Chapter V. A Struggle in the Dark
 

"Crabtree, you rascal!" ejaculated Dick.

"Who -- who is that?" spluttered the former teacher of Putnam Hall, in dismay.

"It is I -- Dick Rover. What are you doing here?"

"I -- I came to call upon the Widow Stanhope," stammered Josiah Crabtree. He was so astonished he knew not what to say.

"You came to rob her, more likely," sneered Tom. "You just broke in at the window."

"No, no -- it -- it is all a mistake, Rover. I -- I am stopping here for the night."

"Indeed!" gasped Dick, almost struck dumb over the man's show of "nerve," as he afterward expressed it.

"Yes, I am stopping here."

"With Mrs. Stanhope's permission of course."

"Certainly. How could I stop here otherwise?"

"What are you doing in the kitchen all alone?'"

"Why, I -- er -- I was up in my room, but I -- er -- wanted a glass of water and so came down for it."

"Then Mrs. Stanhope and Dora have gone to bed?"

"Yes, they just retired."

"Have you become friends again?" asked Dick, just to learn what Josiah Crabtree might say.

"Yes, Rover, Mrs. Stanhope is once more my best friend."

"Then she doesn't know what a rascal you were out in Africa."

"My dear Richard, you are laboring under a great delusion. I was never in Africa in my life."

"What!" roared Dick aghast at the man's audacity.

"I speak the truth. I have made an investigation, and have learned that somebody went to Africa under my name, just to take advantage of my -- ahem -- of my exalted rank as a professor."

"Great Scott! how you can draw the long bow!" murmured Tom.

"I speak the plain truth. I can prove that for the past six months I have been in Chicago and other portions of the West.

"Well, if you are a guest here, just stay with Tom while I call the Stanhopes," said Dick, and leaped in at the window.

"Boy, you shall do nothing of the kind," cried Josiah Crabtree, his manner changing instantly.

"Why not? If you are friends, it will do no harm."

"Mrs. Stanhope is -- er -- is not feeling well, and I will not have her disturbed by a headstrong youth like you."

"We'll see about that. If you --"

Dick broke off short, for just then a voice he knew well floated down into the kitchen from upstairs.

"Who is talking down there? Is that you, Dick?" It was Dora speaking, in a voice full of excitement.

"Yes, Dora, it is I -- and Tom. We have caught Josiah Crabtree here in your kitchen."

"Oh!" The girl gave a little scream. "What a villain! Can you hold him?"

"We can try," answered Dick. He turned to Crabtree. "I reckon your game is up, old man."

"Let me go!" growled the former teacher fiercely, and as Dick advanced upon him he thrust the lighted candle full into the youth's face. Of course Dick had to fall back, not wishing to be burnt, and a second later the candle went out leaving the room in total darkness.

But now Tom sprang forward, bearing Crabtree to the floor. Over and over rolled the pair, upsetting first a chair and then a small table.

At the sound of the row Dora Stanhope began to scream, fearing one of her friends might be killed, and presently Mrs. Stanhope joined in. But the cottage was situated too far away for any outsiders to hear, so the boys had to fight the battle alone.

At length Josiah Crabtree pulled himself clear of Tom's hold and made for the open window. But now Dick had recovered and he hurled the man backward.

The movement kept Crabtree in the room, but it was disastrous to Tom, for as the former teacher fell back his heel was planted on Tom's forehead, and for the time being the younger Rover lay stunned and unable to continue the contest.

Finding himself unable to escape by the window, Josiah Crabtree felt his way to the door and ran out into the hall. Because of his former visits to the house he knew the ground plan well, and from the hall he darted into the parlor and then into the sitting room.

Dick tried to catch him, and once caught his arm. But Crabtree broke loose and placed a large center table between them.

"Don't dare to stop me, Rover," hissed the man desperately. "If you do you will be sorry. I am armed."

"So am I armed, Josiah Crabtree. And I call upon you to surrender."

"What, you would shoot me!" cried the former teacher, in terror.

