"But I don't like to leave George, for I promised him I would wait for him here."
"Ah, that will be all right, for Pete will explain matters to him."
And, as he spoke, Bob dragged Ralph along, regardless alike of his remonstrances or his struggles.
On arriving at the shanty the old negro was given his instructions, and without further delay the two started, Ralph feeling decidedly uncomfortable, for it seemed to him that, in some way, he had no idea how, he was being forced to take part in another of Bob's schemes.
THE NIGHT DRIVE OF THE TORPEDO WAGON.
Bob was in such good spirits as he drove along toward the hut he was about to abandon, that if Ralph had been in the least degree suspicious, he would have believed that it was a portion of the young moonlighter's plan to separate him from his friend. Although, if such an idea had presented itself to Ralph, he would have been at a loss to understand how such a separation could have affected Bob's interest.
Had the young student been more acquainted with the work of the moonlighters, however, he would have understood that another wagon behind the one containing the tools and materials for well-shooting would aid very decidedly in allowing the first team to escape, in case it was pursued.
Then again, Ralph did not know that it was against the laws of any town to convey nitro-glycerine through its streets, and that, in thus moving his quarters, Bob not only ran the chance of being pursued by the torpedo detectives, but also by the authorities of the town through which he must pass in order to get to his new camp.
Had George been with Ralph, the two would simply have driven back to the hut in the woods, and from there to Farmer Kenniston's home. But, in his absence, it would be necessary for Ralph to follow Bob back in Harnett's team for the purpose of taking his friend home.
However earnestly the young student had resolved not to have anything more to do with the moonlighters, either actively or as a spectator, he was, by chance and Bob's scheming, aiding them in a more active and more dangerous way than ever before.
"We shall come right back," said Bob, in a reassuring tone, as he saw how ill at ease Ralph felt, "and George won't have any longer time to wait than will be pleasant, because of his weariness."
"Still I had much rather waited for him," replied Ralph.
And then, when it was too late, he began to blame himself for not having insisted on staying behind as George proposed.
"It is much better this way, because it will be a saving of time for him," replied Bob.
And then he began to tell stories and make himself generally agreeable, in order to allay any suspicions that might arise in his companion's mind.
In this, Bob was so far successful that when they arrived at the hut where Jim and Dick were waiting, Ralph had nearly forgotten his vexation at having left George, and believed that no better fellow or more agreeable companion than Bob Hubbard could be found in all the oil region.
Dick and Jim had not been idle while the others had been away, and everything in the hut was made ready for immediate removal.
Bob told them briefly of the hiding-place he had found, and then the work of loading the wagons was begun, Ralph noting with a slight feeling of resentment, that George's team was to be loaded as well as the others.
The torpedo wagon was already laden with its dangerous load, and Bob showed it to him as a new feature of the oil business which he had not seen in operation the night previous because of Newcombe's vigilance.
To all outward appearance it was a long-bodied box buggy, with a much deeper seat than is usually seen, and with a double set of finely-tempered springs to prevent, as much as possible, any jolting of the load. When the seat was turned over, working on hinges placed in front, the peculiar formation of the vehicle was seen. That portion of the carriage usually covered by the seat, was divided into sixteen compartments, each padded over springs, and formed with as much care as a jewel casket. In each of these compartments was a can of nitro-glycerine, protected from any undue-concussion or jolting by the springs within as well as without.
At each end, on the left side of the wagon, rose a slender iron rod, fashioned at the top like the letter U, which was used as a resting-place for the tin cartridges, and rising high enough to be out of the way of the driver.
"There are one hundred and twenty-eight quarts of glycerine in that little cart," said Bob, as he gazed at it admiringly, "and if any one chooses to chase us through Sawyer, they'll take precious good care that they don't get very near. You see, the officers must keep up a show of activity in trying to prevent us from driving through the town; but they are careful not to run us down too sharply."
Ralph had not the slightest idea of what Bob meant when he spoke of officers in the town chasing them, and would have asked for an explanation then had not the moonlighter hurried away to get the other teams ready.
It was then dark, and the boys were anxious to make the journey as quickly as possible, for it was a task about which even they did not feel wholly at ease.
In the carriage Bob and Ralph had just come in, were packed the tools, provisions, sheet-tin, and such material as made a heavy load, while in George's buggy, was the bedding and other light articles, which made up a bulky load, but one in which there was but little weight.
After the three teams had been loaded, the house locked and barred as carefully as if the inmates were yet within, and the stable door secured by Jim, who barred it from the interior and then clambered out of the window in the loft, Bob called his two partners one side for a private consultation.
Without knowing why, Ralph felt decidedly uncomfortable at this secrecy. It was true that he had no desire to be told all the details of this somewhat questionable business, but it seemed to him as if he was in some way the subject of their conversation—as if he had been and was again to be duped, and Bob was explaining the scheme to his partners.
It was some time before the private portion of their consultation was over, and then Bob said, sufficiently loud for Ralph to hear, much as if that had been all they were talking of:
"Now remember. We are to keep close together until we get through Sawyer. Then, if we are followed, you are to give me a chance to get ahead, and you will keep straight on until you tire them out, if you drive all night. Ralph," he added, "Jim knows the road and you don't, so I am going to let him drive for you."
Then Bob got into the torpedo-wagon, Dick mounted the one that had come from the new camp, Jim and Ralph clambered into George's team, and in that order they started toward the highway, Bob driving leisurely, as if to keep his horses fresh, in case they were called upon for any unusual exertion.
The orders Bob had given aroused in Ralph's mind, now that it was too late to make any objection, the suspicions that his pleasing manner had lulled. He began to see why it was he had been hurried away before George came.
The torpedo-wagon was the one that the authorities would attempt to capture, if they saw it, and George's team, being in the rear, would be the one that would most likely stand the brunt of the pursuit, in case one was made. The other two teams being ahead, could turn from the road into the woods, at a favorable opportunity, while George's horses would lure the officers away from the tell-tale loads.
Ralph knew perfectly well that had Harnett come from the stream at the same time he did, his team would not have been used as a "cover," for he had no desire to implicate himself with the moonlighters, even if they were his friends, and would possibly have refused to act, or allow his team to act, any such part.
But while all these ideas passed through Ralph's mind, he was not certain he was correct in his suppositions, and it was, so he thought, not advisable for him to say anything until the time came when Bob's plans were made apparent. Besides, he hoped that the officers would not see them, that there would be no necessity for flight, and that George's horses would be restored to their owner, fresh and in good condition.
During the first two miles of their journey, there was nothing to which the most careful person could have taken objection, unless, indeed, it was the fact of riding behind a carriage loaded with nitro-glycerine, which was by no means a pleasant thing to do, and then the little town of Sawyer was reached.
Up to this time the horses had trotted slowly; but on entering the town, Bob set the example of driving faster, and all three teams were urged along at full speed.
It surely seemed as if the moving of the moonlighters' property was to be accomplished without difficulty, for the outskirts of Sawyer had nearly been passed before any sign was made that they had been observed, and then the clattering of horses' hoofs was heard, at the same time that a voice cried:
The time had come when Ralph was to learn whether Bob was making a cat's-paw of him or not, and the suspicions he had had fast became certainties.
No reply was made by the moonlighters; but the horses were urged to still greater speed, and the race had begun.
"Don't drive so fast!" said Ralph, believing the time had come for him to act in George's behalf.
"Why not?" asked Jim, coolly. "They'll overhaul us if we don't put on all steam."
"And what if they do? This is Harnett's team, and there is no reason why we should run away."
"What about all these things that are in here?"
"There is nothing here but what we have a perfect right to carry, and I know that George will be angry by running away from the officers with his team, which is probably well known. We seem to be doing something which we have no right to do," said Ralph, sternly, at the same time that he endeavored to get possession of the reins.
"Look out! Don't make a fool of yourself!" cried Jim, sharply.
And he urged the horses on until he had worked them up into such a state that it required all his strength to hold them.
To have attempted to seize the reins then would simply have been to capsize the buggy, for the road was so rough that the least deviation from the beaten track, at the pace the horses were then going, would have been fatal, and Ralph was obliged to acquiesce in the flight by remaining perfectly quiet.
On the horses dashed as if bent on the destruction of the carriage. Behind could be heard the clatter of hoofs, as the pursuers did their best to overtake the violators of the law, and in the advance was the carriage, with its deadly load, that the least concussion would liberate in all its dreadful power.
