Dick Hamilton's Cadet Days/Chapter 23
A WINTER MARCH
"Quick! Here comes Major Webster!" cried Stiver. There was no mistaking the soldierly figure who was approaching.
"And Colonel Masterly is with him!" added Paul.
"Some one has squealed!" added Dutton, but he seemed rather glad than otherwise that the duel had been interrupted.
"Cut for it!" said Dick. "Across the ice, and into the grove! We can get in the back way, and they won't know who it was out here."
"Say, if they were tipped off that something like this was going to take place, they know who was in it," said Paul, as he and Dick headed across the ice which covered the inlet at one side of the wooded point.
Dick thought of the conversation he had seen taking place between Miss Hanford and the major, and a light came to him.
"She must have overhead the talk about swords, and she got frightened," he said to himself. "That's how the major knew."
On came the dark figures over the snow, but the cadets had a good start. Across the ice they went, and were soon lost in the depths of a little grove of trees. From there they managed to gain the barracks.
"Queer they didn't call after us," said Dick, as he and Paul were safe in their room.
"That is sort of funny. Say, where's the other bladder?"
"Dutton must have it."
But Dutton didn't have it. He had dropped it as he ran, and Major Webster picked it up a little later on the dueling ground. The major held it out to Colonel Masterly.
"What's this?" asked the colonel.
"One of their weapons, I fancy."
"Then it was all a joke. What Miss Hanford told you about the duel, she must have dreamed."
"No, she says she overheard Dutton challenge Hamilton, and later on, some talk between Hamilton and Drew. She was very much frightened, and came and told me. Of course I know the cadets will fight once in a while. They wouldn't be any good if they didn't, and, though you and I know that it's against the rules, it's no more than you and I used to do. But when she spoke of swords I thought it time to take a hand."
"But they didn't have swords."
"Evidently not. Hamilton reserved to himself the choice of weapons, as the challenged party, she said, and it seems that he selected bladders."
"I fancy he wanted to teach Dutton a lesson. There is bad blood between them, I have heard in roundabout ways, and once Hamilton administered a good drubbing to Dutton."
"Hum! Well, I don't see that there is anything for us to do."
"No, only go to bed. I'm sleepy. The time was when I could stay up at a ball all night, and attend a duel at sunrise, but those days are past. I think we'd better say nothing about this."
"Just as you like, major. You are in charge of the cadets. But perhaps we had better let Miss Hanford know that there was no bloody conflict."
"I will. Poor little girl! She was quite worried."
So that was how the duel between Dick and Dutton turned out. It did not add to the good feeling between the two cadets. Dick would have been glad to be on friendly terms, but Dutton considered that he had been made the butt of a joke, and he hated Dick more than ever. He threatened to get even until Dick sent word to him that if he liked he would meet him with bare fists as weapons, and have the matter out. Dutton knew better than to agree to this.
Of course Larry Dexter heard about the duel, but at Dick's request the young reporter sent no account of it to his paper, which described the fancy dress ball at some length. Larry remained Dick's guest three days, and greatly enjoyed his visit to the academy.
In order to give the cadets a taste of as many varieties of military life as possible, and to show them that they could not always expect summer weather and sunny skies, Major Webster decided to have a winter practice march.
This was announced for a date late in January, and some novel features were to be incorporated. The cadets were to be divided into several small squads, and were to set off at different times from the academy, to reach a certain point ten miles distant, report there for dinner, and march back. Various routes were selected, with officers stationed at checking points, and the squad which made the best time was to receive a trophy.
As the ground was quite thickly covered with snow, and as certain landmarks, plainly visible in summer, were now obliterated, the march would prove no easy one. It was to be made on horses, and only the best riders were allowed to participate.
"That's the kind of a stunt I like," said Dick, the morning of the proposed winter march. "We'll have some fun to-day, Paul, old boy."
"Yes, if we don't get caught in a blizzard. It looks like snow."
"So much the better. That will make it all the harder. I wish I was going to lead a squad."
"I don't. Who is in charge of ours?"
"Allen Rutledge. He's a good rider. Well, it's almost time to start. Whew! But it's cold!"
Dick's squad, in charge of Captain Rutledge of the football team, was the third to start off. They set their horses into a gentle canter, as they knew they would need all the strength of the animals ere the day was over.
At first it was pleasant enough, moving along over the snow, but, as it grew colder, it was not quite so much fun. Still the lads did not complain, as they knew the training was good for them.
