Chapter XXVII. Caught Once More
 

The two girls hardly dared to breathe as they stood at the rear of the houseboat, trying to untie the small rowboat which lay on the deck.

"Oh, Dora, supposing they find us out?" gasped Nellie.

"I don't think we'll be any worse off than we were," answered her cousin.

"Do you think we can launch the rowboat and get into it without upsetting?"

"We can try."

The small craft was soon unfastened and they dragged it to the edge of the houseboat. There was a small slide, on hinges, and they had seen the boys use this more than once, and knew how it worked. Down went the rowboat with a slight splash, and they hauled the craft up close by aid of the rope attached to the bow.

"Now the oars!" whispered Dora.

They were at hand, in a rack at the back of the dining room, and soon she had secured two pairs.

"You drop in first, Nellie," went on Dora. "Be quick, but don't fall overboard."

Nellie obeyed, trembling in every limb. She landed safely and in a few seconds Dora followed. Just as this was done a man appeared on the deck of the houseboat, followed by another.

"Oh, Dora--" began Nellie, when her cousin silenced her. Then the rope was untied, and the rowboat was allowed to drift astern of the larger craft.

"Hullo, there!" came suddenly out of the darkness. "What's up back there?"

"Who are you calling to, Hamp?" came from the galley.

"Something doing back here," answered Hamp Gouch. "Somebody just cut loose from our stern."

"What's that?" burst out Dan Baxter, and tumbled out on deck, followed by the others.

"I said somebody just cut loose from this houseboat. There they go," and the horse thief pointed with his hand.

"It can't be the girls!" cried Flapp.

"Run to the stateroom and see," answered Baxter. "I'll get the big lantern."

Lew Flapp hurried to the door of the state-room, taking with him the key Baxter handed over.

"Hullo, in there!" he shouted. "Are you awake?"

Receiving no answer he knocked loudly on the door.

"I say, why don't you answer?" he went on. "I'm coming in."

Still receiving no reply, he started to put the key in the lock and found that he could not do so.

"It won't do any good to block the lock," he called out. "Answer me, or I'll break down the door."

Still nothing but silence, and in perplexity he ran back to Baxter.

"I can't get a sound out of them, and the keyhole is stuffed," he said.

"We'll break in the door," said the leader of the evil-doers.

It took but a minute to execute this threat, for the door was thin and frail. Both gave a hasty look around.

"Gone!"

"They must have taken the rowboat and rowed away," said Lew Flapp.

Both went back to where they had left Pick Loring and Hamp Gouch.

"The girls are gone," said Baxter. "They must have skipped in that rowboat."

"We can soon fix 'em," muttered Loring. "We'll get Sculley to go after them."

The launch ahead was signaled and soon came up alongside.

"What's wanted now?"

"Take me aboard and I'll tell you," answered Baxter, and he and Pick Loring boarded the launch.

In the meantime the two girls had placed the oars into the rowlocks and were rowing off as fast as their strength would permit.

"Oh, Dora, do you think we can get away!" gasped Nellie.

"We must! Do your best, and keep time with me."

"But which way are we going?"

"I don't know, yet. The best we can do is to keep away from the lights of the houseboat."

Stroke after stroke was taken in dire desperation, and after a while they had the satisfaction of seeing the lights of the houseboat fading away in the distance.

All was gloom and mist around them and they stopped rowing, not knowing in which direction to turn next.

"We are lost on the river," said Nellie.

"Yes, but that is better than being in the hands of our enemies," was Dora's answer.

"Yes, Dora, ten times over. But what shall we do next?"

"Let us try to row crosswise with the current. That is sure to bring us to shore sooner or later."

This they set out to do, and after a while felt certain that they were drawing close to the river bank on the north.

"We are getting there!" cried Nellie. "Oh, Dora, aren't you glad?"

Scarcely had she spoken when they saw a light behind them, and a long launch came unexpectedly into view. In the bow stood Dan Baxter with a lantern.

"I thought I heard their oars," cried that rascal. "Here they are!"

"Pull, pull, Nellie!" cried Dora. "Pull, or we shall be captured!"

