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“What are you doing here?” demanded Nelson sternly.
His first thought was that the boy had sneaked into the cabin during their absence, bent on theft, and that on hearing their return he had attempted to hide. But the other’s first words disillusioned him.
“Don’t you tell him! Don’t you, please, sir!” begged the boy in hoarse whispers. “I ain’t done any harm here, honest! And if he gets me, I’ll have to go back on the boat, sir, and she’s going away up to Newfoundland, and—and—I just can’t stand it any longer, I can’t!”
“Oh,” muttered Nelson, “I see! You’re—that boy of his.”
“I ain’t his boy, not really!” cried the other eagerly. “He told my mother he’d take me one voyage and make a sailor of me. And I wanted to go; I didn’t know what it was like. And I went up to Casco with him, and when we got here I wanted to go home, and he said I couldn’t because I’d signed on with him for a year. I never signed anything, sir; he was just lying! And we been here more’n a week, and he kept watchin’ me all the time. And to-day I saw your yacht, sir, and I thought maybe he wouldn’t miss me till you’d gone out again, and so I sneaked down here a little while ago. And I ain’t touched a thing; honest, sir, I ain’t! If you’ll just let me stay here till the Henry sails, sir, I’ll get out right away, I will. You ain’t going to tell him, are you, sir?”
“You stay here,” answered Nelson quietly, “and keep still. I’ll see what the other fellows say.”
“Don’t you, please!” whispered the boy, half sobbing. “If he catches me now he’ll whip me awful! Just let me stay a little while, sir, won’t you? I’ll do anything you say——”
“Cut it out!” said Nelson kindly. “I dare say you won’t have to go back, but I’ve got to tell the other fellows and see what they think. Don’t you worry, though; I guess it’ll be all right.”
Nelson hurried back to the cockpit. The Vagabond was floating gently away from the wharf on the outgoing tide. Forty or fifty feet away a small tug was snuggling up to the Henry Nellis, preparatory to towing her outside the harbor. Bob was at the wheel, but he and Dan and Tom were looking intently toward the stern rail of the schooner, where the captain and one of the sailors, the latter a small, swarthy man with rings in his ears, were talking excitedly and looking toward the Vagabond. The next moment the captain hurriedly disappeared, the watchers heard an order given, and three sailors sprang to the stern davits and began to lower the small boat which hung there.
“Now, what’s he up to?” asked Dan resentfully. But before anyone could answer him, Nelson had called to them.
“Here a minute, fellows,” he said softly. “Keep on looking, but move over this way so you can hear me. That boy that the captain spoke of——”
“He’s getting into the boat,” interrupted Bob.
“I’ll bet he’s coming over here, too,” said Dan. “If he tries to come aboard, I’ll plaguey well dump him into the water!”
Nelson paused and watched proceedings. If the captain came aboard, he was certain to find the boy. Perhaps he had every right to, but Nelson didn’t like the idea of giving the youngster up to him.
“Here he comes!” muttered Dan.
“Stand by the wheel, Bob,” said Nelson. “I’m going to start her.” He darted below, turned the gasoline valve, threw on the switch, and bent over the wheel. Once, twice, thrice he turned it over, but the engine refused to start. Perplexedly Nelson stood up and ran his eye over the motor. Then he remembered that the gasoline had not been turned on at the tank since the latter had been filled. It was too late now to run away before the captain of the Henry Nellis reached them. But he hurried forward, opened the outlet valve at the tank, threw a warning glance at the boy, who still sat huddled in the dim corner of the bunk, and returned to the engine. One more lift of the wheel and the engine was running. But he didn’t throw the clutch in and start the boat. Voices outside told him that the captain was already alongside. He hurried up the steps, striving to look unconcerned. The boat from the schooner was bobbing about a couple of yards away. It was manned by two sailors, one of them the man with the earrings, and in the stern sat the captain.
“Say, Nel,” said Bob, as the former appeared, “this gentleman wants to know if he can’t see the launch. Says he’s very much interested in launches.” Bob was very sober, but his left eye, out of the captain’s range of vision, winked meaningly.
“Why, I’m sorry,” answered Nelson, turning to the captain, “but we’re just leaving. The fact is, we’ve got quite a ways to go before dark.”
“Where you going?” asked the captain, smiling ingratiatingly.
“Duxbury,” answered Nelson on the spur of the moment.
“Well, that won’t take you long. You let me see your engine, like a good fellow. I’ve been thinkin’ of getting one of them naphtha launches for a good while.” He made a slight motion with his hand and the sailors dipped their oars.
“Sorry,” replied Nelson firmly, “but we can’t stop. And I shall have to ask you not to come alongside unless you want to take a trip with us. All ready, Bob?”
Over on the schooner the crew was lining the stern rail, and the tug, too, held its small audience. Nelson turned toward the engine-room door.
“Hold on a bit,” exclaimed the captain. “You listen to me, now. You’d better. You don’t want no trouble and I don’t want no trouble, eh?” He smiled with an attempt at frankness, a smile that made Nelson shiver and caused Dan to clench his fists. “My boy’s run away, and this man here says he seen him getting on to your boat.” He nodded at the sailor with the earrings, who grinned and bobbed his head. “That boy’s bound to me for a year—signed papers, he did—and I’m his lawful guardeen and protector. His mother give him into my care. How am I going to answer her when she asks me where is her boy, eh?”
“More than likely he’s halfway home by this time,” suggested Bob politely.
