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CHAPTER XX THE GOLDEN TROPHY.
The parlor of the clubhouse was well filled when Robert Ashley exposed the trophy, which had been placed on the table in the centre of the room and covered with a flag.

First Mr. Ashley made a short speech, in which he explained his object in offering such an award. In substance it was for the purpose of arousing greater interest in cross-country races and thus to develop in American athletes that stamina and endurance essential in the modern man of business.

“American runners are better known for flashing brilliancy than for dogged determination,” he said. “In the great race of life, endurance wins far more often than brilliancy, which is not infrequently allied with weakness. But the runner must have a strong heart, else he may become discouraged by the apparent success of some competitor who flashes past him at the start. If he persists doggedly, determinedly, gauging himself properly and making the best of his powers, he may have the satisfaction of passing the brilliant starter, leaving him winded and spent and floundering helplessly in some morass of business or thicket of commerce.”

There was a breathless hush when Ashley had finished. Then a signal was given and the flag lifted.

All leaned forward and stared.

Then followed a murmur of admiration and a burst of applause.

It was a statue, the lifelike and natural representation of a diminutive, lithe-limbed runner, being about eight inches in height and molded from a fine quality of gold. The base on which it stood was also of gold.

But the admiration of the beholders was aroused not merely on account of the material from which the trophy had been made and its evident great value; the figure was splendidly and scientifically molded, being so natural in its every pose, resting on the toes of the right foot, with the left leg thrown forward in a fine stride, the knee bent, the naked left arm swung backward on a line and the right arm forward, the hands closed, the head setting perfectly on a slender yet full neck, the face firm and determined, every line from toe to topknot denoting vigorous and easy action—so natural was it that it must have created a sensation even though formed of lead.

Those present crowded about the table. After a little they began to comment wonderingly, not so much on the costliness of the trophy, as on its value as a work of art. There was no one present who did not realize that it must have cost a great sum of money, and was something that the fortunate winner could display throughout the remainder of his life with the utmost pride.

After they had discussed it for a time, Mr. Ashley spoke:

“Gentlemen,” he said, “it may seem strange to you that I have not up to the present time made known the exact nature of the trophy I intended to offer. I will explain. It is my belief that the cleanest and most commendable sports are those in which the contestants participate without covetousness or hope of reward other than the glory that comes to the victor. In the glorious days of Greece the victor was rewarded with a wreath of laurel. I believed it was possible to bring together for this event the leading long-distance runners of this country, without arousing their greed by advertising the real worth of the trophy, and the result has justified my judgment. Only those who have already entered or to-day announce their intention to enter and make proper application will be accepted. Already the leading amateurs of the United States, with one or two exceptions, are entered. There is no longer a chance that greed will bring others into the contest. May the victor prove worthy of the trophy, and may it inspire him to his best efforts through life.” This final speech was greeted with even more applause than the first had aroused. The astonishing generosity of Mr. Ashley was commented upon quietly by little groups, and it was universally agreed that the winner of the contest might properly lay claim to the title of cross-country champion of America.

Two young men entered and advanced to view the trophy. One of them attracted attention right away. Among those who hastened to speak to him was Herbert Hollingsworth.

“Jove, Merry!” exclaimed Hodge softly; “did you catch that chap’s name?”

“What chap?”

“The one who just came in with the fellow in the blue suit. Hollingsworth is talking to him now.”

“No, I didn’t catch his name.”

“Hollingsworth called him Huntley.”

Instantly Frank gave the fellow more attention. He saw a slender, graceful young man of twenty-four or five, who had rather long legs, and who, in spite of his grace and suppleness, had about him a suggestion of strength and reserve power. His chin denoted pugnacity, his mouth determination and his nose command. His eyes were the only questionable features he possessed. Although they were not shifty and they looked at one squarely, to Frank they somehow suggested a nature not over-scrupulous—one who would sacrifice friendship or anything else for selfish gain and glory.

Proctor now discovered the newcomer and made some haste to shake hands with him, after which, taking his arm, he led him over to Frank.

“I think you will be pleased to meet Mr. Merriwell, Mr. Huntley,” said the president of the club. “Mr. Merriwell, this gentleman will be one of your dangerous rivals for the golden trophy. He is the champion long-distance man of the Bison A. A., Buffalo.”

“I am in truth glad to know you, Mr. Huntley,” nodded Merry, as he shook the hand of the man from Buffalo.

