STUCK ON THE ROAD

Twice Dave tried to back the car and then go ahead, but without avail.
The machine settled down still farther in the mud of the road, and there
it stuck.

“Now what are we going to do?” demanded the senator’s son, impatiently.

“I don’t know, Roger,” was the slow reply. “We’ve got to do something—we
can’t stay in this mud-puddle all day.”

“It’s an outrage that they marked this road for a detour,” continued
Roger. “Why, a team of horses would have all they could do to get
through such a spot as this!”

“I guess I’ll have to get out for help,” said Dave. “Too bad! To think
of getting stuck inside of three hours after leaving home!” and he made
a grimace.

There was no help for it, and, reaching over into the tonneau of the
car, Dave got out a pair of rubbers and put them on; and Roger did the
same. Then both leaped out of the car and made their way to where the
footing was fairly firm.

“The road seems to be pretty good farther on,” announced our hero, after
an examination. “But I’m afraid we’ll have to get somebody with a team
of horses or oxen to pull us out of that hole. The car will never do it
under its own power.”

They walked on, and presently came in sight of a farm nestling in a
small valley beyond the hill. They walked up to this, and found a farmer
in the barnyard, cleaning the mud from one of his horses.

“Well, gentlemen, what can I do for you?” hailed the man, as they walked
up.

“I guess we got here just in time,” returned Dave. “There’s no use in
finishing that cleaning until you’ve done a little job for us.”

“Eh? What’s that?” demanded the farmer curiously.

The chums explained the situation, and the farmer, whose name was
Rawson, readily agreed to take two of his horses and the necessary
tackle and assist them in getting the automobile out of the mud. In less
than ten minutes the three were on their way to where the car was
stalled. Mr. Rawson went to work quickly and with a precision that
showed he knew exactly what he was doing.

“As soon as I give the word, you turn on your power and throw her into
low gear,” he said. “I think we’ll have you out of this in a jiffy.”

And so it proved, the car coming up from the mud by the combined power
of itself and the horses with hardly an effort. Then the team was
unhooked, and Dave ran the car along the highway to where the farmer
said farther traveling would be perfectly safe.

“By the way, we are on a rather peculiar errand around here,” said Dave,
after he had settled for the farmer’s services. “May I ask if you have
seen any gypsies in this vicinity during the last couple of weeks?”

“I don’t know about their being gypsies,” answered Mr. Rawson. “I had
some trouble with a couple of tramps who robbed my chicken-coop about
ten days or two weeks ago. I found they had been camping out in one of
our sheds down in the woods. They wore bandana neckerchiefs and
bright-colored vests.”

“That sounds as if they were gypsies! What became of them?”

“I can’t tell you about that. You see, one night we lost two of the
chickens, and so I set a watch, and the next night I saw these two
fellows sneaking up toward the house. I had my shotgun, and asked them
what they wanted, and both of them dived out of sight behind some bushes
and then ran for the woods. I followed them as far as the shed, and
after that I lost track of them, and I’ve never seen them since. The
next day I went down to the shed, thinking they might be hanging around
somewhere, and there I saw they had been camping out in the shed, and
saw where they had cooked the chickens and eaten them.”

“That sounds pretty interesting,” said Dave. “But I hardly think those
fellows could have been the men we are looking for. The gypsies we are
trying to spot must have had some money, and I don’t think they would
camp out in that shed you mention. However, I’m going to remember it,”
he added.

The chums questioned the farmer further, but got very little
satisfaction. Then the journey in the automobile was resumed.

“What makes you think those fellows could not have been Bopeppo and
Vazala?” questioned Roger, when they were once again speeding along the
highway.

“I think this kidnapping was conducted in a much more high-toned
fashion—if you can call it that, Roger. Those gypsies who used to camp
on the outskirts of Crumville were far from poor. In fact, I have an
idea that old Mother Domoza is really wealthy.”

“What! Wealthy, and live like that?”

“Exactly. I think she’s a first-class miser. A good many of the gypsies
are—especially the older ones. They pretend to be very poor, but they
own all sorts of jewelry, precious stones, and, very often, quantities
of gold coin. They won’t trust the banks, but carry the stuff around
their person, or else bury it somewhere.”

“But these fellows might have been frightened over something, and gone
into hiding on that account,” suggested Roger.

“That may be—and I don’t intend to forget what Mr. Rawson said,”
answered Dave. “It’s also possible that those two fellows may have been
just hangers-on, who helped Bopeppo, Vazala and Mother Domoza, and maybe
Nick Jasniff, to commit the crime.”

