Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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IT is customary to think of treasure in terms of gold and gems. But in the prosaic world of mining a spadeful of the most unattractive stuff can be a clue to a fortune.
That is how it was at Bar Tor farm on Dartmoor, a property in the possession of young Robert Hamlyn. Be low the red earth of Devon was found a deposit of china clay whose value, though not fantastic, was big enough to set the finders inquiring about the possibilities of buying the whole property.
Their idea was to get it before Robert Hamlyn realised that he had a concealed asset worth far more than the whole of his agricultural land. But they did not outwit him.
Thus frustrated, they were able to reveal that Hamlyn's title to the property was not good. He had inherited it from a cousin, Mark Hingston, whose death had been legally presumed.
Hingston was not dead. He was living out in Florida, but the two men who knew the truth are behind the attempt to buy Bar Tor. Since Hamlyn's possession of the property is no longer legal, these two set out for Florida to get Hingston to assign the property before he knows what it is worth.
Hamlyn decides to forestall them; and thereby hangs a tale—a tale of adventure and romance so vivid and appealing that it is to be the next serial in the "Argus."
Dartmoor Legacy is the title, and the author is T.C. Bridges, who in addition to being one of the ablest writers of novels of adventure, has an intimate knowledge of the two vastly different spheres in which this story is cast—namely Devonshire, and the Caribbean Sea.
The first thrilling instalment of this eventful story is to be published on Friday. Be sure to read the opening chapters; then nothing will prevent you from reading the rest. It is that kind of story.
—The Singleton Argus, 8 February 1939.
BOB HAMLYN was awakened by a scratching on his bed-clothes. He sat up to find Judy, his terrier, standing on her hind legs beside him. He got up at once. Judy was a wise old lady, and never disturbed him without reason. It was very dark in his small, low-roofed bedroom and he quickly lit a candle and thrust his, feet into a pair of slippers. Judy was at the door and the moment he opened it, ran down the narrow stairs. It might be, he thought, that she merely wanted to go for a run, but, when he opened the front door she walked out, whined significantly and waited for him. He stopped only long enough to get a stick and a torch, then followed her.
"Someone after the chickens, eh, old girl?" he asked, but instead of going, towards the chicken house, Judy led the way to the garden gate and, when he opened it, down the rough cart road which led to the river bridge in the valley.
The night was cloudy and threatened rain, but, there was a moon behind the clouds so it, was not quite dark. There was no wind, it was quite, warm, and the only sound Bob could hear was the soft murmur of the Strane among its boulders.
He was puzzled. There was nothing whatever in the little farm house, where he lived alone, which could attract thieves. All he could think of was that fish poachers might be at work in his stretch of the river. Judy, he realised, was following a trail, so it was evident that someone had been near the house. Yet the last thing that poachers would do would be to risk waking him. His few neighbours on Dartmoor, who did a bit of poaching, knew that he kept the cleverest dog on the moor.
Suddenly Judy swerved off the road and, still keeping her nose close to the ground, began to work across the new-take, the rough pasture, to the left. At the far side she went nimbly over the dry-stone wall and led Bob through the rough heather beyond.
Bob was more puzzled than ever. There was nothing in this direction except the old Bittifer tin mine which lay just inside his eastern boundary. Yet this seemed to be the point for which Judy was making. The mine had ceased working 80 years ago, the timbering in its galleries had long rotted and Bob himself had never risked going inside it.
"Judy!" he called in a low voice. Judy stopped obediently but did, not come back. She was waiting for her master to come to her. With her head cocked and one paw raised, she said plainly that she was still on he job. Bob stood quite, still.
Dimly, in front of him, he could see the great mound of red earth and rock, spoil from the mine. In all these years nothing had grown over it. He could also just perceive the almost roofless ruin of the old mine-house.
The stillness was broken by a faint click. Bob knew what that was. A small stone had rolled down the spoil heap. So someone, was there. He shrugged. A tamp taking shelter in the min house. Poor devil, he wasn't worth bothering about. Still, Bob felt he would like to be sure.
"Hulloa!" he called.