“The pleasure is mutual,” assured Huntley. “Even before coming to America I heard a great deal of you. Your career attracted the attention of Oxford and Cambridge men. I believe you are the only all-round athlete who has also excelled in competing with the champions who have made a specialty of many different sports. Usually an all-round man is in truth a jack of all trades and master of none. So you have entered for the magnificent Ashley trophy?”

“Not yet; but I have announced my intention of entering.”

“Before the trophy was displayed?”

Something in this question gave Merry a slight flush of annoyance, but he concealed it perfectly.

“As Proctor can affirm, my intention was announced before the trophy was shown. Your friend, Hollingsworth, who seems to have great confidence in you, bantered me into it.”

A slight cloud fell on Huntley’s face.

“Mr. Hollingsworth is a mere acquaintance,” he hastened to explain. “I was not aware that he had so much confidence in me.”

Back of this Frank seemed to read the speaker’s thoughts, and he was satisfied that Huntley was inwardly cursing Hollingsworth.

“I was led to believe him a friend and to think he had great confidence in you through some talk he made.”

“Well, whatever Mr. Hollingsworth’s opinion of me, I am certain he would rejoice to see me defeated by one or more of the youngsters he has developed here. It would be a feather in his cap to bring out a champion, you know.”

“It would, indeed; and I should be pleased to see a member of this club secure the trophy.”

“What, and you in the race?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, then, were you to find yourself matched against an Ashport man toward the finish, with it settled that one of you two must come in first, you would give the other fellow the race?”

“I have not said so, nor would I do anything of the sort.”

“I thought not!” said Huntley, with the slightest curl to his lips.

“Whenever I enter any contest I do so with the full determination to win, if such a thing lies within my power. Were I confident an Ashport man would win I would not enter at all.”

“Your generosity is really surprising!” cried the Buffalo man laughingly. “Under any circumstances, I’ll guarantee you’ll enter and do your best to secure the runner of gold. In spite of your past reputation, however, I think you will find it no simple matter to obtain the trophy.”

“Were it a simple matter,” said Frank, “it would not be worth trying for.”

“That is handsomely said, Mr. Merriwell; but I hardly fancy you could be deterred from trying under any conditions.”

Having said this, Huntley again expressed his satisfaction over the meeting with Frank and bowed himself away.

“You touched him, Frank,” said Hodge. “He didn’t like it when you mentioned his friendship for Hollingsworth and the confidence the latter had in him.”

“No, he didn’t like it at all,” agreed Frank. “The fact that it did touch him increases my suspicions.”

“Naturally.”

“There is something going on beneath the surface.”

“I think it.”

“What is it?”

“I’d like to know.”

“So would I,” confessed Merry.

“We may find out.”

Bart now took a fancy to watch Huntley closely, and he was rewarded, after a time, by seeing a slight signal pass between the representative of the Bison A. A. and the Ashport trainer.

Five or ten minutes later Huntley sauntered out of the clubhouse. He stood a few moments on the veranda, surveying the track. Finally he crossed the track and walked out onto the field, seemingly highly interested in looking over the fine grounds of the club.

Still watching, Hodge observed that Hollingsworth left the club by the door opposite the track, and passed round to the bathhouse, where he met the trackmaster, with whom he conversed for a few moments. Finally the trainer and the trackmaster started along the oval track, the former indicating by his gestures that he was criticising something that did not suit his fancy.

By this time Huntley was far down at the lower end of the field. He crossed the track down there and disappeared amid some trees.

At the western side of the baseball diamond and just inside the track were seats for spectators and a small covered grand stand for ladies.

Hollingsworth and the trackmaster paused just before reaching the stand. The trainer appeared to be pointing out something near that point which caused him dissatisfaction.

Hodge caught a glimpse of a man amid the trees, beyond the track, far down at the southwestern extremity of the field. The man was sauntering northward.

“Behind the grand stand!” decided Bart. “That’s where they are going to meet!”

He was palpitating with eagerness, but for the time he seemed baffled and unable to make a move.

Finally Hollingsworth and the trackmaster parted, the latter turning back, while the Englishman sauntered on slowly, his head down. Twice he looked round toward the clubhouse, as if fancying he might be watched. Finally he disappeared behind the stand.

In a twinkling Hodge was outside the house and trotting away briskly along the track. He was taking chances. If seen, he hoped he might be thought a runner seeking to sweat off a few pounds or an enthusiast who had been spurred to try the track through seeing others at it.