In the excitement of the flight, and the sorrow caused by the thought of the injury which was being done his friend, in which he was forced, unwillingly, to take part, Ralph almost entirely forgot the dangerous load in advance, until an exclamation of triumph from Jim caused him to look ahead, when he discovered that Bob was no longer in sight.
Ralph was almost certain that they had just passed the road that led to the new camp, and equally positive that Bob had driven in at that point, but there was nothing to show that the torpedo-wagon had been driven in there, and Jim was too much occupied with his efforts to keep in advance of his pursuers to answer a question, or even to speak.
George's horses, of whom he was so fond that he would never allow them to be forced to full speed, were urged by both whip and word until they could no longer trot, but were running madly on, while the light carriage swayed from one side of the road to the other, until it seemed certain it would be overturned.
Ralph was powerless to prevent such use of his friend's property, but he entered his protest against it by saying:
"This matter of using George's team to permit your own to escape is something on which I have not been consulted, nor have I been permitted to say anything about it. I think I understand why Hubbard got me away from the stream before George came down, and I say to you now, as I shall say to both of your friends, that it is a mean piece of business, and one which I would do all in my power to prevent if it was possible for me to do so without running the risk of doing more harm than good."
"Oh, that's all right," replied Jim, as he tried to urge the already nearly-exhausted horses to still greater exertions.
But Ralph had no idea as to what he meant by "all right." If he meant that there was no harm in driving at such a mad pace, Ralph was certain he was wrong, and if he wished to convey the impression that Harnett would not be angry, the young student was equally certain he was mistaken.
The sounds made by the pursuers seemed to be dying away in the distance, as if the pace was too fast for them, and as Dick guided his team skillfully into the woods, two miles beyond where Bob had disappeared; Jim gave vent to another yell of triumph.
The moonlighters' property was safe, and it only remained to be seen how much Harnett was to suffer by the flight.
The now thoroughly maddened horses were dashing along the rough road at a most reckless pace, and Ralph shuddered at the thought of what the result might be if they should meet any teams either coming or going. But, fortunately, it was so late in the night that thus far they had seen no travelers, and the only hope was that they would be equally successful until the wild flight was ended.
On and on Jim urged the horses, with no signs of checking their speed, until finally, when it was no longer possible to hear any sounds from the rear, Ralph said:
"I don't hear any one behind, and if you do not pull the horses up soon, you will ruin them, if, indeed, you have not done so already."
As near as Ralph could judge, they were fully ten miles beyond the place where Bob had left the road, when Jim began to quiet the frightened animals, and before another mile had been traveled, he had succeeded so far as to make them sober down to a walk.
Guiding them to one side of the road, where it chanced to be very broad, Jim brought them to a full stop, and Ralph leaped out to examine them.
The glossy coats of the beautiful animals were wet with perspiration, and covered with foam until they looked like white horses marked with small patches of black; their red, dilating nostrils and heaving flanks told of the effect the mad pace had had upon them, and they looked as if it would have been impossible for them to have run another mile.
Ralph even believed that they were already exhausted, and that they were utterly ruined; but Jim treated his fears as childish, being hardly willing to follow out the suggestions made.
"If they are not foundered already they will be unless we do something for them at once. Let's rub them down thoroughly, and then start them back at a walk."
Jim objected to doing what he considered useless work, and would have started the exhausted animals on the return at once, if Ralph had not assumed a tone that startled him.
"During the ride I held my peace, because I could do no good; but now I want you distinctly to understand that you will do as I say in regard to caring for these horses, or there will be trouble between us. I should not hesitate for a moment, after what you have done, to leave you here and drive back alone."
"You might not hesitate, providing you could get me out of the carriage," replied Jim, pertly; "but I might have something to say if you should attempt any interference."
"Look here, Mr. James Lansel," said Ralph, decidedly, trying not to betray by his voice the anger he felt, "you will please understand now that I have interfered, and that I shall do exactly what I say. You will come out here and help me to care for these horses you have abused, or I shall endeavor to prove to your entire satisfaction which one of us is master."
While Ralph had been speaking he had unfastened the traces of the horses, and by the time he concluded, one of the animals was clear from the carriage. Had he not done so it is extremely probable that Jim might have tried to run away and leave him, instead of being left. As it was, however, he apparently did not think it either a pleasant or a safe operation to measure strength with a boy fresh from school, and after a moment's hesitation, in a very sulky sort of way he alighted, doing as Ralph had commanded.
The gallant little steeds were rubbed down well with dried grass; Ralph rinsed their mouths out as cleanly as possible with water from the side of the road, but taking good care not to allow them any to drink, and for an hour the two boys—one through fear, and the other because of his care for his friend's property—did all they could for the comfort of the animals.
During all this time Jim had not spoken once, and Ralph was quite content to let him sulk as much as he wished; he felt as though Jim and his partners had done him a grievous wrong in placing him in such a position as made it seem that he had aided in the abusing and temporary theft of George's horses, and if the entire party of moonlighters chose to be angry with him he did not care.
At the end of the hour Ralph said to the still angry, injured Jim:
"We will harness them now, and I will drive on the way back."
"You can do just as you please," replied Jim, "I've got nothing to do with it, and I wash my hands of the whole affair."
"You may wash your hands of this portion of the affair as much as you please; but you'll take the full share of responsibility for having driven out here."
Jim made no reply, which was a matter of but little moment, so Ralph thought; but he assisted in harnessing the horses, and when that was done, he took his seat in the carriage like a martyr.
Ralph followed him, and, gathering up the reins, he allowed the horses to choose their own gait going back, a tenderness towards animals that Jim looked upon with the most supreme contempt.
As a matter of course, their progress was very slow, for the animals were so weary that they had no desire to go faster than a walk; and still, without speaking, the two boys rode on, occupying three hours in returning over the same distance they had come in one.
To find in the night the place into which Bob had driven was an extremely difficult task, and more than once did Ralph stop the horses by the side of the road, calling vigorously to George, in the belief that they had reached the new quarters of the moonlighters.
It was not until after they had made four such mistakes that they heard George's voice in reply, and then he and Pete came out to lead the horses in through the thicket of bushes that screened the entrance of the road.
Ralph saw at once by the look on his friend's face, and the solicitude with which he examined his horses, that Bob had told the first portion of the story, which had been more than displeasing to him.
"Did you drive all the way, Ralph?" he asked.
And his tone was far from being as friendly as usual.
"I had nothing whatever to do with the horses or the trip, except to help rub them down when we stopped, and to drive home," replied Ralph, almost indignant that George should think even for a moment that he would have countenanced such a thing.
Harnett said no more then, but busied himself in caring for the animals by unharnessing and feeding them.
Jim soon joined his partners in the hut, and after he had gone, George asked Ralph for the particulars of the chase, which were given minutely.
After he had finished the story, not without several interruptions from George, he asked:
"How long are you going to stay here?"
"Only until morning. I would have gone home to-night if the horses had not had such a long and hard drive; but as it is, we can do no better than to stay here a while, and early in the morning we will say good-by to Mr. Bob Hubbard and his partners, trying to get out of the trouble they have placed us in as cheaply as possible."
"Why, is there anything new?" asked Ralph, anxiously.
"Nothing save this last scheme of Bob's, and that is quite enough. I don't consider shooting wells as anything really illegal, for I do not believe that the patent can be held. But when it comes to violating a town ordinance by carrying a large quantity of nitro-glycerine through it in the manner Bob did, I consider a great wrong has been done, for it endangers the lives of every one living there. We shall probably hear from it very soon, for my team is well known in Sawyer. Then again, Bob knew that such a thing would injure me seriously in my business. I set myself up as civil engineer, and thereby ask people to employ me. That they will have every reason to refuse to do when they see me mixed up with Bob Hubbard's mad actions."
Ralph had thought the matter serious enough before; but now he understood from what George had said just how much trouble might grow out of it, and all the anger he had felt during the ride was revived.
"I wish I had stopped the horses, as I had a mind to do during the drive, regardless of whether I smashed the carriage or not," he said, bitterly. "I felt that things were going wrong in some way when I first left here with Bob, but I didn't know in what way, and what he said was so practical that I couldn't give a single good reason as to why I should not do as he said."
