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A Narrow Escape

SKYROCKETS had no part in sending the Hippocampus through the blue waters adjacent to the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas, though the principle on which the motor operated was the same. But the gases escaping with great force from a battery of steel tubes under the boat's stern were created, not by burning gunpowder, but by a mingling of chemicals the formula of which was a secret of Alex Sarnof. This Russian, who had taken a sincere and friendly interest in the three chums, had in the past aided them to construct a rocket auto as they had aided him in the building of a rocket sled which skimmed the frozen wastes of Alaska.

It had been hard work for the boys to adapt a rocket motor to a boat, but they had done it and, given a supply of the needful chemicals by the Russian, were now on the verge of success.

“She's going!” cried Bert as he opened the chemical mixing valve a little more.

“And some speed!” echoed Dick, who was watching the ammeter so that he might feed to the charge of gas, in the accumulation chamber, the hottest spark at the proper moment to get the greatest explosive force in the after tubes.

“Watch everything!” ordered Harry, who, standing on a little platform, so that his head was above the brass-barred, slanting skylight of the trunk cabin, was steering a winding course amid the other craft, anchored and moving, in Key West harbor. “Watch everything!”

“How's she running?” asked Bert, who with Dick was inside the cabin at what corresponded to the instrument board on an automobile or airplane. This board, to which were attached many valves, levers, wheels, gauges, and “gadgets,” to use a general term, was on the front wall of the cabin, where the main steering wheel was located. But the Hippocampus could also be guided by an auxiliary wheel from the rear cockpit, where the rocket riders expected to spend most of their time in sunny weather.

“She handles nice,” Harry observed. “You fellows can take a shot at the wheel pretty soon.”

“No hurry,” said Dick. “We want to be sure she's under good control. Have we plenty of the dope?” For so the boys had named the chemical combination supplied by their Russian friend,; without which the rocket motor would not operate. These dry, powdered chemicals, innocuous by themselves, but powerful when properly combined, were to the rocket craft what gasoline is to autos, airplanes, and the general run of motor craft.

“Plenty of dope,” Harry answered. “You might advance the spark a bit, Dick!”

“Advanced she is, Cap'n!”

“And a little more dope, Bert,” suggested the tall lad, swinging the bow of the boat a bit to port.

“Valve's about a quarter open now,” advised the red-haired lad.

“Only a quarter!” exclaimed Dick, for the three could easily converse, Harry's voice being audible through the open door of the cabin. “What'll she do when we open her full?”

“We don't want to try that yet,” observed Harry. “We want to sort of warm her up before we speed.”

“Oh, sure,” agreed Bert. “Though we haven't any pistons and rings to wear smooth as we would have in a new auto.”

“No, we don't have to depend on pistons, gears, or anything like that in this rocket boat,” Harry assented.

They were well out from the Key West harbor now, and Harry swung the wheel to head for the Marquesas Keys, a small group of little Islands between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Not that the boys expected to reach either of those places, but the way seemed more open in that direction and less cluttered with other craft.

“What I want to do, if we get the chance,” Harry told his chums, “is to speed a bit, not full, but say half, when we get where we have sea room.”

“And, boy, how she ought to go!” murmured Dick.

“I guess those birds back on the dock are singing another tune now!” chuckled Bert.

And, indeed, the manner in which the strange motor craft had shot away had been a surprise to the gathered throng. The man who had commented on the lack of a propeller looked blank and muttered:

“She can't do it! She just can't!”

“But she is!” said a companion! “Can't you see her scootin' along an' raisin' foam?”

“Yes, but she can't do it! You can't tell me a boat'll move without a propeller! Them boys are pushin' it, or somethin', or else they got a tow! No, sir, it can't be done!”

But in spite of this doubting Thomas, the Hippocampus was speeding through the blue waters of the Mexican Gulf, much to the delight of the three boys.

It may be well to acquaint readers who have picked up this volume as the first of the series with something concerning the events of the past.

In the initial volume, Rocket Riders Across the Ice; or, Racing Against Time,* there was related how Harry Donovan, Richard Westberry, and Albert Armitage made the acquaintance of Alex Sarnof while they were camping one summer at Lake Leonia. The acquaintance Was made in rather a dramatic manner, for the Russian, mistaking Harry and his chums for Sid Brower and the latter's crony, Nick Tyler, ordered the boys to desist from annoying him. It developed that it was Sid, the rather dissolute son of wealthy parents, in company with Nick Tyler, a shiftless lad, who had caused the trouble.

