Chapter II. Crippled by the Stranger
 

With a lunge the Fortuna struck a dark object riding the crest of an oncoming wave. Jack stood against the switchboard scarcely daring to look while Arnold came crowding up the companion-way his face blanched and eyes staring. Harry and Tom were on the forward deck looking along either side of the plunging boat.

"What did we hit?" queried Arnold in a shaking tone.

"I don't know," replied Jack. "Whatever it was, we don't seem to be sunk yet, though. Maybe it was just a few floating boards washed adrift from some vessel."

"What did you see, boys?" Arnold called out to his companions on deck. "Did we hit something or did it hit us?"

"Looks to me as if we had run down a row boat and cut her right in two!" declared Tom. "I was sure I saw the stern of a boat just sinking here on the starboard side."

Jack reeled against the wheel, covering his face with his hands. Despite his efforts a groan escaped him. Arnold sprang toward his chum and put an arm about his shoulders with a friendly air.

"What's the matter, Jack? Are you hurt?" he asked solicitously.

"Only inside" replied Jack. "I'm sure I saw a man in a row boat loom up out of the fog just before we struck. The shudder that ran through the Fortuna told me only too plainly that we had hit something more than a mere board or two. I can't bear to think that we've run down a man out here in the Gulf! It's too bad!"

"Maybe it was only an empty boat, Jack," comforted Arnold. "Did you hear anyone cry out or see anything of a man overboard?"

"No," was Jack's answer, "I didn't. I just felt that something was going to happen and then we struck the boat. I guess it's all right and we'd better get the Fortuna with her nose into it or we'll roll the engines off their beds. This is surely a choppy sea!"

Suiting the action to the words Jack reached for the levers on the switchboard just as Tom and Harry returned to the shelter of the pilot house dripping from the sheets of spray that had come aboard while the vessel lay rolling in the trough of the sea.

"Great Wiggling Pollywogs!" exclaimed Tom, "this is sure a nasty piece of weather! I'm glad I'm on top and not sloshing around in the Gulf right now. Bet that fellow in the boat is wet all right."

"Hark, Tom!" cautioned Harry. "You mustn't talk like that."

"I'm going back to finish my cooking," announced Arnold. "We'll all be hungry enough to eat a raw dog. And speaking of dogs," he continued pointing at the white bulldog still holding his position at the pilot house window, "what's the matter with Rowdy?"

"Rowdy scents something he doesn't like," explained Tom.

"I wonder," began Jack and then without finishing his half begun sentence he dashed madly from the pilot house and flung himself into the bow of the yacht now gaining headway under the impetus of the engines. Flat on deck he fell and crawling to the rail peered eagerly over the side. His friends saw him turn an agonized and pleading glance in their direction and then reach far over the rail of the vessel. In an instant Tom and Harry were by his side eager to be of any possible assistance to their chum.

"What is it?" began Tom, but Harry motioned him to silence.

"Sit on his legs!" he commanded and Tom with a flash of comprehension obeyed unquestioningly. His weight on Jack's feet enabled the captain to lean far over the rail and grasp the wrists of a clinging figure gripping with the tenacity of despair the links of the cable that still hung from the hawse pipes.

Harry, too, leaned far out and in his eagerness to be of help nearly lost his balance and all but plunged into the sea.

"Steady!" gasped Jack. "Slow and steady now or he's gone!"

With a mighty heave the two boys dragged the figure to a level with the rail and then Tom left his post and came to their help.

It was now but a short task to get the rescued person on deck, but he was so chilled and exhausted that he could not stand.

"Let's put him below as quickly as we can, boys," Jack suggested. "Arnold has some hot coffee already cooking and that'll help him as much as anything we can do. Easy with him, now, maybe he's hurt."

With tenderness and skill the boys who had been trained to care for injured persons helped the visitor who had boarded their vessel so strangely and all unannounced down the companion-way into the cabin where he was speedily given a change of clothing followed by a steaming cup of fragrant coffee.

Jack again assumed command in the pilot house while Arnold took up his interrupted preparations for the meal.

"Be sure you fry an extra big piece of that Red Snapper for the new lad," directed Tom as he prepared to go again to the pilot house. "He's about half starved and pretty near used up, I guess!"

"You know I'll take care of him all right!" replied Arnold. "I'm sorry we broke his boat up like that but I guess we can all take a knot out of our neckties today. Wasn't it lucky he caught the cable, though? I'm delighted that we were able to save him!"

"Of course, we couldn't be blamed for running into him," said Tom. "I'm glad we rescued him from his awful predicament and now we'll have to be extra good to him to make up for it!"

So saying he passed up the companion-way and into the pilot house joining Harry and Jack at their ceaseless vigil.

Busily engaged with his work in the kitchenette, Arnold was quite surprised to observe the door leading into the after cabin open softly. It admitted the newly found stranger. He had been given spare clothes belonging to the boys and looked little the worse for his rough experience of only a short time before. His eyes were black and piercing and might have been pleasant were it not for his disagreeable habit of not looking directly at the one with whom he was talking. His glance roved about the place taking in every detail yet never resting long in any one place.

