney from substitute to regular on the second. As Fuller was almost as good a back as Wynant, save in the matter of punting, the first team had not suffered a great deal by the latter’s loss. But it would be idle to say that Rodney acceptably filled the place left vacant by Anson. He had the weight and the strength, in short all the physical attributes necessary for his position, and he was fast on his feet, dodged cleverly, seldom fumbled a pass and possessed about everything he should have possessed for the making of a good halfback. But he lacked one thing, and even Cotting couldn’t put a name to it. The second team quarterback railed and stormed, begged and pleaded, and Rodney tried his level best. But his level best didn’t carry him far enough, and soon it was a settled custom to give the ball to the other half or to the fullback, or to draw one of the tackles back, when it was a case of, “Fourth down, Second! You’ve got to do it!”
But Fortune, presumably giggling to herself, wasn’t through even yet. After the Meadowdale game, which was lost by Maple Hill, strictly according to precedent and prophecy, Terry Doyle neglected his studies just once too often—he had an excuse if any boy did—and Nemesis in the shape of an outraged faculty reached out and seized upon him. Terry was off the team pending faculty consideration of his case.
The school received the news with consternation. Terry received it with, or so some said at least, bitter tears. But he did the only sensible thing. He handed over the temporary captaincy to Guy Watson, retired from the scene, and tried his best to get square again with his studies and the faculty. It was not believed that Terry’s banishment would be for long, but meanwhile it took another player from the second team and that player was Phineas Kittson. Kitty’s advance to the position of first substitute on the school team had been predicted weeks before. So there was nothing startling about it. But his withdrawal left the second badly off for players, and after struggling along for several days with six men in the line the team was dissolved a whole week earlier than usual, to be exact, on the eve of the game with St. Matthew’s, the next to the last contest of the season. Several of the second team were retained by Coach Cotting for the first, and among the several was Rodney. Perhaps Cotting still had hopes of the boy, or perhaps he felt it best to be prepared for future whims of Fortune by having plenty of backfield players. In any case, Rodney, who had never dared hope to reach the first team that year, now suddenly found himself a second substitute on it.
The St. Matthew’s game was played in a drizzle of rain on a field already slippery and sodden. St. Matthew’s sent a husky bunch of some twenty odd players, who, stripping off their blue and white sweaters, romped on to the field for their warming up. Beside them Maple Hill’s warriors looked frail and delicate. Tad, who with Pete Greenough had good-naturedly escorted the twins to the game, confided to Matty that for his part he didn’t see any use in playing the game, that it could be settled on the gymnasium scales.
“I think,” returned Matty loyally, “that our boys are very much nicer looking. Don’t you, May?”
“Ever so much,” replied her sister unhesitatingly.
“Looks don’t count though,” said Pete.
“No, if they did we’d have them licked to a finish right now. Why, Kitty alone would settle ’em. We’d just march Kitty out into the middle of the field and the enemy would fade away!”
St. Matthew’s was a new opponent on the schedule, and Maple Hill knew very little of her ability. But it wasn’t long before it became evident that the Blue-and-White would take a lot of beating. Wet grounds militated sorely against the home team, for quick starting was out of the question, and by the time the Maple Hill attack reached the line it was still going so slowly, had so little punch to it, that it usually crumpled up against the St. Matthew’s defense like a paper kite against a stone wall. On the other hand, the heavier and slower opponents managed to keep their feet well, and crashed into the Green-and-Gray for short gains. The first period ended without a score and without either team having got near enough to its opponent’s goal to attempt one. Each seemed to be trying the other out, and each stuck pretty closely to line plunging, punting only when forced to.
But in the second period Maple Hill altered her game. On attack the wide formation was used, and for a time Tyson and Gordon were fortunate in slicing off good gains. Stacey Trowbridge brought the spectators to their feet once by getting away with the ball for a wide end run that might have netted a touchdown had he been able to keep his feet, and did gain nearly thirty yards. When he was picked out of a mud puddle with the pigskin still firmly clasped to his breast the teams lined up on the St. Matthew’s twenty-eight yards. A forward pass failed to work, Gordon made four through center, Kitty, who had been put in a moment before, opening a fine wide hole for him, and with six to go Tracey tried a drop kick for goal on third down. But the ball went low, was partly blocked and recovered by the visitors. After that it was all St. Matthew’s until the middle of the field had been passed. Here the Green-and-Gray braced, and St. Matthew’s kicked. Gordon returned the punt immediately and gained ten yards on the exchange. St. Matthew’s tried a forward pass and netted twelve yards, failed on two plunges at the left of the line, made three through Pounder and from kick formation sent her fullback on an end run. This ended disastrously, however, for Peterson brought the big blue-stockinged warrior to earth for a five yard loss, and the pigskin again changed hands. From then until the end of the half the ball progressed back and forth in the middle of the field with little advantage to either side.
In the intermission Maple Hill, clad in raincoats and slickers, got together and tried a few songs and did some cheering, the rain drizzling down upon them steadily and depressingly. The twins, snuggled under a huge umbrella, were much pleased when Rodney, trailing a wet and bedraggled blanket behind him, climbed the stand to them.
“It’s a perfectly grand game!” declared Matty. “I’ve been so excited I couldn’t sit still! Isn’t Kitty lovely, Rodney?”
“Old Kitty is playing a great little game,” Rodney agreed warmly. “I heard Cotting say that he was putting it all over that big St. Matthew’s guard.”
“Are we going to win?” asked May.
“I don’t know.” Rodney shook his head. “They’re a lot heavier than we are. We can’t do much with their line. And it’s hard to make any trick plays work, the ground’s so slippery. I guess we’ll be satisfied enough to keep them from scoring.”
“Are you going to play?” Matty asked.
“Me? Oh, I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll get in for a few minutes at the last. Cotting will probably try to save the first string fellows as much as he can for next Saturday. Isn’t it a brute of a day?”
“We like it,” said Matty. “Don’t we, May?”
“We always like rain,” May agreed. “Mama says we make her think of a pair of water spaniels. Just as soon as ever it begins to rain Matty and I grab our raincoats and get out of doors. We like snow, too, don’t we, Matty?”
Matty nodded. “I wish you might have seen the snowman we made last winter, Rodney. It was twice as high as I am, and we put a pipe in his mouth and an old hat on his head and called him ‘Chawles,’ for Mr. Cooper.”
“And when we were laughing about it, Mrs. Westcott heard us from her window and called up mama on the telephone and told her that we were insulting Mr. Cooper!”
“And then,” added Matty complacently, “we changed him to a woman and called her Mrs. Westcott.”
“The boys said it looked just like her,” murmured May reminiscently.
Tad and Pete, who had gone to join the cheerers below, returned to their seats, and presently Rodney returned to the substitutes’ bench just as the teams trotted back on the field, the water spouting under their feet.
