Chapter XIX. Treachery Exposed
 

"He didn't say," replied the watchman. "He left this letter."

Proffering an envelope to Jack the watchman passed on to his duties. Apparently he had lost all interest in the missive.

Jack looked blankly at his comrades. He held the letter in his hand unopened, while the others crowded closer.

"Open it up, Captain," urged Tom. "Let's get at this mystery at once. We're usually shrouded in so much mystery you could cut it with a knife. What's the good news? Is the treasure discovered?"

"Quit your joking, Tom. This may be more serious than we think. Wyckoff is not writing letters for the fun of it. He means business."

"I can testify to that," declared Frank. "He surely does mean business. This treasure stuff is actually real to Wyckoff."

"And that's what makes him so dangerous," Jack mused. "He's really deluded himself into thinking there is a treasure and that it should rightfully belong to him. Therefore he gets desperate when he imagines anyone is trying to take it from him. He's bad medicine."

"Well, let's get at the letter," cried Tom impatiently.

"Yes, open it up, Jack, and let's hear what he has to say."

"Well, here it is," Jack replied unfolding the paper. "He says: 'For the last time, go back. Your pals are put out of the way and you are next. The treasure belongs to me and I'm going to have it.'"

"That's a pretty 'howdedo,'" declared Tom as Jack's voice ceased. "I suppose he thinks a Boy Scout will up and go right home."

"Evidently he doesn't believe any such thing, but just to be on what he calls the safe side, he's sent this warning."

"What did he sign it? Does he leave any address for an answer?"

"Not an address," declared Jack. "It's a pretty poor thing to scare a lot of Boy Scouts with, but I suppose it was the best he could do. It wasn't quite up to his standard of boring holes in boats, though. This is rather mild for Wyckoff."

"That reminds me," announced Tom. "We'd better have them drop the Fortuna into the water as quickly as we can, for she won't improve any where she is and we may want to make a quick getaway."

"Bright boy," Jack responded. "We'll do that same and then go uptown for some more supplies. I wonder where we can get some gasolene. We ought to have a wagon load of the stuff."

"Yes, we surely need it and if we get any more of that Madero lad on board we'll need to have a wagon go along with us."

"Wonder where he is now," Frank mused. "He certainly was a great lad. He didn't look so bad at heart. He looked to me as if he had gotten into bad company and didn't know the way out."

"He's a bright fellow, surely," agreed Jack. "Now let's get to work. Where is the foreman? We'll need him first."

In due course the necessary steps were taken and the Fortuna was again in the water. Not even an expert could have discovered the place where Wyckoff had bored the hole that so nearly cost the lives of the lads aboard the trim craft. She was again seaworthy.

A trip to the business part of town was made to select necessary supplies and order a stock of fuel. This occupied the better part of the day, for the lads were careful in their buying. They were well posted as to value and refused to allow the local merchants to overcharge them for any goods.

At length the supplies were all aboard and stowed in their places. The gasolene wagon had driven away and the boys felt more confident with full lockers and gasolene tanks.

"We're ready for a night's rest and a long cruise," declared Tom, as the boys sat down to a supper of fried fish, sweet potatoes and coffee. A bone from the nearby butcher shop had been provided for Rowdy who lay upon a newspaper spread in a corner of the cabin, munching in peace. His manner recently had been quite composed. Everything about the Fortuna seemed to speak of peace.

How little the boys knew what a few more hours held in store for them. How unfortunate, indeed, were they that the knowledge of future events was withheld. They might not have enjoyed the supper so much had they been aware of all that was to transpire.

Discussing the events of the past few hours, speculating upon the possible location of their chums, making plans for the future, the boys sat late about the table. Rowdy fell asleep over his bone. At last Tom jumped up, declaring he would wash the dishes if the others would sweep and put the cabin to rights.

Busily the boys went at their tasks and soon the Fortuna was once more "Ship shape and Bristol Fashion," as Jack loved to say.

"What do you suppose Wyckoff meant when he said our pals are out of the way and we are next?" questioned Frank, a trifle uneasily, as his mind traveled back to the last time he had seen Charley and his launch the "Spray." "Do you suppose he meant--"

"Nothing of the sort," interrupted Jack. "Unless it was an accident, I can't believe that those villains would make away with the boy as you mean. I think he is alive and well, but being detained by Wyckoff and his gang until they have a chance to make another effort for this mythical treasure. Then the lads will be free."

"Oh, I hope so," fervently declared Frank. "If anything should happen to Charley, I could never forgive myself for bringing him down here with me. His parents would be prostrated with grief."

"I believe you'll find it to be as I say," Jack continued.

"Sure thing," cried Tom. "Those fellows may be pretty rough amongst their own neighbors, and do things that are mighty bad, but when they get amongst outsiders, they know that an inquiry would be made to trace the chaps who disappear. All three boys are safe, I really believe. At least, I'll require positive proof to the contrary."

Presently the boys prepared to retire. They felt quite satisfied to know that their home was once more afloat. Jack declared he rested better when the vessel was rocked by the waves.

