Chapter IX. The Rover Boys at Home
 

There was a great deal to tell on all sides, and the dinner lasted over an hour. The Stanhopes and the Lanings had had a grand time while at Santa Barbara and the widow was much improved in health, so much so, in fact, that she was now practically a well woman. Those who had been in the Far West listened with interest to the boys' doings at the Hall and during the encampment, and were amazed to think that Dan Baxter and his father had turned up once more, and that Arnold Baxter was trying to turn over a new leaf.

"I do not believe Dan will ever turn over a new leaf," said Dora. "He is a thoroughly bad young man."

"Let us hope that he does," said her mother. "I do not wish to see anybody throw himself away as that young man is doing."

"After this you will have to watch out for this Lew Flapp as well as for Dan Baxter," said Nellie. "Both appear to be painted with the same brush."

During the dinner the houseboat project was broached, and the boys spoke of what a fine time they expected to have on the Ohio, and perhaps on the Mississippi.

"And we would like all of you to go with us," said Dick.

"With you!" exclaimed Mrs. Stanhope.

"Oh, mamma, what a delightful trip it would be!" exclaimed Dora.

"And we would like your mother to go too," went on Tom, to Nellie and Grace.

"Oh, if mamma would only go!" cried Grace. "I am sure it would do her a great deal of good. She goes away from home so little."

The matter was talked over until it was time for the two parties to separate, and the Rovers promised to write more particulars in a few days,--as soon as they knew more about the houseboat and how it was to be run, and what sort of sleeping accommodations it afforded.

The boys saw the Stanhopes and the Lanings on the boat bound up the lake and then almost ran to the depot to catch their train. It came in directly, and in half a minute more they were being whirled away in the direction of Oak Run.

"There is no use of talking, those girls are just all right," said Sam, bluntly. "I never met a nicer lot in my life."

"I guess Dick thinks one of them is all right," said Tom, with a grin. "Although I don't see why you were steering her into the smoking room," he added, to his big brother. "Were you going to teach her to smoke cigarettes?"

"Oh, say, Tom, let up," grumbled Dick. "You paid about as much attention to Nellie as I did to Dora."

"Anyway, I didn't steer her to the smoking room."

"No, but while you were talking to her I saw you put five spoonfuls of sugar in her coffee for her," returned Dick. "Maybe you didn't think she was sweet enough for you, eh?"

At this Tom reddened, while Sam set up a roar.

"He's got you, Tom!" cried the youngest Rover. "Better cry quits and talk about something else. We all like those girls amazingly, and that's the end of it;" and then the subject was changed.

It was almost dark when Oak Run was reached. Here a carriage, driven by Jack Ness, the Rovers' hired man, was in waiting for them.

"Hullo, Jack!" cried Tom. "All well at home?"

"Very well, Master Tom," was the answer. "And how are you, and how is Master Dick and Master Sam?"

"All O. K. and top side up, Jack," said Sam.

They were soon in the carriage, and then the hired man whipped up the team and away they sped across Swift River, through the village of Dexter's Corners, and then along the highway leading to the farm.

"I see the lights of home!" sang out Sam, as they made the last turn. "I can tell you, it makes a fellow feel good, doesn't it?"

"It's a true saying that there is no place like home," returned Dick. "Here we are!"

The carriage made a turn around a clump of trees and then dashed up to the piazza. From the house rushed several people.

"Here we are, father!" sang out Dick. "How are you, Uncle Randolph, and how are you, Aunt Martha?"

"Dick!" cried Mr. Anderson Rover, and embraced his oldest son. "And Tom and Sam! I am glad to see you looking so well!"

"My boys!" murmured their aunt, as of old, and gave each a sounding kiss.

"Getting to be big young men," was their uncle's comment. "They won't be boys much longer."

"I'm going to stay a boy all my life, Uncle Randolph," answered Tom, promptly. "By the way," he went on, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "how is scientific farming getting on?"

"Splendidly, Thomas, splendidly."

"Not losing money any more, then?"

"Well--er--I have lost a little, just a little, this summer. But next summer I expect grand results."

"Going to grow a new kind of turnip?"

"No I--"

"Or maybe it's a squash this time, uncle."

"No, I am trying--"

"Or a parsnip. I have heard there is a great call for parsnips in New Zealand. The natives use them for dyeing--"

"Thomas!" interrupted his father, sternly. "Please don't start to joke so early. To-morrow will do."

"All right, I'll subside," answered Tom. "But really, do you know, I'm bubbling all over, like an uncorked soda-water bottle."

"Don't you feel hungry?"

"Hungry! Just you try me and see."

"I made a big cherry pie for you, Tom," said his aunt. "I know you like it."

"Oh, Aunt Martha, that's worth an extra hug." He gave it to her. "Your pie can't be beat!"

"And I've got some fried chicken. Dick likes that."

"And I like it, too," said Sam.

"Yes, I know it, Sam. But I made some spice cakes too--"

"Oh, aunt, just my weakness!" cried the youngest Rover. "There's another kiss for you, and another! You're the best aunt a boy ever had!"

They were soon washed up and sitting down to the table. Scarcely had they seated themselves than Alexander Pop came in, acting as waiter, something he always did when the boys came home. Alexander, usually called Aleck for short, was a good-natured colored man who had once been employed at Putnam Hall. He had gone to Africa with the Rover boys, as already related in "The Rover Boys in the Jungle," and had been with them on numerous other trips. He was now employed steadily in the Rover household.

"Howde do, gen'men?" he said, with a broad grin on his coal-black face.

"Aleck!" all three cried together; "how are you?"

"Fust-rate, thank yo'. Yo' am looking right smart, too," went on the colored man. And then he began to serve them with the best the place afforded. He loved dearly to talk, but thought the present no time for so doing.

It was a happy family gathering, and all remained at the table a long time, the boys telling their different tales from beginning to end. Mr. Anderson Rover was much interested in what they had to say about the Baxters and Lew Flapp.

"You must be careful," said he. "Arnold Baxter can do you no more harm, but the others will be worse than snakes in the grass."

"We'll watch out," answered Dick, and then he and the others asked about the houseboat which had been taken for debt and how soon they could use the craft.

"You may use the houseboat as soon as you please," said Randolph Rover. "But you must promise your father and Aunt Martha and me not to get into mischief."

"How could we get into mischief with a houseboat?" questioned Tom. "Why, we just intend to knock around and take it easy all summer."

"The rest ought to do all of you a power of good," came from his father. "I declare, it seems to me you have been on the jump ever since you first went to Putnam Hall."

"Where is the houseboat now?"

"Tied up at the village of Steelville, not very far from Pittsburg. As I wrote to you, she is under the command of Captain Starr. He knows the Ohio and the Mississippi thoroughly and will take you wherever you wish to go."

"Well, we want to stay home a few days first, and make all of our arrangements," said Dick; and so it was decided.