Chapter XIX. On the Edge of Disaster
 

The Si River is not a river at all where its waters flow into the China Sea. It is a wide, salt-water inlet, a bay, a great delta, like that of the Amazon. This great bay is miles in width in places and extends at least fifty miles into the interior.

Almost at the end, it is joined by a narrow little stream upon which Canton, the capital city of Kwang Tung, is situated. The city is something less than fifteen miles from the mouth of the river upon which it stands.

It was for Canton that the boys were headed. Some of the papers Ned had found in the private box of Captain Babcock made reference to a place of meeting there which the boy desired to investigate. He was now convinced that the plot against the Government had been a vicious one, backed by people of influence and standing in the world of diplomacy. It would bring the case on which he was working to a very satisfactory finish if he could include in his report the story of a meeting of the conspirators.

While the boy sat alone on the platform of the conning tower that evening the sailor who had remained on board the Sea Lion at the time of the escape of the others came to him. The fellow was an American, and seemed to be honest in his desire to assist Ned.

"The men who escaped," he said, "will not lose track of the Sea Lion. There are men on shore who will send the news of what has taken place on faster than you can travel. Wherever you go they will be waiting for you, and they are a bad lot."

"They have plenty of money behind them, I presume?" asked Ned.

"They appear to have," was the reply.

"Especially with the prospect of the loot from the wreck in mind," Ned suggested.

"They didn't get much gold out of the wreck," explained the other. "They pulled the yellow boys out until they came to the sealed parcel, and then they made off."

"They knew that we were on the ground, watching them?"

"Oh, yes, but they had a plan for getting rid of you."

"The plan young Moore attempted to carry out?"

"Yes."

"That meant murder?"

"Yes."

Ned was silent for a moment, thinking gratefully of the resourcefulness of the ex-newsboy. To this they all doubtless owed their lives. He promised himself that the lad should be properly remembered when the time of settlement with the Government came.

"Do you know where the conspirators are to meet at Hongkong?" he then asked.

"At Canton, I said," answered the other, with a twinkle in his eyes. "You thought to trip me?" he asked.

Ned, in turn, smiled quietly. He had indeed been testing the man.

"Well," he added, "do you know where they are to meet at Canton?"

"Oh, I heard the name of the street, but it sounded more like the clatter of falling crockery than a name, so I don't remember it."

"Perhaps a landmark was mentioned?"

"Yes, come to think of it, there was. The place of meeting is in the rear of a curio shop next door to an English chop house. That ought to be easy to find."

The visit to Canton promised to be a dangerous one, especially as the men who had escaped would send on word of what had taken place on the Shark. The fellows had been picked up by natives in canoes, and were probably at that time on the main land, within reach of a telegraph wire, or some other means of communication with Canton.

While the boy studied over the matter Frank came on the platform and the seaman went below. Ned laid the proposition before the newcomer.

"Well," Frank said, "you have the papers, you have the private orders of Captain Babcock, of the Shark, and you have the two main rascals, Captain Moore and his precious son. What more do you want?"

"I want the foreigner who put up the job."

"That does seem worth while," Frank mused.

"It's this way," Ned went on. "The sealed packet doubtless contains instruction to one of the revolutionary leaders regarding the disposition of the money. You see, they were sure the rebels would be on hand to grab the shipment as soon as it left the ship. The loss was to fall on the Chinese government and the revolutionists were to profit by it.

"The instructions make it look mighty bad for our Government, for the gold was drawn directly from the subtreasury the day it was shipped. It looked as if we were plotting against a friendly government."

"I see."

"But some one leaked. The story of the shipment got out, and the vessel was rammed one night by a steamer which has never been identified. The idea, of course, was to prevent the revolutionists getting the money, without telling what was known, or bringing the nation which butted into the case into prominence at all."

"Then some nation friendly to the Emperor of China did that?"

"I don't know. Anyway, the nation that did it bribed Captain Moore and Captain Babcock to get the gold--and to recover the sealed packet. With this in their hands, they might have made Uncle Sam a great deal of trouble."

