Chapter XXII. A Desperate Attempt
 

Doright was standing near the door. Rowdy's excitement now increased to a high pitch. He dashed madly to and fro in the cabin.

"I saw the fellow's face for a minute," cried Jack. "Open the door, Doright, and let Rowdy out. He wants to meet his friend."

"Go on, dog!" whispered Doright, obeying Jack's order.

Quick footsteps sounded on the wharf. A man was running away. Rowdy lost no time in scrambling on deck and from there to the wharf. In a moment came a shriek, followed by a shot. The boys shivered in apprehension. Their pet was alone in the dark and a shot had been fired. It seemed as if they must go to his assistance.

Not many minutes passed before the boys felt the Fortuna rock as a body landed on the deck. Rowdy burst into the cabin.

"Look at the boy!" shouted Arnold. "Good old Rowdy! Good dog!"

"What's that he has in his mouth?" inquired Charley.

"That, my friend," explained Arnold, who sat near Rowdy, "is what every dog gets when he runs fast--pants."

"Stop your joking, Arnold," cautioned Jack. "Look at that bloody ear of Rowdy's. He's been shot. That's some of Lopez's work."

At once a rush was made for the white bulldog. Rowdy seemed to pay little attention to the lacerated ear, pierced by the outlaw's bullet, but paraded the cabin exhibiting the cloth proudly.

"I do believe he got a piece of Lopez's trousers!" declared Jack exultantly. Then giving Rowdy an approving slap he continued, "There's one time Lopez got a reminder his presence wasn't wanted."

"True enough," agreed Frank, "but he may return when things have quieted down, and when he comes back he may be prepared to do serious damage. That gang is desperate and will hesitate at nothing."

"Let 'em come," boasted Arnold, jumping up from his position on a locker where he was trying to cajole Rowdy into parting with the souvenir which he had brought aboard the Fortuna.

"Yes, let 'em come," stoutly agreed Harry. "There are enough of us here so we can stand watch and watch tonight and be prepared to keep off all intruders. And we'll use force, if necessary, too."

"It's a problem," Jack said thoughtfully. "I'm sure I don't know what to do. Those fellows may contemplate and execute serious damage to the Fortuna and to her crew. Again, they may be so near the treasure they'll only think of remaining near that to guard it."

"By the way, Jack, where is this fort? Rather, where was it?"

"As nearly as I am able to determine just now, it was located on the north side of that point that lies on the east side of the bay. There's a bayou sets up to the eastward from that point and it is on the chart here as 'Fort Bayou,' so I think that must have been the place. Anyhow, that's the place to which I have been directed."

"Here it is," cried Charley, who had been examining the chart. "Here it says, 'Old Spanish Fort.' It's just where you said it was."

"Then we'll go over there in the morning, if you like."

"Let's go over there tonight," urged Tom. "There's going to be a fine moon and we're all interested, so we won't sleep any."

"Sure! That would be fine," scorned Harry. "All of us go across the bay looking for this old treasure and Wyckoff will have a free hand to come in and sink the good ship Fortuna."

"We can draw straws and leave a watch here," suggested Tom.

"And Wyckoff or Lopez throw a stick of dynamite over on deck and up in the air they'd go! Why not take the Fortuna along?"

"I don't think there's water enough over there," Jack objected.

"Well, then, I'll tell you what we'll do," began Harry, "we'll all of us hold an election. Let Doright in on it and Carlos and--"

"Yacht Ahoy!" came a hail from the wharf.

"Answer him, Tom, you're nearest the door," suggested Jack.

"Ahoy there, what do you want?" called Tom.

"Is that the Fortuna?" queried a heavy voice.

"Yes, sir," answered Tom. "What do you want?"

"I'll come aboard, if you please!" replied the stranger.

"Better wait a minute until we can size you up," cried Jack, stepping into the pilot house and switching on the searchlight, which he trained upon the man standing on the wharf. "We're not unprepared for callers and we want to make sure, you know. What do you want?"

"I guess when you see this," laughed the man, exhibiting a star under his coat, "you won't object to my coming aboard. I am sorry to say," he continued in a tone of mock seriousness, "I am a United States Marshal. May I come aboard now?"

"Yes, sir, you may," declared Tom. "But you must excuse us for our precaution. We've been through some trying experiences and it's no wonder we feel we must protect ourselves."

"Got away from Pascagoula in a hurry, didn't you?" smiled the stranger introducing himself as Roger Harrison.

"Yes, we did," stated Jack, introducing the other boys. "We got word from Doright, here, that our friends and our friends' friend had been shanghaied aboard a schooner and so we went after them and got them, too," he proudly stated.

"Well, boys, it seems to me it would have been real easy to stop and pay your shipyard charges when you were coming back."

The boys all gasped. In the excitement of rescuing their chums the matter of settling their bill at the shipyard had been crowded out of their minds. All were amazed and regretful.

"What can we do?" questioned Jack. "I'll jump on a train and go right back there and pay them. When is the next train?"

"Don't be in a hurry. Hear the rest," said the Marshal.

"Is there anything worse?" wailed Jack. "I feel real cheap."

