Chapter XXVII. Dash for Liberty
 

For the minute after Arnold Baxter spoke Tom had nothing to say. The man had offered terms, and if he did not accept them his very life would be in danger.

Now, had Tom been the hero of some dime novel he would have shouted at once, "I refuse your offer -- do your worse, base villain that you are!" But being an everyday American boy, with a proper regard for his own life, he revolved the situation in his mind with great care.

"Well, what do you say?" demanded Arnold Baxter impatiently.

"You had better accept dad's offer," broke in Dan.

"I don't know what to say," was the slow answer. "This, you must remember, is brand new to me."

"My offer is a very fair one, Rover. You have gotten yourself in a bad fix, and you can consider yourself lucky if you get out of it with a whole skin."

"If I write the letter, how are you going to deliver it to my two brothers and Jack Wumble?"

"We will find a way."

"And supposing they refuse to go back, what then? I won't be to blame for that."

"They won't refuse -- not when they realize that such a refusal means death to you."

"They may. Dick is quite headstrong at times. I don't want to do what I can for you and then suffer anyway."

"Well, if you do your best I will remember it when it comes to a final settlement," responded Arnold Baxter, with more grace than Tom had anticipated.

"Let me think it over for a few hours, and I will give you an answer," said the boy, and though they coaxed and threatened, neither of the Baxters could get any more outof him. At last they left him in disgust, first, however, seeing to it that his bonds were as tight as ever.

As soon as Tom was left alone he looked around for some means by which he might escape from his tormentors. The room was square, with a small window at one side and a broad fireplace at the other. At one end was the door and at the other the cupboard to which he had been fastened.

In his schooldays Tom had been a great hand at doing rope tricks, and when his hands had been tied he had taken care to make his enemies adjust the lariat as loosely as possible. Now, with a dexterous twist or two he cleared his hands, although the effort drew blood on one of his wrists. But, under the circumstances, Tom counted this as nothing.

As soon as he was free the boy tiptoed his way to the window and looked out. He saw Noxton and Roebuck sitting on a fallen tree talking earnestly. Close to the door of the house stood the Baxters, and Arnold Baxter was laying down the law to his son, although what it was all about Tom could not determine.

"I can't go by the window," he mused. "And if I try the door --"

He stopped short, for just then Dan Baxter started to come into the building. But his father stopped him.

"Let the boy alone," cried the elder Baxter. "He'll come around all right, never fear."

"Oh, you're too soft with him," returned the son. "I'd give him a cowhiding." Nevertheless, he walked away, and then all became as silent as before.

Tom realized that whatever was to be done must be done quickly, and walking back he surveyed the broad chimney. It was wide open to the sky, and at one corner of the opening he saw the waving green branch of a tree.

"If I could only get up into the tree," he thought, and no sooner thought than tried. The chimney was dirty, and he was soon covered with soot from head to foot. But being rough the chimney afforded easy footings, and he reached the top without great effort. The tree branch was scarcely two feet from the top.

With great caution the boy peered from the chimney. Noxton and Roebuck were still talking earnestly and both had their backs partly turned in his direction. The Baxters were out of sight.

As quickly as it could be accomplished, Tom stood upon the top of the chimney, caught the tree limb and pulled himself up. The branch swayed violently with his weight, but did not break, and soon he was close to the trunk and out of sight.

"So far so good!" he murmured. "But what shall I do next?"

This question was soon decided. There was another tree close at band, but further from the house than the first, and into this he leaped, and made his way across it to where a drooping branch fell directly over a heavy clump of bushes. Down this branch went Tom and dropped into the bushes as silently as a cat.

It must be confessed that the boy's heart was now thumping like a steam engine. What if he was discovered? He was afraid that his enemies would kill him on the spot.

He looked around and saw the horses tethered among the bushes a hundred feet further on. If only he could gain the animals he felt that escape would be almost secured.

He crawled along the ground like a snake. Once he had to go around a big rock and actually tear his way among the thorns, which scratched him in a dozen places. But behind the rock the shelter was greater, and unable to stand the suspense any longer he set off on a run for his horse.

The animal saw him coming and set up a low whinny of recognition. Then all of the horses swayed around in a bunch, for they were tethered close together.

This gave Tom another idea, and he not only untied his own horse but likewise all of the others. He kept hold of the other lariats as he mounted his steed.

"Get up!" he said sharply but in a low tone, and touched on the flank the horse set off on a gallop, followed by the other animals.

"Hullo, something is wrong with the hosses!" he beard Bill Noxton cry. Then came a rush through the bushes. At the sound Tom bent as low in the saddle as possible and urged his horse to do his best.

"They are stampeding!" came from Arnold Baxter. "Whoa there! whoa! How did they manage to get loose?"

"The prisoner!" shouted Roebuck. "He is on the leading horse! He has escaped us!"

"Impossible!" gasped the elder Baxter. "Why, I have been watching the house --"

"No matter, it's Tom Rover!" interrupt Dan Baxter. "See, there he goes--and he taking all of our horses with him!"

At this Arnold Baxter drew his pistol and the others also brought forth their firearms. But Tom's steed was not a large one, and while he crouched low in the saddle the horses behind kept his enemies from getting more than an occasional glimpse of him.

On and on went the boy, the horses' hoofs clattering loudly over the rocky trail. The men shouted loudly for him to halt, and several pistol shots rang out, but no damage was done. Soon the enemy was left in the distance.

As soon as he felt that he was safe for the time being, Tom brought his horse down to a walk, in order that he might consider the situation.

Where were the others? That was the all important question. He had escaped from the men who wished him harm, but he was now no better off than when he had fallen in with them.

"But they are a good deal worse off," he thought grimly. "I don't believe they'll want to travel around very far on foot."

It was now sunset, and the youth felt that night would soon be upon him. He did not know which way to turn, although of one thing he was certain -- that he wished to keep as far away as possible from those who had held him a prisoner.

Presently he gained the entrance to a small wood, and as it was now too dark to go on he determined to rest for the night. He tied up all of the horses and tried to make himself comfortable at the foot of a large tree. For a long time he could not sleep, but at last he dozed off. His sleep was full of horrible dreams, and his awakening was a rude one.