"I'm not blaming you, Ralph, for I know as well as you do that it was not your fault. It was a portion of one of Bob's schemes, and, without caring how much he has injured us, he is probably congratulating himself on its perfect success. But come, let's go and lie down for a little while, and when we do get away from here in the morning, we will be careful not to place ourselves where Bob can use us again."
THE STORM IN THE VALLEY.
Judging from appearances, when they entered the new cabin of the moonlighters, Ralph concluded that George had said some hard things to Bob because of the part he had obliged him to play. When the two went in to get the few hours of sleep they needed so sadly, for they had been awake during all of the previous night, no one spoke. They were all having what Ralph afterward described as a grand sulking match; but neither one of their guests paid the slightest attention to their ill humor.
It was then very late in the night, and, tired as each one was, it was but a few moments before the camp was in a state of complete repose, from which neither moonlighter, engineer nor student awakened until the sun had been looking in upon them nearly an hour.
If Bob had been cross the previous evening, his sleep had restored him to his usual good humor, and he greeted Ralph and George with the cheeriest of smiles.
"I say, old fellow," he began, when Harnett returned from making his toilet at the brook-side, "I realize that we played you a dirty kind of a trick in using your team as we did last night; but at the time I was so anxious to get everything over here all right that I did not stop to think about it. Of course, I can't undo what has been done, but if any money trouble comes to you because of last night's work, neither you nor Gurney shall lose a cent. Try to forget it, won't you, George? Shake hands with me, and say that you will."
Very few could withstand Bob Hubbard when he spoke as he did then, and Harnett's anger began to vanish immediately his moonlighting friend spoke.
"We'll say no more about it, Bob; and I'll believe you wouldn't have done such a thing to me if you had taken time to think it over," replied George, as he shook hands not only with Bob, but with the other two.
"Now, Gurney, come right up, and say that you bear no grudge against Jim. He knows that you were in the right when you insisted on having the horses cared for, and he would have known it last night if he hadn't got excited, as he always does when anything is up."
Jim came up with outstretched hand as Bob spoke, and in a few moments the party were friendly once more, although the determination which Ralph and George had formed, relative to not visiting the moonlighters in their haunts again, was still as strong as ever.
With the provisions they had on hand, and the fish that had been caught the day before, Pete served up such a breakfast as would have tempted an epicure, and it may be imagined with what zest these hungry boys attacked it.
Bob and his party intended to remain where they were during that day, at least, for it would be necessary to do many things to the shanty before it would be even a secure hiding-place for their goods, and although they urged that their visitors remain with them, George was still firm in his determination to return to the Kenniston farm as soon as he had finished breakfast.
It was not until after Bob had exhausted every other argument in vain that he said:
"I think it would be much better, George, if you should stay here to-day, and give the people a chance to cool off in regard to last night's proceedings. If you go through Sawyer this morning, they may make it disagreeable for you."
"That is one reason why I am determined to go at once. If any trouble is to come of your drive, I want it over as soon as possible, and the sooner I show myself in Sawyer, the more satisfied I shall feel."
"But the chances are that the matter will drop through if you keep out of sight for a day or two," persisted Bob, almost entreatingly.
"And I don't want it to drop through. If they propose to make any trouble, I prefer to meet them rather than wait around in the hope that it will be forgotten. I am obliged to earn my living, and from these people here, for the time being. Therefore, they will be doing me a very great favor if they find out exactly how far I am responsible for last night's work."
It was useless to attempt to persuade George to do other than that which he had decided upon, and Bob recognized that fact. He said nothing more against the departure of his guests, but did all in his power to aid them in getting ready for the journey.
The horses did not appear to be affected in the least by their hard drive on the previous night, and this, more than anything else, caused George to feel less hard toward his friends, the moonlighters.
It was nine o'clock in the morning before Ralph and George were ready to set out, and as they were starting, Bob called out:
"Remember, we shall stand whatever my drive may cost you, and this evening we will meet you at home."
There was a feeling of positive relief in Ralph's heart when they drove out into the road, the trees behind shutting out the moonlighters from view. It was as if he had been suffering from some disagreeable nightmare, and he would have been thankful it was ended if it was not for the awakening in the form of driving through Sawyer, liable to be arrested at any moment.
"George," he asked, at length, "do you really think that what was done last night will injure your business prospects?"
"I feel so certain of it that I shall begin to make preparations to leave here as soon as I finish what I have on hand. I certainly know that I would not employ a man who would deliberately assist in carrying a large quantity of glycerine through a town, and at the same time drive in the most reckless manner."
"But you can prove that you were not with the party, and that you knew nothing of what was being done."
"Yes, I can prove that, if they give me the opportunity, and I am now in the position of a man who longs most ardently to be arrested, but yet who does not dare to appear too eager about it."
"I can't say that I want to be arrested," said Ralph, dubiously, "for father and mother would think I had been doing something terrible; but I would be perfectly willing to stand it if it would do you any good."
"It is about the only thing that can do me any good," replied George, decidedly; and then he added, quickly: "But we won't talk any more about it. Let us enjoy this ride thoroughly, for we have just escaped from the moonlighters' den. I can't say, however, that our troubles are entirely over; for, by the looks of those black clouds, we shall stand a chance of getting a drenching."
It was as George had said. The sky, which had been cloudless when they started, was now being obscured by black, angry-looking clouds, which threatened at any moment to break and pour their burden of water upon the parched earth.
Had they been riding where no shelter could be found, both the boys would have been alarmed, for there was every indication of a heavy shower; but since there were houses along the road in which they could take shelter at almost any moment, they rode on, determined to get as near as possible to their destination before the storm burst.
George urged the horses along, hoping that they might reach the town of Sawyer before the rain came; but in this he was mistaken, for, before they had ridden five minutes from the time he first spoke, the great drops that acted as avant couriers to the large body of water, descended, and the boys had just time to drive under a rude shed before the storm was upon them.
A vivid flash of lightning, followed immediately by a deafening peal of thunder, was the prelude to as terrific a thunder-storm as the boys had ever seen, and, as the rain descended in what seemed to be sheets of water rather than drops, the lightning flashed almost incessantly, while the thunder roared until it seemed as if the very earth was shaken.
Even George had never passed a summer in this section of the country before, and he knew no more than did Ralph the destruction often caused by the electric current where so much inflammable material is stored.
Without a thought of the possible catastrophe that might occur, they remained under their apology for a shelter, through which the water poured in anything but tiny streams, looking out at the majestic spectacle, fearing only that the wind might throw the frail shed down upon them.
"Look there!" cried Ralph, as an unusually brilliant flash was seen. "It almost appeared as if the lightning ran entirely around that oil-tank. I wonder if those are ever struck?"
"It must make sad work if they are," replied George, thinking for the first time of such a possibility. "In that tank alone there must be fully thirty-five thousand barrels of oil, and the conflagration would be something terrible."
He had hardly ceased speaking, when there came a flash that almost blinded them as it descended directly on the top of a huge derrick, crackling and hissing as it came, and in what seemed to be the slightest possible fraction of time, the air was filled with fragments of the heavy timbers, while, despite the pouring rain, a sulphurous odor was perceptible.
The derrick had been struck, and its thousand fragments strewed the earth in every direction.
"How terrible!" cried Ralph, as he covered his face with is hands in affright, for never before had he witnessed the terrific force of the lightning's bolt.
George stood at the door of the shed, restless, regardless alike of the deluge of water that fell upon him, and of the neighing and stamping of the frightened horses; he was like one fascinated by the awful majesty of that which he saw everywhere around him.
His gaze was directed toward the largest oil tank in the valley, while it seemed as if some will stronger than his own impelled him to look at this enormous construction of iron, filled with its easily ignited contents; and as he thus stood, awed into silence, it seemed to him that the largest cloud was rent entirely asunder, while from its very center a torrent of fire was poured on to the tank, from which the flames appeared to leap to meet the shaft from heaven.
In an instant the entire body of oil was a seething mass of flames, while the very rain seemed to add to their fury. One of the largest tanks in the valley had been struck, and the destruction threatened every living thing that could not flee to the mountains from the river of fire that poured out over the shattered iron sides of the tank.
The grandeur of the scene upon which George and Ralph looked was indescribable, the slightest detail of which once seen could never be forgotten.
The lurid flames, surmounted by the thick, black smoke, towered upward as if to meet the lightning's flash, and then, as the wind and rain beat it down for a moment, the heavy clouds of smoke rolled down the valley like some funereal pall sent in advance of the death and destruction that was to come.
