J. Duffield.

Bert Wilson, Wireless Operator





Well, said Bert, when we return we can ascertain if she lived to reach port.

Yes, grumbled Tom. But unless some of the crew had returned before the government ship reached her the mystery would be as profound as ever. And, he added, sinking disgustedly into his steamer chair, and stretching himself out lazily, I do hate mysteries.

CHAPTER XI
The Tiger at Bay

One day, about mid-afternoon, Bert was going through his duties in a more or less mechanical fashion, for the day had been warm, and he had been on duty since early morning. For several days past, practically no news of any interest had come in over the invisible aerial pathways, and as he had said to Dick only a short time before, everything was deader than a door nail.

Suddenly, however, the sounder began to click in a most unusual fashion. The clicks were very erratic, quick, and short, and to Berts experienced ear it was apparent that the person sending the message was in a state of great excitement. He hastily adjusted the clamp that held the receiver to his ear, and at the first few words of the message his heart leapt with excitement.

Tiger broken loose, came the message, in uneven spurts and dashes, three of crew dead or dying am shut up in wireless room beast is sniffing at door help us if you can and then followed, latitude and longitude of the unlucky vessel.

Berts hand leaped to the sender, and the powerful spark went crashing out from the wires. Will come at once keep up courage, he sent, and then snatched the apparatus off his head and rushed in mad haste to the deck. Captain Manning was below deck, and Bert communicated the message he had just received to the commanding officer at the time.

Good heavens, ejaculated the first officer, theres only one thing for us to do, and thats to go to their aid just as fast as this old tub will take us.

This was no sooner said than done, and in a few minutes the course of the vessel was changed, and she was headed in the direction of the distressed animal ship, for there could be little doubt that such was the nature of the cargo she had on board. It is not such an uncommon thing for a wild animal to break loose during a voyage, but generally it is recaptured with little trouble. Occasionally, however, an especially ferocious animal will escape, and at the very outset kill or maim the men especially employed to take care of them. Once let this happen, and the crew has little chance against such an enemy. Nothing much more terrible could be imagined than such a situation, and such was the plight in which the crew of the animal ship found themselves. They had made several vain attempts to trap the big tiger, but at each attempt one of their number had been caught and killed by the ferocious beast, until in a panic they had retreated to the forecastle, taking with them the first mate, who had been seriously injured by the murderous claws of the tiger as they were trying to cast a noose around his neck.

Left without management, their ship was at the mercy of wind and wave, with no living creature on deck save the big cat. He had vainly tried to break into the mens quarters, and failing in that, had laid siege to the cabin of the wireless operator. The door of this was fragile, however, and although the desperate man within had piled every article of furniture in the room against the door, there could be little doubt that it was but a matter of time when the maddened tiger would make use of his vast strength and burst in the frail barrier.

Such was the situation on board when, as a last resource, the devoted operator sent out the call for help that Bert had heard. The knowledge that help was at least on the way gave heart to the imprisoned and almost despairing man, and he waited for the rescuing ship to arrive with all the fortitude he could muster.

Meanwhile, on Berts ship, Captain Manning had been summoned to the bridge, and had immediately ordered full steam ahead. The ship quivered and groaned as the steam rushed at high pressure into the cylinders, causing the great propellers to turn as though they had been but toys. Great clouds of black smoke poured from the funnel, and the ship forged ahead at a greater speed than her crew had ever supposed her capable of making.

Fast as was their progress, however, it seemed but a crawl to the anxious group gathered on the bridge, and Bert went below to send an encouraging message to the unfortunate operator on the other ship.

Crash! crash! and the powerful current crackled and flashed from the wires.

Keep up courage, was the message Bert sent, keep up courage, and we will get help to you soon. Are about ten knots from you now.

For a few minutes there was no reply, and, when the receiver finally clicked, Bert could hardly catch the answer, so faint was it.

The dynamo has stopped, it read, and batteries are almost exhausted. Heard shouting from the crews quarters a short time ago, and think the tiger is probably trying to break in there. A few minutes more but here the sounder ceased, and Bert, in spite of his frantic efforts, was unable to get another word, good or bad. Finally, giving the attempt up as hopeless, he made his way to the bridge, where Captain Manning and the first officer were absorbed over a chart.

