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Motor Boat Boys Mississippi Cruise - or, The Dash for Dixie
by Louis Arundel
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E-text prepared by Al Haines



MOTOR BOAT BOYS

MISSISSIPPI CRUISE

Or

The Dash For Dixie

by

LOUIS ARUNDEL



[Frontispiece: Jack was keeping his hand on the alert, ready to reverse his engine at even a second's warning.]



Chicago M. A. Donohue & Co. Copyright 1914 by M. A. Donohue & Co. Chicago



CONTENTS

I. ALL ABOARD FOR DIXIELAND! II. THE START III. A HANDICAP AT THE FIRST STATION IV. THE SUDDEN PERIL V. AROUSED AT MIDNIGHT VI. STARTLING NEWS FROM NEAR HOME VII. QUITE A SURPRISE PASTY VIII. LEFT IN THE LURCH IX. THE SWIFT RUN OF THE "TRAMP" X. IN A KENTUCKY COVE XI. TURNING THE TABLES ON THE BANK ROBBERS XII. "LUCKY JACK!" XIII. THE "WIRELESS" IN TOW XIV. SIGNS OF THE SUNNY SOUTH XV. BUSTER TAKES HOPE XVI. ERASTUS, THE HOUSEBURNER XVII. THE SHERIFF'S POSSE XVIII. AT THE MOUTH OF THE SUNFLOWER XIX. IN THE LAND OF COTTON XX. THE CASTAWAYS OF THE SWAMP XXI. BUSTER FACES STARVATION XXII. THE DISCOVERY XXIII. THE WINNER OF THE CUP—CONCLUSION



[Transcriber's note: The following two short stories were in the original book, but are not related to the above story. No author was given for them.]

An Awakening at Alvin

Caught with a Scrap of Paper



THE MOTOR BOAT BOYS' MISSISSIPPI CRUISE;

or

A Dash for the Dixie Cup

CHAPTER I.

ALL ABOARD FOR DIXIELAND!

"Aw, quit your kidding, now, George. You know I said I'd stick by you to the bitter end; and nobody ever knew Nick Longfellow to back water, did they?"

"I guess you're right about that, Pudding. Your word is your strongest hold—next to eating. I depend on you to be my boat-mate on that long cruise, if so be we make a go of the race."

"Huh! even if Herb Dickson and Josh Purdue can't get a chance to enter this old tub of theirs which they call the Comfort, what's to hinder us from starting when Jack heads his dandy Tramp south; tell me that?"

"Nothing, Nick; only three boats would be better than two, and add to the fun of the race for the silver cup;" and the speaker, George Rollins, bent affectionately over the smart, bright engine of a new and exceedingly narrow motor boat undoubtedly built for speed alone, and carrying the significant name of Wireless.

"I'm told by Jack that the cup his father is having made is a jim dandy one, and has the word 'Dixie' engraved on it," the fat boy remarked. "He says it will be here by tomorrow. Perhaps when the other fellows show it to their folks, they'll get the word they're waiting for."

"Well, for one I'm not worrying about their not going along," remarked George, as he rubbed away with a bit of waste. "Why, you know there'll not be any school till away after Christmas this year, because the Dunker boys came down with smallpox, and the health board ordered the building closed. That gives us a hunky-dory vacation. It was what made me think of going along with Jack in the first place."

"Yes," Nick went on; "he just has to be in New Orleans on the first of December, because that will of his daffy old uncle is to be read then; and the lawyer sent word that Jack Stormways was a big thing in the money that's left. And everybody that's mentioned has to be present when the will's read, or lose their share. That's a punk sort of a job, ain't it now, George?"

"Let up about that queer old uncle," remarked the other, in a low tone. "For there's Jack coming right now, with Jimmy Brannagan dangling at his heels. I guess Jimmy would go through fire and water for Jack, if he could only do him a good turn."

"Well," observed the fat lad, shaking his head in a positive way he had, "why shouldn't he when Jack has done so much for him? Ever since Jimmy's mother died he's lived at Jack's house, and had a chance to attend school; though for that matter I don't think he'll ever set the world on fire with his knowledge of books."

"All the same the Irish boy is a shrewd fellow, and you've got to get up mighty early in the morning to beat him out in an argument," grinned George, who could look back to numerous occasions when he had confessed himself a poor second under such conditions.

"Say, look at the big bundle Jack's carrying, would you?" exclaimed Nick, taking a sudden new interest in matters, and getting to his feet; for he had been lazily stretched out, watching his comrade work at the engine of the speed boat, which was like a big cigar in shape, somewhat near twenty-seven feet in length, by only four and a half beam.

"I honestly believe that's the bully old silver cup Jack's bringing over to let us see," declared George, also aroused, so that his black eyes flashed.

"And it's going to be our silver cup some day before long; because, just as you say, this fine little beauty can cut circles around both the other motor boats," and the fat boy patted the varnished frame of the Wireless as he spoke.

"Sure thing," replied George, with a grin; "but don't discourage the rest by rubbing it in that we've got such a soft snap."

Two other fellows bustled into the big boathouse, where several launches were resting on the floor on either side of the basin, at the further end of which the water door was situated.

Jack Stormways was an active lad of about seventeen. His figure was as straight as that of an Indian, and his face one in which a steady purpose seemed to abide. Usually of a sunny, cheerful disposition, he knew how to arouse all dormant faculties in the members of a baseball or football team of which he might chance to be captain.

Nearly everybody liked Jack Stormways; and even such enemies as he naturally made during his career in school admitted that they admired his clean methods of doing things.

His companion, Jimmie Brannagan, was a short-bodied Irish lad, with red hair and a freckled face; but possessing a sturdy frame, as well as a ready wit.

"Open it up, and let us have a peep, Jack!" exclaimed George, as the newcomer placed his package on a bench near by.

"No use asking such sharp chaps as you to guess," observed the other, laughingly, as he started to follow instructions by unwinding the many papers that covered the mysterious bulky object. "You see everything, know everything. Well, what d'ye think of that for a beauty, George and Buster?"

Poor Nick had about as many names as a prince of the royal blood. His companions seemed to think that every title signifying something bouncing should be applied to him at odd times. And so he answered to anything that came along.

"My gracious! but ain't she a corker, though?" Nick now gasped, as his eyes seemed to be trying to pop out of his head with admiration.

"Finest ever," observed George, a little envy in his black eyes; for there were certain weak spots in his disposition that he had to fight continually, sometimes winning out, and again giving in to the temptation.

It was certainly a handsome specimen of the Winona silversmith's cunning, standing almost a foot and a half high, and being decorated with a magnificent mimic representation of a little motor boat resting under a live oak tree that overhung the water of a bayou; and which, of course, represented Dixieland, as could be easily seen from the long streamers of Spanish moss dangling from the limbs.

Both boys handled the trophy with eager hands.

"Say, that's worth going after," said Nick, finally. "And I'd like to wager that when Herb and Josh show it to their folks they'll easily get permission to join us in the long dash to New Orleans."

"And what great times we've already had, laying out the program," remarked Jack. "That was worth something, alone. The journey's divided up in about two hundred mile divisions. No boat can leave a division point until every contestant is there to make an even start. Only the time consumed between actual stations to be counted in the final summing up."

"And that other provision about the running time being exactly between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon is a mighty wise thing," remarked George.

"Yes," said Nick, "but what worries the crew of the Wireless is what they're going to do with all the time on their hands. We've planned to take a gun along, so we can do some shooting as we wait; and then the fishing ought to be worth while. If necessary, I'll go overboard, and try those new White Wings I bought. I'm going to have a whole lot of fun with those contraptions; besides learn how to swim like a duck."

"Oh! bother those old junk things; will we ever hear the last of the wonderful stunts Pudding expects to do with 'em'?" groaned George.

"Sure I saw him sthandin' in two fate of water one day, and flappin' his wings like a burrd, so I did," declared Jimmie, seriously. "I wanted him to walk out to dape water, but he said he didn't wish to get the blissed things wet too suddent like."

"Say, just change the subject, won't you?" begged Nick, turning as red in the face as a turkey cock. "My time will come, and I'm going to astonish you fellows. Why, I can float right now, though perhaps you won't believe it."

"On the contrary, I never believed you could sink," declared George, derisively, as he surveyed the swelling proportions of his boat mate. "Talk about needing artificial support to keep you on top; I bet you'd float like a cork, or a lump of grease, if you only wasn't afraid to make the try."

"What are we waiting for now?" asked Nick, appealing to Jack, because that comrade never nagged him.

"Only to find out if the other fellows are going along," was Jack's reply.

"Well, we've just got to know pretty quick," grumbled Nick. "I've been kept waiting so long I'm wasting away to a mere shadow. If it holds up much more, why I'll not have the appetite of a poor little dicky bird."

Of course there was a shout at that, for truth to tell Nick seemed never to get enough to eat. He couldn't cook worth while, and yet was always first and last at the feast. On the other hand, there was the long-bodied and lanky Josh Purdue who was a splendid hand at getting up a camp dinner, yet seldom cared to partake of his tasty dishes, and was also, they whispered, addicted to dyspepsia tablets!

Between these two there was an almost constant warfare of humorous badinage in connection with their several weaknesses. Josh would twit the fat boy on his enormous capacity for stowing "grub" away; and on the other hand, Nick generally came back with sarcastic remarks about "shadows," and "living skeletons," and such unpleasant things.

"I've got a pretty good hunch that the thing will be all settled before another day," remarked Jack, nodding. "And if so, we can get away on next Monday morning."

"Hurrah!" shouted Nick, waving his arms above his head. "Just imagine what a bully good time we've got ahead of us, cruising down that creek yonder," and he pointed to where they could see the waters of the Mississippi flowing past the boathouse.

"I've already made most of the arrangements," announced Jack, "and only want to know whether there are going to be six of us, or only four, before ordering the provisions for the start."

"Oh, how happy I am!" gurgled Nick, trying to dance in the confined space alongside the motor boats, and almost falling into the well.

"He always acts that way at the mere mention of the word grub," declared George.

"Now you wrong me, partner," remonstrated the injured one. "I'm only anticipating what ge-lorious times you and I will have waiting for the others to come along—you shooting a cargo of ducks and geese on the sandbars, and little me sportin' in the tide with my jolly old wings buoying me up. How can I stand another three days of this agony? Somebody put me to sleep, and don't let me wake up till the horn blows for the race to start Monday A. M."

"Sure, I like to oblige," observed Jimmie, rolling up his sleeves to the elbows of his muscular arms. "If so be you wouldn't moind tilling me av ye'd prefer the jolt on the ind of the chin, or under the lift ear. I'm not at all particular mesilf, only I like to plase as good natured a chap as Puddin' Longfellow."

"Well, forget it, won't you, Jimmie? I guess I'll stay awake, after all; there's so much to see and hear, yes, and eat, too. But seems to me I just noticed a couple of fellows making this way from the road; and sure as you live it's Herb and Josh. Look at the big grins they're carrying, would you? Say, what d'ye think, they've gone and done it—got permission to take part in the race for the cup. Wow! ain't that all to the mustard, though?"

The door was darkened by a couple of hurrying figures, as the pair pushed into the boat house, almost out of breath from hard running, yet with faces that fairly shone with eagerness to tell the news.

"Hurrah for us, fellows!" shouted the leading boy, as he waved his cap violently above his head; "we're going along, all right. Dad gave in at last after ma put it up to him. Count the Comfort in that race; and she's going to give you all the time of your lives, too. Oh, my! is that the silver cup trophy? Josh, take a look, will you? Won't it just fit in my den, though? and I can see where they left space for our illustrious names. Boys, three cheers and a tiger for the Mississippi cruise!"



CHAPTER II.

THE START.

The volume of shouts that went up was so tremendous that several other fellows who happened to be passing the boathouse came rushing in to find out what had happened.

They found the six intended Mississippi cruisers shaking hands wildly, and congratulating each other on their good fortune.

There would be some envious fellows in town from that time on, when the news that the great race had been finally arranged went abroad; for hardly a boy but who would wish with all his heart and soul that he had been lucky enough to be in the game.

"Now, let's see that list of yours, Jack!" said Nick, after the excitement had in a measure subsided, and they could talk coherently again.

"Yes," observed Josh quickly, "you don't suppose Buster would be able to sleep a wink unless he knew there was going to be heaps of eatin' stuff along. For goodness sake, get out your list at the grocer's, Jack, and let him run it over. If Buster keeps on losing flesh, what in the world d'ye suppose the blessed old Comfort's going to do for ballast?"

"There you go," declared Nick, reproachfully, "hitting me below the belt as usual. Ain't I only thinking of the rest of you when I bother myself about such a thing as grub? Some people have to be tempted with dainties, to take their daily rations. As for me a cup of coffee, huh, give me some bread or crackers, a rasher of bacon with eggs, a potato baked in the ashes of a camp fire—and I'm as happy as a king."

"Oh, yes," Josh went on, persistently, "I admit all that, provided the quantity is there. Quality seldom enters into your calculations, Buster. But say, Jack, let's get busy. We've only got one more day, then comes Sunday, and the morning after——"

"We're off!" cried George, as he cast a fond look toward his swift speed boat; and then glanced around in a way that told how much he pitied these poor "chumps" who actually imagined they had a ghost of a chance to win the long race.

So for an hour and more they put their wise heads together, and conned the lists Jack produced. Many changes were suggested, some of which were made, after they had been discussed pro and con; for Jack was open to conviction, though as a rule there was little that he had forgotten, or that could be bettered in the program.

Then each couple started to examine the boat in which they purposed taking that long dash toward Dixieland. It was of great importance that as few accidents as possible occur while on the way south. For, although an accident in itself would not penalize the contestant, if it happened to occur during the eight working hours there must be a loss of time that would lessen the chances for winning out.

"There's only one thing I wish," remarked Herb, as they talked over these matters, and jotted down a few ideas connected with the race.

"What might that be?" asked Nick, eagerly, for he was taking note of everything that occurred, and casting envious glances toward the fine trophy on the box.

"Of course," the other went on, "I hope the reliable old Comfort won't break down once on the trip; and I give you my word I don't believe she will. But if that has got to happen, I'm wishing it will be just around four in the afternoon. See the point, fellows?"

"Sure," replied Jimmie, with a grin. "That gives ye the hull night to be makin' repairs, and without losin' a blissed minute of time. A wise guy ye are, so I'm thinkin', Herbie."

A close inspection failed to disclose any structural weakness about any one of the three boats, or their motive power. Of course, each pilot was convinced in his own mind that he had the best chance to win. George relied mainly on speed; Herb placed his dependence on the well known ability of his broad-beamed boat to stand up before heavy seas, and always get there safely in the end; while with Jack there was a combination of these several points of excellence.

"Well," the last named remarked, as they prepared to go home, and the boathouse was being locked up for the night; "I can see where we're going to have a warm time of it in the last half of the race."

"How's that?" burst forth the eager Nick. "Tell us, Jack; it ain't fair to keep anything back. Will they arrest us for breaking the speed laws down south?"

"See!" cried Herb, instantly, "that's where a guilty conscience works overtime. It's just what he gets for risking his life in that floating coffin," and he jerked his thumb disdainfully toward the building they were leaving.

At that the proud owner of the cigar-shaped craft laughed aloud.

"Green with envy already, Herb!" he exclaimed. "Don't you pay any attention to what he says, Pudding. We're just going to lick the whole bunch to a frazzle, and that's easy. Now, Jack, suppose you tell us what's on your mind? How are we going to have lots of trouble in the last half, more than in the beginning?"

"When you fellows begin to study those maps of the Mississippi I brought you, it will open your eyes," Jack went on. "Why, the upper stretches of this river are as straight as a yard stick compared with what lies below Memphis. If ever you saw a snake turning and twisting after you've hit him with a stone you've got an idea of what the big river is down there in Dixie. It forms loops and bends galore. It turns back north, runs east, then west and for a short time south. For ten miles southing you make you have to go thirty."

"Well, I understood that was the way; but why should that bother us?" demanded George. "What's fair for one is fair for all. We'll hug the easterly shore all we can, and save many a mile."

"Perhaps you will," smiled Jack, "and then again the current races faster out in the middle, so the boat that ventures may profit by that. But what I had in mind was the innumerable cut-offs we're apt to strike."

"Cut-offs!" exclaimed Nick, turning a trifle pale, as though he thought this had something to do with the favorite southern lynching bee.

"Oh! I know about those things," declared Herb, carelessly. "Sometimes a native can save twenty miles by shooting through where a passage runs across a neck of wooded land. But I guess the good old Comfort will stick to the main stream. I may be the tortoise in this race, but there's lots of chances the hares will lie down for a little nap in the way, and let me go past."

"But it's fair to take advantage of a cut-off, ain't it?" asked George.

"Of course it is, if you want to take the chance of getting twisted, and losing oodles of hours wandering around in some old swamp," Jack answered.

"Well, they ought to have those cut-offs marked with buoys, or sign posts," grumbled George.

"Too many changes taking place all the time," Jack replied, showing how earnestly he had been studying the field. "They just couldn't do it. But of all three craft, yours ought to be the last one to want to steal a march on the rest, George."

"Oh, well, I don't expect to be compelled to; but then you never know what's going to happen. Suppose we had a breakdown, and lost many hours—it might be up to the Wireless to get busy, and wipe out some of that slack. But I'm going to study that lower river part till I get it by heart, bet your boots on that, fellows."

"And me ditto," said Nick, quickly. "None of that lost in the swamp for me. Just think how awful it would be, boys, wandering around day after day with snakes and alligators waiting to snap you up! Ugh!"

"That isn't the worst of it, Buster; just imagine the food giving out! Whatever in the wide world would you do?" asked Jack, with a chuckle.

Nick gave a wild look, and then groaned dismally.

"If it came to a case of drawing lots I just know George would pick out the lucky number, because he often looks at me now as if he'd like to eat me," he mumbled, no doubt falling to the joke, but nevertheless with a vein of seriousness in his voice.

On the following day the six boys haunted the boathouse most of the time. If anything was forgotten it could not have been for lack of consultations, since they were constantly putting their heads together, advising, making little changes in the packing and stowing of things, and running errands back to their homes and the stores.

When they left at eventime they knew of nothing that could be done to better conditions. Each boat was in prime condition for the southern dash of many hundreds of miles, possibly over stormy waters, where perils of various kinds awaited them.

And doubtless never in the history of those several families were such restless boys known as during the Sunday that followed. The minutes seemed to drag as if weighted down with stones.

But the longest day has its end, and finally night came.

Alarm clocks had been set for dawn, but in few cases were they needed, since the boys were up and doing before the gray had actually crept into the eastern heavens.

At seven o'clock a crowd began to assemble in the vicinity of the boathouse from which the start was to be made; for the race was the event of the season. Every boy in town was on the spot, and the constables had to keep the crowd from actually swarming over and swamping the busy contestants and their families.

The three motor boats were ready in the water, with burgees flying and looking as spic and span as human energy could make them. The silver trophy was in the possession of Jack's father, and had been admired by hundreds.

As the time set for the start approached, the six boys manifested considerable nervousness. But this might be expected even of old campaigners, not to speak of young lads who, up to now, had possibly never been more than one or two hundred miles away from home.

Jack was really in command, since he had been elected commodore of the club by unanimous vote. He seemed capable of keeping his head in a time of excitement, and that meant a great deal.

Everything had been attended to so far as he knew, and they were now only waiting for the town clock to boom out the hour of eight, when the starting toot of his conch shell horn would announce that the race was on.

It was a foregone conclusion that the speed boat would easily take the lead, for almost everything had been sacrificed in her construction to the one prime necessity for reeling off the miles. Nick was quivering all over with anxiety. He might have backed out only that he chanced to have a stubborn streak in his make-up, and his word had been given. But he certainly looked far from happy as he faced the gloomy prospect of days and days cooped up in that cranky craft, where the least movement abroad [Transcriber's note: aboard?] set up a dizzy wabbling.

"Got your hair parted exactly in the middle, Buster?" shouted a comrade from the crowd, noting how the fat boy gripped the sides of the boat every time the pilot made a sudden little movement that caused the touchy Wireless to bob or roll.

"Better take a teenty more breath in that right lung, Hippo!" called another, with cruel intent; but Nick only grinned, and waved his hand, as though utterly indifferent to their jibes.

Jack looked at his little dollar nickel watch for the last time.

"Five minutes more only, fellows!" he announced. "Get aboard, all!"

Presently they were settled in their places, and the engines had been started to make sure everything was right for the word "go!"

Then the plain sound of the clock in the town hall came to their ears, as it started to strike the hour.

"Let loose!" called Jack; and immediately gave several sharp toots on his shell signal horn.

A storm of wild cheers broke out when the trio of handsome boats shot off as soon as those on the dock had eased the detaining cables.

"Look at the Wireless, will you? Talk about your speed, ain't she got it to burn, though?" shouted one enthusiast, as the long, cigar-shaped boat shot ahead, and rapidly opened a gap between herself and the other contestants.

And minutes before the Tramp and the Comfort, she passed out of sight around the bend in the river, a mile below the town.

As long as the pilots of the other two craft could see the faintest sign of the home town they were leaving on this long and doubtless perilous voyage over unknown waters, they could hear the whoops of the excited people, as they waved the adventurous cruisers and racers an adieu, with good wishes for a safe journey.



CHAPTER III.

A HANDICAP AT THE FIRST STATION.

"We've got to pull up here, Jimmie!"

"Sure; and what time have ye, Jack?"

"Just eleven. We've been booming along for three hours today, besides the whole eight yesterday, and without a single breakdown, too," and Jack looked proudly at the little motor which he was bending over and petting.

"Thims the houses of Clinton we say away ahead there, thin?" asked Jimmie, as he shaded his eyes with a palm, and stared toward the south.

"Yes, on the Illinois shore; and across the way lies Clinton in Iowa. I used the marine glass which every boat carries, and there isn't a sign of either the Wireless or the Comfort ahead. That means, Jimmie, we're the first to arrive at the initial bag or station."

The Irish boy grinned as though tickled. "Sure I can understand why Herb and Josh are held back by a slow boat; but by the powers where can that speed boy be? By the way he wint off he might be bringing up in New Orleans just now," he remarked, humorously.

"If I gave a guess I'd say he was up in some creek, tinkering at that twenty horsepower engine of his that shakes the whole frame of his boat whenever he opens the throttle wide," Jack replied.

"Right ye are," declared Jimmie, nodding his head. "And by the toime we get to the journey's ind I belave on me sowl George and Buster will know the location of ivery creek along the river."

"Well," remarked the pilot of the boat, as he turned shoreward, "if a fellow is daft enough to sacrifice everything else for speed, on a long cruise like this, he must expect to put up with all sorts of trouble. But I'm sorry for Buster, though."

"Sure he can afford to lose twinty pounds, and not fale it," declared the Irish boy, sagely. "And so long as the provisions howld out, Buster won't kick too harrd."

When they had arrived at a certain point not far from the shore the engine was shut off.

"Now!" sang out Jack, "drop it! Quick, Jimmie!"

With a splash the anchor fell into the water, and presently the jaunty little motor boat was riding restlessly at the end of her cable; while the two boys started to get something ready to eat.

Jimmie was to act as cook most of the time, since the other inmate of the Tramp had plenty of things to hold his attention in managing the engine, and figuring out the course.

First of all Jimmie placed on a firm foundation a neat little contraption made of brass, and which seemed to be a kerosene stove, capable of manufacturing gas. It was the pet of the skipper, and had served him many a time under conditions when a camp fire was out of the question, on account of pouring rain, or from some other reason.

This Juwel kerosene-burning stove was of German origin. It was primed with a little alcohol, and when the heat had thus been applied to the plate a few pumps started the oil to moving, and it was turned into blue flame gas, very powerful in its capacity for boiling water speedily.

When the stove was going it made a little crackling, hissing noise, but nothing to cause annoyance. And its convenience on a cruise of this sort outweighed any minor faults.

The other boats were equipped with other cooking appliances, the Wireless having a battery of three lamps, and the Comfort a genuine gasoline affair, of course of generous proportions as became so big a craft, on which a dinner for the crowd might have been prepared if necessary.

Jimmie heated some Boston baked beans left over from the preceding night's supper, and made a pot of coffee. A loaf of bread and some cheese afforded ample substantial, as Jimmie declared when he could eat no more.

Still there were no signs of either of the other boats above. They could see various river craft moving about, but though Jack used his glasses diligently up to two o'clock he had discovered nothing of the others.

"Say, this looks bad for a beginning," he observed, as three o'clock came, and he took the glasses again to sweep the upper river. "Already we have a start of four hours on both our rivals. Perhaps after all George may have to explore some of those cut-offs Nick dreads so much, in order to make up for time lost while tinkering with that blessed old engine of his, that breaks down once in so often."

He had hardly applied the glasses to his eyes than he gave an exclamation.

"I wager now that's the bully ould Comfort splashing along in the middle of the river!" cried Jimmie, who had good eyes of his own and had been using them to some advantage meanwhile.

"Go up head, Jimmie," said Jack; "for that's just what it is. And as sure as you live I think I sight the rushing Wireless away back there, booming along, and cutting through the water like a knife, while the broad bow of Herb's boat throws the spray flying with every dip! It's a race for second honors, that's what it is, Jimmie!"

"Whirra! and we're the spectators, so we are!" cried the delighted Irish lad, as he eagerly reached for the glasses and clapped them to his eyes. "Yis, ye're right, Jack, it's the speed boat all the same; and my sowl, how she's rushing things! By the powers, don't I hope the ould Comfort draws in here ahead. Won't it make George feel down in the mouth to be last at the stake?"

"Oh! this is only a beginning," remarked Jack. "Nobody can tell what is going to happen before we bring up at New Orleans. Depend on it, Jimmie, all of us will know a heap more by then than we do now."

"Herb sees us," observed Jimmie. "Josh is wavin' a flag. And the boat heads this way, too, makin' better time than I iver saw her do. Hurrah for thim! Look at the coffin nail gainin'; but I do believe the tub will win out afther all, I do that."

And so it proved; for, although George evidently risked considerable, and shoved on every horsepower his engine was rated at, he could not quite overtake the big clumsy craft he had affected to despise; so that the Comfort was alongside before the speed boat was more than within hailing distance.

Jack himself timed the coming of each craft, as was the duty of the one first at a station. Thus he knew just what a handicap the other boats labored under as the result of the initial run.

It was already late in the day, and as they were prohibited from running after the hour of four, a start was out of the question until another morning.

Accordingly the three craft made preparations for stopping over another night. A place was found where they could go ashore and camp, though meaning to sleep aboard their several boats; a necessity that caused poor Nick many a groan.

"Why, fellows," he grunted, rubbing himself in various places, "I'm just covered with bruises after one night of it. No room to turn without the bally old boat heaving and rolling. I give you my word there were lots of times I really made up my mind the blessed thing wanted to turn us both out into the creek. And would you believe it, I haven't yet been able to find those bully water wings anywhere. Seen anything of 'em, boys? Oh! I hope you have, because half the fun will be lost to me if I've gone and left my wings behind."

But no one remembered seeing the articles in question after the last time the owner had been holding them up for admiration, and which was on the Saturday before the start.

"So, you did pass the night in a creek, then?" asked Jack.

"That's what we did," admitted George, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Engine began to give trouble before two o'clock, and as we were near the shore we found a convenient creek, where we pushed in; and I've been working on that motor pretty much all the time since."

"We saw you both go past this morning," remarked Nick. "But George wouldn't let me give a toot on my horn. All I did was to cook while he worked."

"And eat. Don't forget to mention that, please," grumbled the aforesaid George. "Why, fellows, if he keeps on the way he's started, I sure don't know how we'll ever get enough grub aboard to keep going. And besides, such cooking you never saw."

"Here, no complaining," declared Jack. "You knew what you were up against before you started. And Buster is a willing chap, even if he has his faults. I've got a man aboard who's in training to equal Buster's record before this trip ends," and he nodded his head toward Jimmie, who grinned and answered:

"Indade an' I begin to belave that same mesilf, fellers. I'm hungry all the time, so I be. It must be in the air. Jack himself is no slouch whin it comes to stowing away things."

"That's all right," laughed Josh, seeing a chance to get in one of his favorite digs at Nick; "but I can feel for poor old George. He's tucked in with a cemetery, that devours everything, and keeps yawning for more."

And so they talked as they made a fire and prepared supper for the crowd just as the sun hovered over the distant shore to the west. No one came to bother them, for the place was isolated. A railroad ran near by, and during the night they heard numerous trains passing along. But snugly tucked away in their respective boats—much too snugly, Nick believed—they found little cause for complaint.

Another dawn found them facing a proposition that offered new possibilities.

"Hey! it's raining!" shouted Josh, he being the first one in the little fleet to get outside that morning.

But Jack had known this for some time, since he had been awake and heard the patter of the falling drops on the taut canvas awning that covered the main part of the Tramp.

After a while the boats were allowed to come closer together, while the pilots conferred as to the program for the day.

There were one or two feeble protests against starting in the wet; but on putting it to a vote the decision was reached that they must go on.

"We're not made of sugar or salt," declared Jack; "and besides, haven't we anticipated just such weather by providing waterproof garments. Everybody get into their oilskins right away, and slap a real old sou'wester on their heads. We can afford to laugh at this poor little storm. Wait till we strike something worth while later on, and then duck."

"Yes," put in George, a little maliciously; "we've just got to be moving right along, fellows. Satan always finds mischief for idle hands to do. Buster is supposed to be the deck hand aboard this boat, and when he hasn't anything else to do his mind keeps wandering in the line of eating. Suppose we did get really cleaned out some fine day, am I bound to begin on him for chops?"

All this while they were busy dressing, and Nick made the narrow speed boat wabble fearfully with his movements as he drew on his oilskins.

"Oh! I tell you I'm just going to be a complete nervous wreck before we get done with this fool race," he complained when he had finally succeeded in donning the wide trousers, the legs of which persisted in sticking together.

"Get out and walk then," said George, promptly.

"I would if the walking was good," replied Nick; "but it's wet both above and below; and besides I want to give another look around for my precious white wings."

At eight o'clock another start was made. As before, the fleet boat shot ahead, with the Tramp a good second, and the wallowing Comfort in the rear, Herb and Josh in no way disconcerted because of the poor beginning. History had a way of repeating itself; and they believed that the accident to George's cranky engine was only a specimen of many other troubles and tribulations that would be apt to befall the ambitious pilot during the progress of the race.

But hardly had the Wireless gone two hundred yards before there was a tremendous splash heard.

"Arrah now!" burst out Jimmie, who had happened to be looking at the time, "it's happened just as I knowed it would!"

"What is it?" asked Jack, bobbing up from the engine, which had been taking all of his attention.

"He falled overboard, so he did, just like a sack of corn!" continued Jimmie.

"Who did——oh! look at all the splashing back of the Wireless! Why it's Buster and he's holding on to a rope or something! Stop the boat, George; stop her!"



CHAPTER IV.

THE SUDDEN PERIL.

Even while Jack Stormways was giving vent to that shout he saw that George had shut off power, for the swift speed boat no longer rushed through the water like a thing of life.

Meanwhile both the other launches were bearing down upon the scene, with their occupants only too anxious to lend a helping hand.

George had seized hold of the other end of the rope to which the unfortunate Nick clung so desperately, and was dragging the floundering fat boy in, hand over hand.

"Hold on, George—not so fast I tell you! I'm full up now with this nasty yellow water, and can't stand any more. Easy, George! Oh, if I only had my wings on right now, what a chance to try 'em out!"

In this ridiculous fashion the flapping boy-fish gave vent to his mingled feelings of reproach and regret as he found himself hauled close in to the side of the drifting Wireless, until the skipper managed to get his fingers twisted in the abundant scalplock of his boat-mate.

"Why, he's got a life preserver on! He couldn't have drowned if he tried!" exclaimed Josh, as he leaned over the side of the big roomy Comfort; an act that did not seem to disturb her stability one bit.

"Course I have!" spluttered the dangling Nick, ever ready to take up cudgels with this adversary, no matter what his condition. "Course I have," he repeated. "Think me crazy to sail in this cranky message boat without insurance against a spill? I guess not. And you see what a wise head Nick has, fellows! Why, hang it, I'd just about been drowned this time if it hadn't been for this hunky-dory life preserver!"

"That's so," said Jack, warmly. "And you're a wise boy, all right, Buster. Just as long as you ride in that speed machine you keep close to that cork affair. You never know when you'll need it."

"That's so," grunted Nick, as he ejected a quart or so of water which had gotten into his mouth and stomach. "Ugh! get me aboard, please. I feel wet!"

"Glory! hear that, would ye?" roared Jimmie. "Sure he looks it, too, by the same token. But it will nade the hull caboodle of us to lift Buster aboard, for what wid all the wather he's gulped down he must weigh a ton, so he do."

"Say, he certainly changed his mind, and concluded that the walking was good, after all!" exclaimed Herb, as he lent a hand toward raising the young elephant.

"Yes," remarked George, who had really been badly frightened, but now tried to hide his feelings by a little joshing, "and I don't think it's a bit fair for your own crew to mutiny that way, and turn against the skipper."

"What's that?" gasped Nick, half way over the side; "who mutinied?"

"Why, the evidence is all against you, Hippo," returned his boatmate. "Didn't you see him, boys, holding on to a rope, and trying his level best to keep the dandy little Wireless from getting too great a start? I'm going to offer that as a protest if I miss getting the silver Dixie cup."

"Huh!"

That was all Nick could get out, for just then with a grand heave all around his comrades managed to raise him over the gunwale of the speed launch, so that he came down on the after deck with a squash, streams of water running off his saturated garments.

"There's only one thing to do," remarked Jack, "and that's to make a fresh start when Buster gets into some dry clothes. So hurry up, old fellow."

"However did you come to do it, Pudding?" demanded Herb, as the three boats kept company drifting on the current of the river.

"Well, I hardly know," grinned the other, as he started to leisurely undress. "I saw a coil of rope slipping overboard, and remember bending down to grab it. Guess the frisky little craft must have given a kick just about then. Next thing I knew I was in the drink, and swallowing more water than was good for me."

"But you grabbed the rope all right, it seems!" remarked Josh, sarcastically.

"Looks like it," admitted the other readily; "and I held on, too. My dad always did say I was a great fellow to keep my grip once I got it. There's only one thing I'm sorry about."

"Now just quit that right where you are," remarked George. "What do you take me for, a phonograph with a blank record? Forget about those silly wings that were going to make a swimmer out of you. A few more duckings like this at the end of a rope and you'll be a boss paddler."

"Oh! do you think so, George! Perhaps, then, once in a while you wouldn't mind tying a rope under my arms and letting me drop, easy-like, off the stern here, to learn the strokes. I wouldn't care very much, if I always had this good old cork thing on."

"You get out!" snorted George, who never knew when his companion was serious or joking, since his pudgy face was always set in a broad smile. "What d'ye take me for, hey? Think this is an excursion to teach fellows who won't try it on at home, how to swim? You've got another think coming then. Hurry up and get into some dry clothes now. We want to be off."

"Oh! start just when you feel like it; I'm going to take my time. Now quit joshing me. I'm too full for utterance," and to prove the truth of his assertion Nick bent over the side to eject another quart of water he had been forced to swallow, much against his will.

So presently Jack gave the word and again the three boats made a fresh start, in the same general alignment as before, with the Wireless ahead, and the big Comfort bringing up the rear.

Half an hour later and Jack, looking around, found that he could no longer see either of his competitors, the rain and mist utterly shutting them from view.

For some time, however, the heavy "pant" of the Comfort's exhaust came booming from the rear, though by slow degrees it grew fainter, until finally even this sign of her presence failed.

"I hope George will be cautious in this half fog and rain," Jack could not help remarking, as they continued to run along, and he kept Jimmie constantly in the bow to report what the prospect ahead might be.

"Sure, I was just thinkin' that same," admitted the Irish lad, turning his head for a minute while speaking. "It's so thick beyant that I do belave a stameboat might crape up on us unawares, and we not know a thing about it till we kim slap bang against its bow."

"That's one thing I'm afraid of," remarked Jack. "You notice that I manage to keep fairly close to the shore, don't you, Jimmie? Once in a while I glimpse the Illinois bank when the breeze lifts the fog a bit. I wouldn't like to run out in the middle of the river in this muss. The only thing I'm wondering is what boats coming up-stream do in a mess like this? Do they creep along closer to the shore than usual; or stick to the middle, and whistle from time to time?"

But Jimmie shook his head.

"Blest if I know a thing about it, Jack," he admitted. "All the same, it's me opinion that ye're doin' the right thing. Sure, ye always do, by the same token," for Jimmie was a great admirer of Jack Stormways, and ready to stick to him through thick and thin.

"What a lucky thing it was Buster thought to tie that life preserver on. Only for that he might have been drowned before any of us could get to him," Jack remarked a short time later.

"Oh! after all, he's the wise guy, an' don't ye forget it, Jack. Only I'm sorry for poor Buster, becase, ye say, he really don't hanker afther goin' on the thrip at all, it sames. And sure, it must be pretty tough balancing in that cranky ould boat all the time."

"Don't waste too much pity on Buster, Jimmie," laughed Jack. "When you come to know him as well as I do you'll understand that a heap of his agony is put on. To tell the truth, I've often suspected him of being even a bigger joker than Josh. Besides, he ought to put up with a heap from George; just think how the skipper has got to eat Buster's cooking for a couple of weeks, maybe. I wonder if he'll ever live through it. But perhaps Buster may improve, now that he just has to eat his own messes."

"Sure, he's got his mamy's blissed cook book along," observed the other, with one of his broad grins. "Didn't I say him studying it like a gossoon?"

"Poor George! I wouldn't be in his shoes for a cooky. But turn around again, Jimmie. I don't feel easy about this sort of cruising. That's why I've cut off some of our speed, you notice. Safety is my play first, and progress afterward."

"And a bully good motto, Jack, that always gets ye through all sorts of scrapes, right side up wid care. Ugh! did ye say that floater we passed? Sure it was a big tree, so it was. And av we'd slapped bang agin the roots, what a juicy hole they'd have knocked in our shiny side. Ye swerved just in the nick of time, Jacky, bye."

"Keep watching, and sing out if you see or hear anything."

Jack was keeping his hand on the alert, ready to reverse his engine at even a second's warning. Then he could swerve, if it became necessary to avoid some peril that suddenly loomed up ahead.

A train was moving slowly along ashore, and apparently groping its way, if one could judge from the many signal whistles heard. This rumbling sound was magnified in the fog until it seemed almost deafening at times. It annoyed Jack, for he was straining his heading to catch anything that came up the river.

Still, he had adopted all precautions that might occur to a careful cruiser, and under the circumstances it seemed a bit silly to think of halting in his progress down the stream.

Several hours passed thus, with both boys laboring under a constant strain.

"Would ye moind tilling me the time, Jack, darlint?" asked the Irish lad, still crouched in the bow as a lookout.

"Just twelve," replied the engineer, straightening up for a change, and as customary, casting a glance ahead as well as on either side; for if anything the atmosphere was just as thick as ever—indeed, Jimmie had more than once referred to it contemptuously as "pea soup!"

"Arrah! would ye moind now if I got a bite of grub? I'm that impty I suspect me stomach is glued till me backbone."

Jack laughingly gave his consent.

"I'll keep on double duty while you're about it," he remarked; "and play the part of engineer and pilot. At the same time here goes to reduce speed another notch, to be on the safe side."

Of course it was useless thinking of having anything hot while going along at even half speed, much as they would have enjoyed a cup of coffee to warm them up, for the rain and fog made the air seem chilly.

"But in a race every minute ought to count," remarked Jack, when Jimmie suggested this thing of stopping half an hour. "This is our running time, you know. After four o'clock we can hold up all we want. In fact we have to, as nothing gained by keeping on then counts."

And so they ate a cold "snack," as Jack called it, while pursuing their course down the river. Jimmie was again perched in the bow, talking when his jaws were not otherwise taken up in masticating his sandwich.

"Seems to me the fog is lifting just a little," suggested Jack.

"I don't belave it," objected the other. "Me eyes is clane tired tryin' to say into the mess beyant. Sometimes I do be thinkin' I glimpse a big stameboat comin' straight for us; and just whin I'm shoutin' to ye to back wather, I discover that it do be a fraud. Right now the same delusion sames to strike me, an' sure am I dramin', or is that something like a house below? Jack, darlint, it moves, sure it do! The wolf is comin' at last! Back her, Jack, back her, me bye! It's a stameboat this time right enough, and bearin' dead for us, by the same token!"

And the boy at the motor knew the emergency which he had been anticipating for the last three hours had suddenly come upon them, for a packet was pushing up the river just ahead, and aiming direct for the little launch!



CHAPTER V.

AROUSED AT MIDNIGHT.

"Hold tight, Jimmie!" cried Jack.

"I am that!" shrilled the Irish lad, crouched in the bow, with his eyes staring wildly at the dreadful shape that was swiftly drawing closer to them, as though bent on running the motor boat down.

Jack had changed his plan at the critical instant. He had a peculiar faculty for grasping a situation, and solving a problem. Although he had made up his mind to reverse in a case like this, it flashed over him that such a course just then would have but one result—the collision might be deferred for a few seconds; but if the approaching steamboat continued to advance, it must take place after all.

Better to throw on full power, and try to slide off to one side, thus giving the big craft the right of way.

It was done in a twinkling. The Tramp shot forward with a jerk; and had Jimmie not been forewarned he might have found himself thrown sideways into the river, for the little craft careened badly in making the swerve.

But she answered gallantly to the call, and glided out of the way just is the broad bow of the sternwheel steamboat came along, raising a white, foam-crested wave as she breasted the swift current.

Jack fancied he heard a startled exclamation from up in the pilothouse of the big craft; but not a word was flung at them. That the man at the wheel realized how remiss he had been in not signaling oftener, was made evident, for immediately a long and hoarse whistle broke loose, even as the steamboat was passing the boys.

"Wow!" gasped Jimmie, as he turned a white face toward his mate; "that was about as clost a call as I iver want to mate up wid. And sure, only for your wonderful prisence of moind we might have been run down. The same 'twas criminal carelessness, so it was. And I'd like to give the bog-trotter a bit of me moind."

Jack himself had gone through a thrilling experience, which he would hardly care to have duplicated. He was trembling some too, now that the necessity for prompt action and quick thought was gone.

"But didn't she respond to the wheel fine though, Jimmie?" he asked: just as if the boat deserved all the credit. "If it had been the clumsy old Comfort now, nothing would have saved her, she's so slow to mind her helm."

Jimmie had ideas of his own about the matter. What they were he did not choose to put into words just then; but the way his kindling eyes surveyed his friend made it easy to guess.

"An' did ye notice how soon the pilot blowed his whistle?" he remarked, as they resumed their course. "Small use that same would have been to us afther a smash. Sure, I'd taken it for Gabriel's trump calling us to the resurrection, I would."

"Well, let's forget it if we can, and talk of something more pleasant," observed Jack, who was now urging the little boat nearer the shore than ever, since it appeared they had been in the path of up-river craft, hugging the Illinois bank.

Of course he had again reduced the engine to half speed; and his vigilance was not in the least relaxed.

"Give me warning if you ever even think you see anything ahead, Jimmie," he remarked a little later. "Then we can get ready to head in, while we're trying to make out what it is. But I'll be glad when this beastly day is over, that's what."

"Amen!" said Jimmie, with due reverence; for that expressed his own feeling to a dot.

The time crept on slowly. They had passed under the great railroad bridge at Rock Island, and even navigated the river at this dangerous point, where craft were moving in many directions. And as the afternoon wore away, with mile after mile left behind, Jack, who had taken occasional furtive looks at his maps, concluded from certain signs that they were within ten miles of Burlington.

"It's nearly four, Jimmie, and we'd better be hunting a place to put in for the night, I don't just fancy anchoring here on the open water in this fog. And as to going on, what's the use, when a big city looms up a few miles ahead? We couldn't get past it without cribbing on the time that doesn't count. So keep your eyes on the watch for anything that looks like a creek."

They often saw the gaping mouths of these little tributaries that emptied their flow of water into the Mississippi; and Jack hoped such would be the case now, when they were in sore need of a harbor.

When therefore Jimmie presently announced that he believed the signs were favorable ahead the skipper of the Tramp rejoiced.

"I only hope it's a decent creek, and has some bully good places for keeping out of sight," Jack declared, as he headed for the opening near by.

Jimmie knew what was on his mind, for they had talked this matter over with the other fellows more than once. Jack had read lots about the great Father of Waters, and knew what a highway it has been for scores of years to a class of criminals who are fleeing from justice.

Of course there are many honest men on the numerous shanty boats that float down the river, tying up from time to time at some landing, or hunting a friendly creek mouth in which to pass the night. At the same time thousands use the water highway as a means for eluding pursuit. It offers such an easy method of fleeing, after committing a robbery, or breaking the law in some other way, that the honest traveler must needs keep his eyes about him constantly while floating on the bosom of the mighty Mississippi.

The creek proved to be everything Jack could wish.

"This is all right," he said, after they had moved up its tortuous channel for a little distance, until, coming to a promising spot where trees and bushes chanced to screen them, the boat was stopped. "We'll call this our camp for the night, Jimmie, and proceed to make ourselves as comfortable as the law allows."

"No going ashore to cook dinner this night," remarked Jimmie, as he surveyed the dripping trees close by.

"Well," said Jack, "let's be thankful that we've got such a bully old tarpaulin to keep the wet off. Suppose we get busy right away with it? The sooner it's up the quicker we can shake these nasty oilskins; though I hadn't ought to run them down, because they've served us well today, and kept us dry as toast. I don't believe you could get wet if you tried, in these Fish suits."

"Aw! Buster did!" observed the other, with a droll chuckle.

"You're right, he certainly did. But then I didn't mean if you took a header overboard. Now, up with your end, Jimmie, and fasten it snug. I've got mine ready; and in a few shakes of a lamb's tail we'll be able to laugh at the weather."

"And, worse luck, now that we've stopped runnin' it looks like it's goin' to clear up, so it do," grumbled the other.

"All right," laughed the skipper, "we can stand it. So much the better, because we've got a big run ahead tomorrow, to make up for the time lost today. I'd give a cooky to know just where the other boats are right now. I only hope nothing has happened to either—at least nothing serious; because there's just bound to be something going amiss with that engine on the Wireless nearly every day she runs."

Presently the cover was in place, and tautly secured. Under its shelter both boys doffed their waterproofs and made things look more shipshape. Jimmie, as usual, was more than ready to get to work with that dandy little Juwel kerosene gas contraption; and its cheery humming soon told that supper was under way.

Jack meanwhile found plenty to do in rearranging things in the boat; for during a day such as they had just endured makeshifts are in order.

Under Jack's schooling Jimmie was beginning to improve in his cooking; and as he took more or less pride in the results, there was some hope for him; whereas with Buster it was a thankless task.

They had a few eggs left, and these were made into quite a tasty omelette. Then a can of corn was opened, to be heated in a saucepan. This, with a pannikin of tea, and some baker's cakes, constituted their meal. And as both boys were quite hungry they enjoyed every particle of the same.

"While they were eating Jack had heard sounds that annoyed him.

"I'm afraid we're pretty close to a road, Jimmie," he had remarked. "And I only hope no curious party spies the light of our lantern inside the tent here. I'm not at all anxious to pick up acquaintances."

"So say we all of us, Jack, me bye," the other had replied promptly.

As the sounds of vehicles passing were heard at frequent intervals the boys determined not to keep the lantern lighted very long after they had prepared their beds for the night. Sometimes it was their habit to sit up, and read or talk; but this seemed to be an occasion when it would be better to crawl in under their blankets and get all the sleep they could, looking forward to a busy day on the morrow.

"It's eight o'clock!" announced Jack, finally, with a yawn; and as that had been the time set for retiring, he prepared to "douse the glim" as he termed it, in sailor's parlance.

"Let her go!" remarked his boatmate, as he snuggled down in his place.

They were of course confined to rather scant space; and many persons might have found it hard to sleep soundly when in such close quarters. But healthy boys can stand for almost anything, and think it fun.

So Jack, having arranged his own bed, crawled in, after which he reached out his hand to extinguish the lantern. One last look he took at the Marlin shotgun that he had brought along, in the hope and expectation that he might find use for it during the long cruise. It was hanging from a couple of pegs just under the coaming of the deck, and by simply raising his hand he could touch it.

Somehow the very presence of that reliable little shooter seemed to give Jack a sense of security when they found themselves marooned in an exceedingly lonely place, with the darkness shutting them in as with a curtain, and unknown perils impending.

Once the light went out the boys lay there and talked in low tones for perhaps a full hour. They had much to confer about, with the uncertain future beckoning them on; and the main history of the cruise yet to be written.

The last thing Jack remembered hearing as he passed into the land of sleep was a vehicle rumbling over the bridge that evidently spanned the creek some little distance above.

Then he knew no more for some time.

The little launch floated on the bosom of the creek, fastened to the shore. At times she heaved gently, as some wave of larger proportions than usual came in from the river, possibly caused by a passing steamboat's suction. But by this time the boys were getting accustomed to this sort of thing. One night afloat had taken off the newness for them, and they could sleep now through any ordinary motion.

Something digging him in the ribs aroused Jack. Then a voice whispered in his ear, and he knew that it was Jimmie.

"Jack, wake up! I hear voices beyand, and I do belave the thaves of the worrld are comin' to clane us out, so I do!"

"'Sh!" was all Jack made reply; but at the same instant his hand groped for the reliable gun so close at hand.

Once this was in his possession he gently lifted the flap of the waterproof tent that covered the boat; for he knew just where to find this loose portion, left so for an emergency of this sort.

The storm had departed, and the sky was now clear. While it was far from light without, still to Jack's eyes things looked fairly plain. And the first thing he saw seemed to be moving figures, two of them, that were creeping toward the tied-up motor boat.

Now and then they would pause, and then low and significant whispers would follow. Jack felt a thrill pass over his frame as he began to quietly thrust the muzzle of the shotgun through the opening of the tent. He did not intend to aim at the prowlers of course, but hoped the sudden shot might give them a good fright.

Jimmie was creeping toward the bow, as if desirous of seeing all that went on; when Jack, feeling that he was certainly privileged to defend his property against pirates, pulled the trigger which his trembling finger had been pressing; and a sudden roar awoke the echoes of the night.



CHAPTER VI.

STARTLING NEWS FROM NEAR HOME.

"Run, ye spalpeens, run wid ye!" whooped Jimmie, as he thrust his tousled red head through the opening at the bow.

Jack was prepared to repeat the shooting part of the business if there seemed any necessity; and perhaps the next time he would not be so particular about aiming so as to miss the prowlers.

But he immediately saw that there would be no need, for already the pair of would-be thieves could be heard crashing madly through the undergrowth, in the endeavor to make a safe getaway.

Jimmie continued to send derisive shouts after them until Jack advised that he had better bottle up the balance of his enthusiasm.

"But did ye say how they tumbled over wan another whin ye let go?" demanded the Irish lad, gleefully.

"Well," remarked the skipper, dryly, "I noticed that they never waited to leave us a visiting card. And Jimmie, this proves how wise I was to fetch my gun along. I'd advise every fellow who intends to knock about along this river to have some way of defending himself in case of need."

With which remark Jack slipped a new shell into the chamber of his double barrel shotgun.

"Did ye pepper thim good and hot?" asked Jimmie, presently.

"Oh! no, I didn't want to do that," said Jack, quickly. "We really had no business to shoot straight at them unless they were coming aboard. I just aimed close enough to give them a good scare. And I think I did the right thing, too."

"By the powers, I bet ye they're runnin' yit!" ventured his boatmate, confidently.

"They must have hit the road by this time. I only hope they won't think to come back for another turn," Jack observed, thoughtfully.

"No fear of that, I wager," laughed the Irish lad. "Sure, thim gossoons know whin the stick is loaded, and they'll niver return to say what it was wint off. Make your moind aisy about that, Jackey, me bye."

The boys lay down again, but Jack could not sleep.

"I don't like this thing," he said, finally, sitting up. "And it would be better for us to take turns watching. In that way we'll have some sleep; and as it is, I don't feel as if I could get a wink. The idea of waking up to find a couple of greasy hoboes in possession of our boat gives me a chill."

Jimmie announced himself as favoring the plan, and declared that he was ready to stand his watch either then or later, just as Jack decided.

And so it was arranged. The balance of the night was divided into two equal parts, and in this way both of the cruisers managed to obtain a few hours sleep.

Nothing happened after all, and Jimmie must have been right when he declared that the pair of thieves had been so badly frightened when the gun went off so unexpectedly that nothing could induce them to return to the attack.

All the same Jack was glad to see that it was broad daylight when he awoke. He found, just as he might have expected, Jimmie at work getting breakfast. Indeed, it may have been the delightful aroma of coffee and bacon that helped awaken him, for the interior of the tent was fragrant with the combination.

Eight o'clock came, and they started from the creek, passing the city shortly afterward. If their visitors of the preceding night saw them come out they were sensible enough not to disclose their identity; though Jimmie did declare he saw two men who might be tramps watching them from behind the trees below the mouth of the friendly creek.

There were numerous boats upon the river, but although Jack used his glasses to advantage he could pick up no clue to either the Wireless or the Comfort.

The day was nice and clear after the fog and rain.

"Here's where we hit it up to make time, and pay for the slow traveling yesterday," the pilot announced, when he coaxed the steady going little motor to do its prettiest.

At noon they had reeled off something like sixty-odd miles, the current having assisted very much in advancing the boat.

Keokuk had been passed, and they were now aiming to reach Quincy by the middle of the afternoon. Just below this place the second station had been marked; and if, as was to be expected, George and Buster had arrived ahead of them, they might anticipate being signaled to draw in.

"It's right funny we don't say anything of the other byes at all," remarked Jimmie, while they were pushing steadily along, the engine working with clock-like fidelity, and never missing a stroke.

"Oh! I don't look at it that way. Unless some accident happens to George there's never the least chance that we can look in on him in that racer. And the same applies to the Comfort—if we go on as we have, they can never hope to catch up with us. And there you are," and Jack laughed as he spoke.

"Ye mane that we're betwixt the divel and the dape say," observed Jimmie, with one of his chuckles.

"Oh! now that's going it pretty steep," Jack protested. "The Comfort might come under the head of deep sea, or anything else that's big and slow and reliable; but it's pretty hard calling George's boat by that other name. But there's another railroad bridge across the river far below, unless the glass fools me. And if so, this must be Quincy just beyond."

"Hurrah! thin, we've arrived at the ind of the sicond stage of the journey, and right side up wid care. If ye choose to hand me the glass, Jack, I'll be afther lookin' for signs of the sassy little Wireless."

But it was some time after they had passed under the bridge spanning the Mississippi that Jimmie was able to announce that he believed he had discovered the object of his search.

"Let me have a look," remarked Jack; and a minute later he went on: "There's a boat of some sort anchored close to the shore down there, and the sun shines on her just as it does on the varnished deck of the Wireless. Yes, I do believe that's our peerless leader, as George is so fond of saying. I'm glad to know they've got here all safe and sound."

Shortly afterward they heard the sound of a horn, and Jimmie answered with a few vigorous blasts on the conch shell, which had its apex sawed off to admit of a certain amount of air; though some practice was necessary before one could produce a far reaching note.

"Thought you'd never get here," said George, as the Tramp swung in alongside so that the rival crews could shake hands, which they did heartily.

It turned out that luck had highly favored the leading boat. They had escaped any catastrophe on the river, even though making fast, and possibly reckless time. And wonderful to relate, not once had the engine broken down since last the boats separated.

"That's good news!" exclaimed Jack, when he heard this; and there was not a trace of envy or malice in his hearty tone. "That would be fine, if only it kept up all the rest of the trip, eh, Buster?"

"It would be just heavenly," sighed the fat boy; "but I don't expect it. I know that measly old engine all right; and I just bet you she's holding in so as to get a good whack at us when she does let go. My! all I hope is, that the blamed thing don't go up the flue, and scatter us around. I seriously object to getting wet as a regular diet."

"I wonder if the other boat will get here by four?" George ventured; but none of them pretended to be a prophet, and so his question remained unanswered.

When the time arrived there was still no sign of the Comfort. Another hour passed, two of them, and the boys were growing anxious, with many looks cast up the river.

It had been arranged that if one of the boats had to run "after hours" in order to join the others at a station, the time stolen should be charged against that craft's record. And this was how it came that they were hoping the third boat might yet appear.

But the darkness gathered around them, and they had to give it up for that day, since they had all promised their folks at home never to run at night except under an actual necessity.

There being no creek handy the two motor boats remained where they were, with their mudhooks holding them steady against the never ceasing flow of the current.

They were close enough to shake hands, though when it came time for sleep the one nearer the shore hauled off fifty feet or more, so that there might be smaller chances of a collision.

Nothing occurred during that night to alarm them, though Nick professed to feel nervous, after having heard of the adventure which Jack and Jimmie had met with on the other occasion.

In the morning they did not hurry, for they could not leave that station until the arrival of the third craft, no matter if it meant several days' delay, such being the conditions of the Dixie cup race.

"There they come!" whooped Nick, after they had finished breakfast; he had been looking through the glasses which George owned, and of course his thrilling words quite electrified the others.

"You're right, Buster; that's the steady old Comfort, all the same," said Jack, as he too leveled his marine glasses up-river way.

"She rides like a big goose," laughed George.

"But mighty comfortable, all the same," sighed Nick, mechanically rubbing his fat haunches as though they still felt sore from contact with the sides of the narrow boat, while trying to sleep.

When the steady-going launch brought up alongside, many inquiries were made as to what had detained them so long.

"Lots of trouble," Herb replied, readily enough; "not with the engine, for she never missed a note; but Josh here got cold feet after a steamboat shaved us, and made me cut down speed, so we hardly did more than crawl with the current for hours. Yesterday we boomed along, trying to make the riffle in time; but finding we couldn't, we just stopped about ten miles above for the night."

"And then as we came into Quincy I went ashore to see if there was any mail. A letter for each of us, Nick, and only a paper for Jack," with which Josh handed over the articles in question.

As the two boys had not eaten any breakfast, it was decided to wait for them. Jack after a bit picked up the home paper, and idly started to open it.

The others immediately heard him utter an exclamation, and looking up, saw that he seemed to be eagerly reading something he had discovered.

"Well, I declare, if that just don't beat the Dutch!" he remarked.

"What does?" cried Nick, all excitement. "Has John Guthrie got new shingles on his barn; or was old Weatherby seen at church for the first time in ten years?"

"Yes," added Josh, "don't keep us waiting so long, Jack. Go on and tell us what excites you so. Nobody ain't got twins, have they?"

"Say, fellows, it's happened at last. You know the bank over at Waverly? Well, it's been robbed—cleaned out, the paper says, and thousands taken. May bust the bank up, if they don't get the thieves. And what do you think, they say they believe the two men who did the job have gone down river in a motor boat!"

"A motor boat!" shouted the rest in unison.

"Listen while I read about it, and then tell me what you think about this description of a suspicious craft that was seen leaving the river front between midnight and Tuesday morning," saying which he went on to read the account, while all the others sat there in suspense, drinking in the news, since they knew that bank in the thriving town mentioned very well.

"Hear what that reporter says about the suspicious motor boat," said Jack, in conclusion. "Now, fellows, what craft does that make you think of?"

"The Tramp!" sang out Nick, immediately.

"Yes, Jack," said George, soberly. "It sure hits your boat to a T. I only hope it don't get you fellows into a peck of trouble, that's all!"

But it did, all the same.



CHAPTER VII.

QUITE A SURPRISE PARTY.

"I say, George, remember me telling you about that suspicious boat I saw across near the other shore just after we got settled last night?" said Josh.

"Hold on," returned George, quickly. "You don't mean it that way, Josh. To hear you talk the fellows might think we were running after hours. Fact is, we reached our stopping place at just ten minutes of four. How was that for a swift run on a foggy day, one hundred and thirty miles? And it was just before dusk when the rain let up, that Josh said he glimpsed a boat that looked like the Tramp, sneaking along down close by the Missouri bank."

"Yes, sneaking, that's the word I used," declared Josh, positively; "because, you see, there was something about the way it went on that made me think the crew didn't want to attract attention. Of course I knew right away it wasn't our crowd. But after hearing what Jack read I'd just like to bet that was the thief boat."

"Oh! well, there are heaps of motor boats on the old Mississippi," laughed Jack, "and I guess the same company that made mine have sold a dozen of the same model in Illinois and Missouri. Still, it might be as you say, Josh. And perhaps it will pay all of us to keep an eye out for these slippery customers."

"What would you do if you happened to come on the boat like yours?" asked Nick.

"That depends," replied Jack, seriously. "If I felt positive the men aboard were the chaps who broke open the Waverly bank I'd try to let the authorities know. But they must be pretty hard cases, and I'd go mighty slow about trying to grab such customers myself. I'm not hired to play the part of detective or sheriff. All that stuff I leave to the proper officials."

"How do we stand on this second leg, Jack?" asked George.

"I've just been figuring it up," replied the other, referring to his notebook. "It seems that the speed boat made the run in just ten hours of actual work. We did the same in fourteen hours, twelve minutes; and the steady old Comfort in eighteen hours, seven minutes. That's as near correct as it could be figured."

George beamed with gratification.

"Shake, partner," he said, thrusting out a hand to Nick, who looked at him suspiciously, then examined his hand, and finally gingerly allowed the other to take hold of a couple of his pudgy fingers.

"You see, we've more than wiped out our first day's loss, and have a nice little balance in the bargain," George went on.

"Yes," laughed Jack, "and a balance is a handy thing to have, whether in a bank or in a record of days' runs during a long race. I congratulate you, fellows, and hope you may duplicate the performance."

Herb and Josh seemed in no wise cast down over the poor showing their boat had made up to date.

"Just you wait," observed the former, positively. "Perhaps we've got a card or two up our sleeves. We don't tell everything we know, do we, Josh? And long ago I learned that the race is not always to the swift."

"Yes," added his comrade in misfortune, "and it's a long lane that has no turning. Anyhow, we didn't make any big brag about what we were goin' to do when we set out; so you see nobody's going to be disappointed even if we get left. I'm enjoyin' every minute of the time; and that's more'n some fellers could say," with a meaning look in the direction of poor fat Nick, who winced, and shook his fist at the speaker.

It was all of nine o'clock when Jack got the three boats in line, and had Jimmie toot his conch shell horn as a starting signal.

History repeated itself again that day.

The speed boat shot off like a greyhound released from bonds, the Comfort wheezed along amiably in the rear, and Jack's craft took up a midway course. Thus for two hours and more the crew of the Tramp could watch both competing craft. Then the narrow beamed Wireless seemed to melt out of sight in the dim distance, nor could Jimmie pick her up again, though several times he thought he glimpsed her.

Half an hour later, and the other boat had also passed from their ken, swallowed up in the little wavelets that covered the surface of the rapidly growing river; for they were now approaching the spot where the mighty flood of the Missouri joined forces with the swollen current of the Mississippi, to boom along toward the sunny land of Dixie.

Then they came to where the great city of St. Louis stood. It required considerable and careful maneuvering to pass safely among the various river craft they found moving about on the Mississippi at this important port; but Jack was a keen-eyed pilot, and knew just how to handle his boat, so that they managed to get by without any serious trouble, though whistled at by tugs and ferryboats as they bravely cut along.

The running time was pretty well up when they saw the last of the metropolis of the Middle West.

"One hour only, and then we must pull up, Jimmie," remarked the skipper.

"'Tis mesilf that's glad to hear the same," replied the other, with a wry look on his freckled face, and one hand pressing against his stomach, as if to call attention to its flat condition; for they had only eaten sparingly at noon.

"You might be keeping a lookout for a harbor," remarked Jack; but not with any great amount of animation.

Truth to tell, he was wondering whether after all it paid to leave the river and hide up one of those gloomy looking creeks, where all sorts of dangers might be lying in wait.

"I hope as how we don't have the same luck we had before," grumbled Jimmie, who apparently had not forgotten the experience either.

After that he was constantly on the job of looking ahead for signs of a creek.

"If we don't find the same, thin what?" he asked, when half an hour had passed without any favorable result from his critical survey of the nearby shore; creeks he could see in plenty; but none that seemed navigable for a boat drawing as much water as their craft; and Jack meant to take no chances of being held fast in the mud on a falling river.

"Why, we'll just have to stick it out, and anchor. But there's a point below us that looks favorable, Jimmie, where the brush is heaped up on a sandbar. Unless I'm greatly mistaken the signs point to a fair-sized opening there."

And just as Jack said it proved to be just what they were looking for.

"This looks better to me," remarked the skipper as they turned in. "Plenty of elbow room here. We can go up a little ways, and then anchor right in the middle of the stream. We'll be free from the wash of the big New Orleans and St. Louis packets, that nearly upsets our little boat."

"Yis," added Jimmie, "and just be afther sayin' how dape the water is, Jack, me bye. 'Twould take a hobo with mighty long legs to wade out here, and crawl aboord our boat."

"All the same," replied the skipper with grim determination, "it's another case of four watches during the night, of two hours at a stretch."

The mudhook was soon down, and good holding ground found. While Jack busied himself rubbing up the faithful little engine that was serving them so well, and afterwards poring over the maps of the river he had secured for each pilot in the long race to New Orleans, the cook wrestled with supper.

It was a congenial task for Jimmie, and he often sang as he worked. Jack liked to hear Jimmie warble, for he had a voice like a bird, clear and sweet, though wholly untrained.

"Another good day takes us below Cairo, and the mouth of the big Ohio," Jack announced after a while; to which the cook added his blessings, and hoped everything would run to their liking.

It was five o'clock when they sat down to supper. Jimmie had spread himself to some purpose on this occasion; that is to say, he had made a fine stew out of some corned beef taken from a tin, the balance of the corn, left from a previous meal, but removed from the can after opening, in order to avoid danger of ptomaine poisoning, and a couple of cold potatoes cut up into small pieces.

Then he had also opened a can of peaches, to top off with; and they also devoured the last piece of homemade gingerbread, carried from the start.

"This is simply great," observed Jack, as he sighed while looking at his share of the dessert, as though doubtful regarding his capacity.

But no such fears ever assailed Jimmie, who could run even Buster a race when it came to doing "stunts" along the line of eating.

"I wonder if there could be any other boat above us?" Jack ventured after a little while spent in chatting, as night set in.

"Sure, now, ye must have seen the same thing I did," declared the other, quickly.

"Do you mean to say you noticed that small piece of cotton waste floating on a bit of board just at dusk?" demanded Jack, curiously.

"I did that, and have been badgerin' me moind about the same iver since. Truth to till, I was jist about mentionin' it to ye whin ye spoke," Jimmie declared.

"H'm. Well, I've been figuring it out this way. There's a distinct current setting out of this big creek. You can see that by the way our boat hangs with her bow upstream. All right. Then it stands to reason that that piece of waste was thrown over at some point above. And then again, it looks as if the other craft might be a motor boat, for some one has been wiping the engine off. There was fresh oil on that waste. I could see it passing off on the surface of the water."

Jimmie fairly gasped in his great surprise.

"Did I iver hear the loike?" he said. "Next ye'll be tillin' me the kind of boat it is, I'm thinkin'. Looky here, Jack, ye don't guess now that it could be that same dhirty craft that was spoken of in the newspaper—the one as looked like the dear ould Tramp?"

"Oh! there would hardly be one chance in twenty of that happening," laughed the other. "Just think of both boats picking out this very creek, of the scores there may be south of St. Louis? Oh! that would be too funny for anything. It's just a plain motor boat, I reckon; and those aboard don't want to make our acquaintance any more than we do theirs. So there you are."

Jack pretended to dismiss the idea lightly; but nevertheless it remained with him during the balance of that evening, to give him more or less cause for speculation and anxiety.

At nine he bade Jimmie go to sleep, as he would sit up until eleven, when he promised to awaken the other. So the Irish lad, confident that no evil would befall them while Jack stood watch, curled up in his blanket, and presently his heavy breathing announced that he had found solace in slumber.

Promptly at eleven Jack aroused him, and handing over the gun, with positive directions that he was to be called if anything suspicious arose, he in turn took to his blanket on the bottom of the cockpit of the boat.

Why, it seemed that he had hardly lost his senses when he felt Jimmie shaking him. Just as before the Irish boy was whispering in his ear.

"Wake up, Jack; there's a boat comin' this way!" was what he heard.

"Why," replied the skipper, as he bounced up, "it sounds as if it might be coming in from the river! I can hear the stroke of oars, a lot of them, too."

As the two boys poked their heads out of the canvas cover that served as a tent over the open boat, they could easily see the advancing boat.

"Glory be!" murmured the amazed Jimmie, "we're in a nice pickle, now, Jack. Sure there's half a dozen of the gossoons, if there's one. And by the powers, look at 'em heading this way, too! What will we do, Jack? Lit me have the gun, if so be ye don't want to shoot!"

"Wait!" replied Jack, sternly. "We'll see if we can hold them back first. Perhaps, when they see that we mean business and are armed, they may haul off."

Nearer came the boat. It could now be seen that those who handled the oars were trying to make less noise, as though desirous of not arousing the sleepers they expected to take by surprise.

Suddenly Jack called out as sternly as he could:

"Stop there! or it will be the worse for you!"

He also waved the gun that the starlight might glint from its barrel, and show the men in the boat they were not unarmed.

A man stood up in the bow of the advancing craft, and a heavy voice shouted:

"It's all up with you, men. You are known, and we demand you to surrender in the name of the law!"



CHAPTER VIII.

LEFT IN THE LURCH.

The two young cruisers in the motor boat could not say a single word when these astounding words reached their ears.

Meanwhile the other craft had drawn quickly nearer, and Jack could even make out the fact that the men crowded in her seemed to be in some sort of uniform, for he certainly discovered brass buttons.

Then it was not a joke, nor yet some sort of trick being played by cunning river vagrants in order to catch the boys off their guard.

Jimmie was rubbing his eyes, and muttering to himself, as though he began to believe he might be dreaming.

"Don't think of offering any resistance, you rascals!" continued the gruff voice in the nearby boat; "because we're ready to give you a volley. Take hold there, Grogan. Now aboard with you!"

A couple of burly men came sliding into the natty little motor boat. Then lights flashed in the faces of the two astonished occupants.

"Say, they're a couple of boys, Cap!" exclaimed the man who had grasped hold of Jack, as the glow of his lantern illuminated the face of the skipper of the Tramp.

"Guess you've made a little mistake, mister," remarked the boy, as calmly as he could, for he was naturally more or less excited.

"Hold on there!" bellowed the leader of the expedition, as he started to clamber aboard; "don't let up on 'em a minute, men! Just remember the account said something about the thieves being young chaps, with smooth faces. This is the boat to a dot; and I reckon we've got our men!"

But even he was more or less shaken when he came to look into the smiling countenance of Jack Stormways.

"Take a look around," he said, presently. "Perhaps you may find the evidence we want, and the plunder. These are the days of the young men. I've known mere kids to undertake jobs that long ago would have staggered old professionals."

While two of the men were upsetting things in their eager search, the man who had been called "Captain" once more turned to Jack.

"Who are you fellows, where'd you come from, and what are you doing here up this creek?" he demanded, harshly, as though expecting to scare the other into a confession of guilt.

"My name is Jack Stormways, and his is Jimmie Brannagan. We are on our way south on a little race to New Orleans. There are two other motor boats in the match, and a prize of the Dixie silver cup falls to the winner."

"Well, you've got that down fine, anyhow," remarked the big officer, with what sounded like a sneer. "Perhaps it's the truth, and again it may be all hatched up to pull the wool over the eyes of honest officers. What would you think if I told you there was a thousand dollars reward out for each of you if taken; and five times that if the swag is found intact?"

"I'd think some one was valuing me pretty high, considering that I've never as yet done anything to make it worth while capturing me," replied Jack, pleasantly.

His manner was apparently having an effect on the burly officer, who again surveyed the face of the boy by the aid of his own dark lantern. The two men were all this while making a sad mess of things in the boat, turning waterproof clothes bags inside out, upsetting the stores so neatly packed away in order to give all the room possible, and making things look "sick" as Jimmie afterwards observed.

"What's that you've got, Grogan?" suddenly demanded the captain, as he saw one of the others looking closely at something he had picked up.

"A newspaper with something marked by a blue pencil, Cap," replied the other. "And by the powers, if it ain' an account of that Waverly robbery, too!"

Immediately the captain became severe again, and shot a triumphant look at the boy, even as he let a heavy hand fall on Jack's shoulder.

"Say you so, Grogan?" he exclaimed. "Hold it out here, so I can see. Well, now, that looks like a find worth while. A paper with a marked account of the bank robbery, and in the possession of these innocent boys. How would you account for such a thing, my fine fellow?"

"Nothing easier, Captain," replied Jack, readily. "You never heard that we belong in that little town where the paper is published. I've been in that bank more than a few times when over in Waverly on business."

"Sure you have; ain't that just what we're saying?" declared the man named Grogan.

"Keep still, Grogan, and let me do the talking. Go on, young fellow; tell how the paper chances to come in your possession, and who marked it?" the one in authority continued.

"I suppose my father marked that with a blue pencil, because he knew all of us would be deeply interested. Besides, when we read the description of the mysterious motor boat we recognized that it was a ringer for my own little Tramp here."

Grogan was apparently inclined to be incredulous. While he dared not break in again with any remark of his own, he took occasion to sniff as loudly as he could, and in this manner show his utter disbelief in the story given out by the skipper of the craft they had boarded.

"Then the paper came by mail?" continued the captain, as he examined it again.

"Surely," replied Jack. "One of my companions got it at Quincy, where others received letters; but this was the only thing for me. You can see the creases plain enough, where it was folded several times."

"Yes," the other went on, cautiously; "it has that appearance, though any smart chap could do the same thing if he had his wits about him. But I suppose you boys can easily prove you are what you claim?"

"Sure we kin!" spoke up Jimmie just then. "Give me the chanct, and I'll show ye lots of things to prove I niver had but the one name, and that was Jimmie Brannagan."

"There's another thing I just thought of, Captain," Jack broke in with.

"Well, let's have it then. For unless you satisfy me that you're the parties you say I shall consider it my duty to take this boat back with me, and both of you boys in the bargain."

"Let me have the paper, please," said Jack. "Officer Grogan didn't look inside, or he might have seen another article, marked with a blue pencil too."

"Look out, Cap," warned the suspicious one; "mebbe he just wants to tear it into finders [Transcriber's note: flinders?], and destroy incriminating evidence."

"Give him the paper, Grogan; I'll be responsible for its safety," returned the captain, who seemed to be drawn more and more toward a belief in Jack's innocence; for there was something in the clear gray eyes that met his gaze to convince him that this lad could never be a desperate criminal.

So Jack turned the local sheet inside out.

"There it is, Captain; please read it, and see if you can believe what I told you to be the truth," and Jack thrust the paper into the other's grasp.

"What's this?" exclaimed the burly officer, as he read, "an account of a race to the Crescent City, in which six young fellows, well known to most of the readers of this paper, have entered, the prize to be a magnificent silver cup donated by Mr. Stormways, the father of the skipper of the Tramp!"

Grogan uttered a disgusted grunt, as if keenly disappointed because apparently he had made a dismal failure in trying to fasten the robbery upon these two lads. Doubtless he had been figuring on what he would do with his share of the prize money, and hated to see his rosy visions fade away so soon.

"And this is that same little Tramp, sir," continued Jack, pleasantly; "as you can see for yourself if you take a look at the stern, where the name is painted in gold letters. We are unfortunate enough in having a boat that seems to resemble the one supposed to have been used in their flight down the river by the robbers. But if you care to wait long enough for me to get out some letters I have, I am sure you will be convinced of our entire innocence."

"Say no more, Jack," declared the captain, heartily. "I'm satisfied right now that we've been misinformed when told that a boat answering the description of the one in which those two yeggmen fled, was seen to enter here this afternoon; and that two young men were aboard her."

"What time in the afternoon, Captain?" asked Jack, quietly, though with a purpose in the question.

"The man who talked to me over the phone, said he had arrived in the suburb where he lived at four o'clock. He had been out in his motor, and was crossing a bridge here when the boat passed under, going up. He could not be sure to the minute, but reckoned that was somewhere around two p. m."

Jack turned to Jimmie. His face shone with eagerness, for a faint suspicion that had been creeping into his head was now rapidly becoming a certainty.

"Tell the captain, Jimmie, when we came in this creek," he said, quietly.

"Twelve minutes till four, it was, sir," replied Jimmie, promptly.

"Oh! what made you take such exact notice of the time, may I ask?" the officer went on, curiously, though plainly interested.

"We are compelled to make a memorandum of our stoppings. The conditions of the race forbid any boat to be moving south before eight in the morning, or after four in the afternoon. So I can show you in my notebook how an exact record is kept of such things. It will be figured on when the race is decided. We are going by stations you see, Captain, that are about two hundred miles apart. At each station we wait for the slowest boat, and then make a new start."

"It was about four-twenty when the gentleman called me up," observed the police officer; "and he had a long way around to go after leaving here. He could never have made it if it was your boat he saw."

"There's another thing, Captain," said Jack, smiling.

"Please let me hear what it is, my boy," returned the other, eagerly now, for he was beginning to comprehend that this was no ordinary young chap with whom an error of judgment had thrown him in contact.

"Did the gentleman in the auto say that the motor boat went under the bridge at the time he saw it?" Jack pursued.

"That's just what he did say," replied the captain. "Of course he only had one quick look as his machine traveled over the bridge crossing the creek; but even then it seemed to him the boat had a familiar look. And then, later on it suddenly dawned on him that it just fitted a description he had been reading in a St. Louis paper about the mysterious motor boat of the bank thieves."

"All right, Captain. We have not been up as far as the bridge, as we anchored right here when we came in. But, Captain," Jack continued, earnestly, "both of us believed at the time that there must be some sort of a motor boat up yonder, for we saw a piece of oiled waste floating down on a chip of wood, as if some one had been wiping an engine, and thrown it aside."

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