“You’re a wise one, you are,” said he, when Clarence came up to him. “If it hadn’t been for some hocus-pocus that I don’t begin to understand, you would have got us all into a nice mess by your blundering. You told me to halt the ninth man, but it turned out to be somebody besides Don Gordon.”
“There’s where you are mistaken,” said Clarence. “It was Gordon and nobody else.”
“But he gave the signal all fair and square,” replied Dick, “and I’d like to know where he got it.”
“I am sure I don’t know. Fisher didn’t give it to him in my hearing, and I didn’t suppose he had it. I don’t know whether to be glad or sorry that you didn’t succeed in stopping him. He’s got a pocketful of money, and paid our bill at Cony’s last night like a gentleman; but he’s no good, and when the boys hear what he said to Tom and me just a few minutes ago, I don’t think they will go on any more excursions with him. He says that he will not blow on any of us, but if he is accused of running the guard, he will acknowledge it, because he can’t tell a lie.”
“Humph!” exclaimed Dick, contemptuously. “Somebody ought to make him the hero of a Sunday-school book. We don’t want anything more to do with him.”
“That’s what I say. Now be on your guard, and be careful how you talk to him.”
“But what shall I say to him if he insists on knowing why I challenged him?”
“Tell him as Fisher did, that you had to do it in order to protect yourself; that the officer of the day was talking with post No. 4, or something of that sort.”
Greatly to the relief and surprise of Tom Fisher and his party, no trouble grew out of that night’s work. The investigation came off that forenoon, but the matter was not sifted to the bottom, as the officer of the day had declared it should be, for the simple reason that it could not be done. All the floor-guards and sentries who had been on duty between the hours of ten in the evening and four in the morning were subjected to a thorough examination; but nothing was drawn from them. The innocent had nothing to tell, and the guilty ones were such adepts at lying that they succeeded in escaping punishment, even if they did not succeed in escaping suspicion. Dick Henderson said he had tried to stop somebody who ran past him; but he was quite positive that he did not know who he was. The officer of the day and the corporal of the guard were certain that they had looked into every room on all the floors, and that every bed was occupied. The only conclusion the superintendent could come to was, that somebody had been outside the grounds after taps; but who he was, and how he got out, were other and deeper questions. He held a council of war with the teachers after completing the examination of the sentries, and with them discussed various plans for preventing such excursions in future, or, at least, making them more difficult of accomplishment. One suggestion which he decided to adopt was carried out that very afternoon.
Of course Don and his guilty comrades were very anxious to learn the result of the investigation; and when the hour of recreation came, they sent out some of their number to interview the sentries and floor-guards.
“Well, as soon as we find out what new precautions are to be taken, we can lay our plans accordingly,” said Fisher to his friend Duncan. “What is it, Bub?” he added, turning to Dick Henderson, who just then hurried up with a face full of news.
“Come with me and see for yourselves,” answered Dick. “Last night’s work was an unlucky thing for us, but I am not to blame for it.”
Dick led the way around the academy building and stopped in front of the back door. It was open, and in the lower hall stood a carpenter who was bending over a box of tools. Fisher and Duncan looked at Dick, but he only shrugged his shoulders and waved his hand toward the man, as if to say that if they wanted any information they could ask it of him. Taking the hint, Tom inquired:
“What are you doing in there? – Anything broken?”
“Not that I know of,” replied the man, looking up to see who it was that addressed him. “I am putting some new fastenings on these doors so that you boys can’t slip out so easily of nights. I am afraid you are getting to be a bad lot – a very bad lot,” he added, with a grin, as he picked up three or four strong bolts and made his way up the stairs.
Clarence was thunderstruck, while Tom was so highly enraged that for a minute or two he could not trust himself to speak.
“I am not to blame for it, fellows,” repeated Dick. “I did just as I was told to do, as nearly as I could. I know I did not succeed in stopping Don Gordon, and I don’t believe there is a boy in school who could have stopped him; but I did my best.”
“I hope you see now what you have done by your meddling,” exclaimed Tom, turning fiercely upon Duncan. “You are not at all to blame, Dick; only another time don’t take any private orders from anybody. We all run the same risk, and we ought all to have a word to say in regard to the manner in which things shall be conducted.”
