[Transcriber's note: this book contains the short story "Mrs. Stone's Money-Order." Its author is unknown.]
[Frontispiece: Jack, crouching there, with one elbow resting on his knee, took as good an aim as the conditions allowed]
Motor Boat Boys
Down the Coast
Through Storm and Stress to Florida
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 Among the Florida Keys"
M. A. DONOHUE & COMPANY
M. A. DONOHUE & CO.
I. AFLOAT ON THE LOWER DELAWARE II. A GOOD OMEN FOR THE START III. JACK TAKES A HYDRO-AEROPLANE MESSAGE IV. THE FIRST CAMP FIRE ASHORE V. A STORM, AND NO REFUGE IN SIGHT VI. A CLOSE SHAVE, BUT NO DAMAGE DONE VII. HOW THE MOTOR BOAT FLOTILLA WENT TO SEA VIII. THE CAMP INVADED IX. THE DESPERATION OF HUNGER X. NICK IN SEARCH OF A MERMAID XI. A STUNNING DISCOVERY XII. THE CAMP UNDER CAPE CHARLES LIGHT XIII. A SHOUT AT MIDNIGHT XIV. NICK BAGS HIS GAME XV. A WARM WELCOME TO THE STORMY CAPE XVI. THE WIRELESS AS TRICKY AS EVER XVII. GOODBYE TO AN ANCHOR XVIII. A SIGNAL OF DISTRESS XIX. THE MESSAGE OF HOPE XX. MEETING TROUBLE HALF WAY XXI. FOG BOUND WHILE AT SEA XXII. SAVANNAH AT LAST XXIII. THANKS TO THE PILOT—CONCLUSION
MOTOR BOAT BOYS SERIES
THE MOTOR CLUB'S CRUISE DOWN THE MISSISSIPPI THE MOTOR CLUB ON THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER THE MOTOR CLUB ON THE GREAT LAKES MOTOR BOAT BOYS AMONG THE FLORIDA KEYS MOTOR BOAT BOYS DOWN THE COAST MOTOR BOAT BOYS RIVER CHASE MOTOR BOAT BOYS DOWN THE DANUBE
THE MOTOR BOAT BOYS
DOWN THE COAST;
Through Storm and Stress to Florida
AFLOAT ON THE LOWER DELAWARE.
"Toot your horn, Jimmy, and let everybody know we're off at last!"
"Sure, there's the ould Wireless coming up on us, hand over fist. It's a broth of a bhoy George Rollins is for speed!"
"Yes, he always starts out well, and with a rush; but generally manages to have his engine break down; and then even the wide old tub Comfort gets there ahead of the narrow speed boat. Now give 'em a blast, Jimmy. The coast cruise is on!"
Accordingly, Jimmy Brannigan, who served as cook and crew aboard the staunch motor boat Tramp, some twenty-three feet in length by six feet wide (the boat, not Jimmy), and with Jack Stormways as pilot, puffed out his cheeks and blew.
It was a necessary method for sounding the conch shell horn, which, if blown like a bugle, would send out a screech that could be heard a mile away.
Answering toots came from the two other crafts that had just left Philadelphia astern, and were heading down the old Delaware River, bound for Florida.
Here were six of the happiest young chaps on the face of the globe; and, indeed, how could they help it? Blessed with good health; three of them owning motor boats that had served them now for two seasons, and with stores aboard for a "bully" voyage down the Atlantic coast, taking the inland passage, what more could the heart of a real boy, with red blood in his veins, sigh for!
These six lads lived in a town "out Mississippi way." They had long ago ceased to be novices in the management of motor boats, and the great benefit they seemed to have secured from previous trips on the water, both down the wonderful Mississippi and on the Great Lakes, had convinced their fathers that they were to be trusted under any and all conditions.
Hence, when a calamity befell the high school of their native place, which all of them attended, fire destroying the main part of the building, so that there could be no session until some time after Christmas, and a brilliant scheme dawned upon the mind of Jack Stormways, they were not long in convincing those who controlled their destinies that the opportunity for a run down the Atlantic coast before winter set in, with possibly a similar cruise along the Mexican gulf to New Orleans, was too good to be lost.
And so they had come to Philadelphia, with this object in view.
As to the money part—for it takes a heap of cash to transport three motor boats a thousand miles and more by fast freight—that was the easiest part of the programme.
It happened that the treasury of the Motor Boat Club was quite flush at that particular time. On one of their former cruises, up on the Great Lakes, and in the vicinity of the Thousand Islands, these lads had been instrumental in bringing to justice a set of rogues, for whose apprehension a large reward had been offered by the authorities.
That sum, with others picked up in various ways, had been lying at interest all this while. They had intended using it for their next cruise, no matter where that might happen to take them.
Various indeed had been the suggestions made from time to time; and some of them bordering on the ridiculous. Strange to say, it was Nick Longfellow, the companion of George Rollins on the narrow beam speed boat Wireless, who gave utterance to most of these absurd propositions.
Nick was fat, and a tremendous eater. As a rule he could not be said to be at all bold by nature; and yet he declared that nothing would please him half so much as that they explore the Orinoco River in South America, and discover things never before known by white people.
Then there had been Josh Purdue, the tall and thin assistant of Herbert Dickson on the beamy and steady if slow Comfort, who wanted them to lose themselves for an entire month in the depths of the swampy country to be found along the St. Francis River.
But when Jack sprung his sensation about the long trip down the coast, and around to New Orleans, it took like wildfire, and every other idea was speedily forgotten. Preparations were hurried, the boats shipped, and later on the boys turned up in Philadelphia, where they found their craft waiting for them.
And now, here they were, at noon on this late September day, with the prows of their beloved boats turned toward the south, and plowing the waters of the Delaware, the Quaker City left far astern.
Doubtless many aboard the bustling tugs, and the vessels that came and went, smiled as they heard the merry tooting of horns exchanged between the three little power boats that were speeding along toward the wider reaches of the lower river.
They easily guessed that the boys had a good time ahead of them; but truth to tell not one could have imagined the extent of the voyage upon which the Motor Boat Club had now set out, with so confident a mien.
Taken as a whole, a merrier set of young chaps could hardly have been assembled than the six who constituted this same club. They had, of course, their faults; but by now they were so accustomed to each other's society that seldom was a discordant note heard.
Jokes abounded, tricks were sometimes played, and accepted with good nature; and without exception the boys had become very fond of each other.
For instance, there was stout roly-poly Nick, who could never tear his mind away from his favorite subject of eating, and whom thin and cadaverous Josh liked to tantalize whenever the occasion offered, because he himself, while a great cook, seldom found much appetite for his own messes, being troubled from time to time with indigestion.
Then Jimmy, who, it can easily be understood, had sprung from the rollicking Irish race, possessed a fine voice, as sweet as that of any girl; and many the time did he beguile an evening at the campfire with his songs and his clever dancing. Jimmy, by the way, happened to have a fiery thatch, a multitude of freckles, and upon occasions lapsed into the brogue of his ancestors, although he could talk as well as the others when he chose.
George had the speed mania. This had developed early in his career, for his one delight was to outstrip others in a race. Consequently, when he had his boat built, he sacrificed lots of things to have it narrow in beam, and naturally it was anything but a pleasure to be aboard the cranky craft.
His mate, Nick, had suffered in the past from this condition of affairs; and the log of former cruises would show that he had met with more than one mishap because it was necessary to perfectly balance the Wireless at all times. Poor Nick often declared that if he chanced to fail to part his hair directly in the middle, trouble was sure to follow.
The Comfort, as its name would indicate, had been fashioned on just the opposite plan, and speed was the last thing considered. They made all manner of fun of Herbert's boat, and called it such derogatory names as "The Tub" and "The Ark"; but all the same, when hurry was not an object, those aboard certainly had the best of the controversy. And then the quick-going boats always had to wait for Herb and his "life-raft," so they did not gain anything in the end.
Then about the third craft, called the Tramp, and owned by the recognized leader of the sextette, Jack Stormways. It united the good qualities of both the other boats in that it was fast and at the same time steady. While on occasion the cigar-shaped Wireless could leave Jack in the lurch, and the beamy Comfort give more elbow room, taken as a whole the Tramp was the ideal cruiser; and both the other skippers knew it away down in their secret hearts, though always ready to stand up for their own boats.
It was close on the beginning of October when they made their start from the City of Brotherly Love. For some time they would have to dodge the many vessels that were moving hither and thither before the busy port; but later in the afternoon they could expect to have clearer weather, where the river widened out, with the shores farther apart.
For once George moderated his pace, and hovered near the others. He felt so joyous over the sensation of being once more afloat, and with such a glorious voyage ahead, that he wanted to be where he could exchange remarks with his chums, and hear what they thought.
George had been doing considerable pottering with his engine lately. He claimed that he had been able to increase its speed several miles an hour.
"Wait till I get a good chance to show you, fellows," he now remarked, with a satisfied air; "why, I expect to make rings around your blooming old Tramp, Jack; and as for "The Ark," why, it'll be figure eights for hers."
"Wow! don't I just see my finish, then," wailed poor, fat Nick, shaking his head sorrowfully. "The vibration always was just fierce, and now it'll just rattle me, so I'll be only skin and bones. You'll be calling me the Living Skeleton before we ever get to Jacksonville, I bet you, boys."
"Oh, when it gets so you just can't stand it any longer, call on Josh here to change off with you, like he did once before," laughed Herbert. "Josh is built on the order of a match, and seems to be especially suited for a narrow-beam boat."
But the party mentioned did not seem to like the prospect any better than Nick, to judge from the protest he immediately put out.
"Me to stick to the Comfort, fellows. One thing sure, if you are last, you always know where you're at; and that's what I never did when on that broncho of a Wireless. Why, it threw me twice; and souse I went into the drink."
"But just think, Josh," insinuated cunning Nick, "all this shaking would be the best thing ever for that indigestion of yours. It rattles up the liver, and does a heap of good. I don't need that sort of thing, you see. Last time you bunked with George you know you improved a hundred per cent."
"Huh! mebbe," grunted Josh, "but it wasn't worth it, I tell you."
"Look at that tug bucking up against the tide, will you?" exclaimed George just then—being humiliated by all this talk about the cranky qualities of his pet, and anxious to call their attention elsewhere in order to change the subject.
"Must be a greenhorn at the wheel, or else the fellow's had more drink than he had ought to tackle," declared Nick.
"He sure does wobble a heap," admitted Jack, keeping a wary eye on the approaching craft, lest it foul his own boat, and bring sudden disaster on the cruise which had begun so auspiciously. "But perhaps that's a trick these river pilots have when heading up into an ebb tide. They know all the wrinkles of the game, I guess, and how to save themselves from wasted efforts."
"Say, that rowboat had better look out; if he makes a quick turn with the tug he's apt to run the little punkin seed down," George declared, with a note of anxiety in his voice; for he was nervous by nature, as his love for racing and making high speed would indicate.
"That pilot must be watching us all the time, wondering whatever we're heading for down the river, because the duck shooting below isn't on yet. There! he's swung about again! I hope he don't knock that rowboat galley west!" called Herbert.
"Hey! look to your starboard—you're running down a boat!" shouted Jack, dropping his wheel for three seconds in order to make a speaking trumpet with both hands.
There was a brief interval of suspense. Then came a plain crash, accompanied by loud shouts, and more or less excitement aboard the tug that was heading up river way.
"He did it!" bellowed Josh, fairly wild with eagerness. "Oh! I'm afraid the poor fellow will be drowned before that tug can come about and go to his rescue. Turn your bally old tub, Herb, can't you? It takes a whole day for you to get around."
"No use of our trying it," declared the skipper of the big roomy Comfort, calmly, for nothing could start Herb out of his customary condition of mental poise, because he is as steady in his way as his boat; "he'd be drowned twice over before we reached him. Besides, there goes Jack in his Tramp, shooting straight for the smashed rowboat. Unless the poor fellow was injured and has already sank our chum will get him all right, Josh."
"That's right," declared Josh. "George has gone and got flustrated, so that he turned the wrong way; but if anybody can save that fellow it's Jack Stormways. Oh! I hope he does it, because I'll take it as a good sign that our new voyage down the coast is going to have a lucky start!"
A GOOD OMEN FOR THE START.
Jack Stormways was always prepared. He never lost his head in an emergency, for which more than one of his chums had had reason to be thankful in times past. So, on the present occasion, when he saw that the tug could not make a complete circuit against the running tide and reach the wrecked rowboat in time to be of any assistance to the unfortunate who had been hurled into the Delaware, Jack instantly headed the little motor boat for the spot.
"Get up in the bow with you, Jimmy, quick now, and take the boathook along! I'll slow down when we get there; and perhaps you can grab him in!" the skipper called out.
Accustomed to obeying, Jimmy made haste to snatch up the implement mentioned, and which had many the time proved its value in recovering things that had been swept overboard in a wind storm.
Then he hurried to gain a position near the bow of the boat, where he crouched, after making sure of his footing, so as to guard against a shock when he clapped the boathook into the clothing of the drowning man.
"I see him, Jack!" he bawled immediately. "He's holding to the boat, so he is!"
"All right, Jimmy," echoed the skipper, calmly; "I glimpsed him before you did, I reckon. Steady yourself now, and try not to make a foozle of it, old man. There you are. Jimmy; get him!"
And Jimmy did the same, catching the coat of the man in the water with his boathook, and holding on tenaciously. Jack, meanwhile, turned his engine backward, so that the momentum of the boat was promptly checked.
The man had been clinging to the rapidly sinking wreckage. In another half minute, no doubt, he would have been left without any support; and as he did not seem able to swim a stroke, his end must have speedily come.
Jimmy drew in with the haft of the boat-hook, until he could stretch down and seize upon the collar of the man's coat. As the Irish lad was brawny and nerved just then to mighty deeds, he managed to hoist the fellow into the little motor boat.
The unlucky man was white, and pretty nearly drowned. He had just had enough sense to cling desperately to the wreck of his boat, and then allow Jimmy to do the rescue act.
"Did you get hurt when that tug struck your boat?" asked Jack, for that was what he feared.
The man was blinking at him, for his eyes had taken in more or less of the brackish water of the river; but he shook his head in the negative. This relieved Jack more than a little. Like Josh, he had been hoping that in the very beginning of their new cruise a wet blanket might not be cast over the spirits of the party by their witnessing the drowning of a poor chap.
"Here comes the tug down after us," remarked Jimmy. "I suppose the omadhauns 'll be expressing their regrets for the accident. Sure, it was criminal carelessness, if ever there was a case. And ye'll be silly, sor, if so be ye don't make 'em pay for the boat they smashed."
By degrees the man seemed to come out of the half stupor into which his sudden immersion in the waters of the river had thrown him.
"They just got to," he grumbled, shaking his head; "for 'twas a borrowed boat, an' I can't pay for a new one."
"We'll try and see you through," said Jack. "If they think we're ready to tell what we saw, they'll not only pay you good damages, but take you ashore in the bargain."
"That's the ticket!" declared Jimmy, quite taken with the idea of frightening the captain of the tug into doing the right thing by his victim.
Presently the tug came alongside, and an anxious voice called out:
"Was he much hurt, boys? I'm sorry it happened. Second accident of the week, and such things don't do a man's reputation as a pilot any good."
"Well," replied Jack, promptly, "suppose you whack up for his boat, and a suit of clothes for the man; then take him ashore, and none of us will say a word about the accident, as you call it, but which looked mighty like criminal carelessness to us."
There was a brief interval of silence, during which the two men in the wheel-house of the tug seemed to be conferring.
"How much does he want, my lad?" asked one, presently thrusting his head and shoulders out, so that Jack could have almost shaken hands had he wished.
"The boat ought to be worth fifteen dollars; and say ten more to get him a new suit. That's letting you down easy, my friend," called the skipper of the Tramp.
"Oh, well, I guess I'll have to stand it, though I don't believe the old tub was worth five. Here you are, bub; and if you chuck the feller across to us, we'll dry him off, and land him somewhere above."
Jack eagerly took the proffered bills, and thrust them into the hand of the man who had been so happily rescued.
"Here you are, and good luck to you," he said, cheerily. "Do you think you can get aboard the tug now, my man?"
The other had gripped the several bank bills eagerly; but at the same time a look of caution came into his eyes.
"Say, mister, can't you manage to drop me ashore somewhere below here?" he asked, in a hoarse whisper.
"Well, it wouldn't be altogether convenient," replied Jack, hesitating; and then as he saw the pilot of the tugboat watching them, with a grin on his face, a sudden realization as to what the rescued man feared broke in upon him.
"They might make me give it back again, ye see, after I got dried off," continued the poor fellow, who evidently had not held so much money in his hand for many a long day.
"By George! that's so!" Nick was heard to exclaim; for the Wireless had crept up, and now lay right alongside the Tramp.
Jack was quick to make a decision, and as a rule his first thought was the right one, too.
"I'll land you myself!" he declared, sturdily; "it won't take much time. And I guess a good deed done in the beginning of the voyage ought to bring us luck to pull out of many a bad hole."
Then raising his voice and addressing the man at the wheel of the tug, Jack continued:
"We'll set him ashore below, Captain. You see, he doesn't want to ride up to the city; neither do you prefer to have him go. It's all right; we'll say nothing of what we saw to anybody. So long, Captain!"
And without waiting for an answer Jack simply started his motor, upon which the Tramp shot away from the tug. Looking back, Jack saw the two men conferring, but he felt sure they would allow things to rest.
"That negligence cost him twenty-five dollars, you see, Jimmy; and perhaps he'll keep his eyes about him after this, when he's on the move. It's lucky for him, as well as for our friend here, that a human life was not snuffed out in the bargain."
"And do we head for the shore now, Jack?" queried the mate and cook.
"As soon as I find out which side the wrecked mariner wants to land on," replied the skipper, turning to his passenger.
"Just suit yourself, sir," spoke up the man, into whose face the color was once more beginning to creep, as he looked frequently at the wad of greenbacks, which he continued to caress with his fingers, as though the very feel of them did his heart good.
"But which side do you live on?" persisted Jack, wishing to do the best he could for the fellow.
"Well, now, I live over in Jersey, near Bridgeport," said the man; "but I was goin' across to Lamokin in Pennsylvania, on a chance to get work. So if you'll put me ashore anywhere below here, I can walk up the railroad track to the junction."
Jack immediately headed shoreward.
"Take things easy, fellows, and we'll catch up with you before you've gone many miles," he called out to those in the other boats, since there seemed no necessity for all of them to leave the middle of the river just to land one man.
It was no trouble to get close in on the Pennsylvania shore; the case might have been different over in Jersey, where they could see that marshland abounded at this point.
"Here you are; just step ashore on that rock; and good luck with you, friend!" Jack sang out, as Jimmy piloted the boat alongside a section of the shore, using his favorite boat-hook in so doing.
"Shake hands first, please, young sir," said the other, who appeared to be a decent working man, for his palms were calloused with toil. "You sure done me a mighty good turn this day. I might a-died out there, only for the way you come to the rescue. I won't forget it in a hurry, I tell you."
"Well, pass it along then," laughed Jack, grasping the other's hand at the same time. "Perhaps you'll run across some poor chap who's worse off than you are. Give him a helping hand, and we'll call the thing squared."
"I will, just as sure as I live, I will, that. It's a good idea, too. And after gettin' me this money, I reckon ye saved it for me, by takin' me ashore. That tugboat captain looked like he'd a-made me fork over agin, once he had me aboard his craft."
"I wouldn't be surprised if you were right," assented Jack. "Shake hands with Jimmy too, while you're about it, friend. He yanked you in like a good fellow. If your life was saved, Jimmy had a hand in it."
After this ceremony had been carried out, the man managed to get ashore. Then the boathook was brought into use again to push off; and a minute or two later they were chugging along down-stream, heading once more toward the middle of the broadening river.
Jimmy waved to the man several times, until finally they lost sight of him as he gained the railroad track, and started north.
"Anyway, that was a good beginning, Jimmy," remarked Jack, in a satisfied tone.
"It sure was, for that bog-trotter," chuckled the other. "His ould boat wasn't worth more'n five dollars, as the tug captain sez, an' here he sells it for three toimes the sum. His clothes'll be dry on his back before an hour, in this warm sun; an' he has a noice tin dollars to buy new garments wid. It's the luckiest day av his life, so it is."
"Well, I rather think that adventure did net him a cool twenty," laughed Jack. "Not so bad for a dip in the river."
"He naded a bath, too, so he did," declared Jimmy. "An, mark my word, he'd be willing to kape it up all the blissed day at the same price, so he would. Now we're safe out from the rocks along the shore, why not hit her up, an' overhaul the rist av the bunch, Jack?"
"Right you are, and here goes," sang out the other. "Take the wheel, Jimmy, and look out for anything in the way. I want to watch how the engine works. You know, George wasn't the only one who overhauled his motor after our fun this last summer."
"She is makin' better toime than she iver did in her whole blissed life!" cried the delighted Jimmy, presently, after Jack had been working at the engine a spell. "Be the powers! I do belave we kin give George a race for his money nixt toime he challenges us, so I do. Hurroo! we're flyin' over the wather, Jack!"
"Less talk, and keep your eyes in front of you!" called the other. "If you get as careless as that tugboat man, we'll be smashing into something, too. And then good-bye to all our hopes for a jolly voyage down the coast."
"Aw! 'tis me that is boring the wather with me eyes all the toime, Jack dear; and never a thing as could escape me aigle vision. I'm a broth of bhoy when it comes to steering a boat, do ye mind."
The stream was wide, and there were far less vessels moving up or down than had been the case above, so that, just as Jimmy declared, it was an easy job to keep clear of obstructions.
Jack had become intensely interested in the splendid working of his reconstructed motor. He was watching its pulsations, and experimenting in many little ways, in order to find out just how to get the maximum of speed from it.
And then, all at once, he heard Jimmy give utterance to an exclamation that might be freighted with either curiosity or alarm—perhaps both.
Hardly knowing what to expect, the skipper of the little Tramp struggled to his knees, and then drew himself erect, to make a discovery that thrilled him through and through.
JACK TAKES A HYDRO-AEROPLANE MESSAGE.
"Oh! murder! what a big birrd!" Jimmy was crying out.
A shadow had fallen upon the water close by, and the distant cries of the other young motor boat boys could be faintly heard. Jack, looking hastily up, saw a strange thing that had extended wings like a monster bird, apparently swooping down toward the surface of the wide river.
Of course he knew that it was an up-to-date flying machine, and the presence of aluminum pontoons under the body of the contrivance also told him that for the first time in his life he was looking at a hydro-aeroplane, capable of alighting on the water and starting up again, after the manner of a wild duck.
Even as the two in the Tramp stared, the queer contrivance skipped along the surface of the Delaware, sending the water in spray on either side. Then it seemed to settle contentedly there, not ten feet away from the motor boat.
There was a young fellow squatted in the seat where the various levers could be controlled. He was dressed after some odd fancy of his own, calculated to serve in the cool air of the upper strata. To Jimmy the vision was very startling.
"Why, say, it's a real birdman after all, Jack!" he cried, as though he had only discovered this remarkable fact after the machine had come to a stop close by.
The aviator laughed aloud.
"What did you think it was, young fellow, an old-time roc come back to life?" he called out; waving a hand at them cheerfully.
Jack had shut off the engine at the time he heard the first exclamation from his teammate, and at this time they were hardly more than moving with the ebb tide, so that in reality the boat drew closer to the hydro-aeroplane with each passing second.
"You gave us a little start, that's all," laughed Jack. "Of course, I knew what it was as soon as I saw the pontoons underneath. They seem to do the trick first rate, too. Seems to me I'd like to sail in one of those things, if I ever had the chance."
"It's a great experience, all right," replied the aviator; "but the way things are going right now, only a very few fellows are fitted for the work. But are you in company with those other two jolly little boats way off yonder?"
"That's right," sang out Jimmy, determined to have his little say with the bold navigator of the upper currents; "we're all chums, an' it's the Motor Boat Club we do be represinting. Along the coast we're bound, on a long cruise, by the same token."
The young fellow appeared interested at once.
"Say, that's nice," he remarked. "I bet you'll have a bully good time of it, too. Headed up or down, may I ask?"
He sat there, as much at his ease as though on an ocean steamer, instead of a frail little machine that sprawled upon the heaving waves very much as Jack had seen a big "darning needle," known also as a "mosquito hawk," do on occasion.
"Florida, by the inside route, and then perhaps along the gulf to New Orleans," replied the skipper of the Tramp, in as careless a voice as he could command, just as though a voyage that might cover a thousand or two miles was hardly worth mentioning.
The owner of the hydro-aeroplane whistled, to indicate his surprise. His whole manner showed the keen interest he immediately took in such a glorious prospect; and Jack guessed instantly from this that he possessed the true love for outdoor life and sport.
"That's simply immense," remarked the other, with what might seem like an envious sigh. "I can see where your little crowd have a mighty fine time ahead. Wish I could get off to accompany you; but even if I had an invite, my contracts with the company would not allow me. But later on I am to give some exhibitions in the South; and wouldn't it be strange now if we happened to meet up with each other again?"
Jack rather liked his looks, and of course immediately expressed the hope that circumstances might throw them together again some fine day.
"I'd be glad to see more of you, and learn something about your experiences, for ten to one you've seen some rough times in your air journeys," he remarked, as he leaned on the side of the Tramp's cabin, and let his wondering eyes travel over the peculiar mechanism of the queer air and water craft combined.
"Well, rather," smiled the other, nodding his head in a friendly way, as though possibly he had been taken just as much by the frank and fearless face of the motor boat skipper as Jack was by his countenance and bearing. "Might I ask what your names are, in case we ever do run together again?"
He had a notebook and pencil in his hands while speaking, and Jack quite willing to oblige, called off the roster of the Motor Boat Club, with the names of the three craft included.
"This is a great pleasure to me, I give you my word, Jack," remarked the young fellow, as he thrust the memorandum book once more in his pocket. "Never dreamed of such good luck when I took a notion to swoop down, and see what three bully little craft were doing, headed for Delaware Bay. Going all the way to Florida, you say; and by the inside passage, too? I wonder, now, would that happen to take you in the neighborhood of Beaufort, North Carolina?"
An eager expression had suddenly flashed across his face, and Jack saw his eyes sparkle, as with anticipation; though for the life of him he could not understand just why this should be so, unless the said Beaufort happened to have been the home port of the hydro-aeroplane flier, and the mere thought of their being in that vicinity gave him a homesick thrill.
"Why, yes, I remember that I've got Beaufort marked on the chart as one of our stopping places," Jack hastened to reply. "Could I do anything for you while there? I'd be quite willing to oblige you—er, by the way, you haven't told us your name in return for having ours!"
"That's a fact, I haven't," he replied, quickly, but Jack thought with just a trifle of embarrassment; "it's Malcolm Spence."
"Oh! I believe I've read a lot about your doings with one of these air and water fliers. There were some pretty stirring accounts of your trips in the papers out our way not long ago!" Jack exclaimed, looking at the young fellow with considerable admiration; since hero worship has just as strong a hold upon the human heart in these modern days as in times of old, when knights went forth to do battle with dragons, and all kinds of terrible monsters.
"I believe they have been showing me up, more or less; but I try to avoid those newspaper men all I can, because they stretch things so," young Spence modestly remarked. "That's why I come down here to try out any new little wrinkle I may happen to have hit on. A week ago I started off the deck of a Government war vessel, a big cruiser, went up a thousand feet, dropped to the water, and last of all landed again in the same place from which I started—all to prove how valuable a hydro-aeroplane would be in case of real war."
"Yes, I was reading about that while we were on the way here, but somehow didn't remember the name of the one who had done it," Jack went on, while the little motor boat and the new-fangled contraption that seemed perfectly at home in the air or floating on the waves kept company on the tide of the river.
"Did I understand you to say that you would be willing to do me a little favor, if it didn't put you to much inconvenience?" asked Spence, his voice trembling with an eagerness that Jack could not help noticing.
"Certainly we will, if it lies in our power," he answered promptly.
"They never was a more obliging gossoon in the wide worrld than this same Jack Stormways, and ye can depind on that!" exploded Jimmy, thinking it about time he injected his personality into the conversation, since he did not wish to be an utter nonentity.
Malcolm Spence thrust a hand into his tightly buttoned leather coat. When he brought it out Jack saw that it held what looked like a small packet, which, after all, might be a letter, though it was sealed.
"I wanted to get this to a party by the name of Van Arsdale Spence," he said, hurriedly, as though afraid that they might back out after all from their kind proposition; "but I knew he no longer lived in Beaufort, and I had no means of finding his present address. So, instead of mailing it, I have carried the thing around with me for three weeks, intending when I went South to make inquiries and send it to his new address, if so be he was far away."
"All right, then," declared Jack, stretching out his hand promptly; "I'll promise to do everything in my power to get it into his possession. Failing, you must give me some address through which I can reach you, to tell you it was no go."
"Here's my card, with the address of the makers of this machine. A letter will always get to me if sent in their care, because, you see, I'm under a three years' contract to exhibit this invention, and add new ideas of my own. But I do hope you may be able to find the party. I'd like that packet to fall into his hands as soon as possible. Too much time has already been lost. Please keep it safe, will you, Jack?"
The skipper of the Tramp accepted the little packet in a serious manner that no doubt impressed the other favorably.
"Depend on me to do my level best for you; that's all any fellow could promise, Mr. Spence," he said, simply, as he stowed the article away in an inside pocket of his coat.
"Shake hands, please, both of you!" exclaimed the birdman, heartily, stretching across the little gap that separated him from the motor boat; "I only wish it had been my good fortune to meet up with you earlier."
The formality of shaking hands was concluded with more or less difficulty, owing to the fact that the wings of the aeroplane extended far on either side, and kept the boat off; but in the end they managed fairly well, though the eager Jimmy came near falling overboard in his ambitious stretching, deeming it a great honor to have pressed the hand of one about whom there was so much being printed in the papers.
"Good luck go with you, boys!" called out the young aviator, as he prepared to once more leave the surface of the water, and soar aloft into airy space. "Give my regards to Herbert, Josh, George and Nick, and tell them I hope some day in the near future to make their personal acquaintance. I'm sure you must be a jolly bunch; and what glorious times you have ahead! And I also hope you get track of the party that packet is addressed to, Jack; it means much to me, I tell you."
"I'll do everything in my power to find him, and give it personally into his hands, Malcolm, I promise you. Shall I tell him how queerly we met?" Jack went on.
"Yes, and how some blessed inspiration caused me to believe there was more than accident about our coming together, with you just on the way down South by the coast route. So long, fellows; and again the best of luck to you all."
"Same to you!" called Jimmy, as he heard the motor of the hydro-aeroplane begin to whirr, and saw the strange contrivance start to spin along the little waves, once more sending the spray on either side.
Then it began to rise in the air with perfect freedom. They saw the daring young aviator wave his hand in parting as he sped away, circling upwards until he was hundreds of feet aloft, and constantly gaining.
"Wow! wouldn't that make ye wink, now, Jack darlint?" exclaimed Jimmy, as he twisted his neck badly in the endeavor to follow the course of the wonderful machine that seemed as much at home in one element as the other.
Jack made no reply.
He was bending down to start his own motor once more, and upon his face there might have been seen an expression that told of mingled resolution and curiosity. Yes, he would do everything possible to deliver this strange missive that Malcolm Spence had entrusted to his care, apparently on the impulse of the moment; at the same time Jack would not have been human, and a boy, had he not experienced more or less wonder as to what that same communication might contain.
But the mystery was one that must remain such to the end of the chapter, since the deep sense of honor that always went with his actions would positively prevent his trying to ascertain what that sealed packet contained.
"Hey! get busy there, Jimmy!" he called out; "we're going to start again, and make for the other boats. They've pulled up, and are waiting for us to join them. And, believe me, those fellows are just eating their heads off with envy, because they must have seen that we were hobnobbing with a real birdman, who could scoot along the water as easily as a flying-fish. All ready, are you? Then here she goes, Jimmy," and immediately the merry hum of the motor sounded.
THE FIRST CAMPFIRE ASHORE.
"Ahoy there, Tramp! What's all this mean?"
That was George hailing through his megaphone, as Jack and Jimmy drew near the spot where the other boats were waiting.
Jack simply waved his hand, to indicate that all in good time the other fellows would hear the news; and that he did not mean to strain his voice shouting across a stretch of water, when there was no necessity.
Presently the three craft were moving along abreast, down the river, and only a little distance apart. It might be noticed that while the Wireless hung on the starboard quarter, the Comfort was just as near on the port side; and thus conversation was made easy.
"Now spin us the yarn, partner," spoke up impatient George, who did everything in a hurry, though a mighty good comrade all the same.
"Yes," broke in Nick, who was also in the same narrow boat, as usual gripping the sides, as though to steady his fat form; "believe me, fellows, we're consumed with curiosity to know what that chap in the aeroplane wanted with you."
"Say," came from the lanky Josh, squatted in the roomy Comfort, with his long legs doubled up under him, after the manner of a Turk; "what d'ye think, Jack, Nick here kinder expected to see you toddle aboard that hydroplane, and take a spin up among the clouds. Said 'twould be just like your luck to get hold of such a bully chance."
"Well, hardly," laughed Jack. "But we did make the acquaintance of a pretty fine young fellow, the same we've been reading about so much lately—Malcolm Spence."
"Oh, say! why couldn't we have been along?" grunted George, disconsolately; "for if ever there was a fellow I'd give a heap to meet up with, he's the one. It's a shame, next door to a crime, that we got left out of the deal. But go on, Jack, old chum, and tell us all he said."
Jack accordingly proceeded to do so. He was frequently interrupted by Jimmy, who fancied that he was neglecting some important feature of the story. Between them everything was presently told. And the other four hung upon the narration to the last word.
"Let's see that queer old packet, Jack," said Herb.
"That's so; give us a squint at it, anyhow," Nick demanded.
So the skipper of the Tramp took the letter out carefully and held it up.
"Excuse me for not passing it around, fellows," he remarked, "but I gave my word it shouldn't go out of my possession until I'd found the party mentioned. From the way the young chap acted, I guess it must be more or less valuable, to him and this same party, anyhow."
"What is the name on the envelope—you can tell me that, can't you?" asked Josh.
"Van Arsdale Spence," replied the bearer of the missive, as he just as carefully replaced it in his pocket.
"Hey! that's the same last name as his, ain't it?" remarked George.
"Spence—yes, and it may be some relation of his, perhaps a brother or father. But, fellows, that's none of our business, remember. Now, let's talk of other things, and forget that little adventure for a time."
Jack generally had his way, and in this case his chums realized that he was certainly right. So they started talking about their immediate plans for the first night out.
"We'll go ashore if we can, boys, and build a rousing fire," said Nick, whose one great delight, outside of eating, was seeing a bonfire burn; and, indeed, he always declared some of his remote ancestors must have been real fire worshippers.
"Yes, that would be a good idea," Jack admitted. "There's no telling how often on this trip we'll find ourselves forced to eat and sleep aboard, so when the opportunity offers we might as well get out to stretch our legs."
"Great scheme," declared Josh, who, being considerably longer than any one of his shipmates, suffered more in consequence of cramped quarters.
"Only one thing wrong," grunted Nick, shaking his head.
"I can guess he's thinking of eating right now," flashed Josh, who knew the symptoms in his companion only too well.
"Well, Mister Smarty, for once you hit the nail on the head," grinned the fat boy. "I just happened to think of something we hadn't ought to have forgotten to fetch along for our first meal."
"What was that?" demanded Jack.
"Why, when I looked over that list of things you got up, Jack, blessed if there was anything else I could think of," said George; "but it takes my mate here to have 'em all in his mind, even if he can't cook like Josh."
"Let's hear what we forgot, then, Nick!" demanded Herb.
"Oysters!" immediately cried the other, triumphantly. "This is the country for the delicious bivalve, I understand, and the season is on. I'd made up my mind some time ago, when this trip was first planned, that I was going to have lots of feasts in that line. When a fellow lives away back on the Mississippi River he gets mighty few chances for real fresh oysters, you know, and I do love 'em so much!"
"And a few more things in the bargain," chuckled Josh, who never could resist a chance to get in a sly dig at his friend.
"Lots of 'em," replied the stout boy, calmly, and without a blush.
"But I thought you understood all about that," remarked Jack. "We expect to pick up all the oysters we want on the way, so there was no use laying in a supply at the start, when we needed room for more important stores."
"Depend on it, Nick, you'll get all the bivalves you want before we're through with this cruise," Herb prophesied.
"Bring 'em on, then," boasted Nick. "I'm ready to tackle a mountain of 'em right off the reel, in the shell or out. Never believed I could get enough oysters. But about what time do we go ashore, boys?"
"He's getting hungry already, I do believe?" cried Josh. "Honest, now, to keep that fellow from complaining, there ought to be a bag of crackers and cheese hung up all the time within his reach, so he could take a snack every hour or two. I reckon those fat legs of his'n must be hollow, for how else could he stow away all the grub he does? He's a regular Oliver Twist, calling for more, more!"
Nick took all this in the best of humor. He even grinned, just as though he might look on it as some sort of compliment.
"I guess I was born hungry, and never got over the complaint," he observed; "but that don't answer my question, Jack. It's near four o 'clock, right now, and it gets dark not a great while after six, you know."
"All right, then; in about another hour we'll think of looking up a creek along the shore, and make a snug harbor. Then for a fire, and a supper, the first of the new cruise," the skipper of the Tramp replied.
"Hear! hear! only another hour to wait," declared Nick, waving his hat exultantly.
"Think you can hold out that long?" demanded Josh.
"I'll try," said Nick, meekly, as he drew an apple from one of his pockets, and proceeded to calmly munch the same.
"I give you my word, boys," said George, solemnly, "that's the seventh he's bit into since we left the dock. Two did for me; and I can see still more bunching up in his pockets. If he gets faint, I'll hand him a cracker box to open. But I've some hopes the apples will be a life preserver."
Jack presently began to increase the speed of the flotilla. He wanted to get as far down the river as possible before being compelled to put up for the night. And having glanced at his, charts, he knew that they must cover a number of miles ere they reached a tributary flowing into the Delaware at this point.
Five o'clock came around at last. Josh remarked that he was pleased to see Nick still holding out, and that he had not wasted away to a mere shadow.
"Now we head in toward the western shore, and keep our eyes on the lookout for the mouth of a creek that ought to be along down here," Jack called out, as he began to gradually alter the course of his boat.
Of course, this pleased them quite a little, as marking a change in the monotony of the afternoon run. And truth to tell, Nick was not the only fellow who enjoyed looking forward to supper time beside a roaring fire.
"Hey! that looks like an opening below us, Jack!" called George, who was in the bow of the Wireless, steering, leaving to Nick the duty of attending to other matters connected with the management of the speed boat, especially its balance.
"You're right, George, that's just what it is, the mouth of the creek; so slow up everybody, and we'll go in."
Impetuous George was the first to turn into the tributary. After running up a short distance, the prospect for a camp not improving, Jack called out:
"It looks as if it might get worse instead of better, so let's stop off here. There are a few trees anyway, and we can get all the wood we need. Head in, George, and make a landing."
Presently all of them stepped ashore. Although their surroundings did not appeal very heartily to lads accustomed to dense timber, with all that implies, still they knew how to make the best of a bad bargain.
Nick began to gather firewood at once, and some of the others helped, so that in a brief time a fire was started that at least made things look a bit more comfortable and home-like, as Nick said, while puffing like a porpoise in his labors.
The cruisers had been securely tied up, since there was no danger of any storm out on the river dashing them against the shore in this peaceful harbor.
Having brought the mess chests ashore, together with what cooking things they needed, the boys began preparations for supper. Many hands make light work, and Jack utilized every one for some purpose. Some laid in a supply of wood, others opened cans, while Josh, being the boss cook of the crowd, took charge of the menu.
Meanwhile night began to settle around them, and with the coming darkness a swarm of insect pests developed.
"Whoop!" cried Nick, as he made his fat arms swing around his head like a couple of old-time flails; "what d'ye call all this, tell me? Every time I open my mouth a dozen hop right in. Talk to me about skeeters, these must be the frisky Jersey brand we've heard so much about."
"Say, it's lucky Jack thought to get nets for us all in Philadelphia," remarked Herb, as he too waved the invaders aside when they harried him.
"No sleeping ashore for me here," declared George. "The varmints would carry a fellow off bodily, I do believe."
A little breeze springing up caused the insects to drop into the grass again, so that the boys had some peace. Supper being ready, they finally sat around, and started to partake of the first meal of the great cruise.
As they were furiously hungry of course everything tasted just splendid; but then it was good without any starvation sauce to tempt them, for Josh had always proved a remarkably clever cook, even though caring so little himself for eating.
After the edge of their appetites had been taken off, the six boys began to chat and joke. Josh was pleased to get a chance to sing one of his little ditties, and required very little urging, after the meal was over, and the things cleared away.
It was mighty nice, sitting there in comfortable attitudes, listening to Josh sing, and with the flames jumping up as Nick threw another armful of fuel on the fire. Now and then one of them would make a hurried slap at some over-strenuous mosquito that insisted on having his meal, too; but, taken in all, the boys were enjoying it tremendously.
"When does the moon show up?" asked Herb, after a time.
"Why, it's already up there in the west, and a fair-sized crescent, too," remarked Jack. "Each night it'll get bigger, until we have it full. That's the time I like most of all, when she hangs up there like a big round shield, and the waves dance as if they were made of silver."
"Listen to Jack getting poetical!" laughed George.
"Well, who wouldn't, when you can hear the lap of the little waves out there on the creek?" replied Jack, instantly. "And there, that must have been a fish jumping, the way they told us the mullet do down South."
"Yes," said Nick, "me to get one of those castnets, and pull 'em in at every throw. No danger of a fellow getting hungry in that country, I guess."
"If you didn't get hungry where would be the pleasure in living, tell me that?" demanded Josh.
Before Nick could frame any reply there suddenly broke out the most terrible roaring sound any of the boys had ever heard. It seemed to come from right off the surface of the dark creek close by, and gave poor Nick such a fright that he almost fell into the fire upon attempting to struggle to his feet, such was his clumsiness when excited.
All of them forgot the comfort they had been enjoying, and scrambled erect.
A STORM, AND NO REFUGE IN SIGHT.
It was only natural that every one of the little party of cruisers should feel their hearts beating much faster than ordinary, as they were so startled by that horrible blast so near at hand.
But Jack believed he had heard another sound close on the heels of the first, and which was not unlike a hoarse laugh. That indicated the presence of human beings; and, of course, would account for the roar that had disturbed their first camp ashore.
Looking in the direction from whence the sounds had apparently proceeded, which was just below where their boats were pulled up, he could just manage to make out some bulky moving object; then the whipping of what seemed to be a discolored sail caught his eye, and he understood.
Of course, it must be some boat, possibly belonging to oystermen who plied their trade out on the bay, close to which they now found themselves.
Coming into the creek, which was possibly their regular harbor for night refuge, and discovering the fire as well as the boys, they had blown a fog horn just in the spirit of frolic, to give the boys a scare.
Both men were laughing now at the success of their scheme, and one of them called out, with the idea of calming the bunch before they took to shooting, in their excitement, as greenhorns were liable to do under such conditions.
"Hey, there! it's all right, boys; we're just oystermen, ye see, an' meanin' to come ashore to jine ye, 'fore we goes home. Got a dock a leetle ways up-creek. So hold yer guns, boys; no harm done, I reckons!"
The sloop was run up on the sandy shore and both men jumped off. They proved to be honest chaps, and soon the boys were quite relieved of their first suspicious sensation at sight of such rough customers.
These fellows had seldom looked on such dainty tricks as the three little motor boats. Accustomed to heavy craft, they shook their heads when they heard how Jack and his chums expected to make far distant Florida in such frail boats.
"Never kin do it, boys, an' I knows it," declared the taller fellow.
"But ye got the grit, all right, I reckons," added the other.
"We expect to meet up with lots of trouble on the way," said Jack; "but then we've been through some experience, and know a little about managing these things. Often a boat like mine will live in a sea that would swamp a more clumsy craft. A canoe rides the waves like a duck, where a rowboat would fill and sink, being logy."
"They may be somethin' in that same," remarked one of the oystermen; "but the chanct is, ye'll never make the riffle, boys. I hate to say that same; but right down in this Delaware Bay they's bad spots where ye kin git caught out in a blow, an' can't land. Many a fine boat's gone down as I know of."
"An' if so be ye do make shore they's hard characters all along that section. Look out if ye happens to land near Murderkill Creek, that's all I kin say," his mate spoke up, quite seriously, for they seemed to have taken something of an interest in the boys, and their ambitious plans.
"Goodness gracious! did you ever hear such a terrible name as that?" gasped Nick, looking pale, as his imagination worked overtime in picturing the dreadful things apt to be met with in a country where even the creeks bore such suggestive names.
"Oh, sometimes things turn out less terrible than they seem!" laughed Jack, who had read something about this same creek, and felt no particular fear about making a camp along its border, should necessity compel such a thing.
"Now, we got to be goin' home, 'case we got famblies waitin' for us; but we'll toss a lot o' oysters ashore here, if so be ye'd like to have 'em," the taller man remarked.
"All right," spoke up Nick, so promptly that Jack was unable to get in a reply; "give us fifty cents' worth, if that'll buy a bushel. I feel like I could eat that many myself. Yum, yum, just think of the luck, fellows!"
The men laughed, but took the money, since their business was gathering the bivalves, and there were doubtless many mouths to feed. And they certainly tossed a full bushel ashore before pushing off, to continue their run up the stream, to the dock they spoke of owning.
Nick had galloped over to the Wireless, and was heard rummaging about at a tremendous rate, all the while lamenting the fact that he could not find what he was so eagerly searching for.
"Oh, George! where did you ever hide that bully new oyster knife I bought up in Philadelphia?" he bellowed, as he raised his head above the side of the speed boat.
"Never touched it," answered the other, promptly. "But I do remember seeing some such thing in that locker up in the bow, where the tools are kept."
A triumphant squeal presently announced that Nick had unearthed his treasure; and over the side he came, making at once for the heap of bivalves.
"You want to go slow with those things," warned Herb.
"Oh, rats! I guess I know my capacity!" scoffed the fat boy, starting to rap a shell smartly, and then insert the end of the knife between its two jaws. "When I get enough I'll hold up."
"You bet you will before you reach that point!" declared George, "because some of us hanker after oysters, too. But just remember how you cut your fingers with the shells the time we were down at New Orleans. And be careful: they may not hurt much now, but tomorrow they'll fair set you wild, boy."
Nick only mumbled in reply. He was stuffing the first fat oyster into his mouth, and as this was an extra large specimen, it allowed of no room for words.
The others soon got busy too, using such implements as they could find among the tools. Jack had a regular oyster knife, but none of the others had thought to provide themselves with such a necessary article, save Nick alone.
But by degrees they tamed the oyster fiend, and would not let him have any more. Jimmy borrowed his knife, and amused himself in disposing of the juicy contents of numerous shells. And Josh, after swallowing several himself, proved to be a public benefactor by opening them for those who were green at the business.
But after a time they cried quits, and began to think of going aboard again; for the venomous little pests were beginning to be very active, and kept them all busy slapping right and left.
Once under their nets they found a solid comfort that fully compensated them for not being able to sleep ashore.
And so the night passed. Nothing occurred to disturb them; and yet despite the calm, it is doubtful whether any of the six slept very well. The novelty of once more being away from civilization and starting on a long cruise that might bring all sorts of adventures in its train, kept them wakeful.
Doubtless, too, memory carried them back to many scenes connected with past experiences; and they lived again in the various happenings marking those halcyon days.
Up with the dawn some of them once more went ashore. The fire was started afresh and preparations for breakfast were under way by the time Nick made his appearance. He surveyed what was being done for a little time, and then lifted his voice in protest:
"What! no oysters for breakfast? That's mighty funny, now. I expected to have 'em every meal, you know."
Not getting any satisfaction from Josh, who was busy making some batter for the camp flapjacks, Nick wandered off. They soon heard him hard at work on oyster shells, though an occasional grunt told that he had cut his tender fingers with the sharp points.
He did succeed in opening a few, which he insisted on cooking for his own breakfast; and Josh let him have his way; but it might have been noticed that Nick consumed his full share of the batter cakes; and even wistfully eyed a last one belonging to the cook, upon which Josh generously passed it along, saying that he was "full up."
If any one ever saw Nick in that condition it did not readily occur to them, for the fat boy seemed to be built after the style of an omnibus, with always room for "just one more," with crowding.
"Looks like a good day ahead," remarked Herb, glancing at the sky.
"I was just thinking the other way," spoke up Jack.
"Eh? What makes you tell us that, after hearing what those oystermen said about the danger we'd run, if we were caught in the big bay in a storm?" asked George; for his narrow-beam boat always threatened to turn turtle when the waves were very boisterous, and it kept him guessing continually.
"Oh! well, I may be wrong; but I didn't altogether like the looks of those mottled clouds as the sun was coming up," Jack remarked.
"And it was red, too, which I understand is always a bad sign," Nick put in. "If we could only get another lot of shell fish, I'd vote to stay right here for the day. Perhaps things would pick up by tomorrow."
"Rats! Who's afraid?" laughed Josh, who knew he was sure of lots of comfort aboard the roomy boat belonging to Herb.
It was, however, put to a vote, because Jack believed in majority ruling in matters affecting the whole crowd. Nick himself voted in favor of going on. Whether he did this because he was ashamed to show the white feather, or from fear lest they might not be able to secure a further supply of oysters, none of them ever really knew. But the motion to continue the cruise was carried unanimously.
As they issued forth from the creek they found that the river seemed much wider than they had believed it to be. And apparently it would keep on that way, with the shores drawing further apart, until they found themselves on Delaware Bay, which in parts, Jack understood, to be something like twenty-five miles from side to side, an ocean in fact, for such small craft.
"We must have been camping in Delaware last night, eh, Jack?" called out Herb, as the three boats ran along side by side, even George curbing his propensity for rushing ahead.
"Sure we did," spoke up George. "I found out on the chart where we stopped. Look away over there in Jersey, and you'll see a cloud of smoke hovering over Salem. How about that, Jack; am I correct?"
"That's Salem, all right; and we've got to start at a better pace than this if we hope to get anywhere before night. Hit her up, George, and we'll do the best we can to follow," Jack answered.
This pleased the jaunty skipper of the Wireless first-rate. He always liked to lead the procession, and set the pace for the rest.
So, as the morning wore on, they made good progress. Of course the others were compelled to tone down their speed to suit the pace of the old Comfort, that just wallowed along in what George called a "good natured way." Boat and skipper were very much alike; but then that similarity also applied in the cases of George and his speed boat; yes, and with regard to Jack, too, who united the good qualities of both other skippers, as his craft did those of stability and speed.
At noon they ate a lunch while still booming along; for Jack had discovered a bank of clouds coming up in the west that he did not just fancy, and hoped to make a certain point before the storm, if such there was in store for them, should break.
"What's this mean, Jack?" asked George, a couple of hours later, falling back somewhat so that he might exchange words with the others.
"Yes," said Herb at that; "it's getting as dark as the mischief. Guess we're going to have that storm Jack prophesied this morning, fellows."
"Say, perhaps I'd better be shooting ahead, then," suggested George, uneasily. "You know this cranky boat of mine isn't the nicest thing going, to be in when the waves are rolling ten feet high. And it's so wide here, they'll beat that, in a pinch."
"What would you be after going ahead for, then?" asked Jimmy.
"So as to get to that creek with the lovely name we talked about," George replied, looking troubled, nevertheless. "I noted its position on the chart, and think I might find it."
"But if the storm caught you beforehand, you'd be in a bad pickle, George!" declared Jack, soberly. "No, better all keep together. Then, if an accident happens, there's some chance for the others lending a helping hand. But we'll head in more toward the Delaware side, though if the wind strikes us from the east it'll be a bad place to be caught on a lee shore."
Nothing more was said just then. They changed their course somewhat, and the three little motor boats continued to push steadily forward. Meanwhile the gloom seemed to gather around them, until even stout-hearted Jack shuddered a little as he surveyed the wide stretch of waters that had begun to tumble in the freshening wind, and thought what might happen if they could find no harbor, with a fierce late equinoctial gale sweeping across the dangerous bay.
A CLOSE SHAVE, BUT NO DAMAGE DONE.
"See any signs of a harbor, Jack?"
It was Nick who called this out, as he watched the skipper of the Tramp swing the pair of binoculars he was handling along the shore ahead, while Jimmy had the wheel.
"Not that I could say for certain," replied the other, lowering the glasses for a minute in order to rest his strained eyes. "I was trying to get our bearings; and from several things about the shore, that resemble the line of the chart, I begin to believe I know where we are."
"Not near that awful Murderkill Creek, I hope?" spoke up Nick, shuddering.
"What's the matter with you?" called George. "Any port in a storm, say I; and even if it happened to be Slaughter Creek, which I believe lies further on toward Lewes, I'd grab it in a hurry, if it came along. Don't you go to saying a single word against that sweet harbor. We'll rename it Paradise Creek, if only it serves us this day."
As it was getting darker all the time, no wonder George had begun to feel nervous. Even though he saved himself, and Nick, should he lose his boat, it would almost break his heart; for in spite of her many and serious faults the jaunty skipper of the erratic Wireless fairly loved the craft.
"Yes, we are not many miles above Murderkill; and that or Jones Creek will have to be our destination; for we must have passed the Dona opening by mistake. But perhaps the storm will kindly hold off until we're all snug in a harbor."
While Jack said this, in order to buoy up the downcast chums, deep down in his heart he believed that they were bound to be caught out on that wide stretch of water, and have a fight for their lives, particularly those who were manipulating the tricky speed boat.
But it was useless to ask George to come aboard the Comfort, and try to tow his craft. That would seem too ignoble, worse than having a farm wagon drag the broken-down bubble wagon into town, in fact.
They had gone in as near the western shore as prudence dictated. Jack told everybody to be on the lookout for the first sign of an opening. Beggars could not be choosers, and only too gladly would they welcome any port, however ill-named or hard looking.
"She's coming, all right," declared Jimmy, as he crouched there, his hair blowing in the rising wind, and his eyes taking in every sign of approaching trouble.
"Yes, and I'm sorry to say from the one bad quarter, the southeast," Jack made out to answer, between his set teeth. "If it had only been west, now, we'd have had the shelter of the land, and could have crept along nicely until we got where we wanted to go."
The waves were surely increasing in size, and the small craft began to heave in a very suggestive way. When they grew still larger, under the influence of the rising wind, Jack expected that with the passing of each billow the screw would flash out of water. That was the time to be dreaded; for as resistance suddenly ceased with the passage of the wave, the screw would revolve at lightning speed, and something was apt to go wrong.
Let an accident occur when in such a bad predicament, and it would be all over with the unlucky mariners who chanced to be on the disabled boat.
"Be mighty careful, Herb and George," he called to the others. "Watch each billow, and slow the engine before the screw is exposed. You know what I mean. You've both done the same trick before."
Constant vigilance was to be the price of safety from this moment on. Nothing must distract the attention of those who manipulated the motors of the three boats caught in this sea in a storm.
Of course, George was accustomed to handling his narrow craft. Few amateurs could have done better than the present skipper. He knew her good qualities to a fraction, and was also acquainted with the bad ones. Consequently, he was aware just how far he could allow her quarter to face the sweep of wind and waves, without being thrown on her beam-ends.
It was a ticklish business, very much like managing a treacherous mule, loaded with kicks and bites at both ends. One little error of judgment, and the result would be a spill that must toss the occupants into the raging waters.
Jack had insisted that the owner of the Wireless provide himself with life preservers; each boat carried a couple, but in the case of George and Nick, four had not been deemed too many.
Acting on the advice of Jack, George had fastened one of the cork jackets on himself before the storm really broke; because afterwards he would have no time to spare in attempting such a thing.
Nick had gone him one better; and seemed to be of huge proportions as he crouched there, waiting for the worst to happen. He had also secured his old White Wings, which had figured quite largely in previous cruises, to his shoulders, as if he hoped and believed that the bags filled with air would be of considerable assistance in keeping him afloat.
Altogether Nick looked next door to a freak escaped from some side show connected with a Barnum and Bailey's circus. Jack often remembered the sight with more or less inward laughter. But it was no time for merriment now, with that wind growing in violence, and the waves assuming a most threatening appearance.
The minutes seemed like hours, so intense was the strain that held them in its terrible grip. Jack had a double duty to perform, watching those onsweeping waves, and at the same time keeping the shore under a close supervision, so that he might discover when they came opposite the mouth of a creek.
Such a place might be so narrow as to pass unnoticed unless one had exceedingly keen eyes; and, moreover, kept up an unremitting watch.
Fortunately they were not fated to experience the worst that might have happened to them; for the crux of the storm had not come along by any means.
Jack suddenly uttered a yell that startled the others on the laboring boats.
"I saw it, boys; it's all right! Just follow after me; you first, George; and Herb bringing up the rear. Ready now! Here goes!"
As he shouted these words at the top of his voice, for the water was making considerable racket by now, Jack began to head straight for the shore, so that the boat was soon running with the spinning sea.
If he had made a mistake, and the opening failed them, there could be nothing left but to beach their boats, and to try to save themselves from the wreckage as best they might.
But Jack had not made an error of judgment, for presently the others also saw the creek, with its inviting mouth. Even timorous Nick was only too delighted to find a safe harbor from the wild gale to care just then what the name of the creek might happen to be; one was just as good as another to them all.
Jack made the shelter, and George managed to swing in, though his boat did almost go over, being struck on the side by a counter sea, when the pilot was not expecting it, so that she seemed to hang there for a second or two, in the balance.
But Nick rolled to the other side, and this dead weight was sufficient to keep the narrow craft from going completely over; she righted, and swept into the mouth of the creek.
The steady going old Comfort came rolling in like a big tub, with Herb and Josh not at all alarmed, such was their faith in the reliable qualities of the staunch craft under their feet. And it might be noticed that Herb's pride in his possession increased in proportion as George's faith decreased. What suited one did not please the other at all, apparently.
Making their way into the creek they tied up, being careful lest they find themselves high and dry at low tide. Jack kept tabs on the state of the tide, and at its flood wanted several more feet under him than while it was at ebb.
"Let us give thanks," said Nick, with due reverence, as they found themselves safe. "That was a nasty little scare, all right. Our old Wireless kicked like a bucking broncho; I say that, even though I never rode a cow pony, and only saw the breed at the circus. Oh! I'm glad to be alive right now, and able to eat a few more camp meals!"
No one even called him down for mentioning such a thing as food; for as they had not taken the time to more than munch a few bites at noon, it stood to reason that everybody was feeling quite sharp set.
"No fire outdoors tonight, fellows, for here comes the rain," said Jack; and even as he spoke the big drops did commence to fall, sending them every one under shelter.
George was hustling in the endeavor to get his tent up, and succeeded in doing so before the rain became very heavy. Both Jack and Herb had had a hunting cabin placed on their boats since last they took a long cruise, for they knew how comfortable such a cover must prove in time of stress and foul weather. But George, believing that to do this would keep his boat out of the speed class, had declined to follow suit, using a tent instead, which was fastened to a ridge pole stretched at night-time fore and aft at a certain height above the cockpit.
Of course, once George had this waterproof canvas covering in place he too was able to laugh at the rain that now poured down. It might not be just as cozy under his flapping canvas as beneath the steady roofs which the other boats boasted; but George would not complain, and Nick dared not.
Of course, every pair now had to cook their own supper. But it was not the first time this same thing had occurred by any means; and hence they knew just how to go about it.
Each boat was supplied with one of those splendid Juwel kerosene burning gas stoves, which burn common oil turned into a delightful blue flame by the process of a generator. Once this was started, all manner of cooking could be carried on. Indeed, it is simply astonishing how much can be accomplished by means of this clever little device, which most canoeists carry with them as a necessity, as well as a comfort.
The boys had tied up in such a way that they could call out to one another, as the humor seized them. And hence, there was more or less exchange of comments on the bill of fare for supper that evening.
When the meal had been finished night was at hand, though only for the storm no doubt the sun might still have been seen shining in the low west. Jimmy got out his banjo, and the musical plunkety-plunk of its strings, now and then accompanying one of his jolly songs, did much to cheer them up.
Jack busied himself with his charts meanwhile, for there was a nasty little experience awaiting them when they reached Lewes, where they must watch for a favorable opportunity to pass out upon the open Atlantic, and cover ten miles or so like a covey of frightened partridges, heading for the inlet to Rehoboth Bay, and actually passing around Cape Henlopen, since boats the size of theirs could not well be carted across the land to Love Creek, as if they were canoes.
Nick busied himself with the last of the oysters, which he had made sure to throw aboard the Wireless, and had found no time up to now, to tackle. George was tinkering with his motor, a customary amusement with him; for his heart was bent on learning how to coax yet another bit of speed from the engine that racked his boat so terribly when put at full speed.
On the Comfort, Josh and Herb, with room to spare, were having a game of dominoes, and enjoying themselves very much. This was the time when the joy of having plenty of elbow room made itself manifest.
Later on, during a little lull in the rainfall, Jack crept out to take observation, just as though he might have been an old salt, on board a sea-going vessel.
The storm was raging quite furiously, and made a roar that must have seemed more or less terrifying, had one been out on the big bay, instead of having this snug harbor.
"Whether this is Murderkill Creek, or the one rejoicing in the aristocratic name of Jones, it doesn't matter one cent," he declared, as he turned to Jimmy, who had followed him outside for a breath of air before laying down to sleep. "Just listen to that howl out yonder, and then call this bully place a bad name, will you? Let her whoop it up as she pleases, we can laugh, and sleep in peace; for there's good ground between us and the raging sea. Hear the waves break on shore, would you, Jimmy? Starting out by rescuing a poor chap from a watery grave did bring us good luck, now, I'm thinking."
HOW THE MOTOR BOAT FLOTILLA WENT TO SEA.
In spite of the racket made by the storm, the boys managed to get in a pretty fair night's sleep. In the first place they were tired; and then they had some lost rest to make up. That first night had not been very much of a success as a slumber maker.
With the breaking of morning Jack took an observation by peeping out. The rain was still coming down spitefully; and the roar of the waves on the nearby shore announced how utterly impossible it would be for the small craft to continue their voyage south on this day.
"We're in for a stop-over, Jimmy," he announced, as a sleepy voice from among the blankets inquired as to the prospects.
It was not long before other laments were heard in the land, as Nick, George, Herb and Josh poked their heads out, in order to see what was going on.
"Gee! I hope you fellows don't think of butting into such a howler as this?" remarked George, a bit anxiously.
"I should say not," laughed Josh. "Though I reckon our comfy old tub could stand up, and take her knocks without squealing. But we'd have to wait over at Lewes just the same, so what's the use?"
"I'd refuse to move a foot, and that's flat!" declared George, as he teetered at the stern of the narrow speed boat; for it happened just then that the clumsy Nick was moving around, and whenever this came about, the balance of the craft was visibly disturbed.
"No danger," declared Jack. "We're going to make the best of a bad bargain, and roost here in Murderkill Creek for another day."
"Whoo! once when I woke in the night," remarked Josh, "and as the wind slackened up a bit, I heard the awfullest noise ever. Sounded just like somebody was hollerin' for help. And when I remembered all they told us about this pesky place, I was a long time getting to sleep again, I give you my word."
"Sure, I was after havin' the same thing myself," declared Jimmy, eagerly. "And if any banshee in the ould country ever made a more horrible noise, I'll eat me hat; and that's no lie. Whatever d'ye suppose it was, Jack, old top?"
"Oh! owls!" he remarked, carelessly.
"But looky here," Josh flashed up, "don't you reckon I've heard owls hoot before now? I tell you this was different, and much more ghastly; just like somebody was being half choked, and gurgling as he tried to call for help. It made the cold chills creep up and down my spinal column, that's right, now."
"Perhaps they've got a special brand of owl down along here, that outdoes all its species in whooping things up," laughed Jack. "And on account of some one hearing those same fierce noises long ago, the creek got its terrible name."
"Oh! forget it," broke in Herb; "especially since we've got to pass another night right here, and don't want to be bothered with bad dreams."
Breakfast was prepared in much the same fashion as their supper was cooked on the preceding evening. George and Nick had much the worst of it, with that flapping tent sheltering them, while the others found solid comfort in their hunting cabins.
Every little while George could be heard warning his stout and rather unwieldy mate to be more careful. Either he was rocking the boat in a manner most exasperating, or else rubbing up against the canvas top, which, in that particular spot, quickly developed a disposition to leak, as supposed waterproof canvas often will if you so much as place a finger on the underside while it is wet.
Along about nine o'clock, however, the clouds ceased to squeeze their watery contents down upon the adventurous cruisers.
"Hurra! boys!" Nick was heard to shout an hour later; "it's going to clear up, as sure as you live! Looky up yonder, and you'll see a break in the clouds. Then we can go ashore anyhow, and get some of the kinks out of our legs."
Nick proved a good prophet, for about eleven the clouds did begin to roll away, so that the sun peeped out. It was a welcome sight, and elicited a series of loud thankful cheers from the boys.
They were not long about getting on land. Josh in particular was seen to turn a few hand-flaps, as though in that energetic way he could loosen up his muscles the more speedily.
"But that sea will keep up more or less the rest of the day," observed Jack, as they sauntered over to a point where they could look out on the heaving surface of the broad Delaware Bay.
Having a stretch of miles in which to gather force under the piping wind, the waves were of considerable height, considering that the three boats were of diminutive size.
They watched the tumble of the billows until they were tired. Then each set about doing whatever appealed the most to his nature.
Thus Nick wandered along the bank of the creek, examining the shores closely, in the hope of being able to pick up a few shellfish, since his taste for oysters had grown to huge proportions after the feast already indulged in.
George set about drying things out on board the Wireless, so that he could tinker a little with that high spirited engine of his. Josh settled down to gather some wood, being bent on having an outdoor fire when the next meal came around, meaning supper; for they would only take a cold snack at noon. Herb was writing up his log; Jimmy getting some fishing tackle in readiness, he having an idea that finny prizes only awaited the taking in these parts; while Jack wandered forth, with a gun thrown over his shoulder, hungry for a little hunt.
They heard a double report half an hour later. Every fellow looked interested, for well did they know that when Jack pulled trigger there was a pretty fair chance of something dropping into the game bag.
Nick, who was pottering with a few rather poor looking oysters he had managed to discover in some little cove, grinned, and rubbed himself comfortingly in the region of the stomach.
"Which shall it be, brethren, wild duck, quail on toast, rabbit stew, or great governor! wild turkey roasted?" he demanded, with the utmost confidence that Jack would fulfill at least one of these conditions.
When the Nimrod of the crowd came in sight, there was more or less interest manifested as to what he had shot. After all, it proved to be wild ducks. And Nick's eyes glistened when he saw that they were mallards, three fat fellows at that.
"I happened on 'em in a little wide reach of the creek about half a mile away," Jack explained; "and as this was a pot hunt, fellows, believe me, I didn't hesitate to shoot the first barrel straight at the three as they sat on the water. Two dropped and the other fellow made to rise; but that was dead easy, and I got him with the second shell."
"Yum! yum! I can imagine how good they'll taste," remarked Nick. "But as we haven't any oven along, how can we roast 'em? Jack, why not try that hole in the ground trick that you showed us last year when we were down on the Mississippi?"
"That's right, Jack!" echoed George.
"Just as you say, fellows; and the sooner we get our oven in working order then, the better; because, you remember, it takes quite some hours for it to do the job. It's really the original fireless cooker, known to woodsmen for rafts of years before the idea was applied to bottles that will keep the stuff warm forty hours; and contrivances to gradually cook meats and other things. So here goes to get busy with the oven. Nick, you and Herb and Jimmy each pluck one of the ducks in the meantime, so they will be ready."
Now, this was a part of the business that Nick liked not at all; but he felt that it would be a shame to complain, when he delighted so much in being about to share in the treat; so he set to work, after his clumsy fashion, to make the feathers fly.
Jack, meanwhile, dug a proper hole in the ground, where he could find something like clay. With the help of Josh he started a fire in the same. This was kept up a certain length of time, until the walls of the oven were baked hard, and felt exceedingly hot. Then the ashes were cleaned out, the three ducks placed therein, after being carefully wrapped in big green leaves; and when this had been done the oven was hermetically sealed.
"We may have to wait a little later than usual for our supper," Jack said; "but when they're done, it'll sure make your mouths water just to get the scent, after that oven is opened."
The afternoon passed slowly. All clouds had sailed away, and the sun shone in a cherry manner, giving promise for a glorious day on the morrow. Still, they could not think of changing their anchorage, because the waves continued to run high; and that boat of George's was always to be remembered as the one weak link in the chain.
Josh did himself proud in preparing supper that night. And when the oven was finally opened, the delicious odor that immediately assailed the nostrils of the hungry lads sent them into the seventh heaven of delightful anticipation.
Nor was the eating of the ducks at all a disappointment. Never had they tasted anything finer in all their lives.
"Say, if mallards can touch the spot like this, what must redheads or canvasbacks be like?" demanded Nick, as he polished a leg bone handsomely, grunting his pleasure meanwhile, and perhaps inwardly sighing because there was not one whole duck apiece.
"We'll see, later on," replied Jack; "because, as we have to pass through those North Carolina sounds where such ducks can be found, there's a chance we'll take toll on the way."
"But I thought the hunting clubs had monopolized every foot of that water; and that only the wealthy New Yorkers, and ex-presidents, could shoot on Albemarle and Currituck Sounds?" remarked Josh.
"Well, pretty much all the best points are private territory now," Jack answered, frowning; "but it's possible to sneak a few shots when you're passing through on the way south. Wait and see what we can do, fellows."
"Well, one thing sure," declared Nick, admiringly; "if ever Jack Stormways pulls trigger on a canvasback, he goes along with this bully crowd, all right."
"Hear! hear!" cried the others, which caused the flattered Jack to smile and wave his hand in token of sincere appreciation.
"I reckon now," remarked George, as they sat around the blaze later on, conversing along various topics; "you've hung on to that bally old mystery all tight enough, Jack?"
"Meaning the little sealed packet the skipper of the hydro-aeroplane gave into my keeping?" the one addressed made reply. "Why, of course I have it safe; and if I manage to get through to Beaufort, I hope to hunt up the same Van Arsdale Spence, and put it in his possession."
"But it may turn out to be a tougher proposition than you imagine," Herb remarked. "Perhaps the gentleman has buried himself in the wild country around that coast town; we can't spend much time hunting all over creation for him, can we?"
"Of course, we don't expect to do that," Jack quickly responded. "I only promised to look him up; and if he had gone away, to send the packet to him by mail, if we could get his present address. But what's the use crossing a bridge till you get to it? We worry a heap over things that never happen. Who said he was sleepy?"
"Me," spoke up Nick, who had been yawning at a prodigious rate for the last half hour. "You see, we didn't get much of a snooze aboard the old Wireless these two nights. Even at the best, the quarters are cramped; and if one fellow turns over, it nearly throws his mate out of his blanket bed."
"Rats!" scoffed George, always ready to stand up for his beloved craft, even though deep down in his heart he knew that the criticism might be well founded. "The trouble is, you're such a hefty fellow that you never just roll over, you wallow! Now, when I had Josh for a while with me, things went much smoother."
"But I didn't go the same way, I'm telling you, George," declared the tall boy, quickly; "and you needn't try to coax me to change places with Nick any more. I've tried your boat, and I just don't like it. I've got to have room to stretch; and after a night aboard the Wireless I used to feel that I was tied up in a double knot all right. Nixy, I pass. Once is out for me."
But all of them were sleepy, and it was not long before they went aboard. There had been some talk of staying ashore; but it frittered out. Whether it was because of the frolicsome mosquitoes, that had put in their appearance with the dying out of the breeze; or recollections of the fearful name by which the stream, was known on the chart and among men, no one confessed. They dribbled aboard the three boats, and went about making up their beds for the night in the most matter-of-fact way possible.
And, truth to tell, they did manage to secure a lot of refreshing sleep before another dawn came to call them to duty.
After breakfast they left their harbor, in which they had been storm-bound; and were soon pushing along toward the southeast, where Lewes, back of Cape Henlopen, lay.
The bay was far from smooth, but by degrees it became more so as the day passed. Finally, after passing several lighthouses, they had glimpses of the great Government breakwater, and the barrier that has been erected to keep the ice from injuring the shipping.
That night they lay in a snug harbor in Broadhill Creek, a few miles above the town. Herb and Josh had gone with the Comfort to see if there was any mail for them; and to pick up a few little things which it was believed they needed to complete their happiness.
"I hope tomorrow will be as fine as today has been," Jack remarked that evening, as they sat around to partake of supper; "because we've got a nasty outside run to make, reaching for an inlet below; and we've just got to wait until the sea is smooth, if it takes a week. We promised our folks at home not to take any unnecessary chances, you remember, fellows."
"And that's one I'd refuse to tackle," observed George, without a blush. "The old ocean is a pretty big proposition for a teenty little motor boat to buck up against."
"Especially one that's built on the order of a wedge!" grunted Nick, unconsciously rubbing one of his fat sides sympathetically, as though he might be getting a chronic muscular pain there, from being kept in a state of perpetual balance.
When the morning did come they found that the signs seemed most propitious indeed; and Jack declared that they could not afford to let such a chance pass by.
"Well, just as you say, Jack," sighed George. "The thing has to be done; and in that case the sooner we get it over with, the better. But I hope there won't be much more of this outside business before we reach Florida."
"Very little," replied the other, reassuringly. "And we're going to take no chances at any time, remember. This outside work is easy enough, always providing you bide your time, and no big wind from the east or south comes up while you're making the trip from one inlet to another. Sometimes, I'm told, the sea is like glass, with hardly a ripple."
"I hope it turns out that way today, then," remarked George, as he began to do a little final tinkering with his machinery before the start.
Jack watched the tide, knowing something about how the wind would be apt to come up at a certain change, as it usually does. Then, at eight o'clock, or "eight bells," as Nick delighted to call it, the signal was given, the gallant little flotilla started off; and an hour later the three motor boats were moving through the heaving sea, with nothing but water toward the east and south, as far as the eye could reach.
They were now fully launched on the broad Atlantic, and must take chances of making a safe harbor before the coming of the wind.
THE CAMP INVADED.
"Why, fellows, this is dead easy!" George called out, after they had been making good time for an hour or more, with the heaving sea showing no sign of taking undue advantage of the confiding little motor boats that had ventured on its placid bosom.
"Just as I told you," Jack answered, for they made sure to keep pretty close to each other while undertaking this passage. "Choose the right time, after a storm with the wind and sea gone to rest, and a little run like this is a picnic."
"But she looks pretty wide out there," remarked Nick, pointing toward the east.
"Oh! not so much," laughed Herb. "I should think that a matter of four thousand miles or so would cover it."
"Gee! whiz! that must be Africa over there, then?" Nick gasped.
"That's right!" Jack called; "but there's a trifle of haze hanging out just at present, so you can't quite see the tropical shores, with the black natives dancing around some missionary. But joking aside, boys, I think we're going to make the riffle without any trouble. Already we must be well on the way there, and no sign of wind yet."
"Perhaps when she does come it may be in the west?" suggested Josh, who did occasionally have a brilliant thought, it seemed.
"Just so, and in that case we'd be all hunky," Jack answered back; "because with a west wind we could creep in close to the shore, since there'd be no waves rolling up on the beach. Suppose we touch up for a little faster gait."
"I'm willing," George sent back. "Put it up to the Comfort as usual. We'll have to adapt our pace to what she can do."
"Yes," called out Josh from the roomy boat, "and consider yourself lucky, George, if you don't have to call on the old Ark to give you a tow before we cross that same bar at the inlet. It wouldn't be the first time; and it ain't goin' to be the last either, believe me!"
"Oh! shucks! my engine is running as smooth as silk now. I could make circles around the whole bunch if I wanted to; but what's the use? We'd better stick together, you know. Somebody might want a little help."
"Sure, somebody might," mocked Josh.
Jack had let Jimmy have the wheel. With his glasses he was scrutinizing the shore line as they made steady progress. He felt sure that he would be able to discover the right inlet long before they arrived at a point where they must alter their course in order to cross that bar which is always found at such openings.
Drawing the small amount of water their boats did, he anticipated not the slightest trouble in getting over. So as they increased their pace somewhat, Jack divided his time between watching the shore and the sky. Wind was something that would oblige them by remaining away.
They had figured on taking three hours to make the run; but it was nearer four, owing to the fact that there were some miles to pass over in leaving the creek where they had spent the preceding night, and reaching the open sea; and also because they had to go out some distance.
Jack sighted the inlet for which they were so anxiously pressing, and when the three motor boats had crossed the bar, gaining the security that lay behind the sandspits, all of them breathed easier. That night they would not see the flashing of the Henlopen light, or catch the distant gleam of the famous mariner's beacon on the point at Cape May, for they were many miles to the south, and the glow of Chincoteague Light closer at hand.
But for some time at least they need not think of danger from a rising sea. If troubles were fated to come, as was almost inevitable, they were apt to be of an entirely different character. Perhaps they would get aground in shallow waters; it might be there would be times when the little flotilla would become lost in some intricate channels connecting the numerous bays that parallel the coast, and which are by degrees being dredged by the Government, with the idea of at some dim future date having an inland coast canal by which even small vessels of war may pass north and south.
Again, Jack had before him his chart, printed by the Department at Washington, and supposed to be perfectly reliable as to depth of water, position of lights and shoals, the lay of the many sinuous creeks, and all such important matters upon which the voyager over these sounds must depend for safe progress.
"Looky there, what's that over yonder on the water—gulls?" called Nick, after they had been moving along in procession for some time, the Tramp leading the way—for George realized that he must curb his speed propensity while navigating these deceptive shallow waters, unless he wanted to take chances of wrecking his beloved craft on an unseen oyster reef, or a sandbar that lay just below the surface.
"I reckon they're ducks," quoth Josh, after a look. "How about it, Jack?"
Jack did not have to even make use of the glasses before replying in the affirmative.
Nick was all excitement at once.
"Say, why can't we sneak up on 'em, and knock about six on the head?" he hastened to demand; and then stooped down to drag out George's shotgun; at which the others shouted to him to be careful, for he was making the boat wobble fearfully.
"Well, we might give them a try," said Jack, with a smile; "but even if we did manage to bag a bunch, I reckon now, you wouldn't think them worth cooking."
"Why not; I've heard that even fishy ducks can be eaten, if you take the trouble to draw the feathers and skin off together?" Nick declared.
"Which is correct, all right, as far as it goes," Jack continued, placidly; "but I'd defy even such an expert as Josh here, to cook those ducks so as to disguise the woody flavor!"
"Haw! haw! haw! Jack means they're only a bunch of wooden decoys—stool ducks!" roared Josh, some of the others echoing his merriment. "Perhaps you c'n digest pretty near anything, you're such a walking cemetery, Nick; but I bet you draw the line at a wooden duck, hey?"
Nick relapsed into silence, but George took up the talk.
"Ain't this early in October for duck hunting, Jack? Some of the States don't allow it till November, you know," he inquired, seeking information.
"Yes; and perhaps this fellow is only giving his stools an airing, after all, to see how they float; because the main raft of ducks won't be here till later."
During the day they landed at one or two docks, where the customary groups of staring natives surrounded them, asking questions, examining the clever little craft beside which their own looked cumbersome, though sea-worthy, and giving such a sad mixture of information that in the end Jack was glad he had his reliable charts to fall back on, since one man's account seemed to be exactly contradictory in comparison with the next one.
The boys believed that it would be wise to halt for the night away from any of the settlements along the sound or bay. Perhaps these rough looking fellows might be all right, and just as honest as they make them; but previous experiences had warned Jack and his chums that there are always some bad characters belonging in every isolated town and hamlet; and there was no use tempting such rascals more than seemed necessary.