It was growing dark and the stars were already out when a new sound fell on Percy's ears.
"What's that?" he exclaimed.
Up from the south came a faint, long-drawn, mournful voice, Oo-oo-oo-ooh! They listened breathlessly. It sounded again, Oo-oo-oo-ooh!
"Whistling buoy!" ejaculated Jim. He thought a moment. "Cashe's Ledge!" he shouted. "Sixty miles south of Tarpaulin! That's drifting some since yesterday afternoon. Must be less than a mile to leeward or we couldn't hear it against this gale."
Nearer and nearer, louder and louder, sounded the melancholy note, just west of south. Both boys strained their eyes.
"I see it!" cried Percy, triumphantly. "There—rising on that swell! Almost astern! It's striped red and black!"
But Jim gave him no heed. Lips parted and face pale, he was gazing intently at something farther off. Suddenly he lifted his hand.
"Listen! Do you hear that?"
Above the noise of the surrounding sea rose a low, savage roar. Percy caught Jim's alarm.
"What is it?"
"The breaker on the shoal! Sometimes it combs up high as a house. It's less than a quarter-mile southwest of the buoy, and we're drifting straight down upon it! If we go over it, we'll be swamped, sure as fate, drug or no drug! We'll simply be buried under tons and tons of water!"
Percy fought off his panic.
"What shall we do?" he stammered.
"Make the whistler—if we can. It's buoy or breaker, and mighty quick, too!"
The dory's drift, if unchanged, would take her several yards west of the steel can crowned with its red whistle-cage. Its warning blast set the air vibrating, Oo-oo-oo-ooh!
Jim snatched out his knife and sprang forward.
"Oar in the scull-hole, Perce! Lively!"
Driving the point of his blade into the side of the bow, he dragged the painter in until he reached the gasolene-can. Severing the rope with one quick, strong slash, he scrambled aft and seized the oar.
"Stand by with that painter to jump for the buoy, when I put the bow against it! Better take off your shoes first!"
Percy obeyed. In his stocking feet he would be less liable to slip on the wet iron. Making a loose coil of the painter, he crouched in the bow. Meanwhile Jim had turned the dory round and headed her north of the whistler. A strong current was setting toward the shoal. It took all his strength to scull against it.
Rapidly they neared the can. About eight feet in diameter at the water-line, it tapered to two feet across its flat top, seven feet above. From the circumference rose two iron bails, crossing each other at right angles, several inches above the whistle, which stood two and one-half feet high. A little to one side stuck up the small tube of the intake valve. Round the buoy above the water-line were bolted four lugs, or iron handles, by which the can could be hoisted on board the lighthouse steamer.
As the steel cone sank the whistle bellowed resonantly. Down, down, till the waves swept over its top. Then, slowly it began to rise. The bellowing cut off, and the air rushed into the intake tube.
Percy watched it, fascinated. Jim's voice roused him to their peril.
"Look sharp! Be ready!"
Less than ten feet of wild black water lay between the madly leaping bow and the buoy. Beyond it the shoal broke with an angry roar in a long line of crumbling foam. Percy gathered his strength for the leap.
The distance lessened, foot by foot. Foot by foot the red-and-black cone emerged, as if thrust up by a giant hand. Percy fastened his eyes on a lug.
A grayback heaved the dory forward.
"Now!" screamed Jim.
Young Whittington sprang upon the bow thwart, painter end in his right hand, and leaped for the lug. A second later the boat crashed against the buoy.
His left hand caught the bent iron bar; his right missed it. His body thudded against the riveted side, slid down, and he hung by one arm, waist-deep in the water.
From the inverted mouth of the whistle, a few feet above, a hoarse, deafening blast roared down into his face.
As he flung up his right hand and passed the end of the painter through the lug a body shot over his head. Spurling had leaped on the top of the dropping buoy. Percy was dragged down under the surface, the whistle still ringing in his ears. He clung desperately to lug and painter.
The vibrations ceased. The can had reached its lowest point. It was rising again. Out came his head.
"Can you hold on a minute, Perce?" roared Spurling's voice.
"Yes," strangled Percy.
"Then let go that painter! I've got it."
Hanging head down, his legs twined round a bail, Spurling worked rapidly with both hands. Soon he had fastened the rope securely to the lug, mooring the dory to the buoy.
The can was sinking again. Putting both hands under Percy's arms, Jim lifted him. Then he lowered his grip to the boy's waist. That terrific blast rendered speech inaudible, but Percy understood. As the water raised part of his weight, he scrambled up over his friend's body.
Thirty seconds later, drenched and gasping, they stood clinging to the bails on the top of the buoy.
ON THE WHISTLER
Jim was the first to recover his breath.
"Well!" he ejaculated. "Here we are! And mighty fortunate! We'll neither of us ever have a closer shave."
He looked southwest, where the ledge was breaking white through the gloom, and shook his head. Percy, shivering with excitement, said nothing; but he felt as thankful as his mate. They stood close together on the circular top, holding on to the crossed bails, waist-high. Between them rose the whistle, thirty inches tall. Every time they sank in the trough it emitted its dismal bellow.
To leeward the dory wallowed at the end of her painter, almost full of water.
"Split her bow when we struck," said Spurling. "Just as well not to be in her. At any rate, we're not drifting."
Their position, however, was none too secure. The buoy had a rise and fall of seven feet. Unsteadied by keel or rudder, it bobbed unexpectedly this way and that. The boys were obliged to cling fast to keep their footing on the narrow, slippery top.
A sudden jump of the rolling can wrenched Percy's right hand from its hold. But for his left, he would have been flung into the sea.
"That won't do," said Spurling.
Producing a coil of line, he took three or four turns round Percy's waist, and lashed him fast to the bails. He did the same for himself.
"Guess we'll stick on now," he remarked.
"Where did you get that rope?" asked Percy.
"It's all that's left of the ground-line. Thought it might come in handy, so I jammed it inside my oil-coat before I jumped. Never can tell when you'll need a few feet for something or other."
The screech of the buoy, recurring regularly, set their ears ringing.
"We've got to choke that off!" exclaimed Spurling, finally. "We'll go crazy, sure, if we have to listen to it all night."
"How'll you do it? Jam something into the mouth of the whistle?"
"Might smother it that way, but I know an easier one."
He pushed his handkerchief into the curved end of the intake tube just as the bellowing buoy reached its lowest point. The next time it sank there was no sound.
"Can't sing out unless it fills up with air," remarked Spurling. "It's human, so far!"
"Is it all right to shut the signal off altogether? Mightn't some vessel strike the shoal if she doesn't hear it?"
"Not much chance of that to-night! Everything'll give Cashe's a wide berth in a norther. But I'll let it scream a few times every ten minutes. That'll be often enough to warn off any craft within hearing."
The last red embers of the sunset died out, and from horizon to horizon the sky was ablaze with stars. Even the boys, wet, hungry, and exhausted, could not be blind to such magnificence.
"Good evening to study astronomy, Perce!"
"Never saw a finer! But I'd want a steadier foundation than this for my telescope."
As on the previous night, the sea was aglow with phosphorescence. Every wave was crested with silver. Buoy and tugging dory kept the water alive with light as they rose and fell. Leeward the long shoal broke in glittering foam.
Spurling gazed silently down into the eddying tide.
"Runs fast, doesn't it?" said Percy.
"Yes; it's the ebb out of Fundy. Comes piling down over Cashe's at a two-knot rate. When the flood begins it'll run just as hard the other way. That's what makes the shoal so dangerous. There's only from four to seven fathoms over the ledge at low water, and that's little enough in a storm."
"Were you ever down here before?"
"No; but I've heard Uncle Tom Sprowl tell about the place dozens of times. Once, in particular, he was here in a schooner, hand-lining. It was almost calm, just a light east wind blowing, when they anchored an eighth of a mile to weather of the shoal. Pretty soon the decks were alive with fish. It kept breezing on all the time, and the ledge broke higher and higher; but they were having such good luck they hated to leave. So they hung to it till it got too rough for a small boat, and the breaker was twenty or thirty feet high. There was a big cod or haddock on every line, when all of a sudden the cable parted and they began to blow down on the ledge. It took some lively work to save the schooner and themselves. They got sail on her just in time to skin by the end of the breaker. Uncle Tom's been out in some pretty bad storms, but he's always said the time he parted his cable on Cashe's was the closest shave he ever had. See that shark!"
Ten yards off, just under the surface, appeared the glittering outlines of a great fish. It moved leisurely, its projecting fin making a silver ripple.
"Twelve feet, if he's an inch! I'd hate to fall overboard while he's around."
"Think he's a man-eater?"
"Don't know! But I'd rather let somebody else find out. There's another! I've heard fishermen say the sea round here's alive with 'em. I haven't a doubt but those two fellows that chased us to-day are somewhere about. Once they get after a boat, they'll follow it till the cows come home. Guess I'll let Ole Bull give us a few notes!"
He pulled his handkerchief out of the intake tube. Presently the voice of the whistle was echoing across the sea. After a half-dozen screeches Spurling stopped up the tube again.
"That'll do for now! We'll give him another chance in ten minutes."
Up and down went the buoy, pitching and reeling dizzily. An occasional wave-crest buried the boys to the waist.
