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1. Terry Makes a Mistake

“Pardon me,” said the red-headed boy with a grin, “but what is that old jalopy over there?”

The tall young man on the station platform turned and looked with a slight frown at the battered station wagon across the street. He was dressed in a gray uniform and wore a tall military hat. The letters W. M. I. in gold showed plainly on the hat. It meant Woodcrest Military Institute, and Lieutenant Sommers was an important part of that institution.

Two boys who had just stepped from a train at Portville station grinned and nudged each other. They were nice-looking young boys, with sandy hair, freckles, and lean faces browned by exposure to the wind and sun. Don Mercer whispered to his brother:

“Terry’s at it again. He’s forever fooling around and playing jokes on someone.”

Jim Mercer laughed. “Looks like he’s trying to get a rise out of that cadet officer. Golly, Don, is it possible we’ll be wearing uniforms like that soon!”

Lieutenant Sommers turned to look coldly at the genial-looking boy with the mop of red hair. “That,” said he with precision, “is the school station wagon.”

“I see,” murmured Terry. “And those things in the front are headlights, aren’t they?”

“That’s what I’ve always called them,” retorted the Lieutenant, growing still colder.

“Thanks. Is the school far away? I mean, could I walk it?” Terry pressed.

“Not very well. Why should you want to walk it?”

“That station wagon looks like it’s ready to fall apart and I don’t care for the wild tilt of that chassis. Look at the way it leans to one side! I was just thinking——”

“Don’t,” cut in the lieutenant, a faint spot of red showing in his cheek. “Judging by appearances, thinking would make a wreck of you physically and mentally!” He turned to the six or seven boys, all in civilian clothes, who had listened with ill-concealed delight to the conversation. “All those who are bound for Woodcrest please follow me.” Turning on his heel he walked toward the station wagon.

Terry chuckled and started off. But at that moment two pairs of strong hands clutched him.

“Hold on there, Chucklehead!” commanded Don Mercer.

“Where are you off to in such a rush, kid?” called Jim.

The three boys shook hands heartily. They were the best of friends and had spent the previous summer on a cruise down the coast of Maine. During that time they helped capture a gang of marine bandits who had been pilfering the coast for some time. Don and Jim were sons of a wealthy lumberman of Bridgewater, Maine, and Terry, who had only a mother and sister, lived in a town near them. They had been school friends and Terry had won a scholarship to Woodcrest Military Institute during the previous spring. Both Jim and Don had no future plans, and wishing to be with their cheerful comrade, whose bobbing red head had earned him the name of Chucklehead, they had enrolled in the same school. Now, after an exciting summer, details of which were related in the first volume of this series, The Mercer Boys’ Cruise in the Lassie, they had met on the platform of the Portville station in New York State, ready to begin school again.

“It’s swell to see you guys,” greeted Terry. “Were you on the train I came in on?”

“No, we just arrived on the later one,” offered Jim. “What were you up to with that lieutenant?”

“Oh, nothing,” confessed Terry. “He was so dignified looking that I couldn’t help leading him on a little, that’s all. Hey, let’s go. If we don’t get a move on he’ll court-martial us as soon as we get to the school. He had me with that last crack, didn’t he?”

The boys picked up their suitcases and climbed into the station wagon, the three friends sitting in the first seat back of the driver. The driver was a little man with scant gray hair who took no particular notice of them, but drooped unemotionally in the forward seat. After seeing that all of the new members were safely in, the correct-looking lieutenant climbed up beside the driver.

“Let’s go, Ashley,” he directed.

The driver stepped on the starter but the car stalled before lurching down the road toward the distant hills and woods. The three friends had plenty to talk about, but the rest of the boys were silent. Most of them were making their first trip away from home and all were strangers, so they sat in silence and watched the scenery. The boys on the first seat gradually grew quiet too and enjoyed the magnificent view unfolded in the sweeping hills and rolling woods from which the academy had derived its name.

The seats of the station wagon were plain board planks and the legs of the boys dangled in plain view beneath them. Right in front of Terry were the gray-clad legs of the lieutenant, and the boy’s eyes wandered more than once to them. A thoughtful look came into his gray eyes and he began to feel in the lapel of his coat. From it he drew two pins and then leaned over to Don.

“Got a piece of string with you?” he whispered.

Don shook his head and Terry repeated his question to Jim. The younger Mercer unwound one which had been twisted around the handle of his suitcase and handed it to Terry.

“What do you want with it?” he asked.

Terry winked but did not reply. He looked once searchingly at the back of the lieutenant and then bent the pins, much like primitive fish hooks. Then, taking the string, he tied it from one pin to the other. The boys watched him intently.

The two pins having been joined together by an eighth-inch length of string, the red-headed boy leaned down and passed one hook carefully through the sharply creased trousers of the cadet in front of him. It dangled there, and Terry sat back to look for danger. Nothing happened, and he once more bent down, this time to lift the cuff of the trousers and slip the second pin into it. The operation was accomplished without accident, and the lieutenant had one leg of his trousers drawn up for a space of four or five inches.

The boys in the station wagon grinned broadly when they saw what Terry was driving at, but the red-headed boy looked calmly away to the hills. Totally unconscious of the fact that he was the object of their mirth the important young officer stared straight ahead of him. Out of the side of his mouth Terry spoke to Don.

“It will be tough, if one of those pins sticks his leg.”