As he ran, he watched for the men amid the trees, and also kept his eyes open for Hollingsworth. In case the latter reappeared beyond the stand, Hodge felt that it would be useless to make any further attempt to follow him.

At first Bart hugged the outside of the track. When he approached the turn at the shoulder of the oval, he crossed and pressed close to the curb.

He had now brought the stand and seats between him and the distant trees into which Huntley had sauntered. None too soon, for the Buffalo man reappeared, vaulted the outside fence and came walking up the track.

Hodge could not go much farther without appearing in full view of Hollingsworth, if the latter lingered behind the stand. Therefore he sprang over the inside fence and kept toward the stand in a straight line, running lightly on the turf.

Bart reached the stand, slipped past the corner, climbed into it without seeking the regular entrance, and walked softly toward the southern end. There, hidden from any one at the south by the boarding at that end and equally well protected toward the west, he mounted without noise over the seats until he reached the highest one at the back. He might have looked over the boarding in search of Hollingsworth, but he decided not to run the risk of being seen. Squatting there in the upper corner, he peered through a crack and saw Huntley rapidly approaching.

Bart knew his actions must seem suspicious to any one at the clubhouse who happened to observe them; but he minded that not at all, being determined to learn, if possible, if there existed a secret understanding of any sort between Hollingsworth and Huntley.

The Buffalo man hastened his steps. Finally he was so near that Bart could no longer watch him through the crack, being too high for that. A moment later he heard Hollingsworth speak and knew the fellow was behind the stand and almost directly below.

“What’s the matter, Arthur?” asked the Ashport trainer.

“You’ve been talking too much,” retorted Huntley, and there was suppressed anger in his voice.

“Talking?” exclaimed Hollingsworth.

“I said so!”

“’Ow—’ow ’ave I been talking?” cried the trainer, growing excited and beginning to misuse the eighth letter of the alphabet. “Hexplain what you mean!”

“You’ve been talking to Merriwell.”

“What if I ’ave? He didn’t get much satisfaction hout of it.”

“He got enough to discover that we are friendly.”

“’Ow did he? ’ow did he?”

“I don’t know, but he did. Besides that, you were fool enough to say you had confidence in me.”

“Never said hanything of the kind! Who told you all this?”

“Merriwell himself called you my friend and said you expressed great confidence in me.”

“He ’ad no right to say it! I only said an Englishman might win the race.”

“And I’m the only Englishman entered! That was a wise remark!”

Huntley’s sarcasm was cutting.

“I didn’t stop to think he might make hanything of it,” said Hollingsworth, with some humbleness. “’Owever, it can’t do no ’urt.”

“It can do any amount of harm. I fancy this Merriwell is a shrewd fellow. If he should learn that I have been staying in the country within ten miles of Ashford for the past two weeks, he might get an inclination to investigate and so discover that during that time I have every day been over the course we are to run.”

“Heven then he could not prove hanything damaging, Harthur. ’Ow could he say you found hout the course through me? Why, sir, no one ’ere ’as any notion I know the course, which Mr. Hashley will give hout to-morrow.”

“You never can tell how things will leak out if some one goes nosing after the facts. I don’t want it even suspected that I obtained an advantage by running the course day after day and making a study of the country so that I could cover it with the greatest speed, avoiding all the bad places and making a number of short cuts, like the one through Dead Timber Jungle. I cut off more than half a mile right there. Then I know a perfect path over Ragged Hill, and I’ll wager more than two-thirds of the runners will skirt the hill. I’ll gain on them there.”

“If the truth hever came hout it would ’urt me more than it would you. They would learn ’ow I bribed the man hemployed by Mr. Hashley to lay hout the course and hinduced him to give me a map of it.”

“It would be disastrous for us both. I want that trophy, but I don’t want any one to suspect I obtained the slightest advantage over the rest of the contestants, who will see a map of the course for the first time to-morrow.”

As may be readily understood, this conversation was proving highly interesting to the young man in the grand stand, who could distinctly hear every word. His eyes flashed as he whispered to himself:

“So you have it nicely fixed, my fine rascals! I rather think you’ll make a fizzle of your crooked game after all.”

Bart was now well pleased over the result of his efforts. It was quite in opposition to his natural behavior to thus play the eavesdropper; but what he heard in this manner fully justified the ruse and warded off any qualms of conscience that otherwise might have attacked him.

He continued to listen, for, believing themselves safe from prying eyes or listening ears, the schemers pursued their conversation.