By noon the chums had stopped at one more way station, and also at one
of the water tanks near where the hot box on the train had been
discovered. They went up and interviewed the man in charge of the tank,
but he could give them no satisfaction.

“I can’t tell you who left the train or who got on board,” he said. “I
went down to look at the hot box along with the engineer, and I helped
him get some water, and I didn’t pay much attention to anything else.”

“Have you seen any fellows around here who look like gypsies?”
questioned Dave.

“Yes. I saw a couple of that class of men walking up the track either
the day before that train came along or the day after. I’ve been trying
to make up my mind which day it was since I read about this kidnapping,
but I can’t say for sure.”

Leaving the vicinity of the water tank, the chums continued along the
highway which ran within sight of the railroad. Reaching a convenient
spot in the shade of a big tree, and where there was a spring and a
watering trough, they came to a halt and there enjoyed a portion of the
lunch they had brought along, washing it down with a drink of pure, cold
water.

“Well, we haven’t learned anything yet that is worth while,” remarked
Roger, during the course of the meal.

“I didn’t expect it was going to be any easy kind of a job,” Dave
replied. “Even if we get the slightest kind of clue to this mystery,
Roger, we can think ourselves lucky.”

“Oh, I know that.”

During the afternoon they stopped at five other places, putting to the
people they met the questions which they had been asking all along the
line. In every instance, however, no one could give them any
information, although most of the men and women were very anxious to
learn if anything had been heard of the missing girls.

“I hope those kidnappers are caught,” said one of the men at the last
station at which they stopped. “They are not fit to be at large.”

“They ought to be hung!” declared his wife emphatically. “Why, since I
heard about the disappearance of those two girls, I haven’t dared to let
my little girl and boy leave the house! It’s terrible! I do so hope they
catch those rascals and punish them well!”

Evening found the chums at the town of Chesleyville, and here, as there
was a fairly good hotel, they resolved to remain for the night. They
drove around to the hotel and left the car in the garage attached to the
hostelry, and then made arrangements for a room and meals. They had
supper, and then Dave suggested that they take a walk down to the
railroad station and in the vicinity of the freight yard.

“I don’t know whether we’ll learn anything or not, but we can’t afford
to miss any chances,” was the way he expressed himself.

“That’s the talk!” cried Roger. “We don’t want anything to get away from
us.”

They had quite a talk with the station agent and a number of others,
including a young fellow who had charge of a news-stand.

“I’ve seen pictures of those girls who were kidnapped,” declared the
youth, “and unless I am greatly mistaken, one of them—the taller of the
two—bought a magazine and a weekly from me.”

This was interesting information, and the two lost no time in
questioning the youth closely. He described the taller of the two girls,
telling how she had been dressed and what sort of hat she had worn. The
description of the suit and the head covering tallied closely with what
Mrs. Wadsworth had said Laura had worn.

“What did she buy—do you remember that?” questioned Roger. And thereupon
the news vendor mentioned a popular monthly magazine and an equally
popular weekly.

“And you saw the other girl?” asked Dave.

“Yes, at the car window. She didn’t get out, but the other girl went to
the open window and asked her what she wanted, and then she came back
and got the weekly. That was after she had bought the magazine. She
dropped her hand-bag and had to turn around to pick it up, and that’s
how I came to notice her.”

This was all the youth could tell, but it was something, and the chums
returned to the hotel in a thoughtful mood.

“If that really was Laura, and if the girl in the car was Jessie, then
that proves one thing,” remarked Dave. “They weren’t kidnapped anywhere
between here and Crumville.”

“And that means that it did happen somewhere between here and Boston,”
added Roger. “But, gracious, Dave! it’s a long way from here to that
city!”

Neither of the young civil engineers felt in the humor for retiring
early, so they passed into the reading-room of the hotel, to glance at
one or two of the newspapers. Dave was perusing an article in reference
to the disappearance of the girls, and Roger was deep in some news from
Washington which affected his father, when both were startled by an
exclamation made by some one who had stepped from the outside to a broad
window which opened upon a veranda of the hotel.

“Who was that?” asked Roger, as he looked up just in time to see
somebody disappearing from view.

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” answered Dave.

Struck by the peculiarity of the movement which had taken place, both
walked over to the window and looked outside. Here all was in
semi-darkness, the only light coming from the hotel and a small street
lamp some distance away. They saw the figure of a young man hurrying
down the street, and as the individual passed under the street light, he
pulled up the collar of his coat and pulled down the soft hat he wore.

