Chapter IX. A Strange Meeting in the Woods.

To go back to Tom, at the time he was left alone by the head assistant of Putnam Hall, after refusing to give up the keys to his satchel and trunk.

"I've put my foot into it now," thought the boy dismally. "I wonder what Captain Putnam will say to all this when he hears of it? Of course old Crabtree will make out the worst possible case against me."

It was too dark to see much, and he dropped on the couch. He was worried a good deal, yet he was not one to take anything too deeply to heart.

Before long a waiter appeared with a tray containing a big bowl of bread and milk. Had Josiah Crabtree had his own way, he would have sent only bread and water for the lad's supper, but such a proceeding would have been contrary to Captain Putnam's rule. The kind captain realized that his pupils were but boys and should not be treated as real prisoners, even when they did break the academy rules.

"Heah is yo' suppah, sah!" announced Alexander, the waiter, as he set the tray on the table. "Sorry I can't leave the light, sah." He referred to a lamp, also, on the tray, which he now removed.

"What have you got?" asked Tom, sitting up.

"Bowl of bread and milk, sah."

"Is that what they give visitors for supper?"

"Gracious, sah, is yo' a visitah, sah?"

"I consider myself as such until I am placed on the muster roll."

At this Alexander scratched his woolly head. "Well, sah, I don't know nuffin about dat, sah. I has to obey Mr. Crabtree's oahdahs, sah."

"Has Captain Putnam come back yet?"

"No, sah, an' he sent word dat he didn't think he could git back, sah, before morning, sah."

"Humph! Then I'll have to stay here until that time."

"I reckon so, sah."

"It's a jolly shame."

"Dat's right, sah," and Alexander grinned.

"Well, leave the bread and milk. It's better than nothing. But hold on. Who are you?"

"Alexander Pop, sah, at yo' service, sah," and again the colored man grinned. He was a short, fat fellow, the very embodiment of good nature.

"Well, Alexander, if you are at my service, supposing you get me something else to eat beside this bread and milk."

"Oh, sah, I couldn't do dat."

"Yes, you could. Here is a quarter. Don't you want to earn that?" And Tom held out the silver piece.

"Mr. Crabtree Would hab me discharged if he cotched me, Master Rober."

"Then don't let him catch you, Aleck, my boy."

At this the negro laughed and showed his immense ivories.

"Yo' is jest de boy I dun like to see, sah," he said. "Jess wait an' I'll do wot I can fo! You but mum's de word, sah-eh?"

"I never peach, Aleck; it's only a coward that does that," concluded Tom.

The negro disappeared from the room, but reappeared in less than ten minutes with something done up in a napkin.

"Dare you am, sah," he said, "two tongue sandwiches and a big piece of layer cake, sah, all I could git, fo' Mrs. Green am werry sharp. And here is a bit of candle, sah, for a light. But please don't let 'em know I brought yo' de things, sah."

"Never a word, Aleck, thank you," answered Tom, and handed over the quarter.

Left again to himself, Tom lost no time in making way, not only with the sandwiches and cake, but also some of the bread and milk, for his day's traveling had left him tremendously hungry. The bit of candle was less than two inches long , and began to splutter just as the meal was finished.

A rattle at the door caused the lad to sweep the cake crumbs out of sight, blow out the candle, and pocket the tiny bit left. Then the light of a lamp lit up the guardroom, and Josiah Crabtree came in.

"Well, Rover, have you enjoyed your supper?" he asked coldly, as he glanced at the half empty bowl.

"Very much," was the youth's equally cold reply.

"You like bread and milk, then," was Crabtree's sarcastic rejoinder.

"Nothing better, sir, for supper."

The head assistant bit his lip, and then set down the lamp.

"Rover, don't you think, you are making a bad beginning? "he said after a pause.

"I don't. understand you, Mr. Crabtree."

"Any other boy on joining a school would wish to make his entrance as creditable as possible."

"But I haven't joined this school yet."

"I won't argue that point."

"I wasn't even on your grounds, but in the public highway -- and there shot off -- what? A simple firecracker. And for that you hauled me to this place, and treat me like one who has broken half the laws of the land. If Captain Putnam upholds you in this matter, do you know what I shall do?"

"Make an additional fool of yourself, I presume."

"I shall write home to my guardian that I do not consider Putnam Hall a proper boarding academy for any boy, and that I want to be put somewhere else."

At these outspoken words Josiah Crabtree grew pale. His great unpopularity was already having its effect upon Captain Putnam, and he was afraid that if he should be the means of losing a pupil it might cost him his place, as much as he knew that the captain did not favor changes in his staff of instructors.