"What can we do?" cried Ralph, when the awe which the scene had brought with it gave place to fear for others, and a desire to avert suffering and destruction.
"We can do nothing," replied George, in a low tone. "We do not even know how to fight the burning oil, and are powerless to do anything, at least until others shall come to direct the work."
"But we can surely give the alarm and arouse the people," cried Ralph, as he attempted to rush out of the shed, but was prevented by George.
"Do you think there is any one within two miles of here who cannot see that blaze?" asked George, as he pointed to the mountain of flame. "We can accomplish nothing, therefore we will remain here quiet until those who are familiar with such scenes shall come."
Ralph recognized the common sense of George's suggestion even when it seemed impossible that he could remain idle, and while the two stood outside the shed, regardless of the furious rain, waiting for those to come who could direct their labor, they witnessed another scene, fitting companion to the one already pictured.
The lightning flashes were as vivid and rapid as ever, save that the glare may have seemed a trifle less blinding because of the flames, and there was no sign that the storm was decreasing. Suddenly, even while it appeared as if a small whirlwind enveloped a derrick that stood on the hill on the opposite side of the valley, another storm of fire descended from the sky, wrapping the heavy timbers in flames without shattering them, and flinging angry tongues of fire on nearly every timber in the towering pile.
For a few moments this lofty beacon burned as if trying to outshine the larger conflagration, and then, as the heat grew more intense, the small tank at its base became a receptacle for flames, which, overflowing, poured an angry stream of fire down the side of the mountain, igniting the various deposits of oil in its course.
In an incredibly short space of time, the valley, which had but a few moments before been deluged with water, was covered with flames and burning streams, which the rain appeared to feed rather than extinguish.
Then, as rapidly as they had come, the storm-clouds cleared away, the rain ceased, and the sun came out, clear and hot, but unable to send its rays through the impenetrable clouds of smoke which overhung the lowland, and wrapped the hills with a sable shroud.
Others besides Ralph and George had seen the first damage done by the lightning, for, living where such scenes were not infrequent, they feared, at each threatened storm, just that catastrophe which had occurred, and a small army of men were already on the scene by the time the two boys had recovered from the awe which had come upon them with this second danger that was pouring down upon the valley from the mountain-side.
It seemed a useless, because impossible, task to attempt to check the progress of or extinguish the burning oil, and yet the assembled multitude attacked it with a will that seemed all the more heroic because of the well-nigh hopelessness of the labor.
Fastening the now thoroughly frightened horses so that they could not release themselves from the shed, which was situated on ground sufficiently high to prevent the burning torrent from flowing around it, Ralph and George threw off their coats and vests, preparatory to doing what they could to check the course of this servant of man, now become master.
Quantities of shovels and pickaxes had been brought at the first alarm, and, armed with one of these, Ralph and George joined the others in throwing up embankments to check the course of the streams of burning oil, in order to hold them confined until the liquid should be consumed.
Then women and children were aiding in the work, for it was to save their homes from destruction that they labored, and foremost among them ever was George, struggling against the fire-fiend, as if everything the world held dear to him was in danger of destruction.
Then came the call for volunteers to get the cannon, which were nearly two miles away, that solid shot might be fired into the tank to open a passage for the oil not yet ignited, and Ralph was the first to offer his services.
He had already had some considerable experience in artillery practice, and when George explained this to some of those who were directing the work, Ralph was gladly accepted to take charge of the guns.
He was a gunner without any artillery, but twice as many men as were necessary started at full speed toward the town, and in a short time the only two cannon that could be procured, without going to Bradford, were on the ground, while Ralph was hastily preparing the charges of powder.
It may be thought that it would not require much skill to hit, at short range, such a large object as an oil-tank capable of holding thirty-five thousand barrels; but since, in order to send the ball through the iron plates it was necessary to hit it full at the place aimed for, otherwise the projectile would glance off, it can be seen that Ralph was obliged to exhibit considerable skill.
While this was being done, the others were throwing up earthworks to divert the course of the blazing streams, or to dam the oil in such places as it could burn without damage to other property; and it can safely be imagined that but little time was spent in watching what the others were doing.
After George had announced that Ralph had had experience in the use of artillery pieces, and after the cannon had been brought from the town, he was left to superintend the work, a sufficient number of men remaining near to follow his instructions.
The day was a hot one, and the heat from the fire, together with that from the sun, was almost insupportable; but, stripped of all clothing that could conveniently be cast aside, each one continued at his self-imposed task of averting the threatened destruction from the town.
Each moment, despite all that was being done, the flames were creeping closer and closer to the town, which seemed doomed, and, as the time passed, every one saw how useless their efforts would be unless the iron tank could be pierced, allowing a portion of the oil to run off before it could be ignited.
Many were the entreaties to Ralph to hurry with his work; but, fully believing the old adage that "haste makes waste," he completed his operations with deliberation, only hurrying when he could do so without running any risk of a failure.
"Be quick, Ralph," cried George, as he came up, smoke begrimed, and bearing many traces of his severe work. "Every moment is more than precious now; and, even after you begin, you may have to fire several shots."
"I shall fire only one at each tank," replied Ralph, calmly. "The pieces were dirty and rusty, and it would have been a waste of both time and ammunition to have shot with them before they were cleaned. I am ready now. Both pieces are loaded, and you shall see both balls count."
Ralph had been working as near the blazing tanks as the heat would permit, and as he finished speaking with George, he shouted for those near by to stand back. Already had the weapons been aimed, and, with a blazing stick in his hand, he stood ready to show either his skill or his ignorance.
Quickly the crowd separated, knowing only too well the value of time, and Ralph applied the torch.
The explosion was almost deadened by the roar of the flames and the sharp reports of the iron plates, as they were broken by the heat, but above all could be heard the crashing of the iron, as the ball, aimed perfectly true to the mark, made its way into the oil, allowing it to spout forth in torrents.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" burst from the crowd, as they realized that the boy, whose skill a moment before they had doubted, had done that which would have required hours for them to do so successfully, and then on every side arose the demand that another outlet be opened.
Ralph was perplexed for a moment, since the other cannon was aimed at the smaller tank, and he had believed that one opening would be sufficient.
"You will have to put another shot in," cried George. "It will take too long for the oil to run out of that one hole."
While the crowd were engaged in digging a ditch for the oil that Ralph's shot had let out, in order that it should not be set on fire by that which was already blazing, the young student aimed the second cannon.
Again the word was passed for the people to stand back, and a second ball was sent crashing into the tank with as true an aim as the first.
Then, while all save those who were at work on the dam or helping at the cannon worked at ditches to carry off the unlighted oil, Ralph made ready for another volley.
Two perforations were made in the small tank, and two more in the large one, which admitted of such a discharge of the contents, that all hands could hasten to the relief of those who were working at the dams.
Already was the day nearly spent, and yet the fire-fiend was raging with fury hardly abated. The trees had long since fallen before the fiery blast; the derricks and buildings of the adjacent wells were consumed, while inch by inch the oil-fed fire crept nearer the town.
George had paid no attention to his horses all this time; in fact, he had hardly thought of them until, almost exhausted, he was obliged to rest a few moments, or be entirely overcome by the heat.
Then the recollection of his team, in which he took so much pride, came to him, and he started towards the shed where he had left them.
One glance back at the fiery torrent, which even the children were trying to turn from the town, and he realized how important was even one man's labor in this battle with the flames.
A man on crutches was standing near him as he paused irresolutely, and to him George said, hurriedly:
"I left a pair of horses in a light carriage in that shed up yonder when the fire first broke out. Not even one man can be spared from here now, and yet my team must be attended to. Crippled as you are, you can be of no service here; therefore, if you will go there and get them, and then drive them to some stable in town, I will pay you well for your trouble."
"I'll see that they are well taken care of, and come back here to tell you where they are," said the cripple, as he started towards the shed.
And George returned to the fight once more.
Had the men been working where it was cool, by their very numbers they could have checked the advance of the flames; but hot as it was, fully half who entered the conflict were overpowered by the heat in a very short time, or obliged to cease their exertions for a while, as George had done. Therefore, although fresh recruits were arriving each hour, not one-third of all the force there could be counted upon as able workers.
It was an hour after George had cared for his horses, as he supposed, that the cripple whom he had engaged to do the work, approached where he was, by the side of Ralph, strengthening the banks of the ditch that carried off the escaping oil.
