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Title: Motor Boat Boys Among the Florida Keys - Or, The Struggle for the Leadership
Author: Arundel, Louis
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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[Illustration: "He's got something, for a fact!" exclaimed Herb.]



 Motor Boat Boys
 Among the Florida Keys

 Or

 _The Struggle for
 the Leadership_


 By
 LOUIS ARUNDEL

 Author of "Motor Boat Boys on the St. Lawrence," "Motor Boat
 Boys' Cruise Down the Mississippi," "Motor Boat Boys on the
 Great Lakes," "Motor Boat Boys Down the Coast."


 [Illustration]


 Chicago
 M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY



 COPYRIGHT 1913.
 M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY.
 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


 Electrotyped, Printed and Bound by
 M. A. Donohue & Co.



CONTENTS


 Chapter                                        Page
       I--AT ANCHOR, INSIDE THE BAR                7
      II--THE WARNING RATTLE                      18
     III--DOWN THE INDIAN RIVER                   29
      IV--THAT SAME OLD UNLUCKY WIRELESS          40
       V--THE MYSTERIOUS POWER BOAT               54
      VI--NICK TRIES AGAIN                        63
     VII--THE LOST CHUM                           74
    VIII--TRACKED TO THE BAYOU                    85
      IX--FOR THE SAKE OF CHUM JOSH               97
       X--ABOARD THE STRANGE POWER BOAT          106
      XI--IN HONOR BOUND                         115
     XII--AN INVASION OF THE CAMP                124
    XIII--JIMMY REFUSES TO GIVE UP THE GAME      133
     XIV--WHEN THE COMFORT WAS HUNG UP           142
      XV--THE BIRD ROOST                         151
     XVI--A SCREECHER FROM THE NORTH             160
    XVII--THE SHELTER BACK OF THE KEY            169
   XVIII--JIMMY FORGES TO THE FRONT              178
     XIX--FROM TAMPA, NORTH                      187
      XX--THE SHARK FISHERMAN                    196
     XXI--VICTORY COMES TO NICK                  205
    XXII--WHERE AMBITION LED                     214
   XXIII--WINDING UP THE VOYAGE--CONCLUSION      223



THE MOTOR BOAT BOYS AMONG THE FLORIDA KEYS

or

A Struggle For the Leadership



CHAPTER I.

AT ANCHOR, INSIDE THE BAR.


"Get busy here, Nick; now's your chance to make a big score for a
starter!"

"It's awful kind of you, George, to let me out of my part of the work
this afternoon, and that's a fact. I appreciate it, too; because I just
want to beat Jimmy out in this thing the worst kind."

"Oh! shucks! don't mention it, Nick. We're all interested in your game,
and you know it. Besides, there goes your rival, Jimmy, right now, in
his little dinky boat, and with a wide grin on his face. Jack's given
him a holiday, to celebrate the opening of the great fishing contest.
Get a move on, you slow-poke!"

"Gee! then he'll get a start on me. I _must_ hurry. Now, where in the
dickens is that other oar, George? Oh! here she is, tucked away under
the thwart. And can you tell me what I did with that mullet the cracker
gentleman gave me, to use for bait? Please help me get started, George.
Seems like everything wants to go wrong at once!"

"Here you are, Nick. Got your tackle all right, have you; and sure that
life preserver is in the boat? All ready? Then away you go; but keep
clear of the inlet, if the tide changes, or you might get carried out to
sea in that eight-foot dinky."

Three minutes later, and Nick Longfellow--who belied his name dreadfully,
in that he was short, and fat, and built pretty much after the style of
a full meal bag--was rowing clumsily toward a likely spot, where he
believed he might do some successful fishing.

A trio of motor boats were anchored just inside Mosquito Inlet, not far
from the town of New Smyrna on the east coast of Florida, having come in
that very afternoon, after making the outside passage from the mouth of
the St. Johns River.

They might have entered at St. Augustine, and taken the inside passage
down to this place, only that something was wrong with the connecting
canal that led to the Halifax River, and it seemed unwise to take the
chances of being held up.

The boat from which Nick had put out on his fishing excursion was a
slender looking craft, and evidently capable of making high speed; but
from the way she rolled whenever any one aboard moved, it could be seen
that she must prove rather an uncomfortable home on which to spend very
much time. The name painted in letters of gold on her bow was _Wireless_;
and her skipper, George Rollins, took more or less pride in her
accomplishments; although, truth to tell, he spent much of his time
tinkering with her high-power engine, that had a way of betraying his
trust when conditions made it most exasperating.

The boat from which the said Jimmy had started was called the _Tramp_.
Her lines were not so fine as those of the hurry boat; but, nevertheless,
an experienced cruiser would have picked her out as an ideal craft for
combined business and pleasure. Her skipper was Jack Stormways, really
the commodore of the little fleet; and his crew consisted of Jimmy
Brannigan, a boy who sported many freckles, a happy-go-lucky disposition,
and a little of the Irish brogue whenever he happened to remember his
descent from the old kings of Erin.

As to the third motor boat, it was a broad beamed affair, that really
looked like a pumpkin seed on a large scale; or, as some of the boys
often called it, a "tub." It was well named the _Comfort_, and its
owner, Herbert Dickson, content to take things easy and let others do
the hustling, never denied the claim George was fond of making, that he
could draw circles around the "Ark" with his fast one. The engine of the
_Comfort_ had never failed to do its level best, which was limited to
some nine miles an hour.

Herb also had an assistant, a tall, lanky lad, by name Josh Purdue. By
rights he and Nick should have exchanged places; but Josh had had one
experience on the dizzy speed boat, and absolutely refused to try it
again.

These lads belonged in a town far up toward the sources of the mighty
Mississippi River. They would have been attending high school, only that
a fire had almost demolished the buildings, and vacation season was
enforced until after New Year's.

Owning these boats, and having had considerable experience in making
long trips, the boys had, with the consent of their parents, shipped the
craft east to Philadelphia, and some five weeks previously started down
the coast by the inside route.

And now they were starting on the second half of the remarkable voyage,
which they intended would take them around the end of the peninsula of
Florida, among the keys that make this region the small boat cruiser's
paradise, and finally land them at New Orleans in time to ship their
boats north by steamboat.

Spending several days in Jacksonville, and taking aboard supplies,
before making a start, Nick and Jimmy had fallen into quite a heated
dispute as to which of them could be called the more expert fisherman.

Now, truth to tell, neither of the boys had had very much experience in
this line; but, egged on by Josh and Herb, they had finally entered upon
a contest which was to last until they reached New Orleans. Jack had
solemnly entered the conditions in his log book; and the one who, during
the duration of the cruise, could catch and land unassisted the heaviest
fish of any description, was to be declared the champion.

Eager to accomplish wonderful "stunts," the two boys naturally seized
upon this very first chance to get their lines overboard, in the hope of
starting things moving by a weighty capture.

And the others, anticipating more or less fun out of the bitter rivalry,
lost no opportunity to "sic" the contestants on. Just as a breeze fans a
flame, so their frequent allusions as to the budding qualities of the
rivals as fishermen kept Nick and Jimmy eager for the fray.

As might have been expected, when George secured a tender for his speed
boat, while in Jacksonville, as they were told they would need such
things right along, in order to make landings where the water was too
shoal for the larger craft to get close to the shore, he selected
a dumpy little flat-bottomed "dinky," just about on a par with the
_Wireless_ when it came to eccentric qualities.

An expert with the oars or a paddle might manage the affair fairly well;
but as Nick was as clumsy as he was fat, it seemed as though he would
never get the hang of the squatty tender.

When he sat in the middle, one dip of an oar would cause the boat to
spin wildly around as if on a pivot; and as to rowing in a straight
course, the thing was utterly beyond Nick's abilities. So, when he was
aiming for a certain spot, he was wont to approach his intended goal by
a series of eccentric angles.

The flood tide was still coming in lazily, for they had managed to hit
the inlet when the bar was well covered, wishing to take no chances. So
Nick, after managing to propel the "punkin seed" over to the spot near
a bunch of mangroves, that he had selected as most promising, set to
work.

He tied the boat, first of all, by a piece of cord, so that it would
not float away while he fished. Then he laboriously got his tackle in
readiness.

Those on the motor boats had kept an eye on the actions of the two
rivals, as if anticipating that sooner or later they might have
something to laugh over; for Nick was forever tumbling into difficulties
of some sort.

"I don't believe Nick will ever get the hang of that dinky, George,"
remarked Jack, as he leaned over the side of the _Tramp_, peeling some
potatoes which they intended having for supper; and, as there did not
seem to be any decent chance to cook this ashore, the voyagers would
have to do as they had often done before, use their little kerosene gas
stoves aboard the several boats.

"It takes an expert to run that cut-off runt properly," said Herb, who
was also engaged, wiping his engine, while Josh started operations
looking to the evening meal, the lanky boy being by all odds the best
cook in the party.

"Thank you for the compliment, Herb," laughed George. "It happens that
I've always been at home in small boats. And there was something about
that stumpy little affair that made me take a fancy to her. Nick will
do better after he learns the ropes. And he generally manages to get
there, even if he does cover twice as much distance as I might. Look at
Jimmy, fellows!"

"He's got something, for a fact!" exclaimed Herb; "and Nick is excited
over it. See him wiggle around to watch, just as if he feared the game
was going to be settled right in the start. Hi! sit down, Nick! Want to
upset that cranky thing, do you? Well, it's good you've got your air bag
fastened on; for without a life preserver you'd drown in this tideway,
if ever you fell over."

"Watch Jimmy, will you, boys?" chuckled Jack. "Look at the grin on his
face as he pulls his line in. You can see that half his fun is in
keeping an eye on Nick, to enjoy his confusion and disappointment."

"Wow! why, the fish is pulling his boat around, do you notice?" demanded
George.

"That looks as if it might be a good one. There, I thought Jimmy
couldn't keep still much longer. Listen to him yap, would you?" Herb
called out.

Jimmy had started to crow over his rival, as any ordinary boy would be
apt to do under similar conditions.

"Don't be after gettin' downhearted too soon, Nick, me bhoy!" he
shouted. "Sure, this is only a little one for a stharter, so it is. Wait
till I get going, and I'll open your eyes good and sthrong. Och! how he
pulls! If only ye were a bit closer now, I'd let ye fale of the line, to
know the sensation. Come in, ye darlint, and let's have a look at ye.
Whirra! but he's bigger than I thought; and it's me as hopes he won't
upset the boat when I pull him over the side!"

Of course much of this talk was for the purpose of making his rival
squirm with envy; though the captive did show signs of being a strong
fighter.

After about five minutes of apparently strenuous effort, Jimmy concluded
that it would be unwise to risk losing his prisoner by playing it
longer; so he dragged the hooked fish over the side. There was a flash
of bronze and white that told Jack the story.

"A channel bass, and something like fifteen pounds in weight, too. We're
sure of fish on this trip, anyway, with the two of them bending every
energy to the winning of the medal!" he exclaimed.

"There goes Nick back to his work," said George. "If there are fish
here, he hopes to get his share. But ten to one he's nearly choking with
envy right now, because Jimmy drew the first blood. It's an uphill game
for poor old Nick."

"Well," Herb went on to remark, "the game will last a whole month, and
more; so nobody can tell how the finish may turn out. Nick might get
hold of a bigger fish any minute. But it's up to us to encourage 'em
right along. We'll never want for a fish diet if we do, for they'll stay
up nights to keep at it."

"There, I declare, if Nick didn't have a jerk at his line then; but he
failed to hook the rascal!" Jack exclaimed.

"And came near upsetting the boat in his excitement, too," complained
George. "If he does, I can see the finish of my oars, which will go out
of the inlet with the ebb tide."

"But what about Nick; you don't seem to worry about how he'll act?"
laughed Herb.

"Oh! he'll just float around, with that life preserver holding him up,
till one of us pushes out and tows him ashore. Whatever is he doing now,
do you suppose?" George demanded.

"Throwing out that shark hook of his, with the clothes line attached,"
Jack explained. "You see, Nick has evidently made up his mind to go in
for something worth while. He wants to knock the spots out of Jimmy's
hopes right in the start."

"But, my stars! if he hooks a big shark while he's sitting in that
punkin seed of a boat, there's bound to be a warm old circus!" Herb
declared.

Some little time passed, and those aboard the anchored motor boats,
busily engaged in their various occupations, had almost forgotten about
the bitter rivalry going on so near by, when suddenly they were startled
by a great shout.

"It's Nick, this time!" exclaimed Jack, as he jumped to the side of the
_Tramp_ to observe what was taking place.

"And say, he's fast to a whopper, as sure as you live!" cried Herb.

George added his contribution on the heels of the rest.

"That string's broke away, just as I expected, and there goes Nick and
the punkin seed, full tilt for the inlet! By all that's out, fellows, he
must have caught a whale that time, fresh run from the sea. Hi! hold on
there, Nick, that's my boat!"



CHAPTER II.

THE WARNING RATTLE.


Jack Stormways was a quick-witted lad. He had proved this fact on
numerous occasions in the past, within the memory of his chums.

When anything sudden happened, while others might appear to be
spellbound, and waste precious seconds in staring, Jack was very
apt to be on the jump, and _doing_.

So in the present instance, while it might appear more or less comical,
seeing the fat boy crouched in that silly little boat belonging to the
_Wireless_, and being dragged through the water at a most rapid rate by
the shark he had hooked, there was always an element of danger connected
with the affair.

And so Jack, after taking that one look out over the water, sprang
forward, and started dragging his anchor aboard with all possible speed.
That done, he next applied himself to getting power on the boat, which
fortunately could be done with a simple turning over of the engine.

"Hello! are you going to chase the runaway with the _Tramp_?" cried
Herb, who was in the act of climbing over the side into his tender, as
though meaning to put out in pursuit himself.

"Yes; jump aboard here, Herb; I might need help!" came the answer; and,
accustomed to respecting Jack's judgment, the one addressed managed to
clamber over the side of the _Tramp_ just as that craft started off.

Meanwhile Nick was going at a great rate, not in a direct line for the
inlet, but following jerky, eccentric angles, as though the shark hardly
knew what to do, on feeling the contact with the point of the big hook
at the end of the chain.

Several times the fat boy seemed on the point of creeping forward to get
at the rope that was fastened to a cleat in the bow of the dinky. It was
George who roared at him on such occasions.

"Keep still, Nick; sit down, can't you? You'll upset sure, if you don't
lie flat! Jack's coming out after you on the jump! Hey, look out there,
Jimmy, or you'll get foul, too! Whew! what a race horse you've got fast
to, Nick. If only you could land him, Jimmy's name would be Mud. There
he goes again, heading for the bar! Look at the water shooting up on
either side of that dandy little boat, would you? And ain't Nick having
the ride of his life, though? There he goes, crawling along up to the
bow again. Perhaps he wants to cut loose; small blame to him if he
does!"

Everybody was either laughing, or shouting advice to Nick, while this
exciting little drama was taking place.

Indeed, Nick himself seemed to be the only one who was not getting some
measure of fun out of the affair. His usually red face looked pale, as
he managed to reach the squatty bow of the little boat. But when he
found that it was dragged down by the action of the fish, as well as his
own weight, he drew back again in alarm, for water had come rushing
aboard.

Once the motor boat got started, of course it speedily came up with the
runaway. Jack had given the wheel into the charge of Herb, who was fully
competent to run things. This allowed the other an opportunity to do
anything that offered, looking to the rescue of poor frightened Nick.

"Get me out of this, won't you, Jack? I don't like it one little bit,"
pleaded the fat boy; and then, as some new freak on the part of the
shark caused the dinky to lunge sideways in a fearful manner, he shouted
in new alarm: "Quit it, you ugly beast! Who wants to nab you now? I
pass, I tell you! Let go, and get out of this! Wow! look at him splash
the water, Jack, would you?"

"He wanted to take a look at you, that's all," Jack called out. "Don't
you think you'd better cut loose, and let your hook go, Nick?"

"I ain't got any knife; it went overboard the first thing. Besides,"
added the occupant of the dinky, who was now once more crouching in the
stern, "if I go up there, the water just pours in. I'm sitting in it
right now. Jack, can't you think of some way to make him leave me
alone?"

"Perhaps I might," came the reply, as the skipper of the _Tramp_ dodged
back into the hunting cabin of his boat.

He almost immediately reappeared again, holding a rope in his hands.
This he made fast to a cleat at the bow; and then, turning to Herb,
asked him to bring the motor boat as close to the fleeing dinky as
possible.

Leaning down, Jack managed to get a peculiar sort of hitch around the
taut line; and a quick jerk seemed to secure his own rope, so that it
would not slip. His next action was to take a keen knife, and lay its
edge upon the line, close to the spot where it was fastened to the
wobbling dinky.

Of course it instantly parted.

"Oh! that's too bad! Now I've lost my tackle!" cried Nick; although he
looked vastly relieved at finding that he was no longer fast to the
queer sea horse.

Jack paid no further attention to the rescued chum. The fight was now to
be all between himself and the shark.

Quickly the line paid out, until there came a heavy jerk, and then once
more it became taut.

"Bully! it's holding fine, Jack!" shouted Herb, who had watched to see
the result; for he doubted whether the connection, brought about under
such difficulties, would be maintained.

"Now, gradually bring the boat to a full stop," said Jack, as he again
reached back into the cabin, and drew out a rifle. "As soon as you've
got him halted, begin to back up. That will drag him to the top, you
understand; and I'll have a chance to pot the rascal."

"That's right," declared Herb, who could grasp a thing readily enough,
even if slow to originate clever schemes himself.

Just as Jack had said, when the pull was being exerted in the other
direction, the struggling monster was presently seen splashing at a
tremendous rate, though unable to resist the drawing powers of the
ten-horsepower engine.

Jack, crouching there, with one elbow resting on his knee, took as good
an aim as the conditions allowed. Then came the sharp report of the
gun.

"Whoop! you hit him all right, that time, Jack!" shouted Herb; as there
ensued a tremendous floundering at the end of the rope. "But he ain't
knocked out yet. Give him another dose of the same sort!"

Across the water came the cries of the others who were watching this
exciting scene. And loudest of all could be heard the voice of Nick, now
once more in possession of his nerve.

"Give it to him, Jack! Pound the measly old pirate good and hard! He
won't try that game again in a hurry, I tell you! Hey! Jimmy, you ain't
in it this time, with that little minnow of yours. Hurrah! that's the
time you poked him in the slats, Jack! Trust you for knowing how! I
guess he's a sure goner after that meal of cold lead."

Jack had fired a second time; and, just as the wildly excited Nick said,
he seemed to have met with better success than on the former occasion.
The trapped sea monster threshed the water still, but not in the same
violent manner as before; and his fury seemed to be rapidly diminishing
as the result of his wounds began to be felt.

"Now, stop her, Herb, and start ahead slowly!" Jack called out, hovering
over the spot where the line was fast to the cleat.

The boy at the wheel did as he was directed; and as the line became
slack Jack took it in, ready to hastily secure the same about another
cleat in case the dying shark developed a disposition to make a last mad
dash.

But evidently the big fish was "all in," and when they reached a point
nearly over where he lay, there were seen only a few spasmodic movements
to his body.

"Let's drag him near the other boats, so we can pull the old fellow up
on that little beach," Jack suggested.

Ten minutes later, and the six boys were all ashore, laying hold of the
rope in order to drag the captured fish out.

"Say, he's some whopper, let me tell you!" exclaimed George, as, having
drawn the shark high and dry, they all hastened to examine the capture.

Nick was dancing with joy, and his eyes fairly beamed as he stood beside
the great bulk, putting one foot up on it after the manner in which he
had seen noted hunters do, in pictures that told of their exploits when
hunting big game.

"Now, how about it, Jimmy?" he demanded, as Jack was cutting the stout
hook from the jaw of the monster. "Think this is some punkins, don't
you, now. Three hundred pounds, if it weighs an ounce. Have to hustle
some, let me tell you, my boy, if you ever expect to go a notch higher
than this."

"Arrah, come off, would you!" indignantly cried Jimmy. "Sure, ye
wouldn't be claiming that ye took this same ould sea wolf, and inter it
in the competition. I do be laving it to Jack here, if that's fair?"

"But I hooked it, you all saw that?" expostulated Nick.

"I don't know," remarked Herb, looking very serious; "I was under
the impression that the shark had got you, up to the time Jack came
along with his little gun, and tapped him on the head. How about it,
Commodore? Can Nick enter any claim to having caught this prize?"

"Wait," said Jack, smiling; "let me read out the exact words of the
wager. I've got a copy right here in my note book. Listen now, both of
you. It reads like this: 'Each contestant shall have the liberty of
fishing as often as he pleases, and the fish may be taken in any sort of
manner; the one stipulation being that the capture shall be undertaken
by the contestant, _alone and unaided_; and that he must have possession
of the fish long enough to show the same, and have its weight either
estimated or proven.'"

"That settles your goose, me bhoy!" croaked Jimmy, gleefully; "and I'm
top notch in the game up to the prisent moment. Do we get busy again,
Nick, I say; or are ye satisfied to lit me claim first blood?"

"Well, it seems mighty small, that after grabbing that nice fellow, I've
got to let the honors go for the day," remarked the fat boy. "And I
guess I've had quite enough excitement for once. I'm all soaked in the
bargain; and it feels kind of cool, you see. So I won't fish any more
right now. But next time, just you look out for yourself, Jimmy. I'm
after you like hot cakes. Say, ain't we going to have that fish for
supper, boys?"

Nick was a voracious eater. He liked nothing in the world so much as to
enjoy a glorious meal; and long after his chums were through, he often
sat there, finishing the dishes. On the other hand, lean, lanky Josh,
while possessed of a knack for cooking all sorts of good things, had a
poor appetite, and often merely nibbled at his food, to the wonderment
and disgust of the fat boy.

"If you get to work and clean it," said Jack, "I think there ought to be
plenty to go around. But you'll find that one-third of a channel bass
is the head. As we had one before, we know it's worth eating, so pitch
in, Nick. Since you lost your knife overboard, take mine here, and get
busy."

It pleased Jimmy to strut around near where his rival was occupied
with his menial task, and make occasional remarks about "his prize,"
calculated to rub salt in Nick's wounds. But after all, the fat boy was
good-natured, and took things in a matter-of-fact way. Besides, he was
grimly resolved that sooner or later, by hook or by crook, even if it
were a fish-hook, he would overcome this strong lead of his rival in the
race for high honors.

As more or less fuel had been found ashore, and Josh expressed his
desire to manage the supper, as head chef, it was found advisable to
change their plans. And so, assisted by many willing workers, the lanky
wonder started operations.

He was soon bustling around, looking very consequential. Nick had
made him a _chef's_ cap out of a piece of white muslin, which he was
requested to wear on all such occasions as this, when in charge of
affairs about the cooking fire.

Nick himself was busy trying to mend some little contraption, purchased
on the street in Jacksonville, and which he had broken before he could
have any fun with the same as originally intended.

Jack, stepping off from the _Tramp_, where he had gone to get some of
the tinware needed for coffee and substantial food, was electrified to
hear Josh give a whoop; and at the same instant his ears were assailed
by a dreadful rattling noise that sounded for all the world like the
angry buzz of a diamond-back rattlesnake.

"Thunder and Mars! Great Jerusalem! I'm struck in the leg!" bellowed the
lengthy Josh, as he came tumbling back from the edge of the bushes,
grabbing at his shin in a frantic manner.



CHAPTER III.

DOWN THE INDIAN RIVER.


"Now, what d'ye know about that?" exclaimed Nick, scrambling to his feet
after his usual clumsy way; for when the fat boy happened to become
excited he generally "fell all over himself," as Josh put it.

"What ails you, Josh?" demanded Herb.

No sooner had the lengthy one reached a spot near the fire than he threw
himself down, and commenced frantically to pull up the left leg of his
trousers.

"Gosh! looky there, will you, fellers?" he bellowed, as if in a panic.
"He sure got me that time; I guess I'm a goner. Won't one of you get
down and suck the poison out for me? You know, I'd do it in your case.
Oh! please hurry up. My leg's beginning to swell right now, and in a few
minutes it'll be too late!"

"Poison!" echoed Herb, who seemed to be in utter ignorance of the entire
matter, and could only stare at the little speck of blood showing on the
white skin as if horribly fascinated.

"Yes, oh! didn't you hear the terrible buzz he gave when he stuck his
fangs in me?" groaned poor Josh.

Jack had thrown himself down alongside the wounded one, and was
minutely examining the hurt. He looked up at this juncture, and to
the astonishment of Herb and George, was apparently grinning.

"Brace up, Josh," he said, cheerfully; "you're not going to kick the
bucket yet awhile, I reckon."

"Oh! how kind of you to tell me so, Jack; but how do you know? Please
tell me why you say that," pleaded the cook, beginning to look relieved;
for he had fallen long ago into placing the utmost confidence in
whatever Jack believed.

"Well, in the first place, there's only one tiny puncture, you see; and
if this was a snake bite there'd be the plain marks of _two_ fangs,"
Jack announced.

"Sounds all right, Jack; but perhaps this critter only had one fang.
Didn't you hear the angry shake of his old rattle-box when he struck?
It gave me a cold chill, because, right at the same second, I felt
something stick me. I'll never forget the awful sensation, even if I do
live through it," and Josh rubbed his leg vigorously, as though hoping
that by inducing a circulation he might avert the threatened dire
catastrophe.

"Well, if you only look around right now, perhaps you'll discover the
source of that same buzz," Jack went on, soberly.

"Why, whatever can you mean?" Josh stammered, staring his amazement.

"Notice how Nick, for instance, is trying the best he knows how to keep
his face straight, even while he's just shaking all over with the laugh
that's in him. Stand up, Nick; and hold out that hand you've got behind
your back."

Jack pointed rather sternly at the culprit while speaking.

"Oh, well, I s'pose I'll have to 'fess," mumbled the fat boy, as he
whipped the hand in question around, so that all could see what he was
holding.

"Why, it's that boozy little rattle he picked up in Jacksonville, and
broke on the first trial!" exclaimed George. "He's been dabbling at it
ever since, trying to mend the old thing."

"Yes," said Jack, "and just succeeded in getting it to working. Here,
give it to me, Nick, and I'll show them how it whirrs when you turn it
around rapidly."

Taking the little wooden contrivance, Jack gave it a series of quick
turns, with the result that a loud angry buzzing was produced, not
unlike the warning rattle of an enraged snake.

"Oh! that was it, Jack!" cried the relieved Josh. "Thank you for showing
me, too. It sure takes a big load off my mind, because you'll never know
what a nasty feeling I had at the time. It was a mean dodge, Nick, and
I can't forget it in a hurry, either. But Jack, that don't explain
everything."

