Chapter II. An Encounter on the Road
 

"I'll race you to the path," said Sam, when the woodshed was left behind.

"All right," answered Tom, who was always ready to run. "Toe the mark here. Now then -- one, two, three! Go!"

And away they went across the meadow, leaping two ditches with the agility of a pair of deer, and tearing through the small brush beyond regardless of the briers and the rents their nether garments might sustain. At first Tom took the lead, but Sam speedily overhauled and then passed him.

"It's no use -- you always could outrun me," panted Tom, as he came to a stop when Sam crossed the footpath ten yards ahead of him. "I can't understand it either. My legs are just as long as yours, and my lungs just as big, too, I think."

"You want to do your running scientifically, Tom. That athletic instructor in New York --"

"Oh, bother your scientific things, Sam! Uncle gives us enough of that, so don't you start in. I wonder if Dick has got a letter from Larry Colby? He promised to write last week. He is going to a boarding school soon."

"We'll know in a few minutes. I wonder where Larry -- Gracious, listen!"

Sam broke off short, as a loud cry for help reached their ears. It came from the footpath, at a point where it ran through a grove of beech trees.

"It's Dick's voice! He wants help!" burst from Tom's lips. "Come on!" and he set off as rapidly as his exhausted condition would permit. As before, Sam readily outdistanced him, and soon came upon the scene of a most brutal encounter.

A burly tramp, all of six feet in height, had attacked Dick Rover and thrown him upon his back. The tramp was now kneeling upon the prostrate boy's chest, at the same time trying to wrench a watch from Dick's vest pocket.

"Keep still there, or I'll knock you on the bead!" cried the tramp, as, letting go of the watch chain, he clapped a dirty hand over Dick's mouth.

"I -- won't -- kee -- keep still!" spluttered Dick. "Let -- me -- up!"

"You will keep still -- if you know what is best for you. I have your pocketbook, and now I am bound to have that watch and that ring."

"No! Don't rob me of the watch! It belonged to my father!" panted Dick, and as the watch came out of the pocket he made a clutch at it. "Help! help!"

"Will you shut up!" burst out the tramp fiercely, and struck at the youth with his fist.

It was at this juncture that Sam put in an appearance. A glance told him how matters stood, and without waiting an instant he came up behind the tramp, and, catching him by the shoulders, hurled him backward.

"Sam! Good for you!" burst out Dick joyfully. "Don't let him get away!"

"What do you mean, boy?" demanded the ruffian, as he turned over and leaped to his feet.

"You let my brother alone -- that's what I mean," was the answer.

"Give me my pocketbook and that watch!" went on Dick, for the tramp held both articles, one in each hand.

"Yes, I will -- not," was the ready reply, turning, suddenly, the tram started through the grove of trees on a run.

Without waiting, Sam ran after him followed by Tom, who had now arrived. Dick came behind, too much winded by being thrown on his back to keep up with them.

"He is making for the river!" cried Tom, after running for several minutes without gaining on the thief. "If he has a boat he'll get away!

"I don't think he has a boat, Tom. He looks like a regular tramp."

"We'll soon find out."

They could not see the ruffian, but they could hear him quite plainly as he crashed through the brush beyond the grove of trees. Then came a crash and a yell of pain.

"He has stumbled and fallen!" said Sam, and redoubled his speed. Soon he reached the spot where the tramp had gone down. He was about to proceed further when a well-known object caught his eye.

"Here is the pocketbook!" he burst out, and picked the article up. A hasty examination showed that the contents were intact; and the two boys continued the pursuit, with Dick still following.

They were now going downhill toward the river, and presently struck a patch of wet meadow.

"We must be careful here," observed Tom, and just then sank up to his ankles in water and mud. But the tramp could now be seen heading directly for the river, and they continued to follow him.

They were still fifty yards from the shore when Sam uttered a cry of dismay. "He's got a boat!"

"So he has. Stop there, you thief!"

"Stop yourself, or I'll shoot one of you!" growled the tramp, as he leaped into a flat bottom craft moored beside a fallen tree. He had no pistol, but thought he might scare the boys.

They came to a halt, and an instant later the flat-bottom craft shot away from the river bank. By this time Dick came up, all out of breath.

"So he has gotten away!" he cried in dismay.

"Yes," answered Sam, "but here is your pocketbook."

"And what of my watch -- the one father gave to me before he left for Africa?"

"He's got that yet, I suppose," said Tom.

At this Dick gave a groan, for the watch was a fine gold one which Mr. Rover had worn for years. Dick had begged for the timepiece, and it had been entrusted to him at the last moment

"We must get that watch back somehow!" he said. "Isn't there another boat around here?"

"There is one up to Harrison's farm."

"That is quarter of a mile away."

"I don't think there is any nearer."

"And the river is all of two hundred feet wide here! What shall we do?"

It was a puzzling question, and all three Of the boys stared blankly at each other. In the meantime, the thief had picked up a pair of oars and was using them in a clumsy fashion which showed plainly that he was not used to handling them.

