Chapter V. At the Old Mill
 

The Henderson mill was now largely so only in name. So far back as the Rover boys could remember, it had been a tenantless structure going slowly to decay. The water wheel was gone, and so were the grinding stones, and the roof and sides were full of holes. Henderson, the owner, had years ago fallen heir to a fortune, and had moved away, leaving the building at the mercy of the tramps who frequently stopped there.

It was no easy matter to climb around or over the rocks which lay between the boys and the old mill, and the darkness under the thick trees was intense. They felt their way along slowly, and Tom was careful to carry the shotgun with the barrel pointed downward, that there might be no accident.

"More than likely those fellows have been putting up at the old mill," said Dick.

"They'll leave now--if they think we are coming," answered Sam.

"Let us keep quiet," put in Tom. "If they hear us talking they will surely skip out."

After that but little was said. Foot by foot they drew closer to the dilapidated structure, until it loomed up dimly before them. Then Dick motioned for the others to halt.

With bated breath the boys listened. At first they heard little but the rushing of the water over the rocks. Then came a sudden cracking of a rotten floor board, followed by an exclamation.

"Confound the luck! I've put my foot through the floor again," growled a man's voice. "Shelley, why don't you light the lantern? Do you want me to break my neck?"

"If I light the lantern the Rovers may come here," was the answer from the man called Shelley.

"Oh, they went down the river I saw them."

"They may have turned in nearby."

Some more words followed, but spoken so low that the boys could not understand them. They heard a faint creaking of the flooring of the old mill, but that was all.

"They are there, that's certain," whispered Dick. "But I don't see how we are going to capture them in this darkness."

"I wish we had a lantern," said the youngest Rover.

"We wouldn't dare to light it, Sam," answered Tom. "Let us crawl up close to the building. Maybe we can find out something more about the men. They may be some good for nothing fellows from the village."

As there seemed nothing else to do, this advice was followed, and soon the boys were at one of the broken out windows of the mill. They listened and looked inside, but saw and heard nothing.

"They are not here," whispered Sam, disappointedly.

"They are not far off," answered his big brother confidently.

"Look!" came from Tom. "A light!"

He pointed through the window to the flooring inside. From between the loose boards shone several streaks of light. As the boys gazed the light vanished and all was as dark as before.

"They are in the lower room, the one where the water wheel used to be," whispered Tom. "Maybe that is where they have been hanging out."

"Come after me--but don't make any noise," said Dick, cautiously. "If they have gone into the second room down there maybe we can make them prisoners!"

"That's the idea!" cried Sam. "Just the thing!"

"Hush, Sam, or you'll spoil all."

Scarcely daring to breathe, now that they knew the strange men were so close, the three Rover boys walked to the open doorway of the old mill and went inside. Dick led the way and crossed to where an enclosed stairs ran to the floor below. On tiptoes he went down, not trusting a step until he was sure of his footing. It was well he did this, for two of the steps were entirely rotted away, and he had to warn his brothers, otherwise one or another might have had a fall.

Standing in the wheel room of the old mill the boys saw another streak of light, coming from the room which Dick had suggested. The door to this was closed, a bolt on the inner side holding it in place. There was another bolt on the outside, which Dick remembered having seen on a previous visit.

"We can lock them in if we wish," he whispered.

"Do it," answered his brothers promptly.

The bolt was large and old fashioned, and Dick had considerable trouble in moving it into its socket. It made a rasping sound, but this was not noticed by the two men, who were conversing earnestly.

"Well, we made a mess of it," growled the man called Shelley.

"So we did. But I didn't think that hired man would wake up. Neither of us made a bit of noise. He must be a light sleeper."

"I only hope they think we were after chickens, Cuffer. If they knew the truth--" The man named Shelley broke off with a coarse laugh.

"Well, we got chickens the other night, didn't we?" and now the man called Cuffer laughed also. "But say, this is getting serious," he went on presently. "Merrick expects us to do this job for him and do it quick, and he won't like it at all when he finds out how we have missed it."

"We can't do the impossible. Those Rovers are too wide awake for us."

"They certainly were too wide awake for Merrick in that traction company bond matter. He was a chump not to sell those bonds as soon as he got hold of them."

"He didn't dare--he was afraid the market was being watched."

"What does he want of those papers, anyway?"

"I don't know exactly. But you know what he said--there would be a small fortune in it for us if we got 'em. He says he's got some papers --or a map I guess it is--but he wants these papers, too. He didn't dare show himself around here--you know the reason why."

"Sure--those Rovers would recognize him, even if he tried to disguise himself."