"Now you're thinking of that sudden little pain you had in the leg?"
suggested the other, nodding his head understandingly.

"You bet I am!" Josh declared. "It took me at the identical second I
heard that whirr. If it wasn't a snake bit me, what did, Jack?"

"Let's find out right away, so's to relieve your mind," Jack went on.
"Lead the way to the very spot where you were when you heard the sound,
and felt that sudden pain."

"That's dead easy," remarked the tall boy; and as he said this he
scrambled to his feet, his trousers still rolled up to his knee, and
limped across the camp.

Jack noticed, however, that he approached the place cautiously, as
though not yet wholly convinced that there might not be a dreadful
diamond-back rattler lying in ambush, waiting for another chance to
puncture him.

"There it is, right in front of you, Jack!" Josh cried, pointing; "I
happened to want a handful of dry timber to hurry up the fire, and
stepped over here, because I'd noticed just the thing under this lone
palmetto. Just as I banged into that little bunch of brush it happened."

Jack laughed.

"Look here, fellows, and you'll see what he ran against!" he announced,
taking hold of the long, narrow, dark green leaf of a plant that was
growing there.

"What is it?" asked George.

"A plant they call Spanish Bayonet," replied Jack, seriously now. "You
see, like lots of semi-tropical plants, such as the yucca, century plant
or Mexican aloe, and others, it's got a sharp point, almost like a
needle. Well, just as luck would have it, Josh banged into one of these
leaves at the very second Nick began to rattle his alarm box. No wonder
he got a shock! It was enough to stagger the bravest."

"Then it was what you might call a coincidence?" suggested Herb.

"Huh! a mighty tough one, too," grunted Josh, as he rubbed his injured
limb ere turning down his trouser leg.

"But see here, fellows, are we going to let our funny man try that stunt
every little while?" demanded George, frowning at his shipmate.

"I vote for one against such a thing," declared Herb. "That nasty little
box has too suggestive a rattle to please me. If I was going through the
saw palmetto scrub, and he happened to amuse himself with it, I just
know I'd jump ten feet. It would make life miserable for me right
along."

"Jimmy, what do you say?" demanded Jack.

"Me too!" piped up the Irish lad. "Sure it do be giving me the crapes
just to listen to that thing go whirring around."

"You hear the verdict, Nick?" said Jack, pretending to assume the air of
a judge addressing the prisoner in the dock.

"Oh! I ain't saying a word," Nick replied, with a shrug of his fat
shoulders. "I c'n see myself that it would be a mean trick to play.
Never thought much about it that way. Give her a toss, Jack. And Josh, I
hope you won't hold it against me too hard. You know, you're top-notch
yet in that bully contest of ours."

In this way did the contrite joker attempt to buy peace in the camp; and
that he was fairly successful might be judged from the grin that slowly
began to spread over the thin face of the cook.

"That's all right, Nick; so long as it don't happen again I ain't goin'
to think too much about it. Fact is, it's goin' to give me a cold shiver
every time I hear anything like that rattle. And now I'll be getting
back to my work."

"Then you don't want anybody to suck the poison out?" asked Nick.

"Let up on that, now, will you? I guess I'm able to hobble around yet,"
and bending down, Josh gathered some of the dry trash that he wanted, to
hurry the fire on with.

Jack had tossed the little rattle-box contrivance into the fire, where
it was soon entirely consumed.

Although they ate supper ashore, it was considered wise to sleep aboard.
The only one who grumbled at this decision was poor Nick. He had a hard
lot to follow, for the narrow speed boat offered but poor sleeping
accommodations for two, and many a time the stout youth was wont to
bemoan his sad fate as he rubbed his aching sides in the morning.

They left the camp at Mosquito Inlet an hour after sunrise on the
following morning, and started down past New Smyrna, heading for the
Haulover Canal that connects Mosquito Lagoon with the famous Indian
River.

Under Jack's wise guidance they found little trouble in navigating the
broad or narrow waters of the various channels. As steamboats passed
through daily in the season, there were plenty of "targets" pointing out
the deeper waters; and where the lagoon happened to be very shallow,
canals had been dredged.

Taking it leisurely, they arrived at Titusville about two in the
afternoon. Here one of the boys went for the mail, and also to pick up
the few things they had on the list of "necessities wanted."

As the western shore of the river is pretty thickly settled now, it was
decided to cross over, and skirt along Merritt's Island until near its
foot, where they could probably find a spot free from civilization's
touch; and this was what appealed to the motor boat boys at all
times--wild solitude.

Long before evening overtook them they had come to a halt, and anchored
the boats close to the eastern shore, just beyond a point that would
protect them from any wild norther that might chance to spring up. All
of them had heard so much about these dreaded storms that swoop down
upon the pilgrims in small boats when navigating Florida waters that
they were always on the watch for their coming.

"I say, Jack!" exclaimed George, as they landed in their small dinkies,
intending to again have a fire, and be congenial; "look out yonder on
the river, and tell me if that ain't the same strange launch we saw
twice before above."

"You're right, George, that's what," replied the other, as he whirled
around, to shade his eyes with one hand in order to see the better; for
the sun was just going down beyond the wide river, Rockledge way, and
shone fiercely.

"If I had the glasses now, I'd like to see who they are," George went
on. "Seems to me the parties on that boat act queer. They dodge out of
sight whenever they think we're watching. I don't just like the way they
act, Jack, do you?"

"Oh! I don't know," replied the other. "That may be only imagination
with you, George. The only thing that strikes me as queer is that the
boat seems to be as near a ringer for the _Tramp_ as anything I ever
struck."

"Wow! you're on the job now, when you say that, and funny I hadn't
noticed it before, Jack," George declared. "Now that you mention it, I
declare if it isn't just remarkable. I suppose all of our boats have
doubles, somewhere in the country; for the makers have a model they
follow out heaps of times in a season; but all the same, it strikes a
fellow as queer to run across a duplicate of the boat he's kind of
looked on as his own especial property."

"Well," grunted Nick, who had been near enough to overhear this talk,
"I'm right sorry for somebody then, if there's a ringer for the
_Wireless_. They have my sympathy, I tell you that right now."

But George only sniffed, and disdained to notice the slur cast upon his
pet. It seemed that the more the others found fault with the actions of
the _Wireless_, the greater became his attachment for the erratic boat.

"Well, they're ahead of us again, for one thing," he remarked. "It looks
like a game of tag, right along; now we're leading, and then they forge
ahead. I'm just going to keep tabs on that boat, for fun; and some fine
day perhaps I'll have my curiosity satisfied. I'd give something to know
who they are, and why they act like they do."

"Oh! they won't keep me awake much, I tell you that," said Nick,
loftily. "When I bother my head it's going to be about something worth
while--understand?"

"Sure," remarked George, quickly. "Something that threatens a calamity
in the feeding line, for instance; a running short of supplies. That's
the subject Nick worries about most."

"Well, is there any more important business known than supplying the
human engine with plenty of fuel?" demanded the other, sturdily.
"Perhaps the engineer may be the more important fellow of the two; but
the stoker is just as necessary, if the machine is to be kept going. But
there's Josh calling me to help him. I'm always Johnny-on-the-spot when
it comes to helping Josh get grub ready"--and he waddled off serenely;
for Nick was so happily constituted that no matter what jabs he received
from his chums, they seemed to roll from him like water from a duck's
back.

"Hear the mullet jump?" remarked Jack, as they ate supper after night
had set in. "D'ye know, fellows, this ought to be a good time to try
that fish spear?--for we'll have an hour of dark before the old moon
peeps up, and there isn't a breath of wind to ruffle the water. Jimmy, I
appoint you to push me around a bit, and see what we can do, though I
wouldn't count too much on any big score."

"I'm on, Jack, darlint," Jimmy immediately responded; "and it's ready I
am now."



CHAPTER IV.

THAT SAME OLD UNLUCKY WIRELESS.


Moving about in the steadiest of the little tenders, with a flare in the
bow, and Jimmy to gently push in the stern, Jack sought to strike some
game fish. His success was not very flattering, though he certainly did
enjoy the experience. It was really worth while to peer down into the
shallow depths, and see what lay there.

Several times he caught glimpses of channel bass, sheepshead, or sea
trout, which last is only another name for the weak fish of the North;
but as a rule they flashed away before he could strike.

He did succeed in spearing one trout of about three pounds, much to
Jimmy's delight. And later on, he struck a nasty creature with what
seemed to be a barb on the top of his tail, which he thrust around in a
savage manner as Jack held him up on the end of his pole.

"Look out, and don't get too close to him, Jimmy," Jack warned.

"Sure now and I won't," replied the other, "for, to till the truth, it's
me as don't like the looks of that little fixin' on the ind of his
tail."

"It must be what they call a stingaree or stingray," Jack went on. "I
never saw one before, but I've read a lot about 'em. They say he can
poison you, if ever he hits with that barb. You know what a mudcat can
do, out on the Mississippi; well, this is the same thing, only a whole
lot worse."

"Drop the squirmin' bog-trotter back into the wather, Jack, me bhoy; for
'tis us as don't want too close an acquaintance with him. He'd make it
too warrm for us, by the same token," Jimmy declared; and Jack complied
only too willingly.

"I guess we've had about enough of this, so let's go ashore," he
suggested.

Nick awaited them, eager to ascertain the amount of their captures. He
whiffed on discovering only one fish aboard the dinky.

"Huh! could eat that all by myself, and then not half try," he remarked.

"All right, then; if you do the needful to it, you're welcome, Nick,"
laughed the one who had captured the sea trout.

Of course, Nick became suddenly suspicious.

"You wouldn't play any trick on me, now, I hope, Jack, and get me to eat
a fish that wasn't fit for the human stomach?" he questioned, uneasily.

"That's what they call a sea trout down here; but up North it's the
weakfish, and said to be as toothsome as almost anything that swims,"
Jack remarked.

"Oh! all right, then I accept your kind offer. I'll get busy right now,
and have him ready for the morning. Wish you had got one apiece, I hate
to seem greedy, you know, fellows," he went on to say, as if thinking he
ought to excuse himself.

When the morning came Nick was astir before anybody else, for he had a
duty on his mind. He bothered Josh so much that finally the cook made
him start a blaze of his own, over which he could prepare his breakfast;
and Nick managed pretty well, considering that he had never made a study
of the art of cookery.

They started off at a booming pace. The run down Indian River that day
would always remain a pleasant memory with the young cruisers. Fort
Pierce was reached on schedule time, after passing through the Narrows,
and securing a mess of oysters from a boat engaged in dredging there.

Again one of the voyagers went after mail and supplies. There was always
something lacking, besides the necessary gasoline. Six growing boys can
develop enormous appetites when living a life in the open, and upon
salt water. Besides, there was Nick, capable of downing any two of
his chums when it came to devouring stuff. No wonder, then, that the
question of supplies was always uppermost on their minds.

Once more they headed across to the eastern shore, where they would be
more apt to find a quiet nook for the next night's camp. One more day's
run, if all went well, would take them to Lake Worth; and after serious
consultation it had been decided that they would, when the right chance
came, put to sea through that inlet, to make the run south to Miami.

Once again had both Nick and Jimmy been seized with the fever of
rivalry. During the day they had been busily engaged preparing set
lines, which they expected to put out over night, in the hope of making
a big haul.

Nick had bought a lot of material in Jacksonville. This in the main
consisted of large hooks, with snells made of brass wire, which latter
he manufactured himself, Jack having shown him how; and a large swivel
at the end of the foot length. Then he had secured a large quantity of
very strong cotton cord, made waterproof by some tarring process, after
the manner of the rigging aboard sailing vessels.

One thing Jack had bought in Fort Pierce, which they understood would
be pretty much of a necessity during the many weeks they expected to
spend among the keys that dotted the whole coast line of Florida.

This was called a cast-net, and was some eight feet in length, though
when fully extended it would cover a circle twice that in diameter.

There were leads along the outer edges, and a series of drawing strings
running up through a ring in the center.

"You see," said Jack, that evening, when they were ashore, "I watched a
fellow use one up above, and even took a few lessons, so I've kind of
got the hang on it."

"Then please show us?" asked Nick, eagerly.

"Listen to him, would you?" exclaimed Herb; "to hear him talk you'd
think Nick had a sneaking idea he might some day haul in a big giant of
a fish in this flimsy net."

"No, but it's good to get mullet for bait," the fat boy remonstrated;
"and as I expect to do lots of fishing on this trip--and it may not
always be convenient for Jack to haul the net--why, I thought I had
ought to know the ropes."

"Good boy, Nick!" laughed Jack; "and I'll be only too glad to show every
fellow all I know, which isn't any too much. Now, here's the way you
gather up the line, so as to let go suddenly. Then you hold the net like
this."

"Sure do ye ate some of the leads?" questioned Jimmy, seeing Jack take
several between his teeth.

"Oh! not any! but this is one of the times when a fellow wishes he had
been born with three hands. As I haven't, I must hold these leads by my
teeth. The next thing is to swing the whole net around this way, and let
fly with a rotary motion, at the same time letting go with your teeth.
That is a very important thing to remember, for you might stand to lose
a few out of your jaw if you held on."

"Oh, I see!" remarked George; "and the net flings open as it whirls
through the air, falling on the water that way?"

"Just so, with the leads taking the outer edge rapidly down. Then, by
pulling at the line, which is tied, you see, to all these strings, the
net is drawn shut like a big purse, enclosing anything that was under it
when it struck the water."

One by one they made trials with the net, but all of them proved pretty
clumsy. Jimmy was nearly dragged into the shallow water when he made his
first attempt.

"Glory be!" he howled, as he put his hand quickly to his mouth; "if I
didn't have the teeth of a horse I do belave I'd have lost the whole set
thin. But once bit, twict shy. Nixt toime I'll let go, rest easy on
that. And I'm going to get the hang of that Spanish cast-net, if it
takes ivery tooth in me head, so I am."

"And you'll do it, Jimmy, never fear," laughed Jack. "That do-or-die
spirit is going to win the day. Here, Nick, try it again. You seem to
have got the knack of it pretty well, only you want to throw harder, or
the mullet will get away before the net falls on the water."

Finally the boys tired of the strenuous exertion, and as Josh announced
supper ready, they turned their attention to more pleasant duties.

"This is something in which I can shine, anyhow," chuckled Nick, as he
sat there, with a pannikin cram-full of various good things, and a cup
of steaming coffee on the ground close beside him.

No one disputed the assertion; in fact, there was a general grin, and a
series of nods around the circle, to prove that for once their opinions
were unanimous.

Frolicsome 'coons seemed numerous at this camp on Hutchinson's Island.
They attempted to pillage, after the boys had settled down to sleep.
Twice was the quiet of the camp disturbed by the rattle of tin pans, and
upon investigation it was found that some prowling little animal had
endeavored to devour the hominy Josh had cooked, intending to fry slices
of the same for breakfast.

Nick made out to believe that it might have been a wildcat, or possibly
a bear, until Jack showed him the plain tracks of long slender feet
close to the receptacle of the hominy, and explained that only a raccoon
could have made these.

When the morning came, an early start was made, for they had quite a
little run down the river, through Jupiter Narrows, and then by means of
the canal into Lake Worth.

Arriving at this latter place early in the afternoon, they spent some
time looking about--although it was out of the season for the
fashionable crowd that flock to Palm Beach during February and March.

Jack had studied his coast charts most carefully. He knew they would
have a dangerous outside passage to Miami, that must consume some seven
hours, because of the _Comfort's_ slowness; and as they could not afford
to take any chances, it became absolutely necessary that they wait until
the weather gave positive signs of remaining fairly decent during the
day.

As this meant a combination of favoring breezes and calm waters, it was
impossible to tell how long they might have to wait. It might mean one
day, and then again they could be kept here at Lake Worth a week.

"You're wondering why I'm so particular, fellows," Jack had remarked,
when they talked over the matter among themselves, "especially when we
made a heap of outside runs coming down the coast. But this is really
the worst of the bunch, and I reckon much more dangerous than any we've
got ahead of us. For seventy miles here there isn't really a decent
harbor where a small boat could put in to escape a sudden change in
weather. And when things do go crooked down here they beat the band. The
nearer you get to the tropics the harder the winds can howl when they
want to show their teeth."

"That's all right, Jack," remarked Herb; "we depend on you to use good
judgment in all such matters. And you can see how much we rely on what
you decide, when we're ready to follow you like sheep do the
bellwether."

"I wonder, now," remarked George, "if that bally little boat that's a
ringer for the _Tramp_ has gone further south?"

"What makes you ask that?" Jack inquired.

"Well, ever since she passed us that evening across from Rockledge I
haven't seen hide nor hair of the mystery. So somehow I reckon she must
either be further down the lake, or else gone to Miami by the outside
route, like we intend to do."

"That don't necessarily follow," Jack laughed, for he saw that George
actually had the subject on his mind, and was deeply interested. "The
boat might have been in any one of twenty little coves we passed on the
way down. Or, again, she could have been prowling in some of the many
passages about the Narrows."

"All right," George declared, stubbornly, as though his mind were set,
and nothing could move him; "you mark my word, Jack, we'll set eyes on
that sneaker again, before we're done with this trip."

"Oh, perhaps!" said Jack, turning away, as though the subject did not
interest him to any great extent; for he did not happen to be built on
the same lines as his chum, who had a little more than his share both of
suspicion and also curiosity.

The next day they anxiously waited for Jack's decision; but the wind was
much too strong, and from a quarter that caused whitecaps to appear out
on the ocean.

So the start had to be postponed, much to the regret of the entire six,
all of whom wished to get the dangerous run over with as speedily as
possible.

"Better luck tomorrow, fellows," said Jack, who had made it a point to
look at things in the light that it was foolish to worry over what could
not be altered.

"Then here's to put in a whole day, fishing over on that pier at the
beach," declared Nick, making a run for the place where the three motor
boats were at anchor.

"Whirra! now, if ye do be afther thinking ye're going to get me goat,
it's another guess ye do be having, I'm telling ye, Nick, me bhoy!"
remarked Jimmy, as he also hastened away.

And they kept diligently at it through the better part of the entire
day, though with indifferent success. Either the fish were shy, knowing
the grim determination of the two patient anglers, or else it was a poor
day for the sport.

When they mutually agreed to give it up, while they had a mess that
would do for supper, neither of them had added any notch to his record
for big fish.

As October is possibly the best time of the year to expect quiet weather
along the South Atlantic coast, Jack had high hopes that the morrow
would see them on their way toward Miami. Nor were his expectations
doomed to disappointment, for in the morning there seemed to be not the
slightest reason for further postponing the run.

Accordingly hurried preparations for breakfast were made, in order to
take full advantage of the opportunity.

All of them were glad when they made the dash over the Lake Worth bar in
good order, and found themselves on the heaving bosom of the mighty sea,
with their motor boats pointing to the south.

Steadily they kept on, as the hours passed, and the sun mounted in the
sky. Jack was ever on the watch for any sign of a change, knowing what
such might mean to cruisers in small boats caught far from a harbor.

Jimmy was watching his face, under the belief that he could tell in
that way if any trouble threatened. When he saw how the skipper of the
_Tramp_ turned his glasses frequently toward the southwest, he took a
look in that quarter himself.

"And is it the clouds that do be paping up along beyant the shore line
giving ye concern, Jack?" he asked, a bit anxiously.

"Well, I don't know as they mean much, but all the same I think I'd feel
better if we were swinging to our mudhooks back of Key Biscayne," Jack
replied.

"About how far do we chanst to be away, this minute?" the other
continued.

"All of ten miles, which would mean an hour's run for the _Comfort_.
This is the time when she drags us back. George and myself could have
made shelter an hour ago, if we had wanted to put on all speed. And I
just know George is growling to himself right now, because he has to
check his love for racing along."

Jack had hardly said these words when Jimmy broke out into a laugh.

"Now, that do be a toime when ye are away off, me bhoy," he remarked.

"In what way, Jimmy?" demanded the skipper, laying his glasses aside,
and taking the wheel from the hands of his helper.

"If so ye take a look over to the blissed ould _Wireless_, upon me worrd
ye'll discover that the bally boat has stopped short. Like enough that
ingine has gone back on poor George again, just as it always does when
we get in a place where it counts. Yes, he's beckoning for us to come
close. That's what it must mean, Jack."

"Whew! that would be tough luck!" muttered Jack, as he changed the
course of the little _Tramp_, and again cast an uneasy look in the
direction where those suspicious and dark clouds were shoving their
heads above the horizon.

A storm, and the _Wireless_ helpless--the prospect was surely anything
but pleasant.



CHAPTER V.

THE MYSTERIOUS POWER BOAT.


"Jerusalem! if I owned that engine, George, do you know what I'd do with
it?" Nick was heard to say, as the others drew near. "Why, I'd take the
first chance, when in touch with a town, and sink her miles deep. Hang
it, I'd be willing to contribute half the money I've got saved, to help
get a new engine for the old shaker."

"All right, I take you up on that offer, Nick," George made answer, as
quick as a flash; "because, to tell the honest truth, I'm getting weary
of the cranky thing myself. But that isn't going to help us any now.
Lend a hand here, and let's see what we can do to mend matters."

"Hold on there, fellows," called out Jack.

"Hello! here's the commodore arrived," George sang out, with a nervous
little laugh. "Same old story, Jack; and blessed if I can say how long
it'll take to fix her up again, so she'll do business. Might be ten
minutes; and again I'm afraid it may be something serious this time,
that will keep me busy hours."

"Well, we can't stay out here all that time, with a storm in prospect,"
said Jack.

"Thunder! what's that you say?" broke from the perspiring skipper of the
stalled _Wireless_, as his head again bobbed up into view, and he swept
an anxious look in all quarters.

"There's a bank of clouds poking up over yonder that may mean trouble,"
Jack went on to say. "So just get your stoutest cable hitched to a cleat
forward, and pass me the other end."

"What for?" asked George.

"I'm going to tow you, that's all," Jack replied.

"Shucks! is that necessary?" demanded the proud George, with a slight
frown.

"It sure is, for every furlong we cover now brings us that much nearer a
safe harbor; and if those clouds are out for business, we'll need all we
can gain," Jack went on to insist.

"Then I suppose I'll just have to," the other continued; "here, Nick,
get out the hawser, and I'll clamp it on to this cleat. But see here,
Jack, after you get started, Nick can keep watch while I work at the
engine, can't he?"

"Nothing for him to do but hold the wheel and keep straight after me.
Perhaps when the little _Tramp_ does her prettiest, the two of us can
keep going as fast as the _Comfort_ goes; and so nothing will have been
lost after all, George."

"That's true; only I don't like it one little bit," grunted George,
as he commenced to fasten one end of the hawser to the stout little
cleat--for, to tell the truth, George was a mighty poor loser.

Once Jack had the other end of the line, he made it secure to the stern
of his own staunch boat.

"Here goes now; look out!" he warned, as he started forward once more.

The three boats had been wallowing on the heaving seas while power was
shut off; but no sooner did they pick up their course again, than this
sickening motion gave way to that of progress.

George took off his coat, and got busy. He was considerable of a
mechanic, and at least possessed the commendable trait of persistence.
Once he had started to do a thing he never rested satisfied until it was
accomplished.

"Seems like you're doing just as well pulling that wreck as we are
alone!" called Herb from the _Comfort_, which was not more than fifty
feet away.

George's head came into view above the gunwale of the speed boat, but
somehow this time he was feeling quite too bad to take up cudgels in
defense of his craft. Besides, there was truth in calling her a wreck
just then. So he ducked down once more and pretended not to have heard
the sarcastic allusion.

"Just what I expected when I proposed to tow George," Jack answered; and
then he turned the glasses ahead to a point that seemed to interest him
considerably.

"Think that can be the place?" asked Herb, still watching him closely.

"I believe it is, yes, and hope so, too," came the reply, together with
a significant glance upward to where the clouds were beginning to shut
out the sun, now on its way down the western sky.

"I see you're edging in more?" Herb continued.

"That's right," answered Jack; "we'd better be as near land as we dare
go. It may mean a heap to us sooner or later."

They went on for some time, with things seeming to be no different,
only the clouds kept covering the sky, making the water look dark and
forbidding. Indeed, all of the boys were now considerably alarmed. The
storm seemed to be getting closer, and their haven had not as yet hove
in sight.

"That's because we're coming down from the north," explained Jack, when
Nick called out to mention this distressing fact. "You see, the trees
all run together, and it's next to impossible to tell where the mainland
ends off and the key begins. But I think I get the dividing line through
the glasses. Anyhow, I'm heading straight for it right now."

Ten minutes later and Josh called out, to say that he could see the
opening all right; and the others added their evidence to what he said.

"There's the new breeze coming, Jack!" called Herb.

"Yes, and the harbor is so close too," George put in, as he arose from
his lowly position. "But I reckon my engine will go now, Jack. If you
hear her crackle, please cast off that hawser, will you?"

"Sure!" sang out Jimmy, as he climbed forward, Jack having taken the
wheel himself some little time previous, so as to be prepared for any
emergency that might arise.

A moment later and there was a merry popping from the mended motor of
the _Wireless_, and immediately Jimmy heard this he cast the rope loose.

"Better make a plunge for it, George; I'll stand by Herb!" sang out
Jack.

"But that wouldn't look right," objected George, though doubtless he
would feel better satisfied if given a chance to make use of the great
speed his boat could show under special conditions, in order to get in a
harbor before the blow struck them.

"Rats! get along with you. We understand what your feelings are; but we
also know what a cranky boat you've got. Hit her up now, and skedaddle!"
called Jack.

"Are you saying that as a chum, or as the commodore of the fleet?" asked
George.

"As the commodore; and see to it that you obey orders," answered the
other.

Accordingly, George did put his motor to its best speed, and rapidly
left them in the lurch. Jack would never desert the steady going old
_Comfort_, and that wide-beamed craft was already working her full limit
of nine miles to the hour, so nothing could be done but keep moving, and
hope for the best.

The wind increased. Luckily it was dead ahead; and while it might retard
their progress to some extent, at the same time it did not kick up half
the tremendous sea that would have been the case had it come from the
wide ocean at their back, or the port side.

"Do ye be thinking we can make it?" asked Jimmy, who looked a little
peaked as he squatted there, watching the tumbling waves, and eying
wistfully the shores now close at hand, where houses were to be seen.

"I don't doubt it for a minute," answered the resolute skipper of the
_Tramp_, who always refused to be downcast when face to face with
danger. "We're hitting up a pretty fair pace, and if nothing happens to
prevent, in ten minutes we'll begin to get the benefit of the shelter of
the land."