We cant be very far from them now, sir, the latter was saying. At the rate this old boats going now we ought to sight them pretty soon, dont you think so, sir?

We surely should, replied the captain. But I wonder if Wilson has heard any more from them. As long as ah, here you are, eh, Mr. Wilson? Whats the latest news from the distressed vessel?

Pretty bad, sir, said Bert. The crew seems to have become panic-stricken, including the engine-room force, and theyve allowed the dynamo to stop. The wireless man didnt have enough current left from the batteries to finish the message he was sending. He did say, though, that the tiger was raising a rumpus up forward, and trying to break into the mens quarters. I can only hope, sir, that we will not arrive too late.

I hope so, indeed, responded Captain Manning, gloomily, but even if we get there before the beast has gotten at them, well have our work cut out for us. We have no adequate weapons on board, and we cant hope to cope with a foe like that barehanded.

Thats very true, said the first officer, scratching his head. I rather had a feeling that all we had to do was to get there and kill the tiger, but I must confess I hadnt figured out how. However, he added, Ive got a brace of pistols in my cabin, and I suppose you have, too, havent you, sir? addressing the captain.

Oh, of course I have them, said the captain, impatiently, but theyre not much good in an affair of this kind. What we need is a big game rifle, and thats something we havent got. However, I imagine well hit on some plan after we get there. Set your wits to work, Mr. Wilson, and see if you cant figure out a scheme. You have always struck me as being pretty ingenious.

Well, Ill do my best, you may be sure of that, sir, replied Bert, but meanwhile, I guess Id better go below and see if by any chance they have got their wireless working again.

Aye, aye, said the captain, see what you can do, and Ill see that you are informed when we get near the vessel.

Bert did as he had proposed, but could get no response from his apparatus, and was just giving over the attempt as hopeless when he got a message from the captain that they were close up to the unfortunate ship.

Hastily unfastening the harness from his head, Bert rushed on deck, and gave a quick look about him. Sure enough, they were close aboard a rusty-looking steamer, that drifted aimlessly about, and at first glance seemed to have no living soul aboard. The deck was untenanted and showed no signs of life, and the silence was unbroken save for an occasional cry from the caged animals in the hold.

Of the tiger said to be loose on board there was no indication, however, but they soon made out a colored handkerchief waving from one of the portholes that afforded light and ventilation to the focastle. Presently they heard someone shouting to them, but were unable to make out what was said.

Captain Manning ordered a boat lowered, and carefully picked the men whom he desired to go in it. When he had chosen almost his full crew, Bert hurried up to him, and said: I beg your pardon, sir, but I would like to ask you a favor. Do you think you could allow me and my friend, Mr. Trent, to go along? I think we could do our share of whats to be done, and I feel that I ought to be among the party that goes in aid of a fellow operator.

At first the captain would not hear of any such proposition, but finally, by dint of much persuasion, Bert won a reluctant consent.

All right, grumbled the captain. If you must, you must, I suppose. But hurry up now. Step lively! All hands ready?

Aye, aye, sir, sang out the crew, and after a few parting instructions from Captain Manning, the first officer, Mr. Collins, shouted the order to give way.

The crew bent to their oars with a will, and the heavy boat fairly leaped through the water at their sturdy strokes. In almost less time than it takes to tell, the boat was under the porthole from which they had first seen the signals, and Mr. Collins was talking in a low voice with a white-faced man who peered out of the circular opening.

He almost had us a little time back, said the latter, but we managed to make enough noise to scare him away for the time. We havent heard anything of him for quite a while now, but hes hungry, and hell soon be back. Heaven help us, then, if you fellows cant do something for us.

Well get him, all right, never fear, said Mr. Collins, reassuringly, but how do you stand now? How many did the beast get before you got away from him?

He killed the three animal keepers almost at one swipe, said the man, who proved to be the second mate. Then the captain, as was a brave man, stood up to him with an old gun he used to keep in his cabin, and the beast crushed his head in before he could get the old thing to work. It must have missed fire, I guess. Then the brute started creeping toward us as was on deck, and we made a rush for the focastle door. The first officer happened to be the last one in, and the tiger just caught his arm with his claws and ripped it open to the bone. We managed to drag him in and slam the door in the beasts face, though, and then we piled everything we could lay hand to against the door.

