Chapter IX. A Night Attack
 

"Oh, Jack!" cried Tom, stooping over the boy lying prone upon the pilot house floor. "Oh, Jack, speak to me!"

Unguided by a hand at the wheel, the Fortuna fell off into the trough of the sea and began to roll broadside on. Another shot came from the schooner, but it went wild. The boys crowded about the form of their fallen chum and tried to lift him to his feet. Frank was the first to give attention to the boat.

"They're gaining on us!" he cried. "Which switch controls the power? Let's get away from here before they kill us all!"

"Those levers in the center of the board," directed Harry, "govern the spark and fuel. Someone get the wheel. Steer due northwest for a while until we get straightened out!"

Frank whirled the spokes of the wheel rapidly and brought the Fortuna up to her course, while Harry quickly operated the switches that gave new impetus to the engines. Soon the Fortuna was cleaving the waves at full speed. Clouds of spray were thrown far aside as she mounted the crest, and every plunge into the trough brought a torrent of water over her bows. Her graceful lines offered little resistance to her progress. She leaped forward like a thing of life, rapidly leaving the schooner far astern.

Another shot was fired from the pursuer, but fell far astern of the flying motor boat. Apparently those aboard the sailing vessel realized the hopelessness of further effort, for they turned and headed back for the island so recently left by the boys.

No sooner had the Fortuna been put under full speed than, leaving Frank at the wheel, the others carried Jack into the cabin, where he was laid upon a bunk. Swiftly Tom tore away his jacket and shirt, exposing a chest with well-developed muscles standing out prominently. The strong, lithe figure of the boy gave striking evidence of the beneficial result of constant and well-directed physical exercise. Just now he lay limp and inert.

"Where is he hit?" queried Harry, appearing with restoratives from the medicine chest. "Is he bleeding much?" he continued.

"Funny thing, I can't find any blood at all!" declared Tom. "It's a peculiar thing, too, for if he was hit hard enough to knock him down the bullet must have entered his body!"

"That's a strange thing, isn't it?" spoke up Arnold.

"Strange is no word for it!" Tom asserted. "I'm just all at sea literally as well as figuratively. This is the strangest part of our queer experiences during the past few hours."

"Let's get his clothes off and examine him closely," suggested Arnold. "Maybe the bullet hit him from a ricochet."

"Wise little Scout!" commended Tom. "You've got a great head on those shoulders! I'm glad we brought you along."

Before he had ceased speaking, Tom had begun to divest Jack of his upper clothing. With the assistance of Harry and Arnold, he removed the jacket and shirt in a short time.

"There's nothing here at all!" he cried in amazement.

"What's that bruised looking place over his heart?" asked Harry. "Seems to me it is discolored somewhat there."

"Sure enough!" cried Arnold. "Give him first aid for drowning. That may start his heart action. He isn't shot after all!"

"Hurray!" responded his chums in chorus, quickly putting into action the suggestion of Arnold. They worked quickly and effectively, their training standing them in good stead at this time.

Before many seconds had passed, Jack opened his eyes, gasped weakly and then sat up on the edge of the bunk. Blinking his eyes, he put his hand over his heart. Arnold shouted for pure joy.

"Hurrah, Frank!" he cried up the companion-way, "Jack is coming to! What do you think of us for life-savers?"

"You can't mean it!" incredulously protested Frank.

"Well we just do mean it and I for one am awful glad!"

"So are all of us glad!" declared Tom. "I was worried for a while. It looked as if you were going to stay out, Jack!"

The boys were capering about in glee over Jack's recovery though his smile was still a trifle wan and drawn. Slowly, however, his strength returned. He accepted and drank with eagerness the cup of steaming coffee proffered by Arnold as a restorative.

"Thank you, Scout!" smiled Jack. You're a master hand at the cooking! What hit me? I felt quite a blow."

"You were shot," declared Harry. "The pirate schooner shot at us, you remember, and then they had to shoot you, but we can't find any hole where the bullet went in. You're only bruised."

"Ha!" exclaimed Jack. "I see it now! The bullet hit the automatic I had put in my breast pocket. I never carried it there before and don't know why I should have put it there this time."

"Well, it's a lucky thing you varied from your habit!"

"Let's see if the bullet is in the pocket yet," Harry said.

A search of the jacket revealed a hole, in the outer cloth where the bullet had entered. Inside the pocket were the automatic and several slivers of lead, fragments of the shattered missile.

"Jack," Harry said with a shiver, as he grasped his chum's hand, "that was a mighty close shave. I'm glad it terminated so well."

The silent grasp that Jack returned spoke louder than words of the bond of friendship that existed between the boys.

"Come, come," bustled Harry, "Jack will be getting hungry. Whose watch is it in the kitchenette? I was on last, I know!"

"Yes, you were!" declared Arnold in mock anger. "You are always just off duty when there's work to do! We know you!"

It was decided that Harry must prepare supper, for the boys were all famished after their hard day's work.

"You'll have to check down a little if I cook!" asserted Harry. "This isn't a battleship, and the pirates are far astern."