It was evident soon after the third period began that Coach Cotting had decided to play a defensive game and take as few risks of injury to his players as possible. Gordon punted as soon as the ball went into Maple Hill’s possession, and after that Stacey invariably called for a kick on second or third down. The punting game was not ill advised, either, for with a wet ball and a slippery field fumbles by the opposing backs might well be looked for. They came, too, but good luck attended St. Matthew’s that day and her fumbles were always recovered before the Maple Hill ends could get to the ball. Toward the last of the third period the Green-and-Gray partisans were treated to an anxious three minutes. Using a shift formation that was hard to meet, St. Matthew’s took the ball from her own forty-five yard line by successive rushes down to Maple Hill’s twenty-seven. There, with the stands imploring Maple Hill to, “Hold them!” and Watson begging the team to get together, a fumble by the St. Matthew’s quarter lost two yards, although the ball was recovered by a back, and another try netted but a fraction of a yard, Kitty and Pounder refusing to be budged and the entire Green-and-Gray backfield, solving the play, piling in behind them. There was a conference then by the St. Matthew’s quarter and the captain, and after one or two false starts the right tackle was sent back to try a place kick at goal. Maple Hill, however, broke through desperately and the ball bounded away from some charging defender, and, although a St. Matthew’s player fell upon it some ten yards up the field, it went to Maple Hill a moment later when Peterson intercepted a forward pass. A plunge at left tackle gained two yards, and Gordon punted and Maple Hill’s goal was once more out of danger. The period ended after the visitors had gained a first down with the ball near the middle of the field in St. Matthew’s territory.
It had been a gruelling game, and more than one of Coach Cotting’s players showed the pace. With the big game only seven days distant it would not do to overtax his best men, and so during the short intermission the Maple Hill lineup was considerably changed. Of the forwards only Pounder, Kittson, and Peterson remained when the fourth period began, while, with the exception of Gordon, an entirely new backfield was presented. St. Matthew’s went desperately to work for a score, and her heavy charges at the Green-and-Gray line soon began to tell. The right side of it was weak, and most of the gains were made there. St. Matthew’s went down to her opponent’s thirty-four yards without losing the ball. Then there was a slip up on signals, and Kitty wormed through and fell on the pigskin. In Maple Hill’s first play, a double pass behind the line, Anson, who had substituted Fuller, wrenched his knee when tackled, and when, a moment later, he tried to run up the field under Gordon’s long punt and had to subside in a pool of water, Cotting called him out and sent in Rodney. There remained only some six minutes of playing time. St. Matthew’s, who had made several changes in her line already, now put in a new backfield entire, perhaps concluding that her chance of winning had gone by and that the best to be had was a no score tie.
She started back with the ball, but much of her aggressiveness had departed, and the new backfield was slow and uncertain. In spite of that, however, she managed to keep the ball until she had gained two first downs. Then she was set back for holding and presently punted. The kick was poor, and Gordon, playing back, raced in with upraised hand and made a fair catch on the forty-four yards. The Maple Hill supporters arose and loudly demanded a touchdown and for a minute or two it looked as though their demand might be satisfied, for two gains outside of tackles brought a first down with the pigskin on the thirty-two yard line. Gordon gained three straight through center, Rodney made two on a skin tackle plunge at the left, and Gordon again took the ball, but was stopped for no gain. It was then fourth down with five to go, and after a conference Gordon fell back to kicking position. But the signals told a different story and Rodney sprinted across the field, Peterson close behind him.
“Forward pass!” cried the opposing quarter. “Look out!”
Peterson, slackening his pace, turned for the throw. Rodney met the first of the enemy and sent him staggering aside. The ball came arching across the field. But Gordon had thrown too far and Rodney saw that the flying oval would pass over Peterson’s head. He stepped back, dodging a blue stockinged enemy, heard Peterson’s warning cry as his upstretched hands failed to grasp the ball, and got it himself, head high. In front of him at the instant stretched an open path to the goal line. From the stands came frenzied cries of delight, from the enemy hoarse shouts of warning. Had Rodney started on the instant and made straight for the goal line he would have scored, and Maple Hill would have won another hard fought battle. But for just the instant that it took to turn the opponent’s confusion into action Rodney hesitated. The ball should have been Peterson’s, he realized, and by some chance it had come to him. For an infinitesimal instant of time that thought crowded back all others. Then he saw what was to be done and bounded off, throwing aside a pair of clutching arms. But the hesitation cost him success. The stretch of sod that had been empty a second before was now guarded, and eager hands reached for him. Peterson did his best, but the enemy was too many and Rodney was pulled to earth on the twelve yard line, ignominiously defeated by his own inaction, by the lack of that one factor that Terry Doyle called football instinct and Coach Cotting termed football sense.
The game ended 0 to 0 and the teams cheered each other dispiritedly, each feeling, doubtless, that by rights the contest should have been its own. Not a soul spoke to Rodney of his failure. In fact, it seemed to him that every fellow looked more kindly upon him than usual. But he knew what had happened, knew that by just a fraction of a moment he had lost the game for his team, and between the sounding of the final whistle and the reaching of the gymnasium door he came to a decision. He would resign from the team.
COTTING TELLS A STORY
“Stood there like a silly dummy and let St. Matthew’s jump on him, that’s what he did!”
“Lost his head completely, Teddy! Worst case of stage fright I ever saw on a football field!”
“Had a clear field ahead of him if he’d started on the jump. Gee, it’s enough to sour your disposition!”
“I always said he’d never make another Ginger. Anyone can see that by looking at him. Don’t see what the dickens Cotting kept him on for!”
“Well, he’s played a pretty fair game at times, Bill, you’ve got to say that for him. I suppose every fellow is likely to make mistakes——”
“Mistakes! He didn’t make any mistake; he just didn’t do anything—until it was too late. Of course, the St. Matthew’s game doesn’t mean much to us, although they looked such a cocky lot I’d liked to have seen them beaten, but, if he does things like that in an unimportant game, he’s likely to do them when we’re playing Bursley, I guess. Best thing Cotting can do is drop him.”
This is the conversation Rodney overheard that evening in the corridor of West Hall. He had hurried through his own supper in order to catch Mr. Cotting before the latter left the school dining-hall, and arriving there early, had perched himself on top of a radiator in a dim angle of the corridor to wait. The three boys who had emerged from supper a minute later either didn’t see him or failed to recognize him, and their remarks lasted from the doorway to the entrance, a few yards distant, where they stood a few moments before going their separate ways. Rodney’s thoughts had not been pleasant before, but this exposition of what Rodney believed to be the popular judgment left him tingling and miserable. As little inclined as he was to be seen just now, he left his corner and stood in the light for fear that others might come out, and, not noticing him, give further expression of public opinion. He was glad when Mr. Cotting emerged presently. A boy who followed him out started toward the coach, but Rodney got ahead of him.