"I went up to the shed," shouted the man, "but there wasn't any horses there, nor carriage either."
"Where are they?" asked George, in bewilderment.
"How should I know?" was the reply, in an angry tone.
And then, before anything more could be said, a shout, almost of despair, arose from those who were working nearer the town—
"The waste oil has caught fire!"
The oil which had been drawn off from the tanks, through the perforations made by the cannon balls, had been set on fire by the heat of the blazing stream by its side, and the flames were moving rapidly toward the two other large tanks in the immediate vicinity.
A FRUITLESS SEARCH.
Many conflagrations, caused by the lightning striking an oil-tank, have been known since the discovery of petroleum; but none had ever been so disastrous as the one of which the reader has had but an imperfect account.
Forty-five thousand barrels of oil had been consumed or wasted up to the time as narrated in the previous chapter, and fully as much more was now threatened by the overflow, which had taken fire, and was shooting forth flames most dangerously near the other two large tanks.
At the first alarm the entire force present left whatever they were working at to combat the new danger, when George and several of those who, with him, were directing the work, saw at once the peril to which the town was exposed by this sudden abandonment of the labor which had been performed for the purpose of presenting an impassable barrier to the angry flames.
It was impossible that the now nearly exhausted workers could prevent the flames from attacking the two tanks upon which they were sweeping, and if vain labor was spent upon that quarter, the enemy would, beyond a doubt, gain possession of the town.
To keep the men from neglecting the safety of their homes to try uselessly to save property which could easily be replaced, was absolutely necessary, and the length of time required to persuade them to return to the work they had first been engaged in would decide the fate of the village.
Leaping directly in front of what had almost become an unreasoning mob, George and Ralph tried by their strength to resist the impulsive dash forward, at the same time that they shouted at the full strength of their lungs the reason why the work nearer the town should not be neglected.
For some moments it seemed as if they would be trampled under the feet of the frightened multitude, and then their coolness won the victory over unreasoning fear, as it always will whenever displayed.
The people returned to the more important labor the moment they understood how fruitless would have been their work in the other direction, and George aided them by his efforts and advice, while Ralph, with a dozen assistants, began a cannonading of the other two tanks that were just beginning to add their fuel to the fearful blaze.
The breeze, which, caused by the heated air, always springs up during a conflagration, now rolled the thick, black smoke first in one direction and then in another, until those who had not already succumbed to the heat were nearly suffocated, and it seemed impossible that any one could continue at his work.
The sun had set, although that fact was hardly noticed, since for several hours the heavy smoke had veiled the scene as with the mantle of night, through which the flames glowed and flashed luridly.
In the struggle between the men and the flames, first one and then the other gained a victory; but neither had made any progress.
Ralph and his assistants had opened vent-holes for the oil in the last-attacked tanks, thereby preventing fully half the oil from combustion, although it was entirely lost.
The female portion of the workers had long since desisted from any effort to check the flames, and had continued their work by preparing food for the laborers, carrying it to them that they might not be obliged to spend any more time than was absolutely necessary in getting it.
During all that long night the people worked in relays, that each might have an opportunity for rest, and when morning came the flames were well-nigh subdued—not so much through the exertions of those who fought against them, as because of the fact that there was nothing more remaining for them to feed upon.
By that time a small body of watchers, in order to see that the remaining flames did not overleap the boundaries set, was all that was necessary at the place where ninety thousand barrels of oil had been consumed or wasted, and for the first time since the thunderstorm had cleared away, Ralph and George felt that they were at liberty to go where they chose. Both were begrimed by the smoke until it would have puzzled their best friends to tell whether they were white men or negroes, and both were in a very dilapidated condition, so far as clothing was concerned.
The garments they had cast off when the work of fighting fire was begun, had been tossed about, trampled on, or scorched until they could no longer be called serviceable, and, half-clothed, dirty and disreputable-looking generally as they were, they started wearily for the town in search of rest, and, what was quite as important, a bath.
Many times during the night had George thought about his missing horses; but it was not until he was relieved from all care which the conflagration had caused, that he began to grow seriously alarmed. It did not seem possible that any one could have stolen them, and he cheered himself with the thought that they had simply broken loose and run away, or that some one living near by had cared for them.
A visit to the shed where the team had been left dissipated this first supposition, for there was every indication that the horses had been taken by some one, since no broken harness was there to tell of flight, and the door was carefully closed behind them, showing an excess of precaution on the part of some one, since both doors had been left wide open when George drove in.
"Some one must have recognized them as yours, and taken them away thinking they were not safe while the fire was raging so furiously," said Ralph, after the survey of the shed was completed, and George believed such was the case.
"At all events, we will get a bath and borrow some clothes first; then we can soon find out where they are," said George.
And in pursuance of this plan the boys started towards Sawyer, so weary that it seemed almost impossible for them to walk.
It was not a difficult matter for two who had worked as hard and done as much service as George and Ralph, to get all they required at the town, once they arrived there, and the bath had revived them so much that both were in favor of finding the team at once, in order that they might get what else they required at the Kenniston farm.
Under ordinary circumstances they could have hired a team with which to search for their own; but now, with every one in that state of excitement or prostration which follows such scenes as the inhabitants of Sawyer had just passed through, it was almost impossible to find any one sufficiently calm to transact the most ordinary business.
Twice George made the attempt to hire a horse, and then he gave up what promised to be a useless effort, both he and Ralph thinking it better to pursue their inquiries on foot than waste their time by trying to hire a team, and being obliged to walk after all.
They began the search by making inquiries in town, of any one whom they met, and by going to each stable or even barn, looking in each place large enough to shelter the team; but without seeing any signs of it whatever.
Then they started up the road in the direction from which they had just come, and at the dwelling nearest the shed where the team had been left, they heard the first tidings.
The lady living in this house knew George's team, and said that while the fire was at its height, when she had come to her house for the purpose of getting food to carry to her husband, she had seen two men drive toward Sawyer in it. The men were entire strangers to her, she said, and they were driving at full speed, but whether that was due to the fear the horses had of the flames, or to a liberal use of the whip, she was unable to say. She described the men as being young and well dressed, and was quite positive that she had never seen them before.
George's first thought was that his friends, the moonlighters, had taken the horses away, as a favor to him, and this belief was strengthened when, on questioning the woman closely, he learned that she did not know either Jim or Dick even by sight.
"They probably came down when they saw the smoke," said George, confidently, to Ralph, "and on finding the team here, knowing we were at work, have carried it to Farmer Kenniston's."
"I should have thought they would have tried to find us first, so as to let us know what they were going to do," said Ralph.
"In order to have found us, they would have been obliged to meet some of the people here, and they probably did not think that safe, even though everyone had so much to attend to."
"But they would have left word with someone," insisted Ralph.
"That would have been as bad as to show themselves. Bob probably wants to make it appear that he hasn't even been in this section of the country, and if any trouble comes of carrying the glycerine through the town, he will insist that he hasn't been here."
Ralph was far from being as positive that they would find the horses at the Kenniston farm as his friend was, but he contented himself with waiting until it could be proven, rather than to provoke an argument when it seemed that, under any circumstances, they had better return there.
After some considerable difficulty, the boys found a man who, for a generous consideration, would carry them to the farm in his wagon, drawn by a slow, methodical-moving horse, and they set out, George's fears for the safety of his team entirely allayed, and Ralph's increasing each moment.
In order to make sure that the horses had been driven toward the farm, and not in the direction of Jim's home, George made inquiries of all he met on the road, as well as at several of the houses.
Quite a number of people had seen the team, driven along at full speed by two young men, and had noticed it particularly because they believed it had been sent to Bradford to get assistance in extinguishing the fire.
This continued news caused George to be positive that his horses were safe at the farm, and in the rapid driving he recognized, or thought he did, Jim's presence, for that young gentleman was always anxious to get over the road as fast as possible.
But when they had arrived within a mile of Farmer Kenniston's home, they received information of the team which had the effect of arousing George from his dream of fancied security, so far as his horses were concerned.
A farmer who was well acquainted with all three of the moonlighters, had seen the horses as they were driven past his home on the afternoon of the previous day, and he was positive that neither Bob, Jim nor Dick was in the carriage. The men were young, well dressed, and strangers, so far as George's informant knew, and he was certain that they had not been in Sawyer, nor in the vicinity, any length of time.
