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CHAPTER XXIV.


PICKED UP.


The afternoon drifted into evening, and somewhat disheartened we prepared to pass another night on the Hasty. We arranged that Phil should sleep first for about three hours, and then I was to take my turn.

"Tie yourself fast," said I, "or you may roll off."

He followed my advice, and it was not long before he was in a sound slumber. I sat on the cask, steering as well as I could by the stars. Suddenly from out of the gloom ahead an object loomed up. I started to my feet and strained my eyes.

It was a steam yacht!

For an instant I could hardly believe my eyes. Then I gave a wild cry that caused Phil to jump up in alarm.

"What is it?" he asked anxiously.

"A ship!"

"A ship! Where?"

"Dead ahead. Let us hail her."

And together we called out as loudly as we could:

"Ship ahoy!"

There was no answer; but the yacht came nearer.

"Ship ahoy!"

"Ahoy here!" came back the welcome cry.

Then we heard the engine of the craft cease to work, and presently the long, slim yacht came close beside us.

"Who are you?" asked some one from the deck.

"We are shipwrecked from the Spitfire," replied Phil.

"Will you take us on board?" I added.

"Certainly; we have been looking for you," came the strange reply.

But at that instant I recognized Mr. Ranson standing at the rail! The lawyer looked highly pleased to see us, and waved his hand.

In a moment a rope was thrown to us from the yacht, and without any difficulty we ascended to the deck, where a small crowd of men surrounded us.

"Right glad am I to see you!" exclaimed Mr. Ranson, as he shook me by the hand. "And you, too," he added to Phil.

"Where are the rest of the crew?" asked the captain of the yacht.

"I don't know," was my reply. "They went off in the jolly-boat and left us behind."

"You can tell your story in the cabin," put in another man, who was dressed in navy-blue and wore a badge upon his breast.

"Yes, that would be best," said the lawyer. "How do you feel?"

"All right."

"A little hungry," added Phil.

"You shall dine at once," said the captain, a man by the name of Flagg.

He led the way to the cabin, and the lawyer, the man in navy-blue, Phil and I followed.

"This is Luke Foster, and this is Philip Jones," said Mr. Ranson, presenting us. "Captain Flagg, and Mr. Henshaw, of the government force."

We all shook hands and sat down. Then Phil and I told our stories straight to the finish, and I also produced the letters I had taken from the locker in Captain Hannock's stateroom.

"A serious case, a serious case indeed," said Mr. Henshaw, when we had finished. "Will you let me retain these letters?"

I looked at Mr. Ranson.

"Yes; let him have them. The matter is now in the hands of the government."

By the time our story was at an end the supper was served, and never did two boys make a heartier meal than did Phil and I. As we all sat around the table Mr. Henshaw asked us many questions, and made numerous notes of our answers.

"And how did you come to be out here for us?" I asked of the lawyer.

"Didn't I promise to help you?" he replied. "When I left the Spitfire it was my intention to return before she set sail again. I was under the impression that you had gone ashore, especially as Dibble thought so too."

"Where is Dibble? He was not on board."

"He, too, was left. Captain Hannock sent him ashore on an errand, and set sail before either of us could return. I think he must have smelt a mouse."

"He'll smell a still bigger mouse when he reaches shore," said the government officer, with a broad laugh. "Burning a vessel and a bogus cargo that are heavily insured is no light offense."

"Where do you think he will land?"

"The first place he strikes. It isn't much fun sailing around in a jolly-boat."

"It is my idea that he will land at Nantucket," said Captain Flagg.

"It won't make much difference to us," said the lawyer. "We will certainly hear of him in a few days, when he comes to make his claim. He won't lose much time in doing that, you can depend."

"And in the mean time I can telegraph to New York to have this Stillwell arrested," went on Mr. Henshaw.

I gave a start. I had not thought of such an occurrence.

"What's the matter?" asked the government officer, noticing me.

"Stillwell is Foster's uncle," explained the lawyer.

"Indeed! Well, I am sorry for you, but the law is no respecter of persons. Prince and pauper are alike to Uncle Sam."

"Mr. Stillwell is my uncle only in name," I replied. "He has never treated me half decent, and is even now trying to defraud me out of my inheritance."

"Indeed! Then there is no love lost between you."

"Not a bit, sir."

"By these letters I should say he was not a man to be trusted."

By Mr. Ranson's advice I told my story. Mr. Henshaw was deeply interested.

"It was a great mistake in one way to run away," he said. "But in another it has helped to gather evidence against him, evidence that will count for much. But let me tell you one thing."

"Well, sir?"

"I doubt if his son took that money."

"But he was in the office."

"Only for a short while. That money was gone before the office was opened in the morning."

I could hardly believe that. When I had opened the office and swept it everything appeared all right.

"Mark my words if I am not right," went on the government officer.

"I can't see how a thief from the outside could get in the place," I replied.

"No: but a thief from the inside——" said Mr. Ranson, dryly.

I started, struck by a sudden thought.

"You don't mean——?" I began.

"What?"

"That my uncle took that money himself?" I burst out.

"I don't say he did, but it may be so," said Mr. Ranson slowly. "He has your money in trust. The letter to Hannock says he does not as yet dare to touch the money in his charge. With you in prison he could do as he pleased. Do you follow me?"

"I do; and it's as plain as day. But I never thought my uncle was such a villain!"

"I do not say he is; but it looks so. Who would have thought him in league with Hannock?"

"No one in New York surely," said I.

I could not help but think what a sensation my uncle's arrest would produce. How Mr. Banker would stare when he heard of it! I was sorry for my aunt's sake, but Mr. Stillwell had brought it upon himself.

Then I wondered if I would be able to clear myself. One thing gave me not a little comfort. It was Mr. Ranson's words:

"Remember, they have got to prove you guilty. Until that is done every man is considered innocent."

Yet this did not entirely satisfy me. I wanted to prove that I had not taken the money. If I did not I was sure there would be some who would always look down upon me.

Now that Mr. Ranson had found us, the course of the steam yacht was changed, so that we headed directly for Boston. Phil and I were assigned a cosy stateroom, and it is perhaps useless to state that both of us slept soundly.

Early in the morning I was aroused by a cry on deck, and the next moment there was a sharp rap on the door.

"What is it?" I asked.

"We have sighted the jolly-boat!" was Captain Flagg's reply. "You and Jones keep out of sight and there will be fun ahead."