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CHAPTER XX


A MISUNDERSTANDING


Mr. Porter explained that they had just come in on the train, and were looking for some conveyance to take them to Oak Hall.

"We thought we might call on you for an hour or so and then come back and put up at the Oakdale Hotel," he said.

"I'll certainly be glad to have you call," answered Dave.

Then he told about the missing express package. In the meantime Laura conversed with Mary and Vera, but nothing was said about how the boys and girls had chanced to meet. Then Mary and Vera said they must attend to some errands and get home.

"Well, we'll look for you to-night, sure!" cried Phil.

"We'll be there," answered Mary.

"I wouldn't miss it for a good deal," said Vera. "I want to see that red mustache and wig, if nothing else!" And she laughed, merrily.

"You won't see the wig unless my package is found," answered Dave; and then the two girls hurried away.

Mr. Porter led the way to the local hotel, situated close to the depot, and there registered his party for dinner and supper.

"You can take dinner with us," said he to his son and Phil. "I'll write a note to Doctor Clay, so there will be no trouble."

"We can't stay very long after dinner," answered Dave. "I must look up that package,—and all hands want some kind of a rehearsal."

The boys walked to the express office, but Case had not come back, so they had to go to dinner without hearing from the driver. The five sat at a separate table, and Dave had Laura on one side and Jessie on the other. He did his best to make himself agreeable to Jessie, but she did not warm up as was usual with her, and this made his heart feel rather heavy.

"Why, Jessie, you don't act like yourself," he said, after dinner, and while the others were sitting somewhat apart from them in the hotel parlor.

"Don't I?" she asked.

"No, you don't. What is the matter, don't you feel well?" And his face showed his concern.

"Oh, yes, I feel very well." Her lips trembled a little. "I—I guess I am out of sorts, that's all."

"It's too bad."

"Oh, I'll soon get over it, I suppose." Jessie gave a sigh. "Tell me about your doings, Dave. I suppose you are having hard work at school and like to get out and meet some of your Oakdale friends."

"Why, yes, I like to get out sometimes."

"Those seem to be very nice girls."

"Yes, they are. Phil is quite fond of one of them, too."

"Which one?"

"Mary Feversham. We became acquainted with them in quite an odd way," and he told of the big snowball and the ice-boat.

"That Vera Rockwell seems to think a great deal of you, Dave."

"Do you think so? Well, I think she is a nice——"

"Dave, there is the expressman now! " called out Phil, from his position near a window.

"Come on, if you want to find out about that package."

"All right," answered Dave, and for the time being he forgot all about what he was going to say to Jessie—that he thought Vera nice but not as nice as Jessie herself—something which might have gone a long way toward heading off the trouble that was brewing.

For boys and girls will often think a great deal of each other—and a heartache at fourteen or sixteen is often as real, if not as lasting, as at twenty or older. Since the day Dave had saved Jessie's life he had been her one hero and her closest boy chum, and now to find him in the society of another and for him to say she was nice—— And then there was more than this, an anonymous letter, concocted by Link Merwell and Nat Poole and sent to her by mail. That letter had said some terrible things about Dave—things she could not and would not believe, and yet things which made her very miserable.

"I suppose he has a right to make such friends as he pleases," she thought. "It is none of my affair, and I have no right to spoil his pleasure by saying anything." And then she brushed away the tears that would come into her eyes in spite of her efforts to keep them back.

At the express office Dave and Phil found Mr. Goode already questioning the wagon driver about the missing package.

"I turned it over to a boy who said he belonged to Oak Hall school and would give it to Dave Porter," said the driver. "I thought you had it by this time. He signed for it—leastwise he put that scrawl on the book."

"What was his name?" asked Dave.

"I asked him, but he mumbled something I didn't catch. I didn't pay much attention, for I thought it was all right."

"What sort of looking chap was he?" asked Phil.

As best he could the wagon driver described the individual. The description might have fitted half a dozen lads, until he mentioned a four-inhand tie of bright blue with white daggers splashed over it.

"Merwell wears a tie like that!" cried Phil. "I have seen it several times."

"What would he be doing with my package, Phil?"

"What? Why, maybe he knew about the wig and wanted to spoil your part of the show. It would be like him to play such a trick."

"That's true," answered Dave, and then he asked the wagon driver if the boy had worn a ring with a ruby.

"Yes, a fine large stone," answered the man.

"Then it was Link Merwell," said Dave, decidedly. "Now the question is, What has he done with the package?"

"I don't think he'd dare to destroy it," answered Phil. "Probably he hid it away somewhere."

"I'll soon find out. Come on, Phil."

"Going to tax him with it?"

"Yes. He hasn't any right to touch my property, or to sign my name."

