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CHAPTER XXVIII


AT THE OLD MANSION


After that the chauffeur became more communicative, and in a few words told how he had been engaged by Koswell and Larkspur to do a certain job that they said might take the best part of the afternoon and night. They had told him that a certain college professor at Brill had a wayward stepdaughter and that the daughter and her school chum had grossly insulted a lady teacher and were in danger of being arrested. The old professor wanted to get the two girls away and place them under the care of an old lady, a distant relative, who would know how to manage them. He had been promised fifty dollars if he would do the work and say nothing about it to anybody, he being informed that the old professor wanted to avoid all publicity and also wished to shield his stepdaughter.

"They told me first there were three girls," Went on the man. "And so there were, but one got away somehow, so then we took only the two."

"But you heard what the girls said, didn't you?" asked Dick, sharply.

"I was paying attention to running my car," mumbled the chauffeur.

"How about when I and my brother came after you on horseback? Why didn't you stop and find out what we wanted?"

"The young fellow, Sobber, said you were from the school where the young ladies attended and that maybe you wanted to arrest them. They made me go on."

"That sounds pretty fishy to me," returned Dick. "Still, I won't condemn you until this whole thing is cleared up. Just now we've got to find those young ladies."

"Going to leave me tied up?" cried the chauffeur.

"Yes, until we get back."

"That aint fair nohow!"

"Well, fair or not, that's the way it is going to be," put in Tom. "My own opinion is, you are almost as guilty as anybody. You didn't plan this thing, but you were perfectly willing to do your share in carrying it out."

The chauffeur begged and pleaded, but the three boys would not listen to him. All were eager to go on, to ascertain what had become of Dora and Nellie. They felt that the girls must be suffering intensely even though Mrs. Sobber was with them.

"No use of taking the lantern, we can easily find the way," said Dick. "I'd rather have the stick handy, and my pistol."

Leaving the chauffeur grumbling roundly, the three Rover boys hurried along the woodland trail. It made half a dozen turns, the last around a spring of pure cold water, which the tired-out lads could not resist. Each got a good drink and felt much refreshed. All were too excited to notice their hunger, even though they had not tasted a mouthful of food since the noon lunch.

"I see the house!" whispered Sam, presently, and pointed ahead, and his brothers nodded.

Set in a cleared space was an old stone mansion, two stories high, and with several wings. The porch was badly rotted, the chimney top gone, and the whole structure showed signs of decay. Around the place was what had once been a well-kept flower garden, now overrun with a tangle of dead flowers stalks and untrimmed rose bushes. Evidently no one had done any work around the place for several years.

"Just the kind of a place those chaps would pick out," whispered Dick to his brothers. "They never suspected anybody would trace 'em. I suppose they found out the old mansion was not being used, and they either hired it or took possesion without asking."

"I begin to think this was all a well-laid plot," said Sam.

"Sure thing," muttered Tom. "The only trip-up they made was when they didn't catch Grace as well as Nellie and Dora."

"And when old Crabtree dropped that visiting card," added Dick.

The boys saw that lights were burning in one of the lower rooms of the old mansion and in two of the upper rooms.

"I guess they are all there," said Dick.

"Can't we get closer and make sure?" pleaded Tom.

"We don't want them to see us, Tom."

"Why not?"

"Because it might spoil everything. Remember they are four or five strong, not counting the woman, and she would probably fight as hard as anybody, if cornered."

"Five?" queried Sam.

"Yes, counting that fellow the girls took for a doctor."

"Oh, yes, I'd forgotten him. The machine certainly had a load coming to the place."

"If the girls are there—and safe for the time being—I know what I'd like to do," went on the big brother, after a pause.

"What?"

"Go to the nearest town and notify the authorities, and make that whole crowd prisoners."

"That would be fine!" cried Tom. "But can we do it? They might try to slip away."

"That is true, although I doubt it. I think their plan is, now they are here, to lay low. They'll think they are perfectly safe here. Most likely they'll send some kind of a letter to dad, and to Mrs Stanhope and Mrs. Laning, asking for money, and then they'll wait for answers. They'll want us to pay a big sum for the release of Dora and Nellie."

"If only we could capture them ourselves!* murmured Tom, his eyes glistening. "Don't you think we can do it, with the sticks and pistols?"

"We might, Tom,—but it would be a big risk. Those fellows are desperate, Sobber especially, and they must be armed, too. There is no use of our getting shot if it can be avoided."

With extreme caution the three boys walked around the old mansion. In one of the upper rooms, the curtains of which had been drawn, they could make out several forms moving about.

"There, I think that was Nellie!" cried Tom, as a shadow appeared on the curtain.

"And there is that woman!" added Sam, as another form appeared and vanished.

"I'd like to know if Dora is there," murmured Dick.

They waited for a minute and saw several shadows pass and repass the curtain. They were sure Nellie was there but were not so certain about her cousin. The woman was Mrs. Sobber beyond a doubt.

"If they leave the girls in that room and alone—with that window unlocked——" began Dick.

"The woman may stay with them," interrupted Tom.

"Get back—somebody is coming!" whispered Sam, and dragged his brothers down, behind some rose bushes.

Two persons were coming out of the old mansion. One carried a lantern and what looked to be some bed slats and the other a ladder. They were Tad Sobber and Jerry Koswell.

"Do you think the ladder is long enough?" they heard Koswell ask.

"I guess so—I'll soon see," answered Tad Sobber.

The pair walked around to the side of the house and the ladder was placed in position under the window of the room the boys had been watching. Then Sobber went up with the slats, and some nails and a hammer, and commenced to nail the slats across the window.

"He's going to make a regular prison cell of the room!" whispered Tom. "Oh, if only I dared to run in and yank that ladder from under him!" he added, with grim humor.

"Hush, or they'll hear you," warned Dick. "I am glad to see this," he went on, in a low whisper. "It shows that they think they haven't been followed and are safe. Now to get to the nearest town, notify the authorities, and bag the bunch of them!"

"If we could only get some word to the girls," murmured Tom.

"Yes, Tom, that would be very nice. But we can't afford to take the chance. If some of those rascals get away, sooner or later they'll make more trouble for us."

"I know that."

"I think one of us might remain here on guard, while the others go to town for help."

"How are you going to get to town?"

"I've got a plan for that," and Dick smiled faintly. "I'll make our friend, the chauffeur, do us a good turn."

"What, will you go in that touring car?" cried Sam.

"Why not? It's a big, roomy car, and can carry a lot of officers of the law. And we know it can make speed."

"All right, Dick, go ahead. I guess you know the right thing to do."

After a few words, it was decided that Tom should remain on guard while Dick and Sam went for assistance. Dick cautioned Tom not to show himself.

"If you do, you may spoil everything," said he.

"All right, I'll lay low," answered Tom, "that is, unless I find out that the girls actually need me," he added. "I won't stand it if that old woman, or Crabtree, ill-treats them."

"No, if they try that, sail in and do what you can to save them," said Dick.