The Boys of Columbia High on the River/Chapter 8

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"Are you game to spend the night down by the river, Buster?" asked Frank, as he walked toward home with the fat and jolly student.

"Am I? Since my heft unfits me for participating in the glorious events of to-morrow, save as an humble 'tubber,' I'm just tickled at the chance to serve my fellow club members as a guardian of their cherished craft," replied the other, with his chest thrust out pompously.

Frank laughed at the assumption of dignity.

"No danger of you ever wanting for a job, so long as drum majors in bands are in demand, Buster. But who's going to be company with you?" he inquired, seriously.

"I've asked Bones Shadduck. You see in an affair of this sort variety is really the spice of it, and we represent the fat and the lean," grinned Buster.

"It will be a lonely watch, I imagine, if one of you intends staying awake. I suppose you mean to take turns at standing guard?" asked Frank.

"Sure. And I've arranged it so that there can be no sleeping on post. These walking skeletons are so apt to get drowsy, you know; and in this case it might be a fatal thing, for I've had a sort of side tip that the betting crowd have wagered Columbia will never start in the race, or get as far as Rattail Island, anyhow."

"Is that a fact?" remarked Frank, with a whistle to indicate his annoyance; "then it's a wise thing you fellows intend to stand guard. Have you any signal to call help in case of trouble," he inquired, anxiously.

"Have we?" echoed Buster, with a laugh; "well, if you happen to wake up in the night and hear the fire bells ringing like mad just dust into your duds like fun and streak it for the clubhouse, that's all. Some of the fellows will be there, up to eleven or so, and after that Bones and myself take charge. Perhaps I'll have something funny to tell you when we meet again, Frank."

"All right, then. Acting on your suggestion I'm going to have my clothes handy for a quick turn. Make preparations for fire, while you're about it, Buster."

"Do you really think any one of them would go that far?" demanded the other.

"I hate to think so, but you know as well as I do that when men make a business of gambling on races they will stop at nothing in order to win, I've even heard of cases where one of the contestants was made sick just before the race, to weaken him; a boat damaged by fire; a jockey bribed to throw a race; or a favorite horse doped while in the stable. Don't sleep, Buster, on duty, or it may cost us dear!" urged Frank.

"You just bet I won't, and to keep Bones on the alert I'm going to bring a bottle of cold coffee around with me. Nothing like it to prevent you from getting dopy. But there's a fire extinguisher at the club, you know. Besides, they have a hose we use to wash our boats out with. Oh! we'll bamboozle the tricky Cliffordites if they come nosing around," declared Buster, cheerfully.

"Perhaps the Cliffordites may not be the only ones anxious to upset our calculations for to-morrow," said Frank, slowly.

"I know, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit," remarked the other, mysteriously. "To tell you the truth, Frank, although I haven't said a word to any one about it, I did see Lef Seller prowling around the boathouse when nearly every fellow was outside watching your crew come down the river, and heading for the home stake."

"Then he's up to mischief, you can depend on it. The more that fellow is knocked out in his calculations the deeper he digs. That's the only good trait Lef has as far as I know; he never gives anything up!"

"Yes, but when he's caught in a trap he acts like a baby, and makes all sorts of promises to reform," sneered Buster, who could remember several cases in point.

"I ought to know that," observed Frank, with a smile, "for he declared to me in the most positive way that he meant to turn over a new leaf if I'd keep mum about a certain thing, where I had him dead to rights."

"Well, tell me, did he?" demanded his companion.

"Just so long as he knew I was holding the evidence. When he found a chance to steal that away from me he laughed in my face, and no doubt dubbed me an easy mark. But he had better beware, for there's a Nemesis on his track now who means to pull him down."

Buster looked startled at these mysterious words.

"Who's that, Frank?" he asked, in some awe.

"I don't dare tell you, for fear that he gets wind of it. You just wait and see what happens. The pitcher may go once too often to the well, you know, Buster."

"Yes, and get smashed at last. Oh! I hope I'm around when Lef runs foul of this mysterious avenger. I hope he gives him a good healthy licking, that will go a big way toward wiping out the many scores we all owe him. That's what I say. But I leave you here, Frank. Columbia looks to you to win to-morrow, sure, remember, old top!" and he laid a hand affectionately on the arm of his chum.

"I hope Columbia won't be badly disappointed, that's all. But you mustn't put it that way, Buster; there are eight other fellows with me, and every one of them carries just as much responsibility on his shoulders as I do, even if I am the coxswain of the crew. Then there are the members of the four-oared shell crew, besides the single scullers, the canoeists who expect to compete, and even a number of our power-boats have entered for a match. Columbia can't expect to carry off all the honors, you know. We must be satisfied with our share; but every fellow is of course hoping that share will just include the race in which he is interested. So good night, and luck to you in your watch!"

Frank would himself have joined in guarding the boathouse that night only for the positive instructions on the part of Coach Willoughby to the effect that every contestant in the principal events of the morrow must promise to be in his bed by ten o'clock, to which all had agreed.

They were even limited to the various things which they could eat for dinner that night, and breakfast the following morning; since, if a man's stomach goes back on him at the critical stage when he is straining every muscle and nerve to do his level best, his case becomes hopeless.

