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    Chapter 26

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    Chapter 27
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    WHAT THE CONSTABLE THOUGHT

    Up the stairs went the two cadets, Jack leading the way. On the upper landing they paused, for the sounds of footsteps had suddenly ceased.

    "Which way did he go?" whispered Pepper.

    "I don't know, Pepper. Go slow now, we don't want to walk into any trap."

    With caution the chums made their way to the back end of the hall. As they did this a door close by came open and a cold draught of air met the lads.

    "This way!" cried Jack. "He has opened a window! That air comes from outside!"

    He rushed through the open door, to find himself in a bedroom. In an alcove was a window and this was wide open. Beyond the window was the top of a back porch, with a trellis reaching to the ground.

    "There he goes!" exclaimed Jack, pointing down among the trees.

    "Stop! stop!" came in a cry from the side of the mansion, and a moment later Andy appeared, followed by Fred.

    "Stop the rascal!" shouted Jack, and bounced out on the porch with all speed. Down the trellis he came, with Pepper following.

    By this time the fleeing individual had gained the shelter of a number of trees. Beyond these was a hedge, and he dove through this and then into some brushwood that lined the highway.

    "Can you catch him, Andy?" asked Jack.

    "I can try!" was the answer.

    "Keep back, unless you want to get shot!" roared the man, and he raised something he held in his hand. It was too dark to see if it was a pistol.

    Andy came to a halt, and in a few moments his companions joined him. By this time the fellow was out of sight. The cadets strained their ears, but in the snow no sounds of footsteps reached them.

    "I guess we have lost him," murmured Fred.

    "Sorry I didn't keep after him," grumbled Andy.

    "He might have shot you."

    "Come on, let us make a hunt for him!" cried Jack, and this was done. But though they searched the vicinity for the best part of half an hour they failed to locate the man who had fled.

    "Jack, who do you think it was?" questioned Pepper, as the four boys gathered in the mansion and lit one of the lamps, for it was now quite dark.

    "I may be mistaken, but to me his voice sounded like that of the man Reff Ritter met in Cedarville, Cameron Smith."

    "Just what I think!" cried The Imp. "Did you get a look at his face?"

    "Not a close look, and it was too dark to see much. But that Smith had a queer catch in his voice and this fellow had the same thing."

    "Yes, I remember that."

    "Was that the fellow Reff met?" demanded Andy.

    "We are not sure, Andy, but we think so."

    "What was he doing here?" asked Fred.

    "That remains for us to find out," answered Pepper. "Certainly the man had no right here, otherwise he wouldn't have run away as he did."

    "Let us take a look through the house," suggested Pepper.

    A hand-lamp was lit and the boys began a systematic inspection of the Lodge. They found nothing disturbed in most of the rooms, but when they inspected the library all set up a shout.

    "The safe!"

    "It has been blown open!"

    "Yes, and look, the contents are scattered all over the floor!"

    It was true, the small safe that was located under a bend of the stairs had been drilled and the door blown asunder. On the floor of the library lay the shattered door and likewise several bundles of papers and legal-looking documents. They also saw a case that had contained silverware.

    "Wonder how much he took?" said Pepper.

    "He took something, that is sure," answered Jack.

    "We must have come in right after he blew the safe open," said Andy.

    "Boys, I think we ought to notify the authorities at once, and also notify the Fords," cried Jack. "This is a serious piece of business."

    "Let us go to the nearest farmhouse and tell the folks," suggested Andy.

    He hardly uttered the words when a loud ring at the front door of the mansion made every cadet jump.

    "There is somebody now!" cried Fred.

    "I'll see who it is," said Pepper, and went off, followed by Jack.

    When they opened the door they found themselves confronted by a farmer named Fasick, who lived in that vicinity.

    "Hello!" cried the farmer, on noticing the uniforms the boys wore. "What are you cadets doing here?"

    "Who are you?" questioned Jack.

    "I'm Isaac Fasick, and I own the farm down the road a spell. I saw the lights here, and as Mr. Ford asked me to keep an eye on his property I made up my mind I'd come over and see what it meant. Is he here on a visit?"

    "Not that we know of, Mr. Fasick," answered Jack. "Come in out of the cold, and we'll tell you something."

    The burly farmer entered, and the cadets quickly related what had occurred. When Mr. Fasick saw the shattered safe he was all but stunned.

    "The pesky rascal!" he ejaculated. "Did he run away with much?"

    "That we don't know, for we have no idea what was in the safe," replied Jack.

    "He must have taken some of the silver spoons, and knives and forks," put in Pepper. "Here is the empty silverware case, and I found a loose silver fork on the floor of the dining-room."

    "The Fords will be the only ones to tell just what was taken," said Andy. "And the sooner we notify them the better."

    "I don't know if they are in the city or not," said Isaac Fasick "I know they meant to travel some this winter."

    "They are at their city home just now; I got a letter day before yesterday," answered the former major of the school battalion. He did not deem it necessary to say the letter was from Laura Ford.

    "Let us telegraph to them," said Pepper. "But what about the thief? We ought to get right after him."

    "We can tell Jed Plodders," said the farmer. "He's the Cedarville constable and pretty smart, too."

    "Jed will never catch that fellow," answered Jack. "He'll be miles and miles away before the constable gets his badge pinned on to go after him."

    "Oh, Jed is smart," cried the farmer. "He's my wife's second cousin, and the whole family is mighty cute."

    "All right, let him catch the thief," answered Pepper.

    Matters were talked over for several minutes, and the boys decided to separate, Andy and Pepper to remain on guard at the Lodge and Fred and Jack to run the iceboat to Cedarville and take Isaac Fasick along.

    "Now, don't you run into no air-holes!" cried the farmer, as he took a seat on the Skimmer. "I don't want to drown just yet, not me!"

    "We'll be on our guard," answered the owner of the craft.

    "The wind is just right," said Jack, as the mainsail was hoisted. This was true, and the run to the village took but a few minutes. While the boys went off to send their message to the Fords, Isaac Fasick hunted up the constable and related what had occurred.

    "Ha! a robbery, eh?" cried the constable, looking highly important.

    "That's it, Jed."

    "And you caught the boys in the house all alone?" went on the constable, trying to look very wise.

    "Why, yes; I did."

    "Maybe they did the robbery, Isaac."

    "By gum! I didn't think of that, Jed!" exclaimed the farmer.

    "It would be an easy way of tryin' to look innercent," went on the constable. "They fixed it all up--blow open the safe, hide the silver an' other valerables, an' then, when you surprise 'em, they try to put the crime off on sumbuddy else."

    "Say, Jed, do you think that's so?" asked the farmer, his suspicions aroused.

    "Don't it look reasonable, Isaac?"

    "It sure does, Jed. But to think them boys would do sech a terruble deed!"

    "Some o' them boys at boardin'-school spend a fierce sight o' money. Some of 'em drink an' gamble. They ain't above gittin' money by hook or crook, ef they need it. Yes, they may be guilty," and the constable swelled out with his own importance.

    "Perhaps you better question 'em," suggested the farmer, timidly.

    "Question 'em?" snorted the constable. "Yes, I will; an' I'll do more--I'll hold 'em until this mysterious case is cleared up!"
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