"I understand, and now you want to get the men who conspired with the Moores and Captain Babcock?"

"That's the idea, not so much in the hope of bringing them to punishment as to locate the source of their inspiration."

"Then, I reckon well have to go to Canton," Frank remarked. "We'll see the town then, anyway."

The boy remained silent for a moment and then asked:

"What can you do to the chief conspirators if you catch them?"

"Nothing. I can only file my report with the government and drop out of the case."

"And the Moores and Babcock?"

"I'll turn them over to the first American man-of-war I meet."

"And then go back after the gold?"

"That depends on instructions."

"That's the difficulty of working on diplomacy cases," said Frank. "We have to take all manner of risks, and then, sometimes, see the real rascals get off free--on account of international complications. I'd like to work on a real old detective case on the Bowery."

Ned laughed softly but made no reply.

The Sea Lion made slow time, for the crippled Shark--which still floated--rolled and tumbled heavily--in her wake and the sea was rougher than it had been before for many days. At last, however, she entered the long inlet leading up to Canton and cast anchor.

"Ever been in these waters?" Ned asked of the American sailor.

"Sure," was the reply. "That is why they shanghaied me in San Francisco."

"How far can I go up?"

"Clear to the mouth of the river."

Proceeding leisurely, the Sea Lion passed up the inlet. It was early morning when she came to the mouth of the river. They had passed many vessels on the way, some native, some foreign, but had not been molested, though many curious eyes were turned toward the tow and the odd-shaped craft doing the pulling.

When anchor was cast in a little bay at the mouth--a quiet little stretch of water sheltered by old warehouses which had been erected years before by native traders--Jack came running up the stairs to meet Ned.

"Captain Moore," he said, "is weeping himself to death for lack of your sweet society. He's all running out under the door!"

"Jack," Ned laughed, "if your imagination wasn't too strong, you'd do well writing fiction. As it is it is so strong that anything you might put on paper would not be believable. Anyway, I'll go and see what the Captain has on his mind."

Captain Moore had fear on his mind. Ned saw that the second the door was open. His face was white as paper and his eyes roved about like those of a madman. "You are going on to Canton?" the Captain asked, in a trembling tone of voice.

"I was thinking of it," Ned answered.

"When?"

"To-night."

"And leave the submarine here?"

"If I could take her with me," smiled Ned, "I would do so, but I'm afraid I can't."

"This is no joking matter," snapped Moore.

"I knew you would begin to look at the matter in that light before you had done with it."

"You are going to the chop house in Canton?"

"I hope to be able to find it."

"Alone?"

"Of course not."

"Well," the Captain added, wiping his dry lips with the back of his hand, "do you know what will happen to the Sea Lion while you are gone?"

"Nothing serious, I hope."

"She will be blown up, and me with it!" almost screamed the Captain. "The power that is handling this matter would do more than that to get the papers you have secured out of the way, and to get rid of Babcock, my son, and myself."

"They seek to murder you?"

"I believe it."

"Why?"

"For two reasons. We know too much, and we failed."

"You haven't named the power," suggested Ned.

"I am unable to do so. I don't know. I have done all my work with a go-between."

"I see," Ned said.

"If you must go to Canton," the Captain went on, "first turn us over to the authorities here--to the American consul, if you please."

"That would protect the boat?"

"It would protect us."

"For the present, yes."

"And take the papers with you!"

"Why?" laughed Ned, thoroughly amused.

"Because that will draw the search off the boat."

"Then you believe that I shall be watched and followed?"

"Yes, and killed."

"You're a cheerful sort of fellow!" laughed Ned.

Jimmie now came to the door and announced a warship flying an American flag.

"She's signaling you," he added.

Ned was pretty glad to see the ship come to a halt lower down the inlet. She was not a large vessel, but she looked as big to Ned as all Manhattan island.

In an hour he was on board the ship, in earnest conversation with the captain, who had been ordered by cable to look the Sea Lion up and report to Ned. In another hour the prisoners were on board the warship, and the Sea Lion was anchored under her guns.