The Rover Boys on the Plains/Chapter 19
PETER POLL, THE DOLT
After Sam and Dick had departed, the camp in the woods seemed unusually lonesome to those left behind.
"I wish I had gone along," said Tom, not once, but several times.
"Of da only come pack in safdy," was Hans' comment.
To pass the time, Songbird tried to make up some poetry, but nobody cared to listen to him, and he soon subsided. The death-like quiet felt to them as if it was the hour before the storm.
"Are you fellows going to sleep?" asked Fred as it began to grow late.
"You can go, Fred," said Tom. "I'm going to stay awake until Sam and Dick get back."
"Then I'll stay awake, too."
To tell the truth, nobody felt like sleeping, and all huddled together in a hollow, close to where the horses had been tethered. Wags came and rested his head in Tom's hand.
"Old boy, you know we are worried, don't you?" said Tom, and the dog looked up as if he understood.
It was a long time before their watches pointed to midnight. Then Songbird stretched himself.
"I am so sleepy I can scarcely keep my eyes open," he said with a yawn.
"Then go to sleep," said Tom.
"I take a leetle nap, too," said Hans, and soon both were slumbering, leaving Tom and Fred on guard. They wished they had a fire—it would make things more cheerful—but they did not dare to indulge themselves, for fear their enemies might see the light.
By the time it was three in the morning, even Fred could hold out no longer. He dropped off, leaving Tom to keep the vigil by himself. But soon Songbird started up.
"Have they come back, Tom?" he asked.
"They must be making some wonderful discoveries. Hullo! so the others went to sleep, too? Don't you want a nap?"
"Well, I'll take forty winks, if you'll promise to keep a good lookout."
"I'll do that. I'm as fresh as a daisy now."
Tom leaned back against a tree, and in a minute more was in slumber-land. When the others awoke, they did not disturb him, consequently it was some time after sunrise when he opened his eyes.
"I declare! I've had a regular sleep!" he cried. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"We didn't think it necessary," said Fred.
"Have they got back?"
At this, Tom's face grew serious.
"That's strange, and I must say I don't like it."
"Oh, I guess they'll show up before a great while," answered Fred. "They couldn't travel very well in the dark. If they tried it, they'd be sure to get lost."
Once more, they unpacked the provisions they had brought along and made a leisurely breakfast. Then they packed their things again and waited.
"I am going up to the top of a tree and take another look around," announced Tom about ten o'clock. He could scarcely stand the suspense.
"I'll do the same," said Songbird, and soon they were in the top of a tall tree and gazing axiously in the direction of Red Rock ranch.
The place looked to be deserted.
"Not a sign of Dick and Sam anywhere," said the fun-loving Rover.
For reply, Songbird hummed softly to himself:
"The woods and plains are everywhere,
But for those things we do not care.
In every nook and every place
We look for a familiar face.
What has become of those we cherish?
Are they alive, or did they perish?"
"Don't go on that way, Songbird, you give a fellow the blues," cried Tom. "If I thought Dick and Sam had perished——"
"Merely a figure of speech, Tom. I had to find a word to rhyme with cherish, that's all."
"And such a word is rarish, I suppose," murmured Tom. "Honest, this is no joking matter," he continued soberly.
"I know it, and I wish Sam and Dick were back."
They continued to watch the ranch and presently saw a boy come out with a bundle under his arm and a fishing pole over his shoulder.
"There's a boy, and he is coming this way!" cried the poetic youth.
They watched the boy as long as they could and saw him turn to the northward and take to a trail running close to a fair-sized stream.
"I think he is going fishing," said Tom. "I'd like to run across him and question him."
They watched the boy as long as they could, and then climbed down the tree and told the others of what they had seen.
"I am going after him," said Tom. "You stay here until I get back."
"I am going along," said Songbird, and so it was arranged.
A few minutes of walking brought them to the stream of water, and they walked along the bank of this a distance of quarter of a mile, when Tom called a halt.
"There is the boy now—sitting on a rock, fishing," he whispered. "Don't scare him off."
They crept into the shelter of the trees and came out again directly behind the boy, who had just landed a good-sized fish and was baiting up again. He was a small boy, with an old-looking face covered with a fuzz of reddish hair. He had yellowish eyes that had a vacant stare in them.
"Hullo!" cried Tom.
The boy jumped as if a bomb had gone off close to his ear. His fishing pole dropped into the stream and floated off.
"Out for a day's sport?" asked Tom pleasantly. The boy stared at him and muttered something neither Tom nor Songbird could understand.
"What did you say?" asked the fun-loving Rover.
"Poor fishing pole!" murmured the boy. "Now Peter can't fish any more!"
"Is that your name—Peter?" asked Tom. He saw that the boy was not just right in his mind.
"No, no! Peter Poll—pretty Peter Poll, who will be rich some day—if he does not tell all he knows," said the boy, repeating the words in parrot-like fashion.
"Do you live at Red Rock ranch?" asked Songbird.
The boy bobbed his head up and down vigorously.
"With Mr. Sack Todd?"
Again the boy nodded.
"What do you do there?"
"Wash dishes and cook. But Peter will be rich some day—if he doesn't tell all he knows," went on the boy. Then, of a sudden, he flapped his two arms and crowed like a rooster.
"He is a dolt!" whispered Songbird to Tom, and the latter nodded.
"The poor fishing pole—it will be drowned," went on the dolt.
"Never mind, I'll pay you for it, Peter," said Tom, and drew a silver coin from his pocket. "So you live with Mr. Todd. How do you like it?"
"Peter must not tell all he knows."
"Does he treat you kindly?"
"Peter gets sugar sometimes—and he is to have a pipe and tobacco soon."
"Did you see anything of two strangers last night?" continued Tom in a sterner tone. "Two boys about my own age?"
"Peter must not tell——"
"You answer me, or it will be the worse for you!" and now Tom caught the simple-minded youth by the collar. He did not intend to harm the lad, but he wanted to make him speak.
"Oh, oh! let me go!" screamed the dolt. "Let me go for a hundred-dollar bill! A brand new one!"
"A what?" asked Songbird curiously.
"Peter must not tell all——"
"You answer my question," broke in Tom, facing the boy and searching his eyes. "Did you see those two boys last night or not?"
"Peter must not——"
"Answer!" and now Tom had the lad by the ear.
"Yes—yes—I saw them."
"Did anybody else see them?"
"Peter must not——"
"Peter, do you want to be drowned in the river?"
"Then tell me all you know about the boys."
"Sack Todd will kill me! Peter must not tell——"
"Did Sack Todd see the boys?"
"Yes; he caught them—he and Andy Jimson—at the window! Peter must not tell——"
"Caught!" gasped Tom. "Were they made prisoners?"
The boy nodded, and then crowed like a rooster once more.
"Where were the prisoners put?"
"Down, down, down—in the deep hole where the water flows—down where they want to put Peter if he tells all he knows. But I shan't tell anything—not a thing!" and his eyes blazed fiercely. "Not a thing!"
"Poor Dick and Sam have been captured and are prisoners in some vile place," groaned Tom. "What will become of them?"