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CHAPTER XXIV


AT THE SWAMP


"Where are they? Didn't you catch up to them? Who fired those shots?"

It was Sam who shouted the words, as he came up on a run, followed by the aged negro.

"They got away," answered Dick, bitterly. "We were just a minute too late!"

"Can't you go after them?"

"Not on horseback, Sam."

"And, if the horses were all right, look there!" cried Tom, and pointed to the fallen bridge.

"Down! What did it, the auto?"

"Yes."

"Fo' de lan' sake!" burst out the negro farm hand. "De bridge hab gone bust down! Say, how is we-all to git ober dat stream after dis?"

"I give it up," said Tom. "The authorities will have to rebuild it, I guess."

"Nobudy ain't gwine to do dat, boss. Kase why? Kase dis road was built fo' de mill an' de people wot lived heah. Now de mill ain't runnin' an' de people moved away, da ain't much use fo' the road, an' nobuddy ain't gwine to put up de bridge—an' Ike Henry, dat's me, has got to tote things 'round by de udder road after dis!" he added ruefully.

"Well, we can't bother about the bridge," replied Dick. "The authorities can fight it out with those fellows who are running the auto."

"But the shots?" queried Sam. He had dropped on a flat rock to rest.

"We tried to hit the tires—but we failed," explained Tom. "The auto was moving too fast, and the trees and bushes were in the way. Besides, we didn't want to hit the girls."

Dick and Tom walked down to the stream. It was not very deep and they concluded that they could easily get to the other side, by leaping from one bit of wreckage to another, thus keeping from getting wet, for at that season of the year the water was decidedly cold.

"Let us go over and climb to the top of the tnext hill," said Dick. "We may be able to see which direction the auto takes."

The others were willing, and telling the colored man to wait a while for them, and promising him good pay, they climbed over the sunken bridge to the other shore of the stream. Then they raced along the rocky road, around a bend, and up a steep hill that all but winded them.

"I see the machine!" cried Tom, who was the first to top the rise. "Look!" And he pointed with his hand, down in the valley that lay stretched out before them like a map in the gathering darkness.

At a great distance, moving at a fair rate of speed, was the enclosed touring car containing Dora and Nellie and their abductors. It was headed for a distant main road, lined here and there with farmhouses and outbuildings. Presently it turned into this mainroad, and started westward, at an increased rate of speed.

"My, see them streak along!" murmured Sam.

"They are evidently going to put as much distance as they can between themselves and us," returned Tom.

"Say, do you see any telephone wires?" asked Dick, anxiously.

"Not a wire," came from his brothers, after a long look for lines and poles.

"Neither do I. I guess they haven't any connections at those farmhouses, so it will be useless to walk there."

"But what shall we do, Dick?" asked Tom, impatiently. "We can't sit still and do nothing!"

"We'll go back to the Dartaway and fly after them."

"But the wind——" began Sam.

"It has gone down a little, I think, Sam. And anyway, we've got to take a chance it's the only thing left. If you don't want to go——"

"Dick, stop right there! If you go I'll go," cried the youngest Rover, firmly. "I'm as much interested in this as anybody, even though Grace isn't there," he added, with a show of color in his round cheeks.

But little more was said just then. The three boys ran down the hill to the stream and crawled back over the wreckage.

"I guess those horses can carry the lot of us," said Dick; and so it was arranged, Dick and Sam getting on the back of one steed and Tom and Ike Henry on the other. The boys asked the colored man about telephone connections, but he could give them little information excepting to state that his employer had no such convenience.

At last the boys reached the spot where they had come out of the woods after leaving the Dartaway and skirting the swamp.

"Have you a lantern on the wagon?" asked Dick, of Ike Henry.

"Yes, sah."

"Then we'll have to buy or borrow it, my man. Supposing I give you two dollars for the use of the horses and another dollar for the lantern, how will that strike you?"

"Dat's all right, boss," answered Ike Henry, who remembered that the lantern had cost but seventy-five cents.

Dick passed over the bills and received the lantern, which was filled with oil, and also a box of matches, which Ike Henry chanced to carry.

"Wot you-all gwine to do now?" asked the colored man, as he prepared to hitch up his team again.

"We are going back into the woods, where we left our flying machine," answered Tom.

"You-all be careful dat yo' don't git in de swamp. Dat am a terribul bad spot."

"We'll be careful."

"Tell me, where does that mainroad on the other side of the river run to?" put in Dick.

"Dat road?" queried Ike Henry. "Dat way or dat way?" and he motioned first to the east and then to the west.

"I mean to the westward."

"Why, dat's de way to git to Sherodburg an' Fremville."

"Do you know how far those places are?"

"Sherodburg am 'bout eight miles; Fremville am 'bout twenty or moah."

"All right. Come, on, boys," said Dick. "Goodnight, Ike."

"Good night, sah! Much erbliged!" cried the aged colored man. "Hope yo'-all dun catch dem rascals," he added earnestly.

"We'll do our best," answered Tom.

In a few seconds more the Rover boys had plunged into the woods. Here it was quite dark, and Dick took the lead, holding the lantern close to the ground, so that he might follow the trail he and his brothers had made on leaving the Dartaway. All were gratified to find that the wind had died down completely.

"I don't know how a run in the darkness will go," said Dick. "But we can try it. But I don't see how we are to steer."

"I've got my pocket compass with me," answered Sam. "That may help some. We know those towns are west of us. We can sail along until we see the lights and then go down and ask about the touring car."

"A good idea, Sam."

Skirting the swamp with only the rays from the lantern to aid them was no easy task, and once Tom slipped from a clump of rushes and went down over his ankles in soft mud.

"Hi! hi! help me out!" he yelled. "Quick, before I get in any deeper!"

"Stand still!" called back Dick, and placed the lantern in another clump of rushes. Then he caught hold of a tree that was handy and took a grip on Sam's hand. "Now catch hold of Tom," (he went on, and the youngest Rover did so. Then came a long and strong pull, and with a sucking sound, poor Tom came out of the sticky mud and landed beside his brothers.

"Wow! that's a mess!" said the fun-loving Rover, as he surveyed his feet, plastered thick with the mud.

"Stick to the dry ground after this," advised Dick. "Come on, the dead leaves will soon brush that mud off." And forward he went once more, holding the lantern as before. In a little while after this the swamp was left behind, and then progress through the woods was more agreeable.

"Dick, don't you think we ought to be getting to the Dartaway pretty soon?" asked Tom, after a quarter of an hour more had passed and they were still moving forward.

"Yes."

"It didn't seem so far away as this," put in Sam. "Are you sure you are following the trail?"

"You can see for yourselves," answered Dick, and held the lantern close to the ground.

"Footsteps, sure enough," murmured Tom. Then of a sudden he bent closer. "But look!" he cried. They are not ours!"

"What?" exclaimed his two brothers, in surprise.

"These footprints are not ours—they are altogether too big. We have picked up and are following the wrong trail!"