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CHAPTER IV


CAUGHT IN THE ACT


"I don't think he'll do anything that is, if he gets the truth out of Nat," said Mr. Wadsworth, as he rejoined the others. "Of course, if his son denies the attack on the professor, it may be different."

"If Nat does that, we'll have the testimony of the professor, Phil, and Roger against him," said Mr. Porter.

It must be admitted that the next day was an uncomfortable one for Dave, for he did not know at what moment an officer of the law might appear to arrest him. In the afternoon he and his chums went fishing, but he had little heart for the sport.

Early on the day following Ben Basswood called to see Dave and the others. As my old readers know, Ben had been a friend to Dave for many years, and had gone from Crumville to Oak Hall with him.

"Was coming before, to meet you and Roger and Phil," said Ben. "But I had to go out of town on business for dad. How are you all? Say, I hear you are going out West on a ranch. That's great! Going to shoot buffaloes, I suppose."

"No, hippopotamuses," put in the senator's son, with a grin.

"And June bugs," added Phil.

"You'll sure have the time of your lives! Wish I was going. But I am booked for the Great Lakes, which isn't bad. Going to take the trip from Buffalo to Duluth and back, you know. But say, I came over to tell you something."

"What is it, Ben?" questioned Dave.

"Come on outside."

The boys walked out into the garden and down to the summerhouse, where they proceeded teo make themselves comfortable.

"It's about Nat Poole," continued Ben Basswood. "I guess you had some kind of a run-in with him, didn't you?"

"Not exactly," answered Roger. "We caught him tormenting Professor Potts and we put a stop to it."

"Well, you had some trouble with Nat's dad, didn't you?"

"Yes," answered Dave. "Did Nat tell you?" he added quickly.

"No, I know of the whole thing by accident. I had to go to the building where Mr. Poole has his new office. While I was waiting to see a man and deliver a message for my dad I overheard some talk between Mr. Poole and Nat. It was mighty warm, I can tell you! "

"What was said?" demanded Phil

"Mr. Poole accused Nat of something and Nat, at first, denied it. Then Mr. Poole said something about arrest, and Professor Potts, and Nat got scared and begged his father to save him. Then Mr. Poole mentioned Dave and a pistol and said he couldn't do anything if that's the way matters stood, and Nat began to beg for dear life, asking his father to let Dave alone this time. At last Mr. Poole said he would, but the way he lectured Nat was a caution. He said he wouldn't give Nat a cent more of spending-money this summer."

"Hurrah, that lets you out, Dave!" cried Roger. "The case against you is squashed."

"The Pooles will have to let it drop," added the shipowner's son. "And I am mighty glad of it."

"I hope you are right," said Dave, and his face showed his relief.

They had to tell Ben all about what had happened. Then the latter wanted to see the bear target, and the crowd ended by doing some more target practicing. But this time Dave was very careful how he shot, and so were the others.

It had been decided that the start for the West was to be made early the following week, and for several days the boys and the girls were busy getting ready. Laura had traveled a great deal, so the journey would not be a novelty to her, but with Jessie it was different.

"I know I shall like it, once I am there," said Jessie. "But, oh, it seems such a distance to go!"

"We'll take good care of you," answered Dunston Porter.

"And I am sure you'll like Mrs. Endicott and Belle," added Laura. "Belle is as full of fun as a—a—oh, I don't know what."

"Shad is of bones," suggested Dave, who stood by.

"Oh, what a comparison!" cried Jessie, and then giggled in the regulation girl fashion.

They were to take a local train to Buffalo and change at that city for Chicago. Ben Basswood decided to go with them as far as Buffalo, so there would be quite a party. The boys gathered their things together and were ready to start a full day beforehand. The buying of railroad tickets and berths in the Pullmans was left entirely to Dunston Porter.

A farewell gathering had been arranged for the young people by Mrs. Wadsworth, to take place on the afternoon previous to their departure for the West. About a dozen boys and girls from Crumville and vicinity were invited. The party was held on the lawn of the Wadsworth estate, which was trimmed for the occasion with banners, flags, and lanterns. A small orchestra, located in the summerhouse, furnished the music.

Of course Dave and his chums donned their best for this occasion, and Laura and Jessie appeared in white dresses that were as pretty as they could be. Jessie's wavy hair was tied up in new ribbons, and as Dave looked at her he thought she looked as sweet as might a fairy from fairyland. He could not help smiling at her, and when she came and pinned on his coat a buttonhole bouquet he thought he was the happiest boy in the whole world.

"Oh, but won't we have the grand times when we get out West!" he said to her.

"I hope so, Dave," she answered. "But——"

"But what, Jessie?" he questioned, as he saw her hesitate.

"I—I can't get that Link Merwell out of my head. I am so sorry his father's ranch is next to that we are going to visit."