"Anyhow, George has gone through the opening," declared Jimmy,
hopefully.

"Why, yes, there he is beyant, and in calm water; I do believe he's
waiting for us right now. Bully for George! And we ought to be with him
soon."

Although the storm increased, they were by now so well in that it had
little terror for them. And presently they ran into calmer waters, where
the other boat waited for their coming.

After that it did not take the boys long to pick out a nook where they
could be sheltered to a great extent from the blow. And here they
anchored, very thankful because of their safe arrival near Miami, after
making such a record run outside, where their boats looked like tiny
chips on the wide, heaving sea.

All of them were tired, and welcomed the coming of night, when they
could partake of supper, and perhaps gather around a camp-fire ashore.

Jack had seen that there were quite a number of other boats of all
kinds scattered around the bay. Some were anchored off cottages, while
others scudded for the home port before the storm increased to violent
proportions. Although the time for West India hurricanes was long since
past, any blow along the coast may mean peril to small craft, and they
considered it safer to get into shelter before the worst came.

Jack was doing some little work aboard the _Tramp_ when a boat scraped
alongside.

"Hello!" he exclaimed, as George climbed aboard; "what brings you over
here?"

"Let me have your glasses, won't you, Jack?" asked the other,
mysteriously.

"That sounds mighty like you thought you had made some discovery,
George. Say, three to one it's about that power boat that is a ringer
for the _Tramp_?"

"Go up head, Jack, because you've guessed it the first clat out of the
box. Good for you! Now I'll satisfy my mind about one thing, and find
out whether they are watching us every time we happen to run together."

"So that's the boat anchored away over yonder, is it?" Jack mused. "For
all we know it may belong to the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, and be at
home right now."

"Huh! just as I thought," grunted George.

"What's that?" demanded the other.

"There's a feller sitting on deck right now, and I'll be hanged if he
hasn't got a pair of marine glasses in his hands, leveled straight at
us. Didn't I tell you, Jack, there's something mysterious about that
boat? They are keeping tabs on us right along. Perhaps they're down here
to follow us, though what for I declare if I can guess. There, I guess
he saw I had a pair of glasses leveled at him, for he dodged inside the
cabin like a flash. Jack, whatever can it mean?"

"You've got me guessing, George, and I'll have to pass," laughed the
other, although admitting to himself that the circumstances were
beginning to savor more of mystery than up to now he had been willing
to acknowledge.



CHAPTER VI.

NICK TRIES AGAIN.


"Jimmy, strike up a bar of 'Nancy Lee,' or the 'Larboard Watch,' while
we're moving at this snail's pace along this shallow shore, looking for
some nice place to camp."

"That's right, Jimmy, just as Jack says; it would sound right to hear
music, for this is by a long shot the dreariest place we've struck yet.
Tune up your lyre, then, or your banjo--I don't care which--and give us
a song."

Accordingly, when thus pressed by the skipper, not only of his own boat
but Herb as well, Jimmy reached in the cabin, and taking hold of his
never far distant banjo, commenced to plunk away.

He had a fine mellow voice, and the rest of the boys never tired of
hearing him sing. All of them joined in the chorus, though Josh squeaked
so that he would have killed the whole melody, only that the volume of
sound was so great the discordant vein could not easily be detected.

The three motor boats were almost drifting along among the many keys
bordering the extreme southern shore of Florida; and the time was just
three days after we saw them reach the vicinity of Miami.

They had passed from Cards Sound into Barnes Sound, and marveled at the
wonderful construction of the concrete railway arches, by means of which
the East Coast Line expected in the near future to reach far distant Key
West, passing from key to key the entire distance, often over wide
stretches of open sea.

Cape Sable lay not a great distance ahead. Once the little flotilla had
rounded this tip end of the peninsula, they would begin their northward
voyage.

The prospect for a camp ashore did not look any too brilliant, and as
the afternoon waned, even sanguine Jack began to despair of finding any
solid ground. In all directions could be seen the interminable mangrove
islands, where swamp abounded, and landing was next to absurd.

When the wash of the sea proved too heavy they had managed to keep
some key between, and thus far had come on without any accident. Even
George's eccentric motor had been upon its best behavior, but none of
them placed much reliance upon it any longer.

"The tricky thing just seems to know when to lay down and quit," grumbled
Nick, when George mustered up faith enough to actually say a good word
for the engine again. "It bides its time, and when we need it most of
all, it flunks. I'm going to hold you to your word, George, when we get
to Tampa, where there's a chance to pick up another machine to put in
here."

"Oh, all right!" declared the other, "since you agreed to stand for half
the expense, why should I have any kick coming? Only I hope the new
engine can walk her along as good as this one, when she feels like it."

"Hang the speed part!" cried Nick, again rubbing himself as though his
muscles were becoming sore in a chronic way; "if only the plagued thing
won't prove a quitter. I hate anything that lies down on you, when
you've gone and soaked your trust in it, that's what."

"I think I see a place ahead that looks fairly promising, mates," sang
out Jack, at this point in the discussion.

"Good for you, Jack; take us to it right away. I'd give a heap just for
a chance to get out and just stand, without feeling my foundation heave
and wabble under me. Oh! if only I had money enough to coax George to
buy a boat that would let a poor feller part his hair on the side, like
he used to do."

A short time later, and they ran in as near the shore as was deemed
advisable. Here they anchored, with a friendly key protecting them from
any heavy sea that might come up from the south.

"Here's where the homely little dinky is worth its weight in gold,"
remarked Jack, as he prepared to go ashore to look around.

"Yes, only for that we'd have to do the great wading act right along;
and it ain't always convenient to get wet up to your waist," Herb
observed, in a satisfied tone.

Having taken in the prospect ashore, Jack came back again.

"It's all right, fellows," he announced. "High ground for half a mile
inland, and if the bugs allow, we can even sleep ashore tonight."

"Hurrah! that's grand news you're bringing us, Commodore!" cried Nick,
looking happy again. "Now won't I get the kinks out of my system,
though? Last night aboard nearly did for me, and that's no lie, either."

"Huh!" George gave vent to one of his odd grunts, adding: "I reckon it
was nearly the end of me, for you kicked like a steer, and came within
an ace of smothering me the time you rolled over, crowding me to the
wall."

While they were thus joshing each other, all hands were busily engaged
getting such things aboard the little tenders as they knew they would
need for cooking supper ashore. If it were later on decided to remain
there during the night, they could come out again to the anchored motor
boats, and secure blankets, mosquito nets, and what other things were
required.

As usual, they commenced doing various things, each according to his
taste.

George had gone back again to his beloved boat, doubtless to tinker with
her eccentric engine, which he always found a puzzle. Nick wandered off
along the shore, as though looking for shells. Jimmy was pottering with
some of his strong fishing tackle as though he had designs on the scaly
denizens of Barnes Sound, and intended putting out several night set
lines, if Jack could secure any mullet for bait. Herb was stretching
himself on the sand, while Jack and Josh built a little fireplace for
cooking, making good use of some blocks of coquina rock, a mixture of
shells and what looked like cement, and which underlies much of the
eastern shore of Florida.

Presently Jack saw Nick come breathlessly back. He did not say a word
to any one, but, putting off in one of the dinkies, went aboard the
_Wireless_. Two minutes later he appeared again, and Jack saw to his
surprise that he was trying to hide a piece of stout rope under his
coat.

Of course, his curiosity was aroused, but he did not say anything either
to Nick or the others. The fat boy, casting a suspicious glance around,
and with a wide grin on his face when he looked at Jimmy in particular,
again sauntered off. Jack noticed that when he thought he had passed
beyond their range of vision, Nick actually started on a run. No wonder
he had seemed breathless when he came in, if that was what he had been
doing.

"What can the sly fellow be up to?" Jack said to himself. "I believe
I'd better keep an eye open, for he's always so ready to tumble into
trouble."

So as he worked alongside Jimmy, he kept his eyes and ears on the alert.
Perhaps fifteen minutes passed. Then those in camp heard a husky call
that caused them to look up the shore.

It chanced that there was a clump of mangroves at the nearby point, and
around this Nick hove in sight. He seemed to have harnessed himself in
some fashion with the rope, and was tugging with might and main.

"Now, what under the sun can he be doing?" ejaculated the surprised
Herb.

"He's got something along, and seems to be dragging it through the
shallow water!" Josh declared.

"And look at it splash, would you?" Herb went on. "Say, d'ye suppose,
now, Nick's gone and caught a turtle, one of those big loggerheads they
were telling us about?"

"Turtle nothing!" laughed Jack; "that's a fish!"

"A fish!" cried Jimmy, turning pale; "do ye mane to till me he's gone
and caught a _whale_?"

Evidently Jimmy feared for his laurels; he had held the position of
top-notch in the competition almost from the start, and was beginning to
believe that he might never be ousted by the slow-moving fat boy. And
hence the sight of Nick deliberately dragging that immense bulk behind
him gave Jimmy a bad sensation.

As the puffing Nick arrived alongside, it was seen that he had indeed
been dragging a tremendous fish after him. The rope was twisted under
its gills in such a way that it could not come loose.

"What in the dickens is it?" demanded Herb.

"Blest if I know; but it's a _fish_, and that's enough for me!"
announced the red-faced captor.

"Be afther listening to him, now, bhoys," observed Jimmy, looking
dismayed; "by the pipers if he doesn't mane to claim he caught it!"

"Of course, I do!" exclaimed Nick, instantly; "and I'd like to know how
you're going to knock me out of this, like you did that shark. Here I go
fastening on to all sorts of big game, and you always want to question
my right."

"What kind of a fish is it, Jack?" called George, who was coming ashore
to take a closer look at the squirming victim.

"It looks squatty, like a big sea bass, the kind we caught several times
along the coast. I rather think it's what they call a jewfish down
here," Jack replied, after looking the prisoner over.

"Good to eat?" asked Nick, hungrily.

"Oh, yes; they say so; and we'll take a chunk out of him to try," was
Jack's answer. "Where did you get him, Nick?"

"Up the shore a little ways. Do I have to tell just how, Jack?"

"See him try to back out," jeered the envious Jimmy, as his eyes took in
the enormous bulk of the prize, and he mentally figured that it must
weigh all of two hundred pounds, against which his bass of fifteen must
look like a baby.

"Yes, we want to know everything, so begin," declared George.

"Well, when I was walking along, I discovered this silly thing splashing
like Sam Hill close to the shore. He must have been left by the tide,
and was half stranded between two bunches of coquina rock. I had a
sudden wild idea, and hurried back here to get a rope."

"So that's why you wanted it, was it?" cried George. "I was a little
afraid you might be thinking of hanging yourself; but then I expected
the rope would break if you tried that. But go on, Nick."

"Oh, there ain't much to tell, for I just harnessed the old chap up like
you see, worked him loose from the rocky wedge, and dragged him to camp.
But I hope now, after all my hard work, you ain't going to say I didn't
catch that fish. Anyway, our rules read so long as a feller gets the
game by fair means, and without help. Here he is, and you can rig up
some sort of scales to weigh him. What's a few pounds, more or less,
among friends? But what do you say, Jack, Herb, Josh and George?"

"Why, according to the letter of the rules, you win," Jack remarked.

"That's correct," ventured Josh.

"He lost one whopper because he had to have help; but that can't be said
about this prize. Nick, you certainly take the cake," Herb chuckled.

"I agree with the rest; he deserves all he gets," said George.

Jimmy shrugged his shoulders, and made a grimace, as he observed:

"Sure, I do belave the lot of ye are set agin me; but, honest to Injun,
in me own hearrt I do be thinkin' the same. Which laves me a bad second
in the race. But I do not despair of batin' him out yet. Just give me
toime, bhoys, give me toime to get me wits together."

Jack busied himself rigging up a crude scales, whereby two of them could
stand out against the big fish; and in this way it was finally estimated
that Nick's latest capture weighed about two hundred and thirty pounds.

The fat boy was in high glee over his adventure, and burst out into
frequent boasts. He took especial pains to let Jimmy know that the one
who laughed last always laughed hardest.

"Just wait, and say how that same turns out," declared the Irish lad,
seemingly only the more determined to exceed Nick's big score.

So the afternoon passed away, and it came on toward evening.

"Hello! how's this?" remarked Jack, who had been out with George for
some time, taking a look at his motor, and consulting as to the wisdom
of making a radical change when they reached the city of Tampa; "it's
coming on night, and I don't see any signs of supper in sight. And by
the way, where is Josh; I don't happen to set eyes on him around?"

The others stared at each other.

"Why, I remember now, that he asked me for the loan of my gun some
little while back, and said he'd like to take a stroll down the beach,
thinking there might be a bunch of those nice little shore birds on
some mud flat, that he could bring back with him," Herb said, looking
perplexed.

"How long ago was that?" Jack demanded.

"I guess all of an hour; just after you went out when George called."

"Has anybody heard a shot?" asked Jack.

But nobody had; and, as the night came on, the five boys began to realize
that something must surely have happened to their lengthy chum.



CHAPTER VII.

THE LOST CHUM.


Uneasiness increased as the shadows of night began to fall around them;
and the motor boat boys cast many anxious glances toward the gloomy
patches of mangroves along the shore, as well as the denser sawgrass,
dwarf palmetto and trees that covered the mainland.

"I don't like this at all," Jack finally declared. "We've shouted enough
for any one with ears, within half a mile, to have heard us."

"And never had a peep from Josh, that's a fact," declared Nick, whose
cheeks had lost some of their customary color, in the face of this
mystery; for he was very fond of the absent chum.

"Whatever could have happened to the lad?" asked Jimmy.

"It seems hard to believe that he could have lost himself, and wandered
so far away that he couldn't fire his gun, or hear us yell," Herb
observed, frowning.

George plucked at the sleeve of Jack, as he remarked in a low, nervous
tone:

"Now, you don't believe _they_ could have had anything to do with our
chum's disappearance, do you?"

"What in the wide world are you speaking about?" demanded the other,
startled for the moment by the grave way in which George said this.

"Why, you know, that queer lot in the boat that was a ringer for the
_Tramp_," was what George added, quickly.

"Oh! come now, what put that silly notion in your head?" asked Jack;
though at the same time he could not but weigh the startling proposition
advanced by George in his mind, and find himself impressed more or less
by its possibility.

"I suppose," George went on, "because, for the life of me, I just can't
imagine any other reason why the fellow wouldn't do _something_ to let
us know he was alive. If he discovered that he was lost, I'm dead sure
Josh would have sense enough to holler, and fire his gun several times
in succession."

"And we never heard the first sign," declared Herb.

"Well, I've just stood it as long as I mean to," declared Jack.

"Yes; let's get busy and do something," George burst out with, for he
was ever an impetuous fellow, eager to be accomplishing things, and
getting to his intended goal by a short-cut, if possible.

"Jack, say what, and we'll stand by you," Herb spoke up, with a look of
grim determination on his face.

"Them's my sentiments!" affirmed Jimmy.

"Say the word, and we'll all back you up, Commodore!" Nick put in,
puffing his cheeks out, and looking very fierce--for him.

"Well, there's an old saying, you remember," Jack remarked, "to the
effect that if the mountain won't come to you, the next best thing is to
go to the mountain. And if Josh hangs fire about returning to camp, why,
some of us have got to get a hustle on, and look him up. That's plain
enough, I hope."

"It sure is; and we expect you to be the one to lead the rescue party,
Jack," George declared.

"All right; and as there's no time to be lost, let's get busy. Somebody
has to stay here, and guard the camp; and I appoint Nick as the fellow
to take that duty on his shoulders."

When Jack made this declaration, Nick started, and seemed to shiver a
little; but, realizing that all eyes were turned toward him, he braced
up again.

"Oh! all right, Jack, just as you say," he expressed himself.

"Understand," Jack explained, seeing that the fat boy felt hurt; "it
isn't because there's any doubt about your courage and all that; but
none of us can say how far we may have to tramp, or what swamps we'll
have to wade through; and you admit, Nick, that you're not fitted for
campaigning in that line as well as some of the rest of us."

"Sure, I know that," said Nick, heaving a sigh.

"But," continued Jack, as though he had had a second thought, "as three
of us ought to be enough, I guess I'll leave a second guard behind.
Herb, would you mind staying, to keep Nick company? It's just as much a
post of honor as going with George, Jimmy and myself. And you'll have to
keep watch all the time."

"Oh! I'm ready to do just what you say, Jack. I believe you know best;
and while of course I'd rather be with the hunting party, count on me
holding up the other end with Nick here," Herb hastened to declare.

"Then that's settled," Jack went on, relieved to find that his plans
were meeting with next to no opposition. "Of course you'll have your
gun, while each of us will go armed; for there's no telling what we may
meet up with. I'll take the rifle, while George and Jimmy have the
scatter-guns."

"Yes, and if you find Josh, how will you let us know?" Herb asked.

"I'll fire six shots at regular intervals of about two seconds apart. Be
sure to count them carefully if you hear any firing, because in case we
meet up with a prowling panther, or anything like that, the shooting
would be more rapid."

When Jack mentioned that one word "panther," it might have been observed
that Nick's mouth opened, as if sudden dismay had seized hold upon him.
However, once more he summoned his nerve to the fore, and shut his teeth
hard together. It was Herb, fortunately, who advanced the proposition
that must have been buzzing in the brain of the more timid Nick.

"After you've gone, Jack, perhaps it would be just as well for Nick and
myself to go aboard the boats, and hold the fort there. We'll make sure
to keep the fire burning all the while, so you'll have a signal on the
shore, to tell where we are. Is that right, fellows?" he remarked.

"Best thing you could do; and I was just going to say something like
that," was the way Jack put it.

George had made haste to secure the guns, and each of the three now
held a weapon in his hands. They looked very warlike and grim, as the
camp-fire shone on the polished steel; and Nick could, after all, be
pardoned for showing signs of excitement as they prepared to start off.
For Nick was in the main a peaceable lad, who liked not strife under any
conditions.

"Perhaps we'd better give one more halloo before we go?" suggested
George; for the idea of tramping into that mysterious wilderness, with
its swamps and unknown perils, was not to be treated lightly as a
picnic, by any means.

So they all raised their voices, and sent out a series of whoops that
might have made any Indian warrior envious.

"Listen!" cried Jack, after this had gone on for a full minute.

The last echo had died away, and complete silence followed.

"Never a thing!" exclaimed George.

"Oh! hark! what is that?" cried Nick, eagerly.

"Only an owl far away, answering us," Jack declared, promptly.

"Must think we're trying to give him the laugh," Herb remarked; although
he was feeling in anything but a joking mood, with the strange
disappearance of Josh weighing on his mind so heavily.

"Come on, boys," Jack called out. "I've got the lantern lighted, and
we'll try our luck following his trail as long as we are able to see it.
Oh! and Herb, if you and Nick want, you might as well eat something
while we're gone."

"Nixy for me," Herb made answer. "My appetite seems to have gone up the
flue. But we could be cooking something, in case you found Josh, and all
came in hungry."

"Sure, that's right," Nick hastened to add. "It'll give us something to
keep our minds busy, and that means a whole lot. Good-bye, boys; and the
best of luck!"

"We sure hope you find our chum, safe and sound," Herb added, feelingly.

"One thing more," Jack went on to say; "If Josh should happen in while
we're gone, you'll want to let us know."

"That's right; I hadn't thought of that," said Herb.

"Then listen. Fire both barrels of your gun, about two seconds apart.
Then repeat the volley twice more, making six shots in all. We'll
understand what you want to tell us, and that we're needed here. That's
all. Come on, George and Jimmy."

Nick watched them pass away, and the face of the fat boy told that his
soul was troubled. Yet it was not so much of himself he thought, but the
strange mystery hovering over this vanishing of Josh.

Jack knew where the long-legged would-be hunter had last been seen, and
accordingly he made direct for that spot.

Evidently he had no especial trouble in discovering the tracks left by
the heels of Josh's shoes, for those left behind saw the trio move
directly away. Soon the flitting glimmer of the moving lantern vanished
entirely among the thickets covering the land in places.

Josh had headed down the shore when he went forth to try and add to the
camp larder by knocking down a bunch of the tasty little snipe and other
shore birds, flocks of which were seen whenever the tide changed, and
the mud flats became partly bare.

That meant he had gone west, for the boys had fallen into the habit of
saying "down" as long as they were headed south; and until they turned
up the coast it would continue that way.

Jack led with his lantern, and carrying the rifle in his other hand. For
some little time the three boys kept on this way. When the tracks became
harder to see, Jack used his judgment, and managed to pick up the trail
again every time.

All the while George and Jimmy were casting uneasy looks ahead. The moon
being past its prime, would not rise for some time; and as a consequence
all was pitch darkness around them. It was easy to imagine all sorts of
perils lurking in that gloom beyond. Every simple little sound, such as
a stray 'coon scampering away at the coming of the swinging light,
caused them a new quiver.

George could not get that strange motor boat out of his mind. He
believed that it had left Miami ahead of them, for it was gone on the
morning after their arrival. And the chances were that it had come down
here ahead of them.

Having more or less of a vivid imagination, George was picturing all
sorts of strange things as happening. He even looked back along the
career of their chum, Josh, trying to figure out some romantic reason
for these people on the strange craft to want to kidnap the long-legged
youth.

Despite his best efforts, however, this was pretty much a failure. There
never was a fellow with more of an ordinary every-day past than the
said Josh. George had known him since they were kids together, first
starting in to school. His father was one of the substantial men of the
town; and, so far as George knew, there had never been even the faintest
rumor of anything singular attaching to the Purdue family.

So George, baffled in this respect, had to give it up, and confess
himself altogether at sea. But if Josh had simply gone and lost himself,
then why had he not answered their shouts?

They had now been following the trail of the missing chum quite some
time, and found themselves at a considerable distance from camp. Every
now and then, apparently, Josh had made his way to the shore, to find
out whether there were any flocks of birds in sight; but as he still
kept moving on, he evidently met with disappointment.

That he continued to wander on was evidence of a determination to find
some sort of game. Josh was not much of a hunter, and he did hate to be
unmercifully guyed by Jimmy and Nick, whenever he came back empty
handed.

"It can't be long now, before we make some sort of discovery," George
finally remarked.

"I agree with you," Jack said, over his shoulder.

"How far are we from camp now, Jack?" continued the skipper of the
_Wireless_.

"Perhaps a mile, more or less," answered the pilot of the expedition.

"But not so far as to be beyond the sound of the yell we put up, eh?"
continued George.

"Unless Josh suddenly became stone deaf, he must have heard us," replied
the other.

"See here; you've got something on your mind; why not share it with us,
Jack? You're bothered about something, too. If it don't take in those
queer acting fellows on the power boat, what does ail you?" and George
caught hold of his chum as the other arose from examining the trail once
more.

"Oh! I don't know as there could be anything in it," Jack admitted,
slowly, as if loth to air his secret fears.

"But tell us what you do think, even if it does seem impossible, Jack."

"Only this, that if our chum chanced to slip into some muck bed, he
might have been sucked down in the slimy stuff before he could even
shout for help," was the gruesome remark to which Jack gave utterance.



CHAPTER VIII.

TRACKED TO THE BAYOU.


"Oh! I hope it won't turn out as bad as that, Jack!" gasped George.

"The poor spalpeen!" whimpered Jimmy, apparently shocked by what their
leader had just remarked.

"Now," Jack hastened to say, "don't make up your minds, boys, that Josh
has run against that sort of a hard deal, just because it flashed into
my mind. You wanted to know why I was in such a sweat, and I told you.
But, honest Injun, after I've spoken my mind, I just can't bring myself
to believe it. We'll find our chum, sooner or later. Perhaps, after all,
it'll turn out that he had a bad tumble, and hurt himself so he wasn't
able to let us know."

"Well, as long as we're able to follow his trail, we hadn't ought to
give up in despair," George asserted, very sensibly.

"Sure, we've shown in the past that we're not built that way," Jimmy
thought fit to remark, firmly.

"Then let's be going on," Jack wound up the conference by saying.

For the fifth time the trail approached the water again. Josh evidently
hated to give up the idea that had been in his mind when he left camp.
If there were any of those dainty little shore birds to be had, he
wanted to get a crack at the same; though by this time he must have
become aware of the fact that he was wandering much farther away than he
had intended doing in the start.

This time there happened to be quite a deep-seated cove, with a point of
land running out that would completely shut out all sight of the spot
where the three motor boats were anchored, with the camp-fire ashore.

Jack noted this fact; somehow it was impressed on his mind, though he
could not have exactly explained why this should be so, had he been
asked.

The tracks grew fainter, so that it was only by pushing the glowing and
useful lantern down close to the sand that Jack was able to follow the
line by which Josh had pushed his way along.

"Here is where he dropped on his knees, the better to crawl forward,"
whispered the guide; and both George and Jimmy could make out the deeper
impressions that undoubtedly must have been made by a pair of knees
pressing down.

There was a screen of saw palmetto in front of them, hiding the water.
Perhaps Josh had discovered a flock of the coveted birds on a bar, and
was making his way to a point he had in mind, where he might suddenly
rise, and fire. But something must have prevented his carrying out this
plan, then, for certainly the sound of a heavy shotgun charge could have
been heard at the camp, had he pulled trigger. "Wait here for me, and
keep quiet," whispered Jack, as, leaving the lantern on the ground, he
started away.

His two companions were rendered almost speechless by his strange
action. They could only stare at each other, and nod their heads, as
though striving in this way to communicate their fears.

In two minutes Jack came back. He looked disappointed as he stooped to
pick up the lantern again.

"Nothing doing, boys," he said, quietly.

"They don't seem to be, and that's a fact," mumbled Jimmy, much
depressed.

"See here, what did you expect to find when you went on there?" demanded
George, immediately suspicious. "Was it anything about that bally old
boat, the one that's been dogging us all the way down from Jacksonville?
Tell me that, Jack, old top!"

"H'm! perhaps it may be the people aboard that same boat have come to
the conclusion _we're_ doing the dogging. They run across us in all
sorts of unexpected places. And if you stop to remember, George, it's
the other boat that has always slipped away secretly, not us!"

"You're right, it was," George flashed up; "but you didn't answer my
question, Jack."

"Well, I did have your pet hobby in mind when I went on just now, to
take a look at this fine little lagoon; because, with that point of land
standing in a half-moon curve, it looks like a splendid harbor for small
boats. And, to tell you the truth, I picked up the butt end of a
cigarette just back there five feet, one that was thrown away recently,
because no rain or dew had fallen on it!"

"Whew! now, that does look suspicious, I must say," George exclaimed, in
a low and cautious voice.

"But there isn't a sign of any boat in the bayou, as far as I could
see," Jack went on. "Of course, it's so dark now that I wasn't able to
take in the whole bay; but, anyhow, there isn't a light visible."