“If Dick had stopped Gordon, as I told him to do, this thing never would have happened,” said Duncan, as soon as he had had time to collect his wits.
“There’s where I differ with you,” answered Tom. “The fact that Gordon wasn’t stopped does not in the least alter the case, so far as these bolts are concerned. If Don had been caught, the bolts would have been put on all the same, and, furthermore, you and I and all the rest of us would have had to stand a court-martial, for Don would have gone back on us as sure as you are a foot high. Dick ought to have let him pass.”
“And I would, too, if Clarence hadn’t told me to halt him,” exclaimed Dick.
“I know it. Duncan is the one we have to thank for the loss of many pleasant evenings we might have had this winter. We may as well throw away our keys, for they will be of no further use to us, now that the doors are to be bolted on the inside.”
“I don’t know why you should take on so about those bolts,” exclaimed Duncan, who began to think he had been scolded quite enough. “If we wanted to go to Cony’s to-night, what is there to hinder one of us from slipping up the stairs as soon as this man goes away, and drawing the bolts? Don’t throw away your key yet, Tom. It may come handy to you.”
Fisher, who was too angry to reply, turned on his heel and walked away. Before many hours had passed all the boys belonging to the “set” had heard about the bolts, and listened with no little indignation to the story of Clarence Duncan’s “meddling” – all except Don Gordon, who did not know that he was the victim of misplaced confidence. The fellows were careful to keep that from his ears for fear that he and Clarence would come to blows over it. Some of them, would have looked upon a fight between these two as an interesting spectacle; but they knew that it would be followed by a court of inquiry, during which some things they wanted to keep concealed would probably be brought to light. They had learned that it was not quite safe to trust their friend Duncan too far; and as for Don, he was a stranger, and there was no telling how he would act or what he would say when he was told that he could take his choice between answering such questions as were propounded to him, and being punished by expulsion from the school.
“That would bring him to his senses,” said Tom to some of his cronies who had gathered about him to talk over the situation. “He says he wouldn’t blow on us, but I don’t believe a word of it. There isn’t a boy in school who can stand defiant in the presence of the superintendent when he draws down those gray eyebrows of his and looks at a fellow as if he meant to pierce him through. Hallo! here comes Henderson with more news. He’s a bully little scout, even if he did come near getting us all into trouble by halting Don Gordon. What is it this time, Dick?”
“We may as well follow your advice and throw away our keys, for they are of no use to us now,” was Dick’s reply. “The officer of the day goes up and tries those doors and examines the new fastenings as regularly as he makes his rounds.”
“There!” exclaimed Tom, in great disgust. “You see what Duncan has brought us to by being so smart. No more pancakes for us.”
During the next few weeks nothing happened at the academy that is worthy of record. Duncan and Don Gordon had rather a lonely time of it, for the members of the “set” were not as cordial toward them as they used to be. They did not cut them entirely, for they did not think that would be quite safe; but they did not seek them out and associate with them as freely as they would if they had been on friendly terms. Duncan took it very much to heart, but Don did not seem to care. He studied and drilled with the rest, and having served the sentence that had been passed upon him for overstaying the time for which his leave of absence was granted, he began to feel and act more like himself. So did Bert, who soon began to count his friends by the score. They were true friends, too, and very unlike the boys who belonged to Tom Fisher’s crowd.
It was not long before the Plebes began to show the result of their regular and fatiguing drills. They became handy with their muskets, very proficient in company and battalion evolutions, and, finally, they were ordered to go on dress parade. This honor brought with it a duty from which they had thus far been exempt, that of standing guard.
Up to this time Cony Ryan had been deserted by all except a very few of his old patrons who sometimes passed an hour or two there of a Saturday afternoon; but they never came away without telling one another that they had not enjoyed themselves in the least – that their visits now were not at all like the jolly times they used to have when they crowded into his little parlor after creeping by the sentries. There had been none of that sort of work of late. The sight of the bolts the carpenter had put on the doors, and the increased vigilance of the officer of the day, had taken all the courage out of the bravest of them; at least so it seemed, for no one ever thought of running the guard now. Tom Fisher had almost forgotten that he had ever done such a thing, when one day he was approached by Don Gordon, who beckoned him off on one side.
“Look here, old fellow,” said Don, “you’ll dry up and blow away if you don’t have some excitement to put your blood in circulation. If you want to go down to Cony’s again, to-night is your time.”
