Chapter XV. Captain Villaire's Little Plot
 

Dick was right: the boy in the reading-room' was indeed Dan Baxter, but so changed in appearance that for the minute neither Tom nor Sam recognized him.

In the past Baxter had always been used to fine clothing, which he had taken care should be in good repair. Now his clothing was dilapidated and his shoes looked as if they were about ready to fall apart.

More than this, his face was hollow and careworn, and one eye looked as if it had suffered severe blow of some sort. Altogether he was most wretched-looking specimen of humanity, and it was a wonder that he was allowed at the hotel. But the truth of the matter was that he had told the proprietor a long tale of sufferings in the interior and of a delayed remittance from home, and the hotel keeper was keeping him solely on this account.

"How he is changed!" muttered Tom. "He looks like a regular tramp!"

"He's been in hard luck, that's certain," came from Sam. "I wonder how he drifted out here?"

While Sam was speaking Dan Baxter raised his eyes from the newspaper and glanced around. As his gaze fell upon the three Rover boys he started and the paper fell to the floor, then he got up and strode toward them.

"Dick Rover!" he cried. "Where did you fellows come from?"

"From Putnam Hall, Baxter," answered Dick quietly. "And what brought you here?"

Ordinarily Dan Baxter would have retorted that that was none of Dick's business, but now he was in thoroughly low spirits, and he answered meekly:

"I've been playing in hard luck. I went down to New York and one night when I was in a sailors' boarding house I drank more than was good for me, and when I woke up in the morning I found myself on a vessel bound for Africa."

"You were shanghaied as a sailor?" asked Tom.

"That's it, and while I was on board the Costelk the captain and mate treated me worse than a dog. See that eye? The captain did that, and when I struck back he put me in irons and fed me nothing but stale biscuits and water."

"And the ship left you here?"

"No; she was bound for Cape Town, but stopped here for supplies, and I jumped overboard at night and swam ashore, and here I am, and sorry for it," and Dan Baxter drew a long breath.

The Rovers were astonished at his meek manner. Was this really the domineering Baxter, who had always insisted on having his own way, and who had done so many wrong deeds in the past?

"You've had a hard time of it, I suppose? said Dick, hardly knowing how to go on.

"Hard, Dick, aint no word," came from the former bully of Putnam Hall. "I've run up against the worst luck that anybody could ever imagine. But I reckon you don't care about that?"

"Do you think we ought to care, Baxter?"

"Well, it aint fair to take advantage of a chap when he's down on his luck," grumbled the former bully. "I guess I've learnt my lesson all right enough."

"Do you mean to say you are going to turn over a new leaf?" queried Sam with interest.

"Yes, if I ever get the chance."

Randolph Rover now joined the group, and Dick explained the situation. Mr. Rover questioned Baxter closely and found that he was without a cent in his pocket and that the hotel keeper had threatened to put him out if he was not able to pay up inside of the next twenty-four hours.

"See here, Baxter, you never were my friend, and you never deserved any good from me, but I don't like to see a dog suffer," said Dick. "I'll give you thirty shillings, and that will help you along a little," and he drew out his purse.

"And I'll give you the same," came from Tom.

"Ditto from me," said Sam. "But don't forget that what Dick says is true, nevertheless."

Ninety English shillings -- about twenty-two dollars of our money -- was more cash than Dan Baxter had seen in some time, his other money having been spent before he had taken his unexpected ocean trip, and his eyes brightened up wonderfully.

"I'll be much obliged to you for the -- the loan," he stammered. "I'll pay you back some time, remember."

"Never mind about that," replied Dick.

"My advice to you is, to take the first ship you can for home."

"And what brought you out here -- going on a hunt for your father?"

"Yes."

"You'll have a big job finding him. I understand the natives of the Congo are going on the warpath before long. They have had some difficulty with the settlers."

"I guess we'll manage to take care of ourselves," answered Tom, and then he and his brothers followed their uncle up to the rooms which had been engaged for them during their stay in the town.

"He's, down in the mouth, and no mistake," was Tom's comment, when the boys were left to themselves. "I never saw him so humble before."

"Perhaps knocking around has taught him a lesson," said Dick. "I hope he really does turn over a new leaf."

