These stirring events, as we said before, broke up the “set” completely, and made fast friends of Don Gordon and Tom Fisher, who, holding firmly to their determination to do better, gradually broke off their intimate relations with the lazy, mischievous, and discontented members of their classes, and began to have more to do with fellows who were worth knowing. The manly stand they had taken during the investigation (it was a manly act on Don’s part, but largely prudential on the part of Tom Fisher) excited the wonder and admiration of all the students, and the boys in the upper classes, who had never taken any notice of them except to return their salutes, now sought them out and became intimate with them. It was certainly a great relief to Don to associate with fellows who were not all the while grumbling about something or discussing plans for getting by the guard. One day he was surprised by a visit from Egan, the first sergeant of his company, who entered his room holding an open letter in his hand.
“Say, Gordon,” he exclaimed, taking no notice of Don’s salute, “why didn’t you let the fellows know that your father used to go to this school?”
“Some of them do know it,” replied Don.
“Well, I didn’t know it until I received this letter,” said the sergeant, helping himself to a chair and throwing his cap on Bert’s bed. “I spoke of you in a letter I wrote home a short time ago, and am surprised to learn that your father and mine used to be room-mates and chums when they belonged to this academy. Let’s shake.”
Don took the sergeant’s proffered hand, and this was the beginning of another friendship that has never been broken. The sergeant was just the kind of associate that Don needed. He was a faithful soldier, a close student, a favorite with both teachers and scholars, and his example and influence did wonders for Don Gordon. It is true that during his first year at the academy he had been rather restive under the strict discipline to which he was subjected. He had even run the guard – if he hadn’t he would not have known as much as he did about Cony Ryan’s pancakes and maple syrup – and he had paid for his fun by walking extras and being gated; but that was all over now, and he was one of the last boys in school who would have been suspected of any violation of the rules.
Egan introduced his new friend to the fellows in the first class, and first-class fellows Don found them to be. Some of them were fond of shooting and fishing, knew a good dog and gun when they saw them, and could tell hunting stories without number. Others among them – and they were Southern boys, like Don – thought more of their horses than they did of almost anything else. They were at home in the saddle, and delighted to talk of the fine times they had enjoyed while riding to the hounds. Courtland Hopkins, who was the Falstaff of the academy, always grew enthusiastic when the subject of fox-hunting was introduced.
“Ah! Gordon,” he said one day, “that is the sport par excellence.
“I’d like to see you in the saddle, Hop,” said Egan, taking his friend by the arm and turning him around so that he could give him a good looking over. “You’ve almost too much avoirdupois for a rider, according to my way of thinking. In other words, you’re a great deal too fat.”
“Just give me a good horse, and see if I can’t take a ten-rail fence as cleverly as anybody,” returned Hopkins, quickly. “I am good for a plate of soup at the International if there is a colt in Bridgeport that can throw me.”
“If you will all go home with me, I will give you some of the best duck-shooting you ever saw,” said Don.
“Yes; but that would require a scatter-gun, and that is something I never did like,” said Walter Curtis. “If you want to see fun, combined with skill, take a Thanksgiving dinner with me, and watch the members of our club break glass balls with rifles.”
These words were spoken carelessly, but they were not forgotten. If they had been, this series of books would never have been written.
Time flew on, the school term drew to a close, and at last the “day of all days” – the day to which all the students in the Bridgeport Military Academy looked forward with the liveliest anticipations of pleasure – arrived. Of late there had been a perceptible bustle among the boys. Those of their number who had hitherto thought of nothing but mischief, and whose highest ambition was to shirk their duty in every way they could, began to show some interest in the daily school routine, and tried by the hardest kind of study and strict attention to business, to make up for the time they had lost. There was no idleness, and consequently no rules were broken, and there was no extra duty to be done. There was less time wasted in loitering about the grounds, the hours of recreation being devoted to the discussion of various plans for amusement, and to the overhauling of fly-books and trolling-lines. Their studies were soon to be thrown aside for a whole month; their pleasant dormitories were to be exchanged for shelter-tents; fly-rods, oars, and geologists’ hammers were to take the place of the pens, pencils, and mathematical instruments that had so long been their daily companions; and their tiresome drills were to give way to moonlight boat-rides and to – well, to some other sports that would not have been permitted while the students were living at the academy, but which were winked at during the time they were in camp. What these sports were shall be told presently.