"Good idea," Jack assented. "Check her down, Tom, and save fuel. After that Madero's wasting of our gasoline, we'll need all we have. He didn't seem to care for expense a little bit!"

The suggestion was followed, and shortly the Fortuna was traveling at a more moderate gait, taking the seas easily without shipping water on her forward deck. Frank was enthusiastic over the arrangements, declaring that each feature was exactly as he would have wished for it himself. The searchlight and cabin lights operated by the dynamo below decks were sources of pleasure.

Harry was soon busily engaged in preparing a bountiful supper for the boys who were ready to do ample justice to his skill in the kitchen. Harry felt justly proud of his ability as did the others, who sat down to a supper of broiled Red Snapper with a mushroom sauce helped out by fried potatoes, hot baking powder biscuits and excellent coffee. Frank had opened a tin of marmalade which disappeared rapidly before the young appetites.

Frank had been relieved at the wheel by Arnold who loved to be entrusted with the management of the boat.

While the boys ate, a glorious sunset graced the western sky. Long spears of light flashed up through misty, veil-like clouds, seeming to invite the boys to the West, as if holding out to them promises of great things in store.

Silently the boys gazed in rapt wonder. At last with a deep sigh, Frank broke the silence that had seemed to hold all the boys.

"Isn't that grand?" he asked. "For that one could almost willingly repeat what we've been through today. I like sunrises and sunsets and storms and calms and all the phenomena of nature."

"I like trees and flowers most of all!" declared Tom.

"And I like live things--birds and squirrels and such!" Arnold declared. When I grow up, I'm going to be President and have a law passed that it's a crime to rob nests and kill squirrels and things like that. I'd rather let them live!"

"Well, I belong to an Audubon Society at home," Frank stated. "I think it's fine to study the birds and their habits and intelligence. We study about other creatures, too. I am learning a lot about the creatures of the wild out-of-doors. It's interesting."

"Here's good old Rowdy coming to get his share," cried Tom, slapping the bulldog on the shoulder. "There's a funny old chap. He'll take all sorts of mauling from any of us boys or from anyone whom he likes, but let a person whom he distrusts point a finger at him, and he's at their throat in a minute. He is very partial!"

"Yes," Jack assented, "and it's remarkable what a judge of character that dog is, too! He can select the good from the bad about as unerringly as one could wish. Sometimes he will make friends with perfect strangers and we find afterwards they are good people even though first appearances were against them. Again he will take a dislike to some mighty fine looking folks, but we learn that they are villains under the surface in the long run."

"Rowdy," Frank challenged, "are you going to take a shine to me or not? Be mighty careful, now, for I'm very anxious about it."

For answer the dog who had been in the center of the floor sprang up to Frank's lap in an endeavor to "kiss" the boy's face. His weight projected so suddenly upon the lad resulted in upsetting him, and boy and dog rolled to the floor in a mass. Rowdy thinking a new game was on began pulling the boy about until all hands were arrested by a cry from Arnold, who still remained at the wheel.

"Land Ho!" came his cry down the companion-way. "Land on the starboard bow. All hands on deck!"

"Sure enough!" cried the lads. "There's a light, too!"

"I'll wager that's Pascagoula," Tom said. "Pretty near time we were there by the way the Fortuna went through the water when the schooner was chasing us. I wonder where we can tie up!"

"Let's shove her along and try to get in before dark," was Jack's suggestion to which the others readily assented.

As the Fortuna entered the harbor the boys kept a sharp lookout for a promising berth for the night. Not until they were well past the bridge over which the Louisville & Nashville Railroad crosses the river did they find a place that looked suitable.

"Let's not tie up to a dock," suggested Harry. "Let's anchor."

This seemed the most feasible solution and was acted upon.

A position was chosen apart from the busy docks and well over toward an unoccupied section of shore. A goodly length of cable was paid out and a stopper put in place. The boys then prepared for retiring without further attempt at getting acquainted with the town or its inhabitants, leaving that for the morrow.

Leaving the doors between the cabins opened for ventilation and convenience in visiting after they were in their bunks the boys soon disposed themselves and prepared to pass a restful night.

"Wouldn't it be better to set a watch?" asked Arnold.

"I don't think it necessary," declared Harry. "It's safe here."

"Sure it's safe, but I feel uneasy just the same," Arnold protested. "There's no knowing what's going on in these ports."

It was voted, however, that no watch was necessary so the boy composed himself to sleep drawing the blankets closely to his chin.

Scarcely had he gotten into a quiet sleep before Rowdy came to his bunk and insisted on making himself a bed fellow of the boy.

At last everything was still. Only the heavy breathing of the tired boys gave evidence of life aboard the Fortuna as she rode to her anchor, swinging with the currents and wavelets. Her riding lights were burning brightly, fed from the storage batteries below decks, and everything to the passer by betokened peace.

Once Rowdy lifted a watchful eye and growled menacingly. Arnold stirred uneasily in his sleep and threw an arm over the dog.

Suddenly a shriek of agony pierced the air with startling distinctness. Shriek after shriek followed intermingled with cries of distress. The boys bounded from their beds in alarm.