Harper's Round Table, May 19, 1896
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, MAY 19, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 864.||two dollars a year.|
JACK HOWARD'S SURPRISE PARTY.
It was the critical moment in the famous sham battle of Easter Monday.The bicycle corps was a mile and a half away, and the signal post hadbeen captured by the enemy. Unless the corps could be brought into theaction the day was lost, and the wood road running back of the"Cardinal's Nob" offered the only possible means of communication. Butcould the message be conveyed in time? Colonel Howard turned to his sonJack, who stood anxious and silent at the front handle-bars of theArrow, a modern racing quad, geared to 120, and stripped down to theenamel. The inspection seemed to satisfy him, and hastily scribbling afew lines on a page torn from his note-book, he handed the order to hisson.
"Get this through if you possibly can," he said, briefly, and turnedagain to his field-glasses.
A moment later and Jack and his crew were carrying the Arrow down thesteep sides of the "Nob" to the wood road that ran below. The road wasin splendid condition, hard and smooth as a racing-track, and the boyswere all picked riders, and bound to hold on to their grips until thetires began to smoke.
"It will be a scorch, fellows," said Jack, as he swung himself into hissaddle; "but let her run off easily until we can get to pedalling alltogether. Now, then, hit her up!"
The Arrow jumped forward like a hare as the long chain tightened and theriders bent over to their work. It took Jem Smith, No. 2, a momentlonger to find his left pedal, and then the eight legs began to go upand down with the mechanical regularity of so many piston-rods. Oncefairly into the long rhythmical swing, every ounce of power told, andthe tense spokes hummed merrily as the speed increased and the road-bedslipped away beneath the rapidly revolving wheels. Jack Howard had hiscap drawn well down over his eyes, and his hands were tightly clinchedon the front handle-bars. So long as the way was smooth and the crewwere pumping in strict time the Arrow steered with the certainty andquickness of a racing sloop; but every now and then a shallow rut or ahalf-hidden stone would cause the long machine to swerve like a flyinghorse, and it would take all of Jack's strength, even with theassistance of No. 2, whose handle-bars were coupled to the steeringhead, to keep the Arrow steady on her course.[Pg 694] Above all, it wasnecessary that every rider should pay strict attention to the businessin hand, or rather under foot. Uneven pedalling meant lost power andhard steering, while a slipped pedal might result in an ugly fall and ageneral smash-up.
Three-quarters of a mile from the "Nob" there was a gate across theroad, with the approach on a curve that was also slightly down-grade. Aswas only prudent, speed was reduced, and the Arrow rounded the turn wellunder control. Luckily so, for the gate was closed. This was rather odd,for the bicycle corps had passed over the road only an hour before, andit had been understood that they should leave the gate open. The loss oftime was vexatious, but there was nothing to do but to stop. The Arrowran slowly up to the obstruction, and Jack called to Dick Long, the endman, to jump off and swing the gate aside.
"Hands up!" came with startling distinctness from the high, thicklywooded slope that bordered the road on either side, and Jack looked upstraight into the barrel of a regulation army carbine that for themoment yawned as wide as the muzzle of a hundred-ton gun. It was theenemy, sure enough, a sergeant with a dozen men, and the Arrow hadwalked straight into the trap. Resistance was as impossible as it washopeless, for the boys had strapped their carbines securely to theframing of the quad, and the surprise had been complete.
"You're captured," said the umpire, who had accompanied the ambuscade."Hand over your despatches to the sergeant and stand at attention."
It was a dreadfully mortifying situation for the boys, but their captorswere inclined to be magnanimous.
"It's not your fault, Jack," chuckled the jolly sergeant, as he took theprecious despatch; "it was just a little game of strategy in which wehappened to hold the high cards."
After all, it had been a desperate chance, and Jack was philosopherenough to abide by the result. And besides that he had faith enough inhis father to feel assured that he would pull through somehow, and thathis confidence was not misplaced those who have read "The Battle ofEaster Monday" will remember.
The umpire hurried away for the actual field of battle, and the sergeantand his party took up their post again at the gate. It was stupid workplaying prisoner, and Jack hinted as much to the sergeant. If theycouldn't see the battle it was a pity to lose such a fine afternoon fora ride, and it was not likely that they would be able to borrow the quadagain.
"Well," said the sergeant, good-naturedly, "I don't know that I have anyright to do it, but I'll release you on parole, with the understandingthat you go in the opposite direction from the battle-field, and thatyou report at the armory this evening and turn in your rifles andcartridge-belts."
The terms were too easy not to be accepted, and though the boys werenaturally disappointed in not being able to see or take part in thefight, it was something in the way of consolation to have a twenty-milespin on the Arrow.
"Let's go to Queenston," suggested Jem Smith, as the Arrow rolled slowlyback along the wood road.
