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The Mystery at Putnam Hall: The School Chums' Strange Discovery By Edward Stratemeyer Characters: 11096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Pepper was so full of high spirits that at the supper table he could not resist the temptation to play a joke. He saw Joe Nelson using his handkerchief and, on the sly, took up the pepper-shaker and dosed the cloth liberally with pepper.

Poor Joe caught the full benefit of the pepper, and in the midst of the meal commenced to sneeze loudly.

"Why, Nelson, what is the matter?" asked Mr. Strong, who was at the table that evening.

"I don't-ker-choo!-know!" stammered Joe. "I believe-ker-choo! ker-choo!"

"Exactly," whispered Pepper. "Very simple explanation, very."

"I-ker-choo!-I guess I had better-ker-choo!" went on Joe.

"He's 'ker-chooing' all he needs to," was Jack's comment, and this caused a general titter.

"I guess I'll ask to-ker-choo!-to be excused-ker-choo!" went on Joe, and jumping up he left the table and the room. He ran out on the campus and there sneezed himself free of the pepper, much to his relief.

Joe was about to return to the mess-hall when he chanced to see two figures sneaking along in the semi-darkness, in the direction of the woods. He was just able to make out that the pair were Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter when they disappeared behind the trees.

"Now, what are those fellows up to?" mused Joe, as he walked slowly to the mess-hall. "No good, I'll venture."

He sat down and commenced to eat. Then, of a sudden, he uttered an exclamation.

"I've got it! That's it!"

"What is it, Nelson?" asked George Strong.

"Oh-er-nothing," stammered the cadet. But when the teacher was not looking, he leaned over towards Jack.

"What is it, Joe?" whispered the young major.

"Tell Pepper I just saw Ritter and Coulter sneaking into the woods."

"You did!" Jack closed one eye. "And you think--"

"They may have learned about the barrels."

"If that is so, we'll have to watch 'em," murmured Jack, and immediately passed word to Pepper, Dale and Andy.

The cadets could scarcely wait to finish their meal, and cut themselves short on cake and pears. Pepper was the first out, but he was quickly followed by Andy and Jack.

"Let us try to surprise them-if they are after the barrels," said The Imp.

"Maybe they'll set fire to 'em before we get there," suggested the acrobatic youth.

"If they do that, I'll make 'em pay for the barrels," cried Pepper. "I am not going to put up three dollars for another fellow's fun."

"Did you pay the roofer that much for the barrels?"


The three boys hurried across the campus and dove into the woods beyond. Then Pepper put up his hand for silence.

"Let us surprise 'em if we can," he whispered.

"That's the talk," answered the young major.

It did not take the three long to reach the vicinity where the tar-barrels had been left. As they approached they saw a light flare up.

"They are setting 'em on fire!" cried Andy.

"Stop, Ritter! Stop, Coulter!" yelled Pepper. "Don't you light those barrels!"

"Ha! ha!" came from the bully of the Hall. "What's an old tar-barrel, anyway? Guess we can fire them if we want to!"

"Those are my barrels," answered Pepper.

He rushed forward, followed by Jack and Andy. But they were too late, for on the instant a big flame shot up and all three of the tar-barrels, standing in a close triangle, and filled with dried leaves, commenced to burn furiously. As the flames shot up among the trees, Ritter and Coulter backed away.

"Good-by to those barrels!" came sorrowfully from Andy. "We'll not be able to use them for the celebration to-night."

"I'll fix you for this, Ritter; and you, too, Coulter!" called out Pepper, bitterly. "Oh, what luck!" he groaned, as he saw the flames from the tar-barrels climb higher and higher. "What a grand bonfire they would have made on the lake-front!"

"Boys, this fire is dangerous!" ejaculated Jack.

"What do you mean?" came from the others.

"It is going to set fire to the woods! See, the dried leaves are catching already! If it reaches yonder cedars there will be a terrible conflagration here!"

"Phew! that's true!" came from Pepper. His merry face grew sober for the moment. "What shall we do?"

"We are not responsible," said Andy. "It is Ritter and Coulter's fault."

"But we don't want these grand woods to burn down," went on the young major. "Besides, the wind is rising and it is blowing towards the gym and the stables! The burning embers might set fire to those buildings!"

"Come on and put the blaze out!" said Andy.

"How are you going to do it? We haven't any water-and water isn't of much account against tar, anyway. Gracious, see those flames shoot up!" Jack added, as a column of fire shot skyward.

"One of the trees is catching already!" gasped Pepper. "We had better sound an alarm!"

"Andy, go back to the school and tell the others, teachers and all," ordered the young major. "Captain Putnam will know what to do. Pepper, you and I had better try to throw dirt and stones on the barrels. That will keep down the flames a little."

The acrobatic youth set off on a sprint in the direction of Putnam Hall. While he was gone the others did their best to subdue the rapidly-increasing conflagration. It was hot work, and soon the perspiration was pouring down their faces.

"It's no use!" panted Pepper, when the wind sent a sudden eddy of black smoke in his face.

"It would take a regular fire department to put out that blaze!"