“Mr. Cotting, may I speak to you, please, sir?”
The coach, slipping into his raincoat, turned.
“Hello, Merrill! Why, yes, certainly.” He put his cap on and led the way to the entrance. Rodney was relieved to find that the three critics had taken their departure. “Will you walk along with me toward my place, or shall we drop into the library?”
“I’ll walk, sir. It isn’t much, what I want to say. I——”
“Stopped raining, I guess. How do you feel after your game, Merrill?”
“All right, thanks.”
The coach took the circling path that led around Main Hall and Rodney ranged alongside.
“I just wanted to say, sir, that—that I’ve decided to resign from the team.”
“Have, eh?” Mr. Cotting seemed neither surprised nor disturbed. “Decided to give up football, have you?”
“Yes, sir, for this year, anyway.”
“Think you’d like to try again next fall?”
“Yes, sir, I think so.”
“It doesn’t occur to you, does it, that I might hesitate to take you back and give you another trial if you had run away on the eve of battle, so to speak?”
Rodney glanced up in surprise and found the coach smiling.
“Why, sir, I thought—it seemed the best way out of it!”
“Best way out of what, Merrill?”
“Out of—out of the mess I made to-day. I lost the game, you know, sir!”
“Hardly that, Merrill. You failed to win it, but you can’t be said to have lost it. Even if you had, though, what’s that got to do with it? Seems to me if you made a mess of things you’d want to stick around and see what you could do another time. Sort of weak, isn’t it, to cut and run?”
“But—I thought—” Rodney stopped, trying to get the coach’s surprising point of view.
“I know what you thought, Merrill.” Mr. Cotting laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You thought everyone had it in for you, that we blamed you for the loss of the game, and that we wouldn’t want you any longer, eh?”
“Yes, sir, about that.”
“Yes. Well, let me tell you something that happened to me, Merrill, when I was here, and that’s a good many years ago now. I made the team in my second year. Our game was a good deal different then from what it is now, but we took it pretty nearly as seriously. I was rather a clever end for a youngster, and so when we played Bursley I got in at the beginning of the second half. In those days an end had less to do than he has now, but he was supposed to get down under punts no matter what else he did or didn’t do, and that was rather a specialty of mine. I had a neat way of fooling my opponent and getting off quickly, and once off I was hard to stop. Bursley had us six to four when the second half began and we needed a touchdown to win. Half way through that half we punted and I streaked down under the ball. I remember that Stallings was our punter—he played with Princeton afterwards—and he was a wonder. Used to get fifty yards often. This time he outdid himself, and the Bursley quarter saw that the ball was going over his head and started back toward his goal for it. I was after him hard and the ball struck beyond both of us and bounded away at a funny angle toward the side of the field. We each got to it at about the same instant. I stood as good a chance of getting it as he did, better, I’ve always thought, because I was rather a clever kid with a rolling ball; and if I had got it I could have romped over the line for an easy score. Well, what do you suppose I did, Merrill?”
Rodney shook his head.
“I tackled that quarter! I brought him down good and hard when we were both a couple of yards from the ball, and I wound my arms around him and held him tight. I can still remember the surprised grunt he gave when I crashed into him. Don’t ask me why I did it! Heaven only knows, Merrill! Call it mental aberration, that’s as good a name for it as I know of. I did it, though. And I thought I knew football!”
“And—and what happened to the ball, sir?”
The coach shrugged his shoulders. “A Bursley man came along and picked it up and romped back a few dozen yards with it before anyone got to him. That ended our chance and we lost the game.”
“That was too bad,” said Rodney sympathetically.
“I thought so then. I didn’t dare look anyone in the face the rest of that day. The coach called me all the kinds of a fool he could think of. I didn’t mind that half as much as I minded what the fellows didn’t say but thought! A week after I was surprised to discover that I was holding my head up again, that the world was still turning around, and that from a tragedy the thing had become a joke. It was a pretty sore joke for me, but I took it many and many a time, and gritted my teeth and smiled. Well, it took me two years to even up. The next season I was so afraid I’d do some other fool trick that I didn’t play half the game I could have. Every time we got into a tight place I was haunted with the fear that I’d make another costly mistake. As a result I played everything safe, and was probably one of the worst ends the team ever had. I don’t know now why they kept me on. But the next year I got together again and—I made good.”
“Oh, it’s ancient history now, Merrill. I had my chance in the Bursley game and took it, that’s all. They said I won the game, but I didn’t win it any more than you lost to-day’s. I’ve told you all this just to show you, Merrill, that the world doesn’t bust up and blow away because you make a mistake or let a chance slip in a game of football. If it comes to that, every game that is lost can be traced to someone’s failure at some moment in the contest, Merrill. If there were no mistakes the game would be pretty uninteresting. We’re all human and all likely to fall down at a critical moment some time or other. My advice to you is, forget it, Merrill. Have you got time to come in for a minute?”
They had reached the steps of the house in which the coach had his rooms.
“Yes, sir, if you want me to,” replied Rodney.
He followed the other into the house, and waited at the door of the room while Mr. Cotting found the gas jet and lighted it.
“Sit down, Merrill. Throw your coat off first. Put it anywhere. Now then, let’s talk this thing over. Your brother and I were good friends, my boy, and we’ve had some fine old chats in this room. You may have wondered sometimes why I kept you on the squad when you weren’t showing very much in the way of football, Merrill. I’m speaking quite frankly, you see. I did it because, in spite of appearances, I had it in my head that you could be taught the game, taught to play it—well, perhaps not quite the way your brother did, but well enough to make it worth the trouble. I still think so, Merrill. But there’s something wrong yet. You haven’t found yourself. Perhaps you don’t put your whole soul into it. Now tell me about to-day. You had the ball, the way was clear. What went wrong?”
“I hardly know, sir. I—I wasn’t supposed to take the pass, and when it came I—somehow I didn’t seem to know what to do for a second. And then—it was too late.”
Mr. Cotting nodded. “I see. Mind didn’t work quick enough. Well, that’s something that will remedy itself, I think. After all, the best way to learn football is to play it. What you need is, I fancy, only experience, after all. So, Merrill, I guess we won’t say anything more about resigning.”
“Then, sir, you think——”
“I think you’d much better stick it out. Watch the way other fellows play the game, do the best you can when you get your chance and, above all, don’t imagine that because your wits failed you to-day they’re bound to do it again. I made that mistake, as I’ve told you, and wasted a year. Perhaps you won’t get into the game next week, it’s likely your turn won’t come; but keep on watching and learning, Merrill. We may need you badly next year.”
Rodney tramped back toward school through the dim, leaf strewn streets comforted and encouraged. And he made up his mind that when the next chance came, if ever it did come, he’d be ready for it.
