"Sure! Been ready half an hour."
"Wait a minute, Frank, till I tighten my skate strap," cried Fred Rover, as he bent down to adjust the loosened bit of leather.
"Hurry up, Fred, we don't want to stand here all day," sang out his Cousin Andy gaily.
"That's it! I want to win this race," broke in Randy Rover, Andy's twin brother.
"Now remember, the race is to be to the old white pine and back," announced the starter. "Every contestant has got to touch the tree before he starts to come back; otherwise he'll be counted out."
"You ought to have a pistol to start us with," came from Jack Rover.
"I guess my old locomotive whistle will do for that," answered Frank Newberry. He paused to look at the line of skaters. "Now then, everybody on the job!" and a loud whistle rent the air.
Instantly there was a scurry of skates, and off the line started across Clearwater Lake to where a blasted pine tree reared its naked trunk against the skyline.
It was a Saturday afternoon in early winter, and the cadets of Colby Hall Military Academy were out in force to enjoy themselves on the smooth ice of the lake, near which the school was located. The cadets had been amusing themselves in various ways, playing tag and hockey, and in "snapping the whip," as it is called, when Gif Garrison, at the head of the athletic association, had suggested a race.
"We might as well find out who is the best skater in the school," Gif had said.
"Right you are," had come from his particular chum, Spouter Powell. "Let us get up a race by all means."
With so many cadets who could skate well, it was an easy matter to arrange for the contest. To make the matter more interesting, one of the Hall professors, Mr. Brice, said he would give some prizes to the pupils coming in first, second and third.
"I'll give a fine book of adventures to the first cadet, and also books to the others," Mr. Brice announced. He was still a young man, and in hearty sympathy with everything in the way of outdoor sports.
Among those to enter the contest were Jack Rover and his three cousins, Fred, Andy and Randy. All were provided with hockey skates, and each felt confident of making a good record for himself. Yet they all knew that the school boasted of some fine skaters, one lad in particular, Dan Soppinger, having won several contests on the ice in years gone by.
"We've got our work cut out for us!" cried Fred Rover, as he skated beside Jack.
"Save your wind, Fred," answered his cousin briefly.
"Believe me, this is going to be some race!" came from Randy, who was on the other side of Jack, with his twin brother next to him.
"I don't care who wins so long as I'm not last," responded his twin merrily.
Over twenty cadets had started in the contest, and soon the line, which had been fairly even for a few seconds after the whistle had sounded, began to take on a straggly appearance, as some skaters forged ahead and others fell behind.
"Don't give up! Everybody keep in the race until the finish!" cried Professor Brice encouragingly. "Remember, a race isn't over until the end is reached."
Thus encouraged, those who were in the rear did their best to overtake those ahead. But gradually the skaters divided into three groups; eight in the lead, six but a short distance behind them, and the others several yards further to the rear.
In the front group were Jack and his cousin Randy, while Fred and Andy were less than ten feet behind.
The distance across Clearwater Lake was about half a mile, but the blasted pine tree was located some distance down the shore, so that the race would be close to a mile and a half in length.
Spouter Powell was in the lead when the first group of skaters came up to the pine tree. Dan Soppinger was close behind him, with Jack and Randy following. Behind Randy came Walt Baxter, another cadet who skated remarkably well. The others of the first group were gradually dropping back to the second contingent. Spouter Powell touched the tree with his finger tips, and was followed almost immediately by Dan Soppinger. As they turned to go back to the starting point, they were followed by Jack and Randy.
"Hi, you fellows! what do you mean by skating so quick?" piped out Andy Rover gaily.
"We'll leave the tree to you, Andy!" shouted his twin.
"I don't think we'll win, but, anyway, we won't be last," came from Fred, as he and Andy touched the tree.
"Well, we can't have everything in this world," was the philosophic reply from the other Rover boy.
It could be seen that the race had now narrowed down to the five who were in the lead. Of these, Spouter Powell and Dan Soppinger were less than two feet apart, while only a yard to the rear came Jack, Randy and Walt Baxter.
"Go it, Randy!" sang out Andy, as he dropped still further behind. "Go it! I know you can win!"