The answer was prompt. A spit of red fire cut the gloom, and the vicious crack of an automatic splashed echoes across the valley. The bullet hit the mound within a yard of Judy. In one act Bob sprang forward, caught up the dog, flung himself flat and rolled under shelter of it handy boulder. He was rather frightened at first. Then furiously angry. That anyone should have the infernal cheek to shoot at him in this unprovoked fashion on his own ground filled him with fierce resentment.
There was no more' firing. There was no sound at all. Bob's first fury evaporated; for Judy's sake as well as his own the only thing to do was to get out of range. You cannot face an automatic with a walking stick.
Presently, he started, to crawl sway. The heather gave some cover; but he felt that his light-coloured pyjamas made him horribly conspicuous. Then suddenly down came the rain and under cover of the pelting shower, Bob sprang up and ran for the house, Judy at his heels. He changed, lit the oil stove, and made some tea, then, went back to bed. But it was a long time before he slept.
He was up early, and taking his gun, went straight to the mine. If there had been any footprints, the rain had washed them away. He looked into the adit, the low-roofed tunnel which ran into the hillside. The floor was liquid mud through which drainage water trickled. No use going in.
Bob, turned back, He was walking up the river bank when a familiar voice hailed him from the far side. It was Ezra Caunter, the elderly water bailiff.
"Up early baint ee, Mr. Hamlyn? Maybe you be hunting that there lag as did a bunk, last evening."
"A prisoner escaped!" exclaimed Bob. "First I'd heard of it. And that explains it."
Ezra came close to his side of the river.
"What do it explain, mister? You don' tell me as 'ee've seed un?"
Ezra was excited. There is a. standing reward of five pounds for the recapture of a prisoner escaped from Dartmoor.
"I didn't see him, but near killed me," Bob answered, and told Ezra what had happened.
"Shot at 'ee, did he?" Ezra looked scared. "Where from did he get the pistol?" he asked.
"You'll know when they catch him,"' Bob replied.
"Reckon I'll got along and tell Constable French," said Caunter and was off.
Bob went back to his house to cook and eat a solitary breakfast. Then he started his day's work, which happened to be digging potatoes.
An hour or so later two warders arrived and questioned him. They told him that the convict's name was Candon; that he was a member of a race gang and, was serving seven years for stabbing another man, that he was a troublesome chap, and, if he had got hold of a pistol, it would be a job to take him!
They went to the mine house, but found no more than Bob had found. He gave them cider, and they promised to let him know if and when the man was caught.
Later in the afternoon Caunter turned up.
"They got him," he announced; "found un dead and drowned in Dart down by Bellamy's. Looked like he'd been trying to cross and fell in. They didn't find no pistol—but likely her's at the bottom."
Caunter, too, had some cider and went off refreshed.
THAT NIGHT Bob slept undisturbed. The weather was fine and he was busy for some days lifting his potatoes.
It had been a Monday night when he had been shot at; on the following Thursday the postman paid a visit to Bar Tor Farm and handed Bob a letter. A letter was an event to Bob Hamlyn. He had hardly any relations, while friends are apt to forget a man who toils for a bare living on a lonely Dartmoor farm. The postmark was London, and, as soon as the postman had gone, Bob opened and read the letter. It was brief and businesslike.
The writer, who signed himself Franklyn Donen, made him an offer of two thousand pounds for Bar Tor Farm.
BOB laid the letter on the home-made table which served for all purposes in his small, low-roofed living room. There was a puzzled expression on his square, pleasant face.
"Two thousand pounds," he said slowly. "Enough to give me a fresh start."
He got up, went out and stood at the door of his little granite built farm house. To an artist the view was delightful. A great open slope fell away to a clear brook which tumbled from pool to pool over rocky falls; on the opposite side the valley rose Amen Beam, the enormous hill golden with gorse, purple with heather, and crowned by one of those fantastic piles of broken granite, in Devonshire called tors.
To a farmer like Bob Hamlyn the outlook was not so good, for the grass in the dry-walled new takes around the house was thin and poor, while the height was too great and the soil too sour and peaty to grow wheat.