Minnie Cuthbert, accompanied by Paul Bird and one of the latter's sisters, came over after supper. They expected to have a pleasant evening, with the understanding that Frank was to retire punctually at his given time.

School songs were sung with great vim, and passersby were impelled to stop and listen to those fresh young voices as in unison they trolled out the many familiar tunes. Paul, being on the training list also, it would be necessary that he start home before the town clock struck ten in order to comply with his promise.

"Come over here a minute, Frank; I want to speak to you," Paul remarked in a whisper, when the girls were laughing over some of the songs in the collection from which they had been singing.

"What's the racket now?" asked Frank, who could see from the manner of his chum that the other was worried about something.

"That fellow means to try and do something or other to you to keep you out of the race to-morrow. I hate to speak that way of any chap, but I wouldn't put it past Lef Seller one little minute," observed Paul, when he had drawn the other aside.

"Of course you've got some good reason for saying that, Paul?" argued Frank, as he looked keenly into the face of the other.

"Well, I'm speaking partly on general principles, you see, judging from past performances on the part of the gentleman in question. Then again, I want to know what he was loafing around your house for, this evening?" answered Paul.

"To-night? You mean you saw him around when you came here?" demanded Frank, his forehead wrinkled in a frown of annoyance.

"A fellow started out of the fence corner as we came up, and slouched away. He managed to hide his face all right, and the girls never gave him a second look; but somehow his actions seemed a bit suspicious to me, and I watched him pass the gas light just beyond," went on Paul, earnestly.

"And you recognized him then?"

"It was certainly Lef Seller. Now, what was he doing hanging around here, and the very night before the race, of all times? That cub has some kind of a mean game in hand, as usual; and it means trouble for you, Frank," and Paul's voice told of his concern over the welfare of his chum.

"Oh! I guess you must be mistaken this time, Paul. Tell you what seems more likely to me," and Frank glanced hastily toward the merry group of pretty girls, as he unconsciously lowered his already soft tones; "I'd be more apt to believe that he followed you here, and you just happened to see him slink away."

"But he's never bothered with me. All his venom seems to be directed toward you, Frank. I don't catch on to your meaning," observed Paul, puzzled.

"Oh! shucks, why do you make me say it plainer? It's Minnie! Lef used to go with her considerably before she and I became such good friends. That's the real secret of his hatred for me, when you sift it down. He's still soft in that direction, especially since she has refused to speak to him after that runaway incident where I happened to play a little part."

"Oh! I see. And you really think that he was hanging around the Cuthbert house when Bessie and myself went to get Minnie to bring her here? Well, perhaps it's so; but promise me, Frank, that you'll be careful."

"You all make me feel as though I might be a precious cut glass vase, with a sign of 'hands off!' hung on me. Oh! why certainly, if it pleases you, Paul, I'll sleep with one eye open to-night, and my window nailed so that no ferocious burglar can crawl in to bruise me against to-morrow. But I'll be glad when this awful tension is over."

"So will I, Frank. Everybody seems to feel as if something dreadful is hanging over our heads. That boat being stolen last night shows how easy things can be done, if only there is a will! I wish it was to-morrow night," sighed Paul; who, while a fine, manly fellow, lacked some of the resolute and self-reliant qualities that made his friend such a factor in bringing victory to Columbia High on many an occasion.

It was about a quarter to ten when the trio of young people bade Frank and Helen good night, and went away. Frank, standing out on the steps, looked after them. Perhaps he was following the trim figure of Minnie as far as he could see her; and then again it might be that some recollection of Paul's mysterious warning flitted through his mind at that moment.

But if Lef Seller still hovered around he gave no token of his presence; and so Frank presently followed his sister into the house. He was shaking his head as if puzzled to know just what species of meanness his bitter rival could be engineering now, with the idea of hurting the one he hated, even if to do so he had to sacrifice Columbia's chances in the great event of the morrow.

"He's getting to be a big nuisance, that's what, and I really hope Lanky manages to learn enough to warrant him giving Lef the licking he promised him. I believe he can do it, too, once he's worked up to the point of sailing in; and it would do me good to be around when the circus comes off."

The idea seemed to please him, for he was still chuckling when he said good night to the others in the library, and went up to his room.

Once he tumbled into bed he was no great time in getting asleep, for the laborious work of the day had wearied his muscles. Still, he did not forget the warning of both Buster and Paul. He only partially disrobed when lying down on the outside of the bed clothes; and he fixed a nail in the partly open window so that it could not be raised from without.

These things made Frank smile more than once, for he could not bring himself to believe that the knavery of those who might plot to ruin Columbia's chances in the races would be directed especially against him.

Frank had no idea how long he had slept, though it must have been several hours later when he was awakened by a furious jangling of bells. Jumping to his feet his pulses thrilled with great excitement as he realized that it was in truth the fire-bells he heard, and whanging away in a fashion that could have only one meaning.

It was the signal agreed upon to indicate that help was needed at the Columbia High boathouse. Some miserable business was on tap looking to the disabling of the precious shells so necessary toward winning on the morrow!

Slipping on his clothes, Frank dashed out of the front door and started down the path to the gate. He had hardly taken a dozen jumps when in the darkness he came upon some benches that had been placed across the walk evidently with just this mean purpose in view. Unable to restrain his furious rush he went sprawling over in a heap, at the risk of breaking a bone in leg or arm!