Chapter LX
 

Two weeks later the old Costa Rica, looking somewhat youthful in a new coat of black paint and with a huge American flag painted on each topside, slipped quietly out of San Francisco in ballast and for the last time turned her nose toward Panama. In the brief period given him in which to overhaul her interior, Terence P. Reardon had accomplished wonders, and an hour after Mike Murphy had taken his bearings from Point San Pedro and laid out his course the chief came into the chart room to announce that the old girl was doing eight knots and, barring unexpected bad weather, would continue to do it without falling to pieces. "If I could have spint two thousand dollars more on her," Terence declared, "I believe I could get another knot out av her. Time was whin she could do sixteen."

Cappy Ricks, enjoying his afternoon cigar in the snug chart room, snorted vigorously. "I don't very often take a notion to throw my money into the sea, Terence," he reminded his port engineer, "but when I do get that reckless I limit myself to twenty thousand dollars, and that, in round figures, is what this old ruin will stand me about the time the torpedo blows you up on top of the fiddle. However, that is a trifling investment if we succeed in destroying a late-type German submarine with a couple of hundred thousand dollars' worth of torpedoes aboard. As a sporting proposition it's somewhat more expensive than golf, but the excitement makes up for the added cost."

"The old box is alive with rats and bedbugs," Murphy complained.

"If they annoy you, Mike, my boy, comfort yourself with the thought that they're all going to be drowned," Cappy replied gayly.

Slowly the old packet wallowed down the coast, the while her crew, under Mike Murphy's supervision, built gun platforms fore and aft. Following their completion, the two six-inch guns Cappy had succeeded in getting from the navy were lifted out of the hold with the aid of the cargo winch and placed in position, one forward and the other aft. Thereupon the mate took charge of the Costa Rica, while Mike Murphy drilled his crew in range finding and celerity in loading the piece. Pointing the gun was entirely up to Murphy and, needless to state, the task was in capable hands, as was frequently demonstrated during target practice as they loafed down the coast.

Upon arrival at Panama the Costa Rica's bunkers were replenished and an extra supply of sacked coal was piled on deck, for with her patched-up boilers the old steamer was a hog on fuel. Then the mechanics and carpenters and all men not vitally needed aboard for the remainder of the voyage were put ashore and furnished with transportation back to San Francisco by the regular Pacific Mail liner. Next, the name on the bows of the Costa Rica was painted out, the name boards at each end of her bridge removed and the raised-letter record of her identity and home port chipped off her stern; following which Cappy Ricks, Terence P. Reardon and Michael J. Murphy commended their souls to their Creator, and the Costa Rica slipped leisurely through the ditch and out into the Caribbean Sea.

Fourteen days later Mike Murphy dropped round to Cappy Ricks' cabin. "We're in the danger zone, sir," he announced. "And from now on we're liable to meet one of the larger type of U-boats that operate a couple of thousand miles from the base at Zeebrugge."

"Very well," Cappy replied calmly. "Whether torpedoed or shelled, your instructions are the same. Forbid the wireless operator to send out a call for help, heave to immediately and get the men into the boats and away from the ship. Terry Reardon will remain on duty in the engine room, provided it isn't wrecked by a torpedo and the engine room crew killed; you and your gun crew will remain aboard and hide in the forecastle if it's action front, and in the auxiliary steering-gear house if it's action rear. I will relieve the quartermaster, take charge of the wheel and direct the action. If I see that there isn't going to be any action we'll put on life preservers, jump overboard and be picked up by our men in the boats. However, something tells me, Mike, that we're going to have a crack at--"

At that very instant something rapped the Costa Rica terrifically on the starboard side amidships and tore through her with a grinding, wrenching noise, followed by an explosion.

"There's the crack you were speaking of, sir," Murphy yelled and started for the door. Cappy Ricks grasped him frantically by the arm. "Was that a shell or a torpedo?" he cried. His voice, thin and shrill with age, quavered now with excitement.

"It was a shell," Murphy answered. "Went through the second cabin."

"Then that German belongs to Alden P. Ricks," Cappy declared, and scurried for the pilot house. "Out and into life-boats!" he ordered the quartermaster, and shoved him away from the wheel. "Set her over to slow speed ahead," he called to the mate, who was standing stupidly, gazing at the white puffs of smoke that marked the position of the submarine two miles off the starboard bow. The mate came to life, jammed over the handle of the marine telegraph and, obeying an order bellowed to him by Mike Murphy from the main deck, abandoned the bridge for the boat deck, there to superintend the task of getting the men away from the ship.

His first thrill of excitement having subsided, Cappy carefully drew the little half curtains on the pilot-house window, leaving a small slit through which he could observe the submarine without being observed himself, for it was no part of his plan to disclose to the enemy the fact that the ship was not entirely deserted--and that the submarine commander should jump to the conclusion that she was deserted by all hands was precisely the condition that Cappy desired to bring about.

