Chapter III. A Useless Hunt

"Say, that's the talk!" cried Tom, quickly. "I hadn't thought of that,-- but it's just what we ought to do."

"It won't be easy, Tom," said his younger brother. "The chances are that Crabtree has made good use of his time. He may be hundreds of miles away-- bound for the West or the South, or Canada or Europe."

"Well, we can have a try at finding him, anyway," put in Dick. "Someti a criminal sticks close to the jail until the excitement is over, Look at those fellows who escaped from jail in New York City not long ago. The detectives thought they had gone to Chicago or St. Louis, and all the while they were on the East Side, right in New York!"

"Oh, my! but wouldn't I just like to land on old Crabtree!" muttered Tom. "I think I'd be apt to put him in the hospital first and jail afterwards! He certainly deserves it-- for all the trouble he has caused us and our-- er-- friends."

"'Friends' is good, with Dick engaged to marry Dora and you as good as engaged to Nellie," snorted Sam "Precisely, and you and Grace making goo-goo eyes at each other," added Tom, with a wink at his younger brother. Then he quickly changed the subject. "Dick, do you think you can strike a straight course for Plankville?"

"I'll try it," was the answer. "I don't think I'll go much out of the way."

The Dartaway had a powerful motor, and once on the right trail the eldest Rover advanced his gasoline and spark, and they went rushing through the air at express-train speed. The boys were provided with face guards, so they did not mind this. They did not fly high, and so kept the railroad and other familiar objects fairly well in view. They passed over several villages, the inhabitants gazing up at them in open-mouthed wonder, and finally came in sight of a big church spire that they knew belonged in Plankville. Then Dick slowed down the engine, and soon they floated down in an open field close to the main street and not a great distance from the sheriff's office and the jail.

"Well, it certainly didn't take long to get here," cried Tom, as he consulted his watch.

A man who lived close by was approaching and he readily agreed, for a small amount, to guard the biplane.

"Have they caught those men who escaped from the jail?" asked Sam, of the man.

"Got two on 'em," was the reply. "Dacker and Penfield."

"What of Crabtree?" asked Dick.

"Nuthin' doin', up to an hour ago. The sheriff is out with about ten men, lookin' fer him."

"Then there is no use of our going to the sherif's office," said Dick to his brothers "We'll go right to the jail."

"Will they let us in?" asked Sam.

"In the office, yes. We won't want to go to the cells," answered Dick, with a short laugh.

When they reached the office of the jail they found several men present, including the head keeper and one of the State detectives. The keeper had seen the Rover boys at the time of the capture of Crabtree and the others and he smiled a little as he shook hands.

"Bad business," he said, in answer to a question Dick put. "But I can't exactly blame my men for what happened."

"Weren't you here at the time?" asked Tom.

"No, I was out of town-- calling on my mother, who is very old and quite sick. There was a fire in the pantry off the kitchen, and for a few minutes it looked as if the old jail would burn to the ground. Of course the guards got excited, and all they thought of was to put out the blaze-- and it's a good thing they did that. That's how the prisoners got away. I suppose you've heard that we rounded up two of them."

"Yes," answered Dick. "Have they any idea what became of Crabtree?"

"I haven't. If the sheriff knows anything he hasn't told it. By the way, boys, I'll tell you something, now you are here. That man is a hypnotist!"

"We know it," said Dick "I thought I told you."

"He tried to hypnotize one of the men one day,-- almost got away, doing it!"

"Did he hire any lawyer to defend him?" asked Tom, curiously.

"I don't know about a lawyer. He had a man out to see him, several times. The two were very friendly."

"They were?" cried Dick. "I never knew Josiah Crabtree had any friends, outside of the rascals he associated with. Who was the man?"

"He gave his name as John Smith. But I guess that was false, for he acted as if he didn't want to be known."

"What kind of a looking man was he?" asked Sam.

"Why, he was a tall, thin fellow with a very pointed chin, and bushy black hair and heavy black eyebrows. When he spoke his voice had a regular rumble to it."

At this description the Rover boys shook their heads. They could think of nobody they had met who would fit the picture.

"When was that man here last?" asked Dick.

"A couple of days ago. I didn't like him for a cent, but as the prisoners haven't been convicted of any crimes as yet I had to let 'em see their friends," explained the jail keeper.

"What of Sobber, Larkspur and the others?" questioned Tom.

"All safe enough. Nobody else is going to get out of here if I can help it," and the keeper shook his head decidedly.

The boys remained at the jail for a while longer, and heard the particulars of how the fire had originated and of how the prisoners had gotten away. Two of the men had kept together, but Crabtree had gone off by himself, and the last seen of him was when he was running for the river, which flowed some distance back of the jail.

"Let us go down to the river and take a look around," suggested Dick, at last, and bidding the jailer good-bye, they hurried away.

