Chapter XXI. The Disappearance of the Houseboat
 

Never was a girl more light-hearted than was Dora when in the saddle on the Kentucky thoroughbred. And her cousin was scarcely less elated.

"Let us have a little race, Nellie," cried Dora. "It will be lots of fun."

"Oh, we don't want the horses to run away," answered Nellie.

"I don't think they will run away."

The race was started, and to give the girls a chance, Dick and Tom dropped to the rear. Soon a turn of the road hid the two girls from view.

"Wait a minute--there is something wrong with my saddle," said Tom, a moment later, and he came to a halt and slipped to the ground.

Dick would have preferred going on, but did not wish to leave his brother alone, so he also halted. A buckle had broken and it took some time to repair the damage, so Tom could continue his ride.

"The girls have disappeared," said Dick, on making the turn ahead in the road.

They came to a spot where the road divided into three forks and halted in perplexity.

"Well, this is a nuisance," declared Tom, after scratching his head. "I suppose they thought we were watching them."

"More than likely."

"Which road shall we take?"

"Bless me if I know."

"Well, we can't take all three."

They stared at the hoofprints in the road, but there were too many of them to make anything of the marks.

"Stumped!" remarked Tom, laconically.

"Let us wait a while. Perhaps, when the girls see we are not following, they will turn back."

"All right; but we've made a fine pair of escorts, haven't we, Dick?"

"We are not responsible for that buckle breaking."

"That's so, too."

They waited for several minutes, but the girls did not appear.

"Supposing I take to one road and you to the other?" said Dick. "If you see them, whistle."

"What about the third road?" And Tom grinned.

"We'll leave that for the present."

Off they set, and as ill-luck would have it took the two roads the girls had not traveled. Each went fully a mile before he thought of coming back.

"Well, what luck?" asked Dick, as he rode up.

"Nothing doing, Dick."

"Ditto."

"Then they must have taken to the third road."

"That's it,--unless they rode faster than we did."

"Shall I try that other road?"

"You can if you wish. I'll stay here. If they come back, we can wait for you," added the oldest Rover.

Once more Tom set off. But he had pushed his horse so fast before the animal was now tired and had to take his time in traveling.

The third road led down to the river front, and before a great while the water's edge was reached. Here there were numerous bushes and trees and the road turned and ran some distance along the bank.

"Well, I'm stumped and no mistake," murmured the fun-loving Rover, "I felt sure--"

He broke off short, for a distance scream had reached his ears.

"Was that Nellie's voice?" he asked himself, and then strained his ears, for two more screams had reached him. "Nellie, and Dora too, as sure as fate!" he ejaculated. "Something has happened to them! Perhaps those horses are running away!"

He hardly knew how to turn, for the trees and bushes cut off his view upon every side. He galloped along the road, which followed the windings of the Ohio. But try his best he could locate neither girls nor horses.

It was maddening, and the cold sweat stood out upon Tom's forehead. Something was very much wrong, but what was it?

"Nellie! Dora! Where are you?" he called out. "Where are you?"

Only the faint breeze in the trees answered him.

"I've got to find them!" he groaned. "I've got to! That is all there is to it." He repeated the words over and over again. "What will Mrs. Laning and Mrs. Stanhope say, and Grace?"

Again he went on, but this time slower than before, looking to the right and the left and ahead. Not a soul was in sight. The road was so cut up he could make nothing of the hoofmarks which presented themselves.

"This is enough to drive one insane," he reasoned. "Where in the world did they go to? I'd give a thousand dollars to know."

At last he reached a point where the road ran close to the water's edge. He looked out on the river. Only a distant steamboat and a small sailboat were in view.

"Wonder if they rode down to where we left the houseboat?" he asked himself. "She must be somewhere in this vicinity. Maybe they have only been fooling us."

Although Tom told himself this, there was no comfort in the surmise. He moved on once more. It was now growing dark and there were signs of a coming storm in the air.

At last he reached a spot which looked somewhat familiar to him. He came down to the water's edge once more.

"Why--er--I thought the houseboat was here," he said, half aloud. "This looks like the very spot."

But no houseboat was there, and scratching his head once more, Tom concluded that he had made a mistake.

"I'm upset if ever a fellow was," he thought. "Well, no wonder. Such happenings as these are enough to upset anybody."

Tom knew of nothing more to do than to return to where he had left Dick, and this he did as quickly as the tired horse would carry him.

"No success, eh?" said the oldest Rover. "What do you make of it, Tom?"

When he had heard his brother's tale he grew unusually grave.

"You are sure you heard them scream?" he questioned, anxiously.

"I'm sure of nothing--now. I thought I was sure about the houseboat, but I wasn't," answered Tom, bluntly. "I'm all mixed up."

"I'll go down there with you," was the only answer Dick made.

It did not take long to reach the spot. It was now dark and a mist was rising from the river.

"This is certainly the spot where we tied up," declared the oldest Rover. "Why, I helped to drive that stake myself."

"Then the houseboat is gone!"

"That's the size of it."

"And the girls are gone too," went on Tom. "Yes, but the two happenings may have no connection, Tom."

"Don't be so sure of that!"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm thinking about Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp. They wouldn't be above stealing the houseboat."

"I believe you there."

"And if those girls happened to go on board--Look there!"

Tom pointed out in the darkness on the road. Two horses were coming toward them, each wearing a lady's saddle and each riderless.

"There are the horses," said Dick. "But the girls? You think--"

"The girls came down here on their horses and dismounted, to go on board of the houseboat."

"Well, where is the houseboat?"

It was a question neither of them could answer. They looked out on the river, but the mist hung over everything like a pall.

"Dick, I am afraid something serious has happened," came from Tom, ominously. "Those screams weren't uttered for nothing."

"Let us make a closer examination of the shore," answered the oldest Rover, and they did so. They found several hoofprints of horses, but that was all.

"I can't see any signs of a struggle," said Tom.

"Nor I. And yet, if those rascals ran off with the houseboat and with the girls on board, how would they square matters with Captain Starr?"

"And with Captain Carson? The tug is gone, too."

"Yes, but the tug went away when we did, and wasn't to come back until to-morrow morning. Captain Carson said he would have to coal up, over to one of the coal docks."

"Then some other tug must have towed the houseboat away."

"Either that or they are letting the Dora drift with the current."

"That would be rather dangerous around here,--and in the mist. A steamer might run the houseboat down."

The brothers knew not what to do. To go back to the stock farm with the news that both the girls and the houseboat were missing was extremely distasteful to them.

"This news will almost kill Mrs. Stanhope," said Dick.

"Well, it will be just as bad for Mrs. Laning, Dick."

"Not exactly,--she has Grace left, while Dora. is Mrs. Stanhope's only child."

Once again the two boys rode up and down the' Ohio for a distance of nearly a mile. At none of' the docks or farms could they catch the least sign of the houseboat.

"She may be miles from here by this time," said Dick, with almost a groan. "There is no help for it, Tom, we've got to go back and break the news as best we can."

"Very well," answered Tom, soberly. Every bit of fun was knocked out of him, and his face was as long as if he was going to a funeral.

Dick felt equally bad. Never until that moment had he realized how dear Dora Stanhope was to him. He would have given all he possessed to be able to go to her assistance.

The mist kept growing thicker, and by the time the stock farm was reached it was raining in torrents. But the boys did not mind this discomfort as they rode along, leading the two riderless saddle horses. They had other things more weighty to think about.