"And now, what nixt?" asked Jimmy, eager to get at the solution of this
perplexing problem, which was thrilling their nerves more and more as
they made progress.

For answer, Jack moved forward, this time using the friendly lantern as
before. Brushing through the screen of saw palmettos, they could see the
water lapping the shore of the lagoon, though there were still bushes
and tall grass between.

"Hello!"

Uttering this exclamation half under his breath, the leader of the trio
suddenly came to a halt. Jimmy half raised the gun he was carrying, as
though under the impression that they were about to be confronted by
something, either a human enemy or one in the way of a wild beast, that
would bar their further progress.

Then he saw that Jack, instead of showing signs of preparing for battle,
was on his knees, eagerly examining certain marks in the sand.

"What have you found?" asked George, in an awed tone.

"As near as I can make out, there are tracks that seem to tell of a
scuffle!" was the ready reply, as Jack pointed here and there.

"By the great horn spoon, but I believe you're right!" gasped George.

"It's either that, now, or else the gossoon's been and had a fit," Jimmy
declared, though he could not remember that Josh had ever been addicted
to such things.

"No; there have been two men here," said Jack.

"Glory be!" ejaculated the Irish lad.

"Tell us how you know that, Jack?" asked George, his face struggling
between a grin and a look of alarm.

"Why, it's as plain as print; and if you look here, you'll see the marks
of their shoes. Both seem much larger than Josh ever made, and yet they
are different, for one had heels, and the other must have been wearing
some sort of moccasin, perhaps the kind I've got, to be used aboard a
small, varnished decked boat, so as to avoid scratching."

"Didn't I say so?" burst out George, unable to hold in any longer.
"After this you won't think I'm off my base when I mention my suspicions
about fellows who run away in the night, peek through marine glasses at
us every chance they get, and just act like a parcel of sneaks. Jack,
that fly-up-the-creek power boat must have been in this bayou when our
chum came crawling through these bushes, and took a look out."

"That's about what I'm thinking, now," admitted the other.

"Some of the men happened to be ashore, and saw him spying on the boat?
Is that in line with what you think, Jack?"

"It looks that way. Two unknown parties certainly dropped down on Josh
while he was lying here. He put up as good a fight as he could, but they
were too much for the poor fellow," Jack went on, looking as though he
might be reading all these things from the marks upon the sand.

"But you don't say any signs of blood, do ye, Jack darlint?" asked
Jimmy, with a plain vein of horror in his quavering voice.

"No, I'm glad to say I don't," replied the other. "So, on that account
it would seem that the fellows haven't actually hurt Josh, only made him
a prisoner."

Jimmy gave a bleat, not unlike the pitiful sound a distressed goat might
emit.

"Och! thin the bally rascals have carried him away wid them, and we'll
niver set eyes on our chum agin. Whirra! whativer will Nick do about his
rations, if the cook of the bunch be lost, strayed or stolen?" he
whimpered.

"Nick be hanged!" said George, vehemently, though in a low tone; "never
fear but he'll get all he wants to eat. What we have to find out is
where they've gone, and why they dared carry Josh Purdue away with them.
And we'll just do that same, if it takes the whole of the winter. You
hear me speaking, don't you? Oh! what did you do that for, Jack?"

This last sentence was caused by a sudden action on the part of Jack. He
had raised the lantern, and with a quick, downward motion caused the
light to go out--a trick readily learned by any one who will take the
trouble to experiment. And thus they were left standing there in the
dark.

"How under the sun did it happen that none of us saw it before?" Jack
was softly saying, in a vexed tone, as though he had made a discovery
that agitated him.

"Saw what?" asked George.

"Bend your head this way, and look yonder through the bushes," Jack told
him.

"Great governor!" whispered the _Wireless_ skipper, hoarsely; "it _is_ a
light, as sure as shooting! And on the water, too, Jack. Say, that power
boat must be over there, in another bayou just beyond. There's a neck of
land runs out, and it's covered with trees and scrub. That's why we
didn't glimpse that light before."

"You've hit the nail on the head, George, for that's just the way the
land lies," Jack went on, trying to control his voice, which would
tremble a little despite his utmost endeavors. "But perhaps that light
wasn't shining a bit ago. There, look! it's disappeared again."

"That's what it has," Jimmy observed, having been an interested observer
all the while; "just for all the worrld loike a windy had been opened,
and shut again. I do be thinking mesilf that somebody was afther coming
out of the cabin to take a look around, and lift the door open the
while, that's all. Now he's gone in again, by the same token."

"I hope, then, he didn't just catch a glimpse of our light moving,
before I doused the glim," was the fervent wish expressed by Jack.

"I hardly think he did, Jack," George said, nervously. "You see, it was
standing on the ground up to the time you grabbed it up again. But what
ought we do now?"

"Make our way around that tongue of land the best way we can, and see
how things are there," Jack replied, without the slightest hesitation.

"Why not follow the beach around?" George suggested.

"Now, that wouldn't be a bad scheme. It's so dark that if we kept
low, they couldn't see us moving. And, besides, it'll save a lot of
scrambling through that brush, without the help of the lantern. All
right; come along then, boys. And let's remember to keep as quiet as an
owl in the daytime."

Saying this in a whisper, Jack led the way, the others following along
in Indian file at his heels. Whenever he halted for any reason, both
George and Jimmy would also draw up instantly. And no doubt, on every
occasion of this sort, their excited pulses would cause their hearts to
beat like trip-hammers.

Just as they had guessed, there was a point of land running out all of
seventy feet into the water, and hiding the next bayou. Sometimes these
extend from the main Florida shore around Barnes Sound like the fingers
of a human hand. Again they will be in the form of reefs, composed of
small, sharp-edged 'coon oysters, that stick up out of the salt water at
low tide, but are entirely submerged when the flood comes on.

Before reaching the extreme point, Jack concluded that it would be wise
for them to pass over here, rather than risk discovery by going to the
limit of the cape; where, with the white sand to serve as a background
to their darker bodies, some one on the watch might discover their
approach, and give warning.

"Jack, I see it!" whispered George, presently.

"The boat, you mean," replied the other, in the same guarded tone. "Yes,
I've caught her, too. But everything seems to be dark around."

"I wonder now, have they deserted the ould craft," suggested Jimmy.

"Not so loud, Jimmy; we've got to find that out for ourselves," Jack
went on.

"By going aboard, you mean, don't you, Jack?" from eager George.

"There's no other way; and if these people are holding our chum
a prisoner, we've just got to let them know we object to such a
high-handed business. Are you both willing to stand back of me, George,
Jimmy?"

"Every time," George replied; and Jack could easily imagine how his
excitable chum must be nerved up to the highest tension.

"Ye c'n count on me, through thick and thin, sink or shwim, survive or
perish," Jimmy put in, as solemnly as though he might be holding up his
hand, and subscribing to the oath before the court.

"Then come on, and we'll take the bull by the horns," said Jack, moving
forward through the thin growth that marked the spit of land near its
terminus.

"And don't let's forget, fellows, that we're armed to the teeth,"
whispered George, as he set out to trail close behind his leader.

In this manner, then, the three motor boat boys crawled across to the
shore of the other little bayou, bent upon making a bold move looking to
rescuing their comrade, if so be Josh were found to be a prisoner in the
hands of the strangers.



CHAPTER IX.

FOR THE SAKE OF CHUM JOSH.


It seemed to Jack Stormways that all his senses must be on the alert
as never before. Even the slightest sound caught his attention--the
rustling of a prowling 'coon through the saw palmetto scrub; the splash
of some fish jumping out of the water of the lagoon; and from a distance
came strange, querulous noises which he guessed must proceed from some
bird roost, situated in the depths of a swamp, although Jack knew very
little about such places from actual experience.

Having passed partly over the point of land, they could just begin to
make out the boat that lay in the next bayou. And George's imagination
worked overtime, so that he was positive he could recognize the familiar
outlines of the craft that looked like the _Tramp_.

Once Jack came to a stop. Possibly he only meant to take an observation,
in order to make sure that the coast was clear; but the other boys at
once jumped to the conclusion that he had seen some sign of trouble
ahead.

"What is it?" whispered George, making a nervous forward thrust with his
gun, as though eager to mix up, if so be one came along; while Jimmy
edged up on the other side, quivering with anxiety, too.

Jack bent his head lower before making a reply; for he knew the danger
of allowing his voice to rise above the faintest murmur. The lapping of
the waves on the sandy beach close by, together with those strange
sounds from the interior, might go far toward muffling speech, but if
suspicious ears were on the alert it were folly to take unnecessary
chances.

"Nothing. I was only looking. All seems quiet, boys, so come on," he
said; and no doubt the throbbing hearts of the other lads eased down in
the strain.

So once more they started to advance, with the border of the lagoon now
close at hand. All of them could by this time make out the fact that the
boat must be anchored in shallow water near the shore. Perhaps those
aboard had neglected to provide themselves with a dinky; and in
consequence had to rely upon finding some place where they could push
the power boat in, by loosening the anchor cable.

The light breeze that caused the waves to gently roll up on the sand was
coming from the southwest. Hence it was that the boat lay almost stern
on, showing part of her starboard quarter.

When they had reached a point close to the water's edge, the three boys
again instinctively came to a halt, to once more scrutinize the craft.

No lantern hung there to serve as a riding light; it was not needed, as
would have been the case in a crowded harbor. Faint, indeed, the chance
of any other boat running them down here in this secluded spot.

George had unconsciously laid a hand on the arm of Jack as they thus
crouched and gazed. His fingers suddenly tightened their hold.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, "did you see that?"

"'Sh!" breathed Jack, hastily. "Yes, I was watching. Some one brushed
aside the curtain that covers the cabin bullseye, and light shone
through. That settles one thing, George."

"That they're aboard!" echoed the other.

"Yes."

"But, we go on, don't we, Jack?" begged the impetuous George.

"I should say, yes; for we believe our chum is being held a prisoner on
that same boat. Make your mind easy, both of you; it isn't going to get
away from us now. We've gone too far to hold back."

"That's the stuff!" whispered the delighted George; while Jimmy
muttered his assent, which was none the less fervent because the words
were inaudible.

Once before, on a cruise the motor boys were making on the waters of the
faraway North, they had had a stirring encounter with some lawless men
who were fleeing from officers sent to apprehend them. On that occasion
Jack and his chums had managed to give considerable assistance to the
legal authorities; and it was largely through their work that the
fugitives were finally apprehended.

No doubt this circumstance must have loomed up large in the memory of
George right then and there. He had long ago made up his mind that the
mysterious persons on board the boat that looked like the _Tramp_ were a
couple of rascals, who felt afraid of the cruisers for some reason or
other. And now, that it seemed they had set upon poor Josh, making him
prisoner, and carrying him aboard, the conditions became darker than
ever.

It was the greatest mystery the boys had ever struck. Even Jack, with
his usual keen intellect, was utterly unable to determine what these men
could want with the missing crew of the _Comfort_; Josh, a fellow who
seldom made enemies among his companions, and simply devoid of evil
intent.

Perhaps they had discovered him creeping through the scrub, either to
get a shot at some shore birds or to examine the anchored power boat, in
which he knew George at least was deeply interested. If they were men
fleeing from the sheriff, his actions might have looked so suspicious to
them that they were impelled to pounce on him without giving warning.

Many were the explanations that surged through the excited brains of the
three lads in the brief space of time occupied in reaching the shore of
the second lagoon.

As they stood there, George and Jimmy content to follow the lead of
Jack, no matter what that might mean, a low murmur came to them. It was
as if those inside the cabin of the boat might be conversing among
themselves.

Jack listened intently. Perhaps he even entertained a faint hope that he
might hear the high-pitched voice of Josh above the rest; for the tall
boy had a way of using the rising inflection when in the least excited.
But the fact of the cabin being closed prevented his discovering any
marked difference between the tones of those who were speaking.

George and Jimmy were waiting to see what means their leader would
adopt, in order to gain the deck of the little craft. The boat lay at a
distance of perhaps twenty feet from the edge of the water. Judging from
the fact that the beach was sandy there could be no question but what,
if they picked their way, they might be able to wade out, without
getting in any deeper than hip-high at most.

When Jack hesitated for that half minute, with the little waves crawling
up to his feet, it was because he wished to make sure that there was
no one upon the stern of the swinging power boat, to discover their
advance.

Having made sure of this fact, he would boldly push forward, entering
the water, regardless of the fact that their shoes must suffer in
consequence.

When he took the first step, the others were alongside. They fancied
that the time had gone by for them to follow _after_ Jack; if a battle
were imminent, their place must be on the firing line, where numbers
would count for something. For did they not grip weapons as well as
Jack; and were they not just as anxious to effect the rescue of their
missing chum?

Once Jimmy stumbled, and made quite a little splash ere he recovered his
footing. It may have been a jellyfish upon which he placed his foot, and
which caused him to slide; or some obstacle in the shape of a clump of
'coon oysters. The cause was immaterial; but what splash he made gave
them all a thrill, since they fully expected that it would bring about
discovery.

At the time it chanced that they had passed over more than half the
distance separating them from the boat, and were standing up to their
knees in the water.

Jack noted that the murmurous sound which they had decided must be the
mingling of voices, had suddenly stopped. From this he imagined that
those within the closed cabin of the power boat had heard the splash
and were waiting for a repetition of the same, in order to gauge its
meaning.

Would they come out to investigate? If so, what should be the programme
of the three who stood there in the water? None of them had ever fired a
shot at a human being in all their lives; and the mere thought of such a
thing was distasteful to them. At the same time, if their comrade were
in the hands of unscrupulous men, and heroic measures had to be adopted
in order to effect his release, not one of them would hesitate.

Jack often looked back to that strained moment, when he and his comrades
stood there, knee deep in the lagoon, within a dozen feet of the
mysterious little power boat, keyed up to a condition when their nerves
were all on edge, and waiting for whatever might happen. He could feel
a sense of amusement over it, too, at some future time; but it was
certainly no laughing matter then.

Then there suddenly flashed out a broad beam of light. The door of the
cabin had been opened; and, as those standing there in the water were
directly behind the stern, the light fell full upon them.

Jack saw a figure push into view. Outlined against the lighted interior
of the boat it stood up in plain sight, and they could even make out the
fact that the unknown party wore knickerbockers, as though dressed for
an outing.

Of course he must have discovered the threatening trio there just as
soon as he thus partly emerged from the cabin. They could tell this from
the way in which he stood as if riveted to the spot, making no motion
either to advance further, or retreat back into the recesses of the
boat's interior.

Jack did not mean to give him a chance to take the initiative. He raised
his gun, and immediately covered the unknown party; which action was
accepted as proof by his two chums that they were to follow suit, and
they proceeded to do so.

If astonishment had held the man motionless up to this moment, a due
sense of caution kept him so after he discovered those three menacing
guns turned full in his direction. Apparently he must be either stunned
by the situation that had burst upon him without warning; or else he
kept his head, and knew there was only one thing to do in order to avoid
trouble, which was to submit to the inevitable.

"Don't think of trying to drop back into that cabin," said Jack, in a
voice that was quite stern, even if it did quiver a little; "we've got
you covered all right, and you might as well surrender!"

"That's the ticket!" rasped George, trying to seem very formidable, in
order to hide the fact that his knees were knocking together just a
trifle, with excitement of course, not fear!



CHAPTER X.

ABOARD THE STRANGE POWER BOAT.


"Well, this _is_ a rich joke!" laughed the man. "Just keep your fingers
from pressing those triggers, please, boys. No danger of my trying the
disappearing act. Fact is, we've been expecting you to come along for
some time now."

Jack was not going to allow himself to be deceived. "Soft words buttered
no parsnips," he had often heard his mother say; and because this
unknown fellow chose to talk smoothly, was no sign that he should be
trusted.

And so he continued to keep his gun raised, seeing which the others did
likewise.

"That's nice, to hear you say such fine things; but what we want to know
is, what have you done with our chum?" he demanded.

"Yes, tell us that!" said George, menacingly.

"Sure, we want to know, by the same token!" observed the Irish lad.

"Oh! he's aboard our boat, just now, and will be glad to welcome you,"
the other party remarked, coolly. "And I hereby invite you one and all
to come along to see for yourselves. It's a mistake all around, I guess.
Please accept my invitation in the same friendly spirit in which it is
given, and honor us with your company, boys. Josh is getting back to his
old self, but he had a nasty tumble, I give you my word."

"What's that?" asked Jack.

"He tripped over a root," said the man, earnestly, "and struck his head
on a lump of coquina rock. It made a bad cut on the side of his head,
and he bled quite a little. Besides, the blow must have knocked him
senseless. My friend Carpenter and myself were just coming back to the
boat, after a little side hunt for a deer, when we discovered him lying
there, and took him aboard. After he came to, he told us who he was, and
all about the rest of you. And am I right in believing that you are Jack
Stormways?"

Of course the three boys were more or less thunderstruck by what they
had just heard. It knocked all their theories "into flinders," as Jimmy
would have said. Here they had been concocting all manner of wonderful
stories in connection with the two parties aboard the little power boat.
They had even gone so far as to believe the men must be some desperate
characters, fleeing from the sheriff, who might turn up at any hour in
full pursuit.

And now, from what the other had just declared, it would seem that the
shoe was exactly on the other foot. Instead of proving to be lawless
men, criminals in fact, they gave evidence of turning out to be Good
Samaritans. Why, Josh might have been in a bad way, only for them,
according to what the man had just said.

But could he be believed? Might it not all be a part of some clever
trap? George, always inclined toward suspicion, would have held back,
had the decision been left to him; Jack was inclined to take the man's
word, for he had a frank way about him; while Jimmy was hanging in the
balance, hardly knowing what to believe.

Just then there came a shout from within the cabin of the little boat.

"Hello, Jack; it's all right!"

All of them readily recognized the well known voice of Josh; and his
assurance went far toward alleviating the fear George entertained, that
danger lurked in their putting themselves in the power of the unknown
parties.

"You hear what your mate says, Jack?" remarked the man whose figure was
outlined against the glow of the cabin's interior. "Tell them to come
aboard, and see what we did for you, Josh."

"That's just what, fellers. Nobody could have been kinder. Don't stop
there, but push your way aboard. Cabin's small; but you can all get your
heads in," Josh went on to say.

Of course, after that even suspicious George saw no reason for holding
back longer. So the three splashed along until they stood hip-deep in
the lagoon. The man even stretched out a hand and assisted Jack aboard,
as though he bore them not the least bit of malice for having held him
up at the muzzle of their guns.

As Jack clambered aboard, the first thing he saw through the opening
was Josh, with a bandage around his head, which showed signs of gore,
telling that he must have received something of a bad cut when he
tripped and fell.

Then all those signs around the spot, which they supposed meant a
struggle between the boy and his two captors, had in reality been made
when the men attempted to lift Josh, and carry his senseless form to
their boat near by.

Well, one thing was apparently explained. There was no longer any
mystery as to why Josh had failed to respond when they shouted, and
fired their guns. If at the time, he was lying there senseless, he could
not very well be expected to give an answering halloo. But then, why had
not these two men done something to let his companions know what had
befallen him?

That was what puzzled Jack. He should have thought that the very first
thing to occur to them would be to send word to the camp of the motor
boat boys--unless, now, there was some good reason for holding back
until they could question Josh, and make sure that he did not have any
connection with the sheriff and his posse!

"This is my friend, and cruising partner, Mr. Bryce Carpenter," said the
one who had thus far been conducting the conversation from their side.
"My own name is Sidney Bliss. How about your friends, Jack?"

"George Rollins, the first one, and Jimmy Brannigan the other," Jack
immediately spoke. "We've left two more in camp, while we hunted for our
lost chum. Hello! Josh; awful glad to find you alive and kicking; but
don't like the looks of that bloody pack around your head."

"Huh! I guess I got a pretty hard knock on my coco, all right," grinned
Josh; and he did look so comical, with that turban-like bandage, and
his face flecked with little specks of dried blood, that Jimmy burst out
into a merry laugh.

"Sure, ye did, Josh, ye spalpeen!" he declared, thrusting one arm into
the cabin, so as to clutch the hand of the discovered comrade; "but 'tis
a tough nut ye're afther having, I do declare, which is a fortunate
thing for ye this night."

"All that he told you is square as a die, fellers," Josh went on. "And
they've been mighty kind to me, I give you my word. I didn't know where
I was when I came out of the doze; but they asked me a lot of questions,
and in that way we got to be right well acquainted."

"H'm! you see," the man who had called himself Sidney Bliss hastened to
say, "we had some good reasons for feeling suspicious toward your party,
Jack."

"I don't know why," returned the boy, instantly. "We've come all the way
down the coast from Philadelphia, and never once bothering ourselves
about anybody else's business. George, here, got into rather a little
fever because he said you seemed to be watching us through the glasses
whenever we happened to come near each other, but it was none of our
business, and I wouldn't let it bother me."

That was as plain an invitation for an explanation as could be imagined;
and apparently so the other looked at it.

"Well, after learning just who you were, and that you couldn't have the
least connection with Lenox and his crowd, we had to laugh at our
suspicions," Bliss went on to say.

"We don't happen to know anybody by the name of Lenox, do we, boys?"
Jack took occasion to remark.

"Nixy, not," Jimmy asserted, after his usual manner, while George, too,
shook his head in the negative.

"Only Lenox I ever knew was a sickly little chap who went to the same
boarding school I did about six years ago," he remarked.

"Well, Josh says you're all from out Mississippi way," the man continued,
glibly; "and this Lenox is a New Yorker. Besides, he's a man of about
forty, and not a boy at all. Belongs to the same club Carpenter and
myself do; and thereby hangs the tale that sent us away down here, and
made us eye your crowd with suspicion."

"Yes?" Jack said, feeling that he was expected to make some sort of
remark.

"They told me all about it, fellers," spoke up Josh; "and after you
hear, I guess you'll understand just why they've been playing the
hold-off game they did. It's all as square as you'd want it, take my
affidavy on it."

"Good for you, Josh," laughed Bliss, good-naturedly, as he glanced
quickly toward his companion; and Jack plainly saw him wink his eye
suggestively. "After what we did for you, it's evident that you have
perfect faith in our record. But, as I was saying, Jack, at the club one
evening, we got to disputing, and Lenox, who pretends to be something of
a dashing small boat sailor, dared Bryce and myself to enter into a
competition with himself and some of his friends. That's what took us
down here right now, you see."

"What sort of competition, sir?" asked George, quickly.

"To prove which party might turn out to be the better sailors, we agreed
to make the complete circuit of the coast of Florida in boats no longer
than twenty-three feet; and the ones who reached Pensacola first were to
be declared winners. Neither of us were to accept the least outside aid,
on penalty of being declared losers."

It sounded very nice, and yet Jack could not forget that suggestive look
which had passed between the men. And he wondered if there might not be
something back of the story Bliss was telling, something perhaps much
nearer the truth.

"Oh!" he remarked, "I see now what you mean. You kept watching us, then,
because you suspected we might be your rivals in the race?"

"That's it, Jack," the man immediately burst out with, seemingly
pleased; "you see, my boy, our friend Lenox is known to be rather a
tricky chap. Carpenter and myself came to the conclusion that he might
resort to some scheme to hold us back, and somehow we got to look at
your three boats with suspicion. Of course it was all a silly mistake,
as we know now. But we're glad to have been of some assistance to your
mate, Josh, knowing full well that you'd have done as well by us if the
occasion offered. And, by Jove! you boys beat us all hollow, when it
comes to bold cruising; for Josh has been telling us something of what
you've done. I take off my cap to you, Jack Stormways, as a Corinthian
sailor!"



CHAPTER XI.

IN HONOR BOUND.


"Thank you for the compliment," Jack said; "but there are just six of
us, all told; and each one is as much entitled to your praise as I am."

"I object," George broke in. "Lots of times the pack of us would have
been in a bally lot of hot water only for the clever way you had of
handling things."

"And that's no lie, either!" burst out Jimmy. "Whin there's any credit
flyin' around loose, sure Jack desarves the lion's share, so he does
now."

"Better and better!" cried the man who had given his name as Bliss.
"Why, you're as loyal a bunch of chums as I ever ran across. It's a
rare treat for my friend Carpenter here and myself to meet up with such
fellows, eh, Bryce?"

The way he laid particular emphasis on that name every time he used it
somehow gave Jack the impression that he did not wish the other to
forget who he was! It was of course a queer feeling to have, but the boy
could not get it out of his head.

"How about going back with us, Josh; feel equal to a little walk; or
shall I come around after you in a small boat?" Jack asked.

"Rats! what d'ye take me for?" demanded Josh, indignantly. "Just because
I've got a little puncture in my noggin is no sign I'm out of the
running. Why, course I'll go back with you, and right away, too."

"What's the hurry, boys?" asked Mr. Bliss, quickly.

"Well, for one thing," Jack remarked, "we've got a couple of anxious
chums in camp, who'll be eating their heads off with curiosity to know
what's become of Josh."

"That's right," declared the tall lad, chuckling; "and it's a shame to
keep poor old Nick away from his feed so long. Ten to one he's as hungry
as a bear right now, waiting for grub time to come around."

"But won't you stay and have a bite with us?" asked Mr. Carpenter.
"We're not extra fine cooks, but we've got lots of good stuff aboard."

"That's right kind of you," George thought he ought to say; "but,
considering the circumstances, I reckon we'd better be going, if Josh
says he's fit."

"Well, I'll show you I'm feeling just like myself, and not a bit weak,
after bleeding like a stuck pig," and the long-legged boy started to
climb out of the cabin as he spoke.

"Please wait a minute," Mr. Bliss interrupted. "If you must go, there's
no need of Josh getting himself all wet. You see, we've got it fixed so
we can push ashore by a very little effort on our part, right alongside
the roots of that tree; and where the water chances to be fairly deep.
We had the boat in there when we brought your friend along, and it'll be
easy to get back again. Then a jump lands you, safe and sound."

He snatched up a setting pole, the most useful thing that can be carried
on a cruise along the shallow waters of the keys, and with very little
effort managed to send the anchored boat into the tiny cove, his
companion having loosened the anchor cable meanwhile.

Jack was the first to spring ashore, and the others followed quickly at
his heels, with Josh bringing up the rear, and anxious to prove his
words true about being in first rate condition.

"Glad to have made your acquaintance, boys," said Mr. Bliss; "and if we
happen to cross each others' path again, there's no reason why we
shouldn't be friends, is there?"

"Well, I should say our chum here is under heavy obligations to you,
sir; and on his account, if no other, we'd feel inclined that way,"
returned Jack.

