Read CHAPTER IX - THE COVERED WAGON of Fred Fenton on the Track / The Athletes of Riverport School, free online book, by Allen Chapman, on ReadCentral.com.

“What makes you so sure it belonged to him?” Fred asked.

“Oh!  I know it as well as I do my own cap,” replied Bristles.  “It’s a queer mixture, you can see; and here’s the place where Colon shot that arrow through it one day, when he asked me to throw it up in the air for him.”

“And I ought to know it too, Fred,” remarked the short legged cousin of the missing boy.  “Because I bought it for Chris. You see, I lost his other for him, and I had to spend some of my hard-earned cash to get him a new one.  I found that at Snyder’s Emporium; and I thought he’d kick like fun because it was so odd; but say, he just thought it the best thing ever!  That’s Colon’s headgear, all right.”

“Then we’ll consider that point settled,” Fred went on to say.  “The next thing on the program to decide is, how does it happen to be lying here in this ditch?  As I remember it, there wasn’t much of a wind last night when I went to bed, and it doesn’t seem then that it could have blown off his head when he was running.”

“There wasn’t a ripple in the leaves of the trees,” declared Bristles.

“And if it did blow off, wouldn’t he have stopped to look for it in the moonlight?” remarked Sid Wells.

“Colon is too careful of his things not to make a hunt for his cap,” came from Semi-Colon, who ought to know if any one did, about the peculiarities of his own cousin.

“Well, the cap was here,” Fred said; “and we found it; now why was it lying in the ditch as if it had been thrown there, or knocked off in a scuffle?”

“Wow! now perhaps we ain’t gettin’ down to brass tacks!” ejaculated Bristles.

Fred bent over to examine the road, along the edge of the ditch.

“Looks like somethin’ might have been going on here,” Corney suggested.

“You’re right,” Sid added, excitedly.  “Why, anybody with one eye could see there’d been a scramble around here.  Look at the scrapings in the dust; would you? just like a pack of fellows had set on one; and the bunch were jumping around him, trying to get away, and the others holding on.  Fred, here’s where it must have happened, sure!”

“I think so myself,” returned the leader of the five boys, gravely surveying the tell-tale marks in the dust of the road.

“Eureka! ain’t we the handy boys, though, to get on the track of the kidnappers so quick?” exclaimed Bristles, proudly.

“Go slow,” advised Fred; “we’ve only made a start as yet.  Even if it happened here we don’t know who jumped on Colon, and captured him.  It might have been those Mechanicsburg fellows; or the three tramps who searched the Masterson farmhouse; and then again, why, perhaps some of our own Riverport boys may have been having a little fun, as they would call it, giving the rest of us a bad scare, just to have the laugh on us.”

“Say, do you think Buck Lemington and his bunch would get down as low as that?” demanded Bristles.

“I didn’t mention his name,” replied Fred; “but you all knew what was on my mind.  Well, from what I’ve seen of Buck, it strikes me he’d never stop one minute if the idea once came into his mind.  Perhaps some of you noticed that he wasn’t running around like the rest of the fellows.  Buck was watching the row, and I thought once I saw him grin as if he might be enjoying something.”

“And Fred,” spoke up Corney just then, “you just ought to have seen the ugly look he gave you when you happened to pass.  Buck’s never gotten over it because when you dropped into Riverport his star began to set.  It’s been going lower all the time, and he keeps nursing his ugly feeling for you.  Some fine day he means to get you when you’re not thinking, and even up all scores.  Look out for him, Fred.”

“I used to think Buck hated me about as bad as he could anybody,” remarked Sid; “but lately I’ve changed my mind.  I never gave him one-half the cause to feel ugly that Fred has.”

“You don’t say,” remarked the one mentioned, looking surprised; “what have I done to Buck that is so dreadful?  I’ve tried to mind my own business, and never went out of my way a single step to bother with him.”

“But it just happened,” ventured Sid, “that your way was Buck’s own road in some cases.  Now, time was, and every fellow here will bear me out in what I say, when Buck used to take a certain pretty girl to lots of places.  They squabbled more or less; but Buck wouldn’t allow any other fellow to be Flo’s escort.  All that is changed these days.  She cuts him dead; and every time she turns him down he grins and grits his teeth, and I reckon thinks of you kindly ­not.”

“Oh! well, that’s ancient history,” remarked Fred, smiling.  “And it cuts no figure in what we’re trying to find out now.  If Colon was waylaid here, and made a prisoner, how can we discover who did the job?”

As he spoke he once more threw himself down on hands and knees as if bent upon closely examining the dusty road.

