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    Chapter 22

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    Chapter 23
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    THE MYSTERY GOES ON

    When nightfall came and Pepper still remained a prisoner, both Jack and Andy commenced to worry about their chum.

    "It's a shame to keep him in that cold room," said the young major.

    "Wonder if we can get him out on the sly?" returned the acrobatic youth. "I'd be willing to run quite a risk to set him free, so he could sleep in his own bed to-night."

    "Let us sneak down after dark and see what we can do," suggested Jack.

    Of course the fact that Pepper was a prisoner was known throughout the whole school. Many who had laughed over the teeth affair thought it too bad that The Imp should be locked up in a cold room. But others, including Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter, said it served him right.

    "He was too fresh," growled Coulter.

    "Let him stay there a week; it will do him good," added Ritter.

    "You leave things to old Crabtree," said Dan Baxter. "He knows how to put the screws on a cadet."

    "Right you are," came from Ritter.

    The one boy who had little to say was Mumps. The sneak was scared almost to death, feeling certain that Pepper would square up with him as soon as liberated. The others did not know how Mumps had acted, or Jack and Andy might have given the sneak a sound thrashing.

    The young major and the acrobatic youth talked the affair over, and were joined in the discussion by Bert Field, Dave Kearney, and one or two others. They were on the point of going below, when Fred Century came in.

    "Crabtree is certainly going to make sure of keeping Pepper a prisoner," said he.

    "How do you know that?" asked Jack, quickly.

    "He has placed a guard in front of the door, so nobody can open it."

    "A guard?"

    "Yes."

    "Who?"

    "Two cadets--Crane and Barlow. They are to remain on guard three hours and then some others are to relieve them."

    "Then we can't do a thing!" groaned Andy. "We might bribe Crane, but nobody could bribe Barlow. He's a sticker on everything he does."

    Jack went below and found that the report about the guard was true. The cadets were on duty, and he was not allowed to even speak to Pepper.

    "It's too bad," he said, on returning to the dormitory. "I guess poor Pepper will have to remain where he is."

    "We might protest to Mr. Strong?" suggested Bart Conners.

    "It wouldn't do any good. Crabtree is in charge during Captain Putnam's absence."

    One after another the cadets went to bed. Jack was the last to retire, and it was a long while before he dropped off to sleep. Then he dreamed about Pepper up in the far North, sitting on a cake of ice in a bathing-suit, which showed how much he had the welfare of his chum at heart.

    In the morning Josiah Crabtree went below early. He expected Captain Putnam back by noon and wished to be prepared to make a proper report to the head of the school on his arrival.

    He had just seated himself at the desk in the office when there came a knock on the door.

    "Come in!" he said shortly, thinking it might be a servant. The newcomer was Bart Conners.

    "Well, Conners, what is it?" demanded the head teacher.

    "I want to report that I was robbed last night," answered the captain of Company B.

    "Robbed!" ejaculated Josiah Crabtree. "Did you say robbed?"

    "Yes, sir."

    "What of? Where? When?" Josiah Crabtree's manner showed his tremendous excitement.

    "Of a diamond stickpin. I left it in one of my scarfs last night and this morning it was gone. I've looked all over, but I can't find it."

    "How late was it when you retired?"

    "About ten o'clock."

    "And when did you get up?"

    "At the first bell."

    "And you noticed it was gone at once?"

    "Yes, for I wanted to lock it away in my bureau, as Captain Putnam warned us to do when the others' things were stolen."

    "This is strange. Do you suspect anybody?"

    At this question Bart Conners shook his head.

    "Very well, I will look into the matter immediately after breakfast."

    Scarcely had Josiah Crabtree spoken when Dan Baxter appeared at the door.

    "I want to tell you something!" he said sourly. "I want somebody locked up."

    "Locked up?" queried the startled teacher. "What is wrong?" And as he asked the question Bart Conners looked on with interest.

    "I'll tell you!" burst out Dan Baxter. "Last night I went to bed with eleven dollars in my vest-pocket. This morning every cent of the money is gone! I want it back! If I don't get it back Captain Putnam has got to stand the loss, for I won't." And the bully looked more sour than ever.

    "You robbed, too!" cried Josiah Crabtree, faintly. "Will it ever stop? What is the school coming to?"

    "Have you any idea who took the money, Dan?" asked Bart Conners.

