Chapter VIII. On Guard Under the Sea
 

"If there is anybody at work on the wreck," Ned replied, "they may be removing the gold or they may be searching the vessel for incriminating documents."

"I guess any documents found down there will be pretty wet," laughed Jack.

"They may be in sealed boxes," Ned replied. "Anyway, if there are important documents on board they might be rendered legible by proper and judicious handling." "Here we go, then," Jack exclaimed. "I'll expel the water in the tanks until the Sea Lion rests at the right altitude, over the wreck, and we can enter by way of the decks."

"But what will the other fellows be doing while we are getting into position?" asked Frank.

"Gettin' ready to cut our lines, probably," interposed Jimmie.

"That's a fact," Jack said. "If there are men working in the ship they must be supplied with air by a submarine. How could that be done, I'd like to know."

"They might anchor the submarine some distance away," replied Ned, "and lay an air-hose along the bottom. If attached to the hose leading into the helmets before being placed, two or three might work from such a supply, and such a system, too, would obviate a good deal of the danger to be feared from crossed lines."

"You've got it all figured out!" cried Jimmie.

"Well," Frank intervened, "I'll bet that he has it right. Those Moore persons were not born yesterday."

"That's right," Jack admitted. "We saw enough of the Captain in the Black Bear club-room in New York to know that he is an expert in the submarine business. He may be an imitation fop and a bounder, as he would say, but he certainly is next to his job."

"Why wouldn't it be a good idea to sneak around in our water suits until we find the lines an' cut them?" asked Jimmie.

"That would be plain murder," Ned replied.

"I guess they wouldn't hesitate long if the conditions were reversed," Frank suggested, "still, I wouldn't like to be in with anything as brutal as that."

"Come to think of it," Jimmie admitted, "I wouldn't, either."

"I don't get the idea of these incriminating documents," Jack said, in a moment. "That is one thing I did not pay attention to in the talk with Captain Moore at the clubroom."

"What he said was this," Ned explained. "The Government is accused, in certain hostile foreign circles, of conspiring with the leaders of the revolution now brewing in China. He declared that the Washington officials were even charged with sending the gold to the rebels by the roundabout way of the present Chinese Government."

"You'll have to come again!" laughed Frank. "I'm dense as to that part of it. It is too subtle for me."

"Me, too," Jimmie asserted.

"All I know about it," Ned answered, "is that Captain Moore declared that the rebel leaders were purposely posted as to the shipment of the gold, and that they were to seize it as soon as it left the protection of the American flag, if they could. At least they were to be given a chance to do so."

"Even in that case," Frank reasoned, "the Washington people wouldn't be foolish enough to place incriminating papers with the shipment. The whole scheme might fail, you know."

"It does look pretty fishy," Ned remarked, "but the ways of diplomacy are often crooked ways. Anyway, it is claimed by some that the mail boat was rammed, that it was no accident that sent her to keep company with McGinty at the bottom of the sea."

Jack expelled the water from the tanks of the Sea Lion until the instruments in the machine room showed her to be near the surface, and, as Ned estimated, directly above the wreck. Then an anchor was sent out, to prevent any possible drifting, and Ned, Frank and Jack put on their helmets again.

The lines used for signaling and the air-hose had both been spliced, and it was figured that any part of the wreck could now be visited. The drop lines were also longer, and the machinery for hauling the divers up on signal was made ready for use.

"We can't walk out and in the Sea Lion now," Ned said, "and a good deal depends on the vigilance of the boy left in the boat. Watch for the slightest signal, Jimmie," he warned.

The touching of a lever unwound the lifting and lowering lines when all was ready, and in a minute the three boys found themselves on the upper deck of the wreck. It was tilted at an angle of about twenty degrees, so great care was exercised in traversing it.

As Jimmie swung the lever which lowered the three boys he peered out of a darkened window. He saw only the dim surface light.

"They've got sense enough not to show any light," he mused, "so the thieves won't know what is going on unless they see the shadow overhead, or run into one of the fellows."

Leaving Frank, as the most cautious of the boys, to guard the lines and air-hose when they touched sharp angles, Ned, accompanied by Jack, advanced down the main companionway and was soon in the large and handsomely furnished cabin.

Then the electric searchlights were put to use, and the great apartment lay partly exposed to view. Their entrance into the room seemed to create something like a current in the water, and articles of light weight came driving at them.