THE EVE OF BATTLE
It was surprising how nice the other Vests were to him the next few days, Rodney thought. Old Kitty seemed to be trying, awkwardly enough, to make him understand that nothing that had happened or that might happen would make any difference. Jack Billings went out of the way to be nice to him, and even Warren Hoyt, whom Rodney liked less than any of the other Vests, showed unusual friendliness. Tad, of course, was eagerly sympathetic and tried not to show it too much lest Rodney resent it. Any of the fellows would have gladly discussed the incident in Saturday’s game had Rodney introduced the subject, and would have told him to “Forget it!” and “Buck up!” but Rodney kept silence.
But the attitude of his friends was not the attitude of the school in general. The consensus of opinion was that Ginger Merrill’s brother was a failure at football. “He’s a wonder in class,” said one youth, “but he’s no good on the gridiron. It all comes of jumping to the conclusion that because you’ve got a brother who has done wonders you can do them yourself. What the dickens did Cotting keep Merrill on the team for? I could show as much football as he has!”
The school did not feel unkindly toward Rodney, save perhaps for a brief hour or two after the game was over, but it seemed to think that Rodney had been trading on the reputation of his famous brother. Some charged him with having worked a sort of confidence game on the usually astute coach. And most all agreed that his usefulness to the team was over. Consequently when they found him back at practice on Monday they were surprised and somewhat inclined to criticism.
“He’s got Cotting hypnotized, I guess,” grumbled one fellow. “Thought he had more sense.”
His companion shrugged his shoulders. “What’s the difference? I suppose it’s so near the end of the season that Cotting thinks he might as well let him stay. He can’t do any harm just practicing.”
Coach Cotting felt the loss of the second team during the first three days of that final week of preparation. And he also doubtless felt the absence of Terry Doyle. Doyle’s fate was still undecided, although it was generally believed that he would be reinstated in time for Saturday’s game. Mr. Cotting had enough candidates on hand to make two teams for scrimmage purposes, but as each team used the same signals, and as the players on one side were continually being shifted to the other, the scrimmages were not especially valuable. Rodney played in various positions on the substitute teams; left half, right half and, on one occasion, fullback. He had no chance to distinguish himself but played a steady game and showed a lot more fight than at any time previously.
In the meantime disturbing accounts of Bursley’s prowess reached the school. Bursley had played through a most successful season without a serious upset, losing but one game of the seven, and at Maple Hill it was conceded that she would bring over a stronger team than she had presented for several years. The last hard work came on Wednesday. On Thursday there was a long signal practice on the field, and on Friday evening the fellows walked through the plays to be used against Bursley on the morrow. This final preparation took place in the gymnasium and after it was over Coach Cotting, according to custom, made a short speech to the players.
“My position to-night, fellows,” he said earnestly, “is that of a general who has marched and manoeuvered his army to its position for the battle. To-morrow I shall be on hand to watch the fray and to direct it to some extent, but from a distance. After the first shot is fired it is up to you. The outcome of the battle will show whether I have done my part well or ill, and if a defeat awaits us I shall accept my share of the blame. But from now on, fellows, it depends on you, individually and collectively. I’ve watched my army pretty closely for two months, and I think I know pretty well what it is capable of. It is weak in some places, as all armies are, but it is strong in others, and I am firmly convinced that its strength exceeds its weakness and that as a whole it is mighty enough to command victory. But an army is made up of fighting units and success depends on each unit doing his level best, fighting hard from the first gun fire to the end of the combat. I want you to remember that.
“But, leaving out metaphors, fellows, we’ve got a hard game ahead of us. Bursley has a good team and she’s coming across the river to-morrow to win—that is, she’s coming to try to win. Whether she does or does not depends now on you. You may start handicapped by the absence of your captain, although that is not certain. If you do, you’ll just have to work all the harder. My experience has shown me that the competitor who enters with a handicap against him is generally the one who wins. Let’s have it that way to-morrow. Now, in spite of all my talk about armies and battles, we both know that what we are going to do to-morrow is play a game. There’s no harm in playing it earnestly, no harm in doing all you can to win. Playing a game is like anything else. That is, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well. But let’s remember that it is a game, fellows. Let’s play it cleanly and like gentlemen. And if we lose, let’s lose like gentlemen. But, and I say this convincedly, if you play as you can play you won’t lose!”
Then there were cheers, sturdy, confident cheers, for the coach, and for the second team that wasn’t there to hear, and finally for the school. And then, a little serious, as befits the warriors on the eve of battle, they went out and sought their rooms just as nine o’clock was striking.
Stacey, Kitty, and Rodney walked home together through the starlighted night. There was a sharp breath in the air that promised a brisk day for the game. They went in silence until the lights of West Hall greeted them through the branches of the leafless trees. Then it was Stacey who spoke.
“Funny,” he said thoughtfully, “the feeling you always have the night before a big game. You don’t get it any other time. At least, I never do.”
“What sort of a feeling?” asked Kitty curiously.
Stacey laughed. “I guess I can’t tell you if you haven’t got it, Kitty. I suppose, though, it’s a case of nerves.”
“Probably,” agreed Kitty. “That comes of poor circulation due to weak respiration. If you developed your lungs——”
“Help!” laughed Stacey. “Stop him, Rodney!”
“You can’t when he gets started,” replied Rodney. “I guess, though, I know the sort of feeling you mean, even if old Leather Lungs here doesn’t. It makes me kind of glad I’m not going to play. If I was I’d be in a blue funk!”
“Hm,” said Stacey. “You never can tell.”
What it was you never could tell Rodney didn’t find out, for they reached the cottage just then. Mrs. Westcott came out of her room to inform them that she had made some cocoa for them. “You’ll find it on the stove, Stacey. And the cups and everything are on the dining room table. You know there’s nothing better than cocoa to give you a good night’s sleep.”
They thanked her a trifle doubtfully, since none felt inclined for the beverage, and, rather than disappoint her, went out to the kitchen and bore the steaming pot of cocoa back to the dining room. It didn’t taste so bad, after all, nor did the crackers she had provided. Stacey explained softly that once some ten years before one of Mrs. Westcott’s boys who was a football player had asked for a cup of cocoa the night before a game, and that ever since she had provided it religiously. “And,” concluded Stacey, “if you don’t drink it she feels terribly hurt.”
“Tastes very good,” commented Kitty, “but it’s fattening. One shouldn’t drink much of it. I’m sleepy. Good night.”
Stacey watched Kitty depart with an envious smile. “Hasn’t a nerve in his whole body,” he said to Rodney. “I suppose he will sleep eight solid hours to-night!”
“And snore all the time,” laughed Rodney.
Stacey sighed. “Wish I could,” he said. “Good night, Rodney.”
The Bursley game was to be started at two o’clock. At half past ten that morning it became known that Terry Doyle, who had been missing from his usual haunts for ten days, had caught up with his studies and that the faculty had reinstated him. The tidings brought vast relief and satisfaction to Maple Hill. Without Terry Doyle defeat was possible; with him victory was assured. So argued the school. The twins heard the news over the hedge from Tad, who, having nothing better to do that morning, was trying to kill time by manufacturing a bow from a section of barrel stave.