Explanations made, Harry and his friends became friends with Mr. Sarnof, an exiled Russian, and learned, with surprise, that he was working on a big sled vehicle to be propelled by a rocket motor. It was the intention of Mr. Sarnof to donate his invention to his native land, but trouble with the Bolshevists had driven him away. He was also persecuted by Boris Barikov, who was seeking to get the invention for himself. Sid and Nick were induced to aid Barikov as against Mr. Sarnof and our three heroes. But after many adventures, including a trip to Alaska, where there was an exciting race in the rocket sled over the ice against grim death, Mr. Sarnof proved that his vehicle was a success, much to the delight of Harry and his chums.

The second volume, Rocket Riders Over the Desert; or, Seeking the Lost City, tells how the three boys, having adapted a new rocket motor to an auto, went to the Sahara with two scientists.

These professors were seeking an age-old city said to have been buried under the desert sands, and the boys agreed to help them. In order to travel better over the yellow sands, the auto, driven by a rocket motor, was fitted with caterpillar traction. Great speed was attained, and it was necessary in order to escape from the wild desert men who attacked the party.

In the end the rocket auto proved its worth, though it is left for the reader to find, by perusing the book, just how successful was the search for the lost city.

Returning from Egypt, Harry, Dick, and Bert, after a winter term in school, found themselves at a loose end when summer arrived again. Mr. Sarnof had returned to Russia, determined to bring his rocket sled to the attention of the Soviet government if possible, for it would be very useful in speeding over the dreary, snow-covered steppes.

“So there's no chance of us having another summer adventure with him,” Dick had said when they were discussing what to do.

“I'd like to put the rocket motor from our auto into a boat,” Harry had remarked, and the boys were wondering how this could be done when, unexpectedly, Bert's uncle, Adrian Armitage, who was in business in Key West, invited the nephew there for his vacation.

“I'm going to ask if I can't bring you fellows,” Bert said to his two chums. And, though they told him this was an imposition, he insisted on telegraphing which soon brought the welcome and terse message of:

“Come with the gang.”

“Hurray!” shouted Bert. “Now we can try a rocket motorboat. My uncle has two or three craft, and I'm sure we can get one.”

His hope proved true. For when the boys reached Key West and were warmly welcomed by Mr. Armitage, he at once became interested in their plan to adapt the rocket principle of propulsion to a water vehicle.

“I don't believe it'll work, boys,” he had said, “but you're welcome to try. There's the Sea Horse, a good, staunch craft. Her gasoline motor is shot, but the hull is sound and she easily sleeps six. You can live aboard for a week or two at a time and she'll stand some pretty stormy seas. But I doubt if you can make her run with a skyrocket,” and he laughed.

“A rocket motor is a lot different from a skyrocket, though it's on the same principle,” said Harry. “We'll take the Sea Horse and say thanks.”

So it had come about. The rocket motor was taken from the car which it had so successfully propelled across the desert and shipped to Key West. Before this, having heard hints of their plans, Mr. Sarnof had given the boys a large supply of the rocket chemical powder fuel, so all they had to do was to put the new motor in the boat.

That seems simple enough to read, but many hard problems had to be solved by the boys. However, they stuck at the task, and now they saw the practical completion of many hours of hard and dirty work.

“She certainly steps along pretty!” observed Dick as he looked at the pressure gauge.

“Couldn't be better!” agreed Bert. “She's as smooth as the Alaska sled.”

“And that certainly slid along!” commented Dick.

“Here!” called Harry from the cockpit wheel. “One of you fellows take this. I want to look at the instruments.”

It was the policy of the boys to turn about in the management of all the rocket vehicles so each one would know all there was to be known of the operation of the machinery, the controls, rudder, and the mixing of the chemicals.

“Let Bert,” said Dick. “I want to watch this gauge a bit. It doesn't seem to be acting just right,” and he indicated the pressure marker on the instrument board.

“All right. Take the wheel, Bert!” directed Harry, it being usual for the steersman, whoever he was, to act as temporary captain to give orders.

As Bert assumed charge of guiding the Hippocampus, and while Harry was noting the needles of the various gauges, Dick went to the table in the cabin to get pencil and paper to make some notes about the pressure gauge which did not seem to be functioning right. After he had done this, the stout lad went to the forward deck for a moment, wanting to feel the wind on his cheeks, for the cabin was warm.

He had no sooner gone up than he shouted:

“Mind your helm, Bert!”

“What's the matter?” asked the red-haired lad. “I don't see anything ahead of me!”

“It's right under your port quarter!” yelled Dick. “Over with the wheel! Over! Shut off the motor! We're going to ram him!”

Harry and Bert acted together and quickly. While Harry closed the throttle and cut off the spark, at the same moment turning the power into the forward reversing tubes, Bert swung the wheel over.

It was only just in time, for a moment later the Hippocampus struck another but smaller power craft a slight and glancing blow, and but for Dick's quick warning the larger boat would have cut the little boat in two.

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