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CHAPTER XXIII THE CERTIFICATE.
The day dawned. The sun rose round and red in the eastern sky, turning soon to a ball of gold that rapidly diminished in size until it appeared normal. Birds sang amid dewy thickets, where cool brooks babbled in the soft shadows. There seemed no hint of treachery, plot, or wickedness in all the “so glorious, high-domed, blossoming world.”

It was the day of the great cross-country race for the Ashley Trophy, and at an early hour the human tide of the country roundabout set toward the grounds of the Ashport A. A. People on foot and in conveyances of many sorts came pouring in. It was a surprising gathering, considering the nature of the contest and the fact that such affairs seldom attract and interest people in general.

The watchers were posted at five given points along the course, the judges were arranging preliminaries, the starter was ready to do his part.

A number of deputies were kept busy clearing the road down which the runners would dash from the starting point, and along which it was understood they would return to the finish. The spectators were good-natured. They lined up all along both sides of the road to the distance of more than half a mile from the clubhouse. There were old folks and young, many from the country, and not a few from cities near and far. There were groups of collegians and schoolboys. There were pretty girls in summer attire, many with their elders and some in laughing clusters. People stood up in the country wagons and on the tops of tallyhos and coaches.

“Pope, Pope, he’s our hope!” chanted a dozen young men who had obtained a fine position on a high ledge.

“Clyde, Clyde, Clyde of Yale!” flung back a group of younger chaps, several of whom wore knots of blue ribbon.

“What’s the matter with Huntley?” yelled a ruddy-faced man; and the answer came from fifty throats. “He’s all right!” “Who’s all right?” was the question that followed. Once more the answer was prompt: “Why, Huntley! Huntley! Huntley!”

“Prince! Prince! Rah! rah! rah!” barked the Ashportites.

Near the clubhouse were ten young fellows comprising Frank Merriwell’s athletic team. Of a sudden they gave a yell of their own:
How is Merriwell?
Oh, he’s very well!
Merry! Merry!
He’s the huckleberry!

This created a laugh, and suddenly the cheer for Merriwell was taken up all along the two lines following the shoulders of the road. The cheering for others had broken out in spots. This cheer for the best-known amateur athlete in America began at the clubhouse and ran away into the distance, growing in volume, until it seemed that every man, woman, boy, girl, and child was shouting.

In the dressing rooms the contestants were making final preparations. Frank was there. He and Tom Bramwell spoke a few low words together.

“Don’t miss the splintered pine, Bramwell,” said Frank. “It marks the spot where we cut into the Dead Timbers. You know how easy it can be missed.”

“I know,” nodded Bramwell. “I’m going to stick by you that far—if I can.”

“If you can! Don’t get an idea that you can’t do it. After we pass Ragged Hill will come the grand pull to the finish.”

Arthur Huntley, ready for the start, came through the room from another.

“Oh! make sure your shoes are all right, Mr. Merriwell!” he mentally exclaimed. “Lots of good it will do you! I’ve taken no chances on you to-day. I know you’ve found the cut over Ragged Hill, and my two sandbaggers wait for you at the break in the wall. I don’t trust Hollingsworth, for all of his certificate story. You may start, but you’ll never finish.”

A whistle sounded. A voice called the runners to come forth.

The hour had arrived!

Herbert Hollingsworth was waiting. The judges were assembled in the clubhouse. As the runners passed through, Merriwell was spoken to by an official.

“Mr. Merriwell, you are the only one who has failed to show a certificate of registration in the A. A. U., according to the requirements. We have been informed this morning that you are not registered.”

“The statement is false,” retorted Frank quietly. “Who made it?”

“Never mind that. If you have your certificate it will settle the point.”

“I have it, but not with me. Will you take my word for it and permit me to show the certificate after the contest?”

“Impossible, for you are challenged.”

“Then I demand to have the challenger face me.”

There was a moment of hesitation, and then Herbert Hollingsworth stood out.

“I am the challenger!” he cried. “You’ll ’ave to show your certificate or be barred!”

Merry looked him over with an expression of contempt and withering scorn on his handsome face.

“You’re a very clever rascal, Hollingsworth,” he said; “but the cleverest rascals sometimes overreach themselves.”

“I hobject to such language!” snarled the trainer.

“Oh, I haven’t begun to tell you what I think of you!” said Frank. “When the race is over, if you remain, I will, in your presence, tell the judges and the officials of this club all about you and your rascally tricks. I know you were in my room at the Ashport House day before yesterday. You——”

“Lies habout me won’t ’elp you!” sneered Hollingsworth. “You’ll ’ave to show your certificate. If you can’t do that, you can henjoy the pleasure of being a spectator.”

“Enough of this!” commanded Robert Ashley, in high disapproval. “Mr. Merriwell, like the others, must show his certificate.”

“Which he can’t do,” asserted the trainer.

Frank turned and called:

“Bart! Bart Hodge!”

It seemed that Hodge had been waiting for this.

“Coming, Frank,” he answered, and pushed into the room.

Merry held out his hand.

From an inner pocket, Hodge produced a folded paper, which he delivered to his friend.

“Here, gentlemen, is my certificate,” said Frank, as he passed it to the judges.

The paper was opened and scanned. Herbert Hollingsworth, his face gone pale and wearing an expression of astonishment and perplexity, pressed forward and stared at it. He seemed to doubt the evidence of his eyes.

“The certificate is correct,” decided one of the judges. “Mr. Merriwell is eligible, being a regularly enrolled member of the A. A. U.”

“I thought it remarkable if he were not,” said Mr. Ashley.

Hollingsworth was dazed.

Frank turned on him, speaking in a low tone, his voice indicating suppressed anger:

“I’ll see you, sneak, and square the account after the race!”

Hollingsworth said not a word.

Frank passed on from the clubhouse to join the other runners at the starting point.


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