It was a good fifteen miles away to the old college town, but the roadswere unusually good for so early in the year, and the scenery was morethan enough to make up for the steepness of the hills.
"And take luncheon at Rock Hill," added Jack. "Is it a vote?" and no onedissenting, it was so ordered.
It was a glorious afternoon for a spin, and the boys enjoyed the novelexperience of four-in-hand riding. But since the Arrow was geared up forracing on a level track, it was hard work hill-climbing, and nobody wassorry to see in the distance the gray towers of Queenston. A mile awayfrom town and Jack called a halt. The stretch of road immediately beforethem had been broken up preparatory to macadamizing, and it was clearlyunrideable. Nobody liked the idea of trundling the long machine intotown; but, on the other hand, they had set out for a run to Queenston,and it would not do to give up within sight of port. And, moreover,through the town lay the shortest road back to Fairacre.
"What's that road?" asked Dick Long, pointing to a carriage drive thatentered the woods at right angles to the highway.
Jack's eyes brightened. "I remember it now," he said. "It's a privateroad that runs back of the college and brings us out on UniversitySquare. There can't be any objection to our using it."
There was a locked gate to prevent intrusion, but the Arrow was quicklyhoisted over the fence, and Jack and his crew were in the saddle again.
It was evident that the road had not been used for a long time, for itwas overgrown with grass, and the old wheel-tracks were hardlydiscernible. But it was fair riding, for the turf was thick and firm,and as it was early in the spring, it had only just begun to grow. Halfa mile in and the Arrow was running swiftly and noiselessly through thethickest part of the college wood. The university buildings were but aquarter of a mile or so away, but it was only occasionally that theyshowed through the leafless trunks of the great oaks and chestnuts. Hereand there a chipmunk scuttled away through the dry rustling leaves, andonce an early robin piped up with an original spring poem. The silenceand stillness seemed almost primeval; it might have been the firstSunday morning after the creation of the world; a laugh or an idle wordwould have broken the spell. And then—
"Hold hard!" came in a tense whisper from Jack, and his crewmechanically bore back on their pedals. The Arrow had stopped at thebrow of a gentle declivity that widened out at the bottom into a littleglade, which was now the scene of a drama that looked perilously like atragedy to the startled eyes of the new-comers. In the middle of theopen space stood a rude structure of rough stones some three feet highand six long, and upon it was stretched the figure of a man bound andgagged. At a little distance were grouped a dozen masked forms armedwith odd-looking axes, and listening attentively to an incomprehensibleharangue on the part of the one who appeared to be their leader.
The boys looked at each other with white faces. Ku-Klux? White Caps? Itwas possible. Whatever it was, it looked ugly enough in all conscience.
Jack Howard began to unstrap his carbine from the framework of theArrow.
"Our cartridges are all blanks," whispered Dick Long, hurriedly.
"I know it," returned Jack, fumbling with nervous haste at the mechanismof the breech-block, "but I'm not going to stand here and see murderdone."
"But what can we do?"
"See that your magazines are full, be ready to ride the Arrow so as toget that stone pile between us and the crowd, and, above all, let nobodyfire until I give the word. It's twelve to four, and the only chance isto bluff them."
It seemed like a dream to stand there waiting for the moment of action,the motionless figure stretched upon the stones, the sunlight flickeringupon the grim-looking axes of the twelve masked men, the monotonous,unintelligible drone of the speaker. And yet there was a something inthe picture that made it terribly alive, for all that this was the yearof Our Lord 1896, and the bells in the college chapel were even nowringing the call for evening prayers.
Jack and his crew were sitting motionless in their saddles, Dick Long,the rear man, standing ready to give the necessary shove-off.
The speaker had stopped talking, and had taken his stand at the head ofthe line of masked men. In his hands he held an antique-looking urn, andat a signal the others advanced one by one. As the first man passed hedropped into the urn a small object that looked like a bean. But therecould be no mistake about the color—it was black. Another followed, andthen another, until all had passed and cast their vote, if vote it was.The chief solemnly emptied the contents of the urn upon the ground.Every bean was black.
The leader drew from beneath his cloak a long, glittering,crescent-shaped knife, and held it high above his head.
"Your sentence, then"—he looked inquiringly at the[Pg 695] immovable silentfigures that stood about him in a circle.
"Death!" came in muffled tones from the first mask, and "Death!" echoedthe next, and the next, until all had spoken.
The circle parted, and the executioner moved slowly towards the altarand the victim.
"Now!" shouted Jack, and the Arrow flashed down the slope as though spedfrom some gigantic bowstring. In an instant the boys had dismounted, andwere kneeling under cover of the stone-work with their rifles at theirshoulders. There was a moment of surprise and confusion among the maskedfigures, and the man with the knife pulled up sharply.
Jack snatched off his cap and tossed it into the air. It fell sometwenty feet away, an improvised dead-line between the