Chapter IV. The Hole in the Boat
 

Harry dashed to the rail and seized the ring life preserver from its beckets. As Arnold rose to the surface and reached out for the unfortunate man from the schooner, Harry flung the ring-buoy with unerring aim. It fell true, and within Arnold's reach.

Gradually pulling in the line, Harry and Tom drew their chum to the side of the Fortuna. The figure in his arms appeared perfectly lifeless. Quickly they prepared to take both on board.

"Make a bowline in a bight in that line," directed Harry. "Pass it down to Arnold and let him send us up the man first."

"Right-o," responded Tom, quickly preparing the line.

It was but the work of a moment to securely fasten the line about the man's limp form and in another moment he was safely on deck. Arnold followed, coming over the rail like a monkey.

First aid to the drowned was administered rapidly by the boys who prided themselves upon their proficiency in this art.

"Looks like a nasty bump he got on the coco, too," commented Tom. "How'd they happen to sneak upon us so close?" he added.

"Humph!" grunted Harry. "We all forgot to keep the Klaxon going while we listened to that fairy tale about the Spanish Treasure Chest. Maybe they forgot to blow their fog horn also, and there you are. Natural result of neglect. That's easy."

"Where are they now?" queried Arnold peering about in the fog.

"I believe that as soon as they saw we were picking up this chap," Jack replied, "they filled their sails and away they went. Certainly they are not here now."

"Hush, boys, he's coming to," declared Tom, watching the newcomer anxiously for signs of returning consciousness.

"Sure enough," assented Harry. "I tell you that little trick of pulling a fellow's tongue out isn't near as good as turning him face down. Look how easily this chap came around."

"We'd better get him in and get him to bed as soon as we can, boys," admonished Jack. "He needs a warming up."

"I'll start the electric heater and percolate some coffee for both of we rescued persons," declared Arnold. "Lucky I hadn't put on my oilskins after getting dinner," he added.

Quickly the boys carried the stranger to the cabin and put him into one of the berths. There every care was bestowed to make him comfortable and easy, while Arnold prepared the coffee.

"Lay right there and don't try to talk," advised Arnold. "I'll stay with you and see that you don't want for anything."

"That's kind of you," replied the stranger. "What vessel is this, if I may ask before you make me keep quiet?"

"This is a gasoline pleasure launch," replied Arnold.

"Oh, thanks," replied the stranger. "Now, I'll rest a while."

In the pilot house the boys discussed the incident that had so nearly resulted in a collision. They were all excited and beginning to feel the strain upon their nerves.

"This is getting to be one of our usual strenuous trips," announced Jack. "I declare we never go anywhere, it seems, but we dash head foremost into excitement and trouble. The only thing we need now to start us right is to discover a Boy Scout or two out here and we'll be prepared to go ahead and have some adventure."

"Never mind, Captain, we'll find the Boy Scouts, all right. Don't think our luck will turn yet. Just remember the horseshoe I picked up on the street in Mobile," urged Tom.

"Yes," Jack assented, "that's a fact. And, by the way, where did you put that horseshoe? I haven't seen it since."

"I hung it up on the switchboard lamp bracket," said Tom.

"Well, it isn't there now," declared Jack.

"What's that isn't there now?" asked Arnold at that moment climbing the companion-way from the cabin.

"Tom's horseshoe," Jack replied. "He says he hung it on the lamp over the switchboard and now it's gone."

"Oh, that," scorned Arnold. "That was just a little bit of a mule shoe. That wasn't a real full-sized horse shoe."

"All right, Smarty," bridled Tom. "Just tell us where you threw it overboard and we'll make you go dive for it."

"It was swinging around and making so much noise I took it down and hung it on the bracket there by the compass," replied Arnold pointing to the missing article hung over the place indicated.

"Good night," cried Jack. "Here we've been trying to steer a compass course in a thick fog all the way from Mobile with that thing there! No wonder we've been hoodooed."

"Why, what's the matter?" innocently inquired Arnold.

Jack's answer was to take the horseshoe from its resting place and make as if to fling it overboard. He restrained himself, however, and turning to Arnold said quietly:

"Look here, young man, you evidently do not know how sensitive a thing the compass is. But if you had done a thing like that on some vessels they would have thrown you overboard. You have rendered the compass useless and we have been steering by a crazy instrument. Your horseshoe hanging there has deflected the needle to such an extent that we cannot even guess where we have been going."

"I'm sorry," contritely answered Arnold, "but I didn't understand it that way. I won't do that again, that's sure."

"Thanks, awfully," scornfully answered Tom. "Maybe now you'll agree that the thing is bigger than you imagined at first."

"You're right," was Arnold's reply. "A little thing can be mighty big in some cases. I'll remember this for a long time."

"Boys, I believe the fog is thinning out somewhat," announced Harry. "Maybe the old horseshoe is bringing us luck after all."

"I believe you're more than half right," responded Jack.

"We'd better be on the lookout for breakers and things inside as well as outside," declared Tom. "Remember what that Carlos de Sneakodorus Madero did to us when our backs were turned."