“Whoever he was, he got out in a mighty hurry,” was Roger’s comment.

To this Dave did not answer. He was wondering who the strange individual
could be.

“Did you see his face at all, Dave?”

“No. Did you?”

“Not at all. He left the window so quickly I didn’t catch more than a
glance of the side of his body.”

“He certainly left in a mighty hurry,” mused our hero.

“Dave, do you imagine it might have been Nick Jasniff?” asked the
senator’s son excitedly.

“I thought of that, Roger. As the fellow passed under that lamp-post his
form looked something like Jasniff’s. But that is rather a wild guess—a
good many fellows might possess his general make-up.”

The two chums went back to their newspapers, and half an hour later they
retired to their room. Both arose early, thinking to look over the
automobile before breakfast, so that they might be ready to start off
immediately after eating. When they reached the hotel garage, they found
the colored man who was in charge very much excited.

“You gemmen didn’t send nobody down here to get your car, did you?” he
questioned quickly.

“We certainly did not!” cried Dave.

“Has any one been here to get the car?” questioned the senator’s son.

“A young fellow was here at your machine,” answered the colored man. “I
jest stepped over to the hotel to ask the clerk to order some more
gasoline, we runnin’ short. When I came back the fellow was at your car.
I thought at first it was one of you gemmen, but as soon as I called to
him he jumped from the car and went out the back door.”

“How long ago was this?” burst out Dave.

“Not over five minutes ago, boss. I called to the fellow and ran after
him, but he jumped over the back fence and got away.”

“Was he a tall young fellow with a soft hat?” queried Roger.

“He was.”

“He must have been the same chap who looked in at the hotel window!”
went on the senator’s son to Dave. “Now, what do you make of that?”

“I make of it that he is trying to do us some injury,” answered Dave.

“Do you really think it could be Nick Jasniff?”

“I am sure I don’t know. If it was Jasniff, how in the world did he get
up here in this town?”

“Perhaps he has been following us.”

“But how could he do that unless he had an automobile or a motorcycle,
or something like that?”

“I am sure I can’t answer that question.” Roger turned to the garage
man. “Did you know the fellow at all?”

“No, boss; he was a stranger to me.”

“Have you ever seen him before?” asked Dave.

“Oh, I ain’t exactly sure of that, boss—so many men comin’ and goin’ all
the time.”

“Let us see if he did any injury to the car,” suggested Roger.

The automobile was run out into the yard of the hotel, and there the
young men went over the machine carefully. Nothing seemed to be amiss,
and the things in the tonneau had been left undisturbed.

“I guess he didn’t have time enough to do anything,” said Dave. “I think
he had been watching this man,” indicating the colored individual, “and
as soon as he went into the hotel, the rascal sneaked into the garage
intending to get the car out. Maybe he was nothing more than an auto
thief who watched us come to the hotel and thought he saw a chance to
get away with our car.”

“If he’s an auto thief, I wish I had caught him,” was the comment of the
colored man.

“I think I’ll buy a lock for the car,” announced Dave. “I saw an
automobile place down the street. We can stop there before we leave
town.”

This was done; and the chums purchased a lock which could be placed on
the gear shift, so that it would be impossible to start the car without
unlocking the device or smashing it.

“By the turn of affairs, we’ve got to watch out for more than one kind
of enemy,” announced Roger, when the search for clues to the mysterious
disappearance of the two girls had again been resumed.

“I’ve got a new idea, Roger,” answered our hero slowly. “I may be
mistaken, but somehow it strikes me that it would pay us to take a look
around Chesleyville before we go farther. If that fellow was connected
in any way with the kidnapping of Jessie and Laura, the girls may be
held somewhere in this neighborhood.”

“That idea strikes me as a good one, Dave. Let us make a number of
inquiries and find out if the gypsies were in this vicinity.”

The plan was carried out, the two youths spending the best part of a
couple of hours both in the town and on the outskirts. The search in
that vicinity, however, proved fruitless, and once again they set off on
their trip along the line of the railroad.

Before lunch time they had stopped at three more places, and at one of
them gained the information that several gypsies had been seen in that
vicinity about two weeks before. They had been men, and where they had
gone nobody seemed to know.

Late that afternoon found the chums at a place known as Fallon’s
Crossing. Here a small sideline crossed the main railroad, and here were
located a switch shanty and a small freight yard. At this point it was
said that the train which had carried Laura and Jessie had stopped for
fully fifteen minutes, to let the hot box cool off and also to allow
another train to pass. Just beyond Fallon’s Crossing was the thriving
town of Crandall, at which the train was scheduled to make a regular
stop.

