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The Chums of Scranton High Hugh Morgan's Uphill Fight online

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being through an old lady's whim.

"Yes, it has occurred twice, and on each occasion that same boy chanced
to be in my house. Oh! it is too bad, too bad! And he such a quiet
and respectful young chap in the bargain."

"Please tell me more about it, for I can't possibly be of any
assistance to you, Mrs. Pangborn, unless I know the facts," Hugh
continued, his curiosity beginning to rise by jumps.

"The first time," the old lady went on to say, consulting what seemed
to be a diary which she picked up from her overloaded table, "was just
a week ago today. I had been busy as usual, for an additional number
of pieces came in from those kind ladies of Scranton who are helping me
sew for the brave wounded poilus of my country, valiant France. This
lad brought in a package which Mrs. Ackerman had given into his charge.
I remember I chatted with him quite a while, and was interested in all
he said so respectfully; for it happened I had heard a number of
peculiar things in the way of town gossip concerning him and his aged
grandfather."

She paused as if to recover her breath. Hugh, on his part, had started
as though he might have received a sudden shock. Possibly his thoughts
flew instantly toward one particular boy who happened to have an old
grandfather, and about whom there had always been more or less
mysterious comment in the town.

"After he had gone away, letting himself out at my request, so as to
save Sarah from coming up from the kitchen, I had occasion to pass into
the other room, which also opens into the front hall. Something
impelled me to idly count over some souvenir spoons that I have
personally collected from various parts of the world, and each one of
which has a peculiar value for me far, far beyond its pecuniary worth.

"To my surprise and dismay I found that there were only eleven, when
there should have been twelve. I keep them there on a table so as to
show them to some of my kind lady friends, for I am particularly proud
of my collection, and Sarah had only that morning brightened them all
superbly until they glistened.

"So I called her up and asked her if she could remember counting the
spoons at the time she cleaned them. She assured me solemnly that the
entire twelve were in the open case when she placed them on the table
at my orders.

"It remained a puzzle to me for a whole week. I believed, of course,
that Sarah must have unconsciously mislaid a spoon, which would be
found sooner or later. At the same time I remembered the visit of that
lad, who had never been in my house before, and how he might have
glanced into the drawing-room through accident, and seeing my souvenir
spoons, been tempted to purloin one. But every time that terrible
thought flashed into my mind I indignantly refused to harbor it, I love
all boys so much.

"Then again today he came with more work turned in by Mrs. Ackerman,
who had for some reason of her own selected him as her messenger. I
actually forgot all my ugly suspicions in the charm of his manly
conversation, until some time after he had gone, again, at my
suggestion, letting himself out. I hurried into the drawing-room, and
with trembling fingers proceeded to count my spoons. There were but
ten of them left in the open box. Another had strangely vanished!"

Hugh almost gasped, he was so tremendously interested in this thrilling
recital.

"You are certain you did not make any mistake, Mrs. Pangborn?" he
asked, for want of something better to say.

"Please step into the other room and count them for yourself, Hugh,"
she quickly told him. "You can use the connecting door if you wish,
instead of passing around by way of the hall."

Hugh came back a minute later. His face was very grave.

"It is just as you told me, ma'am," he remarked, softly, at the same
time shaking his head, as though he could not bring himself to believe
it was as bad as the old lady suspected; that there must be some other
and reasonable explanation for the vanishing of the spoons; surely Owen
Dugdale could not be guilty of such a base theft!

"What can I believe, Hugh?" she almost wailed. "I do not walk in my
sleep, and that colored girl is as honest as your own mother, I feel
positive. Please tell me you will try and find out the answer to this
distressing puzzle."

"I can easily promise you that I will at least do my level best to
learn where your property went, Mrs. Pangborn; and if possible recover
it for you," he hastened to assure her.

"Thank you very much, my son. As soon as I saw you I seemed to feel an
inspiration that Providence had sent you to me in my distress. For it
would break my heart if I were compelled to have that poor, weak boy
arrested, and charged with so grievous a breach of the law. You being
a boy may be able to have a certain amount of influence over him. You
may even induce him to own up to his act, and send me back my precious
spoons. The ones taken by some accident are the very ones I value
most."

