The Boys of Columbia High on the River/Chapter 23
ON THE HOME STRETCH
"Here they come!"
"Hurrah for the boys of good old Columbia!"
"Don't shout before you're out of the woods, fellows! This is the time Clifford trims your athletes good and hard!" shrilled a brawny lad from up the river, as he waved a little flag defiantly in the faces of the Columbia enthusiasts.
"Will they. Maybe—maybe not!" laughed Jack Eastwick, mockingly.
"Why, you've got a busted balloon in your crew. That fellow wants to try a race of a mile. Four miles is a man's race! Put him in the baby class," cried the other.
"Just take notice, Clifford, that Mr. Jonsey isn't grabbing his share of the cedar shell now as they swing it into the water. There's another drafted in his place. You saw him row before, because he was in the four-oared race. See that sorreltop chap—well, that's the boy who's going to lick you out of your boots! That's Ginger Harper!"
"Like fun he is! We've made a change or two, you'll find, and expect to do better than before," the Clifford boy went on, confidently.
"Wait! The proof of the pudding is in the eating of it," and the dispute dropped.
Frank was a little solicitous about Lanky. He did not know just how badly his friend might have been bruised in his double encounter with Lef and his cronies. Lanky, however, declared that he had been thoroughly rubbed down at the gymnasium that same night, and was feeling in prime shape.
As Frank had himself taken the precaution to do the same, and never felt more fit for a game race, he no longer worried about the other.
The scene was almost a duplicate of the morning of the Fourth. The sun shone just as brightly, the river offered as charming a scene for the sport in prospect; and if the crowd seemed diminished by Bellport staying at home, her crew being out of the race, those who attended made up for their thinned numbers by a double display of wild enthusiasm.
Again had Coach Willoughby been influenced to remain over in order to serve in the double capacity of coach and starter. Everybody was satisfied with his work, and it certainly did the old Princeton graduate a world of good to be in close touch with his beloved sports again.
On the preceding day he had put the crew through a gruelling lot of work, and made sure that Ginger Harper learned the ropes in his position. Frank had asked his opinion later, and learned that the coach believed they had the race as good as won, barring accidents.
"Don't whisper a word of that to one of the boys, though. We don't want any over-confidence about it. Better let them believe they've got to strain every nerve to win," the other had said to Frank, in conclusion.
So Frank told them how Clifford had strengthened their crew; and every fellow was looking grim and determined as he took his place, just as though they were up against a handicap that had to be surmounted.
Up there near the bridge Frank knew those he loved were watching every move he made—father, mother, Helen, yes, and Minnie Cuthbert. He waved them a last signal as he sat there, and the smile of confidence on his face told his crew that no matter what he had said, Frank Allen fully believed they were going to come in ahead!
Each member of that crew immediately vowed to himself that it would be so ; and that he was going to pull that day as never before in all his life.
Herman Hooker was there of course, with his faithful cohorts. They made more noise than ever, and that big megaphone could send an eloquent exhortation far up the river, as Herman pleaded with the rowers to "hit her up another peg, bullies, just another, for dear old Columbia High!"
The faculty had come out in force, every teacher who was in town or within fifty miles of the place eager to see their boys win new honors. At another point along the course the famous Glee Club of Columbia had nestled, and as the two speedy shells raced past they made the air ring with the favorite airs of the rival schools, though of course favoring their own in the singing.
Ralph West had found a seat near Helen and Minnie, and at the start his voice was raised with all the rest in a great send-off for the home crew.
The girls were fairly quivering with eagerness as they strained their eyes to catch the last glimpse of the two boats ere they were lost to view around the bend.
"Oh! what do you think about it, Ralph? Was Clifford ahead at the bend? Some one shouted that below there. It wasn't so, was it?" pleaded Helen, with tears in her bright eyes, so great was her interest.
"That was a CliflFord fellow, you may be sure, and the wish was father to the thought. I was watching at the bend. You know we have a signal station there to tell us down here how the boats happen to lie at the time they pass," said Ralph, with a reassuring smile.
"So Frank said, but I had forgotten about it. I remember now I did see a blue flag run up, and there it is; but what does that mean, Ralph?" asked Helen.