“I’m so glad!” exclaimed Matty, clapping her hands and smiling radiantly over the hedge.
“So glad,” echoed May, equally delighted of countenance.
“Now we’ll surely win, won’t we, Tad?” continued Matty.
Tad chose to be pessimistic. “Can’t say. Maybe. They’ve got a corking team over there at Bursley this year. You girls going?”
“Yes.” This from Matty. After a pause, “I suppose you’ll be with the cheerers, Tad,” she added.
Tad nodded. “Have to. Sorry. I’ll take you over, though, if you’ll be ready by one-thirty.”
“Will you? Then we’ll be ready, won’t we, May?”
“We’ll be ready,” agreed May with decision.
“Will Rod play to-day?” asked Matty, after a moment of silence spent in watching Tad’s manipulation of his knife. Tad looked cautiously at Rodney’s window. Then, lowering his voice:
“Not a chance,” he answered, “after what happened last Saturday. At least, that’s what all the fellows say. Poor old Rod made an awful mess of it, didn’t he?”
“I don’t think they ought to hold that against him,” said Matty stoutly. “Lots of other boys have done things just as bad. Besides, he might—might redeem himself to-day if they’d let him play.”
“Suppose he might. Then again he mightn’t. As far as I’m concerned I wish they’d give him another show. Anyway, Cotting kept him on the squad, and that was pretty fair.”
“What are you going to do with that?” asked May, nodding at the implement Tad was concerned with.
“Shoot tigers,” replied the boy. “Saw a beauty last night near your summer-house. Must have been twelve feet long from tip to tip.”
“Twelve inches, you mean,” answered Matty scathingly. “That was the Thurston’s black and yellow cat. He comes over here to catch birds, the old rascal. We’ll be ready at half past one, Tad. Don’t forget.”
“All right. See you later.”
The twins’ faces disappeared from above the hedge and Tad, snapping his knife shut, went off in search of a cord.
Shortly after one o’clock Bursley came. As she had only to journey by train or carriage down the river to Milon, a distance of something under two miles from the school, and then cross in the ferry to Greenridge, the trip was brief and inexpensive, and as a result practically the entire enrollment of Bursley School, over two hundred all told, invaded the stronghold of the enemy that morning. As the tiny ferryboat was unable to accommodate them all on one voyage, it landed its first contingent and then hurried back across the river, puffing and panting importantly, and brought the rest, the first hundred or so waiting at the landing and raiding the popcorn and peanut stands. Finally, when they had formed into a long procession two abreast to make more of a showing, they started off up the hill. Every boy was armed with a small red megaphone adorned with a blue B, and through it as he kept step, or tried to, for marching up the steep ascent of River Street is no light task, he proclaimed over and over:
“B, U, R, S, L, E, Y, Rah, rah, rah!
B, U, R, S, L, E, Y, Rah, rah, rah!”
Chanting their refrain and keeping time with aching legs, they stormed the hill. Greenridge, from the sidewalks, looked on smilingly and occasionally waved a defiant Green-and-Gray banner in the face of the invader. At the head of the procession two cheer leaders held a six foot banner of red silk on which “Bursley” was blazoned in big blue letters. Long before they reached the Y at the top of the hill their deep, sonorous slogan had penetrated to the campus, and Maple Hill emptied itself from dormitory and boarding-house and assembled along the road. Bursley always turned into Academy Street and marched through the campus on her way to the field, and always, where the driveway separated in front of Main Hall, she paused and cheered her rival. And to-day she made no exception. Still chanting, although with failing voices, her “B, U, R, S, L, E, Y, Rah, rah, rah!” she followed the head cheer leader as, waving his yard-long megaphone, he swung through the big gate between rows of smilingly hostile faces. They were a good, sturdy looking lot of fellows, those Bursleyans, and Jack Billings said as much to Warren Hoyt as the two, having raced across from Westcott’s, watched them file past.
“Not so worse,” replied Warren in his rather affected manner. “Sort of lack class, though, it seems to me.”
Jack laughed. “You’re a beast of a snob, Warren,” he said; “or you want fellows to think you are. You know perfectly well that those chaps are every bit as good as we are. Now, don’t you?”
Warren raised his eyebrows languidly. “Er—theoretically,” he said.
“Theoretically! What the dickens do you mean by theoretically?” demanded Jack. “Come on. They’re getting ready to cheer.”
Over in front of Main Hall the procession had stopped and the cheer leaders were hurrying to positions along the line. Then:
“All ready, Bursley!” announced the chief marshal of the parade, his big megaphone high in air. “Regular cheer for Maple Hill! One! Two! Three!”
“Rah, rah, rah! Rah, rah, rah! Rah, rah, rah! Maple Hill!” shouted two hundred voices, and a responsive “A-a-ay!” swelled from the throats of the enemy. Then Borden, Fourth Form President and Crew Captain, sprang to the steps and waved his arms and Maple Hill returned the compliment. More “A-a-ays!” from both contingents, and Bursley took up her march again, and, having in a measure recovered her breath, started once more her reiterative chorus as she went tramp, tramp, tramp along the gravel driveway and around the end of Main Hall on her way to the field. Maple Hill watched with grudging admiration. Bursley made a brave showing, there was no gainsaying that. There was a fine nonchalance in the way in which the veriest junior at the tag-end of the procession carried himself and a sturdy self-possession and equanimity in the faces of all. They were proud to be Burslians, and, incongruous as that might seem at first thought, Maple Hill on reflection felt a thrill of sympathy and understanding. Certainly those shouting Red-and-Blue partisans had made a frightful mistake in the choice of a school, but, having committed themselves, they were right to stand up for it, to be proud of it and to fight for it! Many Maple Hill hearts warmed toward the paraders as they disappeared from sight, still chanting their “B, U, R, S, L, E, Y, Rah, rah, rah!” around the corner of the building. There had been a few jeers from youngsters who knew no better, and some smiles of derision as Bursley had passed, but on the whole Maple Hill had been polite, respectful, even friendly in a distant way. Why not? They could well afford to let Bursley have their fun now since in two hours they would send her home defeated and disappointed. At least, so most of Maple Hill argued.
Meanwhile Bursley went on her way, quite as convinced of a coming victory as the enemy, and debouched onto the field and took possession of the cheering section reserved for her on the further stand. There many fellows, who had been unable or disinclined to attend the early dinner at school, produced packets of sandwiches and fruit and, with much skylarking and laughter, fortified the inner man.