Ned turned sick and faint as a dead body lifted from the floor and a ghastly face was turned toward his own. A few unfortunate ones had gone down with the ship, and most of the bodies lay in this cabin.

Those who had remained on deck until the final plunge had, of course, drifted away. However, the boy soon recovered his equilibrium, and went about his work courageously, notwithstanding the fact that many terrifying forms of marine life swam and squirmed around him.

Clinging to heavy tables and chairs to prevent slipping, the boys made their way to that part of the ship where, according to their drawings, the captain's cabin had been. Their first duty was to make search for any sealed papers which might be there.

The room was located at last, and then Ned motioned to Jack to extinguish his light. The boy obeyed orders with a feeling of dread.

It was dark as the bottomless pit in the cabin now, and fishes and squirming things brushed against his legs and rubbed against the line which was supplying him with air.

In all the experiences of the Boy Scouts nothing like this had ever been encountered before. In Mexico, in the Philippines, in the Great Northwest, in the Canal Zone, in the cold air far above the roof of the world, they had usually been in touch with all the great facts of Nature, but now they seemed separated from all mankind--buried in a fathomless pit filled with unclean things.

The door of the captain's cabin was closed. Ned put his ear against it, then reached out and took Jack by the arm. The latter understood the order and crowded close.

From the other side came sharp blows, and through the keyhole came the glow of illuminated water. Ned's worst fears were realized. Some one had reached the wreck in advance of his party.

He knew that he could not justly be censured for the activity of his enemies, and yet the thought that he was in danger of failing in his mission brought the hot blood surging to his head. He did not stop at that time to deliberate as to how the hostile forces had gained this advantage in time.

He did not even try to solve the problem as to the personality of the hostile element. The men working on the other side of the door to the captain's cabin might have crossed the Pacific in the Diver, or they might have been recruited from foreign seaports.

The question did not particularly interest him. The point with him was that they were there.

And, now, what course ought he to pursue? For a time, as he stood against the door, he could reach no conclusion.

Directly, however, the important question presented by the unusual situation came to the boy's mind. It was this:

Where was the boat into which the workers on the other side of the door proposed to remove the plunder?

The Diver, or some other efficient submarine must be close at hand. The men who were searching the captain's room were being supplied with air from some source.

And here was another question:

Had the gold already been removed?

It seemed to Ned that the first thing for him to do was to locate the submarine. For all he knew, prowlers from her might be nosing around the Sea Lion.

He had left the door to the water chamber open, of course, and so it must remain until he returned. Jimmie, owing to a defect afterwards corrected, could not expel the water while the door was open, nor could he close the door from the interior.

Fearful that some mischief was on foot, he grasped Jack by the arm and hastened back to where Frank had been left. His first care should be to find the exact location of the hostile submarine and then see that no air-hose reached from her to the Sea Lion.

The three boys passed out of the wreck and came to the stern of the once fine ship. She had gone down prow first, and the stern was a little above the level sand floor of the sea.

Instead of passing around the stern and coming out on the other side, the boys halted and crouched down, so as to see under the keel. As the outer shell of the ship was here at least a yard above the bottom, it was plain that the cargo had swept forward when she went down, thus holding her by the nose.

There was no longer any doubt as to what was going on. There, only a few yards away, lay the dark bulk of a submarine. Only for a light glimmering through the closed door of the water chamber it could not have been seen at all.

The men who were working in the wreck had taken no chances in leaving the boat. Their lines and air-hose passed through the outer door in well-guarded openings, and the interior was as safe from intrusion as a walled-in fortress.

Ned regretted that he had not observed the same precaution in leaving the Sea Lion, still he did not believe that his boat had been attacked. After a few moments devoted to observation, Ned crept around the keel and looked down the side of the ship which lay toward the submarine. Men with electric lamps in their helmets were working there.

They appeared to be forcing an entrance into the lower hold of the ship through a small break in the shell. This led him to the conclusion that the way to the very bottom was blocked from the inside, and that the gold--if it had been stored there--had not yet been removed.

He returned to his chums and all three started back to the Sea Lion. The men about the wreck were all so busy that it did not seem to Ned that they knew of the presence there of his submarine.

Still, he searched the bottom, as he passed along, with both hands and feet for any line which, leaving the stranger, might be leading to her rival. Finally he discovered, much to his annoyance, a hauling line and an air-hose leading in the direction he was going.

"I'm afraid," he thought, "that Jimmie is in trouble."