Bob had one small field of oats, another of potatoes; he owned about fifty sheep, it couple of ponies, a litter of pigs and some chickens. Most of the three hundred acres which made up Bar Tor farm was just moor.
"Two thousand pounds." he said again. "It's too generous. I'd be a fool not to take it, but all the same I'll see Newcombe before I accept."
He went to the stable, saddled Dixie, a stout grey pony, half Dartmoor, half Welsh, and rode away. An hour later he stabled Dixie in Taverton, and had hardly reached the street before he saw the very man for whom he was looking coming up it.
John Newcombe was nearly seventy, but looked sixty and still rode to hounds, He had been manager of the bank in Taverton, but had now retired and lived in a house up the hill. Bob had been a clerk in the bank. He had thrown up his job when he succeeded to Bar Tor but was still on the best of terms with the ex-manager, while old Newcombe was very fond of Bob.
"You'll lunch with me," he said genially, as he shook hands. "Cold duck, apple tart and cream. But what brings you in? It isn't market day."
"I came to see you," Bob answered, as they walked up the street together.
"I've had an offer of two thousand pounds for Bar Tor. Seems good enough, but I thought I'd ask you first."
"Two thousand! Why. Bob, that twice what I'd lend you on the place. Who's the mug?"
"Chap called Dene. Franklyn Dene, he signs himself. The firm is Dene and Dawtrey."
Newcombe pursed his lips. "Never heard of 'em. Why does he want it?"
"He doesn't say, but I'll show you his letter."
They were now at Elm Lodge. Newcombe's house, and Bob's hosted in his guest and poured him a glass of sherry. Then he took the letter and read it.
"Seems straightforward enough, Bob. And it's a good price—a little too good," he added thoughtfully. "I think I'd see the chap before closing. Get him to come down or else run up to London yourself."
Bob nodded. "I'll ring him up after lunch. I hope he'll come down, because I can't afford a trip to town."
"You can afford a lot of things If you get that two thousand," said Newcombe seriously. "It's enough to give you a fresh start. I hate to think of you wasting your life on those barren acres. It's an infernal shame that Mark Hingston blued everything before he was drowned."
Bob shrugged. "The poor devil couldn't help it," he said. "Mark wasn't a bad sort." And then the lunch gong sounded and they went in.
Before he left Taverton, Bob got a call through to Dene, who said he would come down the next day.
"He's pretty keen," thought Bob, as he rode home. "All the same, I'm sorry I asked him down. The house may put him off; it needs at least five hundred to make It habitable."
Dene arrived early the following afternoon in a car. He was a tall, slim man with sleek black hair, large. Very dark eyes and a curiously soft voice. Most women would have called him good- looking, but Bob took an Instant and quite unreasoning dislike to him. He gave him a drink and waited for Dene to talk.
Dene talked. He told Bob he had a wealthy client who wanted a place where the air was good, where he could get rough shooting and fishing and where he would not be troubled by callers. That was why he was able to offer a price which Mr. Hamlyn would agree was generous.
"How did you hear of this place?" Bob asked bluntly.
"I knew the late owner. Mr. Hingston, your cousin, from whom, I think, you inherited. I came here with him three years ago. When my present client told me what he wanted I at once though of Bar Tor and made enquiries as to who owned it."
Dene spoke frankly enough, yet somehow Bob was not satisfied. Dene watched him. "If the price does not satisfy you. Mr. Hamlyn, my client might be induced to pay a little more. He can afford it, and I of course gain by the commission," he added with a smile.
There was something treacherous in that smile, and Bob felt a sudden revulsion.
"The place is not worth more than two thousand," he said, "and if I sell I will take that price. But first I will consult my solicitor. As soon as I have done that, I will let you know my decision."
Bob Hamlyn's two years as bank clerk, often acting as cashier, had taught him to watch faces, and he did not miss the ugly glow that shone for an instant like a danger signal in Dene's dark eyes. Yet the man made no remonstrance.
"Just as you like. Mr. Hamlyn, but I don't think you will get a better offer. Please let me know as soon as possible. If you won't sell. I must find another property."
