On the way East with his athletic team Frank Merriwell accepted the
invitation made by Hugh Morton to stop off at Omaha and visit the
Midwestern Athletic Association.

Morton, a young man of twenty-five, was president of the Midwestern. He
and Merriwell, the former Yale athlete, had met and become acquainted by
chance in Los Angeles some weeks before, and there seemed to exist
between them a sort of fellow feeling that caused them to take unusual
interest in each other.

Merry and his friends were invited by Morton to witness the finals in a
series of athletic events which were being conducted by the club. These
contests consisted mainly of boxing and wrestling, although fencing,
which was held in high esteem by the association, was one of the

In explanation of the rather surprising fact that fencing was thus
highly regarded by an athletic association of the middle West, it is
necessary to state that a very active member of the club was M. François
L’Estrange, the famous French fencer and duelist, whose final encounter
in his own country had resulted in the death of his opponent, a
gentleman of noble birth, and had compelled L’Estrange to flee from his
native land, never to return.

As fencing instructor of the Midwestern A. A., L’Estrange soon succeeded
in arousing great interest in the graceful accomplishment, and he
quickly developed a number of surprisingly clever pupils. In this manner
fencing came to be held in high esteem by the organization and was a
feature of nearly all indoor contests.

At first Omaha did not appeal to Frank; but he quickly found the people
of the city were frank, unreserved, genial, and friendly, and after all,
a person learns to like a place mainly through the character of its

At the rooms of the Midwestern, Merry and his comrades met a fine lot of
young men, nearly all of whom made an effort to entertain the boys. The
visitors were quickly convinced that they were welcome at the club and
that they could make themselves at home there without offending any
conservative and hidebound old fogies. Although the Midwestern was
cautious and discreet in regard to admitting members, and it was
necessary for visitors to obtain admittance in the proper manner, once
inside its portals a person immediately sensed an air of liberty that
was most agreeable.

“The forming of cliques in this club has been frowned down,” Hugh Morton
explained. “I have visited clubs of similar standing in the East and
found them full of cliques and restless with petty jealousies and
personal dislikes. We hope to suppress such things here, although I
regret to say that of late the club has seemed to be gradually dividing
into two parties. Thus far everything has been good-natured and
unruffled; but I fear that I see a pernicious undercurrent. I may be
wrong; I hope I am.”

The morning after Merry’s arrival in the city the _Bee_ noted the fact,
giving him half a column and speaking of him as “that wonderful young
American athlete who had maintained and added to his reputation since
leaving college, yet who had persistently abstained from
professionalism.” A list of his contests and victories during his
Western tour was also given.

At ten o’clock that forenoon Frank and Bart Hodge met Hugh Morton by
appointment in the reception room of the Midwestern. Morton rose and
advanced to meet them, smiling a welcome.

“Look here,” said Frank, when they had shaken hands, “I don’t feel just
right about this.”

“About what?” questioned the Omaha man.

“Taking you from your business this way. When I accepted your invitation
to stop off here, I didn’t expect you to waste your time on us. Business
is business, and——”

“Don’t you worry. My business is fixed so it will not suffer if I leave
it. I’m delighted with this opportunity. Yesterday I gave you a look at
the stockyards and the city. To-day, you told me, you wanted to take
things easy and just loaf around. I’m more than willing to loaf with
you. And my business will go on just the same.”

“All right,” smiled Frank. “You know your own affairs, and we’re glad to
have you with us. Bart and I were talking about fencing on our way here.
We’ve been wondering how much we have deteriorated in the art since
quitting active practice. It has surprised us—and stirred us up
somewhat—to find the sport features in this club. Bart has challenged me
to give him a go at it. If we can have a set of foils and——”

“Just follow me,” invited Morton. “I’ll fix you out.”

As they were about to leave the room a tall, slender, dark man of
thirty-six or thirty-seven entered. Immediately Morton paused, saying:

“Mr. Merriwell and Mr. Hodge, I am sure you will appreciate the honor of
meeting our fencing instructor, Monsieur L’Estrange. Monsieur
L’Estrange, this is Frank Merriwell, the most famous American amateur
athlete of the present day.”

The Frenchman accepted Frank’s proffered hand. He was as graceful in his
movements as a jungle panther. About him there was an air of conscious
strength and superiority, and instantly he struck Frank as a person who
could not do an awkward thing or fall into an ungainly pose. His
training was such, that grace and ease had become a part of his
nature—not second nature, but nature itself.