“But the bolts!” exclaimed Tom, greatly surprised.
“The bolts won’t delay you five minutes,” replied Don, confidently. “I haven’t been idle during the last few days, and I have found a way to draw those bolts.”
“I could do it myself by going up the back stairs,” said Tom; “but the officer of the day would find it out the first time he made his round. Besides, we want to get in after we have gone out, and how would we throw those bolts back to their place when the door was closed behind us? Have you thought of that?”
“I have; but I can show you how it can be done easier than I can explain it to you. We can’t go up to my floor to operate, for Bert is standing guard there. Who’s on your floor?”
“Are you willing to trust him? I notice that you and he are not quite as thick as you used to be.”
“I’ve got to trust him whether I am willing or not. If I should go back on him entirely he would find a way to get me into a row that would send me down.”
“I don’t see how he could make anything by that. He is as deep in the mud as you are, and he would probably be sent down himself.”
“He wouldn’t care for that. He’ll go any lengths to injure a boy he hates. That’s his style. I have managed to keep up a show of friendship with him, and I know he will let you do anything you like on his floor. Come on.”
Clarence, who was seated in his chair reading a sensational story paper that one of the students had smuggled into the academy, nodded to Tom, returned Don’s salute, and would probably have paid no further attention to them had he not seen them turn into the hall that led to the fire-escape. This excited his curiosity and he arose and followed them.
“What are you going to do here?” he demanded.
“Gordon has discovered a way to open these doors,” replied Tom.
“Not from this side,” exclaimed Duncan.
“Yes, from this side,” said Don. “I have done it once, and I know I can do it again.”
Duncan, who believed that the feat could not possibly be accomplished, was unable to find words with which to express his surprise. He could only look bewildered. He took up a position in the main hall so that he could watch the stairs and guard against intrusion, and occasionally turned his eyes toward Don, whose proceedings he watched with the greatest interest.
Don’s first act was to produce his pocket-knife, with which he removed from the lower left-hand corner of the panel above the lock a round plug of wood, which fitted into a hole about half an inch in diameter. The top of the plug was painted white, like the door, and it filled the opening so accurately that the different officers of the day, who had probably looked at it a hundred times since it had been placed there, had never seen it. Don then pulled out of his pocket a short, crooked wire, one end of which was bent into the form of a hook and the other made into the shape of a ring. The hook he inserted into the hole in the panel, and a moment later the bolt was heard to slide from its socket.
“There you are,” said he, turning to Tom. “Now, take out your key and open the door.”
Tom obeyed, lost in wonder, and then he and Duncan stepped forward to see how Don’s invention worked. Simple as it was, it was admirably adapted to the purpose for which it was intended. “The only difficult thing about it,” said Don, in explanation, “is to get the hook around the knob of the bolt. That done, a simple turn of the wrist does the rest.”
“Gordon, you’re a good one,” exclaimed Tom. “You ought to be a Yankee.”
“This is a Yankee invention – at least a New England carpenter was the one who brought it to my notice,” answered Don, as Fisher closed and locked the door. “While he was doing some work on our plantation, our smoke-house and corn-cribs were robbed more than a dozen times. It seemed impossible for father to get locks that could not be picked or broken. The carpenter said he could put a stop to that business, and he did it by making some heavy wooden bolts, working on the same principle that this one does, only there were three or four knobs in them instead of one. Then he made a key, in shape something like this one of mine, and when we wanted to shut up for the night, all we had to do was to throw the bolts to their places, take out the wire, and the doors were fast. There was but one way to pass them, and that was to break them down; and if anybody had tried that he would have got himself into business directly, for I own some dogs that won’t permit any such doings.”
“Well, I’ve locked the door,” said Tom, when Don ceased speaking, “and now I’d like to see you throw that bolt back again. That’s important, you know.”
Don said he knew it. He thrust his wire through the opening again, and in a second more the bolt was shot into its socket. In order to make sure of it, Tom unlocked the door again and tried to open it; but the bolt held it fast. Don’s plan would work to perfection – Fisher and Duncan were sure of it.
“When did you find opportunity to do all this work?” asked the former.