"While I give you my promise willingly enough, ma'am," Hugh went on to
say deliberately, "I want to add that I can't believe it possible Owen
Dugdale could be so small and mean as to yield to an impulse, and take
anything that belonged to another."

"That is splendid of you, Hugh!" she cried, her black eyes sparkling
with genuine admiration. "I love a boy who has faith in his fellows,
and thinks the best of them, no matter how circumstantial evidence may
seem to blacken their characters. And my son, if only you can find an
explanation of this puzzle that will exonerate your young companion, I
shall be very happy indeed. A great load will have been removed from
my poor old heart. I would rather lose the entire twelve spoons than
learn that Owen Dugdale were guilty."

"Then you will not say a word of this to any one," he continued,
"particularly Chief Wambold, who everybody knows has a great itching to
shine as a wonderful sleuth, but makes himself only ridiculous whenever
he tries to unearth any uncommon happening?"

"I gladly give you my promise to keep silent, Hugh," she assured him,
holding out her withered hand, resplendant with lovely gems, diamonds,
rubies and pearls, for like most French women, the Madame was more than
commonly fond of jewelry. "And from what you say, as well as your
mentioning the boy's name before I spoke it, I assume that you know
Owen Dugdale?"

"I have latterly become greatly interested in him, ma'am, and we have
been much together," he told her simply. "Since I pride myself on
being something of a reader of human nature, I feel almost certain that
there must be a great mistake somewhere; and that when the truth is
discovered, you and I will laugh, and say it was ridiculous for us to
even think Owen could have taken the spoons!"

The old lady's eyes glistened as she heard these brave words. Standing
up for a friend was one of Hugh Morgan's leading traits; and yet, if
the truth were known, he did not feel _quite_ so positive as his words
would indicate. Things certainly looked dark for the Dugdale boy.
Hugh, when he came to think over the whole matter, was bound to be
smitten with a grave fear lest the worst come to pass.

"Somehow I seem to have unbounded confidence in your ability to
accomplish the impossible, Hugh Morgan," she told him, which words of
praise thrilled him to the heart, for he was, after all, human and a
boy. "Only good words have come to me about you from all those with
whom I converse; for though you may think it odd in an old woman who
never had a son of her own, I have all my life been interested in other
people's children, particularly boys, seven of whom I have had educated
at my expense. Ah! they are either fighting bravely for the life of
France just now, or else filling patriots' graves in the battle
country."

Hugh asked a few more questions that chanced to occur to him. Then he
prepared to take his leave.

"I will think it all over, ma'am," he remarked, as she gave him her
dainty if wrinkled hand to press, "and like as not I'll conjure up some
scheme by which we can prove whether Owen is innocent or guilty. You
see I could be hidden in that room and a trap set, you sending him word
to call for a package you wished him to deliver. Then if he went out
without even looking into the drawing-room, and yet another of your
spoons disappeared, we'd know to a certainty that the trouble lay
inside this house."

"Hugh, you give me fresh hope!" she cried, with her eyes glistening as
though the tears were trying to flow. "Oh! I would almost pray that
something of the sort turned out to be the case, for somehow I have
taken a great interest in Owen Dugdale. I mean later on to find an
opportunity to meet that wonderful grandfather of his, for somehow I
suspect he may turn out to be an exile of note who has taken this means
for hiding his identity. I have known eminent Russians to do that from
fear of the Czar's secret agents."

Hugh could not but remember how some of the people chose to believe old
Mr. Dugdale was keeping in hiding from some far less honorable cause;
but of course he did not say anything about that. He went out of
Madame Pangborn's big house with a sense of having undertaken a great
responsibility; and realizing that an up-hill task lay upon his young
shoulders which might test his utmost abilities to carry through.




CHAPTER IV

IN FOR A FROLIC

The high-school boys and girls of Scranton, like those of most other
communities, delighted in getting up occasional entertainments so dear
to the hearts of young people. A straw-ride late in the summer; it
might be a class-spread under difficult conditions on account of the
envy of the other grades at school; and once in a while a jolly barn
dance was engineered by a committee composed of both sexes.