“Monsieur Merriwell,” he breathed softly, “it gives me ze very great
pleasure to meet wiz you, sare. I have meet very many of your famous
American athletes. Eet is ze grand passion in this country. Eet is good
in some ways, but eet nevare make ze feenished gentleman—nevare.”

“I agree with you on that point, monsieur,” confessed Frank; “but it
fits a man for the struggle of life—it prepares him to combat with the
world, and you know the success and survival of the fittest was never
more in evidence, as the thing of vital importance, than at the present

The eyes of the Frenchman glistened.

“Very true, sare; but mere brute strength can nevare make any man ze
fittest—nevare. You theenk so? You are wrong—pardone me eef I speak ze
truth plainly.”

“But I do not think so, monsieur. It takes a combination of strength and
brains to make a well-balanced man.”

“And skeel—do not forget skeel. Eet is ze most important of all, sare.”

“Brains give ability, strength gives power to exercise that ability.”

“And skeel defeats ze man with strength and brains. Oh, eet does! Ze man
with too much strength, with ze beeg muscles; he ees handicap against ze
man with just ze propare development and no more. His beeg muscles tie
him, make him awkward.”

“Again I am compelled to agree with you,” smiled Frank; “and I confess
that I consider fencing the most perfect method of developing ease,
grace, quickness and skill—attributes essential to any man who desires
to reach the highest pinnacle of development.”

“You have ze unusual wisdom on zat point, sare,” acknowledged
L’Estrange. “Eet is strange, for seldom have I met ze great athlete who
did not theenk himself superior to ze expert fencer. Eet is plain you
know your weakness, sare.”

Bart Hodge opened his lips to say something, but Merry checked him with
a quick look.

“I have fenced a little, monsieur,” explained Frank—“enough to get an
idea of its value and importance.”

“Zat ees goode. You take eet up at school—at college?”

“Yes, first at Fardale, and later I followed it up at Yale.”

“Ah! but you could not have ze propare instruction—no! no! Ze American
instructor he seldom know very much about eet. He ees crude; but he have
ze—ze—what you call eet? Ze swell head. He theenk he knows eet all.

“That is a fact in many instances,” acknowledged Merriwell.

At this point Morton whispered in Bart Hodge’s ear:

“L’Estrange is started and he will bore Merriwell with talk about
fencing, unless we find a way to interrupt it and break away. We must be
careful not to offend him.”

There was a strange, half-hidden smile on Bart’s lips as he turned to
their host.

“Let the man talk,” he said, in a low tone. “Before he is through Merry
will give him the call. You may not believe it, but I doubt if the
Frenchman can tell Frank anything new about fencing.”

“Oh, L’Estrange is a graduate of Joinville-le-Pont, the great government
school of France.”

Morton said this as if it settled a point, and Hodge knew the man
thought him presuming in fancying Frank’s information on fencing was to
be compared with that of the great French master of the art.

In the meantime, all his enthusiasm aroused, L’Estrange ardently

“You speak of ze brain, sare. When you fence, ze brain ees prompted to
act without a moment of ze hesitation. To hesitate means to make ze
failure. Ze fencer must be readee with hees wit, skill, and action, like
ze flash of lightning. So ze fencer fits himself for ze struggle of
life. He is full of ze resource, he is queek to detec’ ze strength or ze
weakness, of an argument or situation, and he acts like electricity,
sweeft and unerring. Zis make him a bettair business man zan other men.”

“Every word of this is true,” nodded Merry.

“In societee he is at perfect ease; in business he can stand ze great
strain. His blood ees fresh, his tissues are firm and he has ze grand

“And enthusiasm is absolutely necessary for a man to make the best of
himself,” said Frank. “The man who goes at any task with indifference is
inviting failure. No matter how well he may think he knows his work, he
must keep up his enthusiasm unless he is willing to see that work
deteriorate. Lack of enthusiasm causes thousands to fail and fall by the
wayside every year.”

“True, true, sare. I see you have ze enthusiasm of ze boy steel with
you. You have nevare met with anything to dull eet.”

“Not yet; and I hope I never may.”