Down in the engine room the indomitable Terence Reardon, with one hand on the throttle and one eye on the steam gauge, put the Costa Rica under a dead-slow bell; she seemed scarcely to move, yet she had sufficient steerage way to enable Cappy to keep her pointed in the general direction of the submarine, the commander of which, seeing the crew of the Costa Rica scurrying for the boats, contented himself with sending over half a dozen shells for the purpose of hurrying them along; then he ceased firing, and when the boats pulled out from the ship in tow of a motor lifeboat and his powerful glasses showed neither guns nor sign of life upon the Costa Rica's decks, he did exactly what Cappy Ricks figured he would do.

He circled warily round his prize, but the absence of frantic wireless calls for help lulled his suspicions, and presently he bore down upon her, hove to two cable lengths abreast the wallowing hulk and watched her fully five minutes for a possible trap, for the absence of any name puzzled him. His suspicions subsided at length, however, the hatch in her turtle deck slid back and men appeared, dragging up a small collapsible boat.

Slowly, slowly--so gradually that it seemed the old vessel was merely drifting, Cappy brought the Costa Rica round until her bow pointed toward the submarine. Mike Murphy, standing just inside the forecastle door, kept his glance on the slit in the curtains on the pilot-house window-and presently Cappy motioned violently to him.

"To the gun!" ordered the captain. Followed by his gun crew he dashed out of the forecastle and up the companion ladder to the forecastle head. A jerk at a lever connecting a cunningly constructed set of controls, and the false topsides on the forecastle head flopped to the deck, revealing Mike Murphy's six-inch gun. Cappy saw him deflect the gun while another man traversed it; for five seconds his eyes pressed the sight, and when the gun remained motionless Cappy knew that the hull of the submarine was looming fairly on the intersection of the cross wires in the sight. The range was point-blank!

Quick as were Murphy and his crew, however, the gun crew of the submarine was quicker. Before the Costa Rica's gun was properly laid, a shell from the submarine flew a foot over the heads of the Murphyites and burst fifty yards beyond the ship. "Ah, missed!" breathed Michael J. and raised his hand. The gunner released the firing pin and the six-inch projectile with which the gun had been loaded for two days crashed into the submarine at her water line.

A terrific explosion followed the shot. Cappy Ricks, gazing popeyed with horror, saw the submarine disintegrate and disappear in a huge water-spout; when the water settled only a vast and widening smear of heavy fuel oil showed where she had been.

From the forecastle head Michael Murphy yelled to Cappy Ricks. "Well, are you satisfied, sir?" On his part, Cappy, jubilant, even in the instant when he knew thirty new faces were already whining round the devil, dashed out on the bridge, seized the whistle cord and swung on it. A sad, nautical sob from the Costa Rica's siren answered him, and ten seconds later Terence Reardon whistled up the bridge. Cappy let go the whistle cord and took up the speaking tube. "Hello," he piped.

"What the divil do ye mean be blowin' that whistle?" roared Terence, thinking he was addressing the mate. "Wit' me alone in the engine room how d'ye expect me to keep shteam up on this ould hooker wit' you blowin' it off in the whistle! Take shame to yourself!"

"Mike sunk the submarine! Mike sunk the submarine!" Cappy shrilled over and over again. "Come up, Terence, and see the oil. See the oil, Terence, see the oil! Mike sunk the submarine, Mike sunk it. Bully for Mike! Oh, bully! Bully! Bully! Mike sunk it, but I schemed it. Come up, Terence, I'm going to faint."

And then, with shrill yips of delirious delight he slid down the companion to the main deck, to be gathered in Michael J. Murphy's arms and hugged and passed to the gun crew, who hoisted him to their shoulders and paraded joyously and blasphemously round the deck.

"I told you he wouldn't use a torpedo if he could do the trick with shells," Gappy shouted. "I told you he'd board us if we didn't wireless for help. Ha, ha, ha! Te-hee!" And he burst into shrill cachinnations. "I out-thought the scoundrel--goin' to get a patent on my idea--turn it over to the Government--oh, Mike! Oh, Terence! Get the steward back aboard. We must have some liquor. They used to serve grog in the old navy after a victory, didn't they? Yi-yi-yi!"

Terence P. Reardon came up and proffered his greasy paw, the while his quizzical glance swept the oily sea. "Well, sor," he remarked philosophically, "what wit' bein' a Christian I'm a little bit sorry the Dutchman lost, but back av that again I'm a little bit glad we won. Michael, do you get those blackguards o' mine down below as quick as ye can, or we'll be all day gettin' shteam up agin in this ould brute av a ship."