“The houseboat is gone!”
“Tom, what do you mean?”
“I mean just what I say, Sam. The houseboat is gone — vanished, missing,disappeared, drifted away, stolen!” ejaculated Tom Rover, excitedly.
“Tom, don’t go on in such a crazy fashion. Do you mean to say thehouseboat isn’t where we left it?”
“It is not, — and it is nowhere in sight on the river,” returned TomRover. “Come, we must tell Dick and the others about this.”
“But we left the Dora in charge of that big planter last night,”insisted the youngest of the Rover boys. “He said he would take goodcare of the craft.”
“Well, he is gone too. I hunted high and low for the houseboat, andfor that planter, but without success.”
“Maybe the boat drifted away, with the planter on board, Tom. Thecurrent has been pretty strong since those heavy rains.”
“She was tied up good and tight,” answered Tom Rover, his usuallymerry face wearing a troubled look. “I can’t understand it.”
“I must say I didn’t like that planter’s manner much. He looked tobe rather a sly one. Come on, let us find Dick and the others atonce,” went on Sam Rover. “If the houseboat has been stolen we wantto know it right away, so we can get on the trail of the thief.”
“True for you, Sam.” Tom Rover heaved a short sigh. “My! what a lotof troubles we have had since we started on this houseboat trip!”
“Yes — but we have had lots of sport too.”
The two brothers were standing near the bank of the broad MississippiRiver, just below the town of Shapette, in Louisiana. The party towhich they belonged had reached the town on their journey down theFather of Waters the day before, and an hour later the houseboat hadbeen tied up at a bend in the stream and left in charge of a planterwho had appeared and volunteered for the task. The planter had givenhis name as Gasper Pold, and had stated that his plantation lay halfa mile inland, on higher ground. He had mentioned several people inShapette as being his close friends — among others the principalstorekeeper — and the boys had thought it all right to get him to lookafter the houseboat while they paid a visit to a sugar plantationwhere one of their party had a distant relative living.
To my old readers the Rover boys, Sam, Tom, and Dick, need no specialintroduction. Sam was the youngest, fun-loving Tom next, and cool-headedand clever Dick the oldest.
When at home the three boys lived with their father, Anderson Rover,and their uncle Randolph and aunt Martha in a pleasant portion ofNew York State called Valley Brook, near the village of Dexter’sCorners. From that home they had gone, as already related in “TheRover Boys at School,” to Putnam Hall, an ideal place of learning,where they made many friends and also some enemies.
A term at school had been followed by a brief trip on the AtlanticOcean, and then a journey to the jungles of Africa, where the ladswent in a hunt for their father, who had become lost. Then they hadgone west, to establish a family claim to a valuable mine, andafterwards taken two well-deserved outings, one on the Great Lakesand the other in the mountains.
From the mountains the Rover boys had expected to go back to PutnamHall, but a scarlet fever scare caused a temporary closing of thatinstitution of learning and the lads took a trip to the Pacific coastand were cast away on the ocean, as told of in “The Rover Boys onLand and Sea,” the seventh volume of this series. But all came backsafely and returned to the Hall, there to do their duty and haveconsiderable fun, as set forth in “The Rover Boys in Camp.”
The boys’ uncle, Randolph Rover, had taken an elegant houseboat fordebt. This craft was located on the Ohio River, and in a volume called“The Rover Boys on the River,” I related how Sam, Tom, and Dickresolved to take a trip on the craft during their summer vacation.On this outing they were accompanied by “Songbird” Powell, a schoolchum given to the making of doggerel which he persisted in callingpoetry, Fred Garrison, who had stood by the Rovers through thick andthin, and Hans Mueller, a German youth who had not yet fully masteredthe English language. To make the trip more interesting the boysinvited an old friend, Mrs. Stanhope, to accompany them, and alsoMrs. Laning, her sister. With Mrs. Stanhope was a daughter Dora, whoDick Rover thought was the best and sweetest girl in the whole world,and with Mrs. Laning were her daughters Grace and Nellie, warm friendsof Tom and Sam.
The trip on the houseboat started well enough, but soon came troublethrough the underhanded work of Dan Baxter, a big youth who had beenthe Rovers’ bitter enemy ever since they had gone to Putnam Hall,and another boy named Lew Flapp. These young rascals ran off withthe houseboat and two of the girls, and it took hard work to regainthe craft and come to the girls’ rescue. Lew Flapp was made a prisonerand sent east to stand trial for some of his numerous misdeeds, butDan Baxter escaped.
“We don’t want to see any more of Baxter,” Sam had said, but thiswish was not to be gratified. Floating down the Mississippi, thehouseboat got damaged in a big storm, and had to be laid up forrepairs. This being so, all on board decided to take a trip inland,and accordingly they set out, the ladies and girls by way of therailroad and the boys on horseback.
