Chapter XXIII Back at Ashton - The Rover boys on a Tour by Edward Stratemeyer

The three Rovers listened in astonishment to what the auto-stage driver had to say concerning the sudden disappearance of Blackie Crowden.

"Then he must have jumped from the stage while you were running,"

remarked Dick.

"That's just what he did do, mister. And he took some chances, too, believe me, for I wasn't runnin' at less than twenty miles an hour."

"Did he have any baggage with him?" questioned Tom.

"He had a small handbag, that's all."

"Would you remember the place where he jumped off?" came from Sam, eagerly.

"Yes, it was on the road back of here--just before you turn into this highway."

"You mean the road that was so thick with dust?" remarked Tom.

"That's the place. He jumped off at a spot where the bushes are pretty thick, and there are three trees standin' close together just back of the bushes."

"I think I know that place," said Dick. "There is a small white cottage on the hillside just behind it."

"You've struck it," answered the stage driver. "I reckon as how he was goin' to call on somebody at the cottage. But why he didn't ask me to stop is a mystery. Why! he might have broken a leg gettin' off that way."

"That man is a criminal, and he did it to throw you off his track,"

announced Sam. "Do you know what I think?" he continued to his brothers.

"I think Blackie Crowden must have gotten on to the fact that we were at Fernwood, and made up his mind to clear out as soon as possible. Then he got afraid that we might question folks, including this stage driver, and so jumped from the auto-stage to throw us off his trail, provided we should follow the stage."

"I guess you have struck the nail on the head, Sam," answered his oldest brother. "But come on, let us see if we can find some trace of him." And in less than a minute more they had turned their machine around and were heading for the spot mentioned to them by the stage driver.

It was only a short run, and soon they halted beside the bushes hedging in three tall trees. Eagerly they looked around in all directions, but not a soul was in sight.

"I'm going up to the farmhouse," announced Sam.

"And I'll go with you," added Dick. "Tom, you stay down here and take a look around. If you see anything of him blow the auto horn three times."

At the farmhouse the two Rovers found themselves confronted by an elderly man and his wife, who looked at them rather curiously.

"No, there hasn't been anybody around here so far as I know," announced the farmer. "We haven't had a visitor for several days."

"I was out to the well about five minutes ago," put in his wife, "and if anybody had come up to the house or the barn I'd have seen him."

"The fellow we are after is a criminal," explained Dick, "so if you don't mind we'll take a look around for him."

"A criminal!" cried the farmer. "Say, that's bad! Certainly look around all you please, and I hope if he is anywhere near you'll catch him. I'd go around with you myself, only I can't very well on account of this rheumatism of mine."

The two Rovers walked around the cottage and the out-buildings but found not the least trace of Blackie Crowden. Then, rather crestfallen, they returned to the automobile.

"Perhaps there's some mistake and it wasn't Crowden at all," was Sam's comment.

"Well, it was a man who stuttered, anyway, and the general description fitted Crowden," answered his brother.

When they reached the automobile, they found Tom gazing curiously at a piece of newspaper which he had picked up from the ground. It was rather crumpled, as if it had been used for wrapping purposes.

"See anything of him, Tom?" asked Dick.

"No," was the answer. "But look here. Do either of you recognize this print?" He held out the paper, which was the lower half of a newspaper page. Part of this was devoted to reading matter and the rest to advertisements.

"Why, sure! I know that paper," cried Dick. "See that advertisement of The Russel Department Store and that advertisement of Betts' Shoe Store?

That's a part of the _Knoxbury Weekly Leader_."

"That's just what it is!" ejaculated Sam. "Where did you get that paper, Tom?"

"Found it right here beside the bushes. It looks as if it had been used to wrap something in."

"Then that proves two things," announced Dick, flatly. "One is that the man who stutters was really Blackie Crowden, for who else could have been here with something wrapped in a Knoxbury newspaper? And the other thing is that he did as the stage driver said--left that stage somewhere near here."

"Right you are, Dick," returned his youngest brother, "but that doesn't answer the question--where is he now?"

"I think he got on to the fact that we were in Fernwood, and that it was his business to get out just as quickly as he could," said Tom. "And if that is true it is more than likely that he is a good distance away from here by now and keeping to side roads where he thinks he will not be followed."

"But what brought him to Fernwood in the first place?" questioned Sam.

"Give it up. Of course, he may have friends or relatives here. But I don't know how we are going to find out the truth about that, and what good will it do us if we do?"