As the eventful day drew near, the excitement and impatience, and, we may add, anxiety, of the students increased to such a degree that it was all they could do to study. The reason for this state of affairs was found in the fact that it had somehow leaked out – through what source no one seemed able to tell – that an event of unusual interest was to take place during this particular encampment; something that had never occurred before, and might never occur again. Some of the first-class boys who were in the secret, had said just enough to put their companions on nettles, but not enough to give them even the faintest idea of what they might expect.
“I know that boat-riding, and trolling for pickerel, and spearing eels by torch-light, are fine sports,” Egan said to Don, one day, “and they are exciting, too, when you have no better way of passing the time; but you very soon forget all about the pleasure you have in that way, don’t you? Well, there’s something going to happen very shortly that you’ll not forget so easily, I tell you. You will remember it as long as you live.”
“Now, sergeant, what is it?” exclaimed Don, after Egan had talked to him a few times in this way. “Can’t you give me a hint?”
“No. Couldn’t possibly think of it.”
“Well, then, if you were told to keep it to yourself, why don’t you do it? What’s the use of aggravating a fellow in this way?”
“I assure you, my dear boy, that no aggravation is intended,” replied Egan, in his blandest tones. “I only meant to prepare you for something you never dreamed of. If your eyes don’t open and your hair stand on end, I – whew! I can’t think of it without a little thrill of excitement.”
Meanwhile the question as to where and how the coming vacation should be spent, had been repeatedly referred to and talked over by Don and his three friends in the first class – Egan, Hopkins and Curtis. The latter was anxious to go home and join his friends in the club-shoot that always came off on Thanksgiving day; Hopkins wanted Don to see him add another “brush” to the numerous trophies of the chase that adorned the walls of his room; and Don held out strongly in favor of his own shooting-grounds about Diamond Lake. The matter was finally settled by the assistance of General Gordon, who sent each of the boys a cordial invitation to spend at least a small portion of their next vacation at Don’s shooting-box, and made sure of its acceptance by communicating with the fathers of these students, all of whom he had known in the days of his boyhood. This point having been decided to his entire satisfaction, Don could have settled down to good hard work, had it not been for the fact that he was continually looking forward to that “unusual and interesting event” that was to transpire when the boys went into camp. His curiosity had been aroused to the highest pitch, and he could scarcely think about anything else.
The sun rose clear and cloudless on the morning of the first day of August, and before the echoes awakened by the roar of the field-piece had fairly died away, the boys were crowding into the drill-room. Breakfast was served immediately after roll-call, and two hours later three hundred students, led by the band and marching with the precision of veteran soldiers, moved through the wide gateway, and down the principal street of the village toward their camping-ground. Everybody turned out to see them. Flags and handkerchiefs were waved all along their line of march, flowers were showered into their ranks, and when, in obedience to the command: “Platoons, right front into line, double time, march!” they broke from column of fours into column of platoons, the cheers that greeted their prompt and soldier-like execution of the man?uvre, which is always an awkward one unless it is well done, were always deafening.
The camp was always pitched upon a little rise of ground about three miles from the village. In front of it was the river, on its left arose a range of hills which were almost high enough to be called mountains, and among these hills were located the streams and ponds in which the speckled trout, pickerel, sunfish and bass abounded. Here too, were found the thieving raccoons that ravaged the farmers’ corn-fields, the hawks that caught their chickens, and the black and gray squirrels which afforded the boys many an exciting hunt and excellent dinner. Between these hills and the camp ran a wide and deep creek, whose rapid current often baffled the skill of the young engineers who tried to throw a pontoon-bridge across it.
On reaching the camping ground the arms were stacked, and the tents, which had already arrived, were distributed among the different companies and pitched at the tap of the drum. Then working-parties were detailed to grade and ditch the streets, provide fire-wood for the kitchens and to perform various other duties, and when they were relieved at four o’clock in the afternoon, the little camp presented a scene of neatness and order with which the most exacting officer could not have found a word of fault.
There were several orders read that night on dress-parade, and among them was one that expressly prohibited “foraging.” Don could not see the necessity for such an order, so he waited for an opportunity to speak to Egan about it.
“It means,” said the latter, in response to Don’s inquiries, “that we mustn’t steal anything from the farmers hereabouts.”