“To keep eet you should fence, Monsieur Merriwell. Some time eet may
safe your life. _Oui!_ Once since I come to zis country I hear a noise
in ze night. I rise and go to discovare ze matter. I find ze burglaire.
He attack me wiz ze knife. He was beeg and strong—ze brute! I see ze
umbrellare in ze corner. I seize eet. I keep ze burglaire off. I punish
heem. I thrust, hit him in ze face. I give eet to him hard. Soon he try
to get away. He rush for ze door. I sprang between. I continue to
administaire ze punishment. I make him drop ze knife. Ze noise have
aroused ze rest of ze house. Ze police come. Ze burglaire ees marched to
ze jail. Ha! If I had been ze athlete, like you, zen with hees knife ze
burglaire he cut me to pieces—he keel me.”

“That was fine work,” agreed Frank.

“Not yet you are too old to acquire ze skeel. You know a leetale about
eet now. That help you. Find ze French master and keep at eet. Take no
one but ze French master. Ze Italian style is not so good. That has been
proved many time. Ze Frenchman is cool and he stands on guard with ease.
Ze Italian he will move all ze time. He jump here, there, everywhere. He
crouch, he stand straight, he dodge. Every minute he seem ready to jump.
He makes strange sounds in hees throat; but he is not dangerous as he
seem. Did you ever hear of Jean Louis?”

“Yes; he was a famous French duelist.”

“_Oui, oui!_ When ze French army invade Spain, in 1814, Jean Louis
keeled thirteen Italian fencing masters, one after ze other. Zat profe
ze superiority of ze French method, sare. Ze Italian believe strength is
needed to make ze perfect fencer. That is wrong. In France manee persons
of ze highest rank are wondairefully skillful in ze art, yet they are
not remarkable for strength. Eet is ze light touch, ze grace, ze art, ze
composure, ze ready wit that count.”

“How about duels at German colleges, like Leipzig and Heidelberg?”

“Oh, no, no, no! The German have a mixture of ze French and ze Italian
method. Zey are fightaires, but zey count on ze strength, too. Years ago
fencing was ze study paramount at ze great German colleges; but too
manee students they are killed at eet. Ze most peaceable never was he
sure of his life for one day. Later ze method change, and now eet is to
cut and scar ze face of ze adversary. Ze German never have ze grace of
ze French.

“You stay here, Monsieur Merriwell—you see ze finals? Well, zen you see
my greatest pupil, Fred Darleton, defeat his opponent. Of Monsieur
Darleton I am very proud. _Oui!_ He is a wondaire. I belief he can
defeat any American in ze country.”

Hodge made a protesting sound in his throat; but again Frank shot Bart a
glance of warning.

“I shall be delighted to witness the work of Mr. Darleton,” said Merry.
“It has been some time since I have fenced, Monsieur L’Estrange, and I
know I must be very rusty at it; but you have reawakened my enthusiasm
for the sport, and I feel like taking up the foils again. If I were to
remain in Omaha any length of time, I would seek to become one of your

L’Estrange bowed with graciousness.

“Eet would give me pleasure to instruct you, sare,” he said. “Eet would
give me delight to show you ze real superiority of ze duelist, ze
fencer, over ze athlete. You watch ze work of Fred Darleton to-night.
Eet will delight you.”

As Morton led them away, he said:

“You got off easy, Merriwell. Once get L’Estrange aroused and he can
talk a blue streak about fencing for hours. He’s really a wizard with
the foils, and this fellow Darleton, of whom he spoke, is likewise a
wonder. Darleton is not popular with many members in the club; but I
believe that is because of his remarkable skill at cards.”

“He is a successful card player, is he?” questioned Frank.

“Altogether too successful. He makes his spending money at the game.”

“What game.”


“Do you permit gambling for stakes in this club?”

“It is permitted,” confessed Morton, flushing slightly. “Of course
gambling is not open here. We have a private card room for those who
wish to play for stakes.”

Merry said nothing more, but he was thinking that the practice of
gambling was a bad thing for any organization of that sort. It was not
his place, however, to express such an opinion.

A short time later Merry and Bart were fitted out with foils, masks, and
plastrons, and they prepared for a bout, both eager to discover if they
retained their old-time skill at the art.


That Frank retained all his old-time skill he soon demonstrated. Hodge
was not in bad form, but Merry was far and away his superior, and he
toyed with Bart.

Morton looked on in some surprise.

“Why, say,” he cried, “both of you chaps know the game all right! You
could cut some ice at it.”

Bart smiled.

“I could have told you that Merry knew it,” he said.

“L’Estrange could make an expert of him,” declared Morton.

“Perhaps he might surprise L’Estrange,” said Hodge.