"Don't be unreasonable, my lad," he said, but his tone was much milder than before.

"I don't that's I am unreasonable."

"The road is one belonging to this institution -- in brief, a private road. You became a pupil here when you entered our carriage, that, which brought you here."

"Does everybody who rides in that carriage become a Putnam Hall pupil?" demanded Tom.

He saw that he was worrying Crabtree, and resolved to keep it up.

"Well - er -- we won't argue that point."

"Then supposing we don't argue anything until Captain Putnam comes back? In the meantime if you will release me I'll go to Cedarville and put up at the hotel for the night."

"I shall not release you."

"All right, then. But if my guardian takes me away, mark my words, you shall stand a personal lawsuit for having locked me up here without having any right to do so."

"Why -- er -- this to me -- me, the head assistant here?" screamed Josiah Crabtree.

In his rage he ran over to Tom and caught him by the ear.

He had scarcely done so than Tom put out one foot, gave the teacher a shove, and down went Crabtree flat on his back.

"You villain!" gasped the head assistant, as he scrambled to his feet.

"Don't you pinch my ear again," retorted Tom.

The door was open, and before Crabtree could stop him he ran out into the hallway.

"Hold on!"

"Not much!"

"It will be the worse for you!"

"I'll risk that."

"Stop him, somebody!" screamed Josiah Crabtree at the top of his voice.

Without waiting, Tom ran down the hallway. He knew not where he was going, and, coming, to a door, slipped through. He now found himself in the rear of the Hall and a few seconds later ran across the back garden and dove into the farm lands.

"Free once more," he thought. "And I shan't go back until I am certain Captain Putnam is on hand to receive me. I wonder how Dick and Sam are faring?"

Thinking that his brothers would soon learn of his escape, and not wishing to be caught, he hurried on until the farm lands were passed and he found himself in a woods.

"I'll sweep around in a circle and make for that road leading to Cedarville," he concluded, and trudged on rapidly, for the woods were dark and lonely and not particularly to his liking.

Tom had covered the best part of half a mile: when he saw a light ahead. At first he thought it must shine from the window of some farmhouse, but soon made it out to be from a campfire, situated in something of a hollow and not far from a spring.

"Hullo! Tramps or charcoal burners," he thought. "I wonder if they would be friendly?"

He slackened his pace and approached cautiously until within ten yards of where two men sat in earnest conversation. One man was tall and thin and had a scar on his chin. The other fellow was the thief who had robbed Dick of his watch. At first Tom was not inclined to believe the evidence of his eyesight.

"Perhaps I'm mistaken," he mused.

He resolved to draw nearer and hear if possible what the two men were saying.

A clump of bushes grew close to the spring before mentioned, and he crawled up behind this, thus getting within fifteen feet of the campfire.

"You are certain you saw the boys, Buddy?" he heard the tall man with the scar say.

"I'm as sure of it as I'm sure your name is Arnold Baxt -"

"Hush, Buddy, how many times must I tell you that I want that name dropped, especially around here?"

"There ain't anybody around here to hear us?"

"Well, I don't want the name mentioned. I call you Buddy. You must call me Nolly."

"All right, Nolly."

"Now, you are dead sure you saw the boys on their way to Putnam Hall?"

"I am."

"How much have you drank today?"

"Only two glasses, this morning. Oh, it was them," went on Buddy, with a total disregard for grammar.

The tall man muttered something under his breath.

"It's too bad," he said aloud.

"What's too bad? "

"That they are going to Putnam Hall. Still, I don't know as it will amount to anything. But I reckon you had best get out of the neighborhood."

"I'm going to get out."

"What brought you here?"

"I wanted to see you again, as I said before."

"About what?"

"That mining deal."

"I can't do anything at present."

"Why not?"

"There are some papers missing, Buddy. As soon as I get those I'll be in a condition to go ahead. You know, I've got to move slowly."

"Well, what brought you here?"

"That is my business."

"Every few months or so you come up to Cedarville, Baxt-- Nolly, and on a secret mission."

"Well, who has a better right? Come, let us talk about something else. If you-- Hullo, what's that?"

Both men leaped to their feet as a sound from the bushes back of the spring reached their ears.

Tom had been lying as quiet as a mouse when a pinching-bug, as they are commonly called, had dropped from one of the bushes onto his neck.

The bug was as big as a walnut shell, and had fine nippers, and when he took hold of the skin Tom could not help but make a slight noise as he tried to throw the bug off.

Before the boy could arise to his feet the two men were rushing upon him, Buddy with a stick and the tall man with something which he had drawn from his pocket. It was a sand-bag, a favorite weapon used in our large cities by footpads.