Chapter VI. Link Smith's Confession
 

For a moment there was a painful pause and the Rover boys looked at each other and at Captain Putnam in perplexity.

"Does this mean that we must go to jail?" demanded Tom.

"I don't think it will be necessary to hold them," came from Captain Putnam. "Squire Haggerty, I presume you know who I am."

"Yes, sir, Captain Putnam of Putnam Hall."

"Then you will, of course, let me go on a bail bond for these three pupils of mine."

"If ye care to do it, captain."

"Certainly. I am convinced that they are innocent. Why, it is preposterous to think that they would break into such a shop and rob it of a hundred and sixty dollars' worth of goods. They are rich young gentlemen, of a high-standing family, and each has all the spending money he needs."

"I see, I see."

"Well, it ain't nuthin' to me what they be, so long as I git my goods back," growled Aaron Fairchild. "I ain't got nuthin' against 'em personally, especially if they are innocent."

"I think you will find it to your advantage to let this whole matter rest for the present," went on Captain Putnam. "If you make a charge against the boys it will hurt both them and my school. I feel sure they will not run away, and I will give you my personal word that they shall appear in court whenever wanted."

"That sounds reasonable," came from the constable, who was beginning to fear the influence which Captain Putnam and the Rovers might bring to bear on the case. "It ain't no nice thing to ruin a boy's repertation, if he ain't guilty," he added.

"That is a sensible speech which does you credit, sir," said the captain.

"I'd like to find this feller Flapp," went on Aaron Fairchild. "How does he look?"

"I have his photograph at the academy. I will let the constable have that, if he wishes it."

"That suits me," returned Josiah Cotton. "Hang me if I don't kinder think he must be guilty. But it puzzles me how them things got in the boys' uniforms."

The matter was discussed for fully an hour, and the whole party visited Aaron Fairchild's shop. But no clews were brought to light. Then a wagon was hired to take the captain and the boys to Putnam Hall. The constable went along, to get the photograph which had been promised.

On the way the three Rovers were unusually silent and but little was said by the master of the school. Arriving at the Hall the picture was turned over to Josiah Cotton, who soon after departed. Then the three Rovers were invited into the captain's private office. The marching battalion had not yet arrived and was not expected for several hours.

"I'd like to sift this matter out," said the captain, seating himself at his desk. "Richard, when did you clean your uniform last?"

"Yesterday afternoon, Captain Putnam."

"Were those holes in there then?"

"I don't think so."

"How about your uniform, Thomas?"

"I cleaned up yesterday morning. I don't remember any holes."

"And you, Samuel?"

"I had a hole in my left sleeve, but the jewelry was found in the right sleeve."

"Let me examine the coats."

This was done, and all concluded that the holes had been cut with the blade of a sharp knife, or with a small pair of scissors.

"I believe the job was done in the dark," said Dick. "Somebody must have visited our tent last night after we went to sleep."

"When did you go to sleep, Richard?"

"Well, I don't think we were real sound asleep until about midnight. There was some sort of a noise in the camp that kept us awake."

"Somebody said Tubbs was up playing negro minstrel," added Tom, soberly.

"Yes, he was up. So you went to sleep about midnight? And when did you get up?"

"At the first call," answered Sam.

"And your coats were as you had left them?"

"Mine was," came from Sam and Dick.

"I don't remember exactly how I did leave mine," said Tom. "But I didn't notice anything unusual."

"Then, if the real thief visited our camp he must have come in between midnight and six o'clock," went on the master of the school. "I must question those who were on guard duty about this."

"That's the idea!" cried Dick. "If the thief sneaked in somebody must have seen him."

"Unless a guard was asleep on his post," came from Tom. "As it was the last night out they may have been pretty lax in that direction."

Dinner had been ordered, and the three Rovers dined with the captain in his private dining room. Then the boys went up to their dormitory to pack their trunks.

"I must say this is a fine ending for the term," was Tom's comment, as he began to get his belongings out of the closet. "And after everything looked so bright, too!"

"It's a jolly shame!" cried Sam. "If Lew Flapp did this, or Dan Baxter, I'd like to--to wring his neck for it!"

"It will certainly put a cloud on our name," said Dick. "In spite of what we can say, some folks will be mean enough to think we are guilty."

"We must catch the thief and make him confess," went on Tom.

The three boys packed their trunks and other belongings and then went below again and down to the gymnasium and then to the boathouse. But they could not interest themselves in anything and their manner showed it.

"What is the matter that you came back so soon?" questioned Mrs. Green, the matron of the academy, who knew them well.