There was just such a pleasant outing arranged for this same Friday
night. Some of the fellows had made up a party to go out several miles
to where a big barn, as yet empty of the anticipated crop of hay,
offered them excellent facilities for a merry hop.

A trio of darky players had been engaged. The leader was quite famous
through that section of country and had played at such affairs for
years. Everybody for miles around knew Daddy Whitehead and the fiddle
from which he could extract the most enticing music boys and girls had
ever danced to; while his assistants, Mose Coffin and Abe Skinner were
fairly good with the violoncello and oboe, making a good combination
capable of playing up-to-date dances, as well as others known to the
fathers and mothers of the present generation.

These affairs were conducted with a due respect to the proprieties. A
middle-aged lady invariably went along in the carryall to chaperone the
young people, although there was a deal of fun going and coming back
home, as well as on the floor of the great barn, with its many lanterns
to serve in lieu of electric lights.

Hugh was going, of course. He and his best chum, Thad Stevens, had a
pretty fair car in which to transport the two girls whom they had
invited as their partners. These same girls were co-eds with Hugh and
Thad on the weekly paper which Scranton High issued, just as many other
schools do. They were named Sue Barnes and Ivy Middleton. Sue was
Hugh's company, while the dark-haired vivacious Ivy seemed to have a
particular attraction for Thad.

By the way, since Thad has thus far not been introduced to the reader,
it might be a good idea to say a few words about him before going any
further with the exciting events that happened on the Friday night of
the barn hop.

Thad was a quick-tempered lad, in which respect he seemed to differ
radically from Hugh, who somehow managed to keep his under wonderful
control, as though he had long practiced holding it in subjection.
Strangely enough, Thad's folks came of Quaker stock, and "thee" and
"thou" had been familiar words to his young ears. But Thad apparently
had not inherited the peaceful ways of his ancestors, for he had been
in more than a few battles with some of his more pugnacious school
companions, nor did he always come out from these encounters first best.

All the same, Thad was a pretty clever chap, and Hugh had always been
very fond of his chum. They got on wonderfully well together, and
seldom had the least "tiff."

It was Thad who had secured his father's old car for the special
occasion. He turned up at Hugh's house about half-past seven that
evening. It was a calm night, and the moon was just rising in the
east, being a little past her full period.

"Say, this couldn't be improved on any, according to my notion, Thad,"
Hugh remarked, as, attracted by the call of the klaxon outside, he
hurried forth, wearing his overcoat, for the night air was quite
chilly, it being still only April.

"A bang-up night for a dance," echoed the enthusiastic Thad; "just cool
enough to keep us from getting overheated. The farmer's wife will make
the coffee, and spread a table for us in her big kitchen, she promised;
and the girls are to provide lots of good things. We're mighty lucky
for once, Hugh."

"How many do you think will be on hand?" asked the other, settling down
alongside the driver.

"Well, ten couple have solemnly promised to attend, barring some
accident; and I reckon there may be several more show up, because we've
done lots of talking about the jolly time we expected to have. I only
hope that Nick Lang and his crowd will have the decency to stay away.
If they show up there's bound to be trouble brewing."

"I'm afraid so," acceded Hugh, seriously, "for Nick is never so happy
as when he's making other folks miserable. But the farmer has a stout
hired man, who will be on deck to keep an eye on our cars, and other
conveyances; so there'll hardly be any tricks attempted with the lines,
taking wheels off buggies, and all such practical jokes, such as those
fellows dearly love to play."

"I heard Owen Dugdale was coming," Thad went on to say, as they started
off, "which is something unusual for him, because up to now we've never
seen him at a hop."

"Now how did you learn that?" laughed Hugh.

"Oh! a little bird told me," replied the other. "Fact is, Hugh, pretty
Peggy Noland told my sister Grace Owen had asked her to be his company
to this hop, and she had accepted, because somehow she always liked
Owen."

"Whew! I wonder now how Nick Lang will feel about that?" ventured
Hugh. "You know Peggy used to have him for her company a number of
times. But I remember how annoyed she looked at the class spread when
he acted so rudely, and made everybody present wish he had stayed at
home."

"Oh! Peggy says she will never, never go anywhere again with that
terrible Nick Lang. She never did like him any too well, and now she
detests him. I only hope Nick isn't mean enough to try to pick on Owen
because Peggy's accepted his offer to take her to the barn hop."