"Oh, don't worry. We'll make Link keep his distance," he returned, lightly. Yet it must be confessed that he was just a bit worried himself.

Among the first boys to arrive was Ben Basswood, and he lost no time in calling Phil and Roger aside.

"I don't want to worry Dave or the others," said Ben. "But I think somebody ought to be told."

"Told what?" asked the senator's son.

"About Nat Poole. I got the word from a friend of mine, Joe Devine. Joe was talking with Nat Poole, and he said Nat was very angry at all of us, and angry because Mrs. Wadsworth was giving us the party, especially as he wasn't invited. Joe said Nat intimated that he was going to make the affair turn out a fizzle."

"A fizzle?" queried Phil. "How?"

"Joe didn't know, but he told me, on the quiet, that I ought to watch out, and ought to warn the others. But I don't like to say anything to Mrs. Wadsworth, or the girls. You see, it may be only talk, and if it is, what's the use of getting the ladies excited?"

"It would be just like Nat to play some dirty trick," said the shipowner's son. "The question is, What will it be?"

"Somebody ought to stand guard," was Roger's advice. "And I think we ought to tell Dave."

This was readily agreed upon, and Dave was told a few minutes later. His face at once showed his concern.

"It mustn't be allowed!" he said, earnestly. "I don't care so much on my own account, but think of Mrs. Wadsworth and the girls! Yes, we must keep our eyes open, and if anything goes wrong——" He finished with a grave shake of his head.

"What are you boys plotting about?" asked Laura, as she came up. "Come, it won't do to stick together like this, with all the girls arriving. Dave, go and make folks at home, and you do likewise," she added, with a smile at Phil and Roger.

The boys dispersed and mingled with the arriving guests. Dave did all he could to make everybody feel at home, but all the while he was doing it he kept his eyes wide open.

Presently, chancing to look in the direction of the automobile house, Dave saw somebody skulking along a hedge. The person was visible only a second, so the youth could not make out who it was.

"Maybe it's all right, but I'll take a look and make sure," he told himself, and excused himself to a girl to whom he had been talking. As he hurried across the lawn he passed Phil.

"Come with me, will you?" he said, in a low voice.

"See anything?" demanded the shipowner's son.

"I saw somebody, but I am not sure who it was."

Taking care not to make his departure noticeable, Dave walked toward the automobile house and Phil followed him. Soon the pair were behind some rose bushes and then they gained the shelter of the heavy hedge.

"There he is!" said Dave, in a low voice. "It's Nat Poole, sure enough!"

"What's he doing?" asked Phil.

"Nothing just now. But I guess he is up to something."

Keeping well out of sight behind the hedge, the two boys watched the son of the money-lender. Nat was sneaking past the automobile house and making for a washing-shed adjoining the kitchen of the mansion.

"I think I know what he is up to," murmured Dave. "Come on after him, Phil."

As silently as shadows Dave and Phil followed the money-lender's son to the shed. Once Nat looked around to see if the coast was clear, and the followers promptly dropped down behind a lilac bush. Reassured, Nat entered the shed, and Dave and Phil tiptoed their way up and got behind the open door.

The hired help were in the kitchen, so the shed was empty. On the floor stood an ice-cream freezer full of home-made ice-cream, and on a shelf rested several freshly baked cakes, all covered with chocolate icing, set out to harden.

"Now I'll fix things," Dave and Phil heard the money-lender's son mutter. "Salt in the cream and salt in the layer cakes will do the trick! Some of the boys and girls will think they are poisoned!"

Nat took up a bag of salt that was handy,—used for making the cream, and—proceeded to open the can in the freezer. Dave watched him as a cat does a mouse.

Just as Nat was on the point of dumping some of the salt into the ice-cream he felt himself jerked backwards. The salt dropped to the floor, and Nat found himself confronting Dave, with Phil but a few steps away.

"You contemptible rascal!" cried Dave, his eyes flashing.

"Why—I—er——" stammered the moneylender's son. He did not know what to say.

"Going to spoil the cream, eh?" came from Phil. "It was a mighty dirty trick, Nat."

"On a level with what you did to Professor Potts," added Dave.

"I—er—I wasn't going to do nothing!" cried Nat, with little regard for grammar. "I—er—I was looking at the ice-cream, that's all."

"A poor excuse is worse than none," answered Dave, grimly. "You were going to put salt in the cream and spoil it, you needn't deny it."

"See here, Dave Porter, I want you to understand——"

"Don't talk, Nat, we know all about it," broke in Phil. "You planned to come here yesterday, and we can prove it. We were on the lookout for you."

At this assertion the face of the money-lender's son changed. He grew quite pale.

"I haven't time to waste on you—I want to enjoy this party," said Dave. "Come along with me."

"Where to?" demanded Nat.

"I'll show you," answered Dave, and caught the money-lender's son by the arm. "Catch hold of him, Phil, and don't let him escape."