What did he do then? inquired Mr. Collins.

Why, he went ragin back and made a dive for one of the stokers that was up at the engine-room hatchway gettin a bit of fresh air, and he almost nabbed him. The dago dived below, though, and had sense enough to drop a grating after him. That stopped the cursed brute, and then I dont know what he did for a while. Just a little while ago, though, as I was tellin ye, he came sniffin and scratchin around the door, and if he made a real hard try hed get in, sure. Then it ud be good-night for us. Not one of us would get out of here alive.

But now that hes left you for a time, why dont you make an attempt to trap or kill him? inquired Mr. Collins, and there was a little contempt in his tone.

What, us? Never in a hundred years, replied the man, in a scared voice. It was evident that the crew was completely unnerved, and Mr. Collins and his crew realized that if anything was to be done they must do it unaided.

Well, here goes, said he. We might as well get on that deck first as last. Well never get anywhere by sitting here and talking. Accordingly, they clambered up on deck, one by one, led by the first mate. In a short time they were all safely on deck, and looked around, their hearts beating wildly, for any sign of the ferocious animal. As far as any evidences of his presence went, however, the nearest tiger might have been in Africa. There was a deathlike hush over the ship, broken at times by the muffled chattering of the monkeys confined in cages below decks.

All the men were armed with the best weapons they were able to obtain, consisting chiefly of heavy iron bars requisitioned from the engine-room. Mr. Curtis, of course, had a pair of heavy revolvers, and both Bert and Dick had each a serviceable .45-calibre Colt. These were likely to prove of little avail against such an opponent, however, and more than one of the crew wished he were safely back on the deck of his own ship.

Not so Bert and Dick, however, and their eyes danced and sparkled from excitement. Say, whispered Dick in Berts ear, talk about the adventures of that fellow you and I were reading about a day or two ago. This promises to outdo anything that I ever heard of.

It sure does, said Bert, in the same suppressed voice. I wonder where that beast can be hiding himself. This suspense is getting on my nerves.

All the rescuing party felt the same way, but the tiger obstinately refused to put in an appearance. The men started on an exploring expedition, beginning at the bow and working toward the stern. At every step they took, the probability of their presently stumbling on the animal became more imminent, and their nerves were keyed to the breaking point.

In this manner they traversed almost two-thirds of the deck, and were about to round the end of the long row of staterooms when suddenly, without a moments warning, the tiger stood before them, not thirty feet away.

At first he seemed to be surprised, but as the men watched him, fascinated, they could see his cruel yellow eyes gradually change to black, and hear a low rumble issue from his throat. For a few seconds not one of them seemed able to move a hand, but then Mr. Curtis yelled, Nows your time, boys. Empty your revolvers into him, Wilson and Crawford, and suiting the action to the word, he opened fire on the great cat.

Bert and Dick did likewise, but in their excitement most of their shots went wild, and only wounded the now thoroughly infuriated animal.

With a roar that fairly shook the ship the tiger leapt toward the hardy group. Back! Back! shouted Mr. Collins, and they retreated hastily. The tiger just fell short of them, but quickly gathered himself for another spring, and two of the more faint-hearted seamen started to run toward the bow. Indeed, it was a situation to daunt the heart of the bravest man, but Bert and the others who retained their self-control knew that it was now too late to retreat, and their only course, desperate as it seemed, was to stand their ground and subdue the raging beast if possible.

The tigers rage was truly a terrible thing to see. As he stood facing them, foam dripped from his jaws, and great rumblings issued from his throat. His tail lashed back and forth viciously, and he began creeping along the deck toward them.

But now Bert and Dick and the first mate had had a chance, in frantic haste, to load their revolvers, and they gripped the butts of their weapons in a convulsive grasp. And they had need of all they could muster.

Soon the tiger judged he was near enough for a spring, and stopping, gathered his great muscles under him in tense knots. Then he sprang through the air like a bolt from a cross-bow, and this time they had no chance to retreat.