There were so many other things pressing on Hugh's mind just then that
he did not give the matter much attention. Later on, perhaps he might
have it brought forcibly before him, and in a manner bordering on
tragedy in the bargain.

Hugh meant to take Thad into his confidence at the first favorable
opportunity. He knew his chum would never breathe a syllable of what
he told him; and possibly two heads might prove better than one in
solving what promised to be a great enigma. But the time was too short
now to even mention the matter. Perhaps later on as they chanced to
come together between the dances he would find the opening he sought to
confide in Thad. He did excite the other's curiosity, however, by
saying just before they drew up in front of the Barnes' home:

"I've got something queer to tell you, Thad, when I get the chance.
Perhaps it'll come while we're resting between dances. I've undertaken
a pretty big proposition, and I'd like to have you share it with me."

"Well, now, you _have_ got me guessing," chuckled Thad. "What a fellow
you are for undertaking big things. Nothing seems to faize you, Hugh,
Can't you just give me a little clue to feed on till you explain it
all? It's mean to stir me up like that, you know, old fellow."

"All I can tell you now," said Hugh, who had discovered some one
peeping out through the lace curtains at the parlor window, and knew
how anxious Sue must be for him to run up the steps and ring the door
bell, "is that it concerns Owen Dugdale. So just let your
curiosity-mill work on that until I can spin the whole odd yarn."

"Whew! you've twisted me up worse than ever now," he heard Thad
muttering, as he hastened to make for the door, where the eager Sue
awaited him, having seen the car stopping at the curb.

As Ivy lived only a short block away, they speedily had her installed
alongside the chattering Sue in the back seat; though possibly on the
way home the girls might prefer to change partners, as Ivy was heard to
say she just dearly loved to be alongside the chauffeur when out in a
car, because the view was so much better.

On the road they passed several vehicles, all bound in the same
direction. Now it was a slow car that managed to roll along "like an
ice-wagon," as Thad laughingly called out on going ahead. Then again
it was a buggy pulled by a horse; for there were actually a few of
these almost extinct quadrupeds still to be found in some of the family
stables of Scranton.

"Listen! that must be the carryall ahead of us," called out Thad, not
venturing to turn his head when he spoke, because the road was rather
poor, with ditches on either side, while the moon gave rather a poor
light, since it had not yet risen above the haze near the horizon.

Some one aboard was noisily tooting the horn, for some boys seem to be
up to all manner of mischief every hour of the day, and dearly love to
make a noise in the world, even though it rasps on other people's ears
distressingly.

Once they arrived at their destination, they found it a very gay scene.
The barn had been quite prettily decorated by some of the girls who had
come out during the last two afternoons after school to sweep the
floor, and instruct the farmer and his helper just where to hang the
many lanterns they had fetched along.

There was Daddy Whitehead, with his famous fiddle, which he was already
tuning up, so as to be ready to commence operations; while his "band,"
consisting of Abe Skinner and Mose Coffin, sat there with huge grins on
their faces, and also an expectant look. They had undoubtedly noted
the huge hampers of eatables that came with each party, and could
anticipate a delightful break in the monotony of sawing away, or
blowing steadily into that oboe instrument.

Chattering girls and boys were soon strewn all about the place. The
farmer and his good wife seemed to be enjoying the picture, since it
must have reminded them of somewhat similar episodes in their own
younger years, when life seemed buoyant, and without any trouble such
as time always brings in its train.

Soon the first dance started, and immediately the floor was covered
with happy couples whirling in the maze of a waltz. More vehicles
arrived, and others joined in the festivities. This continued for two
solid hours, with brief respites to allow both musicians and dancers a
chance to "rest up."

Then some of the girls were called upon to pass into the kitchen of the
farmhouse to start work at getting supper ready; though none of the
boys were allowed to accompany them, being told that they would only
interfere with the work.

It happened that among those who took this duty on themselves were both
Ivy and Sue, so that Hugh and Thad found they were without partners.
They were feeling a bit fatigued in the bargain, and following the
example of several other fellows who were in the same fix, they
strolled outside for a breath of cool air, taking care to pick up their
overcoats, as they were flushed from exercise.