"No place for a man with a weak stomach, hey, Perce," said Spurling. "You couldn't have stood this two months ago."
Percy was gazing intently southward.
"What's that white spot?" he asked, suddenly, pointing to a glittering patch fifty or sixty yards square.
"School of herring! Now look out for some fun! Something's liable to be after 'em any minute."
Hardly had the words left Jim's mouth when a great white streak moved rapidly toward the schooling fish.
"Whale!" shouted Spurling, excitedly. "Watch out!"
With a tremendous rush the huge, gleaming body shot suddenly clear of the water. For an instant it hung suspended, ten feet above the surface. Then, with a mighty splash, it dropped back, right amid the herring. The glittering school dispersed in a thousand directions, and the monster moved slowly off to the south.
"Biggest whale I ever saw," observed Jim. "Fully seventy feet long! Well, he's had one good meal. Wish we could say the same! Hungry, old man?"
"Yes; but more thirsty."
"Stick to it! Somebody's likely to show up at any time to-morrow and take us off."
"But if they don't—"
"We'll have to hang on till they do."
Percy could hardly stand upright. His joints ached. His eyelids sagged heavily for want of sleep. He would have given anything if he could have lain down. But that was impossible. Something of his father's doggedness enabled him to set his teeth and stand clinging to the bails.
Their plight was bad enough, but it might have been much worse. Percy shivered a bit as he looked at the wallowing dory and the breaker beyond it.
The buoy could not drift. It could not founder. It afforded them a safe refuge from wind and sea; but it could not give them food or drink.
Particularly drink. Every atom in Percy's body, every corpuscle in his blood, seemed to be crying out for water. It did not seem as if he could endure it. He was almost desperate enough to quench his thirst from the sea. But, no! Men who did that went crazy. He moistened his dry lips with his tongue. If only he could have had a full dipper from the spring behind the camp! And he had turned up his nose because it was brackish!
"Wish I had some of Filippo's hot biscuits!" said Jim. "I can taste 'em now."
"Don't, Jim! It makes me feel worse. How long can a man stand it without eating and drinking?"
"There was a fisherman out of Bass Harbor, last October, who went in a power-boat to Clay Bank after hake. His engine played out and he got blown off by a northwester. For over five days he didn't have a thing to eat or drink. Then he got back to Mount Desert Rock. That's the longest I ever heard of."
Five days! And they had not yet gone two. Percy became silent again.
The night dragged painfully. With mortal slowness the Great Bear circled the Pole Star. Jim was acquainted with the principal constellations, and he ran them over for Percy's benefit. Gradually, however, their conversation lagged. You cannot feel much interest in astronomy when your eyes feel as if they were being pressed down by leaden weights and your stomach is absolutely empty.
Percy's body drooped over the bails. Though the position was horribly uncomfortable, he had all he could do to prevent himself from going to sleep, even despite the occasional screeches of the whistle. With an immense effort he stiffened himself upright. Jim was gazing down into the water.
"It's going to moderate before long," he remarked, casually.
Percy came wide awake in an instant.
"How can you tell? It's blowing as hard as ever."
"I know that. But the tide doesn't run so strong against the buoy. Just as it always makes up before the wind comes, so it begins to go down before the wind lessens. I believe the gale'll blow itself out by the middle of the forenoon."
The news seemed too good to be true; but it dispelled Percy's drowsiness. He pried his eyes open and stared around.
The waves were still running high and breaking in fiery sparkles. The silver sharks unwearyingly kept their silent vigil about the rocking buoy. Up the eastern horizon was stealing a faint pallor, harbinger of the approaching dawn.
Lighter and lighter it grew. The gulls, which had been floating on the water all night, began to take wing and fill the air with their grating cries. The phosphorescence died out of the sea. Another day had begun.
Raising his right hand, Spurling turned its open palm toward the north.
"What did I tell you?" he exclaimed. "The wind is going down."
Even Percy could see that it was not blowing so hard. The water, too, had grown much smoother, and the roar of the breaker was not so loud.
"It'll be calm as a mill-pond in a few hours," remarked Jim. "By noon there ought to be some fishermen out here. They always start from Portland on the end of a norther, and run for this buoy to make their grounds from. All we've got to do now is to hold on and wait."
He pulled in the dory and looked her carefully over.
"Bow split open, as I thought," said he. "But apart from that she isn't damaged any. A little work'll make her as good as new. And in the stern is that box with the piston-rod in it. I'd have hated to lose that, after all this fuss. Things might have turned out a good deal worse, eh, Perce? But the next time I'll know enough to hang up at Seal Island."
Jim's cheerfulness was contagious. Percy felt better. Though he was still tormented by hunger and thirst, the thought that relief might soon come gave him courage to endure them. Jim let the dory slip back to the end of her painter.
"Might as well take an Indian breakfast."
He buckled his belt a hole tighter.
"Not a sail in sight yet! We could lie down in the dory and go to sleep, if she wasn't full of water. But, as things are, we'll have to make ourselves as comfortable as we can right here. Let's hope it won't be for long!"
The gale weakened to a brisk breeze. The sea fell rapidly to a long, lazy swell, on which the buoy rocked drowsily. The warm sun inclined the boys to sleep; but they fought it off and scanned the horizon with eager eyes. Seven o'clock. Eight. Nine. Ten. And still no sign of a sail.
At half past ten a smoke-feather rose in the east.
"Yarmouth boat on her way to Boston," said Jim. "She'll pass too far north to see us."
He was right. The steamer's course kept her on the horizon, several miles off. Before long she vanished to the west. Half past eleven went by, and no fishermen appeared. Percy began to fear that Jim was mistaken, after all.
"Here comes our packet," remarked Spurling, quietly.
A tiny saw-tooth of canvas was rising out of the sea, miles northwest. As it grew larger it developed into a schooner under full sail, heading straight for the buoy.
"She sees us," said Jim.
Percy felt like dancing for joy. Nearer and nearer came the schooner. The boys could see her crew staring curiously at them from along her rail. Fifty yards off she shot up into the wind and prepared to launch a boat. They could read the name on her starboard bow.
"The Grade King," spelled Spurling. "I know her. She's a Harpswell vessel. Come out to seine herring. Bet she left Portland early this morning. Her captain's Silas Greenlaw; he used to sail with Uncle Tom. He'll use us O. K."
A dory with two men in it came rowing toward the buoy.
"How long've you fellows been hanging on here?" shouted a red-sweatered, gray-haired man in the stern.
"Since six last night. We blew down from Tarpaulin Island in the norther. Don't you know me, Captain Greenlaw?"
"Why, it's Jim Spurling, Tom Sprowl's nephew!" exclaimed the astonished captain. "So the gale blew you down from Tarpaulin, eh? Well, all I've got to say is that you were confounded lucky to hit the buoy and not the breaker. How long since you've had anything to eat or drink?"
"Forty-six hours since we've had a swallow of water, and about twenty since we finished our last hard bread."
"Well, well! You must be hungry and thirsty! Come right aboard and we'll see what we can do for you."
Gladly the boys cut the lashings that bound them to the bails. The whistle gave a screech of farewell as they tumbled stiffly into the boat. The solid deck of the Gracie felt good beneath their feet.
"You can have all the water you want, boys; but you'd better go light on food at first," cautioned the captain.
It seemed to Percy as if he could never get enough to drink. Gradually, however, his thirst was quenched. He began to realize that he had not slept for two days and a half.
"I'd like to carry you right back to the island," said Captain Greenlaw, "for your friends must be worrying. But there are lots of herring here, and I've got to get a load first. That may take two or three days. I'll land you at Tarpaulin on my way home. Better turn in and sleep."
The boys were shortly wrapped in a heavy, dreamless slumber. It seemed to them as if they had just closed their eyes when they were shaken awake again.
"Here's the cutter!" exclaimed the captain. "They got a wireless to hunt you up. Going to run in to Rockland, and can land you at Tarpaulin this evening. What do you say?"
Tired though they were, Jim and Percy were only too glad of a chance to get home speedily. So they were transferred to the Pollux, and their leaking dory hoisted aboard. Swung in hammocks in the seamen's quarters, they were soon slumbering dreamlessly again.
At eight that night the Pollux stopped off the island. The dory, made sound and tight by the ship's carpenter, was dropped overboard, and the boys rowed into Sprowl's Cove.
Their appearance transformed the gloom that overhung Camp Spurling into the wildest joy. Budge, Throppy, and Filippo burst out of the cabin and raced headlong down the beach, waking the echoes with their shouts of welcome. Even before the dory grounded they tumbled aboard and flung their arms about the castaways. No brothers, reunited after deadly peril, could have given one another a warmer greeting.
Jim freed his hands at last, stooped, and picked up a package which he tossed out on the gravel. There was a suspicious moisture in his eyes.
"There's the piston-rod!" said he in a rather choky voice. "I guess we'll get our set all right day after to-morrow."
SQUARING AN ACCOUNT
It was almost noon the next day before Jim and Percy rolled out of their bunks in Camp Spurling. One of Filippo's best dinners satisfied the last cravings of their appetites; but for a week they felt the strain of their forty-seven hours in the dory and on the buoy.
"When did you reach the Pollux, Throppy?" asked Jim.
