Chapter XXII On the Trail - The Rover boys on a Tour by Edward Stratemeyer

The Ludding House was on the side street of the town, about three blocks from the hotel at which our friends were stopping. When the two Rovers arrived there they found the dining-room had just closed and only two men and an elderly woman were in sight.

"We are looking for a man who was around here--I think his name was Blackie Crowden," said Sam. "He is a man who stutters very badly."

"Oh, yes, I remember that fellow," returned one of the men who worked around the hotel, "He was here for lunch."

"Can you tell me where he is now?"

"No, I cannot."

"That man who stuttered so terribly said something about going to Stockbridge," put in the woman. "Perhaps he was going there."

"On foot?"

"I don't think so. Most likely he took the stage. That left about ten minutes ago."

"Was the man alone?" asked Tom.

"I think he was, although I am not sure. He came in during the lunch hour and after that I saw him talking to a salesman who had been staying here--a man who just went off on the train."

"You mean a man who went off to catch the train," grinned Tom. "He didn't get it, and he's as mad as a hornet on that account."

The two Rovers asked several more questions and found out that the stage which left Fernwood twice a day passed through Stockbridge on its way to Riverview, six miles farther on.

"They used to use horses," explained the hotel man, "but last year Jerry Lagger got himself an auto, so he makes the run pretty quick these days."

"Come on, Sam, let's get one of our autos and follow that stage," cried Tom, and set off on a run for the other hotel, quickly followed by his brother. They burst in on Dick just as the latter was posting the letter which he had written to their father.

"Say! that would be great if it was Blackie Crowden and we could capture him," cried Dick, on hearing what they had to say. "You get the auto ready while I tell the others where we are going."

"It's a pity Stockbridge and Riverview are not on our regular tour," was Sam's comment.

"Oh, it's just as well," answered Tom. "We may have lots of trouble with this fellow Crowden, and it will be just as well if the girls and the ladies are not in it."

One of the touring cars was quickly run to the front of the hotel, and a moment later Dick, who had rushed upstairs to explain matters to the others, came out and joined his brothers. Tom was at the wheel, and he lost no time in speeding up the car, and on they went along the dusty road in the direction of Stockbridge.

"I do hope they catch that fellow and get back Mr. Sanderson's money,"

was Grace's comment, as she watched the departure of the touring car out of one of the upper windows of the hotel.

"What's it all about?" asked Ada Waltham, who had not been present when Dick had burst in on the others. She was quickly told and then asked: "Why didn't they take my brother along with them?"

"I don't know, I am sure, Ada," answered Grace. "Perhaps he wasn't around."

"He was down in the writing-room with Dick."

"Well, I am sure I don't know why he isn't with them," was the reply.

"I don't think they are treating Chester just right," retorted the rich girl, rather abruptly, and then left the room with her nose tilted high in the air.

"What a way to act!" murmured Nellie.

"I am afraid that sooner or later we will have some sort of rupture with the Walthams," was Dora's comment. She gave a little sigh. "Too bad! I should hate to have anything happen to spoil this tour."

"Well, I don't think the boys treat Chester Waltham just right,"

returned Grace, somewhat coldly. "They treat him as if he were a stranger--an outsider," and then she, too, left the room, leaving her sister and Dora to gaze at each other questioningly.

Along the dusty road sped the touring car, Tom running as rapidly as safety would permit. Soon Fernwood was left far behind and they began to ascend a slight hill.
Presently they came to a crossroad, and here they had to stop to study a much-faded signboard, so as to decide which was the proper road to take.

Even then, as they continued their way, they were all a little doubtful.

"That signboard was so twisted it didn't point right down this road,"

was Sam's comment. "It would be just like some boys to twist it out of shape just for the fun of sending folks on the wrong road."

"Well, I played a joke like that myself, once," confessed Tom.

"Then if we are on the wrong road on account of some boys' tricks, Tom, you'll simply be getting paid back for what you did," returned his older brother.

Half a mile more was covered, and then the road grew rapidly worse. Tom had slowed down, and was just on the point of stopping when a low hissing sound reached the ears of all.

"Good-night!" was Tom's comment.

"What is it, Tom, a puncture?" queried Sam.

"Oh, no, it's only a gas well trying to find its way to the surface of the ground," was the dry comment. "Everybody out and to work!"

They leaped to the ground and soon saw that Sam's conjecture was correct. A sharp stone had cut into one of the front shoes, making a hole about as large in diameter as a slate pencil.

"Might know a thing like this would happen just when we were in a hurry," grumbled Dick.

