“I? Good times with you?” cried Belle, her cheeks flaming. “I’ve never even spoken to you when I could avoid it.”
“That’s false!” cried young Ardmore hotly.
“Stop, right there!” warned Dave Darrin in a quieter voice than ever, though his face paled swiftly. “Did I understand you to remark that Miss Meade had made a false statement?”
Whack! Darrin’s clenched right fist caught the fop on the temple, felling him to the ground.
“Go right on to Laura’s, Belle,” begged Dave quickly. “I’ll be along soon.”
Miss Meade walked rapidly ahead.
Ardmore was on his feet in an instant. Not wanting in a certain amount of animal courage, he rushed at Dave, only to be met with a blow in the mouth that floored him again. The fop’s lip was cut and bleeding when he rose.
“You cur!” bellowed the fellow.
“The opinion of a person like you can’t matter very much,” Dave retorted coolly.
A little crowd was beginning to gather. Dave’s pallor increased, for his very soul writhed at the thought of having Belle’s name involved in a brawl in this fashion.
“You’re a—” began Ardmore, but Dave Darrin moved quickly up to him.
“Do you retract the statement you made?” demanded the midshipman in a low voice.
“I retract nothing,” quivered Ardmore. “I repeat, and repeat—”
Dave closed in like lightning, Ardmore attempted to guard himself, but he was all but helpless before such a fast, trained hitter as Dave. The fop went down under two well-aimed blows delivered almost together.
Once more Ardmore leaped to his feet, while Darrin disdainfully awaited him.
But two or three men in the crowd leaped between the enemies, forcing the fop back.
“Don’t be a fool, Ardmore!” urged one of the men, speaking in the fellow’s ear. “That’s Midshipman Dave Darrin, and he’s one of the quickest, hardest hitters in Gridley.”
“Oh, that’s the midshipman, is it?” demanded Ardmore in a sneering voice. “Oh, well, then, I won’t hit him again. I know another way of making his skin smart.”
Dave tarried only long enough to make sure that the fop did not care to carry the encounter further. Then, turning on his heel, he walked rapidly in the direction Belle had taken. He overtook that young lady before she reached the Bentley home.
[Illustration: Darrin’s Blow Felled the Fop to the Ground.]
“If the fellow intends to trouble you again, I hope he’ll do it before my leave is finished,” spoke Dave quietly. “I think I’ve given him a little lesson, Belle, though there’s no telling how long it will last with inferior animals of Ardmore’s type.”
“He’s a spiteful fellow, Dave. You must be on your guard against him,” Belle urged.
“I guess Ardmore is wishing his own guard had been more effective,” smiled the midshipman.