“I can see a plain footprint here, that has a mark I’d know again,” he presently exclaimed.  “Do any of you happen to know whether Colon is wearing a shoe with plain patch on the sole running diagonally across about half way down?”

Bristles spoke up immediately.

“He wasn’t last night, and that’s a cinch.  Because he had on his running shoes, and they were new this season.  I know, for he showed me where he meant to have a little extra sewing done on each shoe to-day, for fear something might happen in the races, and he has only the one pair.  I handled both, and the soles didn’t have a sign of a patch, Fred.”

“Then that settles one thing,” remarked the other; “we’ve got a clue to the first of his enemies, whoever he proves to be.  And wherever we go we’ll keep a sharp lookout for that shoe with the patch on the sole.  Get down here, fellows, and take the measure of it right now.”

While they were doing this Fred was looking around; and no sooner had his four chums regained their feet than he was ready with a new proposition.

“There’s a house over yonder,” he said; “now, it’s possible we might learn something if we asked questions.  No harm trying it, anyway, so come along, boys.”

A woman stood in the doorway.  She seemed to be a farmer’s wife, and she had been watching the actions of the five boys, puzzled to account for their queer behavior.

Thinking that the quickest way to enlist her sympathy would be to relate what a peculiar thing had happened on the preceding night, Fred politely accosted her, and as quickly as he could find words to do so, told the story of Colon’s vanishing.

“Now, you see, ma’am,” he went on, after he had aroused her interest in this way, “we’ve reason to believe that they jumped on our chum right over where you noticed us examining the ground.  And seeing you standing here, with your house so near the place, I thought that perhaps you might have heard something last night.”

“Well, that’s just what I did,” the farmer’s wife replied, thrilling the boys who had clustered around the doorway where she stood.

“Do you happen to know about what time it might have been?” asked Fred.

“Along about half after ten, I should say,” she answered.

Fred looked at his chums, inquiringly.

“Just to the dot,” declared Bristles, “Mebbe you remember that I said it was some time after ten when Colon broke away.  Then we stood talkin’ at the gate a little bit; and when he got this far on his mile dash up to the graveyard, it must have been close to the half hour.  That tallies fine, Fred.”

“What was it you heard, ma’am?” Fred continued, after the talkative Bristles had had his say, and subsided again.

“Why, I’d gone to bed long before.  My man is as deaf as a post, and never hears a thing.  I thought I caught a shout, like a boy whooping.  We’ve got a few trees of fine Baldwin apples back here, and twice now, boys from Riverport have raided the orchard; so I’m on the watch to fire a gun out of the window to give ’em a scare.”

“And you thought they were in your trees again; did you?” asked Fred, when the woman paused.

“That’s what struck me at first,” she went on; “but as soon as I got up I knew better; because all the noise came from up the road there.  I stayed by the window listening and heard a lot of shouting.  Then it was all still, and pretty soon a covered wagon went past the house.”

“Which way; toward Riverport or in the other direction?” Fred inquired.

“Oh!” the woman replied, “it was going up toward the graveyard; but then I didn’t think that so strange, because I’ve seen that same limpy white horse, and the covered wagon, go by here lots of times for years now.”

“That is, you knew it, and could even tell it in the moonlight?” the boy asked.

“It belongs to old Toby Scroggins,” she replied.  “The hoss limps, and you can always hear Toby saying ‘gad-up! gad-up!’ every ten feet, right along.”

“I know him, and what she says is so,” remarked Sid.  “Why, years ago he had the same old crowbait of a horse, and the boys mocked him when he’d keep using the whip, and telling the beast to get along.”

“Did you hear Toby talking to his limping nag last night, ma’am?” asked Fred.

“Why, lands! no, I didn’t, now you mention it,” she answered; “but then sometimes he goes to sleep on his wagon, returning from market, where he buys corn for his hogs, ‘stead of raisin’ it like the rest of us.  And he lives a long way up the road, you see.”

Fred turned upon his companions.

“What do you think, fellows,” he asked; “was that wagon filled with corn last night, or had it a lot of boys under the cover when it passed here, one of them being our missing chum, Colon?”

“I reckon you’ve struck pay dirt, Fred,” declared Corney.

“My opinion too!” echoed Semi-Colon.

“Count me in on that, and make it unanimous!” Bristles remarked.

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Fred, turning on his nearest chum.

“H’m!  I not only agree to all you say, Fred, but I reckon I know right now where they’ve got Colon shut up.  He’s in the haunted mill, boys!”