At one-thirty Maple Hill assembled in front of Main Hall. They were far fewer in numbers than Bursley, but they had the Greenridge Silver Cornet Band to lead them, and that more than equalized matters. The band, more enthusiastic than skilled, more vociferous than tuneful, numbered but eight, though you’d scarcely have guessed its quota as less than twenty had you heard it blare out a Sousa march. While the boys hurried from all directions to form in line the band played “Everybody’s Doing It” so inspiritingly that dignified Fourth Form fellows clasped each other and danced hilariously over gravel and lawn to the astonishment of First Formers and the laughter of others. At last they were in line, four abreast, arranged by forms, Borden, armed with a big green megaphone bearing a gray “M. H.,” in command. In front went the Silver Cornet Band, gay in blue and gold uniforms, almost as excited as the students, struggling hard to find the step. Then the bass-drum sounded “Attention!” and the strains of “See Who’s Marching” burst forth as the procession passed through the gate and straightened itself out on Academy Street. Feet tramp-tramped in unison, the drums thumped, the wind instruments blared and four score voices took up the refrain:
“See who’s marching now this way!
You can hear the music play;
Maple Hill is out to-day;
See the colors flying!
Here they come, an hundred strong,
Cheering as they march along!
Ev’ry voice is raised in song,
Ev’ry voice is crying:
“‘March, march on to victory!
We’re the men to do or die!
We’ve the courage and the will!
Rah! Rah! Rah! Maple Hill!’
“Hear the tramp of many feet
As they march along the street,
Keeping time to ev’ry beat
Of the music playing!
Hail the flag of Green-and-Gray!
Cheer the victor of the fray!
Maple Hill will win to-day!
You can hear them saying:
“‘March, march on to victory!
We’re the men to do or die!
We’ve the courage and the will!
Rah! Rah! Rah! Maple Hill!’”
Into Bow Street they swung, into Arrow and, finally, into Larch, where, opposite the gymnasium, they stopped and cheered the team, the coach, the trainer and everyone else they could think of. Then the drum thumped and they went on, Borden swinging his big megaphone like a giant baton, and turned into the field. Bursley welcomed them with long-drawn “A-a-ays!” of approval as they came in singing and found their seats. Already the stands were well-filled with spectators from Greenridge and Milon and nearby towns, with Old Boys back for the game and with parents and relatives and friends. All the morning automobiles decorated with green and gray or red and blue, had chugged into Greenridge, and now they were honking along the road outside, seeking the parking space at the far end of the big field. The four cheer leaders, each armed with a big green megaphone, took up their stations along the foot of the sloping stand and the cheering began. Maple Hill cheered Bursley and Bursley responded through its red and blue megaphones that lent a fine dash of color to the opposite sections.
Then the Bursley team dashed on like a lot of young colts and the Bursley sections went wild. Blankets were thrown aside and the invading warriors, brave in red jerseys and red and blue stockings jumped into the field, formed into squads and tore up and down in signal practice. A minute later the Maple Hill trainer appeared and the local partisans cheered loudly. More cheers from the Green-and-Gray broke forth when Tim, the rubber, appeared propelling a wheelbarrow containing a carboy of water, a bag of footballs and a miscellaneous collection of paraphernalia. Then there was a commotion at the gate, the cheer leaders froze into attention with upraised hands and the Maple Hill team burst through the crowd at the entrance. The big megaphones were tossed aside and the four leaders, green-sweatered and bare-headed, waved and leaped as the stand broke forth into a measured cheer that might have been heard down at the river—and doubtless was!
Soon the gridiron was busy with the trotting squads and alive with flying pigskins. Gordon and Tyson evoked applause by their punting, as did also the Bursley crack. Stacey tried a few goals from placement and at one minute past two the teams trotted back to the side lines. A small and immaculate referee and a large and imposing umpire appeared and the rival captains walked into the middle of the field, shook hands and conversed a moment with the officials. Then a coin glinted as it was tossed in air and fell to the ground. A cheer from the further side of the field proclaimed that Bursley had won the toss. The captains retired and the cheers began again. The linesman with his two assistants, a green-sweatered youth and a red-sweatered one, appeared with the chain. Maple Hill started one of the songs in her repertoire, with the band, at the foot of the cheering section, doing its best to follow the tune.
“As we go marching and the band begins to p, l, a, y,
You can hear the people shouting: ‘Maple Hill will win to-day!’
Rah! Rah! Rah! Maple Hill!”
Doctor and Mrs. Farron, accompanied by two submasters, came on the field just as the opposing teams scattered to their positions. A burst of hand-clapping welcomed them. It was a well-known fact that the Head Master wasn’t able to tell the difference between a touchdown and a fair catch, but he attended the games when it was possible, and the fellows appreciated it.
Bursley had chosen to receive the kick-off. As there was practically no wind to render one goal more desirable than the other the winning of the toss had not counted for much. The sky to-day was almost cloudless and the thermometer in front of Main Hall had registered forty-seven at noon. In short it was, from the point of view of player and spectator alike, an ideal day for football. As the teams awaited the sound of the whistle a hush fell over the stands. The Bursley players looked fast and extremely well-conditioned, and were rangy rather than heavy. Their center, who was to oppose the big Pounder, was a smallish youth who looked as though he would tip the scales at not over a hundred and forty. In spite of Tad’s disparaging criticism, the Bursley uniform of red jerseys and red-and-blue-ringed stockings looked bright and attractive, rather paling the quieter colors of Maple Hill. Borden, whose green sweater held on its breast crossed oars under the gray “M. H.,” summoned one last cheer, and as it died away on the Autumn air the whistle shrilled and the Big Game was on!
THE BATTLE IS ON
It was just 2 to 6 as the Bursley left guard stepped forward and, swinging a long leg, sent the yellow pigskin soaring high and far down the field. For Maple Hill Terry Doyle was back at the left of Pounder, and Guy Watson was on the other side of the center. In the backfield Stacey Trowbridge, doubtless secretly resolved to allow no safeties to be made through him on this all-important occasion, was at quarter, Tyson at left half, Fuller at right half and Gordon at full. The other players were the same that had played the positions all season. But the first time the Green-and-Gray ranged themselves for the attack it was seen that Cotting had sprung a new formation. Fuller went into the line between left guard and tackle, leaving only three players in the backfield. To meet this extension of the line Bursley was forced to stretch her own line thinner, with the result that Tyson on the first play got through center without hindrance for twelve yards and brought the cheering section on the south stand to its feet in wild joy. But after that Bursley watched the ball more closely and, while the new formation worked well, it did not result in any more such gains through the center. Bursley made end runs hazardous from the first by playing her tackles well out on defense, with her ends close to her tackles, and these two players, one man taking the interference and the other the runner, upset many Maple Hill attempts to skirt the wings. The first fifteen minutes went by without a score, each team playing desperately but experimentally. Over-eagerness brought four penalties to Bursley and two to Maple Hill. On punting Gordon so far had excelled his opponent, but punts had been called for only in extremities. Neither team had shown anything really new in attack, although the Bursley offense looked as if it might have some deceptive plays up its sleeve.
