Chapter XIII. A Fruitless Search
 

"Surely that can't be Wyckoff," declared Tom. "He wouldn't be around here at this time of day. Couldn't you be mistaken?"

"I don't think so," stoutly protested Jack. "He seemed to be poking his head around the corner of that shed and when he saw I noticed him, he dodged back. I am quite sure it was he."

"Well, I think he has his nerve to be sneaking around the yard at this hour. Why can't he go on about his business instead of hounding us all the time, I'd like to know," indignantly stormed Frank. "He's about the poorest specimen of humanity I know."

"He thinks he's well within his rights," argued Jack. "I don't like him, but I must admire his 'stick-to-itiveness.'"

"Whatever that is," put in Tom. "If he'd stick to it and dig up his good-for-nothing old treasure chest himself instead of barking at the moon, we'd all be better off. But here we are at the good old Fortuna. My, my, how she looms up out of the water."

"She certainly does look big when one can get a view of the hull below the water line," agreed Jack, with a note of pride.

For some time the boys walked around the vessel, noting her fine lines and examining the hull for possible defects. They found nothing that they considered worthy of repair except the hole through which their plug projected. Jack examined with minute care the outboard end of the shaft log and the propeller.

"Here comes the watchman," announced Frank as the boys paused at the foot of the ladder before going aboard the motor boat.

"Let's stop and have a word with him," Tom said. "Maybe he's a pretty decent sort of chap. At any rate it won't hurt to get acquainted. He can likely tell us something about the man you saw."

"Agreed," announced Jack. "By all means, let us cultivate the acquaintance of the watchman. We may need him in our business."

Accordingly when the watchman arrived in the course of making his rounds the boys spoke pleasantly to him, finding him quite agreeable. In fact, he was inclined to visit at some length.

He was glad to exchange ideas with the boys upon learning that they were from the North. Their tales of adventure with the motor boat seemed quite fascinating to him. They related some of their adventures on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, in the mining region, where they had been on special duty during the strike of mine employees and then detailed some features of their trip South that had so nearly resulted in disaster.

An hour passed quickly away before the boys realized that it was getting late. Jumping up from their seats they declared that they must prepare supper and make ready for their chums who were expected momentarily. With an expression of good will the watchman prepared to make his rounds of the yard.

Just as he was about to move away Jack asked:

"Oh, by the way, do you know a man named Wyckoff who lives in this vicinity somewhere? He's a man of medium build and has one of those peculiar blue-black beards that can never be shaved quite clean because the skin is so clear, the black roots of the whiskers show through. He also is carrying a smashed nose just now."

"I cain't seem to reckomember of any sich man," deliberately replied the watchman. "What did youall say he done?"

"I don't know what he does regularly. I think he's a fisherman and shrimper betimes. Possibly he does odd jobs when he's not fishing. He seems to be quite a handy man at any job."

"No, I don't believe I can place him," replied the watchman with a note of regret in his voice, as if he were sorry for his lack of knowledge concerning the man sought.

"Oh, well," lightly answered Jack, "it's no matter. He's probably from some other town along the coast. Don't worry about it."

"Are you going to stay aboard tonight?" asked the watchman in leaving. "If you wanted to take a run uptown to the show I'll be mighty glad to watch your vessel right close while you're gone."

"Thank you for the offer," Jack replied as he prepared to mount the ladder leading to the deck above him. "You are very kind."

He was about to add that they would remain aboard the vessel, but caught himself and for no accountable reason answered:

"We were figuring on going uptown after supper. If you happen to be in this part of the yard you might keep an eye on the little wagon.

"And, by the way," he added, "here's a piece of change for your trouble. It's not much, but if you try hard you can spend it. Most business places are glad to get them."

"Thank you, boss, thank you," eagerly cried the watchman.

Jack knew by his manner that the piece of money was the object of his offer, but tried to avoid letting the man see that.

Rowdy was unable to negotiate the ladder and consequently had to be carried up by Tom. At last they were all aboard, supper was under way and the Fortuna was bright with lights from her storage batteries. Jack decided it was best not to start the engines because of the danger of displacing the shoring.

Supper was eaten and still the fishermen had not returned.

"Let's turn off the lights and maybe that watchman will think we have gone uptown if we are quiet," suggested Jack.

"All right," agreed Tom. "Can we keep Rowdy quiet, too?

"Sure you'll be quiet, won't you, old chap?"

Rowdy's answer was an attempt to "kiss" his friend.

For some time the boys sat in silence, hoping every moment for the return of their friends. It was growing dusk and Jack was becoming anxious. Just as he was about to speak, Rowdy seemed to stiffen as if pointing something. The hair on his shoulders rose on end, while a scarcely audible growl escaped from his throat.

Although the boys sat in the shadow of the pilot house and were indistinguishable to anyone below in the shipyard, they could still see each other. Jack touched Frank and Tom lightly and then using the sign language employed by mutes he said to them:

"Rowdy sees or smells something he doesn't like."

"I see it, too," signaled Tom. "It's that watchman friend of yours. He's coming back to see if we left some of our supper."

