Chapter XXVIII. A Messsage for the Rovers
 

Morning found the Rovers and their friends still on the steam launch, looking in all directions for the houseboat.

The rain had ceased and there was every indication that the mist would blow away by noon, but at present it was hard to see a hundred feet in any direction.

"Nature has assisted them to escape," said Dick, bitterly.

"Oh, we'll find them sooner or later," answered Sam.

"Perhaps, Sam. But think of how the girls may be suffering in the meantime."

"I know; and Mrs. Stanhope and Mrs. Laning are suffering too."

The steam tug carried only a small stock of provisions, and it was decided to go ashore at a small place called Gridley's for breakfast. Here there was a country hotel at which they obtained a breakfast which put all in a slightly better physical condition.

The proprietor of the hotel was a bit curious to learn the cause of their unexpected appearance and became interested when Dick told him about the missing houseboat.

"Wonder if that had anything to do with a story Bill Daws told me an hour ago," said he. "Bill works at the mill clown by the river. Last night, in the dark and mist, he heard somebody in a rowboat and a launch having a row. Two gals screamed for help, and somebody said something about a houseboat and tell somebody something--he couldn't tell exactly what. I thought Bill had 'em on, but maybe he didn't."

"Where is this Bill Daws now?" asked Dick.

"Gone home. He works nights and sleeps in the daytime."

"Where does he live?"

"Just up that street over yonder--in the square stone house with the red barn back of it."

Waiting to hear no more, Dick set off for the house mentioned, taking Tom with him. They rapped loudly on the door and an elderly woman answered their summons.

"Is Mr. Bill Daws in?" asked Dick.

"Yes, sir, but he has gone to bed."

"I must speak to him a minute. Tell him it's about the talking he heard on the river in the dark."

"Oh, is that so! He told me something about it," answered the woman.

She went off and coming back invited them into the house. Soon Bill Daws appeared, having slipped on part of his clothing.

"I can't tell ye a great deal," said the watchman. "I heard two gals cry out and some men was trying to shet 'em up. One gal said something about a houseboat and about telling somebody about it."

"Did she say to tell the Rovers?"

"Thet's it! Thet's it! I couldn't think o' thet name nohow, but now you hev struck it fust clip."

"The girls were trying to escape in the rowboat?"

"I reckon so, and the men in the launch were after 'em."

"Where did they go?"

"Out into the river, and thet's the last I see or heard o' 'em."

"Thank you," answered Dick, and seeing that Bill Daws was poor he gave the fellow two dollars, for which the watchman was profoundly grateful.

"It proves one thing," said Tom, when the brothers were coming away. "We are on the right track."

"Right you are, Tom. I hope we stay on the trail until we run down our quarry."

Not long after this the entire party was on the steam launch once more. They took with them provisions enough to last a couple of days and also an extra cask of drinking water.

By one o'clock in the afternoon the sun burst through the mist and an hour later the entire river was clear, so that they could see steamboats and sailboats a long distance off. The captain of the tug brought forth his spyglass and they took turns in looking through the instrument.

"Nothing like a houseboat in sight," said Sam, disconsolately. "It beats the nation where they have gone to."

"They may be hiding around some point or in some cove," suggested Fred. "They must know that we will follow them."

"I think you ought to telegraph up and down the river," put in Songbird.

"Dot's der dalk," came from Hans. "Let eferypody know vot rascals da vos alretty!"

In the middle of the afternoon they made a stop at a town called Smuggs' Landing and from this point Dick sent messages in various directions. One message was sent to a city ten miles further down the river and an answer came back in half an hour stating that, so far as the authorities could find out, nothing had been seen of the Dora.

"Now the question is, has she gone past that town, or is she between there and this point?" said Dick.

"Persackly," came from Aleck. "An' I dun gib two dollahs to know de answer to dat cojumdrum."

"All we can do is to continue the search," said Tom. "But I must say it is getting a good deal like looking for a needle in a haystack."

"Vot for you looks for a needle py a haystack?" questioned Hans, innocently. "Needles ton't vos goot for noddings in hay. A hoss vot schwallows a needle vould die kvick, I tole you dot!" And his innocence brought forth a short laugh.

"I move we make a swift run down the river for a distance of twenty or thirty miles," came from Tom. "We can go down on one side and come up the other, and keep the spyglass handy, so that nothing that can be seen escapes us."

The matter was discussed a few minutes and it was decided to follow Tom's suggestion. Additional coal had been taken on and soon the steam tug was flying down the river under a full head of steam, causing not a little spray to fly over the forward deck.

"Say, dot pow ist like a fountain," was Hans' comment, after he had received an unexpected ducking. "I shall sit py der pack deck after dis;" and he did.

So far Captain Starr had said but little during the pursuit, but now he began to show signs of interest.

"Let me lay my hands on the villains who tied me fast in that stable and I shall teach them a lesson they will not forget in a hurry," said he, bitterly. "They made a fool of me."

"That's what they did, captain," said Sam. "Still, they might have imposed upon anybody."

"I've been thinking of something. You'll remember about those two horse thieves?" went on the captain of the houseboat.

"To be sure."

"Couldn't it be possible that they got on the Dora too?"

"It's possible." Sam mused for a moment. "That sailboat story might have been a fake."

He called Dick and Mr. Livingstone to him and repeated what Captain Starr had said.

"Such a thing is possible," said Dick. "But we have no proofs."

"If we can catch those thieves as well as Baxter and Flapp it will be a good job done," said the owner of the stock farm. And from that moment he took a greater interest in the pursuit than ever.

Night came on and still they saw nothing of the houseboat. They had gone down the river a distance of twenty miles and were now on their way back.

"We've missed them," said Dick, soberly.

"It certainly looks like it," returned Tom. Every bit of fun had gone out of him. "It's rough, isn't it?"

"I'm thinking of what to telegraph to Mrs. Stanhope and Mrs. Laning," went on the eldest Rover. "I hate to send bad news."

"Tell them you are still following the houseboat and that you know Dora and Nellie are on board. It's the best we can do." And when they landed a message was sent to that effect. Soon a message came back, which read as follows:

"Bring them back safe and sound, no matter what the cost."

"We will, if it can be done," muttered Dick, and clenched his fists with a determination that meant a great deal.

The night was spent at a hotel in one of the small towns, and at daylight the search for the missing houseboat was renewed. It had been decided to drop down the Ohio further than ever, and look into every smaller stream they came to by the way.

Thus several hours passed, when they found themselves on the south side of the river, not far from the entrance to a good-sized creek.

Down the stream came a worn and battered rowboat in which was seated an old man dressed in rags. As he approached the steam tug he stopped rowing.

"Say," he drawled. "Kin you-uns tell me whar to find a party called the Rovers?"

"That's our party right here," replied Dick, and he added, excitedly: "What do you want to know for?"

"So you-uns are really the Rovers?"

"Yes."

"Searching fer somebody?"

"Yes,--two young ladies."

"Good 'nough. Got a message for ye."

And the old man rowed toward the steam launch once more.