“I think he would,” nodded the host, without detecting Bart’s real

Frank and Bart went at it again. In the midst of the bout two young men
sauntered up and paused, watching them with interest.

“Why,” said one, “they really know how to fence, Fred!”

“That’s right,” nodded the other. “They are not novices.”

Morton quickly stepped to the side of the two.

“These are my guests, gentlemen,” he said.

“Oh,” said the taller and darker chap, “I understand you have Merriwell
and his friends in town. Is either of these fellows——”

“Yes, that one there is Frank Merriwell.”

“Introduce me when they are through. I am interested in him as an
athlete, although I may not be as a fencer. Evidently he thinks himself
pretty clever at this trick, but his form is not correct, and he makes a
number of false moves.”

Bart Hodge heard these words distinctly, and he lowered his foil,
turning to survey the speaker.

“You see, Darleton!” muttered Morton resentfully. “They have heard you!”

Darleton shrugged his shoulders.

To cover his confusion, Morton hastened to introduce Darleton and his
companion, Grant Hardy, to Frank and Bart.

“Mr. Darleton,” said Merry, “glad to know you. I’ve just been hearing
about you from your fencing instructor.”

“Have you?” said Darleton, with a quite superior air. “I’m afraid
Monsieur L’Estrange has been boasting about me, as usual. Just because I
happened to be particularly apt as a pupil, he is inclined to puff me on
every occasion. I don’t fancy it, you know, but I can’t seem to prevent
it. People will begin to think me quite a wonder if he doesn’t stop
overrating me.”

“But he doesn’t overrate you, my dear fellow,” quickly put in Grant
Hardy. “I’ve seen you hold L’Estrange himself at something like even
play, and he is a wizard.”

Hodge laughed a bit.

“Why do you laugh?” asked Hardy, with a flash of resentment. “Do you

“I laughed over Mr. Darleton’s modesty,” said Hodge. “It is useless for
him to seek to conceal the truth from us in that manner. He is quite the
wonder of this club.”

Hardy missed the sarcasm hidden in Bart’s words and his face cleared.

Darleton, however, was not so obtuse, and he surveyed Bart searchingly,
a flush creeping into his cheeks.

“I observe that you fence after a fashion, Mr. Hodge,” said Darleton,
and the passing breath of insult lay in his manner of saying “after a

“Oh, not at all!” protested Hodge; “but I assure you that my friend
Merriwell can put up something of an argument at it when he is in his
best form.”

“Indeed?” smiled Darleton, lifting his eyebrows. “Then I am led to infer
that he is not in his best form just now.”

“What leads you to infer that?”

“Oh, your manner of speaking the words, of course. I would not comment
on what I have seen him do.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“No, indeed.”

“Sometimes our ears deceive us,” said Bart; “but I fancied I did hear
you—never mind that.”

He broke off abruptly, but he had informed Darleton that his words,
spoken when he first appeared on the scene, had been overheard.

Darleton shrugged his shoulders, a gesture he had caught from his French

“Fancy leads us into grave mistakes at times,” he said. “It should not
be permitted to run away with us. Now, I have known fellows who fancied
they could fence, but very few of them have been able to make much of a
go at it.”

This was a sly thrust at Merry. Frank looked pleasant and nodded.

“I have even known instructors to be deceived in the skill of their
pupils,” he remarked, reaching home and scoring heavily.

This reply brought the blood flashing once more to Darleton’s cheeks.

“In case you were the pupil,” said the fencer, instantly, “no instructor
could feel the least doubt in regard to your skill.”

His words plainly implied that he meant lack of skill, although he was
not that blunt.

“Although you are not inclined to comment on the work of another,”
returned Merry; “it is evident that your observation is keen, and with
you, one’s back might not be as safe as his face.”

This was a coup, for Darleton lost his temper, showing how sharply he
had been hit.

“I’ll not pass words with you, Mr. Merriwell,” he exclaimed, “as I am
not inclined to waste my breath uselessly. If at any time while you are
here you feel inclined to demonstrate what you can really do—or think
you can do—you will find me at your service.”

Hodge stiffened. It was a challenge.

“Thank you for your kindness,” smiled Frank, perfectly at his ease. “I
may take you at your word later on.”

Darleton and Hardy turned away.

“He may,” observed Hardy, speaking to his companion, but making sure
Frank could not fail to hear, “yet I doubt it.”