Both of the girls rowed with all their strength, but before they could gain the shore, which was now less than two rods away, the launch came up and made fast to the rowboat.

"Might as well give it up," said Dan Baxter, sarcastically. "It's no use, as you can see."

"Oh, Mr. Baxter, do let us go!" pleaded Nellie, more terrorized than ever before.

"Not much! You have got to go back to the houseboat."

At this Nellie gave a loud scream, and Dora immediately followed with a prolonged call for help.

"Shut them up!" came from Pick Loring. "There are a whole lot of people living around here."

Without answering, Dan Baxter leaped into the rowboat and took Dora by the arm roughly.

"If you don't shut up, I'll gag you!" he cried.

"Let me go!" she said, and struck at him feebly. While this was going on Pick Loring came over and took hold of Nellie.

"Tow us along, Sculley!" called the horse thief. "Get back to the houseboat as soon as you can."

"What's the matter out there?" came in an unexpected call from the shore. The speaker could not be seen.

"Help us!" shrieked Dora. "We are two girls and some men are carrying us off."

"You don't say so!" ejaculated the speaker on shore.

"Tell the Rover boys!" called out Nellie. "Dan Baxter is taking us down the river on the houseboat."

"Save us, and we will pay you well," added Dora, and then Baxter's not over cleanly hand was clapped over her mouth, and she could say no more. Loring's hand was likewise placed over Nellie's mouth, and then the launch began to tow the rowboat back into midstream once more.

The poor girls were utterly disheartened and dropped back on the seats in something close to a faint.

"This is a mess," growled Dan Baxter. "Have you any idea who that was that called from the shore?"

"Some kind of a watchman," answered Loring. "We have got to get out of this neighborhood in railroad time or the jig's up," he added.

"Well, I'm willing."

It did not take long to catch up to the houseboat, which was drifting down the river in the fashion it had pursued before being towed by the Lunch. Flapp and Hamp Gouch were waiting impatiently on the deck.

"Got 'em?" asked Lew Flapp.

"Yes, but we had no time to spare," returned Dan Baxter. "Two minutes more and they would have been ashore."

"After this maybe we had better stand guard over them, Baxter."

"Just what I have been thinking."

Once alongside of the houseboat, the two girls were forced on board once more and taken to the stateroom next to that which they had before occupied.

The window was locked up and nailed and after the girls were inside, Dan Baxter placed a strong bolt outside.

"Now if you try to escape again you may get hurt," he called out, after the job was done.

"Mr. Baxter, you shall suffer for this!" answered Dora, as spiritedly as she could.

"Oh, don't think you can scare me."

"The Rovers will get on your track soon."

"I am not afraid of them."

"You said that before, but you've always been glad enough to hide from them."

"It's false!" cried Baxter, in a passion. "I never hid from them."

"You are hiding now. You dare not face them openly."

"Oh, give us a rest. I am doing this for the money that is in it."

"Money?"

"Yes, money."

"I do not understand you."

"Well, you'll understand to-morrow or the day after."

"We haven't any money to give you," put in Nellie.

"No, but maybe your folks have."

"Are you going to make them pay you for releasing us?"

"That's it."

"Perhaps they won't pay," said Dora.

"If they don't, so much the worse for you. But I know they'll pay--and so will the Rovers pay," chuckled Baxter.

"What have the Rovers to do with it? Or perhaps you want them to pay you for giving back the houseboat."

"They'll pay for both--for the houseboat and for releasing you. I know Dick and Tom Rover won't want to see you remain in the power of me and Flapp and our friends."

"Dan Baxter, you are a villain!" burst out both girls.

"Thank you for the compliment," returned the rascal, coolly. "I hope you'll enjoy your stay in that stateroom."

"You ought to be in prison!" went on Dora.

"If you talk that way you'll get no breakfast in the morning."

"I don't want any of your breakfast!" and Dora stamped her foot to show she meant it.

"Oh, you'll sing a different tune when you get good and hungry," growled Dan Baxter, and he walked away, leaving the girls once more to themselves.