Chapter XXIV. The Horse Thieves
 

For the moment it looked as if the houseboat might be sent to the bottom of the Ohio River, and from the stateroom in which the two girls were confined came a loud cry of fright. Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp were also scared, and rushed toward the gasolene launch, not knowing what to do.

"Keep off!"

"Don't sink us!"

Loud cries also came from the launch, and those on the deck of the Dora could see several men, wearing raincoats, moving about. The bow of the launch was badly splintered, but otherwise the craft remained undamaged.

"What do you mean by running into us in this fashion?" cried Baxter, seeing that the Dora was in no danger of going down.

"Running into you?" came in a rough voice from the launch. "You ran into us!

"Not much we didn't."

"What boat is that?" came in another voice from the launch.

"A private houseboat. What craft is that?"

"None of your business."

"Thank you." Baxter put on a bold front. "I'm going to report you for running into us, just the same."

"Not much, you won't!" came from the launch. There were a few hurried words spoken in a whisper, and then a boat-hook was thrown on the Dora and a man leaped aboard and tied fast.

"Who is in command here?" he demanded, confronting Baxter and Flapp.

"I am," answered Baxter.

"Is she your houseboat?"

"Yes."

"Where are you bound?"

"Down to the Mississippi. But what is that to you?"

"How many of you on board of this craft?" went on the man, ignoring altogether the last question.

"That is my business."

"Well, and I'm going to make it mine," cried the man, and pulled out a revolver. "Answer up, kid; it will be best for you."

He was a burly Kentuckian, all of six feet tall and with a bushy black beard and a breath which smelt strongly of whiskey.

"Don't--don't shoot us!" cried Lew Flapp, in terror. "Don't shoot!"

"I won't--if you'll treat me proper-like," answered the Kentuckian. "How many on board?"

"Four--two young ladies and ourselves," answered Dan Baxter. He was doing some rapid thinking. "Say, perhaps we can strike up a. bargain with you," he went on.

"A bargain? What kind of a bargain?" And the Kentuckian eyed him narrowly.

"We are looking for somebody to tow this houseboat down the river."

At this the Kentuckian gave a loud and brutal laugh.

"Thanks, but I ain't in that ere business."

"All right, then; get aboard of your own boat and we will go on," continued Baxter.

"What's doing up there, Pick?" called another man, from the launch. "Remember, we haven't got all night to waste here."

"That other boat is coming!" cried a third man. "Boys, we are trapped as sure as guns!"

"Not much we ain't," said the Kentuckian who had boarded the houseboat. "Sculley!"

"What next, Pick?"

"You've got a new job. This chap here wants somebody to tow him down the river."

"Well?"

"You start to do the towing, and be quick about it. Hamp, get on board at once! Remember, Sculley, you ain't seen or heard of us, understand?"

"All right, Pick."

The gasolene launch came close once more, and the fellow called Hamp leaped on board. He carried a rifle and was evidently a desperate character.

"See here, I don't understand your game?" began Baxter.

"Didn't you say you wanted somebody to tow you down the river?" asked the fellow addressed as Pick.

"I did, but--"

"Well, Cap'n Sculley of the Firefly has taken the job. He'll take you wherever you please, and at your own price. You can't ask for more than that, can you?"

"No, but--"

"I haven't got time to talk, kid--with' that other launch coming after us. I don't know who you are and I reckon you don't know me and my bosom pard here. But let me tell you one thing. It won't be healthy for you to tell anybody that me and my pard are on board here, understand?"

"You are hiding away from somebody?" asked Baxter, quickly.

"I reckon that's the plain United States of it. If you say a word it will go mighty hard with you," and the Kentuckian tapped his revolver.

"You can trust us," replied Baxter, promptly. "Tell me what you want done and I'll agree to do it."

"You will?" The Kentuckian eyed him more closely than ever. "Say, you can't play any game on me,--I'm too old for it."

"I shan't play any game on you. Just say what you want done and I'll help you all I can--providing that launch takes us down the river as quick as it can."

"Ha! Maybe you want to get away, too, eh?"

"I want to get down the river, yes. Perhaps I'll tell you more,--after I am certain I can trust you," added Baxter, significantly.

"Good enough, I'll go you. If that other launch comes up, tell 'em anything but that you have strangers on board, or that you have seen us."

"I will."

"If you play us foul--"

"I shan't play you foul, so don't worry."

By this time the second launch was coming up through the mist and the two men from Kentucky retired to the cabin of the houseboat. In the meantime the first launch had tied fast to the Dora and was beginning to tow the houseboat down the stream.

"Boat, ahoy, there!" was the call.

"Ahoy!" answered the man on the first launch.

"Got any passengers on board?"

"No."

"What's your tow?"

"A houseboat."

"Who is on board?"

"I don't know exactly. What do you want to know for?"

"We are looking for a couple of horse thieves who ran away from Kepples about two hours ago."

"I haven't seen anything of any horse thieves."

The second launch now came up to the houseboat. As may be surmised Dan Baxter and Lew Flapp had listened to the talk with keen interest.

"Those chaps are horse thieves," muttered Flapp.

"Yes,--but don't open your mouth, Flapp," answered the leader of the evil-doers.

"Houseboat, ahoy!" was the call.

"Hullo, the launch," answered Baxter.

"Seen anything of any strangers within the past two hours?"

"Strangers?" repeated Baxter. "Yes, I did."

"Where?"

"About a mile back. Two men in a small sailboat, beating up the river."

"How were they dressed?"

"In raincoats. One was a tall fellow with a heavy beard."

"That's our game, Curly!" was the exclamation on the second launch. "About a mile up the river, you say?"

"About that--or maybe a mile and a half," replied Dan Baxter.

"Thank you. We'll get after them now!" And in a moment more the second launch sheered off and started up the Ohio through the mist and rain.

As soon as it was out of sight the men in the cabin of the Dora came out again.

"That was well done, kid," cried he called Pick. "And it was well you did it that way. If you had said we were aboard you might have got a dose of lead in your head."

"I always keep my word," replied Baxter.

"You're a game young rooster, and I reckon I can't call you kid no more. What's your handle?"

"What's yours?"

"Pick Loring."

"You're a horse thief, it seems."

"I don't deny it."

"My name is Dan Baxter, and this is my friend, Lew Flapp."

"Glad to know you. This is my pard in business, Hamp Gouch. We had to quit in a hurry, but I reckon we fell in the right hands," and Pick Loring closed one eye suggestively and questioningly.

"You're safe with us, Loring,--if you'll give us a lift."

"I always stick to them as sticks to me."

"If you want to stay on this houseboat for a while you can do it."

"We'll have to stay on this craft. It's about the only place we'll be safe--for a day or two at least."

"You can stay a couple of weeks, if you want to--all providing you'll lend us your assistance."

"It's a go. Now what's your game? You must have one, or you wouldn't act in this style," said Pick Loring.