Chapter I. A Collision in the Fog
 

"Wow! Look at that one! That's a monster!"

"That must be the ninth wave."

"What do you mean by the ninth wave, Jack?"

"Why, Arnold, don't you know that every third wave is bigger than the two preceding it and that every ninth wave is bigger than the preceding eight?" queried Jack Stanley.

"No, can't say that I ever knew that," replied Arnold Poysor leaning out of the pilot house of a sturdy motor boat plowing her way through the waters of that part of the Gulf of Mexico known as Mississippi Sound. "But I do know," he continued, "that if the Fortuna takes many more green ones over her bow, we'll have to get something other than oilskins to keep us dry!"

"Gee, I wish this fog would lift and let us find out where we are!" put in a third member of the part. "This is fierce!"

"It's thicker than the mush we used to get in that South Water Street restaurant when we were fitting out in Chicago!" declared the first speaker. "That was a bum place to eat!"

"Never mind the eats!" replied the one addressed as "Jack." "Just you keep that Klaxon going. You know we're on government waters here and the pilot rules require us to keep a fog signal sounding once every minute. We had hard enough work to convince the United States Inspectors that the Klaxon would make a perfectly good fog signal. Let's not fall down now on the job of keeping it going."

"I'd hate like everything to have a collision!"

"So would we all!" declared the first speaker.

Four boys were standing in the pilot house of a sturdily built and splendidly equipped motor boat that was being rolled and tossed by the, waves driven from the Gulf of Mexico before a southerly wind. Great banks of fog were rolling inland before the wind--fog so thick it was scarcely possible to see a boat's length ahead.

The boys were all dressed in suits of oil skins under which might have been seen neat khaki Boy Scout Uniforms. If their jackets had been exposed one might have distinguished medals that betokened membership in the Beaver Patrol, Boy Scouts of America. Other insignia indicated to the initiated that the boys had won distinction and were entitled to the honors in Seamanship, Life Saving, Stalking and Signaling. On the jacket of the one addressed as "Jack" were insignia that betokened his rank as Scout Master and also as Star Scout. These had been won by sheer merit.

All four were manly young fellows of about seventeen and, though young, their faces gave evidence of alert natures thoroughly reliable and ready for any emergency.

Their vessel, the Fortuna, appeared fully equal to any task that might be expected of her. Trimly built and graceful, yet solidly and staunchly constructed, she rode the waves like a thing of life. Her engines, which by common consent had been reduced to half speed in deference to the law, worked perfectly, driving the powerful hull through the water easily. Just now she met the oncoming waves, driving into them with a good deal of spray about the bows.

Jack Stanley, Scout Master of the Beaver Patrol of Chicago, Boy Scouts of America, was Captain of the Fortuna. His father was president of a bank in Chicago and had requested Jack and his chums to take the Fortuna from Chicago to Southern waters where they would later on be joined by the banker for a cruise among the islands and points of interest in that vicinity. Jack was a fine, manly lad who well deserved the honors bestowed upon him. His companions were equally clean and worthy young boys who were members of the Beaver Patrol and who all were devoted to Jack.

Harry Harvey, an orphan, worked as messenger for one of the large telegraph companies. He had seen a great deal of life and was far older than his years. Tom Blackwood worked as an inspector in one of the great department stores of State Street while Arnold Poysor was an apprentice in a printing establishment and was possessed of an ambition to become a great journalist.

Without doubt it would have been difficult to find four more congenial lads than the crew of the Fortuna. Widely different in their appearance they still gave one the impression that they all belonged to each other. There was the same fearless, honest look in their sparkling eyes, the same erectness of carriage, the same confident walk that bespoke clean, ambitious, well-trained lives.

Just now they were all anxiously gathered in the pilot house eagerly on the lookout for any possible danger that might be threatening them from out the dense fog being swept inland by the wind. Harry was at the wheel while Jack stood with his hand close to the switchboard that governed the engines pulsating below. Tom and Arnold were leaning half way out of the open windows heedless of the fog and the spray that now and again fell in sheets over the pilot house as the Fortuna thrust her nose into a large wave.

"Great fishes!" ejaculated Tom. "I'd like to have a collision with some eats right soon. I'm nearly starved and drowned and several other things! I haven't eaten since we left Mobile!"

"Score one for Tom!" cried Harry. "He washes the dishes next time! Remember our bargain, old Scout," he continued. "Do you remember what we agreed to do when we left Chicago?"

"Could I forget it with your melodious Klaxon working overtime?" queried Tom. "Great Fishes isn't slang, though! Ask Jack."

"How about it, Jack?" asked Harry. "Does he wash or not wash, that's the question. Fair play here--let the umpire decide!"

