Chapter XIII. A Rescue in Mid-Ocean
 

Dick found that he could remain on the deck only with the greatest of difficulty. Several life lines had been stretched around and he clung to one of these.

"What has happened?" he asked of one of the sailors. "What did we strike?"

"Struck a small boat," was the answer. "It had a colored man in it. We've just hauled the fellow on deck."

"Is he all right?"

"No; he's about half dead. But the captain thinks he may get over it, with care," and the sailor hurried away.

Dick now saw several men approaching, carrying the form of the rescued one between them. He looked at the unconscious man and gave a cry of amazement.

"Alexander Pop! What a strange happening!"

"Do you know the man?" questioned Captain Cambion.

"I know him very well," answered Dick. "He used to work at the military academy where my brothers and I were cadets." And the boy told Captain Cambion the particulars of Alexander Pop's disappearance from Putnam Hall. "I am glad that I will be able to tell him that his innocence is established," he concluded.

"All providing we are able to bring him around to himself, Master Rover," returned the captain gravely.

"You think, then, that he is in bad shape?"

"I hardly know what to think. We will take him below and do all we can for him."

It was no easy matter to transfer Pop to one of the lower staterooms, but once placed on a soft berth the Rovers did all they could for him.

"It is like a romance," said Sam, while Randolph Rover was administering some medicine to the unconscious man. "How thin he looks."

"He's been suffering from starvation," put in Dick. "I suppose he gave that yell we heard with his last breath."

All of the party watched over the colored man with tender care, and feeling that he could be in no better hands the captain left him entirely in his friends' charge. "When he comes to his senses you can let me know," he said.

Dick was watching by Pop's side, and Tom was at the foot of the berth, when the colored man opened his eyes. As they rested on first one Rover and then the other he stared in utter astonishment.

"My gracious sakes alive!" he gasped. "Am I dreamin', or am I back to Putnam Hall again?"

"Neither, Aleck," replied Dick. "You are safe on board an ocean steamer."

"An' yo' -- whar yo' dun come from?"

"We are passengers on the steamer," said Tom. "You were picked up several hours ago."

"Yes, but -- but I can't undersand dis nohow!" persisted the colored man, and tried to sit up, only to fall back exhausted.

"Don't try to understand it, Aleck, until you are stronger," said Dick. "Would you like some hot soup?"

"Anyt'ing, sah, anyt'ing! Why, I aint had, no reg'lar meal in most a week!" moaned the sufferer. "Glory to Heaben dat I am sabed!"

And then he said no more for quite a long, while.

The soup was already at hand, and it was Dick who fed it slowly and carefully, seeing to it that Pop should have no more than his enfeebled stomach could take care of, for overfeeding, so Mr. Rover had said, might kill the man.

The next day Pop was able to sit up, although still too weak to stand on his legs. He was continually praising Heaven for his safety.

"I dun Vink I was a goner more dan once," he said. "I was on de ocean all alone about a week, I reckon, although I lost time ob days after I'd been out two or Vree nights. I Vink I was most crazy."

"Perhaps you were, Aleck," said Sam. "But tell us how you got in that position."

"Dat am de queerest part ob it, Master Rober -- de queerest part of it. I got into de small boat fo' a sleep, and de fust Ving I knowed I was miles an' miles away from eberyt'ing; yes, sah-miles an' miles away on de boundless ocean, an' not so much as a fishin' smack sail in sight. Golly, but wasn't I scared -- I reckon I dun most turn white!" And Aleck rolled his eyes around impressively.

"You were in a small boat attached to some steamer?"

"Dat's it. Da had been usin' de small boat fo' surnt'ing, and left her overboard."

"Were you cut adrift?"

"I don't tink I was -- but I aint shuah nohow."

"What boat was it?"

"De Harrison, from Brooklyn, bound to Cuba."

"Did you ship on her after you left Putnam Hall in such a hurry?

"I did, cos I didn't want de police to coted me. But, say, as true as I stand heah -- mean sit heah -- I aint guilty of stealin' dem watches an' t'ings, no I aint!"

And Aleck raised both hands earnestly. "Captain Putnam made a great mistake when he dun suspect me."

"We know it," answered Dick quietly. "We thought you innocent all along, Aleck."

"T'ank yo' fo' dat, Master Rober -- I'se glad to see dat I'se got one friend --"

"Three friends, Aleck -- we all stood up for you," interrupted Tom.

"T'ank yo', t'ank yo'!"

"And we discovered who the real thief was," added Sam.

"Wot, yo' dun found, dat out!" burst out Pop. "An' who was de black-hearted rascal?"

"Jim Caven."

"Dat cadet wot tried to be funny wid me an' I had to show him his place? Hol' on -- I dun see him comin' from de attic one day."

"When he must have put those stolen articles in your trunk," said Tom. "Yes, he was guilty, Captain Putnam was going to have him arrested, but he got away."

Nothing would do for Alexander Pop after this but that the boys give him the full particulars of the affair, to which he listened with the closest attention. But at the conclusion his face fell.

"Ise mighty glad I am cleared," he said. "But I'd give a good deal to face de cap'n--jest to see wot he would say, eh?"

"He said he was sorry he had suspected you," said Dick.

"What a big fool dis darkey was to run away!" murmured Aleck meditatively. "I wasn't cut out fo' no sailer man. Ise been sick most ebery day since I left shoah. By de way, whar is dis ship bound?" he went on.

"To Africa."

"Africa! Shuah yo' is foolin', Massah Dick?"

"No, I am not. We and our uncle are bound for the Congo River."

"De Congo! Dat's whar my great gran' fadder dun come from -- so I heard my mammy tell, years ago. I don't want to go dar, not me!"

"I don't see how you are going to help yourself, Aleck. The first stop this steamer will make will be at Boma on the Congo River."

"'Wot am I to do when I gits dar? answer me dat, chile."

"I'm sure I don't know. Perhaps the captain will let you remain on the Republique."

"What wid dern Frenchmen? I don't t'ink I could stand dat. An' what am yo' going to do in Africa?"

"We are going on a hunt for my father, who has been missing for years."

Again Aleck had to be told the particulars and again he was tremendously interested. When the boys had finished he sat in silence for several minutes.

"I've got it-jest de t'ing!" he cried suddenly.

"Got what?" asked Tom.

"De right idea, Massah Tom. Foah gen'men like yo' don't want to go to Africa widout a valet nohow. Let me be de workin' man fe de crowd. I'll take de job, cheap, -- an' glad ob de chance."

"Hullo, that's an idea!" mused Dick.

"Will yo' do it, Massah Dick?"

"We'll have to speak to my uncle about it first."

"Well, yo' put in a good word fo' me. Yo know I always stood by yo' in de school," pleaded the colored man. "I don't want to be driftin' around jess nowhar, wid nuffin to do, an' no money comin' in -- not but what I'll work cheap, as I dun said I would," he added hastily.

A little later Randolph Rover joined the group and Aleck's proposition was laid before him. Strange to say he accepted the colored man's offer immediately, greatly to the wonder of the boys, and from that minute on Pop be came a member of the searching party.

"I will tell you why I did it," explained Randolph Rover to the boys in private. "When we get into the jungle we will need a man we can trust and one who is used to American ways. Moreover, if there is any spying to be done among the natives the chances are that a black man can do it better than a white man."

"Uncle Randolph, you've got a long head," remarked Tom. "No doubt Aleck will prove just the fellow desired." And Tom was right, as later events proved.