Chapter XX. A Minute Too Late
 

"Well, this looks like a wild goose chase, Dick."

It was Sam who spoke, from the bow of the motor-boat. For over two hours they had been moving up the Hudson River, slowly, scanning one shore and the other with care. They had noted many boats, but nothing that looked like the schooner for which they were so eagerly searching.

"They had a pretty good start of you," said John Slater, the owner of the motor-boat. "Maybe they are up to Nyack or Haverstraw by this time."

"Well, all we can do is to keep on and watch out," said Tom, with a sigh. His disposition, for fun seemed to have entirely left him.

Another half hour went by, and they came in sight of a number of lumber barges, all heavily loaded. The barges were being towed by a big tug.

"I know the captain of that tug," said John Slater. "We might ask him about the schooner."

"A good idea," answered Dick.

They were soon close to the steam tug and the motor-boat owner waved his hand to the captain of the larger craft, who waved in return.

"I want to find a schooner named the Ellen Rodney!" shouted John Slater. "Did you pass her, Captain Voss?"

"I did," was the answer. "She was opposite Nyack, heading in to shore."

"Opposite Nyack!" exclaimed Dick, "How far is that from here?"

"Not more than two miles," answered John Slater, as he turned his motor-boat up the river again.

"We ought to be able to catch them now!" cried Sam, his face brightening a bit.

"Wish we had the police along," remarked Tom. "Bringing those rascals to terms may not be as easy as you imagine."

"I've got a gun on board," said John Slater. "A double-barreled shotgun I keep on hand to guard against river thieves. I use it to go gunning with, too."

"Good! Better bring it out and let us look at it," returned Dick.

The weapon was produced and found to be in good condition and loaded. It was placed on one of the seats, an oilskin raincoat being thrown over it to hide it from view.

"We won't use force unless it is necessary," said Dick, grimly.

They soon came in sight of Nyack, but nothing that looked like the schooner came into view.

"Maybe they went further," suggested Sam. "Their turning in might have been a bluff-- to throw us off the trail."

"Or they may have sent a message ashore-- maybe a message to Japson!" cried Dick.

"Of course they would want to put him on guard-- and put those at the offices on guard, too," murmured Tom.

They continued on up the river, with their eyes ever on the alert. It was now growing late in the afternoon and the sky was clouded, as if a storm was coming.

"Look!" cried Dick, suddenly, and he pointed ahead and to the right.

"The schooner, sure enough!" said Tom. "And see, a rowboat is alongside!"

"Maybe we are just in time," added Sam. "I hope so."

Without delay, the motor-boat was headed in the direction of the Ellen Rodney. As they drew closer they saw but one man on the deck of the schooner,-- a burly fellow who looked like a sailor.

"Schooner ahoy!" shouted Dick, as they ran alongside.

"Ahoy, the motor-boat!" cried the burly man, coming towards them.

"Are you the captain?"

"No, the captain is ashore," was the short answer.

"I'll come aboard," said Dick, and without waiting for another word from the man he made his way to the deck, followed by Tom. He had already directed Sam to remain in the motor-boat with John Slater, to summon assistance if necessary.

"What do you want here?" demanded the burly man, surlily.

"I guess you know well enough," answered Dick, shortly. "Where is that man who is a prisoner?"

"You mean the crazy man?"

"He isn't crazy, and you know it."

"Those men who had him in charge said he was crazy," grumbled the burly individual.

"Where is he?"

"What is that to you?"

"Everything. That man is my father, and they have kidnapped him. Maybe you know that kidnapping is a State's prison offense," added the oldest Rover boy, sharply.

"Humph! I ain't had nothing to do with any kidnapping, young fellow," growled the man. "I'm the mate o' this schooner, that's all. If anything is wrong, you'll have to see the captain about it."

"You say he went ashore?"

"Yes."

"Did those men and my father go with him?"

"All of 'em went, yes."

"Who was left here besides you?"

"Those two dago sailors, that's all," and the mate pointed to two men who lay on the forward deck, asleep.

"Are you willing to have me take a look around?" went on Dick, after a pause.

"You'll have to wait till the captain gets back," answered the man, doggedly. "If there is anything wrong I don't want to be mixed up in it."

"If you want to keep out of trouble you'll help us all you can," put in Tom. "This is a serious business."

"I don't know a thing about it," and the man shrugged his shoulders.

Without another word Dick walked across the deck and descended into the cabin. The burly man's face clouded and he made a move as if to follow him.

"You stay here," said Tom, and put his hand in his hip pocket, as if about to draw some weapon.

The man changed color and shifted uneasily.

"All right, have your own way," he said. He was a coward at heart, and as he had not been in the plot against Anderson Rover he did not wish to get any deeper into the trouble.

It did not take Dick long to convince himself that his father was not on board the schooner. He called his parent's name, and then passed swiftly through the cabin and several staterooms and also a cook's galley. He saw where somebody had been locked in one of the staterooms, for the compartment was in disorder and the door was marred and cracked.

"Dad must have struggled to get away," he murmured. "I hope they didn't hurt him."

When Dick came on deck he found Tom guarding the burly man. The two sailors were still asleep-- or pretended to be.

"Nothing doing below," he announced. "I guess they took him ashore."

"We might as well go ashore, too, then," said his brother. "We are wasting valuable time here." He turned to the mate. "Will you tell us where they went? It will be to your interest to open your mouth."

"They mentioned the old Blue Horseshoe Tavern," growled the burly mate. "But I don't know if they went there."

Dick said no more, but hurried over the side, followed by Tom. As he left the schooner the fun-loving Rover could not help but bring from his hip pocket an extra handkerchief and flourish it at the mate.

"There's my gun, how do you like it?" he cried, with a grin.

"Go to grass!" grunted the burly fellow, and scowled deeply.

In a few words the pair told Sam what they had learned. The motor-boat was headed for a nearby dock, and a few minutes later the Rovers leaped ashore.

"I don't know if I will need you again or not," said Dick to John Slater.

"If it wasn't for watching my boat I'd go along," said the motor-boat youth. "I am interested in this case."

"Here is your money. But I wish you would hang around a while," went on Dick, paying him.

"I sure will hang around, and I'll watch that schooner."

"Good! Our address in New York is the Outlook Hotel," said Dick.

The boys saw nobody around the dock, which was in the rear of a small lumber yard. They walked through the yard to an office in front. A road ran out of the side of the yard and the boys wondered if the men they were after had taken that.

Nobody but a boy of fifteen was in the office, clicking out a letter on an old typewriter.

"The boss ain't around-- he had to go to New York on business," he announced, as soon as the boys appeared. "Want to leave an order for anything?"

"We are looking for some men who came ashore a while ago," said Dick. "Did you see 'em?"

The boy shook his head.

"Ain't nobody been here all afternoon," he said.

"Do you know anything of a place called the Blue Horseshoe Tavern?"

"Sure I do. It's up on the post road-- the place where all the auto parties stop," was the knowing reply.

"How far from here?"

"Not over a quarter of a mile."

"Which way?"

"I'll show you," and the boy reached for his cap. Going outside, he led them from the yard to a road running up a hill.

"Keep right on that till you get to the Blue Horseshoe," he said. "You can't miss it, because it's the only place around here."

They thanked the lad and hurried on. By this time it was quite dark and a few drops of rain had begun to fall.

"The Blue Horseshoe Tavern must be one of the old-time roadhouses that has had a revival of business since auto parties became popular," said Dick, as he and his brothers trudged along. "I wonder what those rascals will tell the proprietor?"

"Most likely the same old story-- that dad is crazy," answered Tom. "That's Crabtree's favorite game."

They had just turned a curve in the road and come in sight of a low, rambling tavern, when they saw a big touring car of the enclosed pattern coming towards them. To avoid the machine, which was being driven rapidly, they leaped to the side of the road.

As the touring car came closer, they saw that two men sat on the front seat,-- the driver and a man who had his hat pulled far down over his face and his coat collar turned up.

"Look!" yelled Tom, pointing to the man beside the driver.

"Look into the car!" yelled Sam.

The automobile rolled on, lost to sight in less than a minute, around the bend of the road. It was headed in the direction of New York City.

"The man on the front seat with the driver was Pelter!" exclaimed Tom.

"And dad was inside the car!" gasped Sam.

"You are right," returned Dick. "And Crabtree and another man was with him. Dad looked as if he had his hands bound behind him."

"What shall we do now?"

"How can we follow that car?"

"How did they get that auto so quick?"

"I think I know how they got the auto," said the oldest Rover boy, after a pause. "There must be a garage at the tavern. Come on and see. Maybe we can get another auto and follow that car!"