"I didn't reach her at all. When you didn't show up that night I wirelessed Criehaven, and the operator there hit the cutter thirty miles to the westward the next forenoon. She began hunting for you right away, but it wasn't until twenty-four hours later that she found you on the Gracie King. We picked up a message from her some time after she took you off the schooner. Perhaps it didn't relieve our minds!"
Jim drew a long breath as he glanced round the cabin.
"Seems good to be here! Not a bad old camp, is it, Perce?"
"Never saw a hotel I'd swap it for," replied Percy, promptly.
Two mornings later Budge and Percy started in the sloop for Vinalhaven after a load of herring. Jim did not accompany them, as he had decided to spend a forenoon hauling and inspecting the lobster-traps. The Barracouta ran in alongside Hardy's weir at nine o'clock and took aboard thirty bushels of small fish. She then went around to Carver's Harbor to purchase supplies and fill her tank with gasolene.
It was Percy's first visit to the town since July 4th, the occasion of his disastrous encounter with Jabe. In actual time, his defeat lay only a few weeks back; but, measured by the change that had taken place in himself, the period might well have been years in length.
Percy was treading hostile ground, and he knew it. Prudence might have counseled him to remain on board the Barracouta while Budge was making his purchases. Instead, he chose to stroll carelessly along the main street. At a corner he passed a group of small boys, who recognized him at once.
"It's the fresh guy Jabe licked on the Fourth," he heard one mutter in a low tone. "Let's have some fun with him!"
"Sh!" exclaimed another. "Jabe's over in Talcott's grocery. We'll get 'em together again!"
Never interrupting his leisurely saunter, Percy passed out of hearing. But his heart was beating a little quicker and he was conscious of a tightening of nerves and muscles. Weeks of secret, painstaking preparation were drawing to a climax.
Half-turning his head, he saw a barefooted urchin dash across the street and into a store on the other side. Percy began to whistle cheerfully as he strode along, alive to all that was taking place behind him. Crossing the street, he was able to glance back without appearing to do so; and he was just in time to see a stout, freckle-faced, bullet-headed youth shoot out of the store and come hurrying after him, with an eager crowd of small fry trailing behind.
Still feigning unconsciousness of the approaching peril, Percy proceeded, whistling blithely. Through a gap between two buildings he had caught sight of a barn standing alone, some distance ahead and well to one side of the main street; its door was open, revealing a broad stretch of empty floor. He quickened his pace, and presently turned down the short street leading to the structure. Jabe and his retinue were less than fifty yards behind, and gaining rapidly. As Percy turned the corner they broke into a run.
At that same instant young Whittington also began to sprint at top speed; and he kept up this pace as long as he felt sure the building on the corner concealed him from his pursuers. The second the sound of their approaching feet became audible he dropped into his former gait. He was now almost opposite the open door of the barn.
His ears told him that Jabe and his crew had also swung into the cross-street.
"Hey, there!" shouted a voice, roughly.
Percy halted at once and wheeled about with affected surprise. A side glance into the barn told that its mows were well filled and that its floor was strewn with hayseed. Standing at ease, he awaited the approach of his foes.
Jabe dashed up on the run. Five feet from Percy he came to a sudden stop and pushed his bulldog jaw out belligerently.
"Well," he growled, scowling darkly, "I've got you at last just where I want you. You can't cry baby now and run to that big, black-haired fellow. I'm going to lick you good!"
Percy stared at his enemy in mild wonder.
"What for?" he queried, innocently.
But the outward calm of his tones and manner did not betray, even remotely, what was going on beneath. His heart was pumping like an engine, the blood coursed hotly through his arteries, and all over his body his wiry muscles had tensed and knotted. Nine weeks of vigorous life in the open, combined with systematic exercise, taken with the possibility in view of some time squaring his account with Jabe, had made of him an antagonist that even an older, heavier boy might well hesitate to tackle.
Of all this Jabe was ignorant. He saw before him the same fellow he had mastered on the evening of the Fourth, a little browner and clearer-eyed, possibly a little straighter and stouter, but still the same foe his fist had sent to the ground. Jabe knew of no reason why he could not easily repeat his victory, and he burned to do so in the presence of his admirers. Percy's harmless query roused him to unreasoning anger.
"What for?" he mimicked. "What for? Why, because I always intend to finish what I begin; and I had you only half-licked when they pulled me off. Now I'm going to polish you up to the queen's taste. Hustle into that barn!"
Percy allowed himself to be herded through the open door; it might have been noticed, however, that he was careful not to turn his back to Jabe, and that he stepped springily, with his feet well apart. Once inside, he slid his sole over the hayseed that covered the floor; it was no slipperier than the carpet of needles in that glade of the evergreens where he had practised daily with his improvised punching-bag since the second week in July. A quick glance about photographed on his brain the details of the arena in which he was so soon to play the gladiator.
Jabe misunderstood the glance, and it increased his eagerness to begin the fray.
"Afraid, are you?" he sneered. "Looking for some way out? Well, there isn't any besides this door. Line up across it, boys, and trip him if he tries to bolt before I get through with him. The rat's cornered at last, and now he's got to fight. Peel off that coat, Mister! Move quick. I don't want to stop here all day!"
Percy deliberately drew off the garment, folded it into a neat bundle, and laid it, with his cap, on a barrel in a corner of the floor. He had on a closely fitting black jersey, trousers held up by a belt, and rubber-soled tennis sneakers. This costume was not accidental. It had been donned that morning with an eye to possibilities and in accordance with previous solitary rehearsals. Thus far, events could not have suited him better if he had planned them.
His deliberate motions increased Jabe's anger.
"You'll move faster than that when I get after you," he sneered, "or it'll be over so quick that there won't be any fun in it. Now put up your fists, for I'm going to lick you within an inch of your life! Guard that door, boys!"
His grinning satellites lined up across the opening, two deep, eyes and mouths wide open. In the front rank Percy recognized the imp who had burnt his coat, Jabe's brother, whose chastisement had started the trouble. The lad was dancing up and down with pleasurable anticipation.
"Lick him, Jabe!" he shrilled. "Lick him, Jabe!"
Swinging his clenched fists windmill fashion, Jabe made a savage rush across the echoing floor. Percy waited until his foe was almost upon him, then agilely leaped to one side. Carried on by the momentum of his charge, Jabe swept by and smashed against the wooden partition with a violence that set the hayseed sifting down from the loaded mow. Whirling about, he came back with increased rage.
The boys yelled encouragement to their champion, their voices blending in a chorus, topped by his brother's high-keyed falsetto:
"Lick him, Jabe! Lick him, Jabe!"
Baffled in his first attempt, Jabe needed no applause to incite him to his best efforts. His fists rose and fell like flails as he spurned the flooring in a second onslaught upon his nimble foe. Again Percy, standing motionless until his assailant was almost within arm's-length, avoided his attack; and again Jabe brought up against the other wall with a force that made the boards rattle.
Percy stood untouched a few feet away, smiling slightly, as his opponent gathered himself for another rush. The sight of his enemy, cool and unruffled, made Jabe furious.
"Why don't you fight, you coward?" he cried. "If only I can reach you just once, it'll be all over!"
He hurled himself forward like a missile from a catapult. His right fist grazed Percy's cheek. Roused from his policy of inaction, Percy shot in a stinging blow that found its mark under Jabe's right ear and sent him staggering. The fight was now fairly on.
To and fro across the slippery hayseed the antagonists battled, raising a cloud of dust. The floor echoed hollowly under their quick tread.
From the outset Percy knew that he had not a single sympathizer. But instead of discouraging him, that fact nerved him to do his utmost. He kept himself well in hand and did not waste an effort. If he could continue to side-step Jabe's quick rushes, and let the latter tire himself out, the fight was as good as won.
It was a very different battle from that on July 4th. Jabe was as good as before, but no better; while Percy had improved at least a hundred per cent.; he had more skill and his nerves and muscles were far stronger. His rubber soles, too, gave him an advantage that he was not slow to improve. They assured him firm footing on the slippery floor and enabled him to turn quickly, as without trying to strike he contented himself with eluding Jabe's mad charges and sledge-hammer blows.
The audience that blocked the door had grown silent. Things were not going according to schedule. After the first few rushes they had realized that their hero was getting the worst of the encounter.
Ten minutes had gone by. Jabe was breathing hard, while Percy was fresh as ever. His cool smile maddened his antagonist and made him less skilful. In one of his onsets he had slammed his doubled fist against the wooden partition and split his knuckles; the pain and the running blood made him wild with rage.
Confident at first of easy victory, he had finally realized that Percy was playing with him, that he had met his master in the boxing-game. His face had shown in turn anger, surprise, alarm, and at last positive fear. But one thought possessed his mind, to win at any cost, by fair means or foul. His rushes, which had slackened, grew more violent. He came at Percy head down; he tried to crowd him into a corner, to throw his arms around him, to overpower him by sheer, brute strength.
Percy realized that in a rough-and-tumble he would be no match for Jabe. In legitimate boxing he had shown himself his foe's superior; and he was not particularly anxious to emphasize that fact by blacking Jabe's eyes or "bloodying" his nose. He would have been willing to let the matter stand where it was or allow Jabe to wear himself fruitlessly down to exhaustion. But such a course was neither feasible nor safe. Jabe would never voluntarily acknowledge that he was beaten. Besides, there was always the chance of something happening to put Percy at his mercy; and Percy knew only too well what that mercy would be.
