Chapter IV. A Midnight Search
 

That night was destined to be an eventful one on the Rover farm. Arriving home, Sam and Tom told of the fun they had had and Dick laughed heartily. Then all three of the boys went to bed.

About midnight came a loud shouting from the barn, followed by the report of a shotgun. This was followed by a shriek from Sarah, the cook, who was afraid that burglars had come to murder her.

"What's that?" questioned Dick, as he hopped out of bed.

"That's Jack Ness' gun," answered Tom. "Something must be wrong at the barn."

"Chicken thieves again--I'll bet a new hat," said Sam. By this time Randolph Rover and his wife were up and were lighting a lamp. Without waiting for them, the boys slipped on some clothing and their shoes and ran downstairs. Dick took with him a pistol and each of the others a baseball bat.

"Boys! boys! be careful!" shouted their uncle after them.

"All right," returned Dick, readily.

He was the first outside, but Sam and Tom were close upon his heels. He heard Jack Ness running to the edge of a cornfield, shouting lustily. Then came another report of the shotgun.

"What is it, Jack?" shouted Dick. "Who are you shooting at?"

"I'm after two men," was the hired man's reply. "They jest run into the cornfield."

"Chicken thieves?" queried Tom.

"I guess so--anyway they was prowlin' around the hen house an' the barn. I called an' asked 'em what they wanted and they ran for dear life--so I knew they was up to no good."

"They certainly must have been chicken thieves, or worse," was Sam's comment. "Really, this is getting to be too much," he added. "We ought to catch them and have them locked up."

"I'm willing to go after them," answered Tom, readily.

"Did you get a good look at the rascals?" asked Dick.

"Not very good," answered Jack Ness.

"They weren't boys, were they?"

"No--they were men--both tall and heavy fellows."

"Did you ever see them before?" asked Tom. "Not that I can remember."

While they were talking the party of four had run down to the edge of the cornfield. This spot was really a peach orchard, but the trees were still so small that the ground was being utilized that season for corn, planted in rows between the trees. The corn was not yet full grown, but it was high enough to conceal a man lying flat or crouching down.

The sky was filled with stars and the old moon was beginning to show over the hills beyond the valley, so it was fairly light across the field. The boys kept their eyes on the corn and the peach trees, but failed to discover any persons moving among them.

"My shotgun is empty--maybe I had better go back and load up," said the hired man.

"Yes, do it, but hurry up," answered Dick. "I'll stay here on guard with the pistol."

The hired man ran off toward the barn. Hardly had he disappeared when Sam gave a short cry and pointed into the field with his hand.

"I saw somebody raise up just now and look around," he said. "He is out of sight now."

"Where?" came from Dick and Tom quickly. "Over yonder by the twisted peach tree."

"I'll investigate," said Dick. "You can come along if you want to. Keep your eyes open for both men. We don't want either to get away if we can help it."

The three lads spread out in something of a semi circle and advanced slowly into the field, keeping their eyes and ears on the alert for anything out of the ordinary. Thus they covered fifty yards, when Tom found himself near one of the largest of the peach trees. As he passed this a form arose quickly from under a bough, caught him by the waist and threw him forcibly to the ground.

"Hi!" yelled Tom. "Let up!" And then he made a clutch for his assailant, catching him by the foot. But the man broke away and went crashing through the corn, calling on "Shelley" to follow him.

The yell from Tom attracted the attention of Dick and Sam, and they turned to learn what had happened to their brother. As they did this a second man leaped up from the corn in front of them and started to run in the direction of the river.

"Stop!" called out Dick. "Stop, or I'll fire on you!" And then he discharged his pistol into the air as a warning. The man promptly dodged behind a row of peach trees, but kept on running as hard as ever.

The Rover boys were now thoroughly aroused, and all three started in pursuit of the two men. They saw the fellows leave the field and hurry down a lane leading to Swift River.

"I believe they are going to the river. Maybe they have a boat," said Tom.

"I shouldn't wonder," answered Dick.

"I wish they would take to a boat," said Sam. "We could follow them easily--in Dan Bailey's boat."

"Hi, where are you?" came a shout from behind, and they saw Jack Ness returning. "Your uncle and aunt want you to be careful--they are afraid those villains will shoot you."

"We'll be careful," answered Tom. "But we are going to capture them if it can be done," he added, sturdily.

The hired man had reloaded the shotgun and also brought some additional ammunition with him. He was nervous and the boys could readily see that he did not relish continuing the pursuit.

"We can't do nothin' in the dark," he grumbled. "Let us wait till morning."

"No, I am going after them now," answered Dick, decidedly.

"So am I," added Sam and Tom.

