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CHAPTER XXIII


AT CLOSE QUARTERS


"Say, you dun let my hosses alone!" cried the colored man, in fright.

"Don't you dare to drive away until you have answered our questions," returned Dick, firmly.

"I—I don't want to git in no trouble, boss—'deed I don't!" wailed the driver of the farm wagon.

"Well, you answer our questions, and tell us the strict truth."

"I—I didn't do nuffin, give you-all my word I didn't!"

"But you saw the auto, with the men and the girls in it?" cried Dick, sharply.

"Ye-as, sah, I—I did, sah," was the stammered-out reply.

"Where did you see them?"

"Down in Snagtown, sah."

"What were the folks in the auto doing?"

"Da was a-waitin' fo' one of de men to fix up de wheel. De rubber on de wheel dun got busted."

"I see. And what were the men in the auto, and the girls, doing?" went on Dick, quickly.

"Say, boss, I don't want no trouble, 'deed I don't! I didn't do nuffin! I jess looked at 'em. dat's all. An' dat one man he said he'd mak me suffer if I opened my mouf 'bout wot I saw," explained the aged colored man, in a trembling voice. I'se an honest, hard-workin' man, I is! I works fo' Massah Sheldon fo' sixteen years now, an' he'll dun tole yo'-all I'se honest, an——"

"All right, I believe you are honest," answered Dick, in a kindlier tone. "But those men are rascals, and we want to catch them. They carried those two girls off against their will."

"Dat's wot I was suspicioned of, boss, fo' de young ladies was a-cryin' hard an' wanted to git out, an' de men wouldn't let 'em. I wanted to do sumfing fo' 'em, but the men tole me go mind my own business, or git my haid busted, so I drove on."

"How many men were there?"

"Three men, 'sides de man wot was a-mendin' de busted wheel."

"The doctor and Crabtree and Sobber!" murmured Tom.

"Or Koswell and Larkspur," added Sam.

"How far away from here is that place?" went on Dick.

"About a mile an' a half, sah. But the road 'am putty stony an' rough, sah."

"Can a fellow ride horseback on those horses?"

"Yo might, sah, if yo' had a saddle. But da ain't no saddle. Is yo'-all thinkin' of goin'——"

"We'll take those horses," cut in Dick, shortly.

"Now, don't worry, we'll pay you well for using them, and see that they come back safely. We have got to save those two girls, and we'll put those men in prison if we can."

The old colored man was so amazed that he was all but bewildered. He did not want to let the horses go, but the boys gave him no choice in the matter. They unharnessed the steeds, and took the blankets on the wagon seat for saddles.

"Sam, I guess Tom and I had better go on ahead," said Dick. "You can follow on foot, if you want to, and you can come, too, if you wish," he added, to the colored man.

"Say, ain't you afraid ob gitting shot, or suming like dat?" asked the driver of the wagon.

"Maybe we can do a little shooting ourselves," answered Dick, grimly.

"Is yo'-all armed?"

"We are."

"Den I'll follow on foot, wid dis young gen'men," said the colored man. He was afraid that if he did not follow he would not get the team back.

Once on horseback, Dick and Tom did not linger. Along the rough, hill road they sped, urging the bony steeds along as best they could. Fortunately there were no side trails to bewilder them.

"I hope we get there in time," remarked Tom, as they proceeded.

"So do I," answered Dick. "If they had a blow-out it may take that chauffeur quite some time to put on a new inner tube and a shoe."

"If he had only busted his engine!" murmured Tom.

The way now became so rough that they had all they could do to keep on the horses, and they wondered at the men in the automobile traveling such a road.

"I suppose they came because it's so lonely," said Dick. "They knew they'd be sure to meet more or less carriages and wagons on the turnpike, and if the girls screamed they might be rescued."

At last they topped a hill and could see, on the top of the next hill, a deserted house, the first of the deserted village of Snagtown. This made them renew their efforts, and soon they were struggling up the hill towards the house.

"Hark!" burst out Tom, suddenly. "What's that?"

"An engine!" exclaimed his brother. "They must have started up their auto!"

"If that's the case, the wheel must be mended!"

"Yes! Come on, there is no time to lose!"

Past the deserted house they rode, and then around a turn where were located several other houses and barns. Then they came in sight of the deserted mill, down in a hollow by a stream. Further still was a bridge and not far from this structure stood a big, enclosed touring car painted dark blue!

"There it is! There's the auto!" cried Dick.

"And they are starting up!" added his brother.

"Hi! stop! Stop, you rascals!" he yelled. The horses clattered through the lonely street of the deserted village and the noise they made and the shouting, made those in the automobile look back.

"Two men on horseback!" cried one of the men.

"The Rover boys, Dick and Tom!" exclaimed another. "Hurry up!"

"It's old Crabtree!" cried Dick, as he saw the head of that individual thrust out of the touring
Rover Boys in the Air p243.jpg

JUST AS THE MACHINE REACHED THE OTHER SIDE, THE BRIDGE WENT DOWN WITH A CRASH.—Page 228.

The Rover Boys in the Air.


car. "And Tad Sobber!" he added, as a second head appeared.

"Stop! stop, you rascals!" continued Tom. "Don't you dare to go another step!"

"Save us! Save us!" came in girlish voices from the interior of the touring car. "Oh, Dick! Oh, Tom! Save us!"

"Hurry up—start her up!" screamed Tad Sobber frantically, to the chauffeur. "Put on all power!"

The driver was already in his seat and the motor was humming loudly. He threw in the low gear, and off the touring car started slowly. After it clattered Dick and Tom, still a hundred feet in the rear.

"Let me get out!" screamed Dora. "Oh, let me get out!"

"Yes! Yes!" pleaded Nellie. "Please let us get out!"

"Stop your noise and sit still!" commanded Josiah Crabtree. And he and Sobber and the third fellow forced the two girls back on the seat.

Dick and Tom urged the horses forward with all speed. But before they could reach the touring car, the chauffeur threw in second speed and then quickly changed to high, and away the automobile rattled, over the rickety bridge. The structure had not been built for such a weight, and, just as the machine reached the other side, the bridge went down with a crash.

"Look out!" yelled Dick, and the warning came none too soon, for both he and Tom were almost on the bridge. They turned their horses just in time, came to a sudden halt in some bushes, and stared blankly at each other.

"Gone!" cried Tom, hollowly. "Oh, what luck!"

"Quick, your pistol, Tom!" cried Dick, suddenly.

"But the girls——" began the other.

"Don't shoot at the car, shoot at the tires,'* explained Dick. And then he whipped out his own weapon, got into range, and began to blaze away. Each of the boys fired three shots. One hit the back lamp of the automobile, smashing the red glass, and another hit the differential case and glanced off. But the wheels remained untouched, and in a few seconds the big touring car was out of sight around a bend. The lads heard a scream from the two girls, and then all that reached their strained ears was the sound of the motor, growing fainter and fainter, until it died out altogether.

Dick and Tom felt sick at heart. They had been so near to rescuing the girls, and now they seemed as far off as ever! Each heaved a deep sigh.

"I suppose we can't follow them, with the bridge down," said Tom.

"We might ford the stream," said Dick. "But what would be the use of trying to follow on horseback? They know we are after them and they will put on all the speed possible."

"Well, what's to do next, Dick?"

"I don't know."

"I'm not going to sit still and do nothing."

"Neither am I, Tom. But what to do next I really don't know."