Before he spoke, Jack pressed the button that actuated the Klaxon. When the raucous noise of the fog horn had died away he turned to the two disputants with a quizzical look and said:

"You'd be more careful of your language if your mother were here, wouldn't you, Tom?" and then, as a look of triumph on the face of exultant Harry was about to be followed by a shout of rejoicing, he continued. "And I'm sure that when Harry makes a mistake we'll all be as considerate of his feelings as we are able. But Tom washes the dishes as a penalty for using slang!" he announced in a tone of pleasant finality that was unmistakable.

"Who's going to be cook this next watch?" asked Arnold.

"It's my work, by the schedule," replied Jack, "but if you lads will excuse me now, I'll do double duty later on. I hate to leave the deck even for a few minutes. I don't feel at all easy!"

"Why, what can make you uneasy?" put in Harry.

"I don't know," Jack answered. "I suppose it's only a notion due to indigestion after eating some of Tom's cookery, but I have a sort of uneasy feeling that something is going to happen and I want to be on deck when it comes. That's all!"

"Well, I'm about starved and so if this portentous calamity will please postpone its arrival until I get my lunch, I'll be much obliged!" remarked Arnold. "I'll go get dinner. I follow Jack on the cooking schedule. What'll it be, gentlemen?"

"More of that fine Red Snapper!" quickly answered Harry.

"If you boys can wait long enough, I'd like some of those famous biscuits Arnold knows so well how to make," added Tom.

"And I," said Jack, "would like a double portion of both of those and a cup of that excellent coffee we bought at Mobile."

"Wee, Mong Sewers! Zee Chef departs!" announced Arnold disappearing down the stairs leading to the cabin from whence in a short time the aroma of delicious coffee was wafted up to the three boys in the pilot house, each striving to peer farther into the fog which seemed to be getting thicker each passing moment.

"Seems to me I hear the booming of the surf on a jagged and rock bound coast," remarked Harry after an interval of silence following the wail of the Klaxon fog signal being sounded at regular intervals.

"Harry, you ought to be serious once in a while!" admonished Jack. "There are no rocks down in this part of the world. Everything is sand and lots of it. Besides the real coast is over here to our starboard hand side. You can't hear any surf there!"

"Maybe so, but I can hear what I believe to be the pounding of waves on a shore, just the same!" stoutly insisted Harry.

"Listen a minute," exclaimed Tom raising a hand for silence.

"There!" cried Harry after an interval. "There it is again!"

"Jack," Tom asked turning to his chum, "can you get it?"

With his face a trifle paler than was his wont, Jack nodded his head and with his lips closed tightly peered into the fog.

"Great Wigglin' Pollywogs!" ejaculated Tom. "If we're into a surf the Fortuna had better give up now! We can't ever expect to get out of that sort of a mess with this little rabbit!"

"Two times heavy on the dish washing for Thomas!" gloated Harry. "But we're not into the surf yet a while! Listen!"

His hand was held up again for silence. From the cabin came the sound of the clock striking the hour in nautical fashion.

"Five bells!" announced Jack.

"Let's see," mused Harry. "I never can get used to that."

"Ten thirty," Tom put in, "if it was a railroader; half past o'clock for you Dutchmen," he added with a chuckle, wrinkling a freckled nose at Harry and winking at Jack.

"All right!" assented Harry. "Log a surf heard at--how many bells? Oh, yes, five bells in the morning. Log Tom Blackwood for uncivil language to an officer and for refusing duty under fire!"

"Hark, boys!" commanded Jack "We may be getting into a mess and it's no time for joking and carrying on like that!"

"You're right, Jack, as always!" assented Tom. "Just to show that I'm serious, I'll joke no more until this fog lifts!"

"Here, too!" declared Harry. "But look at Rowdy! What's the matter, Rowdy, old chap?" he continued as a great white bulldog came up the ladder from the cabin. "What ails you?"

The bulldog was evidently excited about something for the hair on his shoulders and neck was standing straight up while from his throat issued a low fierce growl scarcely audible above the noise of the tumbling waters. His every action bespoke antipathy to something. Raising himself upon his hind legs, the dog rested his paws upon the window sill of the pilot house. He peered eagerly into the white shroud of mist that enveloped the motor boat.

"He hears that surf, too!" declared Tom. "He hears it!"

"I don't believe it's surf he hears," Jack stated. "He looks just like he did back there in Mobile when we found that black browed fellow trying to board the Fortuna.

"Good old Rowdy!" soothingly murmured Tom reaching over to give the dog a pat. "What do you see, boy? Tell your friend."

"Looks to me like it might be a person he scents!" Harry stated. "Only it isn't a likely place for a person to be out in this mess!"

"We're out in this mess, aren't we?" objected Tom.

Jack's hands swiftly traveled over the switchboard seeming to find as if by instinct just the right levers. The engines stopped and then reversed full speed! The Fortuna shook and quivered from stern to stern. She fell off slightly into the trough.

"On deck!" shouted Jack. "Here's a collision."

Tom and Harry were on deck instantly. Jack leaned against the switchboard and groaned. The next instant came a crash!