Chapter XXV. Plotting Against Dora and Nellie
 

"In the first place," said Dan Baxter, "perhaps we had better give some directions to that man on the launch."

"What kind of directions?"

"We want to go straight down the river for the present."

"He'll take you down. I told him not to go near either shore."

"Is he to be trusted?"

"Sure. He'll do anything I tell him to."

"Very well, then, that is settled. In the second place, tell me if I am right. You are both wanted for stealing sixteen horses over at a place called Kepples."

"Who told you we took sixteen horses?"

"I read about it in the papers a couple of days ago."

"Well, the report is true. I don't deny it."

"You were fleeing from the officers of the law."

"That's as straight as shooting," came from Hamp Gouch.

"If we help you to escape, will you stick by us in a little game we are trying to put through?"

"I will," answered Pick Loring, promptly.

"So will I," added Hamp Gouch. "No game too daring for me either."

"Well, it's this way," continued Dan Baxter. "Supposing I told you I had a game on that beats horse stealing all to bits. Would you go in for half of what was in it?"

"Sure."

"Trust me," added Gouch. "Say," he went on. "Got any liquor aboard? This rain is beastly."

"I guess there is some liquor. We'll hunt around and see."

"Ha!" exclaimed Pick Loring. "Say, perhaps you don't know much more about this houseboat than we did about them horses we took."

"As you just said, I don't deny it."

"You and your pard are running off with the boat?" queried Hamp Gouch.

"Yes."

"Good enough. We claim a half-interest in the boat. Don't that go?"

"That's pretty cheeky," returned Lew Flapp.

"Let it go at that, Flapp," came from Baxter. "Yes, you can have a half-interest. But that isn't our game."

"What is the game?"

"On board of this houseboat are two girls who are mighty anxious to get back to their families and friends."

"Run off with 'em, did you?" cried Pick Loring, and now it must be confessed that he was really astonished.

"We carried them off, yes. And we don't expect to let them get back home unless we can make considerable money out of it," continued Dan Baxter.

"Are they rich?"

"They are fairly well-to-do, and they have close personal friends who, I feel sure, would pay a good price to see the girls get home again unharmed."

"You're putty young to be runnin' a game like this," came from Hamp Gouch.

"Maybe, but I know just what I am doing."

They walked into the living room, and Lew Flapp made an inspection of the pantry and then of Captain Starr's private apartment. As it happened, the captain used liquor, and several bottles were brought out, much to the satisfaction of the horse thieves.

"This makes me feel more like talking," said Hamp Gouch, after swallowing a goodly portion of the stuff.

"Perhaps you had better give us the whole game straight from start to now," said Pick Loring. "Then we can make up our minds just what we can do."

Sitting down, Dan Baxter told as much of himself and Lew Flapp as he deemed necessary, and told about the trip on the houseboat which the Rovers, Stanhopes, and the Lanings had been taking. Then he told how Dora and Nellie had been abducted and how the voyage down the Ohio had been started in the mist and the darkness.

"You're a putty bold pair for your years," said Pick Loring. "Hang me if I don't admire you!" And he smiled in his coarse way.

"Of course you can see the possibilities in this," went on Dan Baxter. "Supposing we can make the Stanhopes and Lanings and Rovers pay over fifty or sixty thousand dollars for the return of the girls. That means a nice sum for each of us."

"Right you are," came from Hamp Gouch. "As you say, it beats horse stealing."

"Have they got the money?" asked the other Kentuckian.

"They have a good deal more than that between them. The Rovers are very rich."

"But they are only friends?"

"More than that. Dick Rover is very sweet on Dora Stanhope, and Tom Rover thinks the world of Nellie Laning."

"Then of course they'll help pay up--especially if they hear the girls are likely to suffer. We can write to 'em and say we'll starve the girls to death if the money don't come our way."

"Exactly. But we've got to find some place to hide first. We can't stay on the river any great length of time. They'll send word about the houseboat from one town to another and the authorities will be on the lookout for us."