They were going forward as rapidly as the semi darkness would permit. The ground was more or less uncertain, and once the youngest Rover went into a mud hole, splashing the mud up into Jack Ness' face.

"Hi, stop that!" spluttered the hired man. "Want to put my eye out?"

"Excuse me, Jack, I didn't see the hole," answered Sam.

"It ain't safe to walk here in the dark--somebody might break a leg."

"If you want to go back you can do so," put in Dick. "Give Tom the shotgun."

"Oh--er--I'm goin' if you be," answered Jack Ness. He was ashamed to let them know how much of a coward he really was.

It was quite a distance to Swift River, which at this point ran among a number of stately willows. As the boys gained the water's edge they saw a boat putting out not a hundred feet away.

"There they are!" cried Dick.

"Stop!" yelled Tom. "Stop, unless you want to be shot!"

"We'll do a little shooting ourselves if you are not careful!" came back in a harsh voice.

"Take care! Take care!" cried Jack Ness, in terror, and ran to hide behind a handy tree.

The two men in the boat were putting down the stream with all speed. The current, always strong, soon carried them around a bend and out of sight.

It must be confessed that the boys were in a quandary. They did not wish to give up the chase, yet they realized that the escaping men might be desperate characters and ready to put up a hard fight if cornered.

"Jack, I think you had better run over to the Ditwold house and tell them what is up," said Dick, after a moment's thought. "Tell Ike and Joe we are going to follow in Dan Bailey's boat." The Ditwolds were neighboring farmers and Ike and Joe were strong young men ever ready to lend a hand in time of trouble.

"All right," answered the hired man, and set off, first, however, turning his firearm over to Tom.

The three Rover boys were well acquainted with the river, and had had more than one adventure on its swiftly flowing waters, as my old readers know. They skirted a number of the willows and came to a small creek, where they found Dan Bailey's craft tied to a stake. But there were no oars, and they gazed at one another in dismay.

"We might have known it," said Dick, in disgust. "He always takes the oars up to the barn with him."

The barn was a good distance off and none of the boys relished running that far for oars. More than this, they felt that by the time the oars were brought the other craft would be out of sight and hearing, and thus the trail of the midnight prowlers would be lost.

"Here is a bit of board," said Sam, searching around. "Let us use that for a paddle. The current will carry us almost as swiftly as if we were rowing. The main thing will be to keep out of the way of the rocks."

"I wish those chaps would run on the rocks and smash their boat to bits," grumbled Tom, who had gotten a stone in his loose shoe and was consequently limping.

The boys shoved the rowboat from the creek to the river and leaped in. Dick, being the largest and strongest, took the board and using it as a sweep, sent the craft well out where the current could catch it. Down the stream went the boat, with Sam in the middle and Tom in the stern. There was no rudder, so they had to depend entirely upon Dick, who stood up near the bow, peering ahead for rocks, of which the river boasted a great number.

"Those fellows must know this river," remarked Sam, as he started to lace his shoes, there being nothing else just then to do.

"They ought to--if they are the fellows who visited our henhouse before," answered Tom. "Dick, can you see them?"

"No, but I know they must be ahead."

"Perhaps they went ashore--just to fool us."

"They couldn't get ashore here very well--it is too rocky, you know that as well as I do. Listen!"

They listened, but the only sound that broke the stillness was the distant roar of Humpback Falls, where Sam had once had such a thrilling adventure, as related in "The Rover Boys at School." Even now, so long afterward, it made the youngest Rover shiver to think of that happening.

A minute later the boat came clear of the tree shadows and the boys saw a long stretch ahead of them, shimmering like silver in the moonbeams. Sam, looking in the direction of the opposite shore, made out a rowboat moving thither.

"There they are!" he cried.

At once Dick essayed to turn their own craft in that direction. But with only a bit of a board for a paddle, and with the current tearing along wildly, this was not easy. The rowboat was turned partly, but then scraped some rocks, and they were in dire peril of upsetting.

"I see where they are going!" cried Tom. "To the old Henderson mill."

"We'll have to land below that point," said his oldest brother. "If I try to get in there with only this board I'll hit the rocks sure."

"They are taking chances, even with oars," was Sam's comment. "See, they have struck some rocks!"

He was right, and the Rovers saw the boat ahead spin around and the two men leap to their feet in alarm. But then the craft steadied itself, and a moment later shot into the shadows of the trees beside the old flour mill.

It was not until five minutes later that Dick was able to guide their own rowboat to the shore upon which the mill was located. They hit several rocks, but at last came in where there was a sandy stretch. All leaped out, and the craft was hauled up to a point out of the current's reach.

"Now to get back to the mill as soon as possible, and corner those fellows if we can," said Tom, and without delay the three Rover boys started through the woods in the direction of the spot where the two men had landed.