"Why not? Didn't you try to take my life in Africa?"

"I repeat, you are mistaken."

"I am not mistaken, and can prove my assertion by half a dozen persons."

"I have not been near Africa."

"I won't argue the point with you. Do you surrender or not?"

"Yes, I will surrender," replied Josiah Crabtree meekly.

Yet he did not mean what he said, and as Dick came closer he gave the lad a violent shove backward, which made the elder Rover boy sit down in an easy chair rather suddenly. Then he darted into a small conservatory attached to the sitting room.

"Stop!" panted Dick, catching his breath.

"Tom, he is running away!"

Crash! jingle! jingle! jingle! Josiah Crabtree had tried the door to the conservatory and finding it locked and the key gone, had smashed out some of the glass and leaped through the opening thus afforded.

By this time Dora was coming downstairs, clad in a wrapper and carrying a lamp in her hand. The first person she met was Tom, who staggered into the hall with his hand to his bruised forehead.

"Oh, Tom, are you hurt?" she shrieked.

"Not much," he answered. But Dick--Dick, where are you?"

"Here, in the conservatory. Crabtree just jumped through the glass!"

Dora ran into the little apartment, which Mrs. Stanhope had just begun to fill with flowers for the coming winter. Tom came behind her, carrying a poker he had picked up.

"Is he out of sight?" asked Tom.

"Yes, confound the luck," replied his brother. "Which way did he go?"

"I don't know."

"We ought to follow him."

"We will." Dick turned to Dora. "After we are gone you had better lock up better than ever, and remain on guard until morning."

"I will, Dick," she answered.

The key to the conservatory door was hanging on a nearby nail, and taking it down they unlocked the door, and the two boys passed into the darkness of the night outside.

"Please take care of yourselves!" cried Dora after them, and then turned to quiet her mother, who had come downstairs in a state of excitement bordering on hysteria, for, as old readers know, Mrs. Stanhope's constitution was a delicate one.

Running into the garden, Dick made out a dim form in the distance, on the path leading to the lake.

"There he is!" he cried. "Come, Tom, we must catch him, if we can!"

"I am with you," answered Tom. "But take care what you do. He may be in a desperate frame of mind."

"He is desperate. But I am not afraid of him," returned the elder Rover, with determination.

Josiah Crabtree was running with all the speed of his long legs, and the two lads soon found that they had all they could do to keep him in sight.

"Stop!" yelled Tom, at the top of his voice, but to this command the former, teacher paid no attention. If anything, he ran the faster.

"He is bound for the lake," said Dick. "He must have a boat."

But Dick was mistaken, for just before the water came into view Josiah Crabtree branched off onto the road leading into Cedarville. Then of a sudden the shadows of a patch of woods hid him from view.

"He's gone!" came from Tom, as he slackened his speed.

"He didn't turn down to the lake."

"That's so. He must have gone toward Cedarville."

The Rover boys came to a halt and looked about them searchingly. On one side of the road lay a tilled field, on the other were rocks and trees and bushes. They listened intently, but only the occasional cry of a night bird broke the stillness.

"We are stumped!" groaned Dick dismally.

"What, you aren't going to give up the hunt already, are you?" demanded Tom.

"No, but where did he go?"

"Perhaps he went back to the house."

"I don't believe he would dare to do that. Besides, what would he go for?"

"What made him go in the first place?"

"I am sure I don't know. Perhaps he was going to abduct Dora -- or Mrs. Stanhope."

"If he was going to do that alone, he would have had his hands full."

The two boys advanced, but with great caution. They peered into the woods and behind some of the larger rocks, but discovered nothing.

"That is the second time we have lost our game to-day," remarked Tom soberly. "First it was Dan Baxter or somebody else, and now it is Josiah Crabtree."

"It must have been Baxter who tried to wreck the stage. He and old Crabtree always did hang together."

"If they are stopping anywhere in Cedarville we ought to put the police on their track."

"I'll do that sure. We can easily hold both on half a dozen charges -- if we can catch them."