As already told in “The Rover Boys on the Plains,” this trip was fullof mystery and peril. Dan Baxter turned up most unexpectedly, andour friends visited a mysterious ranch only to learn that it was arendezvous for a band of counterfeiters. Through a government detectivethe counterfeiters were rounded up, only one man, Sack Todd, escaping.Dan Baxter also got away, but later on he was traced to a big swamp,where his horse was found, stuck fast in the slimy ooze. It wasthought by some that Baxter had lost his life trying to find his waythrough the swamp, but of this the Rovers were somewhat doubtful.
After the capture of the counterfeiters the boys and their chums hadgone on to meet the ladies and the girls, and had spent a full weekat the ranch of a friend, having the best times possible, horsebackriding, hunting, and helping to round-up cattle. Then the whole partyhad gone back to the Mississippi, embarked on the Dora, as thehouseboat was named, and floated down the mighty stream once more.
“This sort of thing is simply grand,” Fred Garrison had remarked, ashe stood on the forward deck of the craft, yet an hour later he hadchanged his tune. The houseboat had gone whirling in a bend of thestream, struck a snag and hurled poor Fred overboard. He was hauledup by Sam and Dick Rover, and then it was ascertained that thehouseboat was leaking and would have to be laid up again for repairs.
They had stopped at the town of Shapette, a small place, and therethey found a carpenter who promised to do what they wanted. When thehouseboat was laid up the captain had come to them with a letter.
“My brother in Cairo is dead,” said Captain Starr. “I shall have toleave you and look after his children.”
The captain was an eccentric individual and the Rovers did not likehim much, so they were perfectly willing to let him go. They decidedto look around for somebody else to manage the houseboat and in themeantime run the craft themselves.
With the party as cook and general housekeeper was Alexander Pop, acolored man who had once been a waiter at Putnam Hall, but who wasnow attached to the Rover household. The boys had expected to leaveAleck, as he was called, in charge of the Dora while they visiteda nearby sugar plantation, but the colored man had begged to be takenalong, “jes fo’ de change,” as he expressed it. As Aleck had remainedon the houseboat during the entire time the boys were on the plainsDick agreed to take him along; and thus, for the time being, theDora had been left in the sole care of the planter.
After the visit to the sugar plantation the party had ridden toShapette, to do a little shopping before returning to the houseboat.There Tom and Sam had left the others, to make certain that the Dorawas in proper trim to continue the trip down the Mississippi. On theway Sam stopped at a plantation house to get a drink of water, andwhen he rejoined his brother it was to learn the dismaying news thatthe houseboat and the man left in charge of the craft had mysteriouslydisappeared.
“Let us go down the river and see if the Dora is behind yondertrees,” suggested Sam, after he had had time to digest what hisbrother had said.
“All right, if you say so,” answered Tom. “But I feel it in my bonesit won’t do any good.”
The two brothers ran along the wet and slippery bank of the river,which at this point sprawled out into almost a lake. They had to walkaround several wet places and were pretty well out of wind by thetime they gained the patch of wood the youngest Rover had pointedout. They ran to a point where they could get a clear view of thestream for a full mile.
“Gone — just as I told you,” said Tom, laconically.
“Oh, Tom, do you really think that planter stole the houseboat?”
“I don’t know what to think, to tell the truth. We have fallen inwith all kinds of evil characters since we began this trip.”
“Even if we go back to Dick and the others and tell them, what goodwill it do?”
“I don’t really know. But I am going to tell Dick, just as fast asI can.”
There seemed really nothing else to do, and with heavy hearts Samand Tom retraced their steps to where the Dora had been tied up,and started to return to town.
“This will certainly worry the ladies and the girls a good deal,”observed Sam, as they hurried along. “If the houseboat is gone, wecan’t continue the trip.”
“They won’t be worried any more than we are, Sam. It’s hard linesall around. If that planter really stole the boat he ought to sufferfor it.”
“Just what I say.”
The brothers soon came in sight of Shapette, — a small settlementwhere half of the inhabitants were of French extraction. As theyreached one of the streets they heard a cheerful whistle.
“That’s Dick!” said Sam. “He won’t whistle so happily when he learnsthe news.”
“Hullo!” came from Dick Rover, as he caught sight of his brothers.“What brings you back so soon?”
“Thought you were going to stay on the houseboat until we got there,”added Fred Garrison, who, with Hans Mueller, accompanied the eldestRover.
“There is no houseboat to stay on,” answered Tom.
“The houseboat is gone — and so is that planter who said he’d takecare of her.”
“Mine cracious me!” burst out Hans Mueller. “You ton’t tole me alretty!”
“Tom, you don’t mean —” Dick paused.
“The houseboat is gone, clean and clear, Dick.”
“And that planter, Gasper Pold —”
“Is gone too,” returned Sam. “And so is that carpenter who said he’drepair the craft.”
“This is certainly too bad. Tell me the particulars,” and Dick’s facegrew decidedly serious.