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6 The Trouble Bug Bites Deep
After that, things happened rapidly. Just as the horses began their rapid flight the sentry on the post rushed up to Jim. As luck would have it, it was none other than Rowen.

Before he could say anything the stampeding horses hit the first tents. They had spread out fan-wise on their wild run, and those on the wings were unable to push into the company streets. Blindly they crashed into the tents, taking two of them down in a flash and tipping a third over. The thunder of hoofs, the ripping of tent cords and the shouts of bewildered cadets buried under the entangling canvas turned the peaceful camp into a raging scene of chaos.

Cadets at the further end of the camp ran out, only to meet the galloping horses face to face. They were too bewildered to comprehend at once just what was going on, but they scurried back under cover. There was a vast uproar on all sides. A cloud of dust rose over the camp, partially obscuring the moon. To add to the confusion the sentries on other posts excitedly fired their guns.

Jim stood confused, wiping the dust from his eyes impatiently. Close beside him stood Rowen, coughing violently from the dust that the horses had raised. When he could speak he turned to Jim sternly.

“What are you doing here, Mercer?” he asked.

“I went back to the corral for my belt and then I saw a white shape near the horses,” related Jim. “Just as I challenged him he slapped them on the flank, starting the stampede.”

Rowen looked around the near-by woods. There was nothing to be seen. Deliberately he faced Jim.

“Absurd, Mercer,” he declared, his intention plain.

“Do you mean you think I’m lying?” Jim demanded, his cheeks flushing.

“I don’t have to mean anything. You tell me a story like that but I don’t see the faintest evidence of it. What do you expect of me?”

“Look here, Rowen,” said Jim. “How far away were you when these horses started?”

“A few yards. I was just patrolling this way when I heard them go,” answered the sentry.

“Then you heard me say, ‘What are you doing to those horses?’ didn’t you?”

“No, Mercer, I did not,” returned Rowen, steadily.

“You did so!” retorted Jim, flatly.

“I heard nothing,” repeated Rowen. “When I got here I found the horses in flight and I saw you standing back of them. Under the circumstances I must tell that to the proper officers and the colonel.”

“Certainly you must. But I will also tell them about the white shape.”

“I hope they will be a little more inclined to believe you than I am,” sneered Rowen.

Jim took a step forward. “Rowen, if you intimate that I lie, I’ll surely thrash you worse than I did this afternoon!”

“Mercer, in addition to reporting you for stampeding the horses, I shall also report you for threatening the sentry while he was performing his duty,” followed up the vengeful cadet.

Hot words leaped to Jim’s lips, but he stopped them. More words would lead to trouble, and he was sure that he had enough of that on his hands right now to last him for some time. Beside that, the camp was a bedlam and the horses were scattered all over the meadow below. Outwardly cool he faced the sentry.

“I am going to help round up the horses,” he told Rowen. “I’ll see you later.”

With this Jim turned and ran across the camp, heading down the slope to the field below. The colonel was now on the job, with some realization of what had occurred. A detail of cadets was busy at the fallen tents, lifting the canvas and helping the stunned soldiers out into the open. One boy had had his shoulder sprained but that was all the physical damage there was. Most of the horses had halted on the plain below and were quietly cropping the grass.

All of the cavalrymen turned instinctively toward the horses and were now engaged in the difficult job of trying to secure them. The infantrymen and artillerymen stood around talking things over, understanding that there had been a stampede but not fully realizing why the horses had run away.

“Guess something just scared them and they bolted,” Cadet Douglas said, speaking to a group.

“I’d like to know where Jim is?” murmured Terry.

“Too bad it had to happen while he was out of the camp,” returned Don, in a low voice. “If the colonel ever learns that he was absent at the time he’ll have a job explaining where he was. If he doesn’t turn up and go hunting the horses he’ll have to answer for that.”

Drill Master Rhodes bore down on the assembled cadets. “A few fires to be lighted, please,” he directed briskly. At this word the cadets scattered and fell to work gathering fuel for fires. A short time later a half-dozen fires lighted up the sky and threw the camp into bright relief.

“There’s Jim!” cried Don, pulling at Terry’s sleeve. “He has been right on the job.”

Jim was riding Squall bareback and driving other horses before him. Lieutenant Thompson brought in others, and the main band of the animals had been captured. But there were now at least five horses that had run far off and some of the cadets saddled and went after them.

This time they found real work cut out for them. The horses that had run the farthest away were the unruly ones. They objected strongly to being captured and led the cadets a merry chase. After an hour of hard work all but one horse had been captured.

“Mr. Mercer,” called the colonel. “Take Mr. Thompson and get that one stray horse.”