A half hour was spent in that vicinity, the boys tramping up and down the road and through the fields and woods looking for some trace of the missing man. Then they returned to Fernwood.

"I'm going down to the post-office to post our letters," announced Dick. "I'll see if the postmaster knows anything about Crowden."

The postmaster of Fernwood was a young man and glad enough to give what information he could when he heard what Dick had to say.

"Yes, that man was here several times," he remarked. "He seemed very anxious to get some letters, and he posted several letters himself, although whom they were addressed to I don't know."

"You haven't any idea where he was stopping?"

"Not the slightest." And this was all the postmaster could tell them.

"No use of our staying here any longer," announced Tom, when the boys had rejoined the others at the hotel. "I guess Crowden just came to this out-of-the-way place to get and send mail."

"Don't you think he'll come back, thinking there'll be some letters for him?" questioned his wife.
"We'll take care of that," was the reply. "We'll notify the local authorities and also the postmaster, so if Crowden turns up again he'll be arrested at once;" and this matter was attended to before they left the town.

Chester Waltham grumbled somewhat because the Rovers had not taken him along on the trip to Riverview, but the three brothers paid little attention to this, although Sam showed that he was rather anxious because of the way in which Grace stood up for the brother of her seminary chum.

It had been planned that the tour from Valley Brook to the west should be taken through Ashton, so one morning a few days later found the whole party in the old college town.

"Too bad that Brill and Hope are both closed for the season," remarked Dora. "We might have met some of our old friends."

"Well, it doesn't make much difference to me," grinned back Sam. "It seems like only yesterday since I graduated."

"I am glad my school days are over," announced Ada Waltham. "I never did care for studying."

Before proceeding farther, the Rovers had decided to call on the Sandersons, so they went away from the hotel at Ashton, leaving the Walthams behind. A letter had been sent ahead to Minnie, so she was not much surprised at their arrival. Her appearance, however, shocked them greatly. From looking round and ruddy her face had taken on a pale and careworn look.

"We are having all sorts of bad luck this year," she said, in answer to an inquiry of Dora, and while the boys had gone off to find Mr.

Sanderson, who was at the barn. "First came the loss of that money. Then father was taken sick, and now he tells me that the crops this year are not going to be nearly as good as usual."

"That is certainly too bad, Minnie," said Dora, sympathetically. "I wish we could do something to help you." She paused for a moment. "I suppose you hear from Songbird occasionally?"

"Oh, yes, he writes to me regularly. He is hard at work, and last week he sent father a check for one hundred dollars. This, of course, is a good deal of money for the poor fellow to scrape together, but it isn't much towards four thousand dollars."

"It certainly is too bad about the crops not being good," said Nellie, who, being the daughter of a farmer, knew exactly what such a calamity means to the average man who depends on the soil for his living.

"Father wouldn't mind it so much if it was not for this interest on the mortgage. You see he had expected to pay the whole amount off and that, of course, would stop the interest. Now he has to pay the usual amount, two hundred and forty dollars a year, which, you see, is twenty dollars a month. It worries him a good deal."

"Did you say Songbird sent him a hundred dollars?" questioned Grace, curiously.

"Yes. It was money he had earned and some that his folks had given him.

I am glad to say father didn't think much of accepting it at first,"

added Minnie, her face brightening a little. "But poor John urged it, so that at last he took it and sent it over to the bank."

"Then I suppose Songbird and your father are on fairly good terms now,"

remarked Dora.

"No, I am sorry to say that is not true, Dora. At first father seemed to get over it, but lately he has been as bitter as ever. You see, his sickness, and the bad crops, and the interest money to be paid on the mortgage, worry him a great deal, and he takes it all out on poor John.

He sticks to it that John should have been more careful while he was carrying such a large amount." Minnie turned her face away and two tears stole down her cheeks. "It's a shame--an awful, burning shame! But what in the world am I to do?"

"It surely is too bad, Minnie," said Dora, kindly, placing her arm around the girl's waist, while Nellie and Grace looked on sympathetically. "If we could help you at all we would do it. We have some news of Blackie Crowden, and the others have gone out to tell your father about it," and then she related what had occurred during the stop at Fernwood.

"Oh! if only they could find that fellow and get back the money!" sobbed Minnie. "But maybe the most of it has been spent," she added, dolefully.

"Oh, let us hope not!" cried Nellie. "He couldn't spend any such amount as that in so short a time."

"He might if he drank and gambled it away," put in her sister. "Oh, wouldn't it be too bad if they did catch this Blackie Crowden and then found that he had squandered all that money!"