"Boats were exactly even when they turned the bend. So you see it's just what Frank said they wanted to do, keep Clifford alongside. He's satisfied that though Clifford is said to be a tremendous power on the home stretch he's got a better crew right now. But all the same I understand he means to turn the upper stake in the lead."
All along the two shores of the Harrapin thousands eagerly waited for the minutes to pass. They talked and sang and laughed to kill time. Back and forth they exchanged compliments with the boys and girls from the upper town; but it was all good-natured chaff that was indulged in.
"I reckon there's a big bunch of Clifford people up around the stake at Rattail Island," said Ralph, after a bit, as he surveyed the restless throngs, and noted how almost universal the Columbia colors were flaunted.
"Why more there than here?" asked Minnie, quickly.
"It's nearer home for one thing, and many boys and girls would have to walk down, as there is no trolley. I was told that the banks were black with people last time, and everything seemed to be Clifford," replied the boy.
"Oh! isn't it almost time for them to come?" asked Helen; "because I just feel as though I couldn't stand the suspense much longer. I want to just shriek!"
"Please don't until you see Frank come in a winner," laughed Ralph.
"There, look, they are running another flag up on the pole; oh! what does that mean, Ralph?" queried Minnie.
"H'm! I don't just like that," muttered Ralph, uneasily.
"Hear the shouts, and they seem to be from the upriver people. Does that mean Clifford is ahead?" demanded Frank's sister, springing to her feet.
"Clifford has turned the upper stake ahead. And Frank surely said he intended to do that trick," replied Ralph, trying to smile.
"Will they be beaten, do you think? Is that going to upset all Frank's plans?" Helen continued to ask, solicitously.
"Oh! not necessarily. You see one of the boats had to come around last, and it might just as well be ours. Perhaps Frank changed his mind after that last confidential talk with Coach Willoughby. Perhaps the coach has such confidence in the power of Frank's crew to beat out the others that he wants Columbia to be just hanging on the flank of Clifford most of the way down."
Ralph said this bravely enough, but all the same deep down in his faithful heart he felt as though a cold hand had fallen. Could it be possible that something had befallen Columbia again, and that they were being left far in the lurch by their lusty young rivals.
"How far do you suppose Clifford is in the lead?"
"Will Frank be able to make it up if he leaves it to the last half mile?"
"Can't you find out just how they stand, please?"
Bombarded by such questions Ralph was at his wits ends how to reply.
"That's where the signal relay stations along the course show a weak place. They have no means of telling anything except which boat leads. But we won't have long to wait now, because they're coming flying down-stream like the wind. Listen, girls!"
"Oh! what is it? I hear cheering up there; it sounds like thunder?" cried Helen wringing her hands in excitement, and actually jumping up and down.
"I can't tell, except that the people seem to be some excited up yonder."
"And you said as much as that most of them were from Clifford. That would mean they have a reason to shout and act like mad. Clifford must be gaining; I'm sure of it Poor Frank!" cried Helen.
Minnie on the other hand was not ready to flinch.
"Don't you dare pity Frank when we don't know yet what is happening. Perhaps it's our fellows creeping up on the others. I'm going to cheer as hard as I can up to the very second the race is over, I don't care if Columbia is away behind. That's what we're here for, to give encouragement, and not cry," she said, stoutly.
"Hear! hear!" laughed Ralph, finding a little nourishment himself in these brave words of the girl who waved Columbia's colors more determinedly than ever.
Every eye was focussed on the bare flagpole at the bend.
At any moment now they knew the boats would appear at that curve in the stream, and the vital question that presented itself was, which would be in the van?
The shouting seemed to grow closer.
"They are coming! Oh! how excited I am; just feel my hands, Minnie. There, look one of them is coming around now! Oh! which is it, which is it?" whimpered Helen, her voice failing her in the crisis.
"There they are, both of the boats, and side by side!" cried Minnie; "didn't I tell you Frank would do it, Helen? There goes the flag, and, yes, it is blue again. Does that mean Clifford, Ralph West?"
"Yes, Clifford is apparently slightly in the lead on the home stretch; but just see how they are coming, will you? Did you ever see boats skim the water like that. Look! look! one of them is drawing ahead by bounds. Even here it is plainly noticeable! And that boat is going to win, I fairly believe!" said Ralph, hoarsely.
"Oh! which one can it be, which can it be?" cried the almost-distracted Helen.