Chapter XXII. Dan Baxter's Little Game
 

In order to ascertain just what did become of the houseboat, it will be necessary to go back to the time when the Dora was tied up near the village of Skemport.

Not far away from Skemport was a resort called the Stock Breeders' Rest--a cross-roads hotel where a great deal of both drinking and gambling was carried on.

During the past year Dan Baxter had become passionately fond of card playing for money and he induced Lew Flapp to accompany him to the Stock Breeders' Rest.

"We can have a fine time there," said Baxter. "And as the Rovers' houseboat will not be far off, we can keep our eyes on that crowd and watch our chance to deal them another blow."

Lew Flapp was now reckless and ready for almost anything, and he consented. They hired a room at the cross-roads hotel, and that night both went to the smoking room to look at what was going on.

A professional gambler from Kentucky soon discovered them, and he induced Dan Baxter to lay with him,--after learning that Lew Flapp had no money to place on a game. Baxter and the gambler played that night and also the next morning, and as a result Baxter lost about every dollar he had with him.

"You cheated me," he cried passionately, when his last dollar was gone. "You cheated me, and I'll have the police arrest you!"

This accusation brought on a bitter quarrel, and fearful that they might be killed by the gambler and his many friends who frequented the resort, Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp fled for their lives. They were followed by two thugs, and to escape molestation took refuge in a stable on the outskirts of Skemport and only a short distance from where the Dora lay.

"How much money did you lose, Baxter?" asked Flapp, after they had made certain that they were safe for the time being.

"Two hundred and sixty-five dollars--every dollar I had with me," was the gloomy response.

"Is it possible!" gasped Lew Flapp. He wondered what they were going to do without money.

"What have you got left of the money I loaned you?" went on Baxter.

"Just two dollars and twenty cents."

"Humph! That's a long way from being a fortune," grumbled the discomfited leader of the evil-doers.

"You are right. I think you were foolish to gamble."

"Oh, don't preach!"

"I'm not preaching. What shall we do next?"

"I don't know. If I was near some big city I might draw some money from a bank."

"You might go to Louisville."

"No, I'd be sure to have trouble if I went to that place--I had trouble there before."

They looked around them, and were surprised to see the houseboat in plain view. This interested them, and they watched the Dora with curiosity.

"If we had a houseboat we could travel in fine style," was Lew Flapp's comment.

"Just the thing, Flapp!" cried Dan Baxter.

"Perhaps; but you can't buy a houseboat for two dollars and twenty cents, nor charter one either."

"We won't buy one or charter one," was Dan Baxter's crafty answer.

"Eh?"

"We'll borrow that one. She's a fairy and will just suit us, Flapp."

"I don't quite understand. You're not fool enough to think the Rovers will let you have their houseboat."

"Of course not. But if I take possession while they are away--"

"How do you know they will be away--I mean all of them at one time?"

"I'll fix it so they are. We must watch our chance. I can send them a decoy message, or something like that."

"You'll have to be pretty shrewd to get the best of the Rovers."

"Pooh! They are not so wise as you think. They put on a big front, but that is all there is to it," went on Dan Baxter, loftily.

"Well, go ahead; I don't care what you do."

"You'll help me; won't you?"

"Certainly,--if the risk isn't too great. We don't want to get caught and tried for stealing."

"Leave it all to me, Flapp."

As we know, fortune for once favored Dan Baxter. From the stable he and Flapp saw the party depart for the stock farm, leaving nobody but Captain Starr in charge. They also saw the steam tug move away, to get a new supply of coal in her bunkers.

"Everything is coming our way," chuckled Dan Baxter, with a wicked grin on his scarred face. "Flapp, the coast is almost clear."

"Almost, but not quite. That captain is still on board."

"Oh, that chap is a dough-head. We can easily make him do what we want."

"Don't be too sure. He might watch 'his chance and knock us both overboard."

"Well, I know how to fix him. I'll send him a message to come here--that Dick Rover wants him. When he comes we can bind him fast with this old harness and leave him here. Then we will have the houseboat all to ourselves."

"And after that, what?"

"We'll drop down the river a way. Then we can paint a new name on the boat, get a steam tug, and make off for the Mississippi,--and the Rovers and their friends can go to grass."

This programme looked inviting to Flapp, and when Dan Baxter wrote a note to the captain of the Dora he volunteered to deliver it. He found Captain Starr on the front deck of the houseboat smoking his corncob as usual.

The captain had one of his peculiar moods on him, and it took a minute or two for Flapp to make him understand about the note. But he fell into the trap with ease and readily consented to follow the young rascal to the stable.

As he entered the open doorway, Dan Baxter came at him from behind, hitting him in the head with a stout stick. The captain went down half stunned.

"See--see here," he gasped. "Wha--what does this--"

"Shut up!" cried Baxter. "We won't hurt you if you'll keep still. But if you don't--"

"I--I haven't hurt anybody, sir."

"All right, old man; keep still."

"But I--I don't understand?"

"You will, later on."

Dan Baxter had the straps of the old harness ready and with them he fastened Captain Starr's hands behind him and also tied his ankles together. Then he backed the commander of the houseboat to a post and secured him, hands and feet.

"Now then, don't you make any noise until to-morrow morning," was Dan Baxter's warning. "If you do, you'll get into trouble. If you keep quiet, we'll come back in the morning, release you, and give you a hundred dollars."

"Give me a hundred dollars?" questioned the captain, simply.

"That is what I said."

"Then I had better keep quiet. But the houseboat--"

"The houseboat will be left just where it is."

"Oh, all right, sir," and the captain breathed a sigh of relief. That he was just a little simple-minded was beyond question.

Leaving the captain a prisoner, Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp made their way with caution toward the houseboat. As they had surmised, the Dora was now totally deserted. They leaped on the deck and entered the sumptuous living room.

"This is fine," murmured Lew Flapp. "They must be living like nabobs on this craft."

"You're right. A piano and a guitar, too." Baxter passed into the dining room. "Real silver on the table. Flapp, we've struck luck."

"Sure."

"That silver is worth just so much money,--when we need the funds."

"Would you sell it?"

"Why not? Didn't I tell you the Rovers robbed my father of a mine? This isn't a fleabite to what they've got that belongs to us." From the dining room the young rascals passed to the staterooms.

"Trunks full of stuff," observed Flapp. "We shan't fall short of clothing."

"I hope there is money in some of them," answered Dan Baxter.

"Hadn't we better be putting off?" asked Flapp, nervously. "Some of them may be coming back, you know."

"Yes, let us put off at once. This mist that is coming up will help us to get away."

Leaving the stateroom they were in, they went out on deck and began to untie the houseboat. While they were doing so they heard the sounds of two horses approaching.

"Somebody is coming," said Flapp, and an instant later Dora and Nellie came into view. Nellie had her skirt badly torn, and it was her intention, if she could locate the houseboat, to don a new skirt before she returned to where Tom and Dick had left them on the highway.

"It's a pity you fell and tore the skirt," Dora was saying. "But I suppose you can be thankful that you did not hurt yourself."

"That is true. But the boys will think I can't ride, and--Oh!"

Nellie came to a sudden stop and pointed to the houseboat.

"Dan Baxter," burst from Dora's lips. "Oh, how did that fellow get here?"

"Dora Stanhope!" muttered Baxter, and then he and Lew Flapp ran towards the girls.