In the second period Maple Hill tried its first forward pass, made a twenty yard gain and immediately followed it up with another. The second attempt went wrong, however, and Bursley got the ball. It was from there that Bursley began to show its ability. Her attack suddenly became fast and shifty and her backs made gain after gain through the Green-and-Gray line, mostly on the right side. Losing the ball once on downs, she quickly regained it on a fumble by Fuller, who had played back, with Tyson in the line, and again began her advance. But once beyond Maple Hill’s thirty yards it was all she could do to get her distance in four downs and at last she was forced to try a placement kick for goal. Luckily this went wide, and Maple Hill punted to her adversary’s forty-five yard line. Gordon was hurt on the next play and was taken out, Hunter replacing him for the rest of the period. Bursley’s wide run from punt formation lost her five yards and she was presently forced to kick. Stacey, who caught the ball on his thirty-four yards, ran in twenty-odd before he was caught. Tyson and Fuller taking the pigskin, Maple Hill worked her way to the center of the field where she was held with half a yard to go on the fourth down. Bursley began her advance once more but the whistle sounded when the ball was near Maple Hill’s forty-five yards.
It was still anybody’s game. Bursley and Maple Hill were each confident of ultimate victory and so the cheering and singing that began anew when the teams had trotted, blanketed, from sight of the spectators was as loud and hearty as ever. Bursley, with her two hundred supporters massed along the middle of the north stand, put the local cheering section on its merits. Their cheerfully reiterated refrain of “Bursley! Bursley! Hi! Hi! Hi!” sung over and over to an old tune, brought laughter and applause from across the empty gridiron. Maple Hill came back with:
“Cheer for the Green-and-Gray!
Ours the victory to-day!
Fight hard and grin, boys,
At them and win, boys,
Win for the Green-and-Gray!”
But the honors didn’t rest long on the south side of the field, for Bursley had brought along a new song that captured the gathering at once. It was a tuneful, rollicking effusion that set heels to tapping time against the planks.
“We’ve enjoyed our visit to you, Maple Hill;
We’ve enjoyed your little party to the fill;
We’ve listened to your singing
And heard your cheers aringing,
And we’ve liked it very much, Maple Hill.
“You have entertained us finely, Maple Hill,
And, though we’d love to linger with you, still,
While we do not want to grieve you,
It is time for us to leave you
And to take the football home, Maple Hill!”
Maple Hill greeted the song with laughter and derisive applause, promptly bursting into song herself and proclaiming loudly that “No matter what you do you can’t break through the line of Green-and-Gray!” To this challenge Bursley responded flippantly as follows: “Who are we? We’re the team that put the ‘ill’ in Maple Hill!”
Tad and Tom Trainor went visiting during the intermission and wormed their way up a neighboring section of the south stand to where the twins were seated with sparkling eyes and flushed and excited faces. Everyone talked at once without waiting for replies, criticising the playing of the two teams, predicting victory for Maple Hill, praising the efforts of the Westcott representatives on the eleven and commenting on the size of the assemblage, which, according to the twins, was easily the largest that had ever attended a Maple Hill-Bursley contest. May wanted to know if Tad didn’t think that Jack Billings led the cheering better than any of the other leaders and if Tom didn’t think he looked awfully handsome. Neither youth paid the slightest attention to the inquiries and May seemed not to expect any. Besides, just at that instant Matty was tragically explaining what she would do if by any unthought of, not-to-be-considered possibility Maple Hill didn’t win! And the fate she mapped out for herself was so breath-taking that Tom found himself almost hoping for a Bursley victory. Then the teams trotted back to the field and the boys scampered.
Gordon was back when the third period commenced and it was Gordon who, five minutes later, got away around the Bursley left and reeled off thirty-eight yards and planted the pigskin almost under the Red-and-Blue’s goal. Cotting had improved his time between halves, it seemed, for the Bursley tackle and end had been as nicely boxed as you please, leaving a two-yard opening for the nimble Gordon. On Bursley’s twenty-two yards Maple Hill tried the opposing line twice for a total gain of four yards and then sent Tyson plunging at the right end. But this time there was no gain and a try for goal was ordered. Stacey fell back, the ball was passed nicely and the two lines crashed together. The quarter back dropped the pigskin, met it with his toe as it bounded from the turf and then, staggering aside under the impact of a Red-and-Blue player, watched it arch slowly over the bar.
Maple Hill went wild over that first score and cheered and shouted crazily until the ball was again in flight. Bursley came back hard and for the next ten minutes almost rushed Maple Hill off her feet. When the whistle blew the ball was well down in Maple Hill territory, between the thirty and thirty-five yard lines, in Bursley’s possession.
Bursley made three changes in her line up then and Maple Hill two. For the latter a new left end and a new left tackle were substituted and Hunter again went in at full. Gordon was pretty well played out. When the fourth period began it was very evident that Bursley meant to score. Twice it was only Maple Hill’s secondary defense that kept a Bursley runner from getting clean away, while once the Red-and-Blue captain, with the ball clutched to his breast, made a nine yard gain around Maple Hill’s right wing.
Down near the twelve yard line, with two to go on fourth down, the visitor’s chance of scoring looked slim, and her excited supporters implored a field goal. But a field goal would only tie the score and not win, and Bursley was out for everything or nothing. She didn’t even fake a kick, but concentrated her entire attack on Watson, the fullback carrying the ball. There was one frenzied, doubtful moment and then the Green-and-Gray line yielded, the attack staggered and toppled ahead and the whistle blew. It was necessary to use the tape then, but when the measurement was made Bursley had won her distance and a first down by several inches. The referee waved his hand to the linesmen and Bursley broke into a cheer. Again the two teams faced each other, panting, wearied, desperate. Again a back caught the ball to his stomach, put down his head and plunged forward. Chaos for a moment, and then the whistle and——
“Second! Eight to go!” cried the referee.
A half darted past left tackle but was brought down with only a yard of gain. “Third down; seven to go!” Then Maple Hill blundered. The Bursley quarter took the ball, stepped back and hurled it ten yards to the left. An end caught it and tore straight ahead for the goal line. Tyson tried a tackle, but the end squirmed free, and when Stacey locked his arms desperately about the runner’s body and brought him to earth only a short foot lay between the extended pigskin and that last white line.
RODNEY FINDS HIMSELF
Over near the twenty-yard line, on the side of the field, Coach Cotting squatted on one knee and watched with expressionless face. But a pebble, picked from the turf, flew back and forth incessantly from one hand to the other. Further along a line of blanket-draped substitutes crouched low, their faces anxious and intent. One of these was Rodney and one was Phineas Kittson. Kitty had twice expressed mild surprise that his services had not been called for. I think he had almost begun to doubt Cotting’s intelligence. But the coach redeemed himself then and there. As the whistle shrilled he sprang alertly to his feet.
“Kittson!” he cried.