Nothing of the sort happened. The attention of the boys was now drawn to the view that suddenly unfolded as they topped a final rise of ground. Before them, at the top of the ridge, against the dark background of the surrounding woods, was Woodcrest Military Academy itself, with its ivy-covered central hall, its two dormitories and its gymnasium and boathouse. Back of the school a single large sheet of beautiful silver water showed, the Lake Blair so often spoken of in the catalogue which the boys had. On all sides trees and hills spread out until they were lost in the distance.

“That’s beautiful,” breathed Jim, enthusiastically.

“I’ll say it is,” agreed Don, and Terry nodded. Don went on, “That center hall must be Locke Hall, and the one to the right of it either Inslee or Clinton. We got our rooms in Locke, on the second floor. Where will you be located, Terry?”

“For the present I’m in Inslee,” returned Terry. “I didn’t know where you fellows would go, so I didn’t say anything. After a day or so I’ll try to see if I can’t be transferred.”

Nothing more was said until they drove up to the lawn before Locke Hall and then the station wagon came to a stop. The lieutenant jumped out and faced the new boys.

“Step down out of there!” he commanded. “On the double, now!” They obeyed and faced him, casting furtive glances at his hiked-up trouser leg. The lieutenant looked them over slowly and then once more addressed them. “You are now to become students at this institution, and I would like to say that from now on you’ll have to give up some of the soft things that you have been used to. Among them, some of your pet foolishness.” Here he looked straight at Terry, who returned the look with bland interest. “You will acquire a measure of dignity and poise that will make new men out of you. I am representative of the efficiency and discipline of this school, and I hope we may expect as much from each one of you. What are you laughing at?”

The question was addressed to the entire number of boys, so no one took the responsibility of answering. The lieutenant turned away.

“Report at Locke Hall and register,” he snapped, and strode off, the one leg ridiculous in the extreme. The newcomers watched him with interest. A brother lieutenant came out of Locke Hall and they saluted, and once past him the other turned to look at the upraised trouser. Then he grinned until, seeing the new boys looking, he composed his face and passed them. Still unheeding the lieutenant went on until he met an instructor, also in uniform, whom he saluted and would have passed, except that the instructor stopped him.

“What has happened to your trousers, Sommers?” the boys heard the instructor ask.

Sommers looked down at his right leg and then stooped and savagely tore the pins and string out. With a savage glance he looked back at the interested group of boys and his eyes blazed. Hastily saluting his superior he hurried on, and the teacher, with a faint smile on his face, resumed his walk.

“Well,” sighed Terry. “That’s over. Worked better than I thought it would.”

“You’re lucky,” laughed Don, as they made their way to the office. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it out on you later on.”

Don and Jim registered first and then went off to their rooms, which were on the floor above. Terry registered and awaited his orders.

“Inslee Hall,” nodded the clerk, with an engaging smile. “Room 17, second floor.” He pointed out of the door. “Go to your left along the path and you can’t miss it. Supper at six o’clock. Next!”

Terry picked up his suitcase and went out of the screen door and out onto the well-kept driveway. A wide expanse of lawn spread out before him and off in the distance he saw the hall which was to be his dormitory. Just beyond it he could see the roof of another building that they had not been able to see from the main road. Terry was not sure which of them was Inslee Hall, especially as the path ran, after a split, to both of them.

“Must be the one in the rear,” he thought, and started toward it. After skirting a clump of high bushes and a fringe of fine trees he saw the hall before him, an old wooden building with three chimneys and broad windows. The path which ran to it was not as well kept and Terry wondered at that. Drawing nearer to the place he was amazed at the neglected appearance of the place. Close to the building weeds grew in careless profusion, and the steps were covered with brushwood and dirt. Terry was frankly puzzled.

“I’ll want to get a transfer from this place in a hurry,” he murmured. “Funny, there doesn’t seem to be anyone around.”

He stepped up on the stone steps and looked in the narrow windows that flanked the main door. At once he saw his mistake.

“This isn’t the place,” he decided. “This place is deserted. Wonder what kind of a place it is?”

He pressed his face close to the glass and looked in. The main hall of the old building was before him, and a desk, two chairs and a bookcase stood there. Thick layers of dust covered everything. In the back of the hall a curving flight of stairs ran up to the second floor.

“This place hasn’t been used for years,” thought Terry, about to turn away. Just at that moment a white door at the far end of the downstairs hall opened slowly and an old man appeared. In his hand he had a tin tray, upon which were two plates of meat and potatoes. Steam rose from the tray, and as the old man shuffled slowly forward Terry noticed that he held a lighted candle in his hand.

“Somebody does live in the place,” he thought. “Wonder they wouldn’t clean up a bit.”

At that moment the old man looked up and saw him. With an expression of terror he blew out his candle, at the same time stepping into a doorway and out of sight. Terry stared in amazement.

“Well, what do you know about that!” he gasped. “Poor old guy must have thought I was a ghost or something. Well, I’m in the wrong place, I can see that.” He stepped back and looked up at the front of the building. On a board sign, its letters almost rubbed out by the elements, was a name painted in white. It said “Clanhammer Hall.”

“Clanhammer Hall,” mused Terry, turning away. “According to my catalogue, that was the original building of Woodcrest School. Well, it isn’t much of a place now, I can tell you. I wonder why that old man ducked out of sight when he saw me?”

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