"How do you do?" pleasantly queried Arnold resolving to be congenial in spite of his instant distrust of the other. "I'm sorry we ran you down and ruined your boat, but I'm glad we got you aboard in time to save your life. It was a lucky accident."

Advancing in his frank and friendly manner he held out his hand in greeting. The stranger at first drew back, then as if thinking better of his resolve, he thrust forth his hand for a quick handshake, almost instantly releasing Arnold's grasp.

"What is your name, may I ask?" questioned Arnold.

"Carlos Madero is my right name, but they call me Charley," was the lad's almost surly response. "I live at Pass Christian and work on a shrimping schooner. My boat is gone now."

Arnold busied himself with the operation of the stove for a moment to regain his composure, for the fellow's manner had angered him immediately. Presently he turned and said:

"My name is Arnold Poysor. I am from Chicago and so are my chums. We are down here for a vacation and pleasure trip. We're sorry we smashed your boat, but if you'll accept it, we'll give you the one we're towing behind us. We bought it in Mobile."

"All right!" replied Carlos. "You ought to do that much."

Arnold now prepared the table for dinner and calling his companions to eat he introduced them to Carlos as they entered the cabin. Jack remained at the wheel while the others ate.

All the boys tried to make pleasant conversation for the newcomer but he greedily devoured the food set before him in a ravenous manner. His conversation was little better than monosyllables. At last the boys in despair gave up the effort of entertainment and fell to discussing their situation amongst themselves. They recounted the incidents of their trip down the Great Lakes, through the Erie Canal and down the Hudson River, their pleasant run down the east coast of the United States to the Florida Keys, past the Dry Tortugas and up to Mobile.

To all of their conversation Carlos listened intently, eating in silence, but keenly alert to every word that was said. Finally as the talk lulled to an occasional remark he looked up and said:

"What are you here for, anyway?"

"I told you," replied Arnold, "we're here for a pleasant vacation trip. We'll be joined later by the father of the boy at the wheel and then we expect to go on up the Mississippi to our home at Chicago. Didn't you believe me at first?"

"No," bluntly replied Carlos, "I didn't."

"All right," laughed Arnold, "we'll forgive you this time."

To relieve the tense situation Tom sprang to his feet saying that he would go and relieve Jack at the wheel while his friend ate.

Once in the pilot house he was met with a questioning look from Jack who was holding the wheel with one hand and Rowdy with the other. The dog was struggling wildly to free himself.

"What's the matter with Rowdy?" questioned Tom wonderingly.

"I'll never tell you," Jack panted, "he's been trying to get down into the cabin like all possessed ever since dinner was called. I've had my own sweet time to keep him here."

"Maybe the poor tyke is getting hungry like the rest of us human beings," ventured Tom. "Rowdy, are you hungry?" he asked.

Rowdy's reply was a glance from bloodshot eyes toward his friend, then he launched himself against the door leading to the cabin emitting growls that were unmistakably vicious.

"That's pretty near talking, Jack!" Tom stated.

With a knowing look Jack assented and pointing with his thumb toward the newcomer's direction nodded his head once or twice. Securing a length of small line Jack made Rowdy fast to a ring bolt in the pilot house floor and then went into the cabin for his dinner.

He had no better success in his effort at conversation with the stranger than his chums had met and shortly gave over trying to be pleasant. Making a hurried meal he again hastened to the pilot house where he assumed charge of the craft, for the fog was still thick.

Arnold in an effort to be friendly asked Carlos to inspect the Fortuna from the interior, which offer was quickly accepted.

"Here," explained Arnold, standing near the bulkhead separating the pilot house from the cabin, "is the forward part of the vessel. I suppose you'd call it the forecastle, but we have the fuel tanks, chain locker and lazarette here. On occasion we can use this space for extra bunks, but with the Pullman berths in the cabins we don't often need the room for anything but storage."

"Where is your gasoline?" asked Carlos displaying some interest.

"In tanks right up in the eyes of her," replied Arnold glad that he was interesting his visitor. "Then you see the engines amidships here with a berth on each side. The switchboard is in the center of the pilot house so the stairways are on each side of the engines. In the next compartment aft are more berths. Then still further aft, you see are the kitchenette on one side and the wash room on the other. Abaft of that is the after cabin that we use as a dining room. With the folding berths we can accommodate twelve people easily. It makes a fine home, all right."

"Can I go to sleep?" inquired Carlos. "I'm right tired."

"Sure you may," declared Arnold. "Take the after cabin and make yourself comfortable. I'll go up forward and let you sleep."

So saying he joined his companions in the pilot house and reported to them the result of his effort to placate their visitor.

For half an hour the Fortuna breasted the waves plunging through the thick fog. Anxiously the boys peered ahead ever alert.

Directly the vibrations of the motors grew fainter. The boys glanced at each other wonderingly. Rowdy tugged at the rope that confined him and growled savagely. Jack's face went white as he reached for the switch. He looked at the other boys in wonder.

The Fortuna's engines came to a dead stop!