"I know where you can take this houseboat," put in Hamp Gouch. "Up Shaggam Creek. There is a dandy hiding place there and nobody around but old Jake Shaggam, and we can easily 'buy him off, so as he won't open his mouth."

"How far is that creek from here?"

"About thirty-five miles."

The matter was talked over for fully an hour, and it was at last decided that the houseboat should go up Shaggam Creek, at least for the time being. If that place got too hot to hold them they could move further down the river during the nights to follow.

The man on the launch was called up and matters were explained to him by Pick Loring.

"Sculley is a good fellow," said Loring to Baxter. "He will do whatever I say and take whatever I give him,--and keep his mouth shut."

"That's the kind of a follower to have," was Baxter's answer.

The horse thieves were hungry, and a fire was started in the galley of the houseboat. The men cooked themselves something to eat and Baxter and Flapp did the same. It must be confessed that Flapp did not like the newcomers and hated to have anything to do with them. But he was too much of a coward to speak up, and so did as Baxter dictated. Thus is one rascal held under the thumb of another. It was only when Lew Flapp was among those who were smaller and weaker than himself that he dared to play the part of the bully.

Dora and Nellie heard the loud talking after the crashing of the launch into the houseboat and also heard part of what followed. Both wanted to cry out for assistance, but did not dare, fearing that something still worse might happen to them.

"They might bind and gag us," said Nellie. "That Dan Baxter is bad enough to do almost anything."

"Yes, and from the way Lew Flapp treated Dick, I should think he was almost as wicked as Baxter," answered her cousin.

The girls wondered who the newcomers on board could be, but had no means of finding out. Nobody came near them, and at last tired nature asserted itself and both dropped into a troublous doze.

When they awoke it was still dark. A steam whistle had aroused them. They looked out of the stateroom window. It had stopped raining, but the mist was just as thick as ever.

"Oh, if only it would clear up!" sighed Dora. "Nobody will be able to follow the houseboat in such a mist as this."

"Where do you think they will take us, Dora?" questioned Nellie.

"Goodness only knows. Perhaps down the Mississippi, or maybe to the Gulf of Mexico."

"Oh, Dora, would they dare to do that?" And Nellie's face grew pale.

Dora shrugged her shoulders by way of reply, and for the time being the cousins relapsed into silence. Both were thinking of their mothers and of the Rovers. What had the others said to their strange disappearance?

"It is perfectly dreadful!" cried Nellie, at last, and burst into tears, and Dora followed. The crying appeared to do them some good and after half an hour they became more at ease.

"We must escape if we possibly can, Nellie," said Dora. "We cannot afford to remain a moment longer on this houseboat than is necessary."

"But how are we going to escape? It looks to me as if we were out in the middle of the river."

"That is true. But both of us can row, and there is a small rowboat on board. If we could launch that and get away we might escape."

"Well, I am willing to try it, if you think it can be done. But we must get out of this stateroom first."

The two girls listened, but nobody appeared to be anywhere near them.

"I can hear them talking in the kitchen," said Nellie. "More than likely they are getting something to eat."

"I could eat something myself."

"So could I. But I'd rather get away."

Both looked for some means of getting out of the stateroom and suddenly Dora uttered a cry of delight.

"Oh, why didn't I think of it before!"

"Think of what?"

"That key on the hook over there. It fits the door."

"Then we can get out!"

"If that other key isn't on the outside."

Dora got down and looked through the keyhole. It was clear and she quickly inserted the key taken from the hook. It fitted perfectly, and in a second more the door was unlocked.

"Wait,--until I make sure that nobody is around!" whispered Dora. She was so agitated she could scarcely speak.

She opened the door cautiously and looked out. Not a soul was in sight. From the galley came a steady hum of voices and a rattle of pots and dishes.

"They are too busy to watch us just now--the way is clear," she whispered. "Come on."

"Let us lock the door behind us, and stuff the keyhole," answered Nellie. "Then they will think we are inside and won't answer."

This was done, and with their hearts beating wildly the two girls stole to the end of the houseboat, where lay the small rowboat Dora had mentioned.