When they had gone about five miles some flakes of snow sifted lazily down from the gray, leaden clouds overhead.
"I guess we're going to be in for it before we get back," observed Captain Rutledge. "Close up the ranks, behind there. Don't straggle."
They kept to their route, were checked at the proper point by an officer, and then started for the turning station. This was a hotel in a small town ten miles from the academy, and glad enough the cadets were to reach it, and find a hot dinner waiting for them.
An hour was allowed for luncheon, and the feeding of the horses, and then the start back was made. This was the most difficult part of the march, as the way led through an uninhabited part of the country, at the edge of the mountain range, and the roads were seldom traveled, and not of the best.
About three miles from where they had dinner was another checking station. Dick's squad reached this in the midst of quite a snowstorm.
"I guess it will only be a squall," observed Rutledge, as he went in the house, where the checking officer was stationed, to report.
"A squall?" observed Dick. "If this doesn't keep up until we get back, and for some time after, I'm a Dutchman."
Rutledge came out of the house, followed by the checking officer, Captain Nelton. Both looked worried.
"We'll keep watch for them," said Rutledge as he prepared to vault into the saddle.
"Yes, I wish you would," said Captain Nelton. "They may have straggled behind, and lost the road. Have them join your squad if you see them."
"What's up?" asked Dick, for an air of familiar fellowship was permitted on the practice marches.
"Dutton and Stiver didn't report in with their squad, which is just ahead of ours," replied Rutledge. "We're to look out for them."
"Most likely they sneaked off to have a good time somewhere," said Dick in a low voice to Paul.
The pace was slower now, for the snow was deeper, and the horses were beginning to feel the strain of the long march. The flakes were falling thicker and faster, and from the rear the leader of the squad could not be seen.
"Come, boys, close ranks!" called Rutledge several times. "If you stray off now you'll be in danger. Keep together."
They tried to, but some horses went better than others, and it was impossible for the stragglers to keep up with the leaders at all times. Rutledge saw this and called to Dick:
"Here, Hamilton, you and Drew are good riders. You take the rear, and keep it as close to me as you can. This storm is getting fierce."
It was almost a blizzard now, with the wind sobbing and moaning in the trees, and the white flakes cutting into one's face with stinging force.
"Take the next turn to the right," called Rutledge to Dick and Paul, as they wheeled their horses and started for the rear.
They heard faintly through the noise of the storm, and answered back. They succeeded for a time in keeping the end riders up toward the front, urging their somewhat jaded horses to a trot.
Then, all at once, they found themselves out of sight of the tails of the end animals.
"Hit is up a little," suggested Dick to Paul. "They're leaving us."
They spurred their horses ahead, but they never noticed as they bent their heads to avoid the blast that they kept straight on, instead of taking the turn to the right, where die road divided. So fast was the snow falling, drifting as it did so, that the tracks of the horses just ahead of them were almost blotted out.
"They must be galloping," said Dick. "Come on, Paul."
They urged their wearied horses to a gallop, expecting soon to come within sight of the rear of the squad. But, as they went on and on, the road became more impassable. The snow was at least two feet deep now, and more was falling every minute.
"I can't see anything of them," said Paul, peering ahead into the white mist.
"Me either. Let's give a yell."
They called, but the echo was their only reply.
"Can you see any tracks?" asked Dick, leaning over in the saddle, and scanning the ground.
"No. Can you?"
"Not a one."
The lads straightened up, and looked at each other. Their steeds whinnied helplessly, complaining thus of the cold.
"Dick," said Paul, "I believe we've taken the wrong turn."
"I didn't see any turn to take. We've come a straight road."
"I don't believe so. Rutledge said something about turning to the right."
"I know he did, but I didn't see any turn."
"Neither did I, but we're certainly on the wrong road now. This hasn't been traveled this winter."
"Looks that way. Say, we've come up the side of the mountain. I wondered what made the horses so blown."
It needed but a glance to show that this was so. Unconsciously they had taken a path leading up the mountain, and they were now on what was evidently a wood-road, in the midst of a forest.
As they stood there, vainly starting about, there came a fiercer burst of the storm, and on the wings of a stinging, cold wind there came such a cloud of snow flakes that they could not see ten feet ahead of them.
"We're caught in a blizzard!" shouted Dick. "We must keep close together, Paul."