"He was a hungry looking chap," wigwagged Frank. "I'd like to feed him up a little and put some fat on his ribs once."

"It would take a mint of money to buy the grub," Tom's fingers spelled out. "He's what the livery stable owner would call a hard keeper. He needs a dose of something. I don't like him."

"Rowdy doesn't like him either," Jack's fingers were working. "But who is that other chap beside him? Hush! They're coming this way as sure as I'm alive. Is he bringing the family?"

"Wait a minute," spelled out Frank. "I wish I could talk."

"Why?" asked Jack. "Aren't you talking?"

"Yes, after a fashion, but those chaps can't understand this. I'd like to tell the watchman what a liar he is and to ask Wyckoff where my chum Charley Burnett is. If he didn't answer, I'd make him."

"I see," Jack replied. "But have patience. We'll get him."

"Here they come," announced Tom. "Both of 'em, hungry hounds."

"Listen," signaled Frank. "Get this if you can."

The watchman and Wyckoff, for it was he, were talking in low tones. Only an occasional word was audible to the three watchers on the motor boat. It was evident that Wyckoff had been drinking and was inclined to be a trifle quarrelsome. The watchman was doing his best to restrain Wyckoff from some act upon which he seemed determined. They were using harsh words but still talked in a low tone.

Finally Wyckoff turned and left the yard, followed by the protesting watchman who slammed the gate after the retreating figure.

"There, that's over," sighed Tom. "What did you get out of it?"

"Just this," stated Jack. "The watchman is a liar and Wyckoff was not here for any good. He intends mischief of some sort."

"My idea exactly," cried Tom. "He's probably gone up town to hoist aboard a cargo of 'Dutch Courage.' Then he'll come back here with some of his cronies and let the Fortuna go into the water with a splash! That'll be the end of the Fortuna."

"Let's hope not," Frank answered. "If he does that, we'll have the law on him and he'll be railroaded to the pentitentiary so quick he won't even stop to say good-by."

"If I see him when he's doing it, he'll go so far it would take a young fortune to send him a postal card," gritted Tom.

"Possibly it would take all the wealth in the Treasure Chest," laughed Jack. "Our Tom is getting to be some bloodthirsty, himself."

"Well, what'll we do?" asked Tom. "I hate sitting still."

"I think it would not be a bad idea to go look for the boys," replied Jack. "It may seem foolish, but I feel that they are in trouble and need us. Maybe a couple of us could go and the other stay here with Rowdy to guard the Fortuna. It's hard to decide what to do."

"Let's not separate any more," begged Tom. "We're split up enough as it is. Let's all go or else all stay."

"All the lockers are securely fastened so no one could take much if they came aboard," argued Frank. "I'm in favor of remaining together if we can. If we only had a lantern to take with us."

"We've got an acetylene headlight such as they use on motorcycles," Tom declared. "That would be a dandy thing."

"Let's go, then, before Wyckoff comes back with his friends."

Accordingly the boys secured automatics and the acetylene headlight. They hurriedly packed a bundle of food, borrowed one of the boats of the shipyard and started upstream to look for their chums. In a short time they discovered the skiff moored at the leaning oak. The big fish were duly admired by all.

"They've been gone quite a while," announced Tom. "See how hard and dry that fish is. They forgot to put it overboard."

"Evidently they didn't intend to stay long," suggested Jack.

"Look at Rowdy. You didn't know he was a bloodhound, did you?"

"Go it, boy," urged Jack. "Find Arnold. Find Harry."

The bulldog circled about the spot where the boys had eaten dinner, lost the scent, picked it up again, again dropped it and finally started away in dead earnest. Hastening along the boys had hard work to keep up with him. Through forest and glade, across swampy places and over ridges the dog led the lads ever at a swift pace. Once in a while he stopped to give vent to a fierce growl.

At length the boys becoming exhausted called a halt.

"Make Rowdy rest a while until I get my breath," protested Tom.

"He seems to know pretty near where he's going," Jack said.

"Yes," agreed Frank, "and I have an idea that he's trailing the boys. The point that worries me is whether we can find our way back to the tree where the boats are tied."

"I think so," replied Jack. "When we left the river we struck straight back for a little distance then turned directly to our left and have followed nearly a straight course since. I have seen the stars every little while and I'm sure I could find my way back."

"We're going against the wind, aren't we?" questioned Tom.

"Yes, what little wind there is," replied Jack, "Why?"

"Oh, nothing. I just get foolish notions in my head, that's all."

"What's the foolish notion, now, Tom?" queried Jack in a kindly tone. "Tell us what it is, man. Maybe it is worth while."

"Well, just notice Rowdy, here. He's mighty uneasy and has been snuffing into the air for some little time. Just now as I took a deep breath I thought I smelled smoke and with it came an odor of burning flesh. It was too heavy to be merely the remains of a dinner thrown into a fire. I was just thinking that some accident--"

"I don't think so," replied Jack. "At least we won't think that until we have to. It just can't be so," he added.

"It's getting mighty dark in here," stated Tom. "I wish it would lighten up a bit. That's a fire ahead there."

"Whar y'all gwine?" A giant negro barred the path.