Hodge seized Frank’s arm, fairly quivering with excitement.

“You’re challenged, Merry!” he panted. “You must accept! Don’t let him
off! Teach the fellow a lesson!”

“Steady, Bart,” said Merriwell softly. “There is plenty of time. Don’t
fly up like this. Do you want to see me defeated?”

“No! He can’t defeat you!”

“How do you know?”

Hodge stared at Frank in doubt and astonishment.

“Is it possible you are afraid to face him?” he gasped.

“I don’t think so; but you should remember that he is in perfect form
and condition, while I am rusty. In order to meet him and do my best I
must practice. That I shall do. Wait. I promise you satisfaction—and Mr.
Darleton the same!”


Bart Hodge was not aware that Frank had been so thoroughly aroused; but
when he was called to Merry’s room in the hotel that day after lunch and
found two complete fencing outfits there—foils, masks, jackets, and
gauntlet gloves—he realized that there was “something doing.”

Frank closed and locked the door.

“Strip down and make ready,” he said grimly. “I’m going to brush up and
get in condition, and you are the victim.”

“I’m happy to be the victim now,” declared Bart; “in case Mr. Darleton
is the victim later.”

Something more than an hour later the comrades were resting after a bath
and rub down. Bart’s eyes shone and his dark, handsome face wore an
expression of great satisfaction.

“You may be rusty, Merry,” he observed; “but I fail to see it. I swear
you fenced better to-day than ever before in all your life.”

“You think so, Bart; but I can’t believe that. A man can’t be at his
best at fencing, any more than at billiards, unless he is in constant

“Oh, I know I’ve gone back; but you have not. I’ll wager my life you can
give Fred Darleton all he is looking for.”

“It would be a pleasure to me,” confessed Frank. “Somehow he irritated
me strangely.”

“I’d never supposed it by your manner.”

“If I had lost my temper I should have been defeated. Mr. Darleton has a
temper, and I shall count on it leading to his downfall, in case we

“You’ll meet, for you are challenged. He thinks you a mark, Merry. He’ll
be overconfident.”

“Another thing I count on as aiding me. Overconfidence is quite as bad
as lack of confidence. Darleton has been praised too much, and he
believes he is very nearly perfect as a fencer. A defeat now will either
make or mar him. If defeated, he will either set about working harder to
acquire further accomplishment, or he will quit.”

“I believe he’ll quit.”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t like him, Merry.”

“There is something about him that I do not fancy, myself. I’ve not seen
him enough to judge what it is. I’ve tried to think it might be his
freshness in shooting his mouth the way he did; but something asserts
that I should have disliked him had he kept his mouth closed. He has an
air of directness; but behind it there is a touch of cunning and craft
that stamps him as crooked. I may sympathize with a weak chap who goes
crooked through temptation; but I have no sympathy for a sly rascal who
is dishonest with deliberation. If Darleton is naturally honest, I have
misjudged him.”

There came a heavy knock on the door and the sound of voices outside.

Bart unlocked the door, and Joe Gamp stalked in, followed by Jack Ready,
Hans Dunnerwurst, and Jim Stretcher, all of Merriwell’s party.

“Ding this tut-tut-tut-tut-tut——” began Joe.

“Tut, tut!” interrupted Jack. “Eliminate repetitions from your profuse
flow of language, Joseph.”

Gamp flourished his fist in the air and began again:

“Ding this tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut——”

“Whistle, Joe—whistle!” advised Frank.

Whereupon the tall chap recommenced:

“Ding this tut-tut-tut—whistle—town! It’s all up hill and

“Oh, Joseph, you’re a poet!” exclaimed Ready.

“Yah,” said Dunnerwurst gravely, “oudt uf him boetry flows like a
sbarkling rifer.”

“We have decided in solemn conclave,” said Ready, “that the streets of
this prosperous Western burgh are exceedingly soiled.”

“Und some of them been stood their end onto,” put in Hans.

“It’s hard to keep your fuf-fuf-fuf—whistle—feet from slipping in the
sus-sus-sus—whistle—street,” added Gamp.

“There he goes again!” burst from Ready. “I never suspected it of him.
Crown him with laurels and adorn him with bays.”

