Chapter III. A Mysterious Message
 

"Pull off the hood over the engines," cried Jack to Harry who was quickly down the companion-way, "and see if the wires from the magneto are disconnected. I made a new clip while we were at Mobile and maybe it has broken and cut off the current."

"Phew!" ejaculated Tom who was preparing to follow Harry below. "I'll bet something's broke loose all right. Smell it?"

"Sure enough I smell gasoline strong!" declared Jack.

"Some odoriferous, whatever that means!" cried Arnold. "Smells like the gas house up near Goose Island in the North Branch of the Chicago River," he added holding his nose.

"Switch on the electric lights and see where the gasoline pipe has broken loose," suggested Jack. "It seems to me the feed pipe must have become broken. That's an awful smell!"

"I'll venture there are gallons of gasoline in the bilge right now!" averred Harry. "Better open the windows a bit and let it air out in here. Suppose you get the bilge pump to work, Tom, and I'll try to find the leak."

"Sure, I'll pump the bilge," assented Tom. "Just look here at the stuff slopping up through the floor boards," he continued. "It surely looks as if we'd lost some fuel."

"That's funny," declared Jack. "I wonder how it could have happened. The pipes were all right when we fitted out and nothing we have done since could have injured them."

A shout from Harry announced a discovery. He was backing out of the compartment under the pilot house floor and just forward of the engines. As he appeared his face was the picture of rage.

"What's it?" queried Tom. "Don't hold your breath that way, you're apt to choke if you do," he laughed.

"Where is the fellow that opened that drain cock?" shouted Harry shaking his fist in the air. "Someone deliberately drained our gasoline into the bilge. I found the drain cock wide open!"

"Nobody opened it," asserted Jack. "We were all in the pilot house since dinner watching the fog and we couldn't reach the pipe."

"I hate to say it, Jack, but we were not all in the pilot house," answered Tom. "Maybe it isn't fair to the chap, but that fellow we nearly run over doesn't look good to me. I rather suspect him."

"Hush, my lad," Jack warned. "A good Boy Scout doesn't accuse anyone until he has proof, and we have no proof yet of his guilt."

"All right, Jack," unwillingly replied Tom, "but I can't help feel the way I feel, can I? He didn't impress me very favorably."

"And then, look at Rowdy!" put in Harry. "He spotted the fellow when he was still hanging on the cable and he tried to get back into the cabin all the time to eat up his visitor."

"Well, let's go back and wake him up and see what he knows," suggested Jack. "Maybe he can put up a good story that will satisfy even you chaps. I can hardly believe anyone would do a thing like that. He has no motive for attempting to cripple us like this."

The boys moved with one accord toward the after cabin. The Fortuna rolled viciously in the trough of the choppy sea, making their footing extremely unsteady. Jack swung open the door.

Starting back in amazement he bumped into Tom who was following closely. Harry was at their heels peering over their shoulders.

"Where is he?" gasped Jack wonderingly. "Where did he go?"

"The bird has flown!" declared Tom in a tragic tone.

"Bag and baggage!" asserted Harry.

True enough, not a sign of the stranger remained except the pile of water soaked garments in which he had been clothed when first brought into the cabin. These lay in a heap on the floor.

"Maybe he's out on the after deck," ventured Jack still hopeful.

"Let's see," answered Tom. "If he is there, I'll cook and wash dishes and scrub decks for a week on end!"

The after deck was empty. The visitor was nowhere in sight.

"Well, it looks as if he had come up out of the sea like a modern Neptune and like Old Neptune has gone back into it again," Jack said, his voice shaking. You don't suppose the fright he had turned his head and made him commit suicide, do you?"

"Suicide your tintype!" stoutly scorned Tom. "Do you think that fellow would commit suicide in a rowboat?"

"What do you mean?" questioned Jack wonderingly.

"I mean that our young pirate friend got one perfectly good square meal of food, one entire new outfit of clothes and one rowboat from this bunch of kindergartners. Then he opened the drip cock in our fuel tank and sneaked out the back door and is gone."

"Good night," vociferated Harry. "It's as clear as mud! Look at what that young villain has done! Why, he's a thief!"

"Easy now," admonished Jack. "We mustn't call him names. Maybe things look black for him, but it may come out all right."

"Yea-ah!" scorned Tom. "When I can see the back of my neck it will. That guy's crooked! That's what I believe."

"Me, too!" declared Harry. "I vote with Rowdy. He's usually pretty near right when it comes to reading character!"

"Well, anyhow, this won't get us anywhere, and the Fortuna is rolling like a loon. Let's see if Arnold can find bottom in the bilges yet and then we'll connect up the spare tank and start out."

"Second the motion," declared Tom. "We ought to get going."

Suiting the action to the word the boys returned to the cabin to find Arnold replacing the pump. The air was still heavy with the odor of gasoline but Jack deemed it safe to operate the engine, since the windows were to be left open giving a plentiful supply of air, thus preventing danger of an explosion.

Tom was about to replace the hood over the engines after they had been started when his eye caught sight of a piece of paper lying on the floor. Hastily he kicked it aside and was about to pass to the pilot house when Harry called his attention to the paper.

"Nice housekeeper you'd make," he taunted, "kick the dirt back under the couch and let the sweepers get it! Why don't you pick it up?"

"Guess I will," replied Tom shamefacedly. "I was in a hurry."

"What is it?" asked Harry. "Let me see it."

"Sure, read it," Tom answered. "Read it aloud and we'll all hear."

"What's this?" gasped Harry. "Listen, you fellows! Here's the secret of the whole thing! Hear this!"

"Well, read it," impatiently cried Arnold. "I'm dying to hear."

"Get the Fortuna and crew!" read Harry. "They know about the Spanish Chest. They're after it. Sink them if you have to."

As he finished reading he glanced at each of his chums in amazement. Their faces were pictures of dismay and amazement.

"What does that mean?" Arnold cried in tones of wonder. "What does it mean when it says, 'Get the Fortuna and crew?'"

"The last part explains that," answered Jack. "It means that some one or more people are after us and will sink the Fortuna if they have to in order to 'get' us. It listens like desperate characters were following us all right. We must remember our motto, boys, and 'Be Prepared.' We know they're after us."

"Yes, 'Be Prepared' for what?" questioned Tom. "Who're after us and why? What does that mean about the Spanish Chest?"

"I see it's time to let you fellows in on the whole thing," declared Jack. "I had hoped it would not be necessary to say anything for a long while yet for the moon isn't full until nearly a week from now, but this has precipitated matters. Now, listen!

"You all know Lawyer Geyer of Chicago. His offices are in the Masonic Temple. He and my father are very close friends--in fact they were schoolmates. Lawyer Geyer offered me a commission for him and fitted out this vessel and is paying our expenses. He also offered us half the reward if we were successful."

"What reward?" interrupted Arnold. "Why don't you hurry?"

"Keep still, rattle-head!" admonished Tom. "He's hurrying."

"Well," continued Jack, "it is said that years and years ago the Spaniards had a fortress built on what is known as Biloxi Bay. It seems they wanted to fortify this section of country and built a fine place there. As time went on and the country became settled, this fort was quite a refuge for settlers in times of trouble. It is said that once a commander of the fort was wicked enough to turn against his own people and that he incited the Indians to rise against the settlers. After they had taken refuge in the fort he got them to put all their gold and jewelry into his strong box which was a stout oak chest, and then he planned to get away with it."

"The piker!" cried Tom. "I think he should have been shot."

"He was," continued Jack, "or so the story goes. Some say he was shot by his own people who discovered his treachery and some say he fell defending the fort and incidentally the gold against an attack by Indians. But whichever way it happened, report says that the gold was buried in the fort by the survivors and has never been unearthed since. Many people have tried to get it, but it is reported that a curse hangs over this wealth and that no human being will be permitted to recover it, unless related to the officer."

"Is that why Lawyer Geyer sent us after it?" asked Harry.

"I don't quite get your meaning," Jack said.

"Well, you said no human being would be permitted to get the coin and then you said Lawyer Geyer sent us after it and--"

"I move we throw him overboard--he's a scoffer!" declared Tom.

"Second the motion," replied Jack laughing. "Sit still a while and listen to me. The worst is yet to come."

"Go on, Jack!" breathlessly urged Arnold. "Tell the rest."

"Well here's the curious part of the story," Jack continued. "It is said that only at certain stages of the moon and tide can one hope to find this chest of treasure. Also it is reported that only one who is of Spanish descent can hope to find it."

"Well, that lets us in," stoutly averred Harry. "Tom, here, is Spanish and so am I. How about you, Rowdy?" he went on addressing the white bulldog to whom he gave a friendly slap.

Rowdy responded with an affectionate attempt to "kiss" Harry's face and then endeavored to distribute his favors to the others.

"Seriously," Jack continued, "I have little faith in the project. Lawyer Geyer seems to half believe the story, however. He was down in this country a while ago on some real estate business and while here got the tale from some source that he considered fairly reliable. So he fitted out the expedition and is willing to take half the proceeds, whatever it may be, for his share."

"But it looks as if we are being opposed from the very start," objected Tom. "Look at this visitor and the note he left. That must indicate that there is a gang working against us. I'm a peaceful, orderly citizen and not at all inclined to start anything."

"Yes, he is!" laughed Arnold. "Look at the way he put the rollers under the gang of thugs at our camp at Mackinac Island!"

"Now, boys," continued Jack, beckoning Arnold to silence, "if any one of you wants to go back, he can have the chance. We're going to Pascagoula and also to Biloxi. At either place one can get the Louisville & Nashville railroad for home. Think it over. If you want to try for the Spanish Treasure Chest, stick. If not, you are at liberty to go home at any time we make a port."

At that instant the lads were startled to hear the hail:

"Launch ahoy! Keep off!"

"Port your helm," commanded Jack to Arnold who was at the wheel.

Dimly the boys made out the bulk of a schooner on their port bow, her sails slatting and rigging flying as she came up into the wind. As the Fortuna fell off they looked at the schooner and saw the main boom swinging across the deck, strike a man standing near the rail.

"Man overboard. Give me a line," cried Arnold, springing over the rail without stopping to divest himself of his clothing.