Kitty, dropping his blanket, hurried across. The coach clapped him on the shoulder.
“Go in for Captain Doyle,” he said quietly. “And stop them where they are, Kittson!”
Doyle, after an instant of bewildered rebellion, handed the captaincy to Stacey Trowbridge, yielded his head-guard to Kitty and walked off, none too steadily, to a loyal cheer from the south stand. Then a hush fell on the field and the quarter-back’s signals sounded clearly and ominously.
“41—21—64!” A pause, and then: “41—21——”
There was a mad plunge, a confusion of striving bodies and then the fateful sound of the whistle. Slowly the tangled players found their feet. There was an instant of suspense for the watchers on the stands. Then Bursley, jumping and waving, started back up the field and Maple Hill ranged herself behind the posts. The ball lay squarely on the line and the Red-and-Blue had scored a touchdown!
Two minutes later another point had been added to Bursley’s score and the game stood 7 to 3. There was six minutes remaining when the ball was recovered after the goal had been kicked and the teams again ranged themselves on the field. Captain Doyle, blanketed, white of face and dismayed, paced slowly back toward the center of the field at the coach’s side. The ball arched up and away and the players raced toward it. Beyond the further end of the trampled field the sun was setting in a blaze of golden glory.
“There’s Merrill,” the coach was saying.
Terry Doyle shook his head hopelessly.
“They’ll play on the defense now,” went on Mr. Cotting. “It’s a time to try everything we have, Terry. We can’t lose any more and we may win something. We might put in Burnham, too.”
“All right, sir. You know best. But Tyson still looks good.”
“I know, but—Who’s got that ball? He’s down! Fumbled! Good work, Hunter! He’s played a good game, Hunter. Well, we’ll try Merrill, I guess. I’ll send him in after this play. Merrill!”
Rodney ran up, trailing his blanket behind him. The coach took his arm and led him along with them as they walked. “Merrill,” he said, never taking his eyes from the play for more than a fleeting instant, and speaking easily and untroubledly, “do you want to go in and have a try at it?”
“Yes, sir!” Rodney’s heart jumped into his throat.
“Well, go ahead after this play. You know you slipped up the other day, Merrill. Maybe this is a good time to get square. What do you think?”
“Yes, sir! I’ll try, Mr. Cotting.”
The coach nodded. “I would. Tell Trowbridge I said he was to use you and that from now on everything goes. He will understand. Get it?”
“He’s to use me and from now on everything goes,” repeated Rodney.
“Right. There’s the whistle. Go in for Tyson.”
Rodney dropped his blanket and raced on with upraised head. The teams were on Maple Hill’s forty-five yards and already Stacey was taking his position behind Pounder.
“Substitute for left half, sir!” cried Rodney to the referee.
Stacey rose and nodded. “You’re off, Roger,” he said. He drew back with Rodney. “Any instructions?”
“Cotting says you’re to use me and that from now on everything goes,” whispered Rodney.
“All right. Watch close! Got your signals pat, Rodney? Don’t miss ’em! All right, fellows! Make this go now! Here’s where we start something!”
Rodney, pulling his head guard on, jumped to his place between guard and tackle.
Then came the signals and he dropped back, the other half taking his position on the opposite side. Then the ball was in play and Rodney was snuggling it to his stomach and plunging straight ahead through a hole that Kitty and Pounder had opened. But the Bursley backs smothered him after a two-yard gain and he struggled to his feet again before the whistle had ceased its shrill command. Once more he took the ball and slid off at a tangent, by the left guard, and once more he was stopped for a short gain. Then Hunter found a hole and went through and, with three to go, Stacey called for kick formation and then himself took the ball and made the distance straight through center. Maple Hill cheered loudly.
“Line up, fellows! Quick!” shouted Stacey. “Here we go!”
And go they did. One white line after another passed under foot. Bursley hurried in substitute after substitute, delaying the game as much as they could. Two times out of every three the ball went to Rodney and only once in that long advance did he fail to make a gain. Past the enemy’s forty-five yards went the Green-and-Gray, Stacey trying every trick in his budget and making most of them tell against a team now largely made up of second-string players. Not that Bursley gave way easily, for she didn’t. She fought hard, and, once behind her forty yards, showed renewed resistance and on three plays the Green-and-Gray made but five yards. A forward pass got the rest, though, with an added yard for good measure and Maple Hill scented victory.
But time was going fast. On the thirty-one yards Fortune frowned. There was a mix-up of signals and Rodney, carrying the ball, found himself without interference. Before he could make headway he was pinned by relentless arms and borne back, fighting, for a three-yard loss. With seven to go on the third down Stacey again tried a forward pass and, although the left end received it, he was downed in his tracks for no gain. It seemed then to be a case of kick or nothing, but a try at goal, even if it succeeded, would still leave Maple Hill defeated. Stacey, hesitating a minute, called for kick formation, and Hunter, who was only an indifferent kicker, dropped back up the field. Stacey fell to one knee to take the pass and hold the ball for a placement. But when the pass came it was not to Stacey but to Rodney, a yard away on his left.
“Fake! Fake!” shrieked Bursley.
But Rodney, with the entire left wing of the Maple Hill team trailing along between him and the enemy, was racing across the gridiron. His chance came at last, some fifteen yards from the side of the field, and he turned squarely and shot in. There was no hesitation this time. For an instant it seemed that he was racing straight into the arms of the enemy, but Kitty hurled himself forward, there was a confused mass of falling bodies and Rodney sprang across and was free for the instant. But the Bursley quarter was awaiting him and Bursley foemen were in pursuit. His interference now had been outstripped and he was alone. The quarter feinted to the right, Rodney countered to the left, a hand grasped at his jacket and fell away as he spun the quarter, and then, with two red-stockinged players groping for holds, he tore across the last white line, stumbled, picked himself up and went on and, finally with two Bursley men dragging him down, subsided behind the nearer post!
When they pulled him to his feet, a little limp, but quite unhurt and quite ready to try it all over again, it was Guy Watson who threw his arms about him and hugged him, Watson with a face one great grin and eyes with tears in them!
“Kid, you’re a wonder!” said Watson. “You—you’re all right!”
After that it was all very confused. Rodney trotted back up the field and someone, he never remembered who, tried for goal and missed it badly. And then the teams lined up again and, after the first play, the final whistle blew and he was trying to make his way through the crowd that suddenly flooded the field. Hands seized him and arms lifted him aloft and he went swaying uncertainly about on the shoulders of three shrieking, happy youths whom he didn’t even know by sight. Once, as they passed the almost deserted south stand he caught sight of the twins, waving, laughing. One of them—he never knew whether it was Matty or May—blew him a kiss. Then he lost sight of them again. Cheers filled the air. Swaying unsteadily, following a line of other captured players, Rodney smiled happily. At last, he told himself, he was something more than just the Brother of a Hero!