"Never mind, now is our time to make a record," came cheerfully from Sam. He glanced at his watch. "Four minutes after two. Come on, let us see how quickly we can get that new tire on."

All threw off their coats and caps and set to work in the shade of some trees. While one jacked up the car, another worked to get off the damaged shoe and inner tube. In the meanwhile, the third got ready another shoe with an inner tube, and thus working hand in hand the three got the new tire in place and pumped up in less than ten minutes.

While Dick and Sam were putting away the tools, Tom walked a bit ahead on the road. He looked around a turn, and then came back much crestfallen.

"Well, I'm paid back for monkeying with those road-signs years ago," he announced. "The fellows who fixed that sign some distance behind us have got one on me. This is nothing but a woods road, and ends in the timber right around the bend."

"Which means that we have got to turn back and take the other road," put in Sam, quickly.

"That's it! Some fun turning around here," was Dick's comment. "It's about as narrow as it was on that road where they were doing the blasting."

"Oh, I guess I can make it," answered Tom; and then all got in the car once again.

By going ahead and backing half a dozen times, Tom at last managed to get the touring car headed the other way. Then he put on speed once more and they raced off to where they had made the false turn.

But all this had taken time and as a consequence, although they ran along the other highway at a speed of nearly forty miles an hour, they saw nothing of the auto-stage which had gone on ahead.

"I guess this is Stockbridge," was Dick's comment, a little later, as they came in sight of a straggling village. Several buggies and farm wagons were in sight and likewise a couple of cheap automobiles, but nothing that looked like a stage.

"Has the auto-stage from Fernwood got in yet?" questioned Sam of a storekeeper who sat in a tilted chair under the wooden awning of his establishment.

"Yes, it got in some time ago," was the drawled-out reply of the storekeeper.

"Then has it gone on to Riverview?" queried Dick.

"Reckon it has, stranger."

"Do you know if any passengers got off here?" asked Tom.

"Old Mrs. Harrison got off."

"Anybody else?"

"I didn't see anybody else,--but then I wasn't watchin' very closely,"

explained the storekeeper.

The only other persons in sight besides the storekeeper were two children, too small to be questioned about the stage passengers. The Rovers looked at each other questioningly.

"Might as well go right through and follow that stage," said Dick. "If he is on board, there is no use of letting him get away. If he isn't, we can come back here and look for him."

The others deemed this good advice, and in a moment more they left Stockbridge at a rate of speed which made the storekeeper leap up from his comfortable chair to gaze after them in amazement.

"Some of them speeders," he murmured to himself. "If they don't look out they'll be took in for breakin' the law."

For a mile or more the road outside of Stockbridge was fairly good.

Beyond, it grew poorer and poorer, and Tom had to reduce speed once more for fear of another puncture, or a blowout. As they sped along the highway all the youths kept a sharp lookout for Blackie Crowden, but no one came in sight who answered in the least to the description of that individual.

"I'm sure I'd know him if I saw him," said Sam, who had studied a copy of the man's photograph.

"So would I," answered Tom. "He's got a face that is somewhat unusual;"

and to this Dick agreed.

On and on they went, the road now being little more than a country lane.

Here the dust was about six inches deep, and a big cloud floated behind the machine.

"Almost looks as if we were on the wrong road again," observed Dick. But hardly had he spoken when they came out to another crossroad. Here a signboard pointed to the left, and the highway was as good as any they had yet traveled.

"Only one mile more!" cried Sam.

"It won't take long to cover that," answered Tom, and then turned on the power, and in less than two minutes more they were approaching the center of Riverview, a fair-sized town located on the stream which gave it its name.

"There is the auto-stage, drawn up in front of the hotel," announced Sam.

"Yes. And it's empty," answered Dick.

The driver of the auto-stage was at the town pump getting a drink of water. He looked at the three Rovers curiously as they confronted him.

"Did I have a passenger that stuttered?" he repeated in answer to their question. "I sure did have such a fellow. Why, he stuttered wo'se than any man I ever heard. And he whistled too. Awful funny. Why, I had all I could do to keep from laughin' in his face."

"We want to find that man very much and right away," announced Dick.

"Will you let us know where you let him off?"

"That's a funny thing, mister," announced the auto-stage driver. "You see, after we left Stockbridge I didn't have nobody in but that man. He paid me the fare to this place before I started. Then when we was about half-way here I looked around in the back of the stage and, by gum! he was gone."

"Gone!" came from the three Rovers.
"Yes, sir, he was gone. I looked back and there he stood on the side of the road. As soon as he saw that I saw him, he waved his hand to me and disappeared."