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Ned ate almost no breakfast, and Laurie noted the fact, but, after a glance at his brother’s face, said nothing. After all, he reflected, there were probably others of the squad who were displaying no more appetite this morning. Afterward, on the way to School Hall for their only recitation of the day, he asked off-handedly: “How are you feeling, Neddie?”
Ned didn’t answer at once. When he did, he only replied laconically: “Rotten!”
“How do you mean, rotten?” Laurie disguised anxiety under flippancy. “Tummy out of whack? Or is it a case of ingrowing signals?”
“I don’t know what the trouble is,” answered Ned seriously. “I feel perfectly punk. And I—I’m scared, Laurie. I’d give a million dollars if I didn’t have to go to the field this afternoon. I wish to goodness I could duck somehow. Say, feel my forehead. Isn’t it hot?”
Laurie felt, and shook his head. “Cool as a cucumber, you old fakir. Buck up, Neddie! You’ll feel better after a while. Did you sleep all right?”
“I guess so,” replied the other dispiritedly. “I dreamed a lot. Dreamed I was kicking goals over a bar as high as a mountain. And the ball was as big as a hogshead. And there were about a million folks watching me, and Mr. Cornish was beating a bass-drum.”
Laurie laughed. “Some dream, Neddie! Tell you what. After we get out of here, we’ll take a nice, long hike. Mulford wants the players to stay outdoors, doesn’t he? Didn’t you tell me he said you were to walk or something?”
Ned nodded. “I’m too tired to walk, though, Laurie. Guess I’ll get a book and go over to the park. Or go down and jump in the river!”
“Fine idea!” scoffed Laurie. “What have you got against the river? It never did anything to you, did it?”
Ned, however, refused to smile. “You don’t need to come along,” he said. “I—I guess I’d rather be alone, Laurie.”
“You will be, if you’re going to jump in the river, partner! The water’s a heap too cold to appeal to me. Well, cheer up. See you when we come out.”
There was a holiday feeling in the air this morning that didn’t promise well for recitations, and Mr. Brock’s chemistry class was a sore trial to that gentleman. Yet, although he frowned often and sighed many despairing sighs, he made allowance for the prevailing mood of restlessness and exhibited unusual patience. And finally it was over and the class trooped out.
“You stay here,” said Laurie, “and I’ll run over and get a couple of books from the room. What do you want?”
“I don’t care—anything,” answered Ned, listlessly.
When Laurie went off, Ned seated himself on a step and gazed forlornly around him. Groups of boys stood on the walks in animated conversation. Near at hand, a half-dozen juniors were discussing the game avidly, drawing comforting conclusions from a comparison of the season’s performances of Hillman’s and Farview. Suddenly the prospect of sitting on a park bench with Laurie became utterly distasteful to Ned, and, with a hurried glance in the direction of East Hall, he arose and made his way along the drive and into Summit Street. There he turned to the left and walked quickly to the corner. At Washington Street another look behind showed that he had made his escape, and he heaved a sigh of relief and went on past the library and into Cumber Street, heading unconsciously toward the open country eastward of town.
When Laurie returned to School Hall with a book for Ned and a magazine for himself, he sat down and waited a few minutes, supposing that Ned would be back. When he didn’t come, Laurie went over to School Park, thinking that he had perhaps grown tired of waiting in the yard. But no Ned was to be seen, and, puzzled but untroubled, Laurie dawdled into Pine Street. The white-and-red sign above the Widow Deane’s little store shone bravely in the sunlight. For an hour Laurie enjoyed the society of Polly and Antoinette in the sunny garden, where, against the board fence, a clump of hardy chrysanthemums made a cheery showing of yellow and lavender. Antoinette had retired to winter quarters, which means that a gunny-sack and a length of old red carpet had been draped over her box. But just now the drapery was lifted, and Antoinette was doing great things to a very large cabbage-leaf. Towser had established himself in the sunshine atop the porch roof and gazed down benignly at the pair below.
Laurie and Polly talked, of course, about the game. He and George were again to act as escorts to the two girls, a fact that had eaten a large hole in Laurie’s remaining allowance. About ten o’clock he took himself away, reminding Polly to be ready at half-past one, since it took a good ten minutes to walk to the field, and because, wisely, he realized that to Polly “half-past one” would mean a quarter or two. Climbing the fence into Bob’s yard, he discovered that young man with a new crowbar about to begin an attack on the remaining posts of the arbor. So he removed his sweater, moistened his hands in the time-honored and only efficacious manner, and joined the assault. After the posts were added to the pile beside the fence, the two boys went indoors and refreshed the inner man with piping-hot ginger cookies. Thus it was that it was nearly noon when Laurie got back to Number 16, to find, to his uneasiness, that Ned was not there. Nor, as far as any evidences showed, had he been there since before breakfast.
Laurie threw himself on the window-seat and tried to apply himself to the magazine that he had carried all morning. But he began to be really worried about Ned. He didn’t understand where he could be. Even if he had gone off by himself, mooning along the roads, which was what Laurie suspected he had done, he should have been home before this, for, as Laurie knew, the players were to go to lunch at twelve. Presently he dropped the magazine and strode across the corridor to Number 15. Kewpie was not in, but Hop was there—a more than ordinarily serious-faced Hop, who replied to Laurie’s inquiry in an absent-minded manner suggesting that some one had placed him in a trance and gone away without awakening him. Hop hadn’t seen Nid all morning. Kewpie had just gone over to West Hall. He hoped there wouldn’t be any wind this afternoon. Farview had a punter that could do fifty yards easily, and a wind would lengthen his kicks frightfully. Did Nod think those clouds meant wind?