Here Thad demanded that Hugh explain what his strange words meant with
reference to Owen Dugdale. He listened while the other told the story
in low tones; for while they believed themselves alone in the
moonlight, it was always possible that some other fellow might be
loitering close by, and thus overhear what was not intended for his
ears.

Thad of course was deeply interested by what he heard. He, too,
declared that it seemed preposterous to think that Owen could demean
himself so much as to deliberately steal what belonged to the queer old
French madame. At the same time Thad admitted he considered the
circumstantial evidence fairly strong.

"My father's a lawyer, you know, Hugh," he went on to say, "and I've
heard him say circumstantial evidence has hanged many an innocent man.
We ought to go mighty slow about believing Owen guilty without better
proof than his having been in the house on both occasions."




CHAPTER V

THE TRAGIC AFFAIR ON THE ROAD

"Let's walk up the road a bit," suggested Hugh. "It's too cool to sit
here after getting so heated up inside the barn. And Sue told me
they'd be all of a quarter of an hour laying the supper out."

"I'm with you, Hugh. After those cranky dances, it'll do both of us
good to step out in some other way than that silly tango, and monkey
climb. Have you thought up any scheme yet for learning the truth about
Owen?"

"Not yet," came the reply, "though I've several ideas on tap, and may
settle on one soon. It's such a serious affair that I'm afraid to
hurry too fast. Why, if the boy is innocent, as we both seem to
believe, he'd be terribly humiliated if he learned that he had been
under suspicion. I've found out he's quite proud, and that's one
reason he hasn't mingled with the young folks much since coming to our
town. He knows there are strange rumors about his grandfather, and
that some people are even talking about Mr. Dugdale as if they
suspected him of being a notorious crook in hiding."

"Listen! what's all that loud talking ahead there mean?" suddenly
exclaimed Thad.

They both stopped short, and held their breath while listening.

"Would you believe it!" cried Thad, "that was certainly Nick Lang's
gruff voice I heard just then. If that chap's around this region, he's
come out on purpose to kick up some sort of a shindy. It would be just
like his way."

Hugh felt a thrill pass over him. It was as though some innate warning
told him he would sooner or later be mixed up in the mess Nick meant to
start. Somehow, his thoughts instinctively flew to Owen Dugdale, and
he remembered what Thad had remarked earlier in the evening about the
possibility of Nick picking on Owen simply because Peggy Noland chose
to accompany the other to the hop, in preference to accepting Nick for
a partner.

The voices were growing even more boisterous.

"Let's get a move on us, and sprint up that way, Hugh," suggested Thad,
unable to restrain his impatience.

"Might as well," the other grimly told him.

Accordingly, they started to run. All the while they could hear
disputing voices raised in anger and excitement. Apparently, Nick was
aroused, and looking for trouble; when he allowed himself to jump into
this aggressive mood, somebody was liable to feel the weight of his
heavy fist before the end of the affair came. At least such had always
been the case in the past.

Nick was not the only one doing the talking. Hugh thought he several
times caught the sound of a voice that might belong to Owen. Then
there were also others in the heated argument, some of them apparently
egging the pugnacious Nick on, while yet a few more seemed to be trying
to cast oil on troubled waters.

At least Owen was not alone with Nick and his ugly cronies, Hugh
realized, though, after all, that would not count for much. Fellows
like Leon Disney and several others of the same stripe would be only
too well pleased to pair off and attack any other boy who might show a
disposition to interfere with the designs of their leader, the bully of
the town, big blustering Nick Lang.

Faster still did Hugh and Thad run along. They feared lest something
happen before they could arrive on the spot. Both of them were grimly
resolved that they would never stand by and see that overgrown fellow
abuse a smaller boy like Owen.

As they drew nearer, they discovered that Owen was trying to stand up
for his action. He seemed to be declaring that any fellow had a
perfect right to ask a girl to accompany him to a dance, and if she did
not wish to accept she would say so. He was not trying to cut anybody
out, and if Peggy Noland would rather go home with another fellow,


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Online LibraryDonald FergusonThe Chums of Scranton High Hugh Morgan's Uphill Fight → online text (page 2 of 9)