This aroused all of George's fears, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he could restrain his impatience until the farm-house was reached, when the first question asked was as to whether the horses were there.
Farmer Kenniston was surprised that such a question should be asked, for he had seen the team going toward Bradford the day previous, and, as it was in advance of him at the time, he had no doubt but that it was George who was driving.
That the horses had been stolen there could no longer be any doubt, and how they could be recovered was just what neither of the boys could decide.
It was some time before the boys, even with the aid of Farmer Kenniston's not very valuable advice, could decide upon what course to pursue for the recovery of the stolen property. The plan which met with the most favor, however, was that they should take one of the farmer's teams, and follow in the direction the men had been seen to drive, which was evidently through Bradford. By making inquiries on the road, they might be able to track the thieves and overtake them, although this seemed hardly probable, because of the start of nearly twenty-four hours which the men had.
If the trail led through Bradford, they could there notify the authorities, and also telegraph to the different towns near by; and if it did not, it was decided that Ralph should leave George, going by himself to try to intercept the thieves by the aid of the electric current.
Farmer Kenniston's best horse, which, by-the-way, was not a very valuable animal, was soon harnessed into a stout wagon, and the boys set out, having but little faith in the success of their journey.
George had taken with him all the money he had, which was a trifle over two hundred dollars, since they might not only be gone a long while, but it was quite possible that if they did recover the team, they would be obliged to incur some heavy expenses.
Ralph had one hundred dollars, which his father had given him for the necessary bills while on his vacation, and this he offered to George, in case he should need on the journey any more than he had. Thus the boys were, as they believed, amply provided with money, and they intended to follow the thieves just as long as they could track them.
On the road to Bradford, George met two men who had seen the team the day before, and they drove into the town, confident that the men they were in pursuit of had entered there the day previous.
Before trying to learn who had seen the horses, George went directly to the chief of police, told his story, and was assured that before morning at least the direction in which the men had gone should be made known.
Under the officer's direction, telegrams were sent to different points where it was thought probable the thieves might go, and, so far as the boys were concerned, nothing more could be done until the officers, who had been sent out to find some news of the team during the time it had been in Bradford, should return.
George was not by any means in the mood to remain idle while waiting for the policemen's report; for the loss of his team, in which he had taken so much pride, weighed heavily upon him. Instead of waiting in the police office for some news, he insisted on going out to make inquiries on his own account, and, as a matter of course, Ralph accompanied him.
It is an easy matter in the country to stop at each house and inquire if the occupants have seen a team pass; but the boys found that such a system could hardly be pursued in the city, since a gentleman might feel insulted if any one should stop him in the street to ask if he had seen a pair of horses, attached to a light wagon, pass there twenty-four hours before.
This difficulty had not presented itself either to George or Ralph, until they were on the street, ready to pursue their investigations, and then they were sadly puzzled to know what to do.
While they were standing irresolutely in front of the police quarters, trying to make up their minds how they should proceed, George was accosted by a rough, but pleasant-looking old gentleman, who appeared very glad to see him, and at the same time acted as if he was in deep trouble about something.
"I am powerful glad to see yer, Mr. Harnett; for I conclude that you've forgotten all about the promise you made to drive out an' see us every time you had the chance."
"And I'm glad to see you, Mr. Simpson," replied George, as he introduced Ralph to Mr. David Simpson. "I have by no means forgotten my promise to call upon you, for I spent too many happy hours while I was boarding with you, when I was surveying the Walters' property, to ever forget that I should like to go again. I have been at work near Farmer Kenniston's, and have not had the time to pay you a visit. But now that I shall have more leisure, I will drive out some day and bring Ralph with me."
"I would be powerful glad to see you, Mr. Harnett," said the old man, sadly; "but it won't be in the old home, and the good Lord only knows where the remainder of my old life will be spent."
"What do you mean, Mr. Simpson?" asked George, in surprise; for the sadness visible on the old man's face astonished him quite as much as the singular words did.
"It means, Mr. Harnett, that I've lost the old place I was raised on, and all for the lack of a little money. You know that I helped poor Tom set himself up in business by mortgaging the farm. If the poor boy had lived, he would have paid it all; but jest when we thought he was gettin' along so famously, he died. I've walked the streets of this town all day, hopin' I could find some one who would help me make up the balance I owe; but the fire yesterday makes everybody feel poor, I s'pose, an' I couldn't borrow a dollar; so I'm goin' home now to tell mother that we've got to leave the home where all our babies were born, and where they all died."
The old man could not prevent the tears from gathering in his eyes as he spoke, and both the boys felt an uncomfortably hard lump rise in their throats as he finished.
"Can't you persuade your creditor to give you longer time?" asked George.
"I've just come from his office, where I begged harder of him than I ever begged of man before to take what money I had and wait a year longer; but he wants my back pasture to piece on to his own, and says he will foreclose to-morrow," replied the old man.
And then, as if conscious that he was obtruding his own sorrows on one whom he had no right to burden with them, he would have changed the conversation; but George prevented him by asking:
"How much did you owe him, Mr. Simpson?"
"Well, you see, I'd kept the interest paid up reg'lar, an' it come to jest the face of the mortgage, five hundred dollars. I'd managed to scrape up two hundred an' twenty-five, an' up to this mornin' I'd reckoned on sellin' the wood lot for enough to make up the balance. But when the fire come yesterday, the man who was to buy it—'Siah Rich—had lost so much that he couldn't take it."
"Was you to sell him the wood-lot for two hundred and seventy-five dollars?"
"Yes, an' I think it was well worth that. I didn't really need it, an' if I could only have sold it I'd been all right, but now the whole thing's got to go. I don't care so much for myself, but it'll come powerful hard on the wife, for she does set a store by the old place, if it is rough-lookin'."
George beckoned to Ralph to step aside with him, but there was no need of any consultation just then, for the latter said, quickly:
"I know what you mean, George, and here is all I have got."
As he spoke Ralph handed his friend the roll of bills which was to enable him to spend a long vacation, and then turned away, as if not wanting to embarrass the old gentleman by his presence.
"Mr. Simpson," said George, as he added his own money to that which Ralph had given him, "between the two of us we have got enough to buy your wood-lot, and here is the money. Pay the mortgage this afternoon, and then you can make out a deed to these two names."
George wrote his own and Ralph's name on a slip of paper, which he handed to the old man at the same time he gave him the money.
"But I can't take this, Mr. Harnett," he said, while at the same time his face showed how delighted he would be to keep it. "You and your friend don't want my wood-lot, an' you only offer me this money because I have been tellin' you of my troubles, like a beggar, an' an old fool that I am. Take it back, Mr Harnett, an' mother an' I won't feel half so bad about goin' away when we've once left."
"But suppose I tell you that we want to buy the land on a speculation?" said George, with a smile. "There may be oil there, and we may want to sink a well."
"You wouldn't buy that land if it was oil you were after. One time I did think we might strike it, but those as know told me there wasn't any there, after they'd looked the property over," replied the old man, as with trembling hand he held the money toward George.
"Well, we'll buy the land, anyway," said the young engineer, with a smile. "You have said that it was worth that amount of money, and we may be able to sell it for more than we paid you, even if there isn't any oil. So have the deed made out, and leave it for me at Farmer Kenniston's."
Then, before the old man could make any further reply, George walked swiftly on, followed by Ralph, and Mr. Simpson was left to enjoy the generosity which enabled him still to retain the home that was made dear both to him and his wife by so many pleasant, and at the same time sad, recollections.
"Well?" he said, inquiringly, when he and Ralph had left Mr. Simpson some distance behind, wondering if the good fortune which had come to him was real or not.
"Well?" repeated Ralph, laughing. "I suppose you mean to ask if I am sorry for what I have done? Not a bit of it, for I can get father to give me money enough to pay for my ticket home, while, simply at the expense of a little enjoyment, we have made that old man happy. But how will it affect you, George? How can you search for your horses if you have no money?"
"From the united funds we have twenty-three dollars left, and if that is not enough then the horses must remain lost, for I would willingly have given them up rather than that Mr. Simpson and his wife should have been turned homeless into the world."
"If you think that way, then I think we have done a good thing, and we certainly ought to feel that we are of considerably more importance in the world, since we are landed proprietors. But we must look at the property before I go home, for I want to see it; and now come with me where I can write a letter to father, for the longer I stay now, the more deeply in debt shall I be."