Jim and Thompson mounted and dashed across the field toward Twinkletoes, the stubborn cavalry horse. The animal, a beautiful chestnut stallion, tossed his head disdainfully and trotted off in a sweeping circle, seeming to enjoy the chase keenly. He was moving away from the camp and Jim saw that unless he could get on the far side of the horse he would lose him. Accordingly, he abandoned the direct chase, heading Squall out across the moonlit field until he had passed the cavorting horse. Then Jim swung sharply in toward the camp, the animal now in front of him. Thompson stopped and allowed Twinkletoes to retreat past him, and then the two cavalry officers began a chase that entertained and delighted the camp.

Twinkletoes tried in vain to dodge out of the circle which the two young soldiers had drawn around him, and it took all of their skill to keep him from attaining his objective. Twinkletoes raced and plunged, first toward one side and then toward the other, making short, mad little dashes, but as fast as he dashed the officers dashed after him. In this fashion, working ever in toward the slope, the two cadets drove the frisky animal in far enough to make escape possible only by dashing up the hill. This Twinkletoes refused to do, and Jim, staking all on a last desperate drive, forced Squall up beside the fugitive horse and secured him. As he led him into camp a cheer went up.

“Very good work, men,” nodded the colonel.

The horses were now all in and the work of securing them firmly went on. No recall was sounded and the cadets wandered aimlessly around the camp. When Jim and the other cavalrymen returned to the central fire they found the colonel standing there, surrounded by the instructors and most of the cadets. Jim was walking toward the colonel to make his report when Rowen stepped from the group, triumph written on his face.

“Mr. Mercer!” he called, loudly. All of the assembled soldiers, including the colonel, turned to look at him.

“What is it, Mr. Rowen?” Jim asked, quietly.

“You will kindly consider yourself under arrest for starting the stampede!” continued Rowen, still in the loud voice.

His words produced a decided sensation. The colonel looked particularly astonished. Terry groaned and nudged Don.

“What do you know about that! Jim started the stampede!”

“Mr. Mercer, did you start the stampede?” the colonel asked.

“No, sir,” replied Jim, promptly.

The colonel turned to Rowen. “What is your exact charge against Captain Mercer, Mr. Rowen?” he asked.

“I charge Captain Mercer with being absent from camp without official leave, of stampeding the horses, and of threatening a sentry in the performance of his duty!” cried Rowen.

“Those are very serious charges, Captain Mercer,” the colonel told Jim. “What have you to say to them?”

“I admit being out of camp without leave, but refuse to acknowledge stampeding the horses or having been in any way responsible for their breaking loose. I did threaten to thrash Mr. Rowen because he insisted that I was deliberately lying when I informed him that a figure clothed entirely in white slapped the horses and started them on their stampede,” reported Jim. There was a stir of eager interest from the cadets.

“A figure in white?” said the colonel, sharply. “What was that, Captain Mercer?”

“I do not know, sir,” replied Jim. “I challenged him sharply and at the sound of my voice he slapped the horses on the flanks, starting them on their break.”

“Captain Mercer says he called out to the figure in white,” said the colonel, turning to Rowen. “Did you hear him call, Mr. Rowen?”

“I did not, sir,” answered the sentry. “Colonel Morrell, Captain Mercer did not call out!”

“Limit your statement to the fact that you did not hear him, Mr. Rowen,” advised the colonel. Rowen flushed and trembled with rage.

“And you really saw a white shape at the horses, Captain Mercer? This talk of ghosts has not influenced you any, has it?”

“Not a bit, sir,” affirmed Jim, gravely. “I distinctly heard the sharp sounds of his slaps and as I started for him he glided into the woods close at hand.”

“Did you see anything, Mr. Rowen?” the colonel asked.

“The only thing I saw was Mr. Mercer standing there, watching the horses tear across the camp, sir,” answered Rowen.

The colonel thought for a moment. “Very well, men,” he returned. “I will consider the case carefully. Captain Mercer, you will consider yourself at least temporarily under arrest, on the two charges preferred by Mr. Rowen, namely, for being absent without official leave and for threatening the sentry, although I realize that you threatened Mr. Rowen not for ordering your arrest, but for doubting your word. All these things don’t go well with an officer’s commission, Captain Mercer, and I shall be compelled to look into the entire affair.”

“Very good, sir,” responded Jim, saluting.

The cadets were sent back to their cots and soon quiet settled over the entire camp. In their tent Jim, Terry and Don discussed the situation.

“Just your luck to run right into Rowen,” commented Terry. “I’d like to bet my last nickel that he heard you call out, too.”

“I think that he did, but we can’t prove it,” sighed Jim. “Well, I’m not going to worry about it.”

“You won’t need to,” reassured Don. “The colonel will see to it that you have the proper justice. Your word is as good as Rowen’s and he will find out the truth some way.”


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