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    Chapter 14

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    Chapter 15
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    AT THE FORD MANSION

    "Don't you admire our very fashionable turnout?" questioned Pepper, as he came forward and shook hands with the girls.

    "It's the latest in carriages," came from Andy.

    "Oh!" murmured Laura. "Did you really come all the way from Putnam Hall in that?"

    "It must have been hard riding," was Flossie's comment.

    "No, we didn't come all the way," answered Pepper. "We'll tell you about it later," he added. Then Ezra Cole was paid. The old farmer lost no time in driving away.

    As the girls and boys walked slowly toward the mansion the cadets told the particulars of the breakdown on the road.

    "And you really think some of your rivals did it?" questioned Laura. "How mean!"

    "I'd never speak to them again," added Flossie, with a flash of her eyes.

    "Well, we'll talk a whole lot to 'em," answered Pepper, grimly.

    "But you have got to prove them guilty first," said Laura.

    Once at the mansion the situation was explained to Mr. and Mrs. Ford, and the boys were conducted by a servant to a bathroom, where they might wash and brush up and make themselves otherwise presentable. They did not linger long, and when they came below, the folding-doors to the dining-room were opened and the butler announced dinner.

    It was a jolly meal, and the cadets were made to feel perfectly at home. Mr. Ford asked them how they were getting along in school, and was surprised when told that they hoped to graduate from the Hall the following June.

    "We shall miss your visits to the Lodge," said Mrs. Ford.

    "You'll have to visit us anyway--if you get a chance," said Laura, and all of the cadets said they would remember her kind words. Then they talked about old times, and especially about the time when the boys had visited the Lodge and killed the tiger that had escaped from the circus, as related in "The Putnam Hall Cadets," and of how the girls had visited the cadets in the woods, when the boys had run away from the Hall, as told of in "The Putnam Hall Rebellion."

    "I'd like to go to a boarding-school," said Flossie. "It must be lots of fun!"

    "Fun and work, mixed," answered Andy.

    After the dinner, over which they took their time, the young folks gathered around the piano and sang and played, and they also had several dances, with the old folks looking on. All too soon it came time for the boys to go back to the Hall.

    "I have ordered the auto around," said Rossmore Ford. "John can take you back, and he can also stop for your bicycles, if you wish."

    "Thank you very much," answered Jack. "We'll ride home in the auto with pleasure. But I guess we had better let the bicycles rest to-night where they are; eh, fellows?"

    "Yes," answered Pepper and Andy.

    A little later the cadets said good-night. The big touring car was brought around and they got in the tonneau. Then the chauffeur turned on the power, and away they shot into the darkness, the girls crying a good-by after them.

    "Well, we had a dandy time, in spite of the breakdown," remarked the young major.

    "But we have got to find out who played this trick on us," came from Pepper.

    "That may be easier said than done," said Andy. "Whoever was mean enough to play such a trick will do his best to lay low."

    When the boys got back to the Hall they found that the majority of their friends had gone to bed. Only Stuffer Singleton was up, reading a novel by the light of a wax-candle he had smuggled up to the room.

    "Hello! have a good time?" queried the boy who loved to eat, as he cast aside the volume.

    "Bang up," answered Jack, and then he went on quickly. "Stuffer, were you near the gym this afternoon?"

    "No. Why?"

    "Somebody was mean enough to tamper with our bicycles," answered the young major, and gave a few particulars.

    "Oh, you can bet it was the Ritter crowd, or Ritter alone," said Stuffer, quickly. "It would be just like them to do their best to spoil your fun."

    It was not until two days later that Jack and his chums had a chance to go for their broken-down wheels. They found them exactly as they had been left, and explained to the owner of the barn how they happened to be there.

    "It's all right," said the farmer. "You can leave them here a month if you want to." He knew Captain Putnam well, having sold him some straw for the school stables.

    The cadets had to trundle the bicycles back to Putnam Hall and then had many hours' work in fixing the wheels so they could be used again.

    During those two days the youths made many inquiries, but were unable to get a clue as to who had played the trick. Ritter and Coulter "laid low" and kept out of their way.

    Following the game with the Dauntless Club came several other football contests, and Putnam Hall won two games and lost one. Then the weather turned off cold, with a promise of snow in the air.

    During those days it must not be supposed that the search for Jack's gold watch and chain was abandoned. It was continued with spirit, but no clue was brought to light.

    "It's as much of a mystery as the disappearance of my things when the horse ran away with me," said Andy. "I don't suppose I'll ever hear of those things either."

    "Yes, but that was different, Andy," said the young major. "You were on a public highway, where anybody might pick up the things, supposing you merely dropped them. But I was right here, where everybody is supposed to be honest."