Hurrying back to the hotel, the boys told of what they had learned. Then they got their bicycles and pedaled with all speed in the direction of Oak Hall. Dave felt very much out of sorts, not only because the package was missing but also over the meeting with Jessie. It was the first time that there had been any coldness between them—for he felt that it was a coldness, although he could not explain it.

Arriving at the school, they learned that Link Merwell had taken a walk with Nat Poole. Chip Macklin pointed out the direction, and Dave and Phil went after the pair. They were not surprised to catch the cronies smoking on some rocks behind a growth of underbrush near the highway beyond the campus. As Dave and his chum came up Poole and Merwell threw their cigarettes away.

"Merwell, what did you do with my express package?" demanded Dave, coming at once to the point.

The words made the bully start, but he quickly recovered and arose slowly to his feet.

"Want to see me?" he drawled.

"I want my express package."

"Don't know what you are talking about."

"Yes, you do. Where is the package? I want it at once."

"You took it out of the express office, and we can prove it," added Phil.

"Humph!" growled Link Merwell.

"Are you going to give up the package or not?" demanded Dave.

"Who says I—er—took . any package of yours?" blustered the bully, trying to put on a bold front.

"I say so," declared Dave. "And you not only took it but you signed for it. Merwell, do you know that signing another person's name without permission is forgery?" he went on, pointedly.

At these plain words Link Merwell grew pale.

"I—er—I didn't sign your name."

"You pretended to sign it, and that's the same thing. You got the package from the office by fraud."

"No, I didn't. I said I'd take it to the school, and I did."

"Then where is it?"

"In your dormitory."

"Where?"

"On the top shelf of the closet—been there since yesterday," and now Link Merwell leered over the joke he had played.

"Ha! ha! ha!" came from Nat Poole. "That's one on you, Dave Porter."

"It was a mean trick to play," was Phil's comment.

"Did you open that package?" demanded Dave.

"No, I didn't touch it, excepting to bring it from the express office."

"Very well then, Merwell. If I find anything wrong I'll hold you responsible."

"Say, you needn't try to scare me!"

"I am not trying to scare you—I am merely giving you warning. I won't put up with any of your underhand work, and I want you to know it," answered Dave, and turning on his heel he walked back to the school, followed by Phil.

"He's mad all right," whispered Nat Poole.

"Maybe he has heard from that Crumville girl in a way he didn't like," returned Link Merwell, and closed one eye suggestively.

"Well, if he did, I hope she didn't say anything about the letter," answered Nat Poole, somewhat uneasily. "That was awfully strong."

"Pooh! Don't get scared Nat; nobody will ever find out who wrote that letter, if we keep our mouths shut."

Going up to the dormitory, Dave found the package on the shelf of the closet, as Merwell had said. It was tucked behind some other things, well out of sight.

"It was certainly a well-planned trick," said the shipowner's son, while Dave was opening the package. "He did this so, if he was found out, he could say he gave the package to you and could bring the doctor here to prove it. Perhaps he had in mind to add that you had hidden the package yourself, just to get him into trouble."

"Maybe you're right, Phil; I believe Merwell equal to almost anything."

Fortunately the contents of the package had not been disturbed. Having ascertained that much, Dave went off to find Gus Plum, so that they might have a final rehearsal of the little play they were to enact. In the lower hall he ran into Job Haskers.

"Porter, I want to see you!" cried the assistant teacher, harshly. "You were absent at dinner time. You know that is contrary to the rules. What have you to say for yourself?"

"I met my father in Oakdale, sir—he is coming to the entertainment to-night. He asked Phil Lawrence and myself to dine with him. I have a note for the doctor from him explaining the matter."

"Hum! Very well," answered Job Haskers, and hurried off without another word. Dave smiled grimly to himself, and lost no time in taking the note to the doctor, who excused him and Phil readily.

Dave learned from Shadow that Gus Plum had been in the school but had gone off in the direction of the old boathouse. Feeling that it was growing late Dave hurried after the missing student. Just as he neared the old boathouse, which stood partly on some rocks and partly over the river, he heard a strange crash of glass.

"Hello, what's that?" he asked himself, and ran forward to see.

"There! you'll never tempt me again!" he heard, in Gus Plum's voice.

Then he turned the corner of the old boathouse and saw the former bully of Oak Hall standing near some rocks. At his feet lay the remains of a big bottle. Plum looked pale and as if he had been fighting.

"Oh, Gus!" cried Dave, and then stopped short and looked at the broken bottle and at the stuff flowing over the rocks.

"Dave!" returned the big youth. And then he added, simply: "It was a bottle of wine, and rather than keep it to be tempted, I smashed it."