"Shake hands on that, Jack," Mr. Bliss remarked; and each of the four
boys in turn did so, even carrying the friendly act out with the other
skipper of the little power boat.

"The best of luck go with you all!" called out Mr. Bliss, waving his
hand after them.

"Same to you, sir!" replied George, who had apparently quite gotten over
the suspicions by which he had been almost overpowered earlier in the
evening.

And presently, after they had pushed their way across the tongue of land
lying between the two lagoons, they could only tell where the boat which
they had just left lay, by the glowing light flooding out of her cabin.

Jack placed himself at one side of Josh, while George lined up on the
other. But the lanky boy observed these movements with suspicion.

"Hey, what's this mean?" he demanded. "Got an idea I'm apt to keel over
any old minute, have you? Just because I did that silly thing once, now
don't you think she's goin' to get to be a habit with me. That's a
mistake, fellers. I'm tougher'n you reckon on, now. Come along, buck up,
George, and hit up a faster pace."

"Hold on, now," said George, as he struggled with a vine that had caught
him under the chin, and almost lifted him off his feet; "there ain't any
such hurry as all that, you know. It's bad walking here, and I don't
feel like being strangled just yet awhile."

"Yes, pull in your horses, Josh," Jack remarked. "We'll believe you're
all right without you being in such a rush about getting back to camp."

Three minutes later Jack spoke again.

"None of you noticed that either of those gentlemen came ashore after we
left, did you?" he asked, quietly.

"Why, no, of course they didn't," George remarked.

"For what are you askin' that same question?" demanded Jimmy.

"P'raps I might give a guess," remarked Josh, quietly.

"Well, I only wanted to make sure that anything we might say to each
other wasn't likely to get to their ears," Jack went on.

"Say, now you've gone and got me guessing good and hard again,"
remonstrated George. "You seem to just love to say things that sound so
mysterious. Tell a fellow, Jack, there's a good chap, why you don't want
them to hear us talking. Why, we hadn't ought to have anything but good
words to say about those gentlemen after the fine way they acted toward
our chum here."

"That's true enough, George," Jack went on to say; "and make up your
mind I'm the last one to look a gift horse in the mouth to find out his
age; but there were a few things about our two new friends that somehow
made me sit up and take notice; and I wanted to ask Josh here what he
thought."

"I just expected you'd be up to that dodge," the party in question
observed, with a little chuckle, as of amusement. "I knew that if
anybody could get on to their curves, Jack would."

"Curves!" repeated George, wonderingly.

"Sure, he do be thinkin' he's playing baseball again," laughed Jimmy.

"And from the way you talk, Josh," Jack went on, paying no attention to
these side remarks on the part of his other chums, "I can give a guess
that you must have made some little discovery on your own hook that has
told you our two friends might be playing a little game of blindman's
buff with us right now. How is that, Josh?"

"Jack, you're the greatest feller I ever struck, to get on to anything,"
replied the long-legged one, admiringly.

"That isn't answering my question," the other continued.

"Then I'll say, yes," Josh went on.

"Tell us what it was you heard," George asked, once more fairly
boiling with a desire to know everything connected with the mysterious
passengers of the little power boat that had acted so strangely on the
trip down the east coast.

"Hold on a minute," said Josh. "This bandage is slipping down, so I'll
have to get you to fix it for me, boys. Hope the hole's leaked all it's
going to, because I can't afford to lose as much fluid as some fellers,
Nick for instance. There, that feels all right. Now, what was you saying
to me? Oh! yes, about how I happened to get onto the fact that the two
gentlemen that took me aboard their boat might be somethin' else besides
what they said. Was that it?"

"Just what it was!" George came back, knowing how Josh always liked to
beat about the bush more or less before telling anything he knew.

"Well, here's the way it stands, fellers," went on Josh. "You see, after
they carried me on board the boat, I laid there like a mummy in a
trance. But by slow degrees I began to come back again. And all the
while my eyes must have been shut, I could hear some mumbling voices,
though for the life of me I couldn't make out who it was talkin'."

"Oh! hurry up, old ice-wagon; get a move on you, and tell us!" exclaimed
George, almost biting his tongue with impatience.

"I heard one man that I afterwards knew was Mr. Bliss say, as plain as
anything: 'I tell you, they're nothin' but boys, and they ain't goin' to
give us away.' And then the other one, he says, says he: 'If I thought
this one knew anything, I'd be tempted to let him lie there where we
picked him up, that's what. We can't afford to take any chances, and you
know it, Sam!'"

Jack gave a low whistle.

"And yet Mr. Bliss said his friend's name was Bryce Carpenter," he
observed. "I had an idea all along, from the way he called that name, he
wasn't used to saying it. Sam came easier to his tongue. Now, we don't
know who Sam is, or what he's done, but seems to me there's something
crooked about that yarn they set up, of a wager made with that Lenox
fellow."

"They never made such a wager," declared Josh, stubbornly; "and right
now the only thing they want to do is to get around to Tampa, where they
expect to slip aboard a boat bound for Cuba. I heard some more talk
before I opened my eyes and spoiled it all. If the one who calls himself
Carpenter hadn't got cold feet, their plan was to drop down the keys to
Key West, and get across to Havana from there."

"Well, what's that to us?" remarked Jack. "They treated you white, Josh,
didn't they?"

"They sure did," answered the other, warmly.

"All right," Jack went on; "then it's no business of ours who and what
they are; and we'll just have to forget them. But, listen, wasn't that a
shout ahead, there?"



CHAPTER XII.

AN INVASION OF THE CAMP.


"I heard it, too, Jack!" exclaimed George; but neither of the others
seemed to have noticed anything, though in the case of Josh, with his
head tied up, this was really not to be wondered at.

"What sort of a sound was it, boys?" demanded the tall one.

"I thought it was a shout of some kind; how about it, George?" Jack
replied.

"Same here. But then, perhaps it's only Herb and Nick skylarking. Once
in so often Nick gets a streak, and thinks he has to work off his high
humor. But see here, Jack, I hope you don't imagine some sort of trouble
has dropped in on the two boys we left in camp less than an hour back?"

"Well, I don't know," Jack made answer, in a half-hesitating way. "But
somehow it struck me that yell was more along the line of anger or
fright than the result of high spirits or kidding."

"But Jack, we don't hear any more of the same sort?" George
remonstrated.

"How's that, then?" asked the other, as a plain whoop came faintly to
their ears.

"Say, that's Nick, all right," Josh declared, stoutly. "I could tell his
shout among a thousand. There never was one like it. I always said a
wild Injun from the Crow reservation couldn't begin to hold a candle to
Nick, when it came to letting out a whoop."

"But what would make him give tongue that way?" asked George, as he
pushed on at the heels of the leader; for they were now following what
seemed to be a trail through the undergrowth, where the trees grew
sparingly.

"Troth, and I hope now, nothing has happened to Herb," Jimmy remarked.

"Oh! let up guessing that way. Whatever could happen to either of them,
tell me that?" George demanded. "We left the boys safe in camp; and they
even said they believed they'd go aboard one of the boats, although
making sure to keep the fire going, so we would see it, if we got mixed
in our bearings, while skirting the short line. Maybe you'd expect an
alligator to crawl in from the swamp, and try to make a meal off our
chums?"

"Well, why not?" demanded Josh. "I reckon, now, they have just such
reptiles in this region, don't they, great big fellers, too, some call
them crocodiles, I'm told. But there, Nick tunes up again, like a good
feller."

"There must be something wrong, or he wouldn't show so much excitement.
Make all the hurry you can, boys. We're getting closer all the time;
yes, and it seems to me I can almost make out what he's shouting."

"You're right, Jack, for I'd take my affidavy I heard him say just then:
'Get out, you robber! skedaddle, now!'"

"That sounds like some one had found the camp, and was trying to steal
our belongings!" George exclaimed.

"Well, I hope they lave the boats, that's all; for the walkin' do be
harrd, I'm tould, between here and Meyers," Jimmy up and said, in his
whimsical way.

"Good gracious! you don't think, now, that anybody would be so mean as
to try and crib our bully boats?" gasped George; and no matter what
oceans of trouble his _Wireless_ may have given him in the past, all was
forgiven now, when danger lurked over the motor boat flotilla.

"Come along!" called Jack, over his shoulder; "the quickest way to find
out what it all means, is to get there. Hit it up a little swifter, all
of you! Put your best foot forward, and run!"

They accordingly did so. What mattered it if occasionally one of them
did happen to trip, and come down with a hard thump; it was only a
question of a few seconds for the unlucky one to scramble to his feet,
and a few bruises more or less surely did not count.

In this fashion, then, they covered the remainder of the ground that lay
between the camp and themselves.

Jack, being in the lead, was the first to glimpse what was going on.
He held up a warning arm to head off the impetuous rush of his mates;
and as they could plainly see his figure outlined against the bright
background of the fire-lighted zone, George and Josh and Jimmy all drew
up alongside the leader.

No one said anything. They were too busily engaged taking it all in, to
express themselves in any way. And, indeed, it was a sight well worth
observing, one that would return to them many a time, and always cause a
smile to creep across each boy's face.

For it was more humorous than tragical, though possibly one of the actors
in the affair looked upon it in the light of a serious proposition.

First, there was Herb aboard the good old _Comfort_, and engaged in
waving the ax, upon which he seemed to lay considerable dependence. He
appeared to be defying some enemy, and promising all sorts of dire
things if so be the boat was boarded.

But Nick's clarion voice was proceeding from a higher place; in fact, it
seemed to ooze forth from the branches of a small tree that happened to
grow not far from where the camp-fire had been started.

A look upward disclosed the fat boy, perched among the branches of the
said tree. He varied his outcries by waving the shotgun, which seemed to
be utterly useless in so far as discharging it was concerned.

There was a black bunch of hair busily engaged in trying to tear open
some of the provisions that the fat boy had "toted" ashore, in his
desire to get supper started. It was, in truth, a bear, a hungry animal
that had declined to gorge himself upon the remains of the jewfish, when
other and greater delicacies were within reach.

It was breaking the heart of poor Nick to see this vandal threatening
to dispose of all their precious food, so that they must go on scant
rations the rest of the way to Naples or Meyers. No wonder that the
hungry Nick whooped and yelled, calling the black pirate by all the hard
names he could think up.

Now and then the animal would appear to be disturbed by all this racket.
On such occasions he would shuffle over to the sapling in which the fat
boy was perched, raising his snout to sniff the air, as though half
tempted to make the climb, and punish his detractor as seemed most
fitting.

Nick evidently became fearful each time that he was going to be in
for it. He would howl worse than ever, and make all sorts of dreadful
threats as to what he might do in case such a thing happened.

"Oh! ain't you the lucky thing, though?" he bellowed, just as the others
ranged up to take the whole picture in. "If I hadn't been silly enough
to go ashore, carrying Herb's old gun, and forget to put any shells in
the same, I guess you'd be a dead bear right now, old top! Here, quit
shaking this tree, won't you? Think you own the whole ranch? Reckon
other people got some right to live. Just go back to your jewfish
dinner, and all may be forgiven; but you let our crackers and cheese and
bacon and hominy alone, hear that? Wow! there, he's gone and busted the
hominy sack! Look at the gump wasting all that fine food, would you?
Herb, can't you _please_ get some of those bully old shells over to me
somehow? I'd give a heap to tickle him between the sixth and seventh
ribs, sure I would!"

Just then Jack gave a peculiar little whistle. Nick heard it, and
immediately "perked up his ears," as Josh called it. He could be seen to
twist his head around, and try to locate the one who had given the well
known signal.

"Hey, Jack! wherever are you?" he called, in perplexity.

Jack did not dare make any reply. He had seen the bear start at the
sound of the signal whistle, just as if the sly beast understood that it
must surely spell danger for one of his type.

"Get ready to back me up, George, Jimmy!" Jack whispered.

They understood that since Jack carried the repeating rifle, it ought to
be his duty to fire first. Should he make a failure, then they could
come in, to try and load the marauding bear with all the lead possible.
If, after all, the beast managed to get away, he would at least surely
carry the marks of the warm engagement with him the rest of his natural
life.

By this time both Herb and Nick had discovered what was going on, and,
naturally enough, they were deeply interested.

"Give him Hail Columbia, Jack!" called Herb, waving his ax above his
head, as he stood there on the deck of the gallant old _Comfort_,
looking as though ready to hurl defiance at all the bears in South
Florida.

"Oh! be sure and pot him, Jack!" cried Nick, entreatingly. "I always
wanted to see what real bear steak tasted like. And honest now, I reckon
it'll be sweeter because the old villain ran me up this tree. Get a bead
on him, and make dead sure of your aim. Don't I wish I had some buckshot
shells up here? Wouldn't I have enjoyed peppering him, though. Wow! give
him another for his mother, Jack!"

Jack had waited until the bear turned, so as to expose his side. It
was his desire to send the bullet so that it would strike just back of
the foreleg, because he had always been told that that was the most
vulnerable spot in which to hit any large animal.

When the opportunity came he sent in his card. Instantly there arose a
tremendous commotion. The bear sent out a series of roars and whirled
around, to fall down, and then struggle to its feet again, while Nick
shouted in his excitement, and the other fellows added their voices to
his chorus.

Jack coolly pumped another cartridge into the firing chamber of his
repeating rifle, and stood ready to make a second try, if he found
reason to believe such action were needed.

It was quickly proven to his satisfaction that nothing of the kind was
required. The bear soon toppled over again, and from the way in which
the poor animal kicked it was plain to be seen that the last stage had
come.

"Bully! we're going to have bear steaks all right!" laughed the pleased
Nick; and then he added: "Say, Jack, do you really believe the old
sinner's kicked the bucket, or is he playing a little game to coax me
down? I'm sore from hanging up here so long. Give him a punch and see if
he moves, George. My gracious! what ails Josh, and where'd he get that
nightcap he's wearing?"--and, overcome by curiosity, the fat boy came
sliding down the bending sapling, to land in a heap at its foot.

Herb too came ashore, filled with wonder, and eager to hear the story,
which was told as they stood around the body of the bear that had
invaded the camp, and sent Nick in hot haste "shinning" up a tree.



CHAPTER XIII.

JIMMY REFUSES TO GIVE UP THE GAME.


They were now fully in the great Gulf of Mexico, and headed for Tampa.
Nick had been able to enjoy bear steak to his heart's content. The
others pronounced the meat pretty dry, and poor eating; but when served
in the shape of a stew, or hash, it answered the purpose. There was a
whole lot, they decided, in knowing that it _was_ the genuine article.
Otherwise most of them would have declined to eat it, just as they would
tough beef.

"Jack, is it true that there are ten thousand of these mangrove
islands?"

"Well, you've got me there, Josh," laughed the leader of the little
expedition, as, several days after the adventure with the bear, the
three motor boats glided in and out among the queer collection of islets
that marks the southwestern coast of Florida.

"But that's what they're called on the map," insisted Josh.

"Oh! you don't suppose for a minute anybody in the wide world could ever
count these mud flats, covered with the everlasting mangrove, do you?"
Jack went on. "A few hundred, or even thousand more or less, wouldn't
matter."

"For my part," spoke up George, "there are just nine thousand, nine
hundred and ninety-nine too many. I could be satisfied with one island.
Why, for two days now, we've been going in and out of these bally old
bunches of mangroves, dodging storms, and fighting skeeters to beat the
band."

"You'd better be thankful," declared Herb, "that after you led us in a
trap, Jack took us out again, George. Only for him we might be lost
right now, miles deep in these everlasting tangles. You notice that now
we never get far away from a sight of the big water, don't you? It seems
a dangerous business for a small boat cruiser to wander into this nest
down here. He's apt to lose his head, and never come out again."

"Do we pull up soon, Jack?" asked Jimmy, beseechingly.

"Why, yes, as the afternoon is going," Jack replied; and then, as if
noticing the eagerness plainly marked upon his shipmate's freckled face,
he went on: "But what's in the wind with you, Jimmy? I can see that
you're thinking of some stunt."

Jimmy laughed at that. The three boats were moving slowly on, close
together, and he could easily send a significant look toward the
complacent Nick.

"Oh, I know what ails him, all right!" cried the fat boy.

"Then suppose you tell us, Nick?" George demanded.

"Jimmy's got an idea in his head that he's going to knock my record for
big fish all hollow, and this place strikes him as likely to pan out
well. Haven't I seen him watching those big tarpon jumping this very
afternoon? I just bet you he means to make a try for one of them, as
soon as we anchor for the night," and Nick completed his assertion with
a chuckle.

"And have ye any objection to my makin' a thry, tell me that?" Jimmy
demanded.

"Sure not," Nick immediately replied; "only you're bound to have all the
trouble for your pains, Jimmy boy."

"Ye think that way?" asked the other, suspiciously.

"Oh, for a lot of reasons!" came from the complacent Nick, ready to rest
upon his honors. "First off, you'd have to fish in one of our little
dinkies; and a tarpon is such a powerful fish, it'd drag you miles and
miles before giving up. Remember, you're not allowed the least help to
land the game."

Jimmy shook his head, and watched his rival from under his heavy
eyebrows.

"Secondly," continued the fat boy, airily, "the biggest tarpon ever
captured never weighed as much as two hundred pounds, remember that,
Jimmy. Jack, would you mind stating what we decided the weight of my
jewfish was?"

"We agreed on two hundred and thirty as about the right thing," came the
reply.

"There you are, Jimmy," mocked Nick. "Better forget all about tarpon,
and turn your attention to, say, whales."

"But, by the same token, they towld me whales never come this far south,
and so I'll never get square with ye that way," grumbled Jimmy. "But
never mind, me bhoy, sooner or later you'll meet up with defate. I'm
still studying the way I'm bound to bring ye to a Waterloo. The
Brannigans never gave up, rimimber. When ye laste expect it ye'll be
overwhelmed."

"Oh, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. And while you're worrying
that poor head of yours, Jimmy, about the ways and means of capturing a
three hundred pounder, I'm just going to keep on feasting on these fine
oysters we've been picking up right along. Yum! yum! how I do love 'em,
though!"

"Yes, we happen to know that," remarked Josh. "Fact is, we've heard you
make the same remark ever since we set out from Philadelphia on this
cruise."

"And if a fellow could see the piles of oysters Nick's gobbled since
that day, he'd be just staggered, that's what!" George put in,
sarcastically; for, as the fat boy sailed in his company, the skipper of
the _Wireless_ doubtless grew very weary of hearing constant reminders
concerning feasts, past and to come.

"Well," sang out Jack just then, "I don't see any reason why we
shouldn't pull up here as well as anywhere. Good anchorage, with a
chance for a breath of wind off the gulf tonight, that may keep the
savage little key mosquitoes fairly quiet. What say, fellows?"

As they were all of a mind, the halt was quickly brought about. They
anchored in the open; but in case of a sudden high wind arising that
threatened to make things unpleasant for the small craft, it would be
the easiest thing in the world to push around in the lee of the nearest
mangrove island, which would serve as a barrier against the storm.

Jimmy was soon seen paddling away in the dinky belonging to the speed
boat.

"Now what did he take your rifle for, Jack, if he expects to go
fishing?" asked George, while Nick cocked up his ears, and listened as
though interested.

"I asked him, and he only grinned at me," Jack replied. "But I made him
promise not to go beyond that big island you can see up the channel a
ways."

A short time later they heard a shot, followed by several others, that
made them sit up and take notice.

"Say, he got a crack at something!" Nick remarked, uneasily, for he
remembered how Jimmy had looked so queerly at him when departing, as
though he had something in his mind.

"Well, we'll soon know; and I can see him moving around in his boat up
yonder right now. Seems to me he's trying to get at something in among
the mangroves. He must have made a kill of it," Herb declared.

Ten minutes later and Jimmy was seen approaching, rowing steadily.

"Look at him, would you?" called out the anxious Nick; "he's dragging
something behind the boat, as sure as anything!"

Jack watched the performance for a minute or so, and then remarked:

"Looks to me like a big 'gator; and that's what it is, boys."

"Oh, my!" exclaimed Nick, bouncing up; "I wonder now does the silly
believe an alligator would count against my fish? Jack, I appeal to you
to give him the law as she's written in our compact."

But Jack refused to say anything prematurely.

"Wait till he makes his claim," he replied, with a laugh, as he watched
the sturdy labors of the Irish lad to rejoin them.

When Jimmy did arrive they saw that he had indeed managed to shoot an
unusually large mossback 'gator, which he had possibly discovered
sunning itself among the mangroves. As a rule the creatures prefer the
fresh water, but may on occasion be found where there is a commingling
of salt and fresh.

The exultant captor was grinning, as if hugely pleased. He nodded his
head in the direction of the staring Nick, as he finally came alongside.
Then they saw that he had been wise enough to take a rope along with
him, which had been hitched around the body of the slain monster, just
back of the short forelegs. Nevertheless, it had taken considerable of
an effort to drag the saurian all the way from the place of the tragedy
to where the three motor boats were anchored.

Jimmy wiped the perspiration from his red face, as he exultantly cried
out:

"By the powers, can ye bate that, I'd loike to know, so I would? Two
hundred and thirty, did ye till me; sure this one must weight all of
twict that. I lave it to the umpire here to decide, contint to rest on
me laurels."

Nick began to show signs of tremendous excitement at once.

"How about that, Jack?" he pleaded. "He went and shot it with the rifle,
don't you know? I don't call that fishing, now, do you?"

"I've heard of people who shoot fish with a rifle, lots of times,"
commented Herb, just to excite Nick a little more.

"Yes, but don't tell me an alligator is a fish!" exclaimed Nick, in
great disgust. "Why, when I was in the lower grade in school they taught
us to call it just a _rep-tile_!"

At that a shout went up from the balance of the voyagers.

"You'll have to settle this right on the spot, Jack," declared George.

"Get out the articles of war and read what it says; that's the only fair
way," remarked Herb.

So Jack deliberately took out his notebook, and in a sing-song tone,
assumed for the purpose, read as he had done once before at Jimmy's
request:

"'Each contestant shall have the liberty of fishing as often as he
pleases, and the fish may be taken in any sort of manner--the one
stipulation being that the capture shall be undertaken by the contestant
alone and unaided; and that he must have possession of the fish long
enough to show the same, and have its weight either estimated or
proven.'"

"Well, here it is before ye, and riddy to be weighed!" said Jimmy,
stoutly.

"But Jack, what do you say, _is_ an alligator a fish in the true sense
of the word?" demanded Nick, stubbornly.

"As the umpire in this dispute," said Jack, solemnly, "I am forced to
disallow the claim Jimmy makes. No matter how he got his prize, we can't
swallow what he says about an alligator being a fish, even if it does
swim under water; for it couldn't live there at all, but has to come up
on shore. So Jimmy, you'll have to try again; and better luck to you
next time!"



CHAPTER XIV.

WHEN THE COMFORT WAS HUNG UP.


Evidently Jimmy was not at all dismayed by his present setback. As he
said, he sprang from stock that would never acknowledge defeat.

"Just wait, me laddybuck," he declared, as he shook his finger at the
grinning Nick; "the day is long yit, and by the powers, they be other
ways of beating that record ye've hung up. I'll kape me eyes about me,
to say if another jewfish wouldn't be afther stranding himself for me
'special benefit. And who knows but what this toime it may be a three
hundred pounder I'll be lugging into camp."

"Oh, that's all right, Jimmy," remarked the fat boy, apparently not very
much worried over the possibility of losing his laurels; "but make sure
of one thing before you claim the earth."

"And what moight that be?" demanded Jimmy, innocently.

"Why, don't shout till you see whether it's a fish--_or a log_!" and
Nick lay back on the soft cushions he had brought on deck for his own
comfort, to laugh uproariously at his remark.

Jimmy turned a bit red, but joined in the general hilarity; for he was
able to enjoy a joke, even at his own expense.

Some days before, while Jimmy was fishing very industriously, he had
given a yell, and was seen to be pulling at a tremendous rate at
something to which his hook had evidently become attached.

Of course his rival had shown great interest in his actions, for it
looked as if the Irish lad must have hooked a monster of a fish. But
when finally Jimmy was able, alone and unaided, to bring the thing to
the surface, he discovered, much to his chagrin, that it was only a
sunken and waterlogged log. His own frantic labor had given it all the
wonderful movements which he believed were the struggles of a captured
fish.

"But I say, Jack, darlint," went on the Irish boy, "before I make
another thry, plase tell me this: Suppose now, ye should say me comin'
back, and ridin' on a manatee that they do be havin' around here--would
ye call that a fish, becase it lives, so they tell me, under the wather
all the toime?"

He glared triumphantly at Nick, whose mouth opened in sheer amazement
upon hearing the audacious proposition.

"If he don't take the cake for trying to do the queerest things, now!"
the fat boy exclaimed. "Why, it's just silly to think of him capturing
a manatee, and harnessing it, like they say Father Neptune does the
dolphins. And Jack, looky here, a manatee can't be a fish at all, any
more than an alligator is."

"Tell me why?" demanded Jimmy, pugnaciously. "Sure, it's amphibious it
do be, and lives under the water all the toime. I think I've got ye
there, Nick, me bhoy."

"But listen," Nick continued, with conviction in his manner, "haven't
you heard it called a sea cow; and can a cow be a fish, Jack?" with
which he turned triumphantly toward the laughing umpire.

"Now, what's the matter with a cow-whale?" asked Jimmy; "and yet deny
that a whale is a fish if ye dare?"

"Jack, settle that, won't you, before he goes and brings in every old
varmint to be found in this region?" pleaded Nick.

But Jack was too wise. He did not want to shut out the possibility of
their having the time of their lives, should the energetic and ambitious
Jimmy attempt to carry his plans into effect.

"No, I'm not going to bother my head over things that may never happen,"
he declared; and with that Jimmy paddled away in the little dinky,
grinning broadly at the uneasy Nick.

"Nobody just knows what that fellow _will_ do next," muttered the fat
boy, as he followed his retreating rival with his eyes.

Meanwhile Jack was taking a look around with his glasses.

"Somehow I don't altogether like this place after we've anchored," he
remarked.

"And why?" inquired Herb.

"For one thing," Jack continued, "it's more exposed than would be
pleasant, if one of those Northers we've been hearing so much about
should spring up in the night. And I've been watching those ibis and
cranes flying over for some time now. They all head in one quarter, and
from that I reckon there's a bird roost over yonder."

Herb pricked up his ears, for he had long since expressed a desire to
look in on a real roosting place, where all kinds of birds came together
each night.

"I tell you, Jack," he remarked, eagerly, "let's change our anchorage,
and head that way. It can't be more than a mile or so further in, d'ye
think?"

"Not more than that," was the reply.