"Oh, we had business with Captain Putnam," answered Tom, and that was all he' would say. He dearly loved to play jokes on the matron, but now he felt too downcast to give such things a thought.

Late in the afternoon the distant rattle of drums was heard, and soon the battalion, dusty and hot, came into view, making a splendid showing as it swung up the broad roadway leading to the Hall.

"Here they come!" cried Sam. But he had not any heart to meet his friends, and kept out of sight until the young cadets came to a halt and were dismissed for the last time by Captain Putnam and Major Colby.

"Well, this is certainly strange," said Larry Colby, as he came up to Dick. "What was the row in the barn about?"

"I'll have to tell you some other time, Larry," was Dick's answer. "There has been trouble and Captain Putnam wants to get at the bottom of it."

"Somebody said you had been locked up for robbing a jewelry shop."

"There has been a robbery and we were suspected. But we were not locked up."

As soon as he was able to do so, Captain Putnam learned the names of the twelve cadets who had been on picket duty between midnight and six o'clock that morning. These cadets were marched to one of the classrooms and interviewed one at a time in the captain's private office.

From the first six cadets to go in but little was learned. One cadet, when told that something of a very serious nature had occurred--something which was not a mere school lark and could not be overlooked--confessed that he had allowed two cadets to slip out of camp and come back again with two capfuls of apples taken from a neighboring orchard.

"But I can't tell their names, Captain Putnam," the cadet added.

"How long were they gone, Beresford?"

"Not over fifteen or twenty minutes."

"Did you see the apples?"

"Yes, sir, I--er--ate two of them."

"And you allowed nobody else to pass?"

"No, sir."

"Very well; you may go," and Beresford went, thankful that he had not been reprimanded for neglect of duty. Had the thing occurred in the middle of the term the reprimand would surely have been forthcoming.

The next cadet to come in was Link Smith, who showed by his general manner that he was much worried. Captain Putnam knew Smith thoroughly and also remembered that the feeble-minded cadet was a fellow easily led astray.

"Smith, you were on guard duty from twelve o'clock to two last night," he began severely.

"Yes, sir," answered Link Smith, with an inward shiver.

"Did you fall asleep on your post during that time?"

"No, sir--that is, I don't think I did."

"What do you mean by saying you don't think you did?"

"I--that is--I was awfully sleepy and could scarcely keep my eyes open. I--I sat down on a rock for a little while."

"And slept?

"I--I think not."

"Was that before or after you allowed an outsider to get into our camp?"

"Oh, Captain Putnam, how did you know I let somebody in? I--that is--I mean, who said I let anybody in?" stammered poor Smith, taken completely off his guard.

"Never mind who told me. What I want to know is, did you sleep after you let him in or before?"

"Why, I--I--really--"

"Tell me the truth, Smith."

"I guess I took a nap afterwards, sir. But it was only for a minute, sir," pleaded the cadet.

"I see. Did you see the outsider leave camp after you had let him in?"

"Why, sir--I--I--"

"I want the strict truth, remember, Smith. If you don't tell the truth you may get yourself in great trouble."

"Oh, Captain Putnam, I--I didn't mean to do anything wrong!"

"Did you see the outsider leave again or not?"

"Yes, sir, I saw him leave?"

"How soon after he had come in?"

"About fifteen or twenty minutes,--certainly, not much longer than that."

"Now, who was the outsider?"

"Why, I--er--I--"

"Answer me, Smith!" And now Captain Putnam's voice was as keen as the blade of a knife. He stood before the frightened cadet, looking him squarely in the eyes.

"It was Lew Flapp. But, oh, please, don't let him know I told you! He'll kill me if he finds it out!" Link Smith was about ready to cry.

"Lew Flapp." The captain drew a long breath. "How did you come to let him in? You knew he had been dismissed from the school."

"He begged me to let him in, saying he merely wanted to speak to two of his old friends. I asked him why he didn't wait until morning, but he said he wanted them to do something for him before they left the school--that he must see them then and there."

"Did he mention his friends' names?"

"No, sir."

"What did he say when he went away?"

"Nothing much, sir, excepting that he had seen them and it was all right."

"Where did he go to?"

"I don't know. It was dark and I soon lost sight of him."

"He came alone?"

"Yes, sir. But, please, Captain Putnam, don't tell him I told you, or he'll kill me."

"Don't be alarmed, Smith. I'll protect you. If you see Flapp again tell me at once."

"I will, sir."

This ended the examination of Link Smith, and as soon as it was over the remainder of the cadets who had been on guard duty the night before were likewise told they might go.