As the raging beast landed among them, the men scattered to left and right, and struck out with the heavy iron bars they had brought with them. They dodged this way and that, evading the tigers ripping claws and snapping teeth as best they could, and landing a blow whenever the opportunity offered. They were not to escape unscathed from such an encounter, however, and again and again shouts of pain arose from those unable to avoid the raving beast. Bert and Dick waited until the tigers attention was concentrated on three of the men who were making a concerted attack on him, and then, at almost point blank range, emptied their revolvers into the beasts head. At almost the same moment the first mate followed suit, and the tiger stopped in his struggles, and stood stupidly wagging his head from side to side, while bloody foam slavered and dripped from his jaws. Then he gradually slumped down on the reddened deck, and finally lay still, with once or twice a convulsive shiver running over him.

Quickly reloading their revolvers, Bert, Dick, and the first mate delivered another volley at the prostrate beast, so as to take no chances.

Every muscle in the animals beautiful body relaxed, his great head rolled limply over on to the deck, and it was evident that he was dead. A cheer arose from the men, but their attention was quickly turned to themselves, and with good reason. Not one of them had escaped a more or less painful wound from the great beasts tearing claws, one or two of which threatened to become serious. Both Bert and Dick had deep, painful scratches about the arms and shoulders, but they felt glad enough to escape with only these souvenirs of the desperate encounter.

Well, men, said Mr. Collins, after they had bound up their wounds temporarily, and were limping back toward their boat, I think we can thank our lucky stars that we got off as easily as we did. When that fellow jumped for us the second time, I for one never expected to come out of the mix-up alive.

I, either, said Bert. I like excitement about as well as anybody, I guess, but this job of fighting tigers with nothing but a revolver is a little too rich for me. The next time I try it Ill want to pack a cannon along.

Righto! said Dick, with a laugh that was a trifle shaky. But what are we going to do now? I suppose the first thing is to let those low-lives out of the forecastle and tell em weve fixed their tiger for them.

We might as well, acquiesced Mr. Collins, and they lost no time in following out Dicks suggestion. Before they reached the forecastle they were joined by the two men who had run at the tigers second onslaught, and you may be sure they looked thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The men who had stood fast realized that reproaches would do no good, however, and they were so exhilarated over their victory, now that they began to realize just what they had accomplished, that they were not inclined to indulge in recriminations. They could come later.

They were about to resume their march to the crews quarters when Dick happened to notice that Bert was missing. The men all started out in search of him, but their anxiety was soon relieved by seeing Bert return accompanied by a man whom he presently introduced to them as the wireless operator. The latter was profuse in his expressions of gratitude, but Bert refused point blank to listen to him.

Its no more than you would have done for us, if you had had the chance, he said, therefore, thanks are entirely out of order.

Not a bit of it, persisted the other, warmly. It was a mighty fine thing for you fellows to do, and, believe me, I, for one, will never forget it.

By now they were in front of the focastle, and shouted out to the men within that they could come out with safety. There was a great noise of objects within being pulled away from the door, and then the crew of the animal ship emerged in a rather sheepish manner, for they realized that they had not played a very heroic part. However, they had had very little in the way of weapons, and perhaps their conduct might be palliated by this fact.

Two of them immediately set to work skinning the tiger, and meantime the wounded first mate of the animal ship expressed his thanks and that of the crew to Mr. Collins. Then the limping, smarting little band clambered over the side and into their waiting boat. The row back to the ship seemed to consume an age, but you may be sure that the two sailors who had escaped the conflict were now forced to do most of the hard work, and they did not even attempt to object, no doubt realizing the hopelessness of such a course.

They reached their ship at last, however, and were greeted with praise from the passengers on account of their bravery, and sympathy over their many and painful wounds.

After Mr. Collins had made his report to the captain, the latter shook his head gravely. Perhaps I did wrong in letting you undertake such a task, he said, but I dont know what else we could have done. Heaven knows how long it would have taken any other vessel to get here, and after they arrived they might not have had any greater facilities for meeting such a situation than we had. But Im very glad we got out of the predicament without actual loss of life.

We were very fortunate, indeed, agreed Mr. Collins, and here they dropped the subject, for among men who habitually followed a dangerous calling even such an adventure as this does not seem such a very unusual occurrence.

Bert was not so seriously wounded as to make it impossible to resume his duties, however, and after a few days his wounds gave him no further trouble. Needless to say, the remembrance of the desperate adventure never entirely left his mind to the end of his life, and for weeks afterward he would wake from a troubled sleep seeing again in his imagination the infuriated tiger as it had looked when leaping at the devoted group.





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