When he had gone Bob could not settle to anything. The two years he had spent alone here on Bar Tor had made it clear that he could never make more than a bare living. Indeed, if it was not for a little money, about a hundred a year from a trust fund, that his father had left, he could hardly have made ends meet.
In a way it was a good life. He had the best air in England, plenty of fresh food, some rough shooting and fishing, and he was far fitter and harder than when he had been in the bank. On the other hand he had no society. He could not afford a holiday, he could never hope to marry unless he was content with a moor farmer's daughter, and he could not hope to save against illness or old age.
Judy watched him as he paced up and down, but for once he never noticed her. He was thinking what he could do with two thousand pounds plus his hundred a year. He was only twenty- seven. Young enough to start all over again. He could go up to the University, take a degree in law or medicine. Or he might try forestry and go abroad.
The more he thought the more inclined he felt to write to Dene, accepting his offer. He had got so far as to sit down and get out paper and pen when there came a thump at the door and, without waiting for an invitation to come in, a large young man with a brown face and sandy hair burst into the living room.
"Hullo, Bob!" he roared in a voice that matched his size. Bob jumped up. He gazed at the other as it he could not believe his eyes.
"Peter Newcombe!" he said. "I—I thought you were in Malaya."
"Got home last night. Flew back all the way. My firm sent me with news they wouldn't trust to the post. I delivered the letter yesterday and rushed down to see Dad—and you, too, you ungrateful scoundrel."
Bob grinned and got out cider. His finances didn't run to whisky.
"Glad to see you, Peter. You'll stop to supper?"
"I'll eat with you. I'll even stay the night with you it you ask me. I have only a week in England."
He looked round. "Bob, why don't you chuck this and come out with me Tin's booming and rubber's not too had."
"Just what I was thinking of. Read this."
He handed Peter Dene's letter. Peter read it and nodded.
"Dad told me. Did Dene come to see you?"
"Yes. He only left half an hour ago. He's keen. Offered to raise the price a bit."
Peter's eyes widened. "Gosh, he must be keen. Two thousand is an outside price for this show of yours. You took it, I hope."
"I didn't. I don't cotton to Master Dene."
"What's that matter? His money's as good as anyone else's. You're crazy, Bob."
"Perhaps I am, but if I'm crazy Dene's a crook."
Peter went suddenly serious. "What are you driving at? Do you mean that you think there's something of value here more than the house and land?"
"Something like that A rum thing happened the other night."
He told Peter Newcombe about his visit to the old mine and how he had been shot at. Peter leaned forward eagerly.
"You're right. It was no lag who tried to pot you. Bob, there's something in that mine. It's quite on the cards there might be arsenic or wolfram. Both are found with tin and both are valuable. We'll go down there first thing in the morning. I can soon tell you it there are traces of either."
PETER NEWCOMBE, son of the Taverton bank manager, was a mining engineer with a very good post in Malaya. He knew exactly what to take into the old tin mine and how to explore it, which was lucky for Bob, who had never been underground. Before starting on the job Peter ran back into Taverton on his motor bicycle and fetched a quantity of candles and a couple of miners' hats which are made in the shape of the old fashioned bowler hat, but of felt so thick they protect the head from falling stones. He brought also a torch with a couple of refills, his own geological hammer and overalls, a coil of stout rope, and a short steel crowbar.
Before leaving, he told Bob to put up some sandwiches, for the search was quite likely to take a long time. He asked him, too, to find a small spade to take with them. He was back by ten, and, leaving Judy to guard the house, the two went off together.
Peter led the way. The roof was so low that both had to stoop to avoid hitting their heads against the rugged roof. As he squelched through the red slime which covered the floor Bob thanked his stars he was not a miner. He frankly hated the whole business. He felt buried alive; the cold, dead air and the rank smell of rotting timber offended his senses. How anyone could spend his whole life working underground was beyond Bob's understanding.
The adit rose slowly, and the floor became drier. Peter stopped and pointed to the floor.
"What is it?" Bob asked.