“What is the difference between the bay and the laurel, Jack?” laughed

“Ask me not at this unpropitious moment,” entreated the odd fellow. “We
have been meandering hither and yon over Omaha—yea verily, we have been
even as far as the stockyards of South Omaha. We have waded across
streets that were guiltless of being cleaned even since the day they
were paved. We have ascended streets which led into the clouds, and we
have descended others which led into the gorges and valleys. We have
gazed in awe upon the courthouse, with blind justice standing on its
battlements, balances in hand. We have seen the post office and
expressed our admiration. Alas and alack, we are wearied! We fain would
rest. Omaha is all right for those who think so; but some day she will
rise and butcher her street-cleaning department. She will be justified.
I have spoke.”

With this he dropped on a chair and fanned himself weakly.

“What have you fellows been dud-dud-doing?” inquired Gamp, noticing for
the first time that the boys were in bath robes and that fencing
paraphernalia was scattered about the room.

Frank explained that they had been fencing.

“Jee-whickers!” cried Joe. “You used to be pretty good at it when you
were at cuc-cuc-college. You were the champion fuf-fuf-fuf-fencer at
Yale, all right.”

“He’s just as good to-day as he ever was,” declared Bart; “and Mr.
Darleton will find out that is good enough.”

“Who’s Darleton?” asked Stretcher.

Then they were told about the affair at the club, which quickly awoke
their interest.

“Omaha takes on new fascination for me,” averred Ready. “I felt like
folding my tent and stealing away a short time ago; but if Merry is
going against some gentleman with the inflated cranium in this burgh, I
shall linger with great glee to watch the outcome.”

“You talk the way a cub reporter writes, Ready,” said Stretcher. “Big
words sound good to you, but if you know what you’re saying you’ll have
to show me.”

“I shall refrain from exerting myself to that extent, my boy,” retorted
Jack. “It’s not worth while.”

“Where are the rest of the boys?” asked Frank.

“Scattered broadcast over the mountains and valleys of Omaha,” answered
Ready. “Fear not for them; they will return in due time.”

“How does Omaha strike you, Jim?” inquired Merriwell.

“She ain’t in it much compared with Kansas City,” said Stretcher. “We
have some hills there, you know. I’ve yet to see any country that can
get away from old Missouri. When you get ahead of Missouri, you’ll have
to hurry.”

“It does me good to see a chap who will stand up for his native State,”
said Merry, winking at some of the others but maintaining a grave face
before Stretcher. “Of course Missouri may have her drawbacks, but we all
know she is a land of fertility and——”

“Fertility!” cried Jim enthusiastically. “You bet! Crops grow overnight
there. Yes, sir, that’s straight. It’s perfectly astonishing how things
grow. As an illustration, when I was about seven years old my mother
gave me some morning-glory seeds to plant. I always did love the
morning-glory flower. I thought it would be a grand thing to plant the
seeds beneath my chamber window, where I could look forth each morning
on rising and revel in the beauty of the purple blossoms. I got busy and
stuck the seeds into the ground one afternoon about five o’clock. I knew
the soil was particularly rich right there, and I counted on the vines
growing fast, so I lost no time in stringing a number of cords from the
ground right up to my window.

“That night when I went to bed I wondered if the seeds would be sprouted
when I rose the following morning. It was warm weather, and I slept with
my window open. I suppose I kicked the bedclothes off. Some time in the
night I felt something pushing me, but I was too sleepy to wake up.
About daylight I woke up suddenly, for something pushed me out of bed
onto the floor. I jumped up and looked to see what was the matter.
Fellows, you won’t believe it, but the vine—or, rather, a profusion of
vines—had grown all the way up to my window in the night, had found the
window open, had come into the room, and, being tired from its exertion
in growing so hard, I presume, had climbed into my bed and pushed me

A profound silence was broken by Dunnerwurst, who gurgled:

“Uf I faint, vill somebody blease throw me on some vater!”

“Stretcher,” said Merry, “I don’t suppose there is ever anything in your
State that is not grand and superior? There are no drawbacks to
Missouri? Soil, climate, people—all are of the first quality?”

“Oh,” said Jim, with an air of modesty, “I presume any part of the
country has its drawbacks. The soil of Missouri is magnificent and the
climate superb—as a rule. I presume there are sterile spots within the
boundaries of the State, and I have experienced some unpleasant weather.
The winter that old Jake died was unusually severe.”

“Who was Jake?”

