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

“They’re off!” was the cry.

With the crack of the pistol the long string of runners left the line.  Most of them had been crouching in some favorite attitude that allowed a quick start.

The course was to take them from the field over to the road, and then along this for exactly two and a half miles, until a turning point was reached, when the return trip would begin.

Inspectors were stationed at various distances along the course; and judges stood guard at the turning stake, to make sure that every contestant went the full limit before heading for home.

In the three schools there were eleven contestants in all ­four for Riverport, the same number for her up-river rival, and three belonging to Paulding.  Each boy had a large number fastened on his back and chest, so that he could be plainly recognized by this for some little distance.

Fred was Number Seven, while the crack long-distance runner of Mechanicsburg, the wonderful Boggs, had been given Number One.  And there were many persons who believed firmly that the race was destined to be between these two boys, champions of their respective schools.

In such a long race the interest does not get fully awakened until several miles have been passed over.  And in order that those on the athletic field might not be wholly without some shreds of information while the runners were far away, the managers had influenced some of the boys to arrange a code of signals, to be worked by operators at the other end of the two and a half mile turn.

There was a hill in plain sight of both beginning and turn.  On this a pine tree had been stripped of its branches; and a clothes line stretched to a pulley near its top.  When the first runner turned the half-way stake a boy right on the ground would wave a certain flag, so that the lads up on the hill could see it.

On their part they were to run up a flag of a similar color to tell the waiting throng which school was in the lead at the half-way post.  Then, when a second contestant came along, his advent would also be recorded.

Red meant that Mechanicsburg was in the lead; blue that Riverport had the advantage; while green stood for Paulding.

There was a cluster of runners well up in the lead when they began to vanish from the view of the spectators.  Then the others were strung out; until last of all a Riverport fellow jogged along, as though he saw no reason for haste so early in the game.

Still, there could be no telling just where that same laggard might be when the runners turned and headed for the home stake.  He might be playing the waiting game that so often proves fruitful in such races.

While the contestants were out of sight the crowd enjoyed itself by sending all sorts of shouts back and forth.  Sometimes loud outbursts of laughter greeted some happy remark from a bright schoolboy or girl.

“Ought to be seeing something right soon now,” remarked one of the crowd, as he looked anxiously toward the signal station on the top of the hill two miles away.

“That’s right.”

“I’ve been timing ’em,” said another; “and you’re just right; they ought to be about there by now.”

“Hi! look! there goes a flag up the mast!” shrieked a voice.

“It’s green too!” howled a frantic Paulding backer.

“Oh! come off! can’t you tell a red flag when you see it? 
Mechanicsburg’s turned the half-way stake in the lead!  Didn’t we say
Boggs was there with the goods?”

“And a yard wide too!”

“There goes a second flag up, showing that he isn’t far ahead, anyway!”

“What’s that color?  The sun hurts my eyes, and I can’t just make it out?”

“Green!  Green!  This time you can’t say it isn’t!  Hurrah!  Paulding is close on the heels of the leader.  The great Boggs may trip up yet, boys.”

“Oh! where is your great wonder, Riverport?  What’s happened to Fred Fenton, do you suppose?”

“There he goes around the stake now; and the three leaders are pretty well bunched.  It looks like anybody’s battle yet, fellows.  And may the best man win!”

It was true that the blue flag had followed close upon the green one; indeed, there was not a minute’s difference between the entire three, showing that some of the runners must have kept very close to each other during the first half of the race.

But now would come the supreme test.  Everybody seemed to draw a long breath, as they kept their eyes on that point of the distant road where the first runner would make his appearance, turn aside, and head across the field for the final tapeline.

“Isn’t it just too exciting for anything, Flo?” asked Mame Wells, putting her arm around her chum, whom she found actually quivering with nervous hope and fear.

“Don’t speak to me, Mame; I just can’t bear to listen,” replied the other.  “I’m waiting to see who comes in sight first, and hoping I won’t be disappointed.  Be still, please, and let me alone.”

Indeed, by degrees, all noise seemed to be dying out.  A strange silence fell upon the vast throng.  Thousands of eyes were fastened upon that clump of trees, back of which they had seen the last runner vanish some time before.  Here the leader would presently show up; and they had not the slightest way of knowing whether it would be Boggs, Fenton, or Collins from Paulding.

Much could have happened since the three leaders turned the stake.  Another runner might have advanced from behind, and taken the head of the procession.  Some of those in the big road race were really unknown quantities; and among these was Gabe Larkins, for no one had ever really seen him run, the Riverport lad who lagged behind in the start.

Seconds seemed minutes, and these latter hours, as they waited for what was to come.  It was hard to believe that somewhere behind that screen a crowd of boys were speeding along at their level best, seeking to win honors for the school of their choice.

Several false alarms were given, as is usually the case, when some nervous persons think they can see a moving object.

But finally a tremendous shout arose, that gained volume with each passing second.  Everybody joined in that welcoming roar, regardless of who the leader might turn out to be.

“Here they come!”

A lone runner had suddenly burst out from behind the trees, and was heading for the field, passing swiftly over the ground, and with an easy, though powerful, foot movement, that quite won the hearts of all those present who had in days past been more or less interested in college athletics.

“It’s Boggs!” shrieked one.

“Yes, I can see his number plain, and it’s One, all right.  Oh! you dandy, how you do cover the ground, though!  Nobody ever saw such running; and he’s got the rest beat a mile.  Why, look, not a single one in sight yet, and Boggs, he’s nearly a third of the way here from the turn in the course.”

Almost sick at heart, and with trembling hands pretty Flo Temple managed to raise the field glasses she had with her.  She really hated to level them just to see the face of the winning Boggs.

Instantly she uttered a loud shriek.

“Oh! you’re all wrong!” she cried.  “It isn’t Boggs at all!  Instead of Number One, that is Number Seven!”

“It’s Fred Fenton!” whooped the fellow with the megaphone, so that everybody was able to hear.

“Fenton wins!  Hurrah for Fred!”

Brad Morton, the track captain, caught hold of Bristles, and the two of them danced around, hugging each other as though they had really taken leave of their senses.

“Fenton!  Oh! where is Boggs?  Fenton!  Riverport wins the championship!”

So the shouts were going around, and the frantic lads leaped and waltzed about.

Meanwhile the lone runner was swiftly approaching.  They could all see now that it was Seven upon his chest, which at first had been mistaken for the One.  Fred was apparently in no great distress.  He seemed able to continue for another round, had such a thing been necessary.

Only once he turned to glance over his shoulder.  This was when, arriving close enough to the outskirts of the crowd to hear some of the loud talk, he caught a cry that the nearest of his competitors had been sighted.  And Fred could well afford to smile when he saw that Boggs was not in it at all, for the second runner was Number Eleven, which stood for Gabe Larkins.  He was coming furiously, and had he been better coached at the start he might have even given the winner a run for the goal.

The crowd thronged over the field as soon as Fred breasted the tape, and was declared the winner of the long distance event.

And with the words of the director still fresh in their minds the victors made sure to rally around the cheer captain, and send out a roar again and again for the plucky fight made by Mechanicsburg and Paulding.  Such things go far toward softening the pangs of bitter defeat, and draw late rivals closer together in the bonds of good fellowship.

But although everybody was showering Fred Fenton with praises for his wonderful home-coming, and thanking him times over because he had made it possible for Riverport to win the victory over both her competitors; he counted none of these things as worth one half as much as that walk home, after he had dressed, in the company with Flo Temple; and to see the proud way in which she took possession of him, as though, in wearing the little bud she had given him, he had really been running that fine race for her, rather than the school to which they both belonged.