His only safety was to force a clear-cut decision.
"It's a case of knock-out," he decided. "No use to bruise him up. Might as well have it over quick!"
Savagely, though somewhat wearily, yet with undaunted determination, Jabe rushed him and struck out with his left. For the first time in the battle Percy launched in with all his strength. He cross-countered with his right on the point of Jabe's jaw.
It was the wind-up. Jabe hit the hayseed in a heap. For a few seconds he lay motionless, then struggled to a sitting position.
"Got enough?" asked Percy.
Jabe took the count.
"I'm licked," he acknowledged; and there were tears in his voice.
"Can I do anything for you?"
"No; I'll be all right in a little while."
Percy put on his coat and cap and started toward the door. As he passed Jabe the latter stretched out his hand.
"You can fight," he conceded, grudging admiration in his tones.
Percy grasped the bunch of stubby fingers.
"So can you," he returned. "If you'd been to the masters I've had, I wouldn't care to mix it with you."
The boys opened a way for him respectfully as he passed through the door. He was breathing a little quicker than usual, but he had not received a scratch. Going back to the wharf where they had landed, he found that Budge had been waiting for him almost fifteen minutes.
"What makes you so late, Perce?" he hailed. "We want to ship these groceries and start for Tarpaulin before noon."
Percy began passing the boxes and bags down aboard the dory.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," he apologized. "But I've just been settling an account with an old friend."
Then he told Lane of his encounter with Jabe.
"Now," continued he, "I'll tell you why I've been up into the woods every afternoon with that sweater of rockweed. I made it into a tight bundle and hung it on a springy limb to use for a punching-bag. It wasn't very ornamental, but it served the purpose. I've been training for this fight ever since the Fourth; had a feeling I'd get another chance at him. It's over now, and I hope everybody's satisfied. I am, at any rate."
"So that's the reason of your daily pilgrimages," laughed Lane. "You certainly have been faithful enough to deserve to win. But what if you'd never run across Jabe again? Wouldn't you have felt that you'd thrown away your time?"
"Not a bit of it! That bout every afternoon has kept me in first-class shape. But now the great event has come off, I'm going to break training and give the rockweed a rest."
The Barracouta was back at Tarpaulin before three o'clock. A remark dropped by Budge roused the curiosity of the others, and Percy was obliged once more to recount the story of his fight with Jabe.
"Well," said Jim, when he had finished, "they say a patient waiter is no loser; but I guess it depends a good deal on how you spend your time while you're waiting—eh, Perce?"
That night, after dark, when the boys were preparing to turn in, Filippo stepped out to the fish-house for some kindling. He came back on the run.
"Fuoco!" he panted.
The others trooped out hastily. On the southern horizon flamed a ruddy light. Spurling gave a cry of alarm.
"Boys, it's a vessel on fire!"
Touched by the live wire of human sympathy, Camp Spurling came wide awake in an instant. Out there, four miles to the south, men were perhaps battling for their lives. Jim issued his orders like bullets.
"Come on, boys! We'll take the Barracouta. Fetch a five-gallon can of gas from the fish-house, Perce! Budge and Throppy, launch that dory!"
Dashing into the cabin, he quickly reappeared.
"Thought I'd better get one of those first-aid packets! Somebody may be burnt bad. Now, fellows! Lively!"
The dory was barely afloat when Percy came staggering down the beach with the heavy can. Spurling swung it aboard, and all but Filippo jumped in.
"Start your fire again!" shouted back Jim to the Italian. "Make some coffee! And be sure to have plenty of hot water! We may need it."
Soon the sloop was under way and heading out of the cove.
"Lucky you thought of that fresh can of gas, Jim," said Budge. "The tank's pretty near empty. We'd have been in a nice fix if the engine had stopped about a mile south of the island."
"Take the tiller, Perce!" ordered Spurling.
Vaulting up out of the standing-room, he grasped the port shroud and fastened his eyes on the fiercely blazing vessel. The flames had run up her masts and rigging, and she stood out a lurid silhouette against the black horizon. It was evident that she was doomed.
"She's gone!" was Jim's comment as he dropped back into the standing-room. "Hope her crew got off all right. There isn't much we can do to help; but at any rate we ought to go out and tow in her boats."
"What is she? Fisherman?" asked Throppy.
"Most likely! And not a very big one. Shouldn't wonder if she'd had a gas explosion in her cabin; I've heard of a good many such cases. Hope nobody's been burnt bad!"
There were a few minutes of silence as they gazed on the spectacle of destruction. The Barracouta, driven to her utmost, steadily lessened the distance. Brighter and larger grew the fire; every detail on the fated craft stood sharply out against the pitchy background.
"Here come two boats!" exclaimed Lane.
Sure enough, they were clearly visible, more than two miles off, rising and falling on the swell, their oars flashing in the light from the conflagration. The crew had abandoned the hopeless fight and were saving themselves.
"Keep her straight for 'em, Perce!" directed Jim.
Whittington obeyed. Soon the Barracouta was within hailing distance of the dories. In the now diminishing light from the distant fire the boys could see that both were crowded with dark figures.
"Must be at least twenty-five aboard the two," commented Stevens.
"Yes," returned Spurling. "These fishermen carry big crews. Ahoy there! What's the name of your vessel?"
"The Clementine Briggs, of Gloucester," replied a man in the bow of the foremost dory. "Running in to Boothbay from Cashe's with a load of herring. The gas exploded and set her on fire. We tried to put it out, but it was no use. Just got clear with our lives and what we stood in."
"Couple of men got their faces burnt, but not very bad. Lucky it was no worse. But the old schooner's gone. Pretty tough on Captain Sykes, here, for he owned most of her and didn't have much insurance. Fisherman's luck!"
"Want a tow in to the island?"
"Well, toss us your painter, and tell the other boat to make fast to your stern."
In a very short time the Barracouta was headed back for Tarpaulin, with the two heavily loaded dories trailing behind her. Delayed by her tow, she moved considerably slower than when coming out. A strange silence hung over the two dories. For fishermen, their crews were unusually quiet, sobered, evidently, by the catastrophe that had overtaken their schooner.
"Wouldn't those men who were burnt like to come aboard the sloop?" inquired Spurling. "Perhaps I can give 'em first aid."
"No," returned the spokesman. "One of 'em's Captain Sykes, here in this dory with the handkerchief over his face. He isn't suffering much, but his cheeks got scorched, so I'm talking for him. The other man is in the next boat. The only thing for 'em to do is to grin and bear it; but just now they're not grinning much, 'specially the captain."
Silence again. The sullen, red blaze on the distant vessel was dying down against the horizon. The flames had stripped her to a skeleton. Her hempen running rigging had been consumed; sails, gaffs, and booms lay smoldering on her decks; above the hull only her masts and bowsprit were outlined in fire against the blackness behind.
Lacking anything better to do, Jim began counting the men in the dories. He made thirteen in each. Most of them sat like graven images, neither speaking nor stirring. They had not even turned their heads to look at the perishing schooner. He could not understand such indifference to the fate of the craft that had been their home.
Sprowl's Cove was right ahead. Filippo opened the cabin door and stood framed within it, the light behind him casting a cheery glow down the beach. Louder and louder the bank behind the lagoon flung back the staccato of the exhaust. Presently the sloop nosed into the haven, the engine stopped, and Throppy went forward to gaff the mooring.
The dories were cast off and rowed to the beach. By the time the boys got ashore all the men had landed. Jim, who had been watching them quietly, noted that most of them disembarked clumsily, more like landlubbers than sailors. They separated into two groups of very unequal size. One, numbering six, including the men with handkerchiefs over their burnt faces, withdrew from the others and began to talk in low tones, with earnest, excited gestures. The remaining twenty clotted loosely together, awkward and ill at ease, still preserving their mysterious silence.
Before Jim had time to offer his unexpected guests anything to eat or drink, Filippo bustled hospitably down the beach to the larger group.
"Will you have caffe? It is hot and eccellente."
They stared at him without replying. By the light from the open door Jim could see that they were dressed like landsmen and that their clothes did not fit well. Their faces were darkish, they had flat noses, and their close-cropped hair was straight and black.
Before Filippo could repeat his question a man from the smaller group hurried up and pushed himself abruptly between the silent score and their questioner.
"No!" said he, brusquely. "We don't want anything. We had supper just before the fire."
His tone and attitude forbade further questioning. Filippo, abashed by the rebuff, returned rather shamefacedly to the cabin. The speaker remained with the group, as if to protect them from further approaches. To Jim his attitude seemed to be almost that of a guard. It deepened the mystery that already hung about the party.
It was now past eight o'clock, and naturally some provision would soon have to be made for passing the night. Jim pondered. Twenty-six guests would prove a severe tax on their already cramped accommodations. Still, the thing could be arranged; it must be. The smaller group of six could be taken into the camp. Six of the silent twenty could be stowed away aboard the sloop; while the remaining fourteen must make what shift they could in the fish-house. Jim proposed this plan to the sentinel.
The man disapproved flatly.
"No!" was his decided reply. "We've got to get away to-night."