    "It gives the school a black eye, doesn't it?"

    "That's it. I know Captain Putnam feels terrible about it, too."

    "Do you suspect any of the hired help?"

    "I don't know what to think."

    The weather grew colder rapidly, and one morning the cadets arose to find the ground covered with snow to a depth of several inches.

    "Hurrah!" shouted Fred. "See the snow! Doesn't it look inviting?"

    "Want a roll in it, Fred?" questioned Bart Field.

    "Not exactly. I was thinking of a snowball fight."

    "That's the talk! Let us get up a fight after school hours!" cried Bart Conners.

    Pepper was at the window. Slyly he raised the sash and scooped up a big handful of snow from the broad ledge outside. Andy was nearby, bending over, lacing up his shoe.

    "Welcome to the snow!" cried The Imp, gaily, and let a portion of the frozen mass slip down the acrobatic youth's collar.

    "Wow!" snorted Andy, straightening up with a jerk. "Hi, you, what do you take me for, an ice-box?" And he commenced to squirm as the cold snow ran down his backbone. Then he made a dive for Pepper and chased The Imp around the dormitory. Over two of the beds they flew, and then brought up in a corner with a crash.

    "Have mercy on the furniture!" cried Joe Nelson.

    "Don't knock over the table!" added Stuffer.

    "Give me that snow!" cried Andy, and managed to get a small portion from Pepper. "How do you like that?" And he plastered the snow in The Imp's left ear.

    "Hurrah! Snow from Snow!" cried Jack.

    "'Twill warm Pepper's blood, so it will!" was Emerald Hogan's comment.

    More snow had been scooped from the window-sill by Fred and Joe, and soon a battle-royal was in progress in the dormitory. But it came to an abrupt end when Dave Kearney appeared.

    "Stop it!" cried the young sergeant. "Crabtree is coming!"

    "All over!" whispered Jack. "All as orderly as lambs!" And at once every cadet settled down and started in an orderly fashion to finish his morning toilet.

    "What was the noise in here?" demanded Josiah Crabtree, as he threw open the door and strode into the dormitory.

    He glared around savagely, but nobody answered him.

    "I demand to know what was going on here!" he continued.

    "Mr. Crabtree, did you speak to me?" asked Pepper, meekly.

    "I spoke to you all!" thundered the teacher. "What were you doing in here?"

    "I am dressing, Mr. Crabtree," answered Andy.

    "I am dressing, Mr. Crabtree," came from Jack.

    "I am dressing, too," put in Fred.

    "And so was I dressing," said Stuffer, with a smile.

    "And I was dressing," supplemented Pepper. "Come to think of it, I rather fancy we were all dressing. You see, we always do dress when we get up in the morning, Mr. Crabtree," he added with a simple smile.

    "I want none of your impudence, Ditmore."

    "Oh, dear, was I impudent?" murmured The Imp. "I didn't know it. I beg ten thousand pardons--yes, a million, if you'd rather, sir."

    "Be quiet, you--you forward boy! Something was going on in here! If I find out what it was, I shall punish all of you!" And having thus delivered himself, Josiah Crabtree strode out of the dormitory, banging the door after him.

    "Isn't he an angel!" murmured Andy.

    "The sweetest teacher that ever grew!" returned Pepper.

    "I'd like to know how long Captain Putnam will put up with him," was Jack's comment.

    "I don't believe it will be very long," answered Fred.

    The cadets finished their dressing and hurried below. On account of the storm the morning drill was held in the gymnasium, and then the young soldiers marched to the mess-room. On the way several could not resist the temptation to pick up some snow and throw it at each other.

    "Hi, you stop that!" roared Reff Ritter, as a snowball took him in the neck. "Who threw that?" he demanded; but nobody answered him. "I believe it was you, Ditmore!" he went on, turning an ugly look on Pepper.

    "That's one for tampering with our bicycles, Ritter," retorted Pepper.

    It was a chance shot, taken on the spur of the moment, but it told. Reff Ritter started and turned pale.

    "Who--er--told you I--er--tampered with your bicycles?" he stammered.

    "Never mind who told me, Ritter. We are going to get square with you, and don't you forget it."

    "Who said I touched 'em?" grumbled the bully.

    "Never mind about that."

    "You are trying to corner me, that what's you are up to!" grumbled Ritter. "But you shan't do it! I never touched your wheels, and you can't prove that I did. Now don't you throw any more snowballs at me, or I'll report you." And then Ritter hurried into the mess-room as fast as he could.

    Pepper, Jack and Andy looked at each other.

    "He is guilty, I know it!" said Pepper firmly.

    "I believe you," answered the young major; and Andy nodded his head to show that he agreed with his chums.
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