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CHAPTER XXIV WHAT BART HODGE DID.
“They’re off!”

“There they go!”

“Rah! rah! rah! Huntley!”

“Rah! rah! rah! Merriwell!”

The cross-country run had started. Twenty-four lithe-limbed, clear-eyed young fellows went flashing along the road, amid two lines of shouting people, who were waving hats, handkerchiefs, hands, and colors.

They all started swiftly, having a fine stretch of road for some distance, and being determined to make the most of it. They were fairly well bunched when they came to the point where the road turned to the north and left them to keep on over hills, valleys, and fields, through woods and thickets, each selecting a course for himself.

Mr. Ashley, Paul Proctor, the judges and a certain number of especially favored ones, had mounted to the observatory on the top of the clubhouse.

Bart Hodge was one of those favored by an invitation, but he lingered behind. He observed Herbert Hollingsworth, head down, sneaking away toward the trackmaster’s house, where were located the baths and dressing rooms.

Bart followed.

In one of the rooms he found the trainer, sitting on a locker and looking vastly dejected.

Hollingsworth looked up and saw Hodge. Immediately he sprang to his feet.

Bart came forward with his lips pressed together, his face clouded and his eyes flashing. His manner and appearance were suggestive of a thunderstorm.

“What—what do you want?” faltered the treacherous trainer.

Bart paused three feet away.

“I want to tell you that you are the meanest and most contemptible cur I’ve encountered in a long time,” answered Merriwell’s friend. “You’re a crawling, slimy, disgusting snake. I think that is plain enough for you.”

“’Ow dare you talk to me that way!” gasped the rascal.

“How dare I? Why, I can’t find words to express the contempt I feel for you! I can’t think of epithets nasty enough to fit you properly!”

Although Hollingsworth was infuriated, something about Hodge held him in check.

“I suppose you’re whining because I challenged your friend,” he said. “Didn’t I ’ave a right to do that?”

“You had a right to challenge him; but you know that is not what I mean.”

“I don’t know what helse you can mean.”

“Oh, yes you do know.”

“You lie! ’Ow can I know?”

“Because I know what you tried to do. I know how you happened to challenge Frank.”

“I challenged ’im because ’e ’adn’t shown his certificate.”

“And because you believed you had ruined that certificate.”

Now Hollingsworth had been wondering greatly over Merriwell’s ability to produce the certificate, for he was absolutely certain he had obliterated from the document every trace of writing. The restoration of the paper to its former condition—for Hollingsworth fancied it had been somehow restored—was something in the order of magic and the doings of the black art.

“’Ow could I ruin it?” muttered he huskily.

“You sneaked into his room when he was away and obliterated the writing upon it.”

Hollingsworth started. Then the writing had been obliterated, for Hodge said so.

“It’s a forgery!” cried the trainer, of a sudden. “Merriwell retraced the writing! ’E forged it! Proof of that will keep ’im from getting the trophy, heven if ’e wins!”

“Which language from you is the same as a confession that you did sneak into Frank’s room and tamper with the document.”

“Prove it! I deny it! But it’s forged! ’E’ll ’ave no right to the trophy if he wins!”

“You poor fool!” sneered Bart. “You thought you were clever, but you were easily deceived. The certificate you found was left for you to find. It was last year’s certificate.”

“No!” contradicted Hollingsworth. “I took special pains to look at the date. It was this year.”

“You unblushingly confess your villainy! Well, let me tell you how you were fooled still further. Expecting you to do just what you did, Merriwell had altered the date on his certificate of last year. His last certificate he placed in the safe at the hotel, where it remained until he called for it to-day.”

The outwitted scoundrel saw his last hope vanish. He realized he was baffled and done for.

“Take off your coat!” Hodge suddenly cried, stripping off his own and flinging it upon a locker.

“What are you going to do?” gasped Hollingsworth.

“I’m going to give you the soundest thrashing you ever received,” was Bart’s answer.

He did.


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