"Keep it up, Jack!" yelled Fred, who, being the smallest of the four Rovers, found it impossible to keep up the pace. "Don't let Spouter and Dan hold you back!"
There were numerous cries of encouragement for all of the skaters as they swept forward toward the starting point. Here a line had been drawn on the ice, and the cadets stood at either end, some with their watches in their hands to time the winners.
"I'll bet Dan Soppinger wins!" cried one of the cadets. "He's the best skater on the lake."
"Well, Spouter Powell is a good skater, too," returned another.
"Huh! what's the matter with the Rover boys?" burst out a third cadet, round-faced and remarkably fat—so fat, in fact, that he had not dreamed of participating in the contest.
"I don't know much about how they can skate," was the reply. "They weren't here last winter, you remember."
"Yes, I know that," answered Fatty Hendry.
"Here they come!"
By this time the skaters were half way on the return from the blasted pine. Spouter Powell and Dan Soppinger were still in the lead, but Walt Baxter was crawling up steadily, while Jack and Randy were close behind.
"Say, this is going to be a neck-and-neck race!" cried one of the cadets, Ned Lowe by name. He had wanted to race himself, but knew that his skates were too dull for that purpose.
"Stand back! Give them plenty of room!" exclaimed Professor Brice, and he took measures to clear the cadets away from the finishing line.
Quite a crowd had assembled to witness the contest, not only cadets, but also some folks from the neighboring town of Haven Point, and also a number of young ladies from Clearwater Hall, a seminary located some distance away.
The skaters had still a distance of several hundred yards to cover when it was seen that Spouter Powell was gradually falling behind. Then Jack Rover forged forward, followed by his Cousin Randy.
"The Rovers are crawling up!"
"See, Jack Rover and his Cousin Randy and Dan Soppinger and Walt Baxter are all in a line!"
"This certainly is one close race!"
The excitement increased as the racers drew closer to the finishing line. Walt Baxter was panting painfully, showing that he had used up almost every ounce of his strength.
"Oh, dear! I do hope the Rovers come in ahead," whispered one girl skater to another. She was a tall girl, remarkably good looking and dressed in a suit of brown, with furs.
"So do I hope the Rover boys win, Ruth," answered her girl companion, "now that my Cousin Dick has fallen behind."
"It's too bad, May, that your Cousin Dick couldn't have kept up," answered Ruth Stevenson.
Closer and closer to the finishing line crept the four leading skaters, Jack and Randy in the middle, with Dan Soppinger on their left and Walt Baxter on their right. Now Spouter Powell had fallen back to the second group of racers.
"Here they come!"
"It's Dan Soppinger's race!"
"Not much! Here comes Walt Baxter! Gee, see him strike out!"
"It's the Rovers who are coming to the front!" exclaimed Ned Lowe.
"I knew they couldn't hold those Rover boys back," was Frank Newberry's comment. "Now then, boys, for a final dash!" he shouted.
All four of the leading contestants were bending forward and striking out as powerfully as possible, their arms swinging from side to side like pendulums and their skates ringing clearly on the smooth ice.
For an instant all were in a line, then, by a tremendous effort, Walter Baxter forged a foot ahead. But almost instantly Dan Soppinger overtook the other cadet. An instant later Randy Rover came up beside the others, followed by his Cousin Jack.
The finishing line was now less than fifty yards away, and the crowd was yelling all sorts of words of encouragement and cheering wildly, even the girls and older folks present being much excited. Then, of a sudden, an exclamation of wonder rent the air.
"Look at that, will you? Did you ever see such striking out in your life?"
"He's coming forward like a cannon ball!"
These exclamations had been brought forth by the sudden change of tactics on the part of Jack Rover. Coming back from the blasted pine he had managed to hang close to his opponents, but without using up all his reserve force. Now he let out "for all he was worth," as he afterwards declared, and, with strokes that could hardly be seen for their rapidity, he forged in front of Soppinger and Baxter.
"It's Jack Rover's race!"
"Look! Look! Here comes his Cousin Randy!" yelled Ned Lowe.