"You're not going to shorten your vacation because of lending this money, Ralph, for you shall live with me, and the only inconvenience you will suffer will be the lack of money to spend."
Ralph was not so certain that he would become a burden on George simply because he had expended some money in charity; but just at that moment there was no need of discussing it; and he proposed that they return to the police head-quarters in order to find out if the detectives had learned anything about the team.
Greater good fortune awaited them here than they had thought possible, for when they returned the officers furnished them with the complete description of the men, and reported that they had, indeed, driven into Bradford the afternoon before, but, during the night, had returned by the same road they had come, stating that they were going to Babcock.
It was evident, from the information brought by the police, that the men who had stolen Harnett's team had driven to Bradford simply for the purpose of deceiving any one who might search for them, and that they would push on into New York State, where they might find a better opportunity of disposing of their ill-gotten property.
Under the circumstances there was nothing the boys could do save return by the road they had come, and, since it was necessary to do this, it was as well that they should sleep that night in the Kenniston farm-house as in Bradford, where they would be obliged to spend some of their small store of money for lodging and breakfast.
As soon, therefore, as they had received from the chief of police all the information he could impart, they started toward home, neither nearer nor further from the object of their search.
All that they had done on the way down would have necessarily to be done over again, in the hope of learning of the thieves on their return, and no time was to be lost in this second search.
Of course, if the men had started from Bradford in the night, there would be no use in inquiring for them anywhere between there and some distance from Sawyer; therefore, the boys decided that they would sleep at the Kenniston farm that night, recommencing the pursuit at an early hour next morning.
When they reached the farm-house they found Bob Hubbard awaiting their arrival; he had come there two hours before, and when, on asking for George, he was told that the engineer had gone in search of his horses, had told the farmer that, while he did not intend to remain there during the night, he would wait for George's arrival, which he was certain would not be long delayed.
Not knowing Bob's reason for expecting George's return, when it seemed certain he would be away some time, Farmer Kenniston was considerably mystified by his guest's manner; but the reason for his thus speaking was soon explained when, at a late hour in the evening, George and Ralph did arrive.
"I knew you would come back to-night," said Bob, as he rushed out to meet the friends whom he had not treated exactly as it would seem friendship demanded, "for I knew, if you learned anything at all, you would find it necessary to come back this way."
"Why, what do you know?" asked George, quickly.
"When I tell you that I knew your team had been stolen even before you did, you must admit that I know something about it," replied Bob, feeling fully how important he was just then.
"Don't be long-winded now, Bob," said George, sharply; "for you know how anxious I am."
"I'll tell you all I know, and I think I may be able to make amends for the trick we played upon you in using your team the other night, unless you think it was because of that that you had your horses where they could be stolen."
"Tell me what you have heard of my team!" exclaimed George, impatiently.
"Jack Roberts told me, this afternoon, that he saw two fellows in your carriage about midnight, and that they stopped all night, or at least the remainder of it, in the woods just above our camp. I went up there with him about five o'clock, and it didn't seem as if they could have been gone more than an hour before we got there."
"Did you find out which way they went?"
"As near as could be told by the tracks, they kept straight on toward Babcock."
"That's where they said they were going," said Ralph, excitedly, delighted at this confirmation of the policeman's story.
"From the looks of the place where they stayed last night, I should say that they don't know very much about camping out," continued Bob. "They just hitched the horses to a tree, and laid down on the ground, with a few boughs under them, instead of putting up a shelter, which wouldn't have taken ten minutes. I found pieces of newspaper, in which had been food, scattered around. So I fancy their arrangements for the journey were made very hurriedly and incompletely. I don't think they had hay or grain for the horses, for I couldn't find any signs of either."
It was evident that Bob had examined the ground thoroughly in expectation of a chase, and as he gave what was really valuable information, gathered simply from a desire to aid his friend, George was perfectly willing to forgive him for any and everything he had ever done against him.
"Then we won't stop here to-night," said the owner of the stolen horses, hurriedly. "If they left there this afternoon, we may stand a chance of overtaking them to-night. You needn't take the horse out, Mr. Kenniston, for we will start right off again."
"Do you think there is any chance of overtaking your horses, even if they haven't had any grain, with this poor old nag of the farmer's, whose greatest speed has been shown in front of a plow?"
And Bob laughed gleefully at the idea.
"It is the best horse I can get just now," said George, fretfully; for he could not see anything very comical in the fact of being thus hampered in the pursuit.
"There's where you are mistaken, my dear boy," replied Bob, in his old, lofty way. "My horses are as fast, and I'm inclined to think a little faster, than yours. When Jack told me what he had seen, I thought there was a chance to pay off old scores. So I harnessed into the light double wagon, put in some blankets, and come here. While I have been waiting for you, I have got a good-sized lunch from Mrs. Kenniston, a bag of grain from the farmer, and now we are ready to start, even if we drive to the lake."
"Bob, you are a good fellow," exclaimed George, as he grasped the moonlighter by the hand, and made a mental vow that he would never speak harshly to him again.
While they had been talking, Farmer Kenniston had backed Bob's horses out of the shed, where their master had left them, that the journey might be commenced as quickly as possible, and the boys got into the wagon at once, George and Ralph on the back seat, and Bob in front.
That the chase would be an exciting one, in case they should get within sight of the thieves, was shown by the way Bob's horses started off, and, for the first time since he was convinced of his loss, George began to have some hopes of regaining his property.
"There is one danger in our chasing those fellows in the night," said Bob, after they had started, "and as to whether you will take the risk, you must decide. They will probably spend this night as they did last night—in the woods. Of course, we could not see in the dark if an ox-cart had driven into the woods, and we run every chance of driving past them. Then again, if we wait until morning, we are just so much further behind. Now, what will you do?"
"I hardly know," replied George, after considerable thought. "What is your advice?"
"Well," and Bob spoke like one who has already decided the matter in his own mind, "my idea is that they won't stop this side of Babcock, and I am certain they won't stop in the town. So I think we shall be safe to drive as far as there. The chances are that the thieves will drive through the town in the night, and stop in the first likely place they come to on the other side. We can start in the morning again, about as early as they can."
"Then that is what we will do," said George, satisfied that Bob had deliberated upon this plan until he was convinced it was the best that could be done.
"Do you believe we shall catch them?" asked Ralph, speaking for the first time since he had met Bob.
"Catch them!" echoed the moonlighter. "I wish I was as sure of striking a thousand-barrel well as I am that we shall be interviewing the young gentlemen before to-morrow night."
But if Bob's hopes of striking a big well had been dependent upon catching the thieves before the next night, he would never have made a success in the oil region, save as a moonlighter.
"There is our wood-lot," said George, as he pointed to a grove on the opposite side of the creek, near which a very old and a very dilapidated house could be seen.
Bob was curious, of course, to know what George meant, and, after the story had been told him, he said:
"It was a big thing for you to do, boys, and Simpson probably appreciates it as much as any man could; but I tell you for a fact that you will get your reward for that good deed sooner than you expect. There's oil in that same wood-lot, and I've sort of reckoned on buying it myself some day. If I had known how Simpson was fixed, it would have been mine before now, for two hundred and seventy-five dollars is cheap for ten acres, even if there is nothing there but rocks."
"But Simpson says he has had oil men examine the place, and there's nothing there," said George, half believing Bob had some good reason for speaking as he did.
"Yes, he had a lot of old fogies there who couldn't tell the difference between oil and a tallow candle. They walked around ten minutes, collected twenty-five dollars from the old man, and then walked away. Simpson was probably paying ten per cent to old Massie, for I've heard he was the one who held the mortgage, and if he could have got half the amount loaned, don't you suppose he would have waited any length of time if he hadn't seen a chance to make more? Massie knows the oil is there as well as I do, and the old miser thought he was going to get the whole farm for his five hundred dollars. Why, the old fellow would choke both of you boys if he could get hold of you just now."
Bob laughed long and loud at the way in which the money-lender had over-reached himself, and it is hard to say just how long his merriment would have lasted, since it received a sudden check.
They were then just entering the town of Sawyer, and a man had stepped into the road, as if to speak to the party, seizing one of the horses by the bridle as they approached him, to make sure of being heard.
"Hello! What's the matter now?" asked Bob, who had not noticed the man, and was surprised at the sudden stopping of his team.