“O, I did it at odd times when I thought there was the least danger of being caught; but, I tell you, I had a narrow escape once. I was working on this very door, and Tom, you were floor-guard at the time. You see there were a good many days when I couldn’t do anything at all on account of the guards, who I knew were not to be trusted. Well, I was working there in the dark and had just put the plug into the hole, when the bell rang. I had been obliged to do some whittling in order to make the plug fit to suit me, but I had been careful to put all the shavings on a piece of paper. If I had left them on the floor, and anybody had come in there with a lantern, he would have seen them, of course, and I should have had my work for nothing. When I heard the bell ring, I grabbed up that piece of paper and started for the stairs; but just then the back door opened, and who should come in but the officer of the day.”
Don’s auditors, who were listening with almost breathless interest, uttered ejaculations indicative of the greatest surprise and sympathy.
“I thought I was fairly cornered,” continued Don, “and at first I did not know what to do. I listened until I heard the officer go into the hall on the lower floor, and then I jerked off my boots and went up the next two flights of stairs, and up the ladder that leads to the scuttle; and there I sat on one of the topmost rounds until he tried all the doors and went down again.”
“Don, you’re a good one,” said Fisher, again. “But why didn’t you let us know what you were doing? Some of us might have helped you.”
“Well, you see, I expected to be caught, and I wanted to be able to say that I had received no assistance, and that nobody knew what I was up to. I couldn’t have told that story if I had taken you into my confidence; and I wouldn’t, either.”
We confess to a great liking for Don Gordon, and to a positive admiration of his moral as well as physical courage; but we are not blind to his failings. We have no patience with the way he acted at school after the solemn promises he had made his mother – they were all forgotten now – nor do we like the way he reasoned with himself. In his opinion there were different grades of lies. For example: If the superintendent had asked him if it were he who had been halted by Dick Henderson on a certain morning, he would have promptly replied that it was – the fear of punishment would not have made him deny it; and yet when he reached his room he told Bert a lie, although every word he uttered was the truth. By the answers he gave to Bert’s questions he led the latter to infer that the officer of the day was the only one who had come into that room, and we know that such was not the case. Don was not altogether consistent.
“Are all the doors that lead into the fire-escape fixed in this way?” asked Tom.
“No; only yours and mine. There was no need of bothering with the other two doors, for the boys in the first and second classes don’t run with our crowd.”
“That’s so,” said Duncan; “but I know that some of them go to Cony Ryan’s as regularly as we do.”
“They used to,” said Tom; “but I don’t think they have been there since these new fastenings were put on. What shall I do with this?” he added, as Don passed the wire over to him.
“Why, take it and use it.”
“Then what will you do?”
“I have another, but I shall not need it to-night.”
“Are you not going down to Cony’s with us?”
“I can’t. I am to relieve Henderson on post No. 8 at midnight; so you’ll have to go out and come in by Dick and me.”
That night everything passed off smoothly. The guards who held the floor when Tom and a chosen few went out and in, were accommodating; the bolt was easily worked by the aid of the wire Don had fashioned; the sentries on post No. 8 kept themselves out of sight; the pancakes and syrup were excellent; the night was passed in a most agreeable manner; and at three o’clock in the morning the guard-runners were all sleeping soundly in their beds, and no one was the wiser for what they had done. They missed Don (especially Tom Fisher, who had to pay his share of the bill from a very slender purse), whom they as well as Cony Ryan declared to be an honor to his class.
“It begins to look as though the old times were coming back again,” said Cony, as he sat by and saw his pancakes disappear before the attacks of his visitors, who ate as though they never had anything good served up to them at the academy. “I tell you the boys who went to school here years ago, some of whom are now men with boys of their own to look after, were a sharp lot. You couldn’t keep them in if they didn’t want to stay, and there was no use in trying. Of late you fellows haven’t done anything to be proud of; but perhaps this young Gordon will put some life into you.”
And he certainly did. Guard-running, in which Don took an active part, became of common occurrence, although the teachers never suspected it; and Cony Ryan slapped his well-lined pockets and blessed the day that brought Don Gordon to the Bridgeport academy. But the reckoning came at last, though long delayed, and Don, aided by an unexpected proceeding on the part of Tom Fisher, did something that raised him to a high place in the estimation of all the students, and knocked the “set” so high that it never came down again; at least it was never heard of afterward. It came about in this way: