Chapter XXII. Hot on the Trail
 

The boys had no appetite, but as they were in the dining room they ordered a light lunch and paid for it. Then they saw an automobile come splashing through the mud of the road.

"There is that car!" cried Sam, as be recognized the driver.

The boys ran out and made their way through the rain to the garage. The enclosed touring car had just entered and the driver had shut off the power. The wind shield had been up, but the man had gotten quite wet and stood shaking the water from his coat.

"Here's the car!" cried the colored man, coming forward.

"So I see," returned Dick. He turned to the driver. "Pretty bad traveling, I imagine."

"You bet! The road is a mass of slippery mud. I came near skidding half a dozen times."

"Where did you go?" and Dick stepped closer to the chauffeur.

The man started and looked at the oldest Rover boy sharply.

"What's that to you?" he asked, shortly.

"Everything. We want to go to the same place."

"And as quickly as you can get us there," added Tom.

The chauffeur surveyed the three Rovers in amazement. Then he took off his coat and shook it briskly.

"Sorry, but I can't take you," he said, slowly. "I've got another job in-- er-- in half an hour."

"You are going to take us," said Dick, firmly. "And right away. What did those men pay you?"

"What is that----"

"How much-- out with it? I haven't any time to spare."

"Ten dollars."

"All right. You'd like another ten, wouldn't you?"

"Sure. But----"

"Ten dollars to get us to the same place inside of twenty minutes," went on Dick, and showed a roll of bankbills.

"Can't do it-- in this slippery weather," answered the man, his eyes glistening at the sight of the money. "Make it in half an hour."

"All tight then."

"I'll put on the chains," cried the chauffeur, and brought out the anti-skidding chains for the rear wheels. The boys got the colored man to assist him, and the chains were soon adjusted. Then the car was backed out of the garage and the three Rovers leaped inside.

"Now, don't lose a minute," said Dick.

"I won't. But we are taking chances on this road, sir, I can tell you that."

It was still raining steadily, and the highway was a mass of oily mud,-- a splendid compound upon which to skid. On and on rushed the touring car at a rate of speed varying from twenty to thirty-five miles an hour.

"I could eat this road up if it was dry," shouted the chauffeur. "The machine is good for fifty miles an hour."

"Well, don't climb a tree, or a stone wall," cautioned Dick, grimly.

Ordinarily the Rover boys might have been anxious because of such wild riding, but now every thought was centered on their father. How he was faring, and would they be able to rescue him?

Twice the touring car made dangerous lurches to one side, once fairly brushing some trees which lined the roadway. But the driver stuck to his post, and gained the middle of the roadway again, and rushed on as rapidly as ever.

"I'll wager he doesn't own the machine," muttered Sam. "If he did, he'd be more careful of it."

"Well, he owns his own neck," returned Tom, grimly. "So maybe he'll be careful of that."

They passed through several small villages, the inhabitants gazing out curiously at the rushing and swaying car. Then they took to a side road, where the traveling was worse than ever.

Suddenly the car made a turn. They had struck a rut in the road and even the chains did not save them. Around swung the automobile. There was a grinding of the brakes and the power was shut off. Then came a jar that sent the Rover boys in a heap.

"Something has happened sure!" cried Tom, who was the first to get up.

They looked out of the door of the enclosed car. They had come up to a mass of bushes beside the road, and the left front wheel had struck a rock and was twisted around. The mud guard on that side had crumpled up.

"I guess the journey is over-- so far as this car is concerned," muttered Dick, as he leaped out, followed by his brothers.

The chauffeur was trying his steering wheel. The right wheel responded, but that which had hit the rock did not.

"Out of commission!" he said, with a frown. "I was afraid something would happen."

"If it's only the steering gear it won't cost much," said Dick. "How much further to that place?"

"Not over half a mile."

"Then we'll walk it!" cried Tom.

"Of course," added Sam.

"Ain't you going to pay me!" exclaimed the chauffeur, in dismay. "I did my best."

"Yes, I'll pay you," responded Dick. "And give you an extra five for the repairs. Now tell us just where that place is, and what sort."

"It's a country home,-- a white place, set in a lot of trees,-- with a wind mill back of the barn. Got a green hedge in front-- the right side of the road-- you can't miss it."

"Did you hear the name of the owner?"

"Belongs to one of the crowd-- man named Japson. It's an old country home that was in his family for years. He don't live there, but it's furnished, I understand."

The boys said no more, but as soon as the chauffeur was paid, they set off through the rain. It was a disagreeable journey, and but little was said. All wondered what would be best to do when they reached the place for which they were bound.

"I wish we had the sheriff and his posse with us, as we had when we rounded up those rascals at Plankville," said Tom.

"Or if we only had John Slater's shotgun," added Sam.

"Never mind. As I understand it, we are three to three," said Dick. "And we can arm ourselves with heavy sticks," which they presently proceeded to do, tearing up some bushes for that purpose.

It was not long before they came in sight of a long, high hedge. Back of it was a white house, surrounded by numerous old trees. Over the trees showed the top of an old wind mill, used for pumping water from a driven well.

"Think we had better go right up to the door and knock?" asked Sam, as they halted at the edge of the hedge.

"No, I think we had better spy around a little at first," answered his big brother.

All crawled through a gap in the hedge and, skulking from tree to tree, gradually neared the house. Near one of the windows grew some bushes, and they crept along to these. Then Dick looked through the window.

He saw Pelter and Japson seated at a table, going over some legal papers. Nobody else was visible.

"Perhaps Crabtree took father to some other place, after the chauffeur left!" thought the youth, in dismay.

The window was closed, so the boys could not hear what was being said. They consulted among themselves, and walked around the house, being careful to keep well under the windows, which were rather high.

"Here is a cellar door, let us try that," said Tom, and he raised it up, and almost before they knew it, they were in the cellar under the building.

Above them they could hear footsteps and a murmur of voices. Evidently Josiah Crabtree had joined the brokers.

"You stay here and I'll investigate further," said Dick, after a pause, during which he had espied a stairs leading upward to the rear of the house.

He mounted the stairs and came out into a wide kitchen. No one was present, nor did any fire burn in the big stove. From the kitchen a door led to a dining room, which, in turn, led to a sitting room. In the last-named room were the three men.

"Do you think he'll raise a row?" Pelter was asking.

"He can't raise much of a row, with that towel bound over his mouth," replied Josiah Crabtree.

"It's lucky we had this place to come to," put in Japson. "I only hope they don't get on our trail and follow us."

"I don't think they will follow us here," said Pelter. Then followed a murmur, as he and the other broker went over the legal papers on the table.

Dick wondered what he had best do next. He gazed around the kitchen and saw a small side door, opening on an enclosed stairs leading to the second floor. He went up the stairs noiselessly.