"To-night?" echoed Jim in amazement. "Why, man alive, you can't do that! It's fifteen miles to Matinicus, and you're loaded so deep it'd take you almost until morning to row there. And even if you made it all right, you wouldn't gain anything, for the boat for Rockland doesn't leave until the first of the afternoon. Besides, this wind's liable to blow up a storm. Of course you could row ten miles north to Head Harbor on Isle au Haut, walk up the island, and catch the morning boat for Stonington; but you'd have to pull most of the way against the ebb, and when this wind gets a little stronger it's going to be pretty choppy. I wouldn't want to risk it. Better stop with us to-night and let us make you as comfortable as we can; and to-morrow you can start for any place you please."
The man shook his head stubbornly.
"How far is it to the mainland?" he asked.
Jim could hardly believe his ears.
"The mainland!" he exclaimed. "A good twenty-five miles."
"Well, we've got to be there before morning."
"You're crazy, man! Twenty-five miles across these waters in the night, with thirteen men in each dory! You'd never make it in the world. You can't do it."
"Well, maybe we can't," retorted the other, impatiently, "but we're going to. There's more ways to kill a cat than by choking her to death with cream."
He walked back to the smaller group, and soon they were in heated, but indistinct, argument. Jim noted that the men with handkerchiefs over their faces seemed now to have no difficulty in bearing their share of the conversation. Captain Sykes, in especial, was almost violent in his gestures.
Presently they seemed to have reached an agreement. The spokesman walked back to Jim and came directly to the point.
"What'll you take to set the crowd of us over on the mainland near Owl's Head before daylight?"
Jim was equally direct.
"No number of dollars you can name. I don't care to risk my boat and twenty-five or thirty lives knocking round the Penobscot Bay ledges on a night like this. But I'll be glad to take you all over to Matinicus to-morrow for nothing."
"That won't do. We've got to reach the mainland to-night. I'll give you fifty dollars. Come, now!"
Jim shook his head.
"Seventy-five! No? A hundred, then! What d'you say?"
"No use!" replied Jim. "I told you so at first."
The stranger eyed him a moment, then stepped aside to parley again with the others. The colloquy was even more spirited than before. Captain Sykes swung his arms like a crazy man. He pointed to the sky, then to the sea, then to the voiceless score, huddled together, sheep-like, on the beach. Back came the speaker again, a nervous decision in his manner.
"If you won't set us over yourself, what'll you sell that sloop for? Give you two hundred dollars!"
Reading refusal in the lad's face, he raised the bid before Jim had time to open his lips.
"Three hundred! We've some passengers who must get to a certain place at a particular time, and they can't do it unless we can land 'em before daylight to-morrow. Say four hundred!"
"That sloop isn't for sale."
"Wouldn't you take five hundred for her?"
"No; nor a thousand!"
Jim's jaws came together. Back in his brain was forming a suspicion of these fishermen who raised their bid so glibly. Why were they so eager to reach the mainland that night, and why did the twenty have no voice in the discussion? He scrutinized them searchingly.
"What are you staring at?" demanded the man, angrily.
Jim did not reply. Percy passed by on his way to the cabin. He had been using his eyes to good advantage. He nudged Jim.
"Those fellows are Chinamen," he whispered. "I've seen too many of 'em to be mistaken."
His words crystallized Jim's suspicions into certainty. The whole thing was plain now. The crew of the Clementine Briggs (if, indeed, that was her name) were no fishermen, but smugglers of Chinese!
He remembered a recent magazine article on the breaking of the immigration laws. Chinamen would cross the Pacific to Vancouver, paying the Dominion head-tax, and thus gaining admission into Canada. A society, organized for the purpose, would take them in charge, teach them a few ordinary English phrases, transport them to New Brunswick, and slip them aboard some fast schooner. The captain of this vessel would receive three hundred dollars a head for landing his passengers safely here and there at lonely points on the New England coast, whence they could make their way undetected to their friends in the large cities. Thus were the exclusion laws of the United States set at naught.
The destruction of the schooner had made it necessary for her passengers to be landed somewhere as secretly and as quickly as possible. Twenty men at three hundred dollars a head meant six thousand dollars. That explained the anxiety of the six white men to reach the mainland that night. They were criminals, breaking their country's laws for money.
Jim decided that they should never make use of the Barracouta.
The spokesman dropped his conciliatory mask and turned away defiantly.
"All right, young fellow! You've had your say; now we'll have ours."
"Throppy," said Jim in a low tone to Stevens, who was standing with Lane beside him, "these men are smugglers. Call the cutter!"
He had time for nothing more. As Stevens slipped quietly back into the cabin there was an angry outburst among the group on the beach.
"I've done my best, Cap," protested a voice. "He won't listen to reason. Now take that rag off your face and handle this thing yourself. It's up to you."
There was a sudden rush of enraged men toward Lane and Spurling. As they came, two wrenched the handkerchiefs from their faces, revealing to the astounded boys the features of the would-be sheep-thieves of the first of the summer, Dolph and Captain Bart Brittler!
The latter was white with rage. His voice rose almost to a screech.
"No more fooling! We need that sloop and we're going to have her! Will you sell her?"
"Then we'll take her!"
Brittler's hand shot into his pocket as if for a revolver.
"Stop there, Cap!" warned Dolph's voice. "No gun-play! 'Tisn't necessary. We can handle 'em."
He flung himself suddenly on Spurling; another man leaped upon Lane. Though taken completely by surprise and almost hurled backward, Jim quickly recovered his balance. A sledge-hammer blow from Dolph's fist grazed his jaw as he sprang aside. He returned it with interest, his right going true to its mark; down went Dolph, as if hit by a pile-driver. He lay for a moment, stunned.
Strong and active though Jim was, he could not bear the brunt of the entire battle. Lane's assailant had proved too much for him; they were struggling together on the gravel, the older man on top. Percy and Filippo came running; but their aid counted for little. A stocky smuggler turned toward them. A single blow from his fist sent the Italian reeling. Percy lasted longer; but his skill was no match for the brute strength of his foe. His lighter blows only stung his antagonist to fiercer efforts. Little by little the boy's strength failed and his breath came harder. He slipped on a smooth stone; with a sudden rush his foe pinioned his arms and held him struggling.
Dolph recovered, staggered to his feet, and entered the fray again. It was four to one against Jim; he fought manfully, but it was no use. Presently he lay flat on his back on the gravel, bruised and panting, one man kneeling on each arm, and a third on his chest.
"Take him up to the camp, boys!" puffed Brittler.
The doughty captain had not escaped unscathed. A swollen black eye and a bleeding nose bore eloquent testimony to the force and accuracy of Jim's blows. A guard on each side and another behind were soon propelling Spurling toward the open door. From within came the ceaseless click of a telegraph instrument. Throppy was still calling the cutter. Jim heard the quick patter of the continental code; Brittler heard it, too, and understood. He sprang forward with a shout of alarm.
"They've got a wireless! Smash it!"
A buffet on the side of the head knocked Stevens off his soap-box and sent him rolling on the floor. Five seconds later a crashing blow from a stick of firewood put the instrument out of commission. Brittler poised his club threateningly over the prostrate Stevens.
"Wish I knew if you've been able to get a message through to anybody! If I thought you had—"
He did not finish, but half-raised the stick, then dropped it again and turned away. One by one the remaining members of Spurling & Company were bundled unceremoniously into the cabin. Then the door was slammed shut and two men with automatics were stationed on guard outside.
"Don't shoot unless you have to," instructed Brittler's voice, purposely raised. "And remember a bullet in the leg'll stop a man just as quick as one through the body."
And then in a tone lower, but perfectly audible to those inside:
"But don't stand any fooling! Stop 'em anyway! You know as well as I do how much we've got at stake."
Defeated and imprisoned in their own camp, the boys faced one another dazedly. Though none of the five had suffered serious injury in the scuffle, all were more or less bruised. Lane had a slight cut where the back of his head had come in contact with a sharp stone on the beach; and a swelling on Jim's right cheek told where the hard fist of one of his assailants had landed.
Outside, the two guards conversed in low tones; but for a few minutes no one spoke or moved in the cabin. The boys sat on the boxes or had thrown themselves into their bunks. Elbow on table, chin resting in palm, Jim was buried in thought. In a short time, he knew, Brittler and his gang would sail away in the Barracouta. They would land their human cargo and probably scuttle the sloop. Somehow they must be thwarted; but how?
The boys had no weapons to match those of their armed guard. Without ammunition, the shot-gun was but a bar of iron. How could they cope with the bullets in the automatics? Undoubtedly every smuggler carried a revolver, and would use it in a pinch; possibly some might not wait until the pinch came. It was a knotty problem. The drops oozed out on Jim's forehead as he wrestled for its solution.
A low whistle fell on his ear. He glanced toward Percy's bunk and saw the latter's hand raised in warning; he was taking off his shoes, quickly and noiselessly. Why? Jim and the others watched.
Soon Percy stood in his stocking feet. He pulled out his knife and opened the large blade. Stooping low, he stole toward the farther end of the cabin. The window there was open and covered with mosquito netting.