The day proved to be a busy one. Randolph Rover gathered all the information he could concerning the trail along the Congo, and also tried to locate Niwili Camp. He likewise purchased several additions to his outfits from Simon Hook, and engaged the services of several natives, the leader of whom was a brawny black named Cujo, a fellow who declared that he knew every foot of the territory to be covered and who said he was certain that he could locate King Susko sooner or later.

"Him bad man," he said soberly. "No et him catch you, or you suffer big lot!" Cujo took to Aleck from the start, and the pair soon became warm friends. The African inspected their outfits with interest and offered several suggestions regarding additional purchases.

Three days were spent in Boma, and during that time the Rovers saw a good deal of Dan Baxter, who, having nothing better to do, hung around them continually. He remained as meek as before, but our friends did not know that this was merely the meekness of a savage cur while under the whip. Baxter was naturally a brute, and lacked the backbone necessary far genuine reformation.

"Say, why can't you take me with you?" he asked, on the day that the Rover expedition was to start out. "I'm willing to do my share of the work and the fighting, and I won't charge you a cent for my service."

"I don't know as my uncle wants anybody along," said Sam, to whom Baxter addressed his remarks.

"Well, won't you speak to him about it, Sam? I can't find anything to do here, and the captains to whom I've applied don't want me on their ships," pleaded the former bully of Putnam Hall.

Sam was easily touched at all times, and he knew that Baxter must feel lonely and wretched so far from home and without friends or capital. He at once went to his brothers and his uncle and laid the big youth's proposition before them.

"We don't want him," said Dick promptly.

"I don't believe he would be of any use to us."

"I would rather give him some more money just for him to stay behind," added Tom.

Mr. Rover was thoughtful for a moment.

"And what do you say, Sam?" he asked at length.

"Well, I don't like Baxter any more than the others do. But it seems awfully hard on him. I don't believe he knows how to turn."

"We might give him enough money to get back to the United States with."

"I'd rather have you do that, Uncle Randolph," said Dick. "I don't want him with me."

"I will have a talk with the misguided boy," was the conclusion reached by Randolph Rover; but he got no chance to speak to Dan Baxter until late in the afternoon, and then, to his astonishment, Baxter's manner had changed entirely, he intimating that he wanted nothing more to do with them.

For in the meantime something which was bound to be of great importance to the Rovers had occurred. In Boma were a number of persons of mixed French and native blood who were little better than the old-time brigands of Italy. They were led by a wicked wretch who went by the name of Captain Villaire. Villaire had been watching the Rovers for two days when he noticed the coldness which seemed to exist between, our friends and Baxter. At once he threw himself in Baxter's way and began to it pump the youth regarding the Americans.

"Zay are going into the interior, you have remarked," he said in very bad English. "Are zay verra rich people?"

"Yes, they are well fixed," answered the tall youth.

"And zay do carry zare money wid zem?"

"I guess not -- at least, not much of it."

"You are zare friend, eh?"

"Hardly. Out in America we were enemies."

"So? You hata zem?"

"Yes, I hate them," muttered Dan, and his eyes shone wickedly. "I'm only treating them in a friendly way now because I'm out of money and must do something."

"I see. It ees a good head you have -- verra good," murmured Captain Villaire. "Do you know, I heara dem talk about you?"

"Did you? What did they say?"

"De one boy say you should be in ze jail; didn't you robba somebody."

"He had better keep his mouth shut."

"You lika do somet'ing wid me?" continued the French native, closing one eye suggestively. He was a close reader of human nature and had read Baxter's character as if it was an open book.

"What do you mean?"

"We gitta dem people into trouble -- maka big lot of money."

"All right -- I'll do anything," answered Baxter savagely. "So they said I ought to be in jail, eh? I'll fix 'em yet!"

"You helpa me, I helpa you," went on the wily French native.

He had his plan all ready, and, after sounding Baxter some more, revealed what was in his mind, which was simply to follow the Rovers into the interior and then make them prisoners. Once this was done, they would hold the prisoners for a handsome ransom.

"That's a big job," answered the big youth. "But I like your plan, first-rate if you can carry it out."

"Trust me," replied Captain Villaire. "I have half a dozen of ze best of killowers-za, nevair fail me. But as you knowa dem you will have to do ze lettair writing for us, so zat we git ze money from zare people at home."

"Trust me for that," responded Baxter quickly. The plot pleased him immensely. "You do the capturing and I'll make Mrs. Rover or somebody else pay up handsomely, never fear."

And so a compact was formed which was to give the Rovers a good deal of trouble in the near future.