"I wished to speak with you for a moment," said the man, as he fumbled in his pocket with his disengaged hand, and then as he produced some papers, he said: "I arrest you, Mr. Robert Hubbard, and you, Mr. George Harnett, for violating a town ordinance by carrying nitro-glycerine through the streets."
George had said he hoped he would be arrested, in order that he might show he had not been guilty of such a violation, but when he expressed the wish, he could have had no idea that the arrest would be made just at the moment when, in order to recover his team, it was necessary for him to be free.
PLEADING FOR LIBERTY.
This arrest, coming just when it did, was a complete surprise to George. He had hoped a few hours before that it would come, in order that he might have an opportunity of showing that he was innocent of that which was charged against him, simply because his team had been the one the officers had chased. But to be deprived of his liberty now, when every moment was precious, seemed to be doubly disastrous.
To be prevented from chasing the thieves when he was at last on the track of them, was to lose his horses beyond any probable chance of recovery, while to have forty-eight hours of liberty just then, was, as he thought, almost a guarantee that he could recover his stolen team.
Bob was even more excited by the arrest than George. He had the pleasing thought that he was guilty of the offense charged, added to the disappointment at not being able to aid his friend in recovering the property which he was the remote cause of being lost.
He knew, as well as did George, that at the worst they would only be fined for violating the town ordinance; but it was the loss of time just then that made the matter a serious one, and he resolved to do his best to secure their liberty for a short while longer, at all events.
"I won't say anything about myself," said Bob, with a laugh, "for I don't suppose my reputation as a steady young man is first-class; but you, Mr. Constable, as well as nearly every one in Sawyer, know Harnett, and you know he will keep his word. While he was helping extinguish the fire yesterday, his pair of horses and carriage were stolen. We have just got on the track of the thieves, and if we are obliged to remain here now, there will be no chance of recovering the property. Now, if you will give us our liberty, Harnett will give you his word that we will return here at any time you shall set."
"That is hardly a regular way of doing business, Mr. Hubbard," said the man, with a smile, that showed he had no hard feelings against those whom he was obliged to arrest; "and if it was your word alone that I was asked to take, I am afraid I should be obliged to refuse. I'm doubtful as to whether I ought to even consider the matter."
"Of course you ought," said Bob, quickly. "Now, if we should be convicted, the penalty is only a fine, and we can leave you as much money as would be required to pay those as security that we will return."
"I suppose in that case, and if Mr. Harnett promises that both you and he will come here a week from to-day, I might take the risk of any accident that would prevent you from appearing."
"Now that's what I call acting squarely," said Bob, in a satisfied way; and George asked:
"How much money will be necessary to satisfy you that we will appear for trial?"
"Well, I don't suppose the fines will be over fifty dollars. So, if you leave that amount with me, you can keep on in search of the thieves, whom I hope you will catch."
Ralph's heart, which had been very light when he saw that there was a chance they might continue their journey, sank again when the officer mentioned the amount of security he demanded, for he knew that the united funds of his and George's fell far short of the sum, and what little they had would be actually necessary for their expenses on the road.
"How much money have you got, Bob?" asked George, speaking in a low, determined tone, that told plainly how anxious he was to be in pursuit once more, and of the sacrifice he would be willing to make in order to be released from the meshes of the law, even if it was only for a few days.
"I can't say exactly, but I'll promise you it isn't very much," replied Bob, carelessly, as if he did not think the amount of any great importance.
And, after rummaging in all his pockets, he succeeded in producing one very ragged-looking twenty-dollar bill.
"That's the size of my fortune," he said, as he handed the money to George, as if the matter was already ended.
George had twenty-three dollars, all of which he would undoubtedly need before he returned; but, willing to run any risk rather than be longer delayed, he said to the officer:
"It happens very unfortunately, but we have not got fifty dollars between us. If you will take my solemn promise that both Bob and myself will meet you here a week from to-day, and also that I will report to you on our return, together with this forty dollars, you will be doing us a favor which shall not be forgotten."
The man hesitated for a moment, and Bob said, impatiently:
"Oh, take the money, and let us go. You have got really more than the fine will amount to, for I promise you that Harnett can prove by us all that he had nothing to do with violating the ordinance. I simply got possession of his team to deceive you."
"I shall be here when the case is called," said George, quietly; "for I am very anxious to show that I had nothing whatever to do with the matter; so please let us get on."
"Well, I guess there's no trouble about it, and I don't believe any one will blame me for accommodating you, in view of all the circumstances," said the officer, as he stepped back from the wagon in order that they might drive on. "I hope you will succeed in getting your team, Mr. Harnett. Good-night, gentlemen!"
"Good-night!" cried Bob, as he started the horses with a jerk that nearly threw his passengers from their seats.
And in another instant they were riding at full speed in the direction of Babcock.
"I hardly know what we had better do," said George, thoughtfully. "Here we are starting out on what may be a long journey, with only three dollars in our pockets, and I am not sure but that we ought to go back to town to try to get some more."
"That would never do," replied Bob, decidedly. "If we should do that we could not get to Babcock to-night, and that we must do, if we expect to catch the thieves. We have got food and grain enough to last a day and a half or two days, and we can rough it in the woods, as the men we are chasing are doing."
George would have preferred decidedly to be able to go to a hotel at night, rather than to camp in the woods; but Bob and Ralph were only too well pleased at the idea of living a gipsy life, therefore it was decided to keep on, or, more properly speaking, since no one made any objection to the plan, Bob continued to urge the horses on in the direction the thieves were supposed to have gone.
The night was not so dark but that they could drive a good pace, but had it been daylight there is no question but that Bob's horses would have shown considerably better speed, for their driver was anxious to reach Babcock early, in order that the animals might have as long a rest as possible, before starting on their journey next day, which would likely be a hard one.
Bob sang, laughed, and acted generally as if he was in the best of spirits, while Ralph joined in with him, for he enjoyed this night-drive immensely; but George remained silent, his great desire to get on faster causing the speed at which they were traveling to seem very slow.
It was some time past midnight when they arrived at Babcock, and much as they liked to camp out, both Ralph and Bob would have been better satisfied, just then, if they could have remained all night at the hotel, for they were so tired that sleeping in the open air had not as many charms for them as usual.
"Here's where we would have stopped if we had not been obliged to give up all our money," said Bob, as they drove past the hotel. "But now that we are nothing more nor less than three-dollar paupers, we shall be obliged to do as the thieves are probably doing—make up our bed under the greenwood, or some other kind of a tree."
"It might be worse," said George, who was beginning to recover some of his cheerfulness as his companions lost theirs, "and we will stop at the next clump of trees."
"There will be no doubt about our finding accommodations," laughed Bob, "unless our friends who are the cause of this excursion have engaged all the promising-looking groves."
Above half a mile from the town the road ran through a piece of dense woods, which shut out even the faint rays of the moon, and Bob stopped the horses, while George and Ralph explored, as well as possible in the darkness, for a chance to make a camp.
A small, open space, surrounded by bushes, about ten yards from the road, was the best place they could find, and preparations for the night began at once.
The horses were unharnessed and the carriage backed in among the trees, where it would not be seen by any one who might pass during the night.
The horses were fastened to a couple of trees, where they could feed without danger of getting their halters entangled among the bushes, and each was given a generous supply of grain.
Among other things which Bob had placed into the carriage while waiting at the Kenniston farm was a water-pail, and with this on his arm he started out in search of water for the horses, while George and Ralph attended to the making of what could only be an apology for a camp.
The blankets, cushions and rug were taken from the carriage, and were spread on the ground over a small pile of brush, for the boys were too tired to make any elaborate arrangements for the night.
The carriage cushions formed the pillow to this one bed which was to serve for all three, and with the rug and one blanket under them, and the other blanket over them, George thought they would get along very comfortably.
Bob was not long in finding plenty of water for the horses, and when he returned with it, after it was decided to go supperless to bed, in order to save the provisions, all three lay down on the hastily-improvised bed, little dreaming that they were within but a few rods of those whom they were pursuing.
As may be imagined, the sleep which visited the three boys was not as profound as it would have been had they been in bed at Kenniston farm. In the first place, the bed of brush, which had seemed so soft when they first lay down, seemed suddenly to have developed a great number of hard places, while the ends of the boughs, which had seemed so small when they were cut, apparently increased in size after they had served as a bed for an hour.