21. Home For The Holidays
 

The next day the Rover boys went down to Ashton to see what they could find in the stores. Dick said he wanted to get something nice for his Aunt Martha, Tom wanted something for his father, and Sam said he thought Uncle Randolph was deserving of a gift that was worth while.

Yet when they got into the largest store of which the town boasted all seemed to gravitate naturally to where the pretty things for the ladies were displayed.

"There's a dandy fan," murmured Tom. "Nellie likes fans very much."

"So does Grace," returned Sam. "Say, what are you going to do?"

"What are you going to do, Sam?"

"I'm going to get one of those fans and send it, along with a box of bonbons and chocolates," answered the youngest Rover boldly. "And I'm going to send Mrs. Laning a pair of kid gloves," he added.

"Then I'll send a fan, too," answered Tom, "and I'll send Mrs. Laning a workbox. I know she'd like one."

In the meantime Dick was looking at some fancy belt buckles and hatpins. He knew Dora liked such things.

"I'll just take Songbird's advice and get the best I can and send them," he told himself. And he picked out the best buckle he could find, and likewise a handsome hatpin, and had them put into a fancy box, along with a fancy Christmas card, on which he wrote his name. Then he purchased a five-pound box of candy at the confectioner's shop, and Tom and Sam did the same.

This was the start, and now that the ice was broken, and the first plunge taken, the boys walked around from one store to another, picking up various articles, not alone for the folks at home, but also for their various friends. And they added a number of other things for the girls, too.

"It's no worse to send four things than two," was the way Tom expressed himself.

"Right you are," answered Dick. Now that they had decided to send the things they all felt better for it.

On the day school closed there was another fall of snow, and the boys were afraid they would be snowbound. But the train came in, although rather late, and all piled on board.

At Oak Run, their railroad station, they found Jack Ness, the Rover's hired man, awaiting them with the big sleigh. Into this they tumbled, stowing their dress-suit cases in the rear, and then, with a crack of the whip, they were off over Swift River, and through Dexter's Corners, on their way to Valley Brook farm.

"And how are the folks, Jack?" asked Sam as they drove along, the sleighbells jingling merrily in the frosty air.

"Fine, Master Sam, fine," was the hired man's answer.

"And how have you been?"

"Me? Oh, I've been takin' it easy--since Master Tom quit plaguing me."

"Why, I never plague anybody," murmured Tom, with a look of injured innocence on his round face. He reached out and caught some snow from a nearby bush. "Say, Jack, what is that on the horse's hind foot?" he went on.

"Where? I don't see nuthin'," answered the hired man, and leaned over the dashboard of the turnout to get a better view. As his head went forward Tom quickly let the snow in his hand fall down the man's neck, inside his collar.

"Hi! hi! Wow!" spluttered Jack Ness, straightening up and twisting his shoulders. "Say, what did you put that snow down my back for?"

"Just to keep you from sweating too much, Jack," answered Tom with a grin.

"At your old tricks again," groaned the hired man. "Now, I reckon the house will be turned upside down till you go back to college."

When the boys got in sight of the big farm house they set up a ringing shout that quickly brought their father and their uncle and aunt to the door. And behind these appeared the ebony face of Aleck Pop, the colored man who was now a fixture of the Rover household.

"Hello, everybody!" cried Tom, making a flying leap from the sleigh the instant it drew up to the piazza. "Isn't this jolly, though?" And he rushed to his Aunt Martha and gave her a hug and kiss, and then shook hands with his father and his Uncle Randolph Dick and Sam were close behind him, and went through a similar performance.

"My! my! Don't squeeze the breath out of me!" cried Mrs. Rover, as she beamed with delight "You boys are regular bears!"

"Glad you got through," said their father. "It looks like a heavy storm."

"It does my heart good to see you again," said Uncle Randolph. "I trust you have profited by your stay at Brill." He was well educated himself, and thought knowledge the greatest thing in the world.