Steps grated on the pebbles outside. One of the guards was making a circuit of the camp. Percy flattened himself on the floor directly beneath the window. The others, hardly daring to breathe, looked away. The man paused for a moment; Jim knew that he was peering in. Apparently satisfied that all was well, he resumed his patrol.
Without delay Percy rose. He drew his knife along the netting near the sill, then cut it from top to bottom on each side, close to the frame. So skilfully did the keen blade do its work that the screen hung apparently undisturbed.
The guards began talking again. Placing one of the boxes silently under the window, and stepping upon it, Percy slipped through the opening. His light build enabled him to drop to the ground without making any noise. The netting fell back and hung as before.
Outside, it was thick fog; a slight drizzle was beginning. It was impossible to see further than a few feet. But the last two months had familiarized Percy with every square yard of the beach, and he could have found his way along it blindfold. Cat-footed, he stole down toward the water.
Steps approached, voices; he halted, ready for a hasty retreat. But the feet receded toward the cabin, and he had no difficulty in recognizing the tones of Dolph and Brittler. The latter was in a bad humor.
"Now," he growled, "we've got a long way to go, and none too much time. Every minute we waste here means just so much off the other end. Granted we reach the mainland all right, we'll have to hustle to slip those Chinks under cover before daylight. You'd better round 'em up in that fish-house, so none of 'em'll stray away and keep us from starting the second the sloop's ready. We've got to make sure there's plenty of gas aboard, as well as a compass and chart. I'll see if I can scare up a couple of lanterns."
The two separated, Dolph evidently going to look after the Chinese, while Brittler kept on toward the cabin. Percy stood stock-still, his heart thumping. Would the captain discover his absence?
"How's everything here, boys?" hailed Brittler.
"All quiet," replied one of the sentries.
"Come inside with me, Herb, so these fellows won't try any funny business."
The door opened. Percy felt a thrill of fear. How could they fail to notice there were only four prisoners in the camp?
But their captors evidently had not the least suspicion that he had escaped. Probably they thought he was lying in one of the bunks. He could hear the voices of Brittler and Jim, the one questioning, angry, and menacing, the other tantalizingly deliberate as he grudgingly gave the information demanded. Percy delayed no longer. He had his own work to do, and it demanded all his energy.
Down he stole to the water's edge, then followed it west until he reached a sloping rock. The Barracouta, he knew, was moored not fifty feet out in the black fog.
Without hesitating a second Percy waded in, and soon was swimming quietly toward the sloop. He had not dared to take one of the boats, for fear the grating of her keel on the beach or the sound of her oars might betray him. He cleft the water noiselessly, and it was not long before he grasped the Barracouta's bobstay and hoisted himself aboard.
Dropping down the companionway, he groped forward through the cabin to the little door leading into the bow, and crept in on hands and knees. His fingers found what he wanted, an opening between two planks, where a leak had been freshly calked with oakum. He dug this out with his knife-point, and the water began spurting in.
Backing out and closing the door, he found a wrench in the tool-box and began fumbling about the engine. Soon the spark-plugs were unscrewed and in his pocket.
"And there's a good job done!" he thought, triumphantly. "Guess that gang of blacklegs won't get very far in the Barracouta to-night!"
Voices on the shore. Dolph and Brittler were coming with a lantern; a blur of light brightened through the fog.
"The compass and chart are aboard," came the captain's voice, "and this can of gas'll be enough to make us sure of striking the mainland. Launch that dory!"
The dip of oars and an increasing brightness told that the boat was approaching. It would not do for Percy to be detected. Lowering himself from the port bow into the water, he clung to the bobstay.
"They won't see me here!"
Bump! The dory struck the sloop and grated along her side. Dolph and Brittler clambered aboard and descended into the cabin.
"Here's the chart!" exclaimed the captain. "And the compass, too! He told the truth about them, at any rate."
"Lucky for him!" rejoined Dolph. "I don't like that big fellow worth a cent."
"Good reason!" was the captain's rather sarcastic comment.
"You haven't any license to joke me about that knockdown, Bart Brittler! I noticed you weren't in any hurry to mix it with him."
There was a moment of silence.
"What's that?" cried the captain, suddenly. "Sounds like water running in! Hope the old scow isn't leaking. Let's have that lantern!"
Through the thin planking Percy could hear him open the little door and crawl up into the bow. Then his faint, muffled voice reached the eagerly listening boy.
"There's a bad leak here! Come in a minute!"
Into Percy's brain flashed a sudden idea that left him trembling with excitement. Could he do it? If he tried, he must not fail. An instant resolution set him dragging himself toward the stern.
Clutching the rim of the wash-board, he flung up one leg, caught his toe, and raised himself, dripping. A moment later he was in the standing-room.
He looked down into the cabin. The light of the lantern, shining round a body that almost filled the little door to the bow, showed a pair of legs backing out.
The die was cast. It was too late now for Percy to withdraw. His only safety lay in action.
Like lightning he slammed and hooked the double doors of the companionway, pulled the slide over, and snapped the padlock. Dolph and Brittler were prisoners on board the Barracouta!
There was a moment of surprised silence. Then bedlam broke out below, a confused, smothered shouting, a violent thumping on the closed doors and slide. But Percy gave it no heed. Thus far his plan had succeeded, even beyond his expectations. But his work was only begun. Before it should be finished, four men on shore must be overcome.
Aquiver with excitement, he sprang into the dory and quickly rowed to the beach, some distance from the camp. Then he leaped out with the oars and carried them well up on the shingle.
The other dory of the smugglers was, he remembered, almost exactly in front of the cabin. Skirting the water, he soon came plump upon the boat. He felt inside, found the oars, and gave one after the other a shove out into the cove. Barely had he done this when hurrying steps approached. One of the guards from the camp was coming to investigate the tumult on the Barracouta.
He passed so close to the dory beside which Percy was crouching that the boy could almost have touched him. Luckily he had no lantern. Percy hardly dared to breathe until the man was twenty feet past.
"What's the trouble out there?" he shouted.
If the two on the sloop heard him at all, they made no intelligible reply. The tumult and thumping kept on. Not waiting to see whether or not the sentinel would succeed in establishing communication with his marooned companions, Percy ran silently up the beach. Making a broad circuit, he approached the cabin from behind.
Through the open window he could see his mates, listening with parted lips to the hubbub outside. He attracted Jim's attention by tossing in a pebble. Spurling sauntered leisurely toward the rear of the cabin. His precautions were needless; the remaining sentry had concentrated his whole attention on the uproar in the cove.
"Jim," whispered Percy, hurriedly, "I'm going to jump that guard. You and Budge stand close to the door. The second you hear any fracas rush out and take hold with me. Stop him from shouting, if you can."
Jim nodded and stepped back from the window. Percy crept stealthily round the camp toward the fish-house. He rightly inferred that the smuggler would be gazing down the beach toward the invisible sloop.
A well-oiled clock could not have worked more smoothly. The sentry's thoughts were focused on what was taking place out there in the fog, and he was all unconscious of the peril that menaced him in the rear.
Suddenly out of the blackness behind him a lithe figure shot like a wildcat. One arm encircled the neck of the astounded guard, the hand pressing tightly over his mouth. The other hand caught his right wrist and twisted it backward, causing him to drop his revolver. The force of the attack flung him flat on his face.
Before he could even struggle the door was wrenched open and two figures darted out and joined in the melee. It was soon over. Three to one are heavy odds. The sentry, gagged and securely bound, was hustled inside the cabin. His hat, overcoat, and automatic were appropriated for Jim Spurling, who took his place. So skilfully had the coup been conducted under cover of the disturbance in the cove that none of the other smugglers had taken the slightest alarm.
Spurling assumed his post none too soon. Hardly had the door been closed, with Lane, Stevens, and Percy on the alert just inside, when the other guard came hurrying anxiously back. He had been unable to fathom the meaning of the tumult on the Barracouta.
"I don't like this at all, Herb," growled he as he drew near Jim. "Dolph and the skipper have gotten into some kind of a scrape, but what the trouble is I can't figure. I'd have gone out to them in the other dory, but I couldn't find any oars. We'd better call Shane and Parsons away from guarding those Chinks and decide what it's best to do. We don't know the lay of the land here, and any mistake's liable to be expensive."
By the time he had finished his remarks he was close to Spurling. The latter's silence apparently roused his suspicions. He stopped short.
He got no further. Jim's left hand was over his mouth and Jim's right grasped his right wrist. Out burst reinforcements from the camp. It was a repetition of the case of the first sentinel, only more so. Presently Number Two lay on the cabin floor beside his comrade, unable to speak or move. Jim was a good hand at tying knots.
The five boys gathered in a corner and took account of stock. Two of the six white men prisoners; two others marooned on the sloop and hors du combat, at least temporarily; two still at large and in a condition to do mischief, but at present entirely ignorant of the plight of their comrades. Two automatics captured, and the dories of the foe useless from lack of oars. Best of all, the boys themselves free and practically masters of the situation. Matters showed a decided improvement over what they had been a half-hour before.
But the victory was as yet incomplete and Jim was too good a general to lose the battle from over-confidence. At any minute Dolph and Brittler might burst their way out through the double doors of the Barracouta and establish communication with the two men guarding the Chinese. So once more the trap was set and baited. Roger put on the hat and coat of the second sentry and joined Jim on guard.