"No use in talking—you can't hold those Rover boys back," was Fatty Hendry's comment.
What the cadets had said was true. Following the extraordinary spurt made by Jack, Randy let himself out, and in a twinkling had passed Baxter. Then he found himself neck-and-neck with Dan Soppinger, who was struggling with might and main to catch up to Jack, just two feet ahead.
"Make room for the winners!"
"Jack Rover wins the race!"
"Yes, and Randy Rover is second!"
"Who takes third place?"
"Soppinger, I guess."
"No, I think Walt Baxter was a little ahead of him."
"Nonsense! It was a tie between them."
"Three cheers for the Rover boys!" shouted Ned Lowe, and many cadets joined in the cheering.
Jack and Randy were quickly surrounded by many of their chums and congratulated on their success.
"It was a tie race between Soppinger and Baxter," announced Professor Brice. "And that being so, I will give each of them a third prize," and with this those two contestants had to be contented.
"You made that race in record time, Jack," announced Gif Garrison. "It is better time by twelve seconds than was ever made before on this lake."
"Well, where do I come in?" demanded Randy.
"You broke the record by ten seconds," was the reply. "And believe me, that's some stunt!"
"I guess I was beaten fairly," announced Dan Soppinger, a little ruefully; "so there is no use of complaining."
"Oh, it was a fair and square race sure enough," answered Walt Baxter. "All the same, if my skates had been just a little sharper I think I might have won," he added a little wistfully.
"Well, I am glad the honors stay in our family anyhow," announced Fred, as he skated up, followed by Andy.
"And first and second prizes, too!" cried his cousin. "That ought to be enough to hold the other fellows for awhile."
Jack and Randy were both panting from their exertions, but their faces showed their satisfaction, and especially did Jack look his pleasure when he happened to glance beyond the crowd of cadets and saw Ruth Stevenson waving her hand toward him. Beside Ruth was May Powell, who waved gaily to all of the Rovers.
"Fine race, boys! Fine race!" was Fatty Hendry's comment. "Just the same, none of you would have been in it for a minute if I had entered," and at this joke there was a general laugh.
"Say, Fatty, you should have gone into it just to lose flesh," was Andy's dry comment. "If you tried real hard, you might lose a pound a mile," and at this there was another laugh.
The crowd began to gather around Jack and Randy and the others who had won the race, and many wanted to shake hands with the oldest Rover boy. Even some of the town folks skated up, and they were followed by some of the girls from Clearwater Hall.
"I say, boys, this may not be safe!" cried Professor Brice suddenly, when the crowd on the ice had become unusually thick. "This ice isn't as strong as it might be."
"Yes, and with Fatty in the crowd——" began Andy Rover. Then, of a sudden, he stopped short because an ominous crack was heard, followed by several other cracks.
"The ice is breaking!"
"Skate away, everybody, or we'll go down!"
Instantly there was a commotion, and all of the skaters tried to break away from the spot where the crowd had congregated. The confusion was tremendous, and in the mix-up six or eight persons, including Ruth Stevenson and May Powell, were thrown down. Then came another crack, and it looked as if in another instant the ice would give way completely and precipitate the whole crowd into the cold waters of the lake.
Something about the Rover Boys...
It was a time of extreme peril, and it is doubtful if any one realized that more than did Jack Rover. He, too, had been thrown down, and across his legs was sprawled the heavy form of Fatty Hendry. It was the toppling over of the fat youth which had caused one of the cracks which were now so numerous in the ice.
"Hi! get off of me!" yelled Jack, and managed to pull one of his legs free; and with this he pushed the fat youth to one side.
"Help! help! We're going down!" came in a scream from May Powell.
The ice had become depressed where she and Ruth Stevenson stood, and both were already in a half inch of water.
"Scatter! Everybody scatter!" cried Professor Brice, and then rushed to one side, to rescue several little boys and girls.
"Come on, Jack, we've got to help those girls!" cried Randy, and caught his cousin by the arm, thus assisting him to his feet. Then off the pair skated, with Andy and Fred behind them, all bent on going to the assistance of the girls from Clearwater Hall.