“So I supposed. But who is there among us who would be mean enough to do such a thing?”
“I don’t know about it’s being mean,” replied the sergeant, in a tone of voice that made Don open his eyes. “We want something good to eat, don’t we?”
“Of course we do; but why can’t we buy what we want? We’ve all got a little pocket-money.”
“That’s very likely; but it is cheaper to forage.”
“But suppose you are caught at it?”
“That’s your lookout. You must be sharp enough to get away with your plunder after you have secured it.”
“I’ll not try it,” said Don, decidedly. “I’ve had trouble enough this term, and I am not going to have any more black marks placed against my name if I can help it. Besides, I don’t see what there is to steal.”
“O, there are lots of things. The farmers hardly ever lock their spring-houses, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to slip into one of them and take a good swig out of a pan of milk that has cream on it an inch thick. Ah!” said the sergeant, smacking his lips. “That’s the way Hop got himself into a snarl last camp.”
“Not Court Hopkins!” exclaimed Don.
“Yes, Courtland Hopkins. He and a party of fellows went down to Hudson’s one day after some eggs and butter – by the way, that same farmer Hudson always has a splendid melon patch, and the melons will begin to ripen pretty soon – and while some of the boys were occupying the attention of the farmer’s wife, Hop slipped around to the spring-house, and there he found a five-gallon jar full of fresh buttermilk. That was too much for Hop, who can make way with more buttermilk than any boy I ever saw. He grabbed the jar and made off with it; but just as he was leaving the spring-house, Hudson, who was at work in a field close by, caught sight of him and started in pursuit. Hop heard him coming, and knowing that he could not escape with his burden, he put it down, never spilling a drop of the milk, and took to his heels. Fat as he is, he led Hudson a good long chase, but he was collared at last and taken to camp.”
Don was utterly amazed. Here was Hopkins, who was looked upon by all his companions as a model of perfection, and yet he had been caught in the act of stealing; and here was Egan, another good scholar and a non-commissioned officer besides, who told the story of his friend’s guilt as though it were something well worth relating. Don could not understand it.
“What did they do with him?” he asked, as soon as he had somewhat recovered from his surprise.
“Well, the superintendent thought that that was carrying matters a little too far, and so he refused Hop a pass for a week,” was the sergeant’s reply. “But he didn’t gain any black marks by it.”
“How was that?” inquired Don.
“Why, you see, your record for the term is all made up, and the hooks are closed; and any mischief you may do here in camp will not count against you in the examination. We come out here to have fun, and the teachers are willing we should have it, so long as we keep within bounds. The farmers around here make lots of money out of us every year, and if we want to go into their orchards and melon-patches and help ourselves to what we find there, we are welcome to do it, if we go about it openly and above board; but if we try to forage on them, they enter into the spirit of the matter as fully as we do, and make every effort to capture us. If they succeed, they march us to camp, and all the boys laugh at us, and we have to fork over money enough to pay for the articles we took, whatever they are. But after all one don’t lose anything by it, for very likely that same farmer will meet you the next day and give you a peck of peaches, or an armful of green-corn or a water-melon as big as you can carry.”
Don began to understand the matter now, and to see why it was that the students looked forward to their month in camp with so much eagerness and impatience. Here were opportunities for him to work off a little of his superabundant energy without violating any rules or doing harm to anybody, and those who are acquainted with him will know that he was not long in making up his mind to improve them.
“But there is one thing we have to keep constantly before us,” continued the sergeant, who did not fail to notice and to rightly interpret the look he saw in Don’s eye. “The teachers do not object to innocent fun, but anything that savors of meanness won’t go down. If a boy oversteps the mark, he goes back to the academy and stays there under guard. Duncan went back last camp for trying to rob a hen-roost. The farmer who owned the fowls laughed and said it was all right, but the teachers didn’t think so. I never foraged so much as an ear of corn; but I am a number one deserter.”
“Deserter!” echoed Don, growing more and more interested.
“Yes. You see, we want to do things here just as they are done in a regular camp, and there is much more fun in working up a case against a real culprit, who will try by every means in his power to hide his guilt, than there is in trumping up a charge against some innocent boy. I have deserted every time I have been in camp.”
“What did they do with you?”