"But we don't want to get lost among these blooming islands!" said
George.

"We could make some sort of mark as we go, to leave a trail, and it
would be easy to come out the same way," was Jack's sensible suggestion.

"But how about Jimmy; if he came back here, and found us gone, there
would be a howl, believe me?" Nick observed.

"It happens by good luck that he's headed in just the right direction,
so I could pick him up on the way," Jack declared.

"And that would wind up his fishing for today, wouldn't it?" asked Nick.

"It surely would," was the reply of the _Tramp's_ skipper; whereupon the
fat boy heaved an audible sigh of gratification.

"Then I vote in favor of doing what Jack says, and having a peep in at
the bird colony tonight, if we can," he remarked.

"We might as well, I suppose," Josh put in, being somewhat curious
himself with regard to what such a roost looked like.

"I say this," continued Jack, who thought his sudden desire to change
their anchorage needed further explanation, "because I understand that
these roosts, once so plentiful in Southern Florida, are hard to find
nowadays; and we might not have another chance to see the sight."

"What happens to make 'em scarce?" asked Josh.

"Oh, well! the main thing has been that plume hunters have found them
out, and murdered the birds by the thousands. It's worse when they hunt
out the nesting places of the herons, and kill the mother birds, just to
get the aigrette, which, it happens, is always at its best about the
time the birds have young."

"Say, I've read a lot about that," mentioned George; "and they tell us
that it's the most dreadful thing to visit one of those nesting places
in the swamp after the plume hunters have been at their bloody work.
Thousands of young birds are starving in the nests, and the sounds they
put up just haunt a fellow forever."

"None of that in mine," declared tender-hearted Nick, firmly.

"I guess we all say the same," Jack added; "but when our intention is
only to see what such a place looks like, nobody can blame us for
going."

"I should hope not," said George. "But do we get up our mudhooks right
now, Jack, and mosey out of this nook?"

"That's the programme, and here goes for my anchor. Whew! it's stuck
fast in the mud, all right. Give me a lift, Josh, after you and Herb
have pulled yours up on deck," and inside of five minutes all of them
had washed the mud from the forked anchors, which were then placed
conveniently on the forward deck, where they could be dropped overboard
with a push.

Then the boats moved off.

This time it was the steady going old _Comfort_ that took the lead--Jack
being in no particular hurry and George, as usual, being compelled to
tamper with his eccentric motor, before he could get it to going right.

Of course Herb meant to fall back presently, and let the _Tramp_ take
the lead; but it was really so seldom that he had a chance to leave the
others in the lurch that he and Josh seemed to enjoy running away.

Jack, of course, was on the lookout for the first sign of his teammate.
Jimmy was discovered rowing frantically around one end of the big
island, as though, upon hearing the popping of exhausts, he had been
seized with a sudden fear lest he was in danger of being abandoned there
in that terrible region, with not a foot of high land within many miles.

"Hi! howld on there, Jack darlint!" he called out, stopping to wave a
hand toward the advancing _Tramp_.

When alongside he of course demanded to know what it all meant; and upon
learning that they were about to go a mile or so further in, Jimmy shook
his head in a discouraged manner, saying:

"Arrah! now, as if I couldn't say through a stone that has a hole in the
same. I do be belaving that it's all the fault of that same sly one,
Nick. He's that fearful of me accomplishin' me threat, and securin' a
whopper of a fish, that he invents all sorts of rasons for being on the
jump. But I'll get the better of him yet, say if I don't, Jack, me
bhoy!"

He climbed aboard, still grumbling, as though unable to convince himself
that this was not all some smart scheme, engineered by his rival, in
order to keep him from securing a prize catch.

Herb was still far ahead, and skirting some of the many islands. When he
reached a certain point he had marked out for himself, he intended to
lie to, and wait for the coming of Jack. George had started on at a fast
gait, and doubtless was determined to head off the clumsy _Comfort_,
which fact may have urged Herb to do his best and cut corners sharply.
All of which led up to a sequel.

Jack suddenly missed the loud noise that usually accompanied the
progress of the broad-beamed boat. As he looked up he discovered that
George was heading straight for the _Comfort_, which hung near the point
of an island; also that both Herb and Josh were jumping wildly about, as
though greatly excited.

"What do be the matter with the gossoons?" asked Jimmy.

"I don't know for certain," replied Jack; "but I've got my suspicions.
Herb was running in a careless way and just as like as not he managed to
snag his boat. If that's what happened, we're in for a peck of trouble;
for there's no boat builder within many miles of this place, and we'd be
lucky to find even a piece of shore to pull her up on."



CHAPTER XV.

THE BIRD ROOST.


"Sure, it's just like ye say, Jack!" exclaimed Jimmy, while they were
hurrying toward the imperiled boat at full speed. "They do be throwin'
wather out to beat bannigher. Josh has got a bucket and Herb handles a
basin. Glory be! but this is a bad job all around!"

Jack was looking beyond the sinking boat.

"I think I can see a little bit of a shore just over there," he declared,
"if only now we can drag the _Comfort_ there before she goes down. You
jump aboard with this bucket as soon as we get there. She looks lower in
the water already, but one more hand to toss it out may keep her afloat
long enough."

Jimmy was more than eager to lend all the assistance in his power. No
sooner had the _Tramp_ run alongside the other boat than he was over the
side. Nick, too, had been given the same instructions by George, for he
was already laboring with might and main to reduce the amount of water
that persisted in entering the big boat through the hole knocked in her
bottom by a stump or a submerged log.

"Here, George, lay close alongside, and let's get fast to her!" Jack
called out, realizing that heroic measures were all that would save the
imperiled craft now.

Quickly they carried out the plan. Ropes were passed back and forth, so
that the _Comfort_ could not really sink, with two such staunch boats
buoying her up.

"Now," continued Jack, when this had been accomplished, "start your
engine slowly and we'll try and beach her over yonder. By the greatest
of good luck there's a small patch of ground in sight, different from
these mud banks. Ready, George?"

"Yes," came the reply.

"Then go ahead!"

Jack held back until he heard the puttering of the _Wireless_ exhaust;
then he also started his engine, and the three boats moved slowly and
majestically off, the _Comfort_ looking, as Josh expressed it, like a
wounded duck sustained by the wings of two companions.

Those aboard the sinking craft had to keep up their work in a frantic
manner, if they did not want the boat to go down under them in midstream.
Now and then one would make a bad shot, and spill the contents of bucket
or basin over the forms of his fellow laborers. But although this might
have seemed comical to Nick or Josh or Jimmy at another time, they
failed to laugh now, even when struck full in the face by a deluge, and
half choked.

Fortunately the other island, where the little patch of rising ground
had been discovered by Jack, was close at hand, so that in less than ten
minutes they had arrived as near as they dared go.

"Now, I'm going to break loose and get behind," said Jack. "If I can
shove her further in, it'll be all right, for then she won't sink any
lower. In the morning we can get the block and tackle, and drag her out
on skids."

The workers were encouraged to keep at it furiously for another minute
or two, while the _Tramp_ did the shoving part. Knowing just how to go
about it, Jack made a success of his part of the business.

"Hurrah!" gasped Nick, when the keel grated on the bottom, and the weary
water-casters could rest from their labors.

But there was a lot more to do. The bedding and stores that were aboard
had to be rescued, and placed where they might have a chance to dry. It
took some little time to get all the stuff out; and then Jack had
another idea.

"Perhaps I might shove her up still further, if you fellows went
ashore," he suggested; which they declared to be a good thing.

"After all," said Jack, when he had actually succeeded in pushing the
stranded _Comfort_ a foot or so further in, "what does it matter? We'll
have to make a couple of skids tomorrow, and get a purchase on some of
the mangroves yonder; when we can yank her up, no matter where she is.
And now I vote that we get ashore, and see about starting supper. I'm as
hungry as a bear."

"Hear! hear!" applauded Nick. "And while I'm about it, I guess I had
ought to change my shoes and socks, because I'm wet to the knees; fact
is, I'm pretty well soaked all over. Josh kept emptying his old pail
over me right along. I guess I swallowed as much of the salt stuff as he
got over the side."

However, by the time night had set in, the boys were all feeling in a
better humor. Those who were wet had changed some of their things, and
dried the rest beside the fire that was burning cheerily.

"What do you think of it, Jack?" asked Herbert, after the other had made
as good an examination of the hole in the bottom of the wrecked motor
boat as the circumstances permitted.

"It's a clean hole, all right," was the response, "but I don't see any
reason why we can't patch it up to last until we get to a boat builder's
yard."

"I'm right glad to hear you say that," continued the anxious skipper,
"because, as you all know, I'm mighty fond of my boat, and would hate
like everything to have to abandon the poor old thing in this place. So
now I can eat some supper with a touch of appetite."

At any rate it was pleasant to again stretch their legs, after being
confined to the boats for several days. And Josh seemed to have enjoyed
cooking a full meal once more for the crowd.

"Now, how about that roost; do you suppose we can find it from here?"
George asked, when they were about through.

"If you still feel like going, I think it won't be a hard thing," Jack
declared.

"Count me out, please," Nick remarked. "I don't believe I care enough
about it; and, besides, somebody ought to stay here, to keep the fire
going, so you can tell where to come back."

"Huh! he's clean filled up to the top, that's what," remarked Josh; "and
when Nick gets that way, you just can't coax him to budge an inch. But
I'm with you, boys."

It was presently decided that all the others would go in the three
tenders. As Nick was given a shotgun, this time fully loaded, and ready
for business, he expressed himself as willing to stand guard.

"Anyhow," he observed, with a wide smile, "I don't reckon on having any
bear for a visitor this time. He couldn't get on this island, could he,
Jack?"

"Not in a thousand years," was the reassuring reply.

"And you can stay aboard the _Tramp_ until we come back," George went on
to say. "Only don't let that fire go out a minute, or perhaps you'll be
minus all your chums. A nice time you'd have here, all alone, wouldn't
you? Why, you'd starve to death before long with that appetite of yours,
Nick."

"Shucks! there ain't much danger of your getting lost while Jack's
along. If it depended on you, George, I'd be scared right bad now," the
fat boy got back at him as the party moved away.

They took the lighted lantern with them, and expected to be very
cautious how they managed, not wanting to lose their bearings in the
darkness. Jack had made a mental map of the vicinity, and behind that he
could find his way back to where the fire showed.

He led off, paddling with one of the oars, for when the little dinky
held two these could not be used in the ordinary fashion.

And it was not very long before the others knew that again Jack had
shown more than ordinary skill, for they reached an island where, from
the sounds, it was evident that the roost of the birds could be found.

Landing, they made their way over the exposed roots of mangroves and
cypress trees, gradually drawing near the middle of the island. And here
they found what they sought.

Jack made several torches out of some wood he found, and when these were
lighted they saw a sight that none of them would soon forget. Thousands
of birds were in the trees, many of them herons, ibis, cranes and water
turkeys.

For some time the boys looked at the spectacle. Then, tiring of it, as
well as objecting to the anything but pleasant odor of the roost, which
had long been in use they imagined, they retreated again to the boats,
after which the return trip was begun.

Nick had kept the fire going, and little trouble was experienced getting
back to where the larger craft awaited them.

The night passed quietly and with the morning they began to make
preparations looking to the repairing of the snagged _Comfort_.

Breakfast over, Jack set out with the ax, and Josh to help him, taking
two of the small boats. When he found a couple of cypress trees that he
thought would answer the purpose, over on Bird Island, as they had named
the place of the roost, he cut them down, and by hard work they towed
the intended skids to camp.

Here they were shaped, and placed in position. Then the block and
tackle, which had been carried on board the roomy _Comfort_, were
brought into play.

Jack selected the strongest mangrove within line of the boat that was to
be hauled out, when fastening the tackle.

"Here you are, now, fellows!" he declared, when all was ready.

"Come along, everybody, and take a grip on the rope," invited Herb, who
was more than anxious to get busy at the job of patching the smashed
sheathing of his boat, so they could continue their voyage.

Even Nick was made to lend the power of his muscles to the good work.

"If we could only get the full force of his weight, she'd come with a
rush," Josh had declared, though the fat boy only noticed the slur with
a smile and a nod.

"Are you all ready to pull?" asked Jack, who, being master of ceremonies,
had the leading position on the line.

"Sure we are; get busy, Jack, darlint!" sang out Jimmy.

"Then altogether now, and away we go!--one, two, three! She moved that
time, fellows, I tell you. Once more now, yo-heave-o! That was worth
talking about, and she jumped six inches. Again, and put every ounce of
muscle into it! Now, then, up with her! Another turn! That's the way to
do it, boys!" And Jack continued to encourage his mates to do their
level best until they had dragged the _Comfort_ up the skids to a point
where one could crawl underneath her exposed keel.



CHAPTER XVI.

A SCREECHER FROM THE NORTH.


All of them awaited the verdict with bated breath. Jack was down on his
back under the boat, and carefully examining the fracture made by the
snag.

"We can mend it, all right," he announced, as he finally snaked his way
out.

A chorus of approval greeted the announcement.

"How long will it take us, do you think?" asked Herb, who looked
relieved to know that, after all, his boat would not be lost.

"Oh! that depends. Perhaps by tonight it may be in apple-pie shape, good
enough to hold out till we get to Tampa," Jack replied.

"Say, looks like we might have the whole bally armada in the hands of
the ship joiners at the same time," chuckled Nick. "Because, you know,
George and me want to get a new engine installed the worst kind, don't
we, George?"

The skipper of the _Wireless_ grunted in reply; Nick was evidently
running things now with regard to that change in motive power, and did
not mean to let his mate draw back from his word.

"But first of all, we've got to drag the boat up further," continued
Jack. "You see, if I've got to work at that broken place for hours, I'm
bound to have it more comfortable than now. Lying on my back would knock
me out."

Accordingly they all took hold again, after the tackle had been shifted.
It was not so difficult a thing to do, with six sturdy fellows to pull a
rope; and presently the _Comfort_ was elevated at a point that would
allow one to kneel under her keel.

Jack made his preparations, and set to work. With the willing Herb to
assist in any way necessary, the others of course were not needed.

Josh amused himself after his favorite manner, studying up some new
dishes with which he figured surprising his chums some fine day. George
could always find plenty to do pottering with his engine, and trying to
cure its faults; for hope dies hard in the young and sanguine heart.

Jimmy and Nick took to fishing, because that employment seemed to
engross their every waking thought. When Jimmy started out, the fat boy
grew uneasy; and before long he, too, paddled away in one of the small
tenders.

"Be sure and don't go out of sight of the smoke from the fire," Jack had
cautioned them both; and Josh agreed to make use of some pine wood he
had picked up, in order to create a black smoke; for Florida pine is
full of the resinous sap that burns fiercely, and makes a dense smudge.

Jimmy did not remain long in one place. He seemed very restless, as
though he wanted to move about, in order to be on the lookout for a
chance to make a grand haul. Nick followed from time to time, meaning to
be an eyewitness to any remarkable event that took place.

"He's hoping to get fast to one of them tarpon, that's what," was the
conviction of the fat youth, who had discovered that the king fish of
the coast was in evidence in those warm waters. "I just wish he would
right now," he went on, chuckling; "I'd give a whole heap to see Jimmy
pulled around by one of them high skippers of tarpon. It'd curb that
ambition of his, some, I guess now."

And, singular to say, Nick's wish was fated to be realized. Jimmy's
mullet bait was gorged by a tarpon about the middle of the morning.
At the time the Irish boy chanced to be either half asleep or else
thinking of something else. At any rate, the first thing he knew of the
circumstance, and that he was fast to a streak of polished silver, was
when the rod he was holding was almost jerked from his hands.

"Whoa, there, ye omadhaun!" shouted Jimmy, immediately bracing his feet
so that he might not be pulled from the dinky outright.

Then something sprang from the water not fifty feet away. It was a
lordly tarpon, shaking its head, as if hoping to get rid of the barbed
hook.

A shriek from Jimmy, echoed by one from Nick, drew the attention of all
the others. Even Jack came crawling out from under the motor boat to
watch the sport.

It was certainly a great time Jimmy had. That little dinky was dragged
around at a furious pace, now darting to the right, and presently
whirled about to head toward the left, as some new whim seized upon the
captive fish.

Pretty soon Jimmy seemed to be getting dizzy from the rapid evolutions.

"He'll never tire that monster out!" cried Herb.

"And perhaps it might carry him out to sea, and lose him there!"
suggested the cautious Josh.

"Well, even if he tired the fish out, it wouldn't weigh more than a
hundred pounds; so I think he'd better cut loose," was Jack's dictum.

Accordingly he made a megaphone out of his hands, and shouted:

"Better let him go free, Jimmy; he'll upset you, and perhaps bite you
after he gets you in the water!"

"Faith, what shall I be afther doing, then?" came back faintly.

"Cut loose! you've got a knife, haven't you?" called George.

"But I'll lose me line that way, and the hook in the bargain!"
remonstrated the reluctant Irish boy.

"Well, better that than your life, or my boat," George told him.

So poor Jimmy found himself compelled to creep forward, when the chance
offered, and push the blade of the knife against the taut line. Of
course it parted instantly; and he came near capsizing when the little
dinky sprang up again, freed from the drag of the big fish.

The tarpon went speeding away toward the gulf, leaping madly out of the
water now and then, as though still trying to shake that jewelry from
its jaw, or else making sport of disconsolate Jimmy, who sat there
casting yearning looks after his escaped prize.

He always maintained that it was a two hundred-and-thirty-five-pound
fish, though just why he hit upon that odd figure Nick alone could
guess. The jewfish he remembered had been calculated to tip the scales
at two hundred and thirty pounds. And it is always the largest fish that
gets away.

Well, after that disappointment Jimmy might have been pardoned had he
given up for the day; but that was not his way. He kept at it all the
blessed afternoon. Several bites rewarded his diligence, but he did not
succeed in getting fast to another of the silver kings.

And, greatly to his disappointment, the evening came on with the
grinning Nick still holding high record in the contest.

Jack had been quite as successful as he had ventured to hope. George and
Herb both declared that he had patched the fracture in the ribs and
planks of the _Comfort_ in a truly shipshape manner; and that there
could be no question about the repair holding, up to the time they
expected reaching Tampa.

"Then we go on tomorrow, do we?" asked Nick, anxious to get Jimmy away
from the tarpon temptation; for he feared the lucky Irish lad might
sooner or later get hold of some monster, which would put his prize out
of the running.

Jack said there was nothing to hinder; and with all of them, save
perhaps Jimmy, feeling quite happy and contented, the night came on.

In the morning they were off again, and that day they saw the last of
that weird region charted as the Ten Thousand Islands. None of them were
sorry; indeed, the very monotony of those mangrove covered mud flats had
begun to pall upon every member of the expedition.

When they began to see plumed palmetto trees along the shore, the sight
brought forth cheers from several of the more joyous among the voyagers.

And it certainly looked more like life to note the buzzards floating
overhead again, with pelicans skimming the waves out on the gulf, in
search of their fish dinner. There were also many water turkeys, with
their snake-like necks, and black cormorants swimming in the lagoons
behind the keys.

Jack, who had read up on the subject, related how the Chinese fishermen
make use of such birds as these latter, trained for the purpose, to do
their fishing for them: a band being fastened around each creature's
neck, so that it can never swallow its capture, which is, of course
taken possession of by the master.

"We want to make sure to get a good anchorage tonight," Jack remarked to
Herb; for the two boats were moving along close together, late that
afternoon.

"Why so particular tonight; is it going to be any different from
others?" asked the skipper of the _Comfort_.

"Well, I don't just like the looks of that sky over yonder"--and Jack
pointed to the southwest as he spoke. "We've been told that in nearly
every case these Northers swoop down after the clouds roll up there, the
wind changing to nor'west, and the cold increasing. There's something in
the air that makes me think we're due right now for our first Norther."

"But to Northern fellows that oughtn't strike a wave of dread," declared
Herb. "We're used to winter ice and snow. The thermometer down below
zero never bothered me. Why should it down here, when it don't even
touch freezing?"

"Let's wait and see," laughed Jack. "After it comes, we'll know more
than we do now. But a harbor we must have. Keep your eye peeled for what
looks like a good landing place, Herb."

They found this presently, though the key was not so heavily wooded as
Jack had hoped to find; and he did not think it would wholly break the
force of the wind, should a gale come roaring down upon them during the
night.

When they crawled under their blankets about ten, the sky was clouded
over, but nothing else had come to pass. This condition of affairs
puzzled Jack, who did not know what to think of it.

But when he was awakened later on by a dull roaring sound, not unlike
the noise of a heavy freight train passing over a long trestle, he
sprang up, understanding full well what it meant.

"Wake up, everybody; here comes your first Norther!" he shouted at the
top of his young and healthy voice.



CHAPTER XVII.

THE SHELTER BACK OF THE KEY.


"Oh! what happened?" Nick was heard to call out, in a tremulous voice.

"Get up and hustle! Show a leg here, or you'll be frozen in your
blanket!" George shouted, excitedly, for his canvas tent was wabbling
in the wind like a thing possessed.

Of course, those in the other boats had little need to worry, since
their hunting cabins protected them in a great measure from the violence
of the gale. The neglect of George to have the same sort of contrivance
placed on the _Wireless_, for fear lest it might reduce the great speed
of the boat, always cost him dear when night came, or a storm howled
about their ears. One has to pay in some way or other for his whistle;
and George was a "speed crank" without any doubt.

For a short time it was feared that the tent on the _Wireless_ would
actually blow away. Half dressed, the pair aboard hung on with might and
main to save the canvas, Nick's teeth chattering tremendously as he
shivered in the rapidly falling temperature.

It certainly did get cold in a hurry, too. Jack would never more smile
when he heard old "crackers" tell about the terrors of a Norther. Why,
in spite of the protection of the cabin walls, the bitter wind seemed to
penetrate to their very marrow.

"Say, Jimmy, this is mighty tough on George and Nick," he remarked to
his boatmate, when the wind had passed its worst stage, but the cold
seemed to be on the increase.

"It do be the same; and 'tis myself that feels bad for thim this blissed
minute," the warm-hearted Irish lad answered, as he swung his arms back
and forth to induce circulation, and bring a bit more comfort.

"Just as I feared, the growth ashore is too thin to fend off all the
wind; and if this keeps up we'll have the meanest night we ever struck,"
Jack continued.

Jimmy knew from the signs that the skipper had an idea. He was used to
reading Jack by now.

"What can we be afther doing, I dunno, Jack darlint?" he remarked, or
rather shouted; for it was simply impossible to hold a conversation in
ordinary tones as long as that howling wind kept shrieking through the
mangroves and cypress trees near by.

"Get ashore, and throw up some sort of protection, behind which we can
make our fire," Jack answered, readily enough.

"Hurroo! that's the ticket! Let's be afther getting to worrk right away.
Sure, annything is betther than howldin' the fort aboard, and shakin'
enough to loosen ivery timber in the hull of the dandy little _Tramp_."

Jimmy was always enthusiastic about everything he went about doing.
Consequently, he started ashore immediately, with Jack trailing behind.

When George realized what his chums were doing, he made haste to join
them, for he could not but understand that it was mostly on account of
the unfortunates aboard the exposed _Wireless_ that the effort to build
a fire was attempted.

Many hands make light work; and as there happened to be plenty of wood
available near by, a fire was soon blazing. Then Nick, unable to hold
aloof any longer, came waddling ashore, to offer his services, when
nearly everything had been completed.

Jack had found a means of building a wind shield out of various things,
and in the shelter of this they hovered, keeping the fire going at
top-notch speed.

That night seemed endless to several in the party. They huddled around,
swathed in blankets like Esquimaux, and trying to sleep, though Nick
was about the only fellow who managed to accomplish much in that line.

Fortunately it did not rain, which was rather an unusual thing, since
these cold storms generally start out with a downpour, until the wind
shifts into the northwest, when it clears, and turns bitterly severe.

But morning came at last, when they could see to improve the situation.
After Josh had cooked the breakfast--and he had plenty of help on this
occasion, since every one wanted to cling to the fire as close as
possible--all felt better able to meet the situation.

"Nothing like a full stomach to make things look brighter," commented
Nick, sighing, as he scraped the frying pan for the last remnant of
fried hominy.

The wind kept up all that day, so that the pilgrims found themselves
actually stormbound. Jack would have made a try for another harbor of
refuge, only it was so very rough between their key and the main shore
that he doubted the ability of the speed-boat to make the passage
without a spill; and surely a bird in the hand was better than two in
the bush. They could not be sure about improving on their quarters by
going further.

Another thing influenced him to remain where they were. Gradually but
surely the wind was going down. The cold remained, but with a dying
breeze it did not penetrate so much. It was decided that all of them but
the crew of the _Wireless_ should sleep aboard their boats on this
night. George and Nick were made fairly comfortable by the fire back of
the wind shield.

And as Jack had expected, during the night there came another shift of
the wind. Following the natural course of the compass, it was in the
northeast when dawn arrived, and would soon work around to the east.
For, strange to say, down in this country, during the winter season at
least, the southeast wind is the very finest that blows; whereas in most
other places it has a reputation for being just the meanest known.

All of them were so dead for sleep that the next night passed very
quickly. And when morning came the change in the temperature pleased
them greatly.

"Let's get a move on, fellows," Jack said, after the customary attention
had been given to taking care of the inner man. "We ought to make a big
dent in the distance separating us from Meyers today."

"And by the same token," piped up Jimmy, eagerly, "I'm afther hearin'
that the fishing is mighty foine around this section."

"Huh!" grunted Nick, scornfully; "when you beat that record I've hung
up, just wake me, and let me know. Time enough then to get a hustle on.
Just now it's up to you, Jimmy, to do all the worrying. I'm going to
take things easy after this."

"All right, me bhoy, just do that same, and by the pipers it's ye that
will be hearin' a cowld, dull thud, which will be that record droppin'
to the earth. Sure, it do be a long lane that has no turnin'; and sooner
or later, belave me, 'twill be me day."

They made a brave start. George was quite elated with the splendid way
his engine worked, and frowned whenever Nick made out to mention that
his word had been pledged about that change of motive power at Tampa.

Two hours later the inevitable came to pass.

"George has hauled up short, Jack!" Herb called out; for the _Comfort_
was not a great distance behind the _Tramp_ at the time, with the other
boat, as usual, ahead.

"Perhaps waiting for us?" suggested Jack; but the smile on his face
declared that he entertained different ideas about the stoppage.

"That may be," replied Herb, skeptically; "but the chances are he's
bucking up against trouble again. Won't we all be pleased as Punch when
he does get a motor that can motor without eternally breaking down?
There, Nick's waving his red bandana, which I take it means they've
broken down."