“You will get the trophy, sir,” declared Hollingsworth, growing calmer and once more restoring the eighth letter of the alphabet to its rightful position. “No man from the outside is better than you, and they will not have the advantage of your knowledge. As for the Ashport men, they might do very well on this track; but there’s only one in the lot who will make a great showing cross country.”

“You mean Prince, of course?”

“No, I don’t mean Prince, sir.”

“I thought you regarded him as the star of your runners.”

“He is the star in many ways; but there is another I think you have to fear more than Prince.”

“Who is it?”

“Bramwell.”

“Where has he ever made a record?”

“He has no record.”

“But you think——”

“He’s a better man than any one imagines—that is, any one except this Merriwell chap. Hang him! He watched the men from the observatory to-day, and he picked Bramwell out as the best in the lot for cross country, although Prince was there, besides Clyde and Sheldon, both of whom look more like runners.”

“How did he happen to select Bramwell?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“Why do you think Bramwell the most dangerous?”

“Because he is a perfect bulldog, sir—he sets his jaws and never lets go.”

“An excellent quality in a cross-country man.”

“It is Bramwell who might press you hard, sir, if he had confidence in himself, and had been trained in much cross-country running. I have not given him the training, and I’ve taken pains not to let him know he’s half as good as he really is.”

“Oh, I think you overestimate him, Hollingsworth. Besides, the men I fear are Pope, Neil, Lyons, and—Merriwell. There is where you made another blunder.”

“Where, sir?”

“In hounding Merriwell to get into the match. Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t think he would enter.”

“He’s going to enter, and he’s the man I fear above all others.”

“Which shows you have real horse sense,” muttered the unseen listener in the stand, smiling grimly.

“Look ’ere,” said Hollingsworth, growing excited again, “I looked at it this way, sir: If you defeat Merriwell it will be a great feather in your cap.”

“If!” said Huntley significantly.

“You ought to do it with the advantage you ’ave. With ’im in the match, you can well claim the championship of Hamerica when you win.”

“I tell you, Hollingsworth, you made a blunder when you forced him into it. No man in America understands the requirements of the work as well as he, and I have a feeling that he will be the one to defeat me. I would give a hundred dollars—clean, cold cash—to keep him from entering.”

“Perhaps ’e may be kept hout of it.”

“How?”

“Every man who henters must be a member of the Amateur Athletic union of America.”

“Of course.”

“He must show his certificate of membership before starting in the race.”

“That’s the rule.”

“If Merriwell didn’t ’ave his certificate he couldn’t compete.”

“No.”

“There may be some way to get ’old of it and destroy it.”

“I see no way of doing that.”

“Will you give me a ’undred dollars if I find a way?”

Apparently Huntley was surprised by this question, for he remained silent some moments, while the eavesdropper in the stand hushed his breathing and strained his ear in order not to miss a word.

Finally the rascal from Buffalo vehemently but guardedly exclaimed:

“Yes, by the Lord Harry, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you will find a way to do that trick—and do it!”

“It’s good as done, sir!” declared Hollingsworth. “’Ave the money ready when I call for it.”

“But how do you propose to perform the trick?”

Hollingsworth laughed craftily.

“I know the bell boys at the Hashport ’Ouse, where Merriwell and his party are stopping.”

“What of that?”

“They ’ave passkeys to all the rooms. They’re not supposed to ’ave them, but that makes no difference.”

“Go on.”

“If I pay one of those boys, I can keep informed on all of Merriwell’s acts. Let him enter for the race. Between now and the day of the run he will go over the course. On that day I’ll get my bell boy to admit me to his room. Somewhere among his effects I will find his certificate. I’ll destroy it.”

Hollingsworth was calm again—calm with confidence in his own villainy.

“The plan is both desperate and dangerous,” said Huntley.

“I’ll take all the chances, Arthur. I never forget a friend and a countryman. Rely on me.”

“I hope you may succeed, but I assure you that I have my doubts. I shall try to find a method of making sure Merriwell does not defeat me if you fail to keep him from running. In the meantime, go ahead and do your best.”

“That I will, sir.”

Although Hollingsworth claimed Huntley as a friend, it was plain from his manner of speech that he recognized the man as one of higher caste than himself.

“Yes, go ahead and do your worst!” mentally exclaimed Bart Hodge. “This plot will fizzle. I wish I knew what other method Huntley will seek as a last resort.”

But this he was not to learn, as the rascals how became fearful that they might be seen together, and decided to separate, which they soon did.


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