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- The Rover Boys at School - 3/38 -
AN ENCOUNTER ON THE ROAD
"I'll race you to the path," said Sam, when the woodshed was left behind.
"All right," answered Tom, who was always ready to run. "Toe the mark here. Now then -- one, two, three! Go!"
And away they went across the meadow, leaping two ditches with the agility of a pair of deer, and tearing through the small brush beyond regardless of the briers and the rents their nether garments might sustain. At first Tom took the lead, but Sam speedily overhauled and then passed him.
"It's no use -- you always could outrun me," panted Tom, as he came to a stop when Sam crossed the footpath ten yards ahead of him. "I can't understand it either. My legs are just as long as yours, and my lungs just as big, too, I think."
"You want to do your running scientifically, Tom. That athletic instructor in New York --"
"Oh, bother your scientific things, Sam! Uncle gives us enough of that, so don't you start in. I wonder if Dick has got a letter from Larry Colby? He promised to write last week. He is going to a boarding school soon."
"We'll know in a few minutes. I wonder where Larry -- Gracious, listen!"
Sam broke off short, as a loud cry for help reached their ears. It came from the footpath, at a point where it ran through a grove of beech trees.
"It's Dick's voice! He wants help!" burst from Tom's lips. "Come on!" and he set off as rapidly as his exhausted condition would permit. As before, Sam readily outdistanced him, and soon came upon the scene of a most brutal encounter.
A burly tramp, all of six feet in height, had attacked Dick Rover and thrown him upon his back. The tramp was now kneeling upon the prostrate boy's chest, at the same time trying to wrench a watch from Dick's vest pocket.
"Keep still there, or I'll knock you on the bead!" cried the tramp, as, letting go of the watch chain, he clapped a dirty hand over Dick's mouth.
"I -- won't -- kee -- keep still!" spluttered Dick. "Let -- me -- up!"
"You will keep still -- if you know what is best for you. I have your pocketbook, and now I am bound to have that watch and that ring."
"No! Don't rob me of the watch! It belonged to my father!" panted Dick, and as the watch came out of the pocket he made a clutch at it. "Help! help!"
"Will you shut up!" burst out the tramp fiercely, and struck at the youth with his fist.
It was at this juncture that Sam put in an appearance. A glance told him how matters stood, and without waiting an instant he came up behind the tramp, and, catching him by the shoulders, hurled him backward.
"Sam! Good for you!" burst out Dick joyfully. "Don't let him get away!"
"What do you mean, boy?" demanded the ruffian, as he turned over and leaped to his feet.
"You let my brother alone -- that's what I mean," was the answer.
"Give me my pocketbook and that watch!" went on Dick, for the tramp held both articles, one in each hand.
"Yes, I will -- not," was the ready reply, turning, suddenly, the tram started through the grove of trees on a run.
Without waiting, Sam ran after him followed by Tom, who had now arrived. Dick came behind, too much winded by being thrown on his back to keep up with them.
"He is making for the river!" cried Tom, after running for several minutes without gaining on the thief. "If he has a boat he'll get away!
"I don't think he has a boat, Tom. He looks like a regular tramp."
"We'll soon find out."
They could not see the ruffian, but they could hear him quite plainly as he crashed through the brush beyond the grove of trees. Then came a crash and a yell of pain.
"He has stumbled and fallen!" said Sam, and redoubled his speed. Soon he reached the spot where the tramp had gone down. He was about to proceed further when a well-known object caught his eye.
"Here is the pocketbook!" he burst out, and picked the article up. A hasty examination showed that the contents were intact; and the two boys continued the pursuit, with Dick still following.
They were now going downhill toward the river, and presently struck a patch of wet meadow.
"We must be careful here," observed Tom, and just then sank up to his ankles in water and mud. But the tramp could now be seen heading directly for the river, and they continued to follow him.
They were still fifty yards from the shore when Sam uttered a cry of dismay. "He's got a boat!"
"So he has. Stop there, you thief!"
"Stop yourself, or I'll shoot one of you!" growled the tramp, as he leaped into a flat bottom craft moored beside a fallen tree. He had no pistol, but thought he might scare the boys.
They came to a halt, and an instant later the flat-bottom craft shot away from the river bank. By this time Dick came up, all out of breath.
"So he has gotten away!" he cried in dismay.
"Yes," answered Sam, "but here is your pocketbook."
"And what of my watch -- the one father gave to me before he left for Africa?"
"He's got that yet, I suppose," said Tom.
At this Dick gave a groan, for the watch was a fine gold one which Mr. Rover had worn for years. Dick had begged for the timepiece, and it had been entrusted to him at the last moment
"We must get that watch back somehow!" he said. "Isn't there another boat around here?"
"There is one up to Harrison's farm."
"That is quarter of a mile away."
"I don't think there is any nearer."
"And the river is all of two hundred feet wide here! What shall we do?"
It was a puzzling question, and all three Of the boys stared blankly at each other. In the meantime, the thief had picked up a pair of oars and was using them in a clumsy fashion which showed plainly that he was not used to handling them.
"If we had a boat we could catch him easily," observed Tom. Then his eyes fell upon the fallen tree. "I have an idea! Let us try to get across on that! I won't mind a wetting if only we can get Dick's watch back."
"Yes, yes; just the thing!" put in his elder brother quickly.
All hands ran down to the fallen tree, which was about a foot in diameter and not over twenty-five or thirty feet in length. It lay half in the water already, and it was an easy matter to shove it off.
"We can't do much without oars or a pole," said Tom. "Wait a moment," and he ran back to where he had seen another fallen tree, a tall, slender maple sapling. He soon had this in hand; and, cleared of its branches, it made a capital pole. Dick and Sam sat astride of the tree in the water, and Tom stood against an upright branch and shoved off. The river was not deep, and he kept on reaching bottom without difficulty.
By this time the tramp was halfway across the stream, which was flowing, rapidly and carrying both boat and tree down toward a bend quarter of a mile below.
"Go on back, unless you want to be shot!" cried the man savagely, but they paid no attention to the threat as no pistol appeared; and, seeing this, the thief redoubled his efforts to get away.
He was still a quarter of the distance from the opposite shore, and the boys on the tree were in midstream, when Sam uttered a shout. "There goes one of his oars! We can catch him now -- if we try hard!"
It was true that the oar was gone, and in his anxiety to regain the blade the tramp nearly lost the second oar. But his efforts were unavailing, and he started to paddle himself to the bank, meanwhile watching his pursuers anxiously.
"We'll get him," said Dick encouragingly, when, splash! Tom went overboard like a flash, the lower end of his pole having slipped on a smooth rock of the river bottom. There was a grand splutter,
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