None of the lads slept soundly. Rowdy seemed to have lost his composure of a few hours earlier and paced up and down the cabin.

Occasionally one of the boys would start up from his bunk and wander about to peer from the windows or pilot house. The moon light flooded the town and river, turning the rigging of the ships into silver and glittering in dazzling bits of light from the rippling waters. Deep black shadows were cast by every object.

Thus up and down the boys were passing a restless night.

"Get up fellows," called Tom at length. "Here's a pretty sight. A schooner--I think she's a three master--is leaving town. See the fountain of sparks from the tug's smokestack. What a sight it is to see those sails going up. I wonder where she's headed for."

"Look at the man away up there in the top," cried Jack.

"And there goes another up the main rigging," put in Tom. "The sails go up slowly somehow. I guess she's short handed."

"Maybe she's like many another vessel that my father has told me about," offered Frank. "He has often told me of ships that left port with only two or three sober hands besides the captain and officers. When they were once outside the harbor and had been dropped by the tug, the mate would go to forecastle and rouse out the hands. If they were drunk, he'd beat them until they were sober."

"What a terrible thing," cried Jack in horrified tones.

"And then he sometimes has told me of fellows who were shanghaied aboard vessels against their will and kept below until so far away that swimming back would have been suicide."

"Why didn't they complain when they once got ashore?" asked Tom. "I should go right to the American Consul at the port."

"Well, maybe they felt that if they did they would have had fair treatment and maybe not. You know a captain of a vessel is king on board his boat when they are at sea. He might log a man for mutiny and the chap would be glad to run away from the vessel when he landed.

"It must be a tough life on those deep sea craft in spite of all the fine stories we read. I don't want to go to sea."

"Right you are, Tom," cried Jack. "But look at the chap, he's headed right in for us. I do believe he'll be on us in a minute."

"Sound the Klaxon a little," said Frank. "Maybe he'll sheer off. Why not switch on the lights? He might see them."

Quickly this suggestion was followed. Not a moment too soon it seemed, for the tug crew had evidently been watching the vessel they were towing and had not noticed the Fortuna. A whirl of the spokes by the pilot brought the tug on a course away from the motor boat, but the schooner had headway enough so that she came right on. By the narrowest margin she cleared the Fortuna.

The boys breathed easier as she slipped past them, her bulk looming large beside the vessel they occupied.

"What was that?" asked Jack, holding up a hand for silence.

"I didn't hear anything," declared Tom. "What do you hear?"

"I thought I heard it, too," cried Frank. "The Bob White call."

"Where could it have come from? It must be that some of the men around here use that whistle," Jack decided. "We've heard it before."

Although the boys discussed the matter thoroughly they could not decide where the call could have been sent from and finally again composed themselves for sleep, after extinguishing all but the riding or anchor light gleaming at the head of their signal staff.

Morning was just breaking when they were again aroused. This time a tap at a window brought Rowdy to attention and made Jack spring to his feet in alarm. In a boat sat Doright, the negro.

"What do you want?" demanded Jack. "Can we do anything for you?"

"No sir, Boss, youall caint do nothin' for me," answered the negro, rolling his eyes upward. "Mebbe youall kin do something for them pardners of yourn! They done gone away."

"Gone away!" gasped Frank, now joining Jack. "Gone away!"

"Yaas, sir, Boss, dey done goned away on a ship named the 'Walkfast.' I done holp Mister Pete put 'em on board."

"Where is this ship now?" demanded Frank crisply.

"She done lef' a hour or two ago," answered the negro. "If youall wants to know where she gwine, go ax de man at de custom house."

"That's a sensible thing to do," declared Jack. "Take this fellow aboard, while I go up to the custom house and find where the ship Walkfast was bound for and if this chap is not lying, we'll take a little cruise for an appetizer. Don't let him get away."

In a few minutes Jack came running back breathless. He made haste to get aboard, signaling for the boys to hoist the anchor.

Not a second was lost in getting the Fortuna under way with her nose pointed out to sea. After the engines had been set whirling Jack recovered his breath and explained that the vessel had been the schooner "Quickstep," that had so nearly wrecked the Fortuna. Her clearance was for New York and she was heavily laden with lumber.

"We can make about three miles to his one," Jack explained. "We're about three hours behind him so we ought to catch him in about an hour or so from now unless he steers a course different from that taken by other vessels. He's heading for the Dry Tortugas."

"Shall we boost the engines a little?" urged Tom.

"No; better let them go as they are," replied Jack. "Every machine has what I'd call an 'economy notch.' Beyond that on either side more work may be done, or less, but at the expense of straining the engines or fuel or something. They're doing excellent work right now, so let's not disturb them. It won't be long now."

The minutes seemed to drag like hours, however, to the boys. The glasses were constantly used by Tom, who was perched on top of the pilot house, sweeping the water for a trace of a sail.

"I see her," he shouted. "I mean Ship Ahoy. No, Sail Ho."

Directly the Fortuna overhauled the vessel they pursued.

"I want to speak to your captain," hailed Jack.

"Keep off, or I'll shoot," replied the mate at the rail.

"Bob, Bob White," came a whistle from the rigging.