"Maybe Captain Putnam will send out the bucket brigade," answered his chum.

The wind was steadily increasing, and as it whirled

around it sent the sparks flying in all directions. Jack had one ember settle on his hand and Pepper was burnt on the ear. They got a good deal of smoke in their eyes and soon commenced to cough. But they kept on throwing all the loose dirt and stones possible on the fire.

"I wish the barrels didn't have quite so much tar on 'em," panted Pepper. "It's a wonder the roofer left so much inside."

"He wanted to give you the worth of your money," answered the young major, grimly.

After what seemed a long time a shout was heard, and then Andy burst into view.

"The bucket brigade is coming with pails of water," he said. "And some other cadets are to get rakes and wet swabs and shovels."

"They can't come any too quick!" answered Pepper. "See, two of the trees are burning already."

"Yes, and two others are catching!" announced Jack. Then an extra puff of wind sent all of the cadets from the vicinity of the blazing barrels.

"I suppose Ritter and Coulter didn't dream of such a fire when they started it," was Andy's comment.

"Just the same, they are responsible," answered Jack, gravely.

A yell came from afar, and soon some cadets ran into view, each carrying a bucket of water. Leading them was George Strong, who had a long-handled rake and a shovel.

"Boys! boys! didn't you know better than to light a fire here!" cried the teacher.

"We didn't do it," answered Jack.

The water was thrown on the blazing barrels, and then the teacher tried to knock them flat with his rake. But that caused a heavy shower of sparks to ascend, setting fire to some nearby bushes.

"It will be better to use the shovel," said Jack. "Dirt will put out such a fire quicker than anything."

"I believe you, Major Ruddy," answered Mr. Strong, and then he sent some cadets back for more shovels and a few pickaxes, with which to loosen up the dirt.

Soon many more cadets arrived, and with them Captain Putnam. Among the number were Coulter and Ritter, and the pair looked much dismayed.

"Say, I didn't think the fire would spread to the woods," whispered Gus Coulter.

"Hush!" warned his crony. "Don't you admit that we did it. If it comes to the worst, say it was an accident, that we were trying to light a torch, to sneak the barrels away, when they took fire."

"All right."

More water was thrown on the barrels, and then a small army of cadets commenced to dig up dirt and stones, with which to cover the burning objects. This worked very well on the barrels. But to reach the trees was different. One thick cedar was blazing away like a torch-the flames far above their heads.

"Let us cut that tree down," ordered Captain Putnam.

Two axes had been brought along, and Dale used one while Peleg Snuggers wielded the other. Soon the cedar commenced to totter.

"Look out!" cried Captain Putnam, and then crash! the tree came down, directly on top of the tar-barrels. Up went a thick cloud of smoke and sparks. But the cadets were ready with dirt and stones, and the danger of a new blaze was quickly averted.

While the tree was being cut down, the cadets and teachers had been busy with pickaxes and shovels, and also with their rakes and wet swabs, and had put out much of the fire elsewhere. One more tree had to be leveled, and this work was done by Joe and Bart. Then, after five minutes more of hard work, the last of the fire was extinguished, and the crowd in the woods was left in darkness.

"Hello, it's dark enough now," cried Pepper. "We'll need a lantern to get out with."

"Here's a torch," answered one cadet, and took up a cedar bough, and commenced to wave it into a flame.

"No more of that, Bates!" cried Captain Putnam. "We have had enough of fire. We'll go back in the dark. Snuggers, you stay here and see to it that the fire doesn't break out again."

"Yes, sir," answered the general utility man.

"Here is a pistol. If it does break out, fire two shots for an alarm."

"Yes, sir."

"I'll send Alexander Pop here with more water and with some lunch, for you'll have to stay all night," went on the owner of the school. Alexander Pop was a colored man who had come to the school to wait on the table.

"Yes, sir," answered Snuggers. He did not much relish remaining in the woods all night, but he felt that he had to obey orders.

One by one the cadets and the teachers returned to Putnam Hall. The conflagration in the woods had rather broken up the anticipated celebration in honor of the football victory.

"Now, I want to know who placed those tar-barrels in the woods," said Captain Putnam, when he had assembled the cadets in the school building.

"It was Jerry Cole, the roofer from Cedarville," answered John Fenwick, a small youth usually called Mumps. He was known as a toady and a sneak, and was very chummy with Dan Baxter.

"How do you know, Fenwick?"

"I saw him with the barrels on his wagon."

"Why should he put the barrels there?"

"I will tell you," answered Pepper, stepping forward. "I bought them to celebrate with to-night. I thought they'd make a dandy bonfire."

"Indeed! Then you set them ablaze, Ditmore?"

"No, sir. My idea was to roll them to the lake-shore and pile them one on top of the other."

"Then who did set them on fire in the woods?"

For the moment nobody spoke, but Pepper, Jack and Andy, as well as Joe, looked at Reff Ritter and Gus Coulter.

"I want an answer!" cried Captain Putnam, sternly. "Who started that fire?"

He looked around from one cadet to another. But nobody spoke.

* * *

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