"Nothing that you can't get out of, I guess," replied Harrison. "Those fellows were indignant when you slipped away so hurriedly and were about to telegraph Key West to look out for you when a man named Wyckoff approached and said you were headed for Biloxi. They couldn't believe it but he swore it was so."

"And so you came down here to get us?" queried Jack.

"I'm stationed at Gulfport, a short distance west of here," replied Harrison. "They wired me there and wanted to libel your craft. You know the United States protects merchants and workmen by seizing the vessel if their bills are not paid."

"But we'll pay it!" stoutly protested Jack. "We have the money."

"I haven't the least doubt of it," declared Harrison. "It was only a matter of oversight under the exciting news you got. But tell me," he went on, "how did Wyckoff know you were headed for this place? He seemed very positive about your destination."

Then Jack gave Harrison the whole story. He omitted nothing that the boys considered of importance, even showing Harrison the map. At the conclusion of the recital Harrison looked serious.

"Well, boys," he said at length, "you've stumbled onto what seems to be a reality, but I always considered it a myth. For years the report has been circulated that there was such a treasure and this man Wyckoff and Lopez claimed to be blood descendants of the officer who buried it. The name on that map would seem to bear them out. But tonight or tomorrow night will be the only time you'll have to get at the treasure for another year, if the whole tale is true."

"How's that?" breathlessly asked the boys.

"I can't explain the whole thing, for I never attempted to memorize details, always believing the story a fairy tale, but as I recall it, the moon and tide must both be just right--something like the moon is tonight and the tide will be in a short time--and then the ground around the chest softens up and the chest comes to the surface for the rightful heir to reach out and get it."

"If there's anything at all in that," asserted Jack, "I'll bet the thing lays in a bed of quicksand. When the tide is just right it softens up and boils. Then any solid substance may be thrown up to the surface. Maybe someone has seen a piece of log or some driftwood at some such time and that's the way the treasure story started."

"But I have the map," declared Harry excitedly. "What do you make of that? You'll have to go some to explain that."

"I guess that's so," sheepishly admitted Jack. "I forgot that."

"Until tonight," stated Harrison, "I never had much faith in the story, but this map as a climax to other things is convincing."

Rowdy, who had been lying on a berth with Arnold, now slipped to the floor. His whole body became tense and rigid while the hairs on his back rose on end. A low, menacing growl issued in subdued notes from his throat. His attitude was threatening.

"Watch the dog," whispered Jack. "Look at him."

"Someone's coming," announced Arnold. "He does that only when he gets near someone who's a sneak or pirate or something."

"Goodness, I'm glad I'm not a pirate," declared Harrison.

"Get a leash on him," ordered Jack. "He's been shot once tonight and that's enough. Get your guns unlimbered, boys."

"I'll keep a lookout on the water," volunteered Frank.

"And I'll watch the wharf," said Tom. "I wish, though," he continued, "that the lights were off. I could see better."

"Turn the switch, Charley," was Jack's request. "It's at your hand there on the bulkhead. It's the middle one."

"I see him," whispered Tom. "It looks like Wyckoff."

"Slide the door open a crack," Harry suggested, "and get the drop on him. If he starts anything, shoot him in the legs!"

"He's laying down a bundle," whispered Charley. "It's only a small package. I wonder what he's going to do."

For answer, Wyckoff, for it was none other, deposited the small package described by the boy on the bow of the Fortuna. He knelt on the wharf a moment leaning over toward the boat. The boys were unable to see him well because of the curving lines of the vessel.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed Charley, starting from his post toward the bows. "He lit a fuse and has started away!"

"Come back from there," cried Jack in a tone of authority. "Come back from there! Do you want to get blown into bits?"

The boys rushed forward to seize their chum and drag him to a place of safety. He kept on undaunted. Harrison gazed in open mouthed terror from one to the other. All seemed horror stricken at the situation. Rowdy tugged fiercely at his leash.

All could now see clearly the sputtering fuse attached to the package lying on the forward deck. From the gentle manner in which Wyckoff had handled it they guessed its contents. None knew better than the intrepid lad approaching the parcel what the result would be were he a second too late. Even as he hurried forward a chill seemed to run through his veins with the thought of what might happen were he not able to reach the package in time.

Harrison often declares that never to his dying day will he forget the coolness and excellent nerve displayed by Charley as he approached the sputtering fuse on the other end of which lay lurking probable death for the whole party. He says that out of all his varied experiences none stands forth with more distinctness than does the one through which he passed that night on the Fortuna.

Doright was paralyzed with terror and sank limply to the floor, resting his head on a bunk and praying as he never had prayed before for deliverance. His voice was gone, but his lips worked convulsively while his face took on a drawn and haggard expression seeming to visibly shrink together, leaving great pouches beneath his eyes and lines through his cheeks. He gasped for breath.

In his haste Charley stumbled over the free end of the bow line, made fast to the deck cleat. It had been coiled loosely, leaving the free end trailing across the deck. Quickly he was up.

Lunging forward again, his arm outstretched, the boy tried to grasp the package that was still just out of reach. He made a last fierce lunge and grasped the thing. He stood upright. A shower of sparks flew from the end of the shortening fuse.