Dick, Tom and Sam listened to this conversation with keenest interest and amazement. These men had mentioned the name of Sid Merrick, the rascal who had in the past tried so hard to harm them and who had up to the present time escaped the clutches of the law. Evidently they were in league with Merrick and under his directions.

"We must capture those fellows by all means," whispered Tom, excitedly. "If we do, maybe we can find out where Merrick is."

"Yes, and Tad Sobber, too," added Sam, who had not forgotten the poisonous snake episode at Putnam Hall.

"They weren't after chickens--that was only a blind," said Dick. "They want to get something from the house--some papers that Merrick wants."

"They must be valuable," said Sam.

"Father has all sorts of valuable papers," went on Tom. "Bonds, deeds to mining properties, and such. But I thought he had the most of those in a safe deposit vault in the city."

"So he has," answered Dick. "Maybe these fellows would be fooled even if they got into Uncle Randolph's house. They--Listen!"

Shelley and Cuffer had begun to talk again. They mentioned a tramp steamer called the Josephine, and Shelley said she was now in port being repaired. Then the conversation drifted to sporting matters, and Cuffer told how he had lost a hundred dollars on a prize fight.

"That's why I'm here," he added. "And I want some money the next time I see Sid Merrick."

"He won't give us any unless we--" said Shelley, and the boys did not hear the end of the sentence, for the speaker tried the door as he spoke, throwing the inner bolt back. Of course with the outer bolt in place, the door refused to budge. The boys drew back, and Tom raised the shotgun and Dick his pistol.

"The door is caught!" cried Shelley, and pushed on it as hard as he could.

"What!" exclaimed Cuffer and leaped forward. He, too, tried to move the barrier. "This is a trick! Somebody has bolted the door on the outside."

"Was there a bolt there?"

"Yes, a heavy one, too."

"Then somebody has trapped us!"

"Open that door!" sang out Cuffer, before his companion could stop him.

"We are not going to open that door," answered Dick, in an equally loud voice. "We have got you fast and we intend to keep you so."

"Who are you?"

"I am Dick Rover, and my two brothers are with me. We are well armed, and we'll shoot if you try to break that door down."

"Caught!" cried Shelley in a rage, and then uttered several exclamations under his breath.

"What are you going to do?" asked Cuffer, after a moment of silence.

"Hold you prisoners until we can get help and then turn you over to the officers of the law."

"We haven't done anything wrong."

"That remains to be seen."

"You haven't any right to lock us in here."

"Then we take the right," answered Tom grimly.

"Let us smash the door down," came in a low tone from inside the room.

"If you try it we'll surely fire," said Dick, and cocked his pistol so the men might hear the click. Tom did the same with the shotgun.

"See here, you let us out and we'll make it all right with you," remarked Shelley, after another pause. "We are not the bad fellows you take us to be. We were only going to play a joke, that's all."

"I suppose you think Sid Merrick's doings are a joke, too," said Sam, before he had time to think twice.

"Ha! what do you know of Merrick?" ejaculated Cuffer. "They must have been listening to our talk," he added, in a low tone to his companion.

"Yes, and if so, we are in a bad box," answered Shelley. "I'd give a good deal to be out of here just now."

"Talk to them, while I take a look around," continued Cuffer, struck by a sudden idea.

Shelley did as told, pleading with the three Rovers to let him go and offering to pay fifty dollars for his liberty. He talked in a loud tone, to cover up what noise his companion might make. The boys listened, but refused to open the door until some sort of help should arrive, or until morning came.

"Sam, you go outside and see if Jack and the Ditwolds are anywhere around," said Dick, and the youngest Rover departed immediately.

Presently Tom and Dick heard Cuffer give a cry of pain.

"You've stepped on my sore toe!" howled the man. "Phew! how it hurts!"

The two men talked about the hurt toe for several minutes. Then their voices suddenly ceased. Tom and Dick strained their ears, but could hear absolutely nothing.

"They must be up to some trick," whispered the eldest Rover. "Hi, you, what are you doing?" he called out.

There was no answer and the silence was just as ominous as before. The light in the inner room had gone out.

"What are you doing?" repeated Dick, and ran close to the door to listen. Nothing but absolute silence followed.

What to do next the two boys did not know. They waited for fully five minutes--then five more. Presently they heard Sam coming back.

"I yelled for Jack and the others, but I got no answer," said he. "What are the men doing?"

"We don't know," answered Tom. "We are afraid they are up to some trick."

"A trick?" repeated Sam. Then he gave a gasp. "The room--isn't there a back door, leading out to the shed?"

"I don't know," answered Dick.

"I'll run and see."

Sam was gone less than two minutes when they heard a cry, and then he pounded on the door they had so carefully guarded.

"There is a back door and it is wide open. The men have gone!" was his dismaying announcement.