And so it proved. A weak place had developed as usual, so that George
would be compelled to spend an hour or two mending the same.

Herb generously offered to give him a tow; but this the proud spirit of
George would not brook. It was bad enough having to suffer that ignominy
when threatened with a storm, but when the gulf was smooth nothing could
induce him to accept.

"You fellows go right along," George called out; "and I'll overtake you
later."

But neither Jack nor Herb would think of such a thing. If a heavy wind
chanced to come up while the _Wireless_ lay there, positively helpless,
she would roll frightfully, and stand a chance of capsizing.

And so they simply hung around until the makeshift repairs had been
completed, so that the speed boat could again proceed under her own
power.

This lost them so much time that it was no longer possible to think of
reaching the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River, and ascending as far as
Meyers, that day. So they kept an eye out for a snug harbor, where they
might pass the night.

The coast was not so desolate here as below. They had passed the
settlement of Naples; and here and there could see where shacks, or more
pretentious buildings, told of the presence of fruit or truck growers.

Finally, toward the middle of the afternoon, coming upon just the place
that would afford them a good camping ground, the three boats pulled in.

Jack had noticed that Jimmy was showing signs of growing excitement as
they proceeded to anchor. The Irish boy had been using the marine
glasses with more or less eagerness; and no sooner was the boat made
secure than he broke out with:

"Excuse me, if ye plase, Jack darlint, but I've a most pressin'
engagement this minute. I do be sayin' me chanct to get aven with me
rival."

He was even at the time throwing a number of things into the little
dinky, among others a section of rope. Nick, while not overhearing
what was said, must have noticed the active preparations for a sudden
campaign. His round, red face appeared over the side of the _Wireless_,
as Jimmy pushed off and rowed furiously away.

"Now, what in the dickens does all that mean, Jack?" he asked. "Is Jimmy
going to make the trip to Meyers in that dinky, or has he got an idea in
his head he can bag something that will make me look like thirty cents?"

"I rather guess that's just the sort of bee he's got in his bonnet,
Nick," laughed Jack, "and if you look out yonder, where that reef lies
in shallow water, with the little waves breaking over it, you'll see
what's started him going."

Nick hunted around until he found George's glasses, which he clapped to
his eyes, to burst out with a cry of astonishment and chagrin.

"Say, it must be a big porpoise that's got stranded out there! My eye!
look at it kick up the water, would you? Oh! if Jimmy ever gets a rope
around that thing, and tries to ride it ashore, won't he be in a peck of
trouble, though? But when Jimmy sets out to do anything, you just can't
frighten him off; and, honest now, I believe he's bent on doing that
same mad caper!"



CHAPTER XVIII.

JIMMY FORGES TO THE FRONT.


None of them could have any doubt about it; for was not the excited
Jimmy making toward that same reef with all speed? Determined to wrest
the laurels from his rival, if it could possibly be done, he had only
too eagerly seized upon this fine chance to get in some strenuous work.

Looking beyond, they could see that the stranded porpoise, if the object
out yonder really proved to be such a creature, still threshed the water
and strove to break away from its place of captivity.

"What ails the bally thing?" grumbled the anxious Nick. "Why don't it
back off, the same way it came on? That's the only way it could get into
deep water. Did you ever see such a looney, trying to keep on shoving
ahead, when all the while it gets in more shallow water?"

"Huh! seems to me there are others!" chuckled Josh; "jewfish, for
instance, don't seem to have one bit more sense. Sometimes they get left
on a shallow place, and kick like fun, while waiting for the tide to
rise and help 'em off."

"Ah! let up on that, Josh; 'taint fair to take his side all the time,"
complained the fat boy, straining his eyes to follow the movement of his
rival, now more than half way out to the reef.

"Well, we always stand up for the under dog; and just now Jimmy's in
that position," continued Josh.

"Yes," spoke up George, encouragingly, "and when you get there, Nick, as
you may sooner or later, you'll see how gladly we'll all give you our
sympathy, eh, boys?"

Nick refused to be comforted by the prospect.

"Hey! Jack," he said, turning to the skipper of the _Tramp_, who seemed
to be bending over his motor, as if about to turn his engine; for a
sudden idea had come into his head, "is a porpoise a _real_ fish, now?"

"Whatever makes you ask that?" demanded Herb.

"Oh! I want to know, that's all," replied Nick, coolly. "That Jimmy
tries to just throw his old net over anything that creeps, swims or
walks, and call it a fish. He tried it on us with his blessed old
alligator, you remember, fellers; then, when we wouldn't stand for
that, don't you know how he tried to hook up one of the sea cows they
call a manatee, and make us take that? Now he's after a porpoise; and if
he keeps on he'd grab a hippopotamus, and try to bluff us at that.
Anything that goes in water answers for Jimmy."

"Well, if he gets a porpoise, he's got a fish without any reason to kick
over the traces, Nick, and don't you forget that," George declared.

"Say, where you going, Jack?" demanded Nick, suspiciously.

"Why, I thought I'd better take a little spin out there, to keep an eye
on Jimmy," replied the other.

"What for? You don't think of lending him a hand, I hope? Remember, the
rules of the game knocks all that sort of thing on the head," Nick
protested, vigorously.

"No danger of my forgetting," laughed Jack. "But I happened to think how
bold Jimmy can be, and wondered if he mightn't get in trouble somehow."

"That's right, Jack," spoke up George, himself a very rash fellow on
occasion; "it'd be just like him to hitch on to that porpoise, and help
work him loose. Then we'd see our poor chum going out to sea like a
railroad limited express. And Jack, if you'll allow me, I guess I'll
drop in, and keep you company."

"Same here," declared Herb, crawling aboard, as he pulled the _Tramp_
close to the starboard quarter of the _Comfort_.

"Hey! wait for me, can't you!" exclaimed Nick, all excitement now.
"Who's got as much interest in this business as me, tell me that? I
ought to be along to judge if he takes his fish in fair play, you know."

"Fair play!" jeered Josh, as he too slid into the other boat after Nick;
"well, I like that, now, after the way you lugged that poor old weakened
jewfish to camp. Any way Jimmy can grab his game will count; and you
might as well make up your mind to it first as last, my boy."

"Oh! don't you get to bothering your head about me, Josh Purdue," Nick
went on to say, stoutly; "I'm a true sport, and can take my medicine
when I have to, as good as the next one. And I guess I don't give up
easy, do I? But it ain't time for the shoutin' yet. Jimmy hasn't got his
porpoise; and it mebbe don't weigh more'n two hundred and thirty pounds,
either."

Leaving the other two boats anchored in quiet water, Jack headed the
_Tramp_ for the reef, where the water was breaking softly over the
submerged rocks; with the unfortunate porpoise floundering in a helpless
manner, for the tide was almost at its lowest level.

Jimmy had by now arrived on the spot. He must have arranged his plan of
campaign as he was rowing frantically out, for he lost no time in
getting down to business.

Those who looked saw him push his way up to the reef after his usual
bold fashion. If some water came aboard the little dinky, Jimmy gave the
circumstance no heed. All he could see was that struggling monster of
the deep, and the happy opportunity that had been thrown in his way
whereby he might cut his rival out of the lead he had held so long.

For that joyous conclusion Jimmy was ready to take all sorts of chances.

"Look at him, getting right up alongside the kicker!" exclaimed Nick,
with an expression of amazement on his rosy face; for he could not help
admiring the nerve exhibited by his rival, even though deep down in his
heart he hoped the other might fail to land the prize.

"Sure he is!" laughed Josh. "Why, just keep your eye peeled, Nick, old
boy, and my word for it, you'll see our little chum climb right on the
back of that bucking broncho of the gulf, put a bridle in his mouth,
and ride him home!"

"Oh! rats! you can't get me to believe that!" Nick flashed back; and
yet, despite his brave words, he watched the actions of the Irish lad
with deep anxiety, as if believing that no one could tell what wonderful
things Jimmy might not attempt.

"Look there, would you!" he exclaimed, a few seconds later; "what under
the sun has Jimmy got now!"

"Seems to me like it's our ax!" declared George, with a harsh laugh.

"Ax!" snorted the indignant Nick; "d'ye mean to tell me he expects to
knock that poor porpoise on the head, just like they do steers at the
stockyards; and then claim he _caught_ him? Well, I like that, now!"

"It's all in the game, Nick," declared Herb, consolingly. "Remember, you
didn't use a fish hook and line to bag your big jewfish; just slung a
rope around his gills, and walked away with him through the shallow
water near the shore. I reckon even an ax might count, so long as he
keeps the fish, and brings him in!"

"Sho!" Nick went on, as though disgusted; "but just think of getting a
fish with such a tool, as if you were just chopping a tree!"

"Watch him, now, if you want to see how Jimmy goes at it; perhaps you
may be only too glad to do the same thing later on, when you want to
climb up and throw him off the first rung of the ladder," Herb remarked.

"Yes," said wise Josh, "it makes all the difference in the world what
position you hold when condemning practices. What looks bad to you,
seems fair and square to Jimmy right now."

"Wow! what a crack that was!" George exclaimed, as Jimmy brought down
the ax on the struggling fish.

"But he hasn't got him yet, anyway," muttered Nick, as they saw the
water whipped into foam around the little, wabbling dinky boat occupied
by Jimmy.

"He nearly took a header that time, let me tell you!" cried Herb.

"But he sticks to his job, all right!" laughed Jack. "See, he's aiming
to get in another crack, and there it goes. Whew! that was a stunner,
though!"

"A regular sockdolager!" avowed Josh, who was apparently enjoying the
circus first-rate.

"And it looks like it knocked the poor old porpoise out of the running,"
commented Herb.

"That's what it did!" George declared; "and there's Jimmy trying to get
a hitch with his rope around the thing's tail. He's gone and done it,
as sure as you live! See him stop to wave his hand at us; and he's got
the widest grin on his face you ever saw. Victory comes sweet after
having it rubbed in so long."

"Huh! how d'ye know the bally old porpoise is goin' to stand for more
than my jewfish?" Nick grumbled; though his face began to wear a look
that comes with chagrin and defeat; "and even if it does, that don't
wind things up. Ain't I got just as much chance to bag something bigger
before we haul up at New Orleans, tell me that, Josh Purdue?"

"Course you have, Nick, old top," declared Josh, who hoped to see the
rivalry kept up to the very last, since it was affording them all so
much fun; "and we'll back you for the boy who can do big stunts, once
you wake up to it; eh, fellers?"

Jimmy was now starting to row back toward where the two other motor
boats were at anchor. He made but slow progress of it, towing that now
quiet captured porpoise; but the rules of the game prevented the others
from giving him any sort of a lift.

Now and then the porpoise would get stranded in the shallow water, and
at such times Jimmy was put to his wits' ends to manage. But by slow
degrees he succeeded in accomplishing the object he had in view.

Of course the others did not wait for him, but ran back to where the
camp was to be made for the night. Josh was anxious to get ashore, and
start a fire; for all of them confessed to being hungry. Nick only made
one more remark on the way back, and that gave them an inkling of his
ruling passion.

"I say, Jack, do you know whether a porpoise is good to eat?" he asked.

Jack replied that he had never heard of any one eating one, though
perhaps the meat might appeal to certain appetites, like those of
Esquimaux, or the Indians of Alaska.

"I don't think we'll bother about it, however," Josh remarked, "because
we've got plenty besides."

Supper was well on the way when finally Jimmy landed, his beaming face
wet with honest perspiration, and filled with the pride that followed
his recent exploit.

They all came down to view his capture, and estimate the weight of the
porpoise. The opinion seemed to be that, while a small one, it must
weigh something close on to two hundred and fifty pounds; but Nick
declared he would have to demand the proof before giving in.



CHAPTER XIX.

FROM TAMPA, NORTH.


Everybody was merry that night at supper but Nick. He tried not to show
that he felt his sudden and unexpected drop from the top of the ladder
to the lower rung; but it was hard work. His laughter was only a hollow
mockery, so Josh declared; for the lean boy certainly did like to rub it
into his fat chum when he had a chance.

Jimmy did not sleep well that night, though everything combined to make
it a pleasant occasion for most of the others. Half a dozen times he
would creep out of his blankets to see if the porpoise was still where
he had tied it, and lying in shallow water. Evidently he feared lest
some adventurous and hungry shark come nosing around, and attempt to run
away with his prize, before its weight had been positively settled.

Once Jack heard him poking vigorously in the water with a pole, and
muttering to himself.

"Want to take a lunch off me porpoise, is it ye'd be afther doin',
ye sly ould thafe of the worrld?" Jimmy was saying, as he punched
vigorously.

"What is it?" asked Jack, looking over the side of the _Tramp_; as he
happened to be up just then, to find out what his shipmate meant by
getting out long before the first streak of daylight was due.

"Sure, it's the bally ould crabs; they do be tryin' to nibble at me
fish; and it kapes me busy shooing the same away," Jimmy answered back.

"But what's the use bothering, since we don't expect to eat the thing?"
asked the other.

"Yes," said Jimmy, quickly; "but they say ivery little bit helps; and
wouldn't I be the sad gossoon, now, if me fish weighed just the same
as Nick's, with some missing where thim sassy big crabs had had a
breakfast. Sure, I want all I got, till we weigh the beauty. Afther that
they can have it all, for what I care."

"Oh! that's where the shoe pinches, does it?" chuckled Jack. "Well,
perhaps you'd better sit up, and keep watch, Jimmy. But please don't
shake the boat so much, and wake me again. It's only three o'clock, with
the old moon near the eastern horizon. Me to bed again for another
snooze."

When morning came Jimmy blandly informed Jack that he had actually spent
the balance of the night with that pole in his hands, every now and
then stirring the water in the vicinity of his prize.

"And I do be thinkin'," he added, triumphantly, "that the crabs niver
got aven a teenty bit of me bully ould fish. Now to rig up that balance
once more, and settle the question once for all."

"Now, just you hold your horses, there," spoke up Nick, shaking his head
grimly. "You're wrong, that's what. Even if your old porpoise does
happen to be a little heavier than my splendid jewfish, don't you think
for a minute I'm going to give up the ship. I'll be warm on your trail,
old chap, to the last gasp!"

"Hear! hear!" cried Josh, clapping his hands in a manner which was
calculated to encourage both stubborn contestants. "I'm backing Nick for
a game one. He's got the real bulldog grit, and don't you forget it,
boys! And even if Jimmy wins this time, he'll have to watch out, or
he'll find himself left in the lurch."

The rude balances were constructed as before, and after getting the
porpoise ashore, it was duly weighed. Had it happened to be a close
thing, Nick of a certainty would have entered a protest, and demanded
that they tow the prize to the next town, where it could be tested on
the dock with some capable scales. But it was quickly discovered that
the porpoise was many pounds heavier than Nick's record; indeed, they
decided finally, after making all due allowances, to put it down
positively at two hundred and seventy-five pounds.

Even Nick concurred in this, although with a wry face, for he had clung
tenaciously to hope up to the very last moment. And so the crabs had a
chance to feast on the bulky object after all; though Jack declared that
if they had had the time he would have liked to try and render the
porpoise for its oil, just to say he had secured a supply that way.

"And think of the numberless fine shoe laces we're throwing away,"
sighed Josh, after they had abandoned Jimmy's prize.

After a fine run they made Miami, and spent a day in the enterprising
little town; but all of them were anxious to be getting on, since they
expected the next mail to be awaiting them at Tampa; and it had been a
long time now since they had heard from the dear ones at home.

Tampa was reached without any further adventures, though Nick proved
that his words had been no idle boast when saying that if Jimmy went
up head in the little game of fish rivalry, he would leave no stone
unturned in the effort to regain his lost laurels.

He never let a chance pass to put out one or more lines. And since size
was now his one object in life, he no longer bothered with a rod and
line. If the fellows wanted fish for eating purposes, somebody else must
take the trouble to capture them, because he was too busy to bother with
small fry.

So every night he would get out his shark hook, and set it in the best
place he could find, where he believed he would have a chance to make a
capture.

The tables had turned, and it was now Jimmy's turn to strut around with
that look of superiority on his face. He would watch Nick's feverish
labors, and just grin in a way that gave the rest of the boys great
amusement.

But, although several sharks were caught, they seemed to be in league
with Jimmy; for it was only the small fellows who took the hook. Nick's
excitement, when he was working his catch in by the aid of a snubbing
post which Jack showed him how to make, was always succeeded by bitter
disappointment, after he had discovered the disgusting size of the
caught sea tiger.

Not one of them up to now had weighed anything near the required weight.
But all the time the sanguine fat boy lived in hopes of some fine day
making a record strike.

The others hoped he would, seeing how much his heart was set on proving
himself true game. This rivalry would prove to be a great thing for
Nick. It had started him into doing things that otherwise he would never
have dreamed of attempting, being somewhat given to laziness, as so many
boys built after his stout fashion seem to be. And it had made him
think, too, which was a fine thing; throwing him on his own resources,
as it were, and bringing out many hidden attributes which the others had
never dreamed he possessed.

At Tampa Nick insisted that George keep his word. So, as the three
boats had been laid up in the yard of a boat builder, a new motor was
installed aboard the _Wireless_. George was so devoted to his boat
and its speed record, that he refused to be away from the scene of
operations for any length of time.

"One day around Tampa is enough for me, boys," he had declared, when
they tried to tempt him to accompany them on the second day. "I want to
be around, and watch how they do this job. It would give me a bad jolt,
you know, if I had to sacrifice speed for steadiness after all, when I'm
hoping to combine both."

"Yes," laughed Josh, "it'd sure break George's heart if he couldn't just
shoot through the water like an arrow. If he had his way he'd go at
about the rate of ninety miles an hour."

"Make it an even hundred, Josh, while you're about it," George remarked,
calmly; and meant it, too.

A number of days were passed in the hustling city on Tampa Bay. Jack had
always been anxious to see the place; and during the time of their
enforced stay they certainly took in every point of interest worth
observing.

And of course the _Comfort_ was duly repaired in a proper manner while
the opportunity offered. The boat builder complimented Jack on having
done such a reliable job under such difficult conditions. He declared
that the chances were, the repairs would have held out through the whole
cruise, though it was best that they have the hole obliterated in
shipshape style once for all.

But all of them were really glad when, one fine morning, after another
Norther had blown itself out, and the big bay calmed down, the little
flotilla of three motor boats started away from Tampa, headed south, so
as to get around the end of the Pinellas Peninsula.

Nick especially was sighing for new chances to show what he could do in
the fishing line.

"There must be sharks upwards of three hundred pounds and more that will
take my hook," he declared, stoutly, to George, as they boomed along
down the bay; "and in good time I'm going to show you something that
will make you sit up and take notice, see if I don't."

"Say, she runs like oiled silk!" exclaimed the skipper of the new
_Wireless_; and from this remark Nick realized that, according to
George, all his affairs were as a mere dot compared with the great
question as to what the new motor would do.

After trying the boat in various ways, George expressed himself as
satisfied that he had made a good thing when he decided to have the
engine changed. And all the others began to hope that the troubles of
the speed boat skipper might now be in the past.

Tampa Bay is so big that the motor boats felt the swell almost as much
as though they were upon the gulf itself. And that afternoon, when,
after passing sharply to the right, they placed Long Key between
themselves and the sea, all expressed themselves as pleased at the
change.

Here they made out to pass the night. Nick could hardly wait until the
anchors had been dropped before he was begging Jack to go off with the
castnet, and get him a supply of mullet for bait, so he could begin his
fishing operations. And as Jack was feeling that a supper of mullet
would taste rather good, if so be the jumping fish proved to be
plentiful, he did not have to be coaxed long.

Consequently the shark line was soon doing business at the old stand;
and as usual there arose a wordy war between the two rivals concerning
the finish of the game; each feeling stoutly confident that in the end
he would be in a condition to carry off the prize.



CHAPTER XX.

THE SHARK FISHERMAN.


"How long have we got before we ought to be home?" asked Herb, that
night, as they prepared to camp ashore.

"Nearly three weeks left of our time," remarked Josh, sadly; for, much
as they wanted to see the dear ones, they would all be sorry when the
vacation had reached its end, and once more they must take up school
duties at home.

"But looky here," piped up Nick, "my dad wrote me that they'd had a bad
hitch about building the high school again. Seems like there was a labor
strike that tied up everything. It ain't settled yet, he says, and if it
ain't done soon, why, the chances are there won't be any session at all
this Spring, because they don't know just where to house us!"

"Glory be!" cried Jimmy; "oh! what an illegant toime we could be afther
having, down in this cruiser's paradise, if so be thim laborin' men only
hold the fort a little longer!"

He voiced the sentiment that filled every heart, although no one else
had spoken a word as yet.

"That would be too good to be true," Jack laughed, shaking his head.

"Yes, and we mustn't let the idea get hold of us, because we'd only be
disappointed all the more," Herb remarked.

"But we'll know by the time we get to New Orleans, won't we?" demanded
Nick, with set jaws, and a flash to his blue eyes; "because, you see,
I'm interested more'n the rest of you."

"Say ye so?" burst out Jimmy, wickedly, and chuckling under his breath.

"Because it would give me plenty of time to burst bubbles that are
floating around here, and establish a new record," Nick went on,
pugnaciously.

"Then, by the powers," Jimmy declared, "I do be hopin' that we spind the
whole bally winter down here. It amuses me to see ye worrk, Nick. An',
by the same token, it's doin' ye a hape of good in the bargain, so it
is."

They had reached Cedar Keys, and everything was going well. George
still found more or less reason to congratulate himself on his wisdom
in making that change in his motive power. Now and then Jack saw
him pondering, and understood that there was a fly in the ointment
somewhere; but George had said nothing, and they could only hazard a
guess as to whether it might be a diminution of speed, or the old
haunting fear of a breakdown still gripping his heart.

"Where do we strike next for mail?" asked Herb, the night after leaving
the city on the key, when, after passing the mouth of the famous Suwannee
River, they had pulled up back of a friendly key.

"Pensacola is our next port; and I hope we find more letters waiting for
us than there were here," George replied.

"Now, that's quare," remarked Jimmy, with a twinkle in his eye; "when
ivery one of us got a letter from the folks back home. But I do be
fearin' the little girlie with the rosy cheeks, and the dimple in her
chin forgot to write that toime."

"Well, what's that to anybody but me?" said George, facing them all
boldly.

The conversation immediately switched to another subject, for George was
rather touchy about having his private affairs talked about by his
chums. Had it been Nick, now, or even Jimmy, they would have answered
back in the same humor, and the fun waxed fast and furious.

But at the time Nick was busy with that shark line of his. He fancied
that as the tide came in and went out through what might be called an
inlet, always with more or less confusion, there was a pretty good
chance to hook one of the sea tigers, if only he took pains.

"We've changed our course again, haven't we, Jack?" Herb asked.

"That's so," came the reply; "you see, the coast no longer runs nearly
north and south here, but turns to the west. And if one of those old
Northers bursts on us now, why, we'll get it from land side instead of
the gulf; unless it whirls around, something these winter blows seldom
do; because, you see, they don't happen to be of the tornado, or
hurricane type, just straight wind storms."

Jack was always a fund of information to his mates. He studied things at
every opportunity, and never forgot a fact he had learned. And it was
surprising how the others had come by degrees to depend on him in all
sorts of emergencies.

"I do be glad, Jack, darlint," remarked Jimmy, just then, "that ye make
Nick put on a loife preserver ivery toime he do be going in that cranky
dinky, to carry out his baited shark hook. It's him that is so clumsy,
the boat looks like 'twould turrn over at any minute, so it does. And he
so fat and juicy, how do we know some hungry shark mightn't loike to
take a bite out of him? Look now at the gossoon, would ye, and how he
worrks? In all me experience I niver yit saw such a change as there has
been in our Nick."

"Yes, that's so," laughed Herb. "You know, they say competition is the
life of trade; and it seems to be putting a good lot of life in Nick
Longfellow. Why, he jumps around now like nobody ever saw him do before.
If this keeps up long, he'll be able to play on our baseball team next
season. Wow! just imagine the Ice Wagon galloping across centre to grab
a long fly!"

Meanwhile, the object of all this talk was paying strict attention to
business. He had been shark fishing so many times now that he seemed to
have the whole thing down to a fine science. After baiting his bog hook,
with its attendant chain, he dropped it in a promising place. Then he
made for the shore, paying out the stout line as he went most carefully.

Once on the sandy strip of beach, Nick fastened the rope to the nearest
tree he could find, first taking a couple of hitches around a stake he
had driven in deeply, not far from the water's edge, and which was to
serve as a snubbing post, in case he were lucky enough to make a strike.

"It's very pat," remarked Jack, when the stout youth rejoined the group
about the fire, "that if any of us want to know about sharks, their
habits, and how best to get the pirates of the sea ashore, we've got to
go to Nick here."

"Yes," spoke up George, "he ought to be a walking dictionary of terms;
because he's always asking questions of every cracker and sponger we
meet. I honestly believe, boys, he keeps a shark book, and that he's got
an idea of writing the family tree up some day."

"Oh! come off," grinned Nick; "after I've hauled a dandy weighing about
half a ton on shore, and showed you what I can do, I guess the whole
business can go hang, for all of me. What use are they, anyhow? You
can't eat 'em."

"That's the way Nick always judges things," declared George. "If they
don't happen to be good for food, he's got mighty little use for the
same."

"I ain't denying it, am I?" queried the other, good-naturedly. "What are
we here for, anyway, but to eat our way through this dreary old world?
Of course, don't go and think I believe eating's the _only_ thing worth
living for; but it cuts a big figure with me. Guess I was born half
starved, and I've been tryin' all I knew how ever since to make it up."

"And by the powers, ye look that happy now, I be afther thinkin' ye must
expect to pull in the champion fish this same night," Jimmy commented.

"Well, I've got a hunch that something is about due," Nick replied,
confidently. "There's a fishy smell about this place, seems to me; and I
just reckon that in times past many a dandy old shark has been yanked up
on this same beach. That tideway looked good to me, too; and by now, as
Jack said, I ought to know something about the hungry crew. Just wait
and see what happens, that's all."

Jimmy became a little uneasy. Perhaps it was in the air that his day to
fall had come around in due time. He cast frequent glances over toward
the snubbing post as the evening drew on, with twilight succeeding the
setting of the sun.

Nick had heard Jack telling how he went pickerel fishing on the ice one
winter, and the methods of telling when a fish took the hook appealed to
him. Consequently he employed the same sort of tactics when in pursuit
of nobler game.

"For, you see, they call a pickerel or a pike a fresh-water shark," he
had explained, when first testing the plan; "and what is good for one,
ought to work with the other."

At the top of the snubbing post he had fastened an iron ring. The rope
passed through this, being secured by a staple that could be easily
dislodged, as it was intended for only temporary use.

Back of the post the line was coiled up several times, and a white rag
fastened to it at a certain point. When a shark carried off the baited
hook, this slack would quickly pass through the ring at the top of the
stout post, so that the flag must mount upward, and signal to the alert
fisherman that he had made a strike; when he could hasten to attend to
his captive.

They were eating supper, as the night closed in. Nick had seated himself
in a comfortable position, where he might occasionally raise his eyes,
and by a turn of the head look off in the direction where his trap was
laid.

During the earlier part of the meal he had paid strict attention to
business, and glanced that way about once a minute faithfully. But as
the spirit of feasting took a firmer clutch upon his soul, the fat boy
began to forget.

Not so Jimmy. He had taken up his quarters so that he might observe the
goings on at the snubbing post without even turning his head. And as he
munched away at what he had on his tin platter, the Irish lad kept a
close watch for the flaunting of the tell-tale signal.

Jack saw this, and he knew that all he had to do in order to keep fully
posted as to the way things were working, was to watch Jimmy, whose
freckled face would serve as a thermometer.

And after a while, when it was almost pitch-dark around the camp on the
edge of the water, he discovered that Jimmy was staring at the snubbing
post as though fascinated. His lips were working, too, though apparently
he was having a hard time trying to speak, and tell his rival that the
trap was working.

But Jimmy was clean-cut and generous, even to one with whom he had
entered into a contest for supremacy; and presently he burst forth.

"Would ye be afther getting a move on, Nick?" he exclaimed. "There's the
flag a flutterin' on the top of the post like a signal man wigwaggin' in
the Boy Scouts troop! And by the powers, it's gone now, pulled clane out
of the socket. Be off with ye; for, by the same token, ye've cotched the
granddaddy of all the sharrks, I do belave!"



CHAPTER XXI.

VICTORY COMES TO NICK.


"Whoop! here I go, fellers!" shouted Nick, as, scrambling awkwardly to
his feet, he hurried along the beach toward the spot where he had left
his shark line.

Of course the rest hastened to follow after him. They found the fat boy
bending down and feeling of the taut rope.

"Gee whittaker! but I've caught the biggest ever, I do believe!" Nick
was crying. "Just feel that line, would you? Acts like it had hold of a
house, with the tide running out. Say, it'll take me all night to get
that monster ashore; but I'll do it; you hear me warble, Jimmy, I'll do
it!"

"Good for you, Nick!" laughed Jack.

"We'll back you up to win out, if you only keep everlastingly at it,"
remarked Herb.

"And don't be afther forgettin' the rules of the game, all of ye,"
warned Jimmy. "Nobody must put a finger on the loine to hilp Nick. I
want to see him have fair play, so I do. And, by the same token, if
he bates me by three hundred pounds, I'll be the firrst gossoon to
congratulate him on his success. You know that, boys."

"Sure we do, Jimmy," spoke up George.

"It wouldn't be like you not to do the same," declared Josh.

"You know what you've just got to do, Nick," remarked Jack.

"Guess I do," chuckled the owner of the outfit, as he looked eagerly out
over the darkening water to that point toward which the taut line seemed
to extend; but if he entertained a faint hope that the prisoner would
leap into view while trying to get rid of the steel barb, he mistook the
nature of the shark, which bores deep, and tries to do by main strength
what a tarpon, a trout, a salmon or a black bass attempts by that upward
fling, and shake of the head.

"He's going it pretty furious right now," Josh observed.

"Yes, and the harder he pulls the better," Nick said. "That'll help to
tire the old chap out, and make it easier for poor me to get him ashore,
foot by foot, by making use of my snubbing post here. But let's go back
and finish our supper, boys. If the hook holds, and the rope is as good
as I think, he'll be here tugging away an hour from now, just as much as
he is now."

"That's where your head's level, Nick," commented Jack.

And so the whole party wended their way back to where the camp-fire
blazed on the shore. Here the pleasant task of finishing their meal was
once more resumed. Some of them thought Nick was really devouring even
more than usual, though that might be hard to believe.

"He wants to get his strength up to top-notch!" laughed Herb.

"Well," observed Nick, calmly, as he reached deliberately over, and took
the last helping of Boston baked beans from the tin kettle in which they
had been heated for the meal; "I hate to see things go to waste; and
there are some fellers around who don't seem to know what's good."

"I've noticed," Josh remarked, drily, "that you don't mind how much goes
to _your_ waist, all right."

Nick only groaned at the pun, and went on cleaning out his platter, as
though he believed in always laying in a healthy supply of food, since
nobody could tell when another chance might come around.

Afterwards they lay about the camp and told stories, joked and even sang
school songs. Nick seemed in no great hurry to take up the task that
awaited him. He knew from former experiences just what it meant. But
that the subject was on his mind all the while was made manifest from
what he said.

"Jack, I want to ask you a question!" he began.

"Well, fire away, then," suggested the other, with a nod of invitation.

"If, now, this fellow at the end of my line turns out to be so heavy
that I just can't budge him, when I get the chump at the edge of the
water, would it be breaking the rules if I borrowed that block and
tackle to help yank him out, so you can all see him, and estimate his
weight?"

"How about that, fellows?" asked Jack, looking around with a wink toward
the other chums.

"Why, of course he can make use of any means, so long as no other person
lends a hand to assist him," George gave as his opinion.

"That's what!" Josh added.

"If he goes and gets the falls and fixes the whole blooming business
himself, of course he's got the right to do it," declared Herb.

"And I do be saying that it's a clever schame, that does Nick credit,"
was the verdict of Jimmy.

"That settles it, then, Nick," Jack decided. "It's unanimous, you hear;
and if you want, you can go and get the block and tackle arranged right
now."

"Oh! do you think, then, I'll surely need it, Jack?" asked the fat boy,
trembling with joyous anticipations; for from the tenor of Jack's words
he expected that they all believed he had caught the biggest of sharks,
one that would make that little porpoise of Jimmy's look like a baby.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you did," Jack replied, with a reassuring
nod.

Accordingly, after he had cleaned off his pannikin, and not a second
sooner, Nick hunted up the rope and blocks with which they had hauled
the _Comfort_ out on skids at the time of her accident.

By a skillful use of such an apparatus, one man's strength is made equal
to that of several; and the boys had learned this fact through actual
experience.

"Let us know when you expect to get busy," called out Herb, as Nick went
off with the falls.

"Yes, because we want to enjoy it all, you know, Nick," sang out George.

Perhaps half an hour passed, with the fat boy busily engaged getting his
apparatus ready. Then they heard him give a call.

"Hi! hello, there! fellers; suppose somebody starts a fire agoing for
me here; that's allowable, ain't it, Jack?" he demanded.

"Why, of course, since it hasn't anything to do with getting the shark
ashore," the one addressed responded, as all of them jumped up.

"I'm ready to begin yanking him in now; but it's so pesky gloomy I ain't
able to see just right," Nick continued. "It'd be a shame now if I lost
this dandy chap just because I didn't see how to work him."

Some of the boys gathered dead leaf stalks from under a nearby palmetto,
and in next to no time they had a fine, ruddy blaze crackling close by
the spot where Nick was standing, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and an
air of grim determination about his whole person.

The first thing he did was to make sure the rope went twice around the
snubbing post, so that he might always have a hitch. Then he fastened
the end of the rope belonging to the falls to the strained fish line, a
dozen feet beyond the snubbing post.

His operations were watched with considerable interest by his mates, who
realized that quite a transformation was rapidly taking place in the
character of the once placid and indolent fat boy.

"Here goes, then!" exclaimed Nick, as he threw his full weight on the
rope that went through the several blocks.

They could hear him grunting at a great rate, which indicated what an
effort it was to get the shark started shoreward against his will.

"Bully! he's beginning to make it!" whooped George, greatly excited.

"Hurrah for Nick!" shouted Josh.

"Walk away with it, me bhoy!" cried Jimmy, as though quite forgetting
that success for Nick meant defeat for him.

The stout fisherman was indeed doing just what Jimmy advised, and
walking away with things. When he had gone as far as he could, he
managed to whip the rope around some object. Then, returning to the now
slack fishing line, above the spot where he had fastened the falls, he
drew it taut around the snubbing post.

"He gained at least ten feet that time," declared Jack.

"But, oh! my! ain't the old terror mad, though?" exclaimed George. "Just
see how he pulls, would you, boys?"

"Give him another turn, Nick," advised Jack.

Unfastening the falls, Nick took the second hitch, and as before this
was some distance below the snubbing post.

Again he bent his stout back, and, aided by the tackle, he succeeded in
bringing the struggling sea monster closer in to the shore.

Everything was working smoothly, and by the time he had repeated his
effort a good many times they could see from the terrific splashing that
the prisoner was already in shoal water.

"Do you think I'm going to get him?" gasped poor, winded Nick, as he
wiped his streaming forehead, and tried to get ready for the hardest tug
of all; for, with a dead weight on the sand to haul, he could no longer
count on the buoyancy of the water.

"Well, I should smile, yes," declared George. "At him again, Ginger;
never say die! Set 'em up in the other alley! This is a great treat to
us, Nick, I tell you!"

But Nick was already busy. With the rope over his shoulder, and his toes
digging in the sand, he tugged away like a good fellow, gaining inch by
inch. This time he succeeded in dragging the shark all the way out of
the water, so that it lay exposed to their view.

"Hurroo! he done it!" shouted Jimmy, with an utter disregard for the
rules of grammar, that would have horrified his teachers, had any of
them heard him; but Jimmy had one set of rules to mark his vacation
manners, and another covering his connection with the seats of learning;
and when he wished could talk just as correctly as the next one.

They gathered around, full of wonder at the size and ferocity of the
monster, that even then lay there on the sand, snapping savagely at
everything.

"Will it beat Jimmy's porpoise?" asked Nick, proudly.

"Half again as heavy!" declared Jack; "for I reckon it must weigh all of
four hundred pounds."



CHAPTER XXII.

WHERE AMBITION LED.


True to his word, the generous Irish lad was the very first to grasp
Nick's blistered hand and congratulate him on his wonderful success.

"That's what comes of stick-at-it-tiveness," declared Herb, ponderously,
as he, too, gripped the fingers of the successful shark fisherman.

Nick was allowed to get the rifle, and wind up the career of the savage
sea monster. In the morning they estimated his weight, just as they had
done with others in the past. Everybody was satisfied to agree with that
first guess which Jack made, and call it four hundred. And they declared
that Nick was a wonder, in that with only the assistance of the falls,
he had dragged such a monster up on the beach.

The voyage was resumed that day, and for the better part of a week they
were put to it dodging storms, making outside runs when the fair weather
allowed of their braving the open gulf, and extricating themselves from
various unpleasant predicaments, when they managed to lose themselves in
what had promised to be a convenient cut-off, but which proved a trap
in the shape of shallow water, with many chances of the boats sticking
in the mud.

After Pensacola would come Mobile; and then the next place they expected
to reach would be their destination, New Orleans.

Each night as they figured on the time that still remained, a sense
of gloom would descend upon the camp, though Jack or else Jimmy soon
dissipated it by some joking remark, or it might be by bursting out into
ragtime song. But they had had such a glorious time since starting out
on this remarkable voyage that they viewed its approaching finish with a
feeling bordering on dismay.

Jimmy had now taken to being haunted by a desire to eclipse the great
feat of his stout rival. Though it did not seem that there might be one
chance in fifty of his succeeding in capturing a fish that would exceed
the weight of that monster shark, Jimmy had developed an industrious
trait.

Early and late his mind was set upon the game. Nick had generously
turned over his shark tackle to the other. He guaranteed that it was
sound, and capable of sustaining any strain.

So Jimmy would each night do just what the other had been engaged in
until recently; and the way he attended to that line was worthy of all
praise.

But, although hardly a night went by that he did not make some sort of
capture, his best effort fell far short of the necessary heft, and Nick
began to feel that the wager was as good as won. Nevertheless, he
watched all that Jimmy did with a certain amount of interest, not to say
anxiety, knowing that there is, according to the old saying, "many a
slip between the cup and the lip."

All of them were in the very best of health, and in this the voyage down
the coast, and around the end of Florida among the keys had done them
good. Even Josh seemed to have recovered from his spell of indigestion,
and was able to do his share of the eating.

How could it be otherwise, when they were living in the open air day and
night, drinking in the pure ozone all the while; with contented minds,
and plenty to appease the healthy demands of the inner man?

So one fine afternoon they headed up the wide bay leading to Pensacola,
expecting to get more home letters here. George had a wrinkle between
his eyes at times, but this was not on account of any anxiety in
connection with a girl he had left behind him, as some of the others
jokingly declared. The fact was, his new engine was giving him a little
trouble.

"Tell you what, George," Herb had said, when they had to stop an hour
for the other to do some work, in order to induce the motor to carry on
its part; "your old _Wireless_ is just a hoodoo, and that's what ails
you."

"Huh!" grunted George, in disgust, "I'm beginning to believe that way
myself, to be honest now. I've done everything a fellow could do, even
to installing a new and guaranteed motor; yet here the measly thing goes
back on me, just like the old one used to. Huh! it's just sickening,
that's what!"

"But you see, George," Josh remarked, with a wide grin, "the bally boat
wouldn't feel right at all if it went too smooth. Ever since you first
got her she's been accustomed to playing you tricks. Expect her to
reform all at once, and be as meek as Moses? Well, I guess not. Give her
time, George, plenty of time."

"Oh! she's got to see me through this cruise," declared the owner of the
cranky speed boat; "because I haven't got the money to buy another right
now. And no matter what the rest of you say, I've somehow always loved
this boat."

"Of course," observed Herb; "they always say that the bad child is
loved most by its parents, because they feel the greatest anxiety for
that one. But give me the steady old _Comfort_, that never keeps me
awake guessing what sort of trick it'll play next."

"Oh! that's all right," remarked George, indifferently; "everybody to
their taste. But I'd die in that tub, watching all the rest run circles
around me."

"Oh! hardly that," laughed Herb; "because, you see, once in a while
there's a little ripple of excitement comes breezing along, when some
fellow asks to be taken in tow!"

Of course, after that George had nothing further to say; for he could
look back to several instances that were full of humiliation to his
proud spirit, when necessity had forced him to accept of this friendly
aid on the part of his chums.

But they reached Pensacola finally in good shape. George hoped that
after all, as the others said, that one little trick on the part of his
engine might have only been a slip that would never occur again; though
his confidence was shaken, and he watched its working suspiciously after
that.

Letters from home greeted them at Pensacola; but no new developments
were contained in them, at least nothing positive. The strike had not
been settled, and there was warm talk of the town putting men to work
regardless of labor unions.

"And so little has been done," Jack remarked, after getting the
consensus of opinions from all the letters that had been read, "that I
can't see, for the life of me, how they're ever going to complete the
building this season. I understand that it was proposed to use the
biggest church in a pinch; but just as luck would have it, the heating
plant in that has gone all to pieces, so that the scholars would be apt
to freeze."

The boys looked at each other, and smiled. Perhaps they were, deep down
in their hearts, secretly hoping that the workers up there would keep on
quarreling, and the completion of the high school building be postponed
until the next summer. For boys give little thought concerning lost
opportunities in the way of learning. Besides, were they not getting the
finest lessons possible in the line of self reliance; and was not this
long cruise the best sort of education, when they had learned a thousand
things that could never be forgotten?

When they left Pensacola the weather appeared favorable; but at this
season of the year nothing can be taken for granted; so that the
experienced cruiser is accustomed to keeping a strict watch for signs of
storms.

They had need of caution about this time, since there arose a necessity
for considerable outside work, always dangerous in small boats, because
of shallow water near the shore, and an absence of suitable harbors in
which to seek shelter, should a sudden gale arise.

If all went well, they anticipated making it a one-night stop between
Pensacola and Mobile; and Jack thought he had the place for this camp
picked out on his coast chart, which he studied faithfully.

So, as this day moved along, they were putting the miles behind them at
a steady rate. George had no new trouble with his engine, though it was
noticed that he cut out some of his racing ahead of the others. Constant
friction from water will wear away granite in time; and the numerous and
long-continued troubles of George must be making an impression on his
usually buoyant spirits.

"Alabama, here we rest!" sang out Jack, about five in the afternoon, as
he pointed ahead to where a friendly island or key offered them the
shelter they craved.

"Oh! I'm so glad!" Nick was heard to say, and they could easily guess
why; for of course Nick must be ravenously hungry--he nearly always
was.

Accordingly they headed in, meaning to pass behind the end of the key
that jutted out like a human finger, offering an asylum to all small
craft that could gain the sheltered water behind.

It was just while they were slowing up, since caution had to be
exercised whenever they neared shoal waters, that Herb called out
excitedly:

"Oh! Jack, look out yonder; what in the dickens is that coming along,
and sticking out of the water?"

Of course every eye was instantly turned in the direction Herb was
pointing.

"It's a whale!" shouted Nick, almost falling overboard in his excitement,
as he discovered some dreadful looking black object rushing through the
water amid a sparkling mass of foam.

"A whale!" echoed Jimmy, dancing up and down excitedly; "Och! if I only
had a harpoon now, wouldn't it be just grand? A whale would knock the
spots out of the biggest shark that iver grew, so it would."

Jack had snatched up his marine glasses, and was leveling them at the
monster, back of which trailed that line of foam and bubbles. The
others, watching, saw him stare as though hardly able to believe his
eyes, and then laugh outright.

"Oh! there goes Jimmy in the dinky; and, would you believe it, he's got
a gun!" exclaimed Nick. "Nothing is too big to scare that boy, I do
believe. He'd just as soon tackle a whale as a sunfish. Call him back,
Jack, or he'll be drowned!"

Jack laid down the glasses, which had occupied his attention so much
that he had not observed the actions of his cruising mate.

"Here, you, Jimmy, come right back!" he called, though he could hardly
talk because of the desire to laugh.

"But howld on, Jack, darlint, didn't ye be afther sayin' anything that
swum was a fish; and if I get a whale ain't it fair play?" the other
replied, pausing in his labor of using the short oars belonging to the
_Tramp's_ tender.

"Sure, I did," answered Jack; "but that didn't mean you could go around
banging away at one of your Uncle Sam's submarines, out for a trial spin
from the Pensacola navy-yard. I guess you'd better come back now, before
you get in trouble; don't you?"



CHAPTER XXIII.

WINDING UP THE VOYAGE--CONCLUSION.


Ambitious Jimmy evidently came to the conclusion that a Government
submarine was rather larger game than he cared to tackle. Besides, from
the riotous way in which his five chums were laughing, he must have
become convinced that there would be sustained objections to allowing
him to count his prize, even did he bag such prey.

At any rate, he ceased rowing, and backed water, returning to the
_Tramp_, with one of his characteristic wide grins decorating his
freckled face. So the others never knew whether the wild Irish lad might
have been playing a joke upon them, or really thought it was a whale,
which he might as well try to take in.

The submarine had by this time vanished from sight, evidently testing
her ability to remain under the surface of the water for a length of
time; as well as proceeding at a rapid clip when partly submerged. But
the boys did not see anything of the strange craft again.

They made their camp that night, just as Jack had figured upon doing.
And on the following day, by cleverly getting an early start, they
passed around grim Fort Morgan, sailing up Mobile Bay, where gallant
Farragut earned his lasting laurels many years ago.

But, besides securing their letters, if there were any, they did not
mean to remain long here. One day sufficed to show them all they cared
to see of the quaint little city that has had such a history.

Truth to tell, all the boys were anxious as to what news might await
them when they reached New Orleans. That, of course, was to be the
deciding point. If nothing new developed, it was of course their
intention to hold to their original plan. This had been to ship the
three motor boats up the Mississippi by some packet, themselves taking
passage on a train, headed for home.

As they had previously made a voyage down the Father of Waters; and
heading up against the fierce current was never to be thought of on the
part of such small craft, this was really the only thing they could do.

Apparently they had plenty of time to reach their destination on
schedule, and yet none knew better than did Jack Stormways how
exasperating delays often occur to hold motor boats up. There was
George, for instance, with his unlucky speed boat, which might become
disabled at a time when they would lose days towing him along; or it
might be storms would follow each other so fast that a necessary outside
passage could not be attempted.

And so they decided, that first night out from Mobile, that if there was
any loafing to be done, they had better defer it until within a single
day's run of the Crescent City. When their minds were perfectly free,
and they knew nothing was apt to interfere with their carefully laid
plans, that would be the time to hang around, and rest up.

So day succeeded day, and they drew gradually closer to their
destination. Jimmy began to look very doleful, or at least pretended to
be in the "dumps," as Josh called it. The wager would come to an end
when they made the city on the lower Mississippi, no matter what their
future course was to be. And if he had not beaten that wonderful shark
record by then, the game was up.

Nick puffed himself out, and assumed airs. He felt that he had really
done himself proud in bringing such a remarkable fish to land, alone and
unaided. He even made out solemnly worded vouchers, which every one of
the others was compelled to sign; and which in so many sentences told
the actual story of his feat.

"You see," Nick explained, "a lot of people up in our town would call it
just a fish story, and let it go at that. And I want to prove it to my
dad as well. He never dreams what a wonderful boy he's got. Guess they
won't laugh so much after this, because I happen to have a little extra
flesh on my bones. That don't mean I'm lacking in muscle, does it? I
think not. Haven't we got a shining example of the same in our great and
noble President today? Huh! a fellow can be stout, and yet some punkins,
after all."

"And that little kodak picture I took will go a good way toward proving
your story, Nick," remarked Josh. "When they see you standing so nobly,
with one foot on that _tre_menjous shark, it'd have to be a mighty
suspicious feller that would doubt your word. And even Jimmy, here, your
worsted competitor, has signed your affidavy."

"Sure if I'm worsted, I'm wool, and a yarrd wide!" grinned the said
Jimmy.

"By the way, I notice that Jimmy doesn't get busy any longer with that
shark line," remarked Herb, turning to the Irish lad with a questioning
look.

"Then he must have given it up as a bad job," said George.

"How about that, Jimmy; are you ready to crown Nick as the king pin of
the bunch when it comes to bagging big fish? Shall we get the laurel
wreath, and put it on his brow? Will you admit that you're cleanly
beaten at the game?"

Jack put the question direct, for he privately knew that Jimmy had
yielded the palm. The other jumped up, snatched his banjo from the
ground, and began to strum something that set the boys in a roar, and
made Nick blush with pleasure. For the tune was, "Lo, the Conquering
Hero Comes."

"How long have we been in making this splendid run from Philadelphia?"
Herb asked a little later, as Jack was jotting down some notes of the
day's run in his logbook.

"Nearly three months, all told, counting our numerous stops," was the
reply; "or it will be that when we get to New Orleans. December is
nearly over now; Christmas has gone by, and the New Year only a few days
away."

"Well, I haven't kept exact track, to tell the truth," Herb went on;
"but I guessed it must be about that. Do you want to know how? Why, you
remember that on our very first night out, the moon was just four days
old?"

"That's a fact," spoke up George; "for I can recollect noticing it up in
the western heavens, and wishing it would hurry along, so as to give us
more light nights."

"Well, this is about the dark of the moon now," added Herb, triumphantly.

"No use for Herb to ever own a watch again," laughed Josh. "He just
prides himself on being able to tell the time of day by the sun; and now
he's shown us how he can find out what day of the month it is by the
moon. Pretty soon he'll be using the stars to tell his age, and when he
cut his first tooth. Once you start in along that line, there's just no
limit to what you can do, I reckon, eh, Herb?"

"Well, all I can say, fellows," quoth Jack, as he slapped his logbook
shut, and glanced around at the sunburned and healthy looking faces of
his five good camp-mates, "is that we've surely had the time of our
lives on this dandy voyage; and no matter what happens next, we're never
going to forget the glorious runs our little fleet of motor boats have
made outside, and in, along the whole coast, from the frozen North to
the Sunny South!"

"Hear! hear!" shouted Josh, enthusiastically waving his hat above his
head.

"You never spoke truer words, Jack," remarked George, with deep feeling.
"It's sure been the happiest time of my whole life; or would have been,"
he hastily added, while a slight frown broke over his face, "only for
the trouble that blessed old motor gave me every little while."

"But you're all right now, George, with the new engine aboard," condoled
Nick.

"Perhaps I am," replied the skeptical George; "but the proof of the
pudding is in the eating of it. The new machine may go back on me yet."

"But, my goodness! you've had it, going on three weeks, and in all that
time she only shied once! What better do you want than that?" demanded
Herb.

"Oh! well, you never can tell," replied the skipper of the _Wireless_.

"Fact is, fellers," Nick declared, "George has become so used to looking
for sudden trouble to spring on him, that he can't think of anything
else. He's all the time watching for a breakdown to happen."

"Three weeks ought to satisfy him that his new engine is all to the
good," remarked Josh, "but seems like it don't. Say, George makes me
think of that Irishman who was always looking for trouble. He had been
employed by the same railroad company forty-three years; but, getting
too old for the work, he was let go. When some of his friends, seeing
him look so doleful, took him to task, he shook his head and said, says
he: 'It's not surprised at all I am; for ever since I began work here
I've known it wouldn't be a permanent job!'"

And so they laughed and joked as the time slipped away.

Of course they did not intend passing around to the delta of the mighty
Mississippi, when there was a much more convenient way of reaching the
Crescent City by passing through the straits called the Rigolets, and
thus entering Lake Ponchartrain; from whence, by means of the canal, the
city could be gained.

It was on New Year's day, at about three in the afternoon, with a piping
cold wind streaming down from the frozen North, that the little motor
boat flotilla came to a last stop in a quiet boatyard near the great
city on the river, which had seen the windup of a previous voyage of the
club.

And, anxious as they were to hear from home, the six chums did not
neglect to shake hands all around over the remarkably successful
termination of their long and adventurous trip down the Eastern coast,
and among the keys of Florida.

If the news they received was what they expected it would be, they
intended to load the three boats on the first packet bound up the river,
and then wend their way home by train.

Whether this plan was fated to be carried out or not, must be left to
another book. Having attained the goal for which they had striven so
splendidly; and with the bitter rivalry between Jimmy and Nick settled
for all time, we can safely leave our young friends at this point,
wishing them all good luck in other voyages which they may undertake in
the near future.


THE END.



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 M. A. DONOHUE & CO.      Chicago



 Transcriber's Notes:

 --Text in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_); text in
   bold by "equal" signs (=bold=).

 --Printer, punctuation and spelling inaccuracies were silently
   corrected.

 --Archaic and variable spelling has been preserved.

 --Variations in hyphenation and compound words have been preserved.





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