“A mule, and the dumb companion of my innocent boyhood. You see, I
always wanted a dog. Lots of boys I knew had dogs. Tom Jones had a
shepherd, Pete Boogers had a collie, Muck Robbins had a yaller cur, and
Runt Hatch had two bull purps. I pestered paw for a dog. He didn’t have
any use for dogs, and he wouldn’t give me one. I told him I must have a
pet of some kind. ‘All right, Jim,’ says he, ‘if you want a pet, there’s
Jake, our old mule, you may have him.’ Now, Jake was pretty well used
up. He was spavined and chest foundered and so thin his slats were
coming through his hide. He wasn’t beautiful, but he had been a faithful
old creature, and paw was disinclined to kill him. He thought it was a
great joke to give me Jake for a pet; but I was just yearning for
something on which I could lavish my affection, and I began to pour it
out on Jake.

“I petted the old boy, gave him good feed, took him into the cowshed
nights, and did my best to make him generally comfortable. Jake
appreciated it. You may think dumb creatures, and mules in particular,
have no sense of gratitude, but such is not the case. Jake understood
me, and I did him. I could actually read his thoughts. Yes, sir, it’s a
fact. At first paw grinned over it and tried to joke me about Jake; but
after a while he got tired of having his best feed given that old mule
and finding the animal bedded down in the cowshed. He said it would have
to stop. Then he got mad and turned Jake out to pick for himself. I
brought Jake back twice, but both times paw raised a fuss, and the last
time, he got so blazing mad he swore he’d knock the mule in the head if
I did it again.

“That was in the fall, with winter coming on. I tried to plead with paw;
but it was no go. He said Jake would have to shift for himself in the
open. Jake used to come up to the lower fence and call to me melodiously
in the gloaming, and I would slip down and pat him and talk to him and
sympathize with him. But I didn’t dare do anything more. Well, that
winter was a tough one. Never had so much cold weather packed into one
winter before that. Jake suffered from exposure, and my heart bled for
him. He grew thinner and thinner and sadder and sadder. Paw’s heart was
like flint, and I couldn’t do anything. Jake hated snowstorms. Every
time one came he thought it would be his last; but somehow he worried
through them all until the snow went off and spring set in. Then Jake
brightened up some and seemed more like himself.

“But late in the spring another cold spell struck in. It was near the
first of May. In the midst of that cold spell our barn got afire one
night. When Jake saw that fire, he says to himself, ‘Here’s my chance to
get warm all the way through.’ He found a weak spot in the fence and got
over it, after which he waltzed up to the barn and stood there, warming
first one side and then the other by the heat and enjoying himself.

“We had a heap of corn stored in the barn. After a while the roof of the
barn burned off and the fire got to the corn. When this happened the
corn began to pop and fly into the air. It popped faster and faster and
flew high into the air, coming down in a great shower. Jake looked up
and saw the air plumb full of great, white flakes of popped corn. The
poor, old mule gave a great groan of anguish. ‘I’ve lasted through
twenty-one snowstorms this winter,’ says he, with tears in his eyes;
‘but this one is my finish.’ Then he lay right down where he was and
gave up the struggle. In the morning we found him frozen stiff.”

Ready sobbed and wiped his eyes.

“How pathetic!” he exclaimed chokingly.

“Poor Shake!” gurgled Hans.

“That story should be entitled ‘The Tale of a Mule,’” observed Frank.

“It is evident,” said Bart, “that Missouri mules are sometimes more
intelligent than the inhabitants of the State.”

“Oh, we have some dull people, of course,” admitted Jim. “I remember the
janitor at our old school—he was a trifle dull. Poor old Mullen! One day
he threw up his job. They asked him why he did it. Says he: ‘I’m honest,
and I won’t stand being slurred.’ He was pressed to explain. ‘Why,’ he
exclaimed, ‘when I’m sweeping out, if I happen to find a handkerchief or
any little thing, I hang it up, like an honest man. Every now and then
the teacher, or somebody who hasn’t the nerve to face me, gives me a
slur. A few days ago I come in one mornin’ and I seen writ on the
blackboard: “Find the least common multiple.” Well, I just went
searching the place over from top to bottom, but I couldn’t find a sign
of the old thing anywhere. I don’t believe nobody lost it. That made me
sore, but I stood for it all right. Yesterday mornin’ in great big
letters there was writ on the blackboard: “Find the greatest common
divisor.” Says I to myself: “Now, both of them blamed things is lost,
and I’ll be charged with swipin’ ’em.” And I throwed up my job.’”

They laughed heartily over this story, and, having aroused their
risibilities at last, Jim seemed satisfied.