    "No. I was dead tired and slept like a dog. But I know I had the eleven dollars when I went to bed, and now it's gone."

    "So is my diamond stickpin," and the captain of Company B gave the particulars.

    "Humph!" muttered the bully. "I heard of those other robberies, but I didn't think I'd get touched as quick as this. If it keeps on the whole school will be cleaned out."

    "Yes, and Captain Putnam will be ruined," added Bart, gravely.

    "I will see you two cadets later," said Josiah Crabtree, and shut the office desk with a bang. He hurried away, leaving Bart and Dan Baxter to console themselves as best they could.

    Josiah Crabtree was thinking of Pepper. He had accused The Imp only the day before of these crimes, and here the thefts were continuing while Pepper was a close prisoner.

    "Perhaps he got out during the night," he muttered. "I must make sure of it." For, to be fair to the dictatorial teacher, he really thought Pepper might be the guilty party.

    He questioned the cadets who had been on guard during the night. One and all declared that Pepper had remained a prisoner all night and was still in the cell-like room. Then he spoke to The Imp himself.

    "Did you go out last night?" he asked.

    "How could I?" asked Pepper.

    "Answer my question, Ditmore."

    "No, I didn't go out. I have been here ever since you brought me in yesterday."

    Teacher and cadet looked sharply at each other, and there was a silence that could be felt. From one of the guards Pepper had learned how Bart and Dan Baxter had been robbed.

    "You know I didn't go out," went on Pepper. "You know that I am not guilty of the crimes that have been committed in this school. As soon as Captain Putnam returns I want to see him, so he can hear my side of the story."

    At these words Josiah Crabtree winced. He felt that Captain Putnam might not agree with him concerning the treatment given to Pepper, and that Pepper might get him into "hot water." Even George Strong had intimated this.

    "Ditmore," he said, slowly and mildly, "I--er--I feel that perhaps I have been a bit harsh with you. Your trick upset me very much; such a trick would upset anybody. If I--er--accused you falsely I am sorry for it. Supposing I let you go, and supposing we drop the whole matter?"

    "I am willing to drop the matter, providing you will retract what you said about my being connected with these--er--these other things," answered Pepper, slowly.

    "Well, I--I must have been mistaken. I didn't say you were guilty. I only said it looked suspicious--the way you prowled around, and the way you got into my room. But if you are willing we'll drop the entire matter, and you can go to your room and get ready for breakfast."

    Pepper thought rapidly. He was angry over being accused of the crimes, yet he knew he had gone too far in his joke at Josiah Crabtree's expense.

    "All right, sir; we'll drop the matter, Mr. Crabtree," he said. "Good-morning," and a moment later he quitted his prison and was on his way to his dormitory.

    The cadets had much to talk about that day--the sudden liberation of Pepper, and the losses Bart Conners and Dan Baxter had suffered. At noon Captain Putnam came back, and he had the captain of Company B and Dan Baxter in his office for the best part of an hour. But nothing came of the conference, excepting that the owner of the Hall said he would pay all losses and gave Baxter his eleven dollars on the spot. Then he had a long conference with the new man of all work, who was really a detective in disguise. But that individual was as much in the dark as anybody. He had seen nobody prowling around during the night.

    "We must get at the bottom of this affair," said Captain Putnam to George Strong. "If we do not, the school will surely be ruined." He was told about the affair of the teeth, but paid little attention, knowing that Josiah Crabtree could be left to manage his own differences with the students.

    Pepper had dropped the matter so far as it concerned Josiah Crabtree, but he did not drop it so far as it concerned Mumps. He watched the sneak that day and the next, and managed at last to catch Mumps at the boathouse.

    "Now, I am going to give you the thrashing you deserve!" cried The Imp, and caught the sneak by the collar.

    "Lemme go!" shrieked Mumps. "Lemme go, or I'll tell Captain Putnam on you!"

    "No, you won't!" answered Pepper. "If you do, I'll promise you another licking at the first chance I get!"

    And then and there he boxed the sneak's ears and then threw him down in the snow, washing his face and shoving a lot of the snow down inside the lad's shirt. Mumps yelled like a wild Indian, but Pepper did not let up until he felt that he had given the sneak all he deserved.

    "You say a word and I'll give you a double dose the next time!" warned Pepper. And this so scared Mumps he never once opened his mouth about the affair.
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