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3. Disturbing News
A week passed and the boys settled without difficulty into the routine life of Woodcrest Military Institute. They began to enjoy their classes and the drill, which each day seemed to become less burdensome and rigorous. In the afternoons they reported for track work. The evening, while mostly devoted to study, gave them plenty of time for visiting friends and having some good wholesome fun, and at the week’s ending they found that they thoroughly enjoyed their life at the institute.

Colonel Morrell had not as yet appeared at the academy and the boys from Maine were anxious to see him. No one seemed to know precisely what the trouble was, and even Major Tireson seemed to have something on his mind. Not that the routine was at all broken by the colonel’s absence. Things went along as smoothly as they did when the headmaster was present, and aside from a few statements of wonder, expressed by the cadets, nothing was thought about the matter until one evening during their second week at school.

Don and Jim had gone to their room and had been studying for about fifteen minutes when Terry burst into the room.

“What’s the big rush?” asked Jim, looking up from his book with a slight frown.

“You guys heard the news?” Terry blurted out. “Of course you haven’t, or you wouldn’t be sitting there calmly studying.”

“We haven’t heard anything but your mad rush in the door,” said Don, laying down his book. “Suppose you tell us what’s up?”

“What do you think? Our colonel has disappeared!”

“What?” cried the Mercer boys, in a breath.

Terry bounced onto the bed. “Yes, sir. The news leaked out tonight. I didn’t get all of the details, but he was on his way down here and suddenly disappeared. Just vanished into thin air, if Colonel Morrell could do that. I’ve heard he is pretty husky, so maybe he didn’t just float away, but he’s gone!”

“Where did you hear this?” inquired Don, study forgotten.

“Down at the office. I went down there to get some supplies and a detective was talking to Major Tireson. The detective talked in a loud voice, and three or four of us heard every word he said. The colonel’s brother hired detectives and they are searching for him. Major Tireson was saying that he had received a telegram from Colonel Morrell just before he left for the school here, and that was all that he knew. From the expression on the major’s face I could see that he didn’t want us to know it and would like to have kept it quiet, but it’s out now.”

Before the boys could reply to this astonishing piece of news a knock sounded on the door and a moment later Rhodes, Merton and Chipps came in. The three upper classmen had become quite friendly with the fourth class men during their short period of time at the school and were in the habit of dropping in evenings to talk over school topics with them. It was evident that the same subject was on their minds.

“Well,” remarked Rhodes after one look at their faces. “I see you fellows have heard the news, too.”

Jim nodded. “Yes, we have, and we’re terribly sorry to hear it, too. Terry was down in the office and heard it there.”

“You’d be even sorrier if you knew the colonel as we do,” put in Cadet Merton, seating himself on Jim’s bed. “Charlie, here, has the latest. Tell them about it, Rhodes.”

“The major called in the cadet captains,” began Rhodes. “And he told us the news. I don’t think he would have allowed the cadet body to know what had happened if some of the boys hadn’t heard it in the office. He told us to keep things running in our respective classes much the same as usual, and he was confident that everything would turn out all right in the end. The details are these: Colonel Morrell started for the school here last Wednesday, on the afternoon train. He lives up in Rockwood, New York, and he should have arrived at Portville at about seven o’clock. He had previously wired the major that he would be here at that time, so he was expected. We fellows didn’t know it, and of course it wasn’t until the last couple of days that we began to notice that he wasn’t here and to wonder why. The major must have been looking for him all the while, but he kept it to himself, although he told us that he was very much worried. He felt that if the cadets didn’t know anything about it, it would be better.

“As I said, the colonel started for here on the afternoon train, and he was supposed to come straight through. But for some unexpected reason he did not. Instead, he got off at a way station about sixteen miles from here, a little village called Spotville Point, and from that time to the present he hasn’t been seen! At least, not by anyone who ever told of it. The conductor on the train remembers that he got off there and that he had either a letter or a telegram in his hand, and that was the last ever heard of him. His brother wrote to him once or twice and then learned from Major Tireson that he hadn’t arrived here, so he got the police and detectives into action at once, so far without any result. That’s the whole story, and it’s a very queer one.”