"Oh, we did profit, Uncle Randolph," answered Tom with mischief chewing in his eyes. "Dick and I helped to win the greatest football game you ever heard about."

"Tom Rover!" remonstrated his aunt, while Aleck Pop doubled up with mirth and disappeared behind a convenient door.

"We brought home good reports," said Sam. "Dick stands second in the class and Tom stands fifth. That's not so bad in a class of twenty- two."

"And Sam stands third," put in Tom.

"That is splendid!" said Anderson Rover. "I am proud of you!"

"And so am I proud," added Randolph Rover.

"You'll all be great men some time," said their Aunt Martha. "But come into the sitting-room and take off your things. Supper will be ready in a little while. But if you want a doughnut beforehand--"

"Hurrah for Aunt Martha's doughnuts!" cried Sam. "I was thinking of them while riding in the train."

"Well, you shall have all you wish during the holidays," answered his aunt fondly.

They were soon settled down and relating the particulars of some of the things that had happened at Brill. None of the boys cared to tell of the coldness that had sprung up between themselves and the girls. They simply said they knew the girls had gone home.

"That was an outrage," said Mr. Rover with considerable warmth.

"An outrage?" repeated Dick doubtfully. "What do you mean?"

"Perhaps you didn't hear the report that was circulated at Hope Seminary concerning them."

"We heard no report, excepting that they had been called home."

"Somebody circulated a story that they were going to school on money that did not belong to them--that their folks had confiscated a fortune belonging to others. Grace wrote to her mother that the story was being whispered about everywhere, and it was making them all miserable; and that's the main reason for their going home."

"What a contemptible thing to do!" cried Tom. "Who do you suppose is guilty--Tad Sobber?"

"I can think of nobody else. He is so angry he would do anything to injure them and us."

"And what of the case?" asked Sam. "Will it come up in court soon?"

"Some time next Spring."

"And what do the lawyers think of our side winning?" questioned Dick eagerly.

"They say it depends largely upon the evidence the other side submits. It is possible that the case may drag on for years."

"What a shame!" murmured Dick.

It continued to snow all that night and the next day, and Christmas found the family all but snowbound at Valley Brook.

"Merry Christmas!" was the cry, early in the morning, and the boys tumbled out of bed and dressed in a hurry. Then they went below, to find a stack of presents awaiting them. They quickly distributed the gifts they had brought and then looked at their own. They had almost everything their hearts could desire.

Yet each youth felt a pang of disappointment, for among all the gifts there were none for them from the Stanhopes or the Lanings.

"We are out of it," said Dick laconically to his brothers.

"So it appears," answered Tom soberly. For once, all the fun was knocked out of him.

"Well, I am glad I didn't forget them, anyway," said Sam bravely. But he wondered how it was Grace could treat him so shabbily.

The boys passed the day as best they could in reading and playing games, and in snowballing each other and Jack Ness and Aleck Pop.

"My! my! But dis am lik old times at Putnam Hall!" said the colored man, grinning from ear to ear when Tom hit him on the head with a snowball. "Hab yo' fun while yo' am young, Massa Tom."

"That's my motto, Aleck," answered Tom. "Have another." And he landed a snowball on the colored man's shoulder.

"I move we go down to the post-office for mail," said Dick toward evening. "We don't know what we may be missing."

"Second the motion!" cried Tom. "The post-office it is, if we can get through."

"Can't no hoss git through these drifts," came from Jack Ness.

"We'll hitch up our biggest team and take our time," said Dick. "We have got to get down to the post-office somehow." He was hoping desperately that he would find a letter from Dora there.

When the old folks heard of it they shook their heads doubtfully. But the boys pleaded so strongly that at last they were allowed to go. They got out a strong cutter and the best pair of horses on the farm, and bundled up well.

"If you can't make it, drive in at one of the neighbors," said Mr. Rover on parting.

"We will," answered Dick.