But Frenchy and Ikey showed an unexplained lack of interest in this incident. They remained below and, seizing their chance unobserved, slipped into the spare compartment on the lower deck in which the lumber was stowed.
Just abaft this compartment was an ash-chute. As the sea was now calm, the ash-hoist had been at work that morning and the trap-door of the chute had not been relocked. This door kicked open outboard, giving vent upon the sea, the opening being about ten feet above the waterline of the Kennebunk.
The two chums were deeply engaged in the compartment for some time while the crew and officers on deck watched the approach of the target boat. The course of that and the battleship would bring the two within speaking distance in an hour or less.
Suddenly Ikey croaked a warning: “Hist! What’s that, Frenchy?”
“What’s what?” puffed his friend, just then very much engaged in fastening together two joints of pipe. “Don’t try to scare a fellow. Nobody’s coming.”
“Listen!” commanded Ikey.
Michael sat back on his heels, cocking his head to listen. It was no footstep outside the compartment slide. It was not that kind of sound at all. And it was faint—so faint indeed that perhaps the noises of the storm since they had left port had quite smothered the queer sound.
“A clock?” Frenchy suggested.
“Funny sounding clock,” whispered Ikey Rosenmeyer. “And where can it be?”
“Tick-tock! Tick-tock! Tick-tock!” The emphasis upon the second division of the sound was unmistakable. It did not seem like any clock the boys had ever heard.
“That’s never a ship’s chronometer, you know, that,” declared Frenchy.
“What is it, then?” was his chum’s worried demand.
“Oh, bother! Don’t care what it is,” returned Frenchy. “Give us a hand here, Ike. Want me to do all the work alone, do you?”
Frenchy was really getting cross. There are plenty of noises of one kind or another about a ship. One more noise he did not think mattered.
But Ikey continued to raise his head now and then to listen to the “tick-tock” sound. It puzzled him, and he determined to tell Whistler about it.
Their work was completed at length, and Frenchy crept out into the passage to look about. There was nobody in this part of the ship save themselves.
The two mischievous youths tugged the result of their labor out to the ash-chute. The time was propitious. The battleship and the auxiliary were approaching each other and signals were being exchanged. Captain Trevor was on the quarterdeck and word was passed that target practice would immediately begin. In a moment Frenchy and Ikey darted out on deck and joined their mates without being observed by the master-at-arms. Whistler and Al Torrance were already hovering about their stations. If the guns of Number Two turret got a chance, they hoped to have a hand in the manipulation of them.