Crash! Crash! Crash! A succession of heavy, splintering blows, echoing over the cove, announced that the pair imprisoned on the sloop had at last discovered some means of battering their way to freedom.
Speech, low but intense, came floating over the water. The smugglers were out and evidently looking for their dory. Baffled in their search, they began shouting.
"Hilloo-oo! On shore! Shane! Parsons! Herb! Terry! Are you all dead? Come out and take us off! Somebody's scuttled the sloop and locked us down in the cabin! Just wait till we get ashore! We'll fix those boys! Ahoy there! Our boat's gone! Come and get us!"
Jim pressed Roger's arm.
"Ready! Here comes one of 'em!"
Somebody was running toward them from the fish-house. A black figure suddenly loomed up, close at hand.
"What's the trouble out there, Herb? Dolph and the cap are yelling like stuck pigs! Hear 'em! Guess I'd better go out to 'em in the other dory, don't you think? Shane can handle the Chinos—"
His voice shut off in a terrified gurgle. A strong hand forcibly sealed his lips and two pairs of muscular arms held him powerless, while Percy, darting from the cabin with a coil of rope, relieved him of his automatic and tied him firmly under Jim's whispered directions. Soon he, too, lay beside his comrades.
"Shut the door a minute, Filippo!" ordered Jim. "Now," he continued, briskly, "I guess we've got 'em coppered. We'll do up that man in the fish-house in short order. By the way, Throppy, did you raise the cutter before the captain smashed your instrument?"
"Don't know," answered Stevens. "I was so busy calling for help that I didn't wait for any reply."
"We'll know before midnight," said Jim. "Take Parsons's automatic, Perce, and come along with Budge and myself. Throppy, you stay here with Filippo and help guard these fellows."
He glanced at the sullen three lying bound on the floor.
"Don't look as if they could make much trouble. Still, it's better for somebody to keep an eye on 'em."
Jim, Budge, and Percy stepped out and closed the door. The shouting from the Barracouta kept on with undiminished vigor. Appeals and threats jostled one another in the verbal torrent.
"Let 'em yell themselves hoarse," whispered Jim. "It won't do 'em any good."
The fish-house was near. A lighted lantern hung just inside the open door. Near it stood the fourth smuggler, peering anxiously out; behind him huddled the Chinamen. He gave an exclamation of relief as he saw Jim's figure approaching through the fog.
He stopped short, frozen with surprise, at the sight of the three boys. Swiftly his hand darted toward his left coat pocket.
"None of that, Shane!" commanded Jim, sharply. "Put 'em up!"
The three automatics in the boys' hands showed the guard that resistance was useless. He obeyed sulkily.
"Feel in his pocket, Perce, and take his revolver! No, the other side! He's left-handed."
Percy secured the weapon. Escorting Shane to the camp, they soon had him safely trussed. Brittler was bellowing like a mad bull.
"Now for Dolph and the skipper! Guess the three of us are good for 'em!"
Leaving the four smugglers in the custody of Throppy and Filippo, the other boys proceeded down to the water. The shouting suddenly ceased. A rope splashed.
"They've cast off the mooring!" exclaimed Jim.
Another unmistakable sound.
"Now they're rocking the wheel to start her!"
Percy felt for the spark-plugs in his pocket.
"They'll rock it some time!"
They did. At last they stopped. There was a muttered consultation, inaudible to the listening ears on shore.
"Might as well wind the thing up now!" observed Jim in an undertone.
"On board the sloop!" he hailed. "It's all off, Captain! We've got your four men tied up, and we've got their revolvers. You and Dolph might as well give it up. Throw your guns in on the beach, and we'll come out and get you, one at a time!"
A tremendous surprise was voiced by the absolute silence that followed. It was broken by Brittler's sneering voice:
"So we might as well give up, had we, eh? Guess you don't know Bart Brittler, sonny! Let 'em have it, Dolph!"
A fusillade of revolver-shots woke the echoes. The bullets spattered in the water and thudded on the beach. Fortunately no one was hit.
"Scatter, fellows!" shouted Jim. And in a lower voice he added, "Don't fire back!"
Silence again. The two on the sloop were evidently reloading. Then came a regular splashing. The men on the Barracouta were paddling her ashore. Armed and desperate, now fully aware that the only things between themselves and a term in a Federal prison were the bullets in their automatics, they would go to almost any length to escape, even to the taking of life itself. Plainly there was trouble ahead.
The boys came together again at the foot of the sea-wall. Should they fight or run? It was one or the other. Whatever else they might be, Dolph and Brittler clearly were not cowards. If there was a fight, it was certain somebody would be shot, very likely killed. Was the risk worth taking? Would it not be better to hurry back to the cabin, warn Filippo and Throppy, and escape up the bank into the woods? The smugglers, with but two automatics against four, would hardly dare to follow them.
"Way enough, Dolph!" growled Brittler's voice.
The sloop had grounded. Splash! Splash! Her two passengers had leaped out into the water and were making their way to the beach.
Jim came to an instant decision. He opened his lips, but the words he had planned to speak were never uttered. The strong, rhythmical dip of oars suddenly beat through the fog.
"What's the trouble here?" demanded a stern voice.
A great surge of thankfulness almost took away Jim's power of speech.
"It's the cutter!" he ejaculated, chokingly. "Throppy got her, after all!"
So far as the smugglers were concerned the game was up. It was one thing to attempt to overpower a group of boys and appropriate their sloop, but it was quite another to offer armed resistance to the officers of the United States revenue service.
Dolph and Brittler realized that; they realized, too, that they had absolutely no chance of escaping from the island, so they stood sullenly by while Jim told his story to the lieutenant commanding the boat. At the close of his recital the officer turned to them.
"You hear the statements of this young man. What have you to say for yourselves?"
"Nothing now," replied Brittler.
"You may hand over your guns."
The two surrendered their automatics and were placed under arrest. Following Jim's guidance, the lieutenant inspected the captured smugglers in Camp Spurling and the Chinese in the fish-house. Leaving a guard on shore and taking Jim with him, he went off to make his report to the captain.
"It's a case for the United States commissioner at Portland," decided the latter. "We'll have to take the whole party there. Guess you boys had better come along as witnesses. The Pollux was bound east when we picked up your wireless; but this matter is so important that I'm going to postpone that trip for a couple of days. I can bring you and the rest of your party back here early day after to-morrow."
It meant to the boys a loss of only two days at the outside. That was a little thing in comparison with what might have happened if the cutter had not come.
"We'll start without waste of time," resumed the captain. "Lieutenant Stevenson, you may bring the prisoners aboard."
Jim went ashore with the officer to notify his companions and prepare for this unforeseen journey. Eleven o'clock found the Pollux steaming west with her thirty-one additional passengers. The passage was uneventful and they were alongside the wharf in Portland early the next forenoon.
Promptly at two came the hearing before the commissioner. It did not take long. Brittler and his accomplices were held for trial at the next term of court, and the Chinese were taken in charge by the immigration inspector. Before six that night the boys were passing out by Portland Head in the Pollux, bound east. The next morning they landed once more in Sprowl's Cove, and a few hours later they had fallen back into their customary routine, as if smugglers were a thing unknown. The leak in the Barracouta's bow was calked, making her as tight as before.
The following day dawned fiery red and it was evident that a fall storm was brewing. Jim and Percy had to battle with a high sea when they set and pulled their trawl; and they were glad enough to get back to Tarpaulin with their catch. By noon a heavy surf was bombarding the southern shore.
Five o'clock found the gale in full blast. A terrific wind whipped the rain in level sheets over cove and beach and against the low cabin squat on the sea-wall. Great, white-maned surges came rolling in from the ocean to boom thunderously on the ledges round Brimstone. The flying scud made it impossible to see far to windward. It was the worst storm the boys had experienced since they came to the island.
At half past five, after everything had been made snug for the night, they assembled for supper. On the table smoked a heaping platter of fresh tongues and cheeks, rolled in meal and fried brown with slices of salt pork. Another spiderful of the same viands sputtered on the stove. Hot biscuits and canned peaches crowned the repast. Filippo had done himself proud.
A long-drawn blast howled about the cabin.
"Gee!" exclaimed Percy, "but wasn't that a screamer! This is one of the nights you read about. 'The midnight tempest was shrieking furiously round the battlements of the old baronial castle!'"
"Cut it out, Perce, cut it out!" remonstrated Lane. "You make me feel ashamed of myself. It's really unkind in you to air your knowledge of the English classics before such dubs as the rest of us."
"Well, at any rate, I'm glad we're under cover. Wonder if the men who used to go to sea in this cabin enjoyed it anywhere near as much as we have!"
"Not half bad, is it?" said Jim. "Remember how delighted you were when you got your first sight of it, three months ago?"
"I've changed some since then," he admitted. "Forget that, Jim! It's ancient history now."
As he drew up his soap-box his eye dwelt appreciatively on the delicacies in the platter.
"Aren't you other fellows going to eat anything?" he inquired, with mock concern. "I don't see any more than enough for myself on that platter. Don't be so narrow about the food, Filippo!"
The Italian pointed to a pan rounded up with uncooked titbits.
"Good!" said Percy. "I was afraid somebody else might have to go hungry."