“Nothing, for I got back before I was caught. If I had been captured by any of the scouting parties that were sent out in pursuit of me, I should have been court-martialed, and ordered to the guard-tent to await sentence. That’s the way they did with Hop, who was sentenced to be shot. But then he deserted when the camp was supposed to be surrounded by the enemy. Hop always was unlucky. He can’t do any mischief without being caught at it.”
“How did they carry out the sentence?” asked Don.
“They didn’t carry it out. They simply put him in the guard-tent, and about midnight the officer of the day came along and let him out; and that was the last of it. When the members of the Grand Army of the Republic hold their encampments, and capture a deserter or a spy, they go through all the forms – seating the prisoner blindfolded on a coffin and shooting at him with blank cartridges. But we don’t believe in that. It is almost too much like the reality. By the way, Gordon, that great European seven-elephant railroad show is advertised to pitch its tent in Bridgeport very shortly, and I should really like to see the man who turns a double somerset over three elephants and four camels; wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I would, and I’ll go if you will. Shall we ask for a pass?”
“Certainly not, because we don’t intend to come back until we get ready. The boys all want to get out of the lines for exercise, and nothing would suit them better than tramping about the country in search of us.”
Just then the officer of the day appeared at the door of his tent and beckoned to the sergeant, who hurried away, leaving Don to himself. The latter wished most heartily that that great European seven-elephant railroad show had been billed to appear at Bridgeport that very night, for he was in just the right humor for an adventure. Like Egan, he had no taste for foraging. It is true that he had joined in raids upon melon-patches when they were closely guarded, and when he knew that speedy punishment would be visited upon him if he were discovered and captured, and he might, without a great deal of urging, have been induced to do the same thing over again, if there were any risk to be run; but the thought of plundering a good-natured farmer who would freely have given him all the melons he wanted, was not to be entertained for a moment. Desertion, as proposed by Egan, was, according to Don’s way of thinking, a more high-toned proceeding. Creeping unobserved past the sentries; visiting an entertainment that would doubtless be witnessed by a majority of the teachers, and fifty or perhaps a hundred of their school-fellows, all of whom would be glad to report them “just for the fun of the thing;” roaming about the country wherever their fancy led them; dodging the scouting parties that were sent in pursuit, and at last, when weary of their freedom, making their way back to camp and into their tents without being caught – there was something interesting and exciting in all this, and the longer Don thought of it the more he wished that the show would hasten its coming.
During the first two weeks the students were kept at work at something nearly all the time, and there were but few passes granted. Don and Egan were among those who were lucky enough to get out of the lines for an afternoon, and before they came back they had made arrangements for procuring citizen’s clothes in which to visit the show when it arrived. After that Don became more impatient and uneasy than ever, and proposed to his friend Egan that they should desert at once, and stay out until the show left town.
“Oh, that would never do,” was the sergeant’s reply. “We want to absent ourselves only on our ‘off’ days – that is, on days when there is no work to be done in surveying, or in artillery and rifle-practice. You know I am to complete the course this year, and as I want to pass a good examination, I must be on hand to receive all the practical instruction I can. I wouldn’t like to miss that.”
“But we don’t seem to have any ‘off’ days,” answered Don. “We are kept busy all the time. What’s the use of surrounding the camp with these rifle-pits?”
“There are two reasons for it. In the first place, the enemy may be hovering around watching for a chance to make an attack upon us.”
Don laughed outright.
“And in the next place, you want to learn just how to go to work to fortify a camp in case you should ever have command of one.”
“Which is not at all likely,” interrupted Don. “Why can’t the engineers stake out the works so that we could see the shape of them, and stop at that? I didn’t come here to handle picks and shovels for so many hours every day, and I don’t see any sense in it.”
Almost the first thing the superintendent did after the students were fairly settled in their new quarters, was to put the engineers at work laying out a very elaborate system of fortifications with which the entire camp was surrounded. The boys would have made no complaint if he had been satisfied with that; but he wasn’t. When the fortifications had been laid out, he detailed working-parties to build them, just as he would have done if the camp had been located in an enemy’s country. Such a thing had never been done before, and Don Gordon was not the only one who could not see any sense in it. At first the boys laughed at their sergeants and corporals, who urged them to greater exertions with their picks and shovels, assuring them at the same time that an attack might be expected at any moment, and finally they began to get angry with them; but the attack was made all the same.