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The doughty captain had not escaped unscathed. A swollen black eye and a bleeding nose bore eloquent testimony to the force and accuracy of Jim's blows. A guard on each side and another behind were soon propelling Spurling toward the open door. From within came the ceaseless click of a telegraph instrument. Throppy was still calling the cutter. Jim heard the quick patter of the continental code; Brittler heard it, too, and understood. He sprang forward with a shout of alarm.
"They've got a wireless! Smash it!"
A buffet on the side of the head knocked Stevens off his soap-box and sent him rolling on the floor. Five seconds later a crashing blow from a stick of firewood put the instrument out of commission. Brittler poised his club threateningly over the prostrate Stevens.
"Wish I knew if you've been able to get a message through to anybody! If I thought you had--"
He did not finish, but half-raised the stick, then dropped it again and turned away. One by one the remaining members of Spurling & Company were bundled unceremoniously into the cabin. Then the door was slammed shut and two men with automatics were stationed on guard outside.
"Don't shoot unless you have to," instructed Brittler's voice, purposely raised. "And remember a bullet in the leg'll stop a man just as quick as one through the body."
And then in a tone lower, but perfectly audible to those inside:
"But don't stand any fooling! Stop 'em anyway! You know as well as I do how much we've got at stake."
Defeated and imprisoned in their own camp, the boys faced one another dazedly. Though none of the five had suffered serious injury in the scuffle, all were more or less bruised. Lane had a slight cut where the back of his head had come in contact with a sharp stone on the beach; and a swelling on Jim's right cheek told where the hard fist of one of his a.s.sailants had landed.
Outside, the two guards conversed in low tones; but for a few minutes no one spoke or moved in the cabin. The boys sat on the boxes or had thrown themselves into their bunks. Elbow on table, chin resting in palm, Jim was buried in thought. In a short time, he knew, Brittler and his gang would sail away in the _Barracouta_. They would land their human cargo and probably scuttle the sloop. Somehow they must be thwarted; but how?
The boys had no weapons to match those of their armed guard. Without ammunition, the shot-gun was but a bar of iron. How could they cope with the bullets in the automatics? Undoubtedly every smuggler carried a revolver, and would use it in a pinch; possibly some might not wait until the pinch came. It was a knotty problem. The drops oozed out on Jim's forehead as he wrestled for its solution.
A low whistle fell on his ear. He glanced toward Percy's bunk and saw the latter's hand raised in warning; he was taking off his shoes, quickly and noiselessly. Why? Jim and the others watched.
Soon Percy stood in his stocking feet. He pulled out his knife and opened the large blade. Stooping low, he stole toward the farther end of the cabin. The window there was open and covered with mosquito netting.
Steps grated on the pebbles outside. One of the guards was making a circuit of the camp. Percy flattened himself on the floor directly beneath the window. The others, hardly daring to breathe, looked away.
The man paused for a moment; Jim knew that he was peering in. Apparently satisfied that all was well, he resumed his patrol.
Without delay Percy rose. He drew his knife along the netting near the sill, then cut it from top to bottom on each side, close to the frame.
So skilfully did the keen blade do its work that the screen hung apparently undisturbed.
The guards began talking again. Placing one of the boxes silently under the window, and stepping upon it, Percy slipped through the opening. His light build enabled him to drop to the ground without making any noise.
The netting fell back and hung as before.
Outside, it was thick fog; a slight drizzle was beginning. It was impossible to see further than a few feet. But the last two months had familiarized Percy with every square yard of the beach, and he could have found his way along it blindfold. Cat-footed, he stole down toward the water.
Steps approached, voices; he halted, ready for a hasty retreat. But the feet receded toward the cabin, and he had no difficulty in recognizing the tones of Dolph and Brittler. The latter was in a bad humor.
"Now," he growled, "we've got a long way to go, and none too much time.
Every minute we waste here means just so much off the other end. Granted we reach the mainland all right, we'll have to hustle to slip those c.h.i.n.ks under cover before daylight. You'd better round 'em up in that fish-house, so none of 'em'll stray away and keep us from starting the second the sloop's ready. We've got to make sure there's plenty of gas aboard, as well as a compa.s.s and chart. I'll see if I can scare up a couple of lanterns."
The two separated, Dolph evidently going to look after the Chinese, while Brittler kept on toward the cabin. Percy stood stock-still, his heart thumping. Would the captain discover his absence?
"How's everything here, boys?" hailed Brittler.
"All quiet," replied one of the sentries.
"Come inside with me, Herb, so these fellows won't try any funny business."
The door opened. Percy felt a thrill of fear. How could they fail to notice there were only four prisoners in the camp?
But their captors evidently had not the least suspicion that he had escaped. Probably they thought he was lying in one of the bunks. He could hear the voices of Brittler and Jim, the one questioning, angry, and menacing, the other tantalizingly deliberate as he grudgingly gave the information demanded. Percy delayed no longer. He had his own work to do, and it demanded all his energy.
Down he stole to the water's edge, then followed it west until he reached a sloping rock. The _Barracouta_, he knew, was moored not fifty feet out in the black fog.
Without hesitating a second Percy waded in, and soon was swimming quietly toward the sloop. He had not dared to take one of the boats, for fear the grating of her keel on the beach or the sound of her oars might betray him. He cleft the water noiselessly, and it was not long before he grasped the _Barracouta's_ bobstay and hoisted himself aboard.
Dropping down the companionway, he groped forward through the cabin to the little door leading into the bow, and crept in on hands and knees.
His fingers found what he wanted, an opening between two planks, where a leak had been freshly calked with oak.u.m. He dug this out with his knife-point, and the water began spurting in.
Backing out and closing the door, he found a wrench in the tool-box and began fumbling about the engine. Soon the spark-plugs were unscrewed and in his pocket.
"And there's a good job done!" he thought, triumphantly. "Guess that gang of blacklegs won't get very far in the _Barracouta_ to-night!"
Voices on the sh.o.r.e. Dolph and Brittler were coming with a lantern; a blur of light brightened through the fog.
"The compa.s.s and chart are aboard," came the captain's voice, "and this can of gas'll be enough to make us sure of striking the mainland.
Launch that dory!"
The dip of oars and an increasing brightness told that the boat was approaching. It would not do for Percy to be detected. Lowering himself from the port bow into the water, he clung to the bobstay.
"They won't see me here!"
b.u.mp! The dory struck the sloop and grated along her side. Dolph and Brittler clambered aboard and descended into the cabin.
"Here's the chart!" exclaimed the captain. "And the compa.s.s, too! He told the truth about them, at any rate."
"Lucky for him!" rejoined Dolph. "I don't like that big fellow worth a cent."
"Good reason!" was the captain's rather sarcastic comment.
"You haven't any license to joke me about that knockdown, Bart Brittler!
I noticed you weren't in any hurry to mix it with him."
There was a moment of silence.
"What's that?" cried the captain, suddenly. "Sounds like water running in! Hope the old scow isn't leaking. Let's have that lantern!"
Through the thin planking Percy could hear him open the little door and crawl up into the bow. Then his faint, m.u.f.fled voice reached the eagerly listening boy.