“A queer one, and a distressing one,” murmured Chipps. “I hope nothing happened to our colonel.”

“We’re all with you on that,” returned Rhodes.

“He had a letter or a telegram with him, you say?” inquired Don.

“That is what the conductor said. I suppose the colonel was pretty well known, for he travels the railroad a couple of times a year, and has for the last number of years. But his brother declares that he didn’t have any letter or telegram with him when he left the house, and they have learned that he didn’t get any at the station or postoffice on his way down. Apparently there was nothing on his mind when he left his brother, either, so it certainly does make a mysterious case.”

“It surely does,” agreed Jim. “And he stopped off at Spotville Point?”

“Yes, and that’s a mystery in itself. I’ve been to Spotville Point myself. In fact, we’ve all passed through it on our way to summer encampment. Nothing to it except a dozen houses, most of them mere shacks, with one or two good-sized estates and the one station. Not even a postoffice.”

“Then he couldn’t have received a letter there,” said Terry.

“No. Besides, he had it when he got off the train. He simply must have had some reasonable excuse for getting off at a place like that. After he did get off no one saw which way he went. The man in the little station doesn’t even remember having seen anyone on that afternoon.”

Don glanced at the calendar. “That was last Wednesday, you say. That was October third, wasn’t it? Well, we’ve never seen Colonel Morrell, but from what we hear, he must be a very fine man, and we sincerely hope they find him quickly.”

“My only regret,” drawled Chipps, “is that they don’t turn the whole cadet corps loose to hunt him up! I’ll venture to say that we’d find him if we had to scour the whole country to do it!”

“If wanting to find him would accomplish anything, we’d find him in short order,” said Merton.

“If he should not turn up we’d have Major Tireson for headmaster, I suppose,” ventured Jim.

Rhodes nodded, but not cheerfully. “Yes, and I’m sure the fellows wouldn’t like that. Not that Major Tireson is a tyrant or anything like it, but he simply isn’t in the same class with the colonel. You can’t get close to him, if you see what I mean. Why, any guy in the corps could walk up to the colonel and talk to him without fear of being frowned down on, but the major is pretty much aloof. I personally like a man you can feel respect for and yet know him in a friendly way, but you can’t do that with the major. So here’s hoping our beloved colonel turns up safely.”

“We won’t think of any other possibility,” maintained Merton, stoutly.

“If we don’t think of getting in some studying pretty soon,” reminded Chipps, who stood at the head of all of his classes, “we’ll all do growl duty tomorrow.”

The new boys knew that “growl duty” meant remaining in after hours to brush up on lessons. The three upper classmen departed for their rooms, leaving the Mercers and Terry alone.

On the following morning the school buzzed with subdued excitement and the cadets lost no time in assembling in the chapel. When Major Tireson appeared on the platform he looked rather tired and worried and he was a little sharp in his tone as he led the morning exercises. When they were over he addressed the eager boys.

“You have all heard the story of what happened to Colonel Morrell,” he began. “I am sorry to say that it is true, but hasten to assure you that there need be no cause for excitement or worry over it. There is always some good reason for even the most mysterious things, and I’m sure that some day we will know just why Colonel Morrell went away as he did. In conclusion I want to say that I feel the colonel would want things to go on as usual, so see to it that all matter of routine is carried out with the same efficiency as when the colonel is here. Until he is here I will be in complete charge. Remember that. Assembly is dismissed.”

“He didn’t have to lay so much stress on efficiency,” grumbled Lieutenant Sommers, as they made their way to the breakfast hall. “We have a spirit of the corps in this school, if he doesn’t know it!”

Classes lagged that day, for the boys all had their minds on the missing colonel and his possible fate. Drill was carried through with its accustomed snap, justifying the statement of Lieutenant Sommers. In the evening the boys talked a good deal and several frequented the vicinity of the office, to be on hand in case anything new turned up. But nothing did, and when taps sounded the cadets went reluctantly to bed.

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