“If I was sure o’ that,” answered the captain, with a shake of his head, “I wouldn’t mind so much. ’Cause I think a heap o’ that boy, I do, and I wouldn’t have no harm come to him for half my vessel, I wouldn’t.” One of the men in the boat, the one who didn’t wear earrings, choked, and, finding the captain’s baleful glare on him, took a quid of tobacco from his mouth and tossed it overboard as though it were to blame for his seeming mirth. “No, that boy’s on your boat, I tell you,” continued the captain sorrowfully. “He was seen a-climbin’ down into her. Of course, I ain’t sayin’ as you knew anything about it; that ain’t likely, ’cause it’s agin the law to harbor deserters; but he’s there, I’ll take my oath. And so you just let me come aboard and talk to him kindly. I’m like a father to him, and I can’t think what’s got into his head to make him act this way. Pull in, Johnnie.”
“Hold on!” cried Nelson. “I’ve told you that you can’t come aboard, and I mean it!”
The captain’s smiles vanished and gave way to a very ugly scowl which dwelt impartially on the four boys.
“Mean it, do ye?” he growled. “And I mean to have that boy. I’ve got the law on my side, let me tell you that, you young dudes, and I can have you put in jail!”
“Look here, Mr. Whatever-your-name-is,” said Dan impatiently, “you’re talking a whole lot of nonsense. Can’t you see that we haven’t got your boy, and never saw him? If we did have him, you might have reason to kick, for I’m hanged if I’d give him up to you!”
“You’re lying!” cried the other angrily. “He’s in the cabin! You go look and see if he ain’t.”
“No use in my looking,” answered Dan carelessly. “Nelson’s been down, and there’s no place anyone could hide there. You haven’t seen anything of his plaguey boy, have you, Nel?”
Nelson had been fearing that question, and for an instant he found himself in a quandary. He didn’t mean to lie about it, and in spite of the fact that the captain evidently had the law on his side, as he claimed to have, he hated to give the boy up. Already suspicion was creeping into the captain’s face when a way out of the quandary suggested itself. Nelson looked thoughtful.
“Well, it doesn’t seem possible,” he said slowly, “that he could be in the cabin without my seeing him, but what the captain says is so, I guess. If he is here, I suppose it’s our duty to give him up. There’s no harm in being sure, anyhow, and so I’ll take a look around down there. Is he big enough to make a fight?”
“Fight? Him? No; he ain’t got the spunk the Lord gave a duck!” answered the captain disgustedly. Nelson’s manner had imposed on him thoroughly. “But when you find him you call me and I’ll get him out in a shake. I knew you didn’t want to obstruct the law, boys.”
“Oh, I guess he isn’t worth going to law about,” laughed Nelson. “I’ll see if he’s there.”
He turned and made for the door. Bob was still at the wheel. As he passed him he whispered softly: “Ready!”
He disappeared, and Bob slowly, idly turned the wheel.
“He ain’t a bad boy,” said the captain, no longer frowning, “but he’s dreadful stubborn. I told his mother I’d make a man and a first-class sailor of him, and I mean to do it, but it’s— Hi! Stop her! You come back here!”
The quiet throbbing of the engine, running light, had suddenly changed to a deeper note; there was a quick churning at the stern as the propeller lashed the water, and on the instant the Vagabond shot at full speed in a wide curve toward the entrance of the harbor.
“I’ll have the law on you, you robbers!” shouted the irate captain of the Henry Nellis, shaking his big fist after them. “If you don’t stop, I’ll have every last one of you arrested. Hear me, do you?”
Dan knelt on the seat and put his hands to his mouth.
“Say! You go to thunder, will you?” he bawled.
“Hush up, Dan!” said Bob. But he smiled, nevertheless, as he straightened the Vagabond for a run through the channel. Back of them the little boat was bobbing erratically in the wake of the launch, and the captain was still hurling invective after them. Nelson put his head out of the cabin and viewed the scene with satisfaction.
“Is he du-du-du-du-down there?” asked Tom excitedly. Nelson nodded.
“What?” cried Dan. “The kid’s on board? Well, I’ll be blowed!” Then he sat down on the stern seat and laughed till the tears came. “Oh, say, this is great! And there I stood, lying up and down to him! Say, don’t you know he’s peeved?”
“Well, you didn’t know he was here,” said Nelson, “so you weren’t really lying.”
“Pshaw!” said Dan. “I’d have said the same thing if I had known. It isn’t lying to fool an old brute like that!”
“A lie’s a lie, no matter who you tell it to,” answered Tom.
“Look out for that schooner coming in, Bob,” Nelson cautioned. “When you pass the Point, swing her straight across the bay. We’ll try for Provincetown, seeing that I told him we were going to Duxbury.”
“Hello!” cried Dan. “Look there!”
The boat containing the captain of the Henry Nellis was returning as fast as oars could send it, and now it was alongside the tugboat and the captain had leaped aboard her.
“What’s he up to?” muttered Dan.
The Vagabond was dipping her nose into the waves of the bar.
“Oh, he’s beaten,” said Tom, “and he knows it!”
“Like fun he does!” cried Dan. “They’re casting off the tug, and he’s still aboard. I’ll bet you anything——”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed Nelson.
“Nonsense be blowed! He’s after us in the tugboat!”
Dan turned and faced the others with a broad smile.
“Now for some fun!” he chuckled.
At that moment the Vagabond swung around the Point and shook herself clear of the harbor waters. But over the low sandspit a sudden cloud of black smoke floated upward, showing that the captain had taken up the chase.
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