"Foot-prints," Peter said as he stooped to examine them. "Footprints," he repeated eagerly. "Two men have been in here recently. Bob, you were right. That was no lag who shot at you. There's something in here and, if we find it, we shall know why Dene is so keen to buy Bar Tor. Now go slow. I'm going to trail these marks."
At first the prints were plain enough but, further on, the floor became solid rock and Bob could see no trace at all. Yet Peter did, for he went on slowly, holding the beam of his torch close to the ground. Presently he turned to the right into a side gallery. He spoke to Bob in a whisper.
"Walk carefully. The roof is rotten. Even a shout might bring it down." Bob was too excited to be frightened, yet even his untrained eyes could perceive that there was danger for the floor was littered with sharp-edged chunks of reddish rock which had fallen from the roof. The timbering had rotted away, and what remained was covered with white fungus which filled the close air with a mouldy smell. Water dripped from the roof and trickled down the walls.
Peter stopped. The way was barred by the mouth of a shaft which dropped darkly to unknown depths. It was spanned by a heavy timber but this was black with decay. "A winze," Peter explained. "It leads to a lower level."
He turned the beam of his torch into the pit, "All right. I can see the bottom. Only about twenty feet, Bob, I've a notion the secret is here. It looks to me as it our friends went down. There are marks on the rim, which were made by a nailed boot. See?"
Bob looked and nodded. "Yes, they are quite fresh," he agreed, "but how the dickens did they get down? They must have had something to fasten their rope to, and that balk is too rotten to hold a man's weight."
"They had a crowbar, like us. Bob, these chaps knew their job. Here is where they drove it in." He pointed to a small hole in the floor. "Now we'll do the same."
He fitted the point of his own bar into the hole, found a chunk of granite and pounded it in until it was quite secure. He uncoiled the rope, tested it, fastened one end to the bar and dropped the other down the winze.
"I'll go first," he said, and grasping the rope in his big, hard hands, slid over.
By the light of the candle stuck in Peter's hat, Bob saw him slide down the rope. In spite of his size and weight Peter Newcombe was active as a cat.
"All right," came his deep voice sounding oddly hollow as it rose up the shaft, "Footing good, and air not too bad. Come on."
Bob got hold of the rope and followed Peter. The gallery in which he found himself was very like the one above, but wetter and more muddy. Also the mud was lighter in colour than what they had waded through above.
"Here are their marks," Peter said. Peter Newcombe was not the sort to easily betray excitement, yet Bob caught a note in his voice which made him feel that Peter was on the eve of some discovery. For himself he could not imagine what it was. Up above there had been signs of tin ore in the walls, here there was not at all. Peter moved on. He came to a place where the passage forked. Again he very carefully examined the floor.
"They were in both." he said. "We'll try the left first."
The roof was so low that Bob's shoulders ached with the constant stooping. He began to feel he would give a lot to be able to straighten his back for just a minute. Peter stopped. His light fell upon a pile of broken rock which completely blocked the passage.
"Roof fall. Can't go further this tray." he said. "We'll try the other."
The other passage sloped downwards. It was very slushy. It curve! slightly then came to a sudden end. Peter threw the ray of his torch on the blank wall.
"Got it!" he said in sudden triumph.
"Got what?" asked Bob, puzzled, for all he could see was a few square feet of whitish stuff that looked like chalk.
Peter turned and his eyes were aglow. "China clay."
"China clay," Bob repeated. Visions of the vast pits he had seen on the Cornish moors flitted before his eyes, and with them, the memory of a man who had banked thousands at Taverton, a farmer on whose land kaolin had been discovered.
"China clay. But why didn't they work it? The tin men. I mean."
"Because they didn't know anything about it. They had one- track minds. Tin was what they were looking for. Bob, you're a lucky lad. You can either sell out or form a company and work It yourself, rd say work It."
"I—I'll do just what you say, Peter," said Bob. His head was spinning. He felt queerly giddy. Peter was at the face taking a sample of the clay. Having done so, he turned again to Bob. "We must get an expert up from Cornwall but I don't think there's any doubt about this being a big deposit and easily worked."
He led the way back up the long slope towards the winze. When they reached it the rope was longer there. Peter looked up the shