Chapter XXIII. A Run in the Dark
 

Both girls were thoroughly alarmed by the unexpected appearance of Dan Baxter and his companion and brought their horses to a standstill.

"How do you do, Miss Stanhope?" said Baxter, with a grin.

"What are you doing here?" demanded Dora, icily.

"Oh, nothing much."

"Do you know that that is the Rovers' houseboat?"

"Is it?" said Baxter, in pretended surprise.

"Yes."

"No, I didn't know it." Baxter turned to Nellie. "How are you, Miss Laning? I suppose you are surprised to meet me out here."

"I am," was Nellie's short answer. Both girls wished themselves somewhere else.

"My friend and I were walking down the river when we heard a man on that houseboat calling for help," went on Dan Baxter, glibly. "We went on board and found the captain had fallen down and hurt himself very much. Do you know anything about him?"

"Why, yes!" said Dora, quickly. "It must be Captain Starr!" she added, to Nellie.

"He's in a bad way. If you know him, you had better look after him," continued Dan Baxter.

"I will," and Dora leaped to the ground, followed by Nellie. Both ran towards the houseboat, but at the gang plank they paused.

"I--I think I'll go back and get Dick Rover," said Dora. She did not like the look in Dan Baxter's eyes.

"Yes, and Tom," put in Nellie.

"You shan't go back," roared Dan Baxter. "Go on and help the poor captain."

His manner was so rude that Nellie gave a short, sharp scream--one which reached Tom's ears, as already recorded.

"Don't--don't go on board just yet, Dora," she whispered.

"You shall go on board!" went on Dan Baxter. "Make her go, Flapp. I'll attend to this one," and he caught hold of Dora's arm.

At this both girls screamed--another signal of distress which reached Tom's ears but did no good.

"I don't see the reason--" began Lew Flapp.

"Just do as I say, Flapp. We can make money out of this," answered Dan Baxter.

He caught Dora around the waist and lifted her into the air. She struggled bravely but could do nothing, and in a moment more he had her on the houseboat. Lew Flapp followed with Nellie, who pulled his hair and scratched his face unavailingly.

"Where--where you going to put 'em?" queried Flapp.

"In here," answered Dan Baxter, leading the way to one of the staterooms--that usually occupied by Mrs. Stanhope and Dora. "Now you stay in there and keep quiet, or it will be the worse for you," Baxter went on to the girls.

As Nellie was pushed into the stateroom she fainted and pitched headlong on the floor. Thoroughly alarmed, Dora raised her cousin in her arms. At the same time Baxter shut the door and locked it from the outside.

"Now, don't make a bit of noise, or you'll be sorry for it," he fairly hissed, and his manner was so hateful that Dora was thoroughly cowed.

"What's the next move?" asked Flapp, when he and Baxter were on the outside deck. He was too weak-minded to take a stand and placed himself entirely under the guidance of his companion.

"Get the houseboat away from the shore and be quick about it," was the reply. "Somebody else may be on the way here."

The order to push off was obeyed, and soon the Dora, caught by the strong current of the river, was moving down the Ohio and away from the vicinity of Skemport. The mist was now so thick that in a few minutes the shore line was lost entirely to view.

"I must say, I don't like this drifting in the dark," said Flapp. "What if we run into something!"

"We've got to take some risk. I'll light the lanterns as soon as we get a little further away. You stand by with that long pole--in case the houseboat drifts in toward shore again."

The Dora had been provided with several long, patent sweeps, and for a while both of the young rascals used these, in an endeavor to get the houseboat out into the middle of the river. In the distance they saw the lights of a steamboat and this was all they had to guide them.

"If we strike good and hard we'll go to the bottom," said Lew Flapp.

"Flapp, you are as nervous as a cat."

"Isn't it true?"

"I don't think so. Most of these boats are built in compartments. If one compartment is smashed the others will keep her afloat."

"Oh, I see." And after that Lew Flapp felt somewhat relieved.

When the houseboat was well away from Skemport, Dan Baxter walked to the door of the stateroom in which Dora and Nellie had been confined.

"Hullo, in there!" he called out.

"What do you want?" asked Dora, timidly.

"How is that other girl, all right?"

"Ye--yes," came from Nellie. "But, oh! Mr. Baxter, what does this mean?"

"Don't grow alarmed. I'm not going to hurt you in the least."

"Yes, but--but--we don't want to go with you."

"I'm sorry, but I can't help that. If we let you go ashore you'll tell the Rovers that we took the houseboat."--"

"And is that why you took us along?" questioned Dora.

"Certainly."

"How far are you going to take us?"

"That depends upon circumstances. I don't know yet where or when we will be able to make a landing."

"It is horrid of you to treat us so."

"Sorry you don't like it, but it can't be helped," answered Dan Baxter, coolly. He paused a moment. "Say, if I unlock that door and let you out will you promise to behave yourselves?"

"What do you mean by that?" questioned Dora.

"I mean will you promise not to scream for help or not to attack myself or Lew Flapp?"

"I shan't promise anything," said Nellie, promptly.

"I don't think I'll promise anything either," joined in her cousin.

"Humph! You had better. It's rather stuffy in that little stateroom."

"We can stand it," answered both.

"All right, suit yourselves. But when you want to come out, let me know."

With these words Dan Baxter walked away, leaving the girls once more to themselves. Both sat down on the edge of a berth, and Nellie placed her head upon Dora's shoulder.

"Oh, Dora, what will become of us?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Nellie."

"They may take us away down the river--miles and miles away!"

"I know that. We must watch our chances and see if we cannot escape."

"Do you think the Rover boys are following the houseboat?"

"Let us hope so."

Thoroughly miserable, the cousins became silent. They felt the houseboat moving swiftly along with the current, but could see nothing on account of the mist and the darkness. Soon they heard the rain coming down.

"It is going to be an awful night," said Dora. "I don't see how anybody could follow this houseboat in such a storm."

Both girls felt like crying, but did their best to hold back the tears. Each was tired out by the doings of the day gone by, but neither thought of going to sleep.

The lanterns had been lit, and both Baxter and Flapp stationed themselves at the front of the houseboat, in an endeavor to pierce the mist. Occasionally they made out some distant light, but could not tell where it belonged.

"We ought to be getting to somewhere pretty soon," remarked Lew Flapp, after a couple of hours had passed. "Don't you think we had better turn her in toward shore?'"

"Not yet, Flapp; we ought to place as much distance as possible between the boat and Skemport. Remember, those Rovers will be after us hot-footed when once they learn the truth of the situation."

"Do you know anything about the river around here?"

"A little, but not much. Do you know anything?"

"No,--I never cared for geography," answered Flapp. "It's getting as black as pitch, and the rain--Hullo, there's another light!"

Flapp pointed to the Kentucky side of the river. Through the mist appeared a dim light, followed by another.

"Wonder if that is the shore or a boat?" mused Baxter.

"Better yell and see."

"Boat, ahoy!"

No answer came back, and for the moment the lights appeared to fade from sight.

"Must have been on shore and we are passing them, Baxter."

"More than likely, and yet--There they are again!"

Dan Baxter was right; the lights had reappeared and now they seemed to approach the houseboat with alarming rapidity.

"They'll run into us if they are not careful," said Flapp, in fresh alarm. "Boat, ahoy!" he screamed. "Keep off!"

"Keep off! Keep off, there!" put in Dan Baxter.

If those in the other craft heard, they paid no attention. The light came closer and closer and of a sudden a fair-sized gasolene launch came into view. She was headed directly for the Dora, and a moment later hit the houseboat a telling blow in the side, causing her to careen several feet.