The switchman at the shanty could tell them nothing more than that the
train had stopped. He said a number of people had gotten off to pick
some wildflowers that grew by the roadside, and then re-entered the
train. Who the people had been, he could not remember.

There was a man hanging around the freight yard who had also been
present on the day when the train had stopped, and he vouchsafed the
information that when the people on the train had learned that the stop
would be for some time a number had tramped up the tracks to the town,
to get on again when the train arrived at the regular station.

“There were at least eight or ten people did that,” said the
freight-yard man; “but who they were I do not know.”

“Did you see any gypsies around?” questioned Dave.

“No. We haven’t had a gypsy around here in years. We don’t stand for
gypsies any more than we do for tramps.”

When the two chums returned to their automobile they saw nearby a
middle-aged man with a motorcycle. He was bending over the machine,
trying to fix something, and as they came closer he hailed them.

“Is that your car over there?” he questioned.

“It is,” answered Dave.

“Then, would you mind lending me a small wrench for a few minutes? I
just broke mine.”

“Certainly,” answered Dave.

The tool was brought forth, and the man at once set to work to use it.
While the two chums looked on the man spoke about the trials and
tribulations he had had with the motorcycle and of a trip he had made to
that vicinity some time before. Being questioned, it developed that he
had been on hand when the train containing the two girls had stopped
there.

“I was quite interested in that hot box they had, and I was talking to
the fireman about it,” he said.

“Did you see any of the folks leave the train?” questioned Dave. “We are
very anxious to find out.” And then, seeing the look of surprise on the
man’s face, he gave his reasons.

“I’ve read about that kidnapping case!” cried the man. “Yes, I saw at
least a dozen people leave the cars and walk off in the direction of the
town. Some of them said they belonged in the town, and others asked the
conductor if they couldn’t go up to the railroad station and get aboard
again when the train came along.”

“Did you notice those two young ladies?” questioned Roger eagerly, and
gave a description of Laura and Jessie.

“I think I did see them,” answered the man slowly. “I remember seeing
the beaded hand-bag one of the young ladies carried, and I remember she
wore a hat with a blue pompon.”

“It must have been Jessie and Laura!” exclaimed Dave. “Have you any idea
where they went?”

“The whole crowd walked up the railroad tracks in the direction of the
town. Whether they went to the station or not, I, of course, don’t know.
I hung around here watching them fix that hot box, and then I jumped on
my motorcycle and rode off in the opposite direction.”

This was all the man on the motorcycle could tell; and as he was in a
hurry to go on they did not detain him further.

“This looks like a clue,” was Roger’s comment, as they re-entered the
automobile and moved on their way. “I guess the best thing we can do,
Dave, is to make some inquiries around Crandall.”

“Exactly, Roger! I think we are on the trail at last;” and Dave’s face
showed his pleasure.

The road ran close to the tracks, and it took them but a few minutes to
reach the town. Here they continued their inquiries in and around the
station, but without gaining any additional information.

“It is too bad,” said Roger disappointedly. “I thought sure we would
learn something more.”

“We’ve got to do it, Roger!” cried Dave. “I am sure we are on the right
track. Those girls came here, and, so far as we can learn, nobody saw
them get on the train again. If they didn’t get on the train, where did
they go?”

“I’d give a good deal to have that question answered,” returned the
senator’s son. He heaved a sigh. “Oh, we’ve got to do something!”

They continued their inquiries, and presently found themselves talking
to a lame boy in charge of a small fruit-stand, where they made a
purchase.

“Yes, I was here the day the train was held up down at the Crossing, and
some of the folks walked up to the station,” said the lame boy. “There
were a couple of drummers with their cases, and a man and his wife and
two or three children, and then there were a couple of other men,—and
three or four young ladies. Some of ’em went right over to the station,
and the rest of ’em went uptown.”

“Did you notice two young ladies in particular?” questioned Dave; and
then he told how Laura and Jessie had been dressed, and of the beaded
handbags they carried, and added that they also had a magazine or two.

“Oh, yes, I remember them!” cried the young fruit-stand keeper. “They
stopped here and got some grapes and a couple of peaches.”

“And did they get on the train again when it came along?”

“I didn’t see ’em. They walked uptown. One of them asked me where the
Bliss House was.”

“The Bliss House?” queried Roger.

“Yes, sir. That’s our hotel,” explained the boy.

“And they went there?” questioned Dave.

“I think they did.”