Chapter VIII. What Became of Tom
 

To go back to Tom at the time when he left Dick and the Stanhopes, and started to return to Putnam Hall.

He went away whistling gayly, for he thought that all danger was over.

"What a shame I had to miss the celebration," he murmured. "And after my success on the football field, too!"

Soon the Stanhope grounds were left behind, and he struck the main road leading to the academy.

He had advanced a distance of several hundred feet along this road when, on looking ahead, he observed some person coming slowly toward him.

Wondering who the individual could be, and thinking of Crabtree, he stopped short.

At the same time the other person also halted, and then of a sudden slipped out of sight behind the nearest trees.

"Hullo, that's queer," murmured the youth. "Evidently he doesn't want to be seen. Can it be Crabtree?"

He was unarmed, and had some hesitancy about advancing, not knowing what to expect.

But he did not wish the former teacher to escape, and so casting around he espied a sharp stone and picked it up.

"Hi, there, come out of that!" he called, as he ran forward and held the stone ready for use.

No reply was vouchsafed, and he called again. By this time he was directly opposite the spot where the mysterious individual had disappeared.

"Look here, Josiah Crabtree, you might as well come out and give yourself up," he called sharply.

Still there was no answer, and now Tom did not know what to do. Under the trees it was so dark that he could scarcely see a yard in front of him.

Yet he advanced several paces, still holding the stone up as a weapon of offense or defense, as the case might prove. But nobody appeared in sight, and at last he returned to the road.

He was in a quandary whether to return to the cottage or continue on his way to the Hall.

"I suppose I may as well go on," he concluded. "Neither Dick nor I can do much in the woods in the dark."

So he went on, but this time more slowly, wondering if Josiah Crabtree would follow him, and never dreaming that the person who had slipped him was not the former teacher, but Dan Baxter.

For Baxter it was, who had been waiting around to be joined by Crabtree, for the pair of evil-doers had come to the vicinity of the Stanhope cottage together.

"It's Tom Rover," muttered Baxter, on hearing the boy's voice. "I was lucky to get out of the way."

He remained as motionless as a statue while Tom passed within a dozen feet of him. Then When Tom went out on the road again Baxter ran forth, too, but in the opposite direction.

Down on a side road Baxter had that day run across a tramps' encampment. In the camp were three hoboes, as they are sometimes called rascals who were willing to do almost anything but work for a living.

They had demanded money of the bully, and he gave them a dollar, fearing violence if he refused them.

Baxter now thought of the tramps, and as he did so an evil look crossed his face.

"If only I can pay off Tom Rover," he muttered. "I'll do it if I can."

Soon the tramps' encampment was reached, and he found two of the men dozing before a tiny fire, with an empty liquor bottle between then the third tramp had gone to Cedarville for more liquor.

"Wake up here," cried Baxter, catching first one and then the other by the shoulder.

"What do yer want, young feller?" demanded the leader of the party, who rejoiced in the name of Stumpy Nuggs.

"I want you two men to help me lay a boy out," answered Dan Baxter, feeling that there was no use in mincing matters, for he knew that the tramps were a bad crowd.

"Lay a boy out?" repeated the second tramp, who was called Longback.

"Yes, he is an enemy of mine, and just passed on the road yonder. If you will help me thrash him and make him a prisoner, I'll give you each five dollars."

"Say, yer talkin' big," said Stumpy Nuggs.

"I mean what I say. I know you are not above doing such work by the way you tackled me."

"Is de boy alone?"

"Yes."

"An' yer want to whip him and den make him a prisoner?"

"Yes."

"Wot yer goin' ter do wid him after dat?"

"I don't know yet."

"Who is de boy?"

"A cadet up at the military academy above here."

Stumpy Nuggs scratched his head of tangled hair.

"Maybe yer gittin' us into a trap fer askin' yer fer dat dollar," he observed suspiciously.

"No, I am not. This boy is an old enemy of mine, and I want to get square with him. We can easily catch him before he gets to the academy, if you hurry up."

"An' you will give us five dollars each?"

"Yes -- and perhaps more. The boy carries a watch, and must have some money in his pocket. He also wears a gold ring."

At the mention of jewelry and money the tramps' eyes glistened.

"If you are tellin' de truth, dis is all right," cried Stumpy Nuggs, as he arose and stretched himself.

"I am telling the truth, and you can easily prove it for yourselves. Only hurry up, or it will be too late."

The two tramps consulted together, and asked a few more questions. Then they agreed to follow Baxter, and do whatever he desired of them, providing they were allowed their fair share of plunder, if there was any.

In the meantime Tom went on in deep thought. He still held the stone in his hand. He wished he had a club, but the stick he had formerly picked up had been left at the cottage.

The hall grounds bad just come into sight in the dim distance when the boy heard the patter of footsteps behind him.

He turned around, but could see nobody, and at that instant the sounds ceased.

"Somebody is following me," he thought. "Can it be the same party I spotted before?"

An instant later he found himself confronted by two men and a boy, each with a bit of cloth tied over his face, into which two holes had been cut for eyes.

"Is dat him?" asked one of the men.

"Yes," answered the boy, in a strangely unnatural voice. "Give it to him."

All three of the party carried sticks, and they at once fell upon Tom, hitting him over the shoulders and the head.

He did his best to defend himself, and hit Baxter in the arm with the stone, inflicting a wound that made the bully shriek with pain.

"So it is you, Baxter!" cried Tom, recognizing the voice. "What do you mean by this?"

"Knock him down," yelled the bully. "Don't let him get away from you!"

Thus urged, the two tramps closed in, and while one caught Tom by the arm, the second tried to pull his feet from under him.

It was a fierce, but unequal struggle, and though the boy struck out right and left, inflicting not a little injury, in the end he found himself on his back, with Stumpy Nuggs sitting on his chest.

"You rascals, let up," he gasped. "Do you mean to kill me?"

"Lay still, or you'll catch it worse," growled Nuggs. "Where's dat rope, Longback?"

A rope had been brought along, and it was quickly produced, and then Tom was rolled over and his hands were bound behind him. His legs were also bound together in such a fashion that he might walk but not run.

"Now get up," ordered Dan Baxter, with a wicked scowl.

Not caring to remain on the ground, Tom did so. He noted that the two men with Baxter were tramps, and he came to the conclusion that he had a hard crowd with whom to deal.

"March!" went on Baxter, taking Tom by the shoulder.

"March? Where to?"

"You'll find out fast enough."

"Suppose I refuse."

"You had better not, Tom Rover. You know I'm not to be trifled with."

"I am not afraid of you," answered Tom boldly. "You were always a bully, Dan Baxter, and a bully is a coward."

"Is your name Baxter?" asked asked Stumpy Nuggs, curiously.

"Never mind what it is," growled Baxter.

"I used ter have a friend wot knowed a feller named Baxter," went on the tramp. "Me friend's name was Buddy Girk."

"I know your friend," cried Tom. "He once stole my brother Dick's watch. He is this boy's father's tool, and both of them are now in jail in Albany for robbery."

"Wot!" cried Nuggs, in astonishment. He turned to the other tramp. "Longback, I reckon we have struck an odd crowd, hey?"

"Dat's wot," answered Longback. "But say, we didn't go through de young gent's pockets yet."

"Wait until we are off the road," interrupted Dan Baxter. "Somebody may come along and make trouble for us."

"Right ye are," answered Stumpy Nuggs. "Don't let's stay here anudder minit."

With Baxter on one side of him, Nuggs on the other, and Longback bringing up the rear, Tom was forced to march along. Once he resisted, and received a punch in the side that took nearly all of the wind out of him. He started to cry for help, but his captors threatened if he did this that they would place a gag of dirty cloth in his mouth.

In days gone by Baxter had often visited a deserted dwelling on the lake shore, and to this spot the party now directed their steps. In the dark their course was uncertain, and they made slow progress, so it was after three o'clock in the morning when the dilapidated building was reached.