The Boys of Columbia High on the River/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV


WHERE THE SPRING CROSSED THE ROAD


Every eye was glued upon the leading shells.

Bellport was out of it, being an even length behind Clifford. But the latter had commenced to shoot up on Columbia, and was gaining fast!

Many a faithful Columbia heart stood still in that dreadful moment, when hope fled from its throne, and they saw defeat staring them in the face.

There was only one chance. Frank immediately increased his stroke to the limit, and so guided the boat that the pull of the four oars against three would not be apt to throw them out of a straight line.

Jonsey, with his last effort, had thrown his spoon-oar far aside, and it had been left behind in that mad dash for the line. Still the Clifford boat shoved up. Now Frank could see its nose passing him, and he shut his teeth hard; but there was no remedy. Perhaps they might yet be saved by the nearness of the goal, handicapped as they were by a useless man, who was more or less in the way.

The cord was stretched across the water, and both boats shot under the bridge at what seemed to be the same time.

Which had won?

Immediately a dispute arose between the adherents of both schools.

"It's Clifford's race!" shouted some.

"Columbia was just a foot ahead when they reached the string! Columbia wins!" challenged others, ready to stick up for their colors to the end.

"Leave it with the umpire! What's the matter with his decision? That's what he's here for!" cried still others.

Great was the suspense while the committee gathered together to talk it over and render a decision, based upon what the umpire said, and their own observations; for they had been holding the two ends of that cord, and ought to know what the result must be.

"Look! there's Colonel Sharpe climbing up on the bridge. He's at the head of the committee, and he's going to announce the winner!" called one man.

The crowd at first applauded wildly, for they wanted to know what had been the decision of that committee, formed of citizens from each town.

"Silence!"

"Let the colonel talk, fellows!"

"Stop that tooting up there! Be sensible for once!"

The colonel held up his hand. He did not mean to speak until he could be sure of a chance of being heard. So many in the crowd began to hush others who seemed to show a lack of courtesy. Finally all was still, and the chairman spoke.

"The committee, after watching the conclusion of the race, wishes to announce that both Columbia and Clifford came across the wire neck and neck, and that hence it was a dead heat! They also desire to say that the eight-oared race between the two contestants thus placed, will be rowed on next Saturday morning, over this same course, at ten o'clock. That is all!"

Confusion followed. Of course there were numerous devoted adherents on both sides who vehemently insisted that the decision was open to doubt, as their crew surely had a lead at the time. Others, fairer-minded, rebuked these scoffers.

"There couldn't be a fairer umpire than Rafferty; and besides he comes from Bellport, which makes him without any prejudice. And then the members of the committee were right there on the ground, and they are unanimous in saying that the two boats arrived at the finish at exactly the same instant. It only means more bully good times on Saturday, fellows! May the best crew win then. Hurrah for everybody!" they shouted.

Gradually the immense crowd began to disperse. The cars going to Bellport were loaded to their full capacity, although the company had brought out every sort of means of transportation to meet the enormous demand.

Vehicles filled the road leading north; while the surface of the river was dotted with various types of boats, most of them heading toward home.

An hour later and Columbia had begun to assume normal conditions. The magnificent race, and its startling conclusion, was sure to be the theme at every dinner table that day.

Jonsey had recovered, but he was broken-hearted because his collapse had robbed his team of the victory that had seemed assured.

"Never again in a long race like that for me. I could stand two miles, or even three, but four was too much!" he declared, dolefully, as his mates rubbed him briskly in the boathouse while they were taking a shower and dressing.

Frank had already spoken to "Ginger" Harper, the member of the four-oared crew whose work and stamina he had admired; and secured his ready promise to take the place of Jonsey in the next race.

"With you on deck we'll just walk away with the cup, sure," he had said, shaking the hand of the new recruit; and Ginger had grinned with pleasure, for it was a great honor to be thus invited higher up, and he appreciated it.

In all the intense excitement attending the race and its dramatic conclusion Frank had forgotten about the promise made by Lanky that later on he would lift the veil of secrecy, and reveal what he had discovered in connection with the identity of the one responsible for that smash-up on the river.