"If we had a boat we could catch him easily," observed Tom. Then his eyes fell upon the fallen tree. "I have an idea! Let us try to get across on that! I won't mind a wetting if only we can get Dick's watch back."

"Yes, yes; just the thing!" put in his elder brother quickly.

All hands ran down to the fallen tree, which was about a foot in diameter and not over twenty-five or thirty feet in length. It lay half in the water already, and it was an easy matter to shove it off.

"We can't do much without oars or a pole," said Tom. "Wait a moment," and he ran back to where he had seen another fallen tree, a tall, slender maple sapling. He soon had this in hand; and, cleared of its branches, it made a capital pole. Dick and Sam sat astride of the tree in the water, and Tom stood against an upright branch and shoved off. The river was not deep, and he kept on reaching bottom without difficulty.

By this time the tramp was halfway across the stream, which was flowing, rapidly and carrying both boat and tree down toward a bend quarter of a mile below.

"Go on back, unless you want to be shot!" cried the man savagely, but they paid no attention to the threat as no pistol appeared; and, seeing this, the thief redoubled his efforts to get away.

He was still a quarter of the distance from the opposite shore, and the boys on the tree were in midstream, when Sam uttered a shout. "There goes one of his oars! We can catch him now -- if we try hard!"

It was true that the oar was gone, and in his anxiety to regain the blade the tramp nearly lost the second oar. But his efforts were unavailing, and he started to paddle himself to the bank, meanwhile watching his pursuers anxiously.

"We'll get him," said Dick encouragingly, when, splash! Tom went overboard like a flash, the lower end of his pole having slipped on a smooth rock of the river bottom. There was a grand splutter, and it was fully a minute before Tom reappeared -- twenty feet away and minus his pole.

"Hi! help me on board, somebody!" he spluttered, for he had gone overboard so quickly that he had swallowed a large quantity of water.

Both Sam and Dick tried to reach him, but could not. Then the current caught the tree and whirled it around and around until both boys began to grow dizzy.

Seeing they could not aid him, and getting back a little of his wind, Tom struck out for the tree. But the water running over his face blinded him, and ere he knew he was so close the tree came circling around and struck him on the side of the head.

"Oh!" he moaned, and sank from sight.

"Tom's hit!" gasped Sam. "He'll be drowned sure now!"

"Not if I can help him!" burst out Dick, and leaped overboard to his brother's assistance. But Tom was still out of sight, and for several seconds could not be located.

Sam waited anxiously, half of a mind to jump into the river himself. The tramp was now forgotten, and landed on the opposite bank unnoticed. He immediately dove into the bushes, and disappeared from view.

At last Dick caught sight of Tom's arm and made a clutch for it. Hardly had he taken hold than Tom swung around and caught him by the throat in a deathlike grip, for he was too bewildered to know what he was doing.

"Save me!" he groaned. "Oh, my head! Save me!"

"I will, Tom; only don't hold me so tight," answered Dick. "I -- can't get any air."

"I can't swim -- I'm all upset," was the reply; and Tom clutched his elder brother tighter than ever.

Seeing there was no help for it, Dick caught hold of the fingers around his throat and forced them loose by main force. Then he swung himself behind Tom and caught him under the arms, in the meantime treading water to keep both of them afloat.

"Sam, can't you bring that tree closer?" he called out.

There was no reply, and, looking around, he saw that the tree and his younger brother were a hundred yards away, and sailing down the river as rapidly as the increasing current could, carry them for quarter of a mile below were what were known as the Humpback Falls -- a series of dangerous rapids through which but few boats had ever passed without serious mishap.

"I reckon Sam is having his hands full," he thought. "I must get Tom to the shore alone. But it is going to be a tough job, I can see that."

"Oh, Dick!" came from Tom. "My head is spinning like a top!"

"The tree hit you, Tom. But do keep quiet, and I'll take care of you,"

"I can't swim -- I feel like a wet rag through and through."

"Never mind about swimming. Only don't catch me by the throat again, and we'll be all right," was Dick's reassuring reply, and as his brother became more passive he struck out for the bank upon which the thief had landed.

The current carried them on and on, but not so swiftly as it was carrying the tree. Soon they were approaching the bend. Dick was swimming manfully, but was now all but exhausted.

"You can't make it, Dick," groaned Tom. "Better save yourself."

"And let you go? No indeed, Tom. I have a little strength left and -- Hurrah, I've struck bottom!"

Dick was right: his feet had landed on a sandbar; and, standing up, both boys found the water only to their armpits. Under such circumstances they waded ashore with case, and here threw themselves down to rest.

"That thief is gone," said Dick dismally.

"And my watch too!"

"But where is Sam?" questioned Tom, then looked at his brother meaningfully.

"The Humpback Fall!" came from Dick. "Sam! Sam!" he yelled; "look out I where you are going!"

But no answer came back to his cry, for Sam had long since floated out of hearing.