Along the river bank they found several men and boys, all looking for Crabtree, some thinking there might be a reward offered for the capture of the criminal. The Rovers joined in the hunt for the best part of an hour, but without success.

"It's worse than looking for a pin in a haystack," grumbled Tom, presently. "We might as well give it up."

"Let us walk around the town and see if we can learn anything," suggested his big brother.

They walked down the main street of Plankville from end to end, questioning several people they knew. At last they got word that a mysterious automobile had passed through the town about midnight of the day Josiah Crabtree had broken from jail. But who had been in the touring car nobody could tell.

"He may have escaped in that," declared Dick.

"And if he did, that man who came to see him at the jail had the car," added Sam.

"Just what I think," cried Tom. "Well, if he got away in an auto there is no use of our looking for him here," he added, with a sigh.

Nevertheless, the boys hung around Plankville for an hour longer. Then they got aboard of the Dartaway, and with Tom at the wheel, and Dick with a pair of field glasses to his eyes, swung in several circles about the neighborhood.

"No use," declared the oldest Rover boy, at last. "It is getting late. We might as well return to college. We can do nothing here."

"Haven't we got time to go to Hope?" asked Sam, a bit wistfully.

"Well, I don't know," answered his big brother, just as wistfully.

"Let us take time-- Doctor Wallington didn't want us to hurry back," put in Tom. "I think the girls ought to know about this, so as to be on guard, in case old Crabtree tries to molest them again."

As the lads were all of one mind, the biplane was headed in the direction of Hope. As before, the flying machine swung through the air at a good rate of speed, and half an hour before sundown they came in sight of the Seminary buildings.

"Wonder where they are?" mused Dick, as the biplane came to earth at the spot where they had landed before.

"If they are around they must have heard us," answered Tom. "The engine makes noise enough to wake the dead." And this was well expressed, for the motor, like many of the flying machine kind, had no muffler attached, and the explosions were not unlike the firing of a gatling gun.

Some girls had seen them come down, and presently the boys saw three figures hurrying towards them.

"Oh, what made you come so late?" cried Grace, as she rushed up and shook hands with Sam and then with the others.

"We thought you might come to-day," put in Nellie, as she beamed on Tom, and extended both hands.

"I heard the machine first," declared Dora, and came straight to Dick, who did not hesitate to give her the hearty kiss to which he thought his engagement entitled him.

"We have been to Plankville," came from Tom and Sam, in a breath.

"Have you heard the news?" questioned their big brother, and he looked anxiously from Dora to her cousins.

"What news?" cried Dora, quickly. "We have heard nothing unusual."

"Josiah Crabtree broke out of the Plankville jail and ran away."

"Oh, Dick!" and Dora grew suddenly pale. "Do you really mean it?"

"When was this?" demanded Nellie.

"Tell us all about it," supplemented Grace.

"We can't tell you any more than what we have heard," answered Sam. "We just got word ourselves this morning."

Then the boys told their story and answered innumerable questions which the girls put to them.

"This will be bad news for mother," said Dora, to Dick. "She is afraid of Josiah Crabtree, and always has been-- because of his strange hypnotic power."

"I don't think he will dare to show himself-- at least, not for a while, Dora," he answered. "He knows only too well that the jail is waiting to receive him."

"That strange man with the bushy eyebrows and the pointed chin must have helped him to get away," was Nellie's comment.

"So we think," answered Tom.

"But who was he?" questioned her sister.

"That's a conundrum we can't answer," returned Sam. "I think he was waiting around with that auto, and as soon as the fire started Crabtree saw the chance he wanted and got out."

"Maybe Crabtree started the fire?" suggested Dora.

"No, that was purely an accident-- so the jailer says. The wind blew a curtain against a lamp and the burning curtain fell into some excelsior in a box of new dishes. The excelsior made quite a blaze and a lot of smoke, and everybody in the jail was badly frightened for a while."

After that the talk became general, and quite unconsciously Dick and Dora strolled off by themselves, down towards a tiny brook that flowed past the campus grounds.

"You must be very careful, Dora, now that Crabtree is at liberty," said the eldest Rover boy. "I wouldn't have him run off with you again for the world," he added, tenderly.

"I shall watch out, Dick,-- and I'll make the others watch out, too." And then, as he squeezed her hand, she added, in a lower voice: "How is that other matter coming along?"

"Not very well, Dora," and Dick's face became more serious than ever.

"Can't your father manage it?"

"I don't think so. You see, he isn't in very good health-- he breaks down every once in a while. Those business matters worry him a great deal."

"Can't your uncle help him?"

"No, Uncle Randolph means well, but he is no business man-- he showed that when he allowed those men to swindle him out of those bonds," went on Dick, referring to an event which has been related in detail in "The Rover Boys on the Farm."

"But what can you do, Dick?" questioned the girl, earnestly.

"I think I'll have to quit college and take up the matter myself," answered Dick Rover.