He remembered seeing his friend hastily dressing, and at the time thought Lanky showed signs of undue speed; but it had passed out of his mind. These minor things were of such small importance besides the great business of the day.

Frank walked back home with Ralph West, who was bubbling over with excitement, having shouted himself hoarse during the morning under the manipulation of the wonderful cheer captain, Herman Hooker.

"It was a shame to lose that race," said Ralph, disconsolately; "and just when you had it cinched so finely too."

"Well, yes, perhaps so, but to tell the truth I'm mighty well satisfied to get out as decently as we did," replied Frank.

"What do you mean by that?" demanded the other, staring at him.

"Why, all along I knew Jonsey was a weak card. Coach Willoughby knew it too, and told me to favor him all I could. When we got to that bend I saw that he was nearly all in, and after that imagine the awful strain on my nerves. Oh! yes, we were lucky to be able to hold our own at the last when Clifford spurted. If the stake had been twenty feet further down they would have won," remarked Frank.

"The boys say it was Columbia day," laughed Ralph.

"I reckon it must have been, when even our misfortunes failed to down us. Suppose Jonsey had doubled up further along, and before we struck the bend? We'd have had to tumble him overboard, and try to get along as cripples. Clifford would have worked like wild men then, and surely overhauled us. I'm satisfied, Ralph."

"I had another letter to-day, Frank," the other said, changing the subject.

Frank shot a swift look at the face of his companion.

"I don't imagine there was any particularly good news in it then, Ralph?" he remarked.

"No. Your Uncle Jim simply writes that when he got to Stockholm it was to find that the parties he was following had taken a steamer for England."

"Perhaps they're on the way home then. When people go to England from the Continent it is usually to get a steamer across. Perhaps you may see the lady you are longing to meet before many suns rise and set," suggested Frank.

His companion sighed heavily; but at the same time an eager light shone in his eyes as he winked rapidly to keep the tears away.

"Oh! I hope so," he said, softly, "I hope so, Frank. Then perhaps some of my dreams may come true. To find a mother would be next door to Heaven to me!"

Frank had to go over the whole story of the race at the dinner table. True, his mother and father as well as Helen had been eye witnesses of the start and conclusion, but that was not everything. He told just how he had managed things to hold out against the coming tragic conclusion which he had foreseen long before it happened.

After dinner Helen went off, saying that she and Minnie had agreed to take the other boat belonging to Frank and row down the river; for all Columbia was "water mad," as Frank said, on this day of the regatta.

It was about two o'clock when Frank's father requested him to mount his wheel and carry a letter to Squire Prentice, who lived a couple of miles out on the road leading over to Chester, away from the river.

A little spin like that was next door to nothing, when mounted on a good wheel. Besides, as he laughingly declared, it would "give him a chance to get some of the kinks out of his cramped legs." Frank arranged in his mind that after he returned he would hunt Lanky up, or failing to locate him, get Paul Bird to go down the river with him after the girls, who might find the current stronger than they imagined, and balk at the row home.

Flying along the road he reached the country seat of Squire Prentice, who conducted the law business of Mr. Allen, owner of the big department store in Columbia.

Without wasting time Frank started back to town. The day was hot, as nearly all Fourth of July holidays are, and he enjoyed the breeze created by his own rapid passage.

He had covered possibly a quarter of the return journey when he came to where the woods ran through Jones' woods. A spring among the trees allowed the water to trickle across the road, making it slippery at this place.

Frank slowed down considerably, for he had come near taking a header at this point when going, and was cautious. He thought he saw something frisk around the base of a big oak, and was wondering if it could have been a gray squirrel.

Without the least warning a stout stick was suddenly thrust out from a covert of bushes and Frank felt a shove that of course threw him off his balance. He struggled to maintain his seat, but the wheel toppled over, and he was thrown to the ground just where the road seemed so slippery.

Before he could struggle to his feet some heavy object landed on him, and he found himself flattened out under the weight of an unknown man!