Laurie withdrew without venturing an opinion in the matter. Football, he reflected, was a far more dangerous pastime than folks generally realized, when it could affect a fellow’s brains like that! Downstairs, he searched the little group about the dining-hall door, and finally made inquiry of Dave Murray. Dave was worried and excited and a bit short-tempered.
“Nid Turner? No, I haven’t seen him. He’ll be here pretty quick, though. We eat at twelve.”
He left Laurie, to push his way toward the entrance to accost Mr. Mulford, who was coming in; and Laurie went out and sat down on the step and watched. Kewpie came striding across from West Hall, smiling and evidently very fit. But when Laurie questioned him the smile faded.
“Nid? No, I haven’t set eyes on him. Isn’t he here? Are you sure? Say, you don’t suppose the silly guy has bolted? He was in mean shape last night, Nod. But he wouldn’t do that! He’s no quitter. He’ll be here in a minute or two.”
“Suppose—suppose he isn’t?” asked Laurie, anxiously. “Would it matter much?”
“Matter?” Kewpie shrugged, one eye on the dining-hall door, through which his team-mates were beginning to pass. “It wouldn’t matter to the game, I guess. I was only trying to cheer him up last night. You understand. It isn’t likely Pinky will use him. But it would be a bad thing for him, Nod. It would be an awful black eye, in fact, if he cut the game. Guess Pinky would just about can him for all time! I say, I’ve got to hustle in there. Why don’t you have a look around for him? Maybe he’s in the library, or over in West, or—or somewhere. See you later, Nod!”
Kewpie disappeared into the dining-hall, and a moment later the door was closed. Laurie acted on Kewpie’s suggestion, and made a thorough search of School Hall and the other dormitory, and even poked his head into the gymnasium, where only an empty floor met his gaze. After that there seemed nothing to do but wait. Ned had already missed his lunch, for the fellows were coming out into the corridor when Laurie returned to East Hall. Murray nailed him as he tried to pass unnoticed to the stairs.
“Say, Nod, where’s that brother of yours?” he demanded indignantly. “Didn’t he know that lunch was at twelve? Where is he, anyway?”
“I don’t know, Dave,” Laurie answered, miserably. “He went for a walk this morning, and I haven’t seen him since. I guess he went too far and couldn’t get back in time. I’ve been looking all over for him.”
“That’s fine!” said the manager, bitterly. “Mulford asked for him, and I said I’d look him up. You’d better find him mighty quick, Nod. Tell him to get something to eat somewhere and be at the gym not later than one. There’s a floor drill then. I’ll make it all right with Mulford, somehow. But there’ll be the dickens and all to pay if he doesn’t show up!”
Hoping against hope, Laurie hurried up to the room. But there was no Ned. One o’clock came and passed. Time and again Laurie went to the gate and looked up and down the street, but without result. Ned had disappeared utterly, it seemed, and the unwelcome conclusion grew in Laurie’s mind that Ned had shown the white feather and had deliberately absented himself. Laurie didn’t like to think that, and there were moments when he couldn’t. But here it was nearly half-past one, and Ned hadn’t come, and facts are facts! It looked, he thought sadly, like a bad day for the honor of the Turners!
At half-past one he found George Watson in his room, and handed over one of his tickets. “I can’t go to the field with you,” he said, “but I’ll find you over there. Try to keep a seat for me, will you?”
“What’s the big idea?” asked George, blankly. “Why can’t you go with us? That’s a fine game to play!”
“I’ll tell you later. I—I’ve got something to do. Be a good fellow, George, won’t you? And tell Polly how it is, will you?”
“How the dickens can I tell Polly how it is when I don’t know how it is myself?” asked George, indignantly. “Oh, all right! But you want to get there pretty quick, Nod. It’s hard to hold seats when there aren’t enough of them in the first place. There’s a regular mob going out there already!”
Disconsolately Laurie hurried out and stationed himself at the dormitory entrance. Presently the players emerged from the gymnasium in their togs and passed through the little gate to Washington Street. Laurie watched them file past, hoping hard that Ned would be among them. But, although all the rest were there, twenty-one in all, there was no Ned.
From Washington Street and Summit Street came a steady tramping of feet, accompanied by a swishing sound as the pedestrians brushed through the fallen leaves. Occasionally an automobile went by with a warning honk of its horn at the corner. Looking over the withered hedge, Laurie could see the colors of Hillman’s and Farview marching past, banners of dark blue bearing the white Old English H, maroon-and-white flags adorned with the letters “F. A.” Laughter and the merry, excited chatter of many voices came to him. The yard was empty, except for a boy hurrying down the steps of West Hall, and he too quickly disappeared through the gate.
Presently Laurie looked at his watch. The time was eighteen minutes to two. He left East Hall and turned toward the gymnasium. Out of the shelter of the dormitory a little breeze fanned his face, and he remembered Hop Kendrick’s dread of a wind that would put more power into the toe of the Farview punter. It might be, he reflected, that Hop was due for disappointment; but the matter didn’t seem very important to him. The locker-room in the gymnasium was empty. Over the benches lay the discarded underclothing of the players, and sometimes the outer clothing as well, suggesting that excitement on this occasion had prevailed over orderliness. Laurie made his way to Ned’s locker. It was closed, and behind the unfastened door hung his togs.
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