All devoted themselves to the contents of their plates. They kept Filippo busy frying until their appetites were satisfied.
Supper was over at last, and the dishes washed and put away. Outside, the storm raged worse than ever. Stevens sat down to his instrument, repaired after its damage by Brittler, and put the receivers over his ears.
"Come on, Throppy!" exhorted Lane. "Don't go calling to-night! Get out of the ether and give some other wireless sharps a look-in! Pull off that harness and take down your violin. Let's make an evening of it! We sha'n't have many more."
Stevens lifted his hands to remove the headpiece. Suddenly a change came over his face and his arms dropped slowly. He gave his mates a warning look. There fell a silence in the cabin. Anxiously the others watched the operator's tense features. Minutes passed.
On a sudden he sprang up and tore off the receivers.
"There's a steamer in trouble outside. Name sounded like Barona. Her engine's disabled and she's drifting. Can't be very far off!"
The boys felt sober.
"It's a hard night for a craft without steerage-way," said Jim. "What's that? Thunder?"
A long, low rumble made itself heard above the storm. It came again, and yet again. The gloom was lighted for a second by a sudden blaze.
"What's that!" exclaimed Jim once more.
Between the thunder-peals his ears had caught a single whip-like crack. A stunning crash followed a lurid glare, lighting up sky and sea. Again came the sharp detonation, but little louder than a fire-cracker. This time all heard it.
Lane's voice was full of excitement. He sprang to the door and the others followed. The gale was blowing squarely against the end of the cabin. So great was its force that Roger had all he could do to push the door open. Presently the five stood outside, exposed to the full fury of the blast. For a few seconds all was black.
"Look! A rocket!"
Up from the pitchy sea southwest of Brimstone shot a line of fire, curving into an arc and bursting aloft in a shower of many-colored balls. At its base were dimly visible two slender masts and a white hull. Almost instantly they vanished; but the boys had seen enough.
"A steam-yacht!" cried Jim. "Not more than a half-mile off Brimstone and drifting straight on the ledges. Looks as if she was a goner!"
"Can't we help her somehow?" asked Percy.
"I'm afraid not. We couldn't drive the sloop against this gale and sea; besides, those rollers would swamp a life-boat. All we can do is to get out on the point and try to save anybody who comes ashore. Put on your oil-clothes, fellows! Light both the lanterns, Percy! Budge, you and Throppy each take one of those spare coils of rope! I'll carry another and the Coston lights. Now I can see why Uncle Tom always insisted on having a couple of 'em in the cabin. Filippo, you'd better stay here, keep up a good fire, and make plenty of coffee. There goes another rocket! The gun, too! I don't blame 'em. Men couldn't be in a worse fix!"
Leaning sidewise against the gale, the little lantern-guided procession trudged along the sea-wall and stumblingly ascended the slippery path to the beacon on Brimstone. Sheltering the oil-soaked kindlings with his body, Jim scratched a match; and in a twinkling long tongues of smoky flame were streaming wildly to leeward.
"Ah! They see us!"
Three rockets in quick succession rose from the yacht, now barely a quarter-mile away. The thunder and lightning were almost continuous. Every flash told that the imperiled craft was steadily drifting nearer the dangerous promontory.
"She'll strike the Grumblers!" muttered Jim. "And that means she's done for! If only she was a thousand feet farther east she'd float by into the cove. Hard luck!"
The Grumblers were a collection of jagged rocks, exposed at low tide. Under the incessant flashes their black heads appeared and disappeared in a welter of frothy white. It was an ominous spectacle for the men on the yacht.
Taking one of the Coston lights, Jim clambered down on the ledges. Soon the warning red glare of the torch, held high above his head, was illumining the rocks and breakers. He held the light aloft until it went out, then rejoined the others.
"They're getting a boat over!" cried Stevens.
Half a dozen men, working with frantic haste, were swinging a tender out to leeward.
"No use!" said Jim, despondently. "She won't live a minute in this sea."
Ten seconds confirmed his prediction. The yacht rolled. As the boat struck the water a giant sea filled her. Then came darkness. The next flash showed the boat drifting bottom up beside the larger craft. Another tender was launched; it survived one sea, but the next overturned it. Still a third boat met with the same fate.
Every surge was heaving the yacht nearer the breakers with dismaying speed. A group of figures gathered amidships. Silently, with pale faces, the boys watched the progress of the doomed craft. She was going to her death. How could any of those on board escape?
Jim threw off his despondency.
"Now, fellows," he cried, "the minute she strikes she'll begin to pound to pieces! Their only chance'll be to run a line ashore. We must get out as far as we can to catch it."
Every billow buried the base of the point in snowy foam and sent the spray flying far up its rugged front. Using the utmost caution, the boys descended to the limit of safety. At the next flash they peered eagerly seaward.
The yacht was almost on the Grumblers! Up she heaved on a high surge, dropped. They caught their breaths. No! Not that time. She rose again.
Down ... down ...
Suddenly she stopped. A grinding crash reached their ears.
"She's struck!" screamed Lane.
A blaze of sheet lightning showed her, careened landward, lying broadside toward them about one hundred feet distant. It was the beginning of the end. Jim, clinging to a boulder far out on the streaming ledges, now showered with spray, now buried waist-deep, was watching every movement of the crew.
"They've made a line fast round the foremast!" he shouted back. "They're going to send its end ashore on a barrel! Watch out!"
Presently the tossing cask was visible, drifting rapidly landward. For the first twenty-five yards its progress was unhindered; then a half-tide ledge barred its way. It hung on this in the trough of a sea; but the next billow swept it over. Before long it was bumping on the rocks almost within Jim's reach.
Watching his chance, he lunged forward and caught it. A crashing surge flung him down heavily and rolled him over and over; but he stuck stoutly to his prize. When the water ran back he came crawling up on his hands and knees, sliding the cask before him.
"Can't stand!" he explained, briefly. "Ankle hurt! Now muckle onto this line, everybody, and haul in! They've got a hawser bent on the other end."
A glance toward the yacht told that he was right. It also told that the peril of her human freight was greater than ever. Each sea, raising her slightly, dropped her back with her decks at a sharper angle toward the land. The grinding of the rocks through her steel side could be distinctly heard.
"All together! In she comes! Now ... heave! Now ... heave! Now ... heave!"
Their strength doubled by the realization that life hung on their efforts, the boys swayed at the line until at last they grasped the end of the hawser. To it was attached another smaller rope for pulling in a boatswain's chair.
Working rapidly, they made the hawser fast round an upright boulder. The lightning flashes were now less frequent, but lanterns on the ship and ashore enabled each group to note the other's progress. At last the slender cableway was rigged. Jim swung a lantern. Another lantern on the yacht answered.
"The smaller line, boys! Pull in! Careful!"
As the boys hauled, a figure dangled away from the vessel's side. Shoreward it swayed, now high above the wave-troughs, now dipping through a lofty crest. It dragged safely over the inside ledge, while the boys held their breaths; and presently they were unlashing a man from the boatswain's chair.
"Yes," he said in response to Jim's question, "she's the steam-yacht Barona. Belongs to Churchill Sadler of New York. One of his millionaire friends chartered her for a short trip to the Maine coast. Fifteen men aboard. I'm the mate. Came ashore first to see if this rig would work all right."
The chair was already half-way back to the vessel.
"They'll send Mr. Whittington next," continued the mate.
Percy started with surprise.
"What's that? Whittington?"
"Yes. John P., the millionaire! He's the man who hired the yacht."
"He's my father!" gasped Percy.
The mate gave an exclamation of astonishment.
"Lucky we got this chair to working or soon you wouldn't have had any father!"
The swinging seat had now reached the yacht. Two men lashed into it a stout, squarely built figure. The lantern signaled that all was ready and the shoreward journey began. Percy was shaking so violently that he could hardly pull. The mate reassured him.
"Don't be frightened, young fellow! We'll land him all right!"
He added his strength to that of the others, and John P. Whittington came in faster. He reached the ledge, only twenty-five feet from shore. Then came disaster!
Something gave way on the yacht, and the hawser suddenly slackened, letting the boatswain's chair drag on the ledge. The end of a swinging rope caught in a crack. The millionaire stopped short!
"Harder!" shouted the mate, setting the example.
The boys surged on the rope, but to no avail; they could not budge the chair. Percy stood motionless with horror.
Up curled a huge wave, high over the struggling figure. A thundering deluge hid him from view. It looked bad for John P. Whittington. Two or three seas more and it would matter little to him whether he was pulled in or not.
Guttering and rumbling, the water flowed back. Down over the ledges after it leaped a slim, wiry figure. It was Percy Whittington!
He had thrown off his oil-clothes to give his limbs greater freedom. His head was bare and his light hair stood straight up from his forehead. Grasping the hawser, he plunged into the sea and dragged himself toward the rock to which his father was fastened.
The group on the point stood silent, watching him struggle yard by yard through the black water until he gained the ridge. On it lay the figure in the boatswain's chair, struggling feebly. Percy planted his feet on the slippery rock. But before he could reach his father another liquid avalanche buried them both.
It seemed to the anxious watchers as if it would never run back. When it did, the older man sagged from the chair, motionless; the lad still clung to the hawser. The future of the house of Whittington hung trembling in the balance.