"Sure enough, we ought to set a guard on this fellow," agreed Harry. "I'll volunteer to go and 'red up' the cabin as the Dutchman says, and incidentally keep an eye on his royal joblots."

The boy descended to the cabin and in furtherance of his design walked to a locker and extracted an automatic pistol which he placed in a convenient pocket. He then busied himself about the place in small tasks that always kept him within sight of the rescued man.

No effort was made by the stranger to engage the boy in conversation, however, and he worked away undisturbed. Occasionally the bulldog would enter and after sniffing suspiciously at the prostrate figure of the rescued man would emit a low growl of disapproval and retreat. He was not disposed to be friendly.

On one of his trips to the forward cabin Harry noticed the clothes belonging to the newcomer lying on the floor where they had been dropped when he had been put into the berth. Thinking to care for them by straightening and drying them, the boy picked up the first garment in the pile. It was a vest and as he raised it a collection of small articles fell from the pocket to the floor.

Among the contents was a metal match box which fell and slid across the floor, striking, on the locker as it dropped.

"Well, that's too bad. The gentleman will have wet matches, I guess," thought the boy. "I'd better empty those wet ones out and give him some dry ones against his waking and needing some."

What was his amazement, however, upon opening the box to find instead of matches, a clipping from a newspaper. Harry was about to thrust it back into the box again when a printed word caught his attention and held him for a moment motionless. The word was the name of their vessel, the "Fortuna."

Hastily glancing through the headlines, Harry uttered a quick cry and dashed forward to the pilot house.

"Boys! Jack, Tom, Arnold," he cried excitedly. "What do you think of this? Here's some more of this mystery for us."

"What do you mean, mystery?" queried Tom, scoffingly.

"Just listen to this! Here's a newspaper clipping evidently from a Chicago paper which tells about our fitting out the Fortuna for the cruise to the Gulf of Mexico and also hazards the guess that we are young and adventurous spirits evidently seeking the buried treasure on the Gulf Coast."

"Does it say that we are after the Spanish Treasure Chest at the old Fort on Biloxi Bay, that must be dug up in the full of the moon on a rising tide with not a word said?" asked Tom.

"It does say that our destination is Biloxi and that we are known to be daring lads," replied Harry. "But that is not all."

"Let's have it, Harry," cried Jack. "I'm anxious to hear all."

"There's a pencil notation across the paper that says: 'Get these fellows at any cost.' That's mighty encouraging."

"Say, fellows, this is getting uncomfortably tight! I don't like it a little bit," declared Tom. "Here we are peaceable Boy Scouts out for a little pleasure trip and all at once it begins to rain adventurous spirits from any old place and each of them is posted to make away with us and all seem to be protecting this old Spanish strong box. I wish they'd go away and let us pursue the even tenor of our way unmolested."

"So do I," Jack replied. "But they seem to feel otherwise and so we'll have to take them as they come. We'll remember our motto and 'be prepared' to accept whatever they may have to offer."

"Is this fellow going to open the drip cock on our spare gasoline tank?" asked Arnold. "If he is, I'm going down to mount guard over him right now! Once is enough and too much is plenty."

"I don't believe he knows what vessel he's on yet," declared Harry. "He asked me and I gave him an evasive reply."

"Fog's lifting, Captain," announced Tom who was at the wheel.

"Sure enough, it is," joyfully cried Jack. "Now maybe we can get a bearing and know where we are. Do you see land anywhere?"

"I see smoke," declared Harry. "What does a sailor say when he sees a smoke? Should he say 'smoke ho,' or 'sail ho,' or what?"

"I don't know, I'm sure," Jack answered with a laugh.

"And now I see two 'smoke ho's,'" cried Tom. "That means that some Boy Scout is in trouble and wants help."

"Maybe it means that a steamer is over there and the 'ash cats' are busy while the firemen are putting in more coal."

"I don't believe it!" declared Tom. "See that fringe of pines along there and see the smoke rising from the sand beyond them. It surely looks like two signal smokes to me! How about it?"

"Let's put on some more steam and run over in that direction to discover who may be making the smokes," suggested Jack.

It was voted a good idea and accordingly the Fortuna was headed in the direction of the smokes with increased speed of the motors. Every moment now the fog was lifting and objects could be more clearly distinguished on the land which lay not a great way off.

"We can't get in very much closer here," declared Tom, "I see bottom now, I believe. We'd better slip along shore until we're about opposite the smokes and land in a small boat."

"All right," agreed Jack. "What do you say, boys?"

"Good idea, I say," offered Harry. "Who do you suppose it is making the smoke? Wish it were someone from Chicago."

"Maybe it would be a good idea to see how our passenger is getting on," suggested Arnold. "I believe I'll slip down and see."

He stepped down the companion way and in a moment the boys heard him shout excitedly back:

"Somebody come here, quickly. The Fortuna's taking in water fast. It's up over the floor boards now and the engine is throwing it around in great shape. Our passenger's gone!"