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7 The Old Man of the Ridge
Jim’s punishment did not last long. A circumstance came up that made the colonel suspend judgment for some time.

One morning, soon after the incidents related, a man in a battered old car drove up to the camp. He was a minister who preached in a regular circuit of county churches and he was known to the colonel. The headmaster received him with great pleasure and the two men talked of many things as they sat in the colonel’s tent.

“By the way,” said the Reverend Mr. Powers, after a time. “Did someone go past your camp very hurriedly a few nights ago?”

The colonel showed signs of unusual interest. “Why, yes, a few nights ago a wagon with two men in it tore right through the camp,” he said. “We couldn’t stop it.”

“There was a man and a boy in it,” corrected the pastor. “Well, then you don’t know what sent them flying past you like that?”

“No,” confessed the colonel. “If you had seen the way they flew by, you wouldn’t wonder that I didn’t learn anything about them. But tell me what you know.”

“First, I would like to ask you a question. Have you heard anything about a ghost of the Ridge, since you have been here?”

The colonel snorted. “I haven’t heard much about anything else,” he retorted.

“The ghost scared these two off. The father is a farmer who came down here from Pennsylvania. As it turns out, he is very superstitious, and the very first night on his own farm, while driving into the yard with his only son, he saw the white shape skulking along near his barn. He was just about crazed with fear and fled to the valley, passing your camp as he did.”

“Of course this ghost is simply some would-be humorous person who is having some fun,” was the colonel’s opinion. But Mr. Powers had another opinion.

“I doubt that very much, Morrell. The thing has been going on for years and some very good citizens have given up their homes just on account of it. The joke would have worn out years ago. No, I’m inclined to think that there is something deeper in it than mere fun.”

“Some determined effort should be made to drive the ghost from the Ridge,” grumbled the headmaster.

“Who is to start it?” shrugged the parson. “No one seems to want to and the sheriff of the county simply laughs at the whole business.”

As a result of this talk the colonel called Rowen and Jim into his tent after drill that very afternoon. They faced him expectantly.

“Gentlemen,” said the colonel. Then he paused, and a frown swept over his face. “I call you gentlemen, and will continue to do so until one of you is proved guilty of deliberate lying. Your conflicting stories show that one of your statements, coming from one or the other of you, is a deliberate falsehood. But to get back to the business in hand: I have just heard some more tales concerning this ghost of the Ridge, and in view of it I have decided to drop the suspension against Captain Mercer. The word of one of you is as good to me as the word of the other, and until I prove that one of you is trying to conceal anything I must consider the case dismissed until further notice. Mr. Rowen, you say you did not hear Mr. Mercer call out nor did you see the white shape. But on the other hand, Captain Mercer did tell you immediately that he had seen a white shape, and that the ghost—or whatever it was—had started the stampede. Inasmuch as you did not see Captain Mercer start the stampede, and you doubted his word, I shall be able to hold him only on the count of being absent without official leave. For that Captain Mercer will receive demerits. It that all clear, and satisfactory?”

“Very much so, to me, sir,” approved Jim. Rowen muttered.

“What was that, Mr. Rowen?” the colonel asked, sharply.

Rowen lost his temper in his sudden fright. “I simply said that of course a Mercer would get the breaks, sir!” he sneered. Then, realizing the slip he had made, his face turned white.

“So!” murmured the colonel. His eyes flashed but his voice was calm. “I asked you if my decision was satisfactory, Mr. Rowen.”

“Yes, sir,” murmured the disappointed cadet.

“Very well. You are both dismissed,” nodded the colonel. Left alone, his brain worked busily. He saw a good many things in a clear light now.

“Petty jealousy, and he is trying to revenge himself on Mercer,” thought the little colonel. “I guess I can pretty well tell which one of those young men is lying!”

On the following morning, when the Orders of the Day were read, Jim and his friends were delighted to hear in the crisp voice of the battalion orderly that the charges brought against Captain Mercer by Sentry Rowen were to be temporarily dismissed, with the exception of the charge of leaving camp unofficially, for which Captain Mercer was to receive twenty-five demerits.

A hundred demerits were sufficient to send a man home from the encampment and two hundred at school would dismiss any cadet permanently.

That afternoon there was a partial holiday and the cadets set out to enjoy themselves. It was a mild and warm afternoon, with a fleecy sky overhead, through which the sun peeped at intervals. Don and Jim sat in the tent, trying to decide just what to do.

“What do you say to a hike over the Ridge, a sort of exploring trip?” was Don’s suggestion.

“Sounds good,” approved Jim. “Who can we get to go along with us?”

“We’ll scout around and find out,” announced Don, getting up from his cot.

After looking up their most intimate friends they found that only Terry and Raoul Vench cared to go tramping.

“We’ll be glad to go along,” yawned the redhead. He and Raoul had been idly watching the swimmers when Jim and Don found them. “I’m weary o’ doing nothing!”

“Too lazy to do anything but watch the other fellows swim around and enjoy themselves, is that it?” inquired Jim.

“Yes, but you see, I enjoy it that way,” returned Terry, seriously. “I have a vivid imagination and in time, by concentrating on the swimmers, I too feel the cool of the water and the exhilaration of the exercise. Just requires a little imaginative concentration, Jimmie my friend.”

“You’re a wonderful fellow,” glowed Jim. “Just you imagine me a couple of ice-cream sodas, will you?”

“Pay me first!” grinned Terry. “Money back if I fail to come across.”

The four cadets set out at a brisk pace up the slope of the Ridge. It was heavily wooded and every now and then they came across a clearing in which a farmhouse could be seen. They were not long in reaching the very top of the series of hills called Rustling Ridge and they paused to look down into the opposite valley from the one above which their camp was pitched.

“Nice picture,” observed Terry. “Why do they call this place Rustling Ridge?”

“In the fall, when the wind blows hard, the leaves rustle, and from that fact comes the name,” Don volunteered.

“How’d you learn that?” Vench wanted to know.

“I asked a farm boy who was watching us play baseball the other day,” replied the infantry lieutenant.

“Look at that old house up there,” called out Jim, pointing to a huge square structure that showed a battered roof with leaning chimneys over the tops of the trees. “Looks like a fitting habitation for the ghost of this place.”

“Just about,” agreed Vench. “But that little cabin down below looks better to me, because I bet we can get a good drink at the place. Let’s go down.”

The others agreed and they tramped down the side of the slope toward a plain little cabin, constructed of unpainted boards, with a roofed front porch on it. At some distance below them they could see the largest town in the county.

“What town is that?” asked Jim.

“I think that must be Rideway,” replied Don.

Reaching the cabin they rounded the corner, to halt suddenly as they saw a figure there. It was a little old man in a wheelchair, a man with sparse gray hair, sallow cheeks, and a few good teeth remaining. His eyes were keen and penetrating and he was puffing in evident enjoyment on a huge pipe.

He greeted them readily enough. “Hi, there, boys, step right up,” he shrilled, in a rasping voice. “Soldiers, eh? You look pretty young. Where you stationed?”

“We aren’t soldiers of the United States Army,” Don told him. “We are cadets from Woodcrest Military Institute, and we’re camping over on the other side of the Ridge. We were passing by and thought we’d drop in for a drink of water.”

“Thought you were too young-looking for regular soldiers,” nodded the old man, taking in every detail of their uniforms. “Want a drink of good water, eh?”

“Yes,” Don replied. “But we wouldn’t want to trouble you any.”

“Oh, hush up!” was the good-natured reply. “I know that you’re thinking I’m out of commission and I can’t help you. Just sit down on the porch here and see how old Peter Vancouver does it.”

With that the old man gave the right wheel of his chair a whirl and to the astonishment of the boys shot himself around in a half circle and in through the open door. From there they saw him roll across the room and vanish through the door of another room.

“My gosh!” breathed Terry. “Can’t he work that buggy of his!”

“Probably years of practice has made him proficient,” said Don, softly.

With the same bewildering speed and dexterity the man returned in his chair, holding a pitcher and a tin cup in his hand. Even while in motion he poured the water out.

He seemed to enjoy watching the boys drink deeply, and when they had finished he wheeled back to the kitchen and returned at lightning speed. Noting the interested looks of the boys he chuckled.

“Guess the old man knows how to walk well’s if he had feet, eh?”

“You walk better than a whole lot of people who have feet,” gravely affirmed Vench.

“If you was spending your life in one of these all-fired things you’d know how to ride one, too,” he told them. “Don’t you fellows go. I don’t see a heap of folks and I like to chin once in a while.”

“We’ll be glad to stay and talk with you, Mr. Vancouver,” smiled Jim, leaning back against a post. “We are just out exploring and we’d just as soon sit here and talk as wander around.”

“Glad to hear you say it,” approved the old man. “Let’s hear something about that there camp of yourn.”

The boys told him several things about the camp, all of which seemed to interest him deeply. In the course of the talk the incident of the ghost and the stampede was mentioned. The old man bent eagerly forward.

“Did you get a visit from the ghost?” he cried.

“Yes, he stampeded our horses,” Jim told him. “What do you know about him, Mr. Vancouver?”

The man chuckled. “All a poor old invalid would know about such like he hears,” the man replied. “I ain’t never seen the thing, but I heard plenty. Raises old Ned in the hills here, and has been at it for years.”

“If we get a chance we are going to nail him good,” Don promised.

“Good idea,” Mr. Vancouver approved. “Blasted business has been driving people off the Ridge for years. Wouldn’t be surprised if the fellow drove you cadets home.”

“Drive us out of camp!” ejaculated Vench, stirring.

“He might!” the old man said.

“He’ll have to go some to do that,” snorted Terry. “He’ll be lucky if we don’t steal his best nightgown right off him!”

“Getting late, fellows,” warned Don. “We had better be getting back. Thanks a lot for your good drink of water, Mr. Vancouver, and we’ve enjoyed being with you.”

“Enjoyed being able to talk to you boys,” he returned heartily. “Come up again some time.”

“We’ll be glad to,” promised the boys, as they started off. Mr. Vancouver called a final word after them.

“You had better keep your eyes open for that cussed ghost! No tellin’ when he’ll pop up and scare the life out of you!”

The cadets laughed good-naturedly and walked at a rapid pace up the side of the Ridge. The sun was going down in the west and they would have to keep up a good stride in order to arrive in time for supper.

“Interesting old fellow, that Vancouver,” Jim observed.

“He surely is,” Vench agreed. “We’ll have to chat with him some other time.”

“Too bad he can’t move around—that is, walk around,” Don said. “As a matter of fact, he does move around mighty fast, but I mean it is a shame he can’t go walking around, same as you and me.”

“Like everybody else around here, he believes that dog-goned ghost is the last word in efficiency,” growled Terry. “I guess the real trouble is that nobody dares to put on a real hunt for the ghost. Fellows, we’ll have to make it our business to run down that ghost!”

“If it pops up again soon, we will,” Don promised.


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