Once an engine on the railroad not far away gave a sharp whistle that thrilled everybody, and numberless eyes were glued on the point up the road where the first runner must appear. Then a general laugh ran around because of the false alarm.
But everything must have an end, and that keen anxiety finally met with its reward. Plainly came the heavy boom of the waiting gun. Everyone craned his or her neck to see. Hearts beat quicker with eager anticipation. Which one of the thirty contestants would be the first to appear? There might be several in a bunch, primed for the final sprint for goal. The very thought thrilled hearts, and added color to cheeks, as well as made eyes sparkle with anticipation. Allandale was not cheering now; Belleville rooters were strangely quiet; for, so far, the outcome of the great race was still wrapped in mystery; but the solution would soon come, they knew.
Another heavy boom told that a second runner was just around the bend, and when a third discharge quickly followed the crowd knew there was going to be an exciting finish to the Marathon.
Then a plainly audible sigh broke forth as the first runner was seen rounding the bend, and starting on the home stretch, but wabbling badly as he ran, being almost completely exhausted.
ON THE FINAL MILE OF THE COURSE
Meanwhile, in order to understand certain important events that came about, it is necessary that we follow the runners, and devote this chapter to what occurred up to the time that first fellow came lunging around the final bend, having covered the whole course up to the final lap.
For a mile or so along the road there were bunches of schoolboys and girls waiting to give some of the contestants a cheering word as they flashed past. The enthusiasts, however, would not linger long, for they likely enough wished to see the comical part of the programme carried out. Besides, once the runners had straggled past their posts the only interest remaining for them in the race was its conclusion. So they would want to get back to the grounds, and secure positions along the line to the first bend, where they could greet each contestant as he appeared, and cheer him on; for he would probably need encouragement, being near the point of exhaustion.
Hugh had figured things out exactly, and knew what he could do. He was not alarmed because several of the visiting runners led the way, and even “Just” Smith had quite a little lead over him.
Pegging along, Hugh covered mile after mile with a steadiness that he had reduced to machine-like motion. He had timed himself, and the whole course was mentally charted for his guidance. If he reached the cut-off road at a certain time he would know things were moving just as swiftly as necessary. Those boys who strained themselves in that first seven miles would be apt to rue their rashness when they began to feel their legs quiver with weakness under them, and still miles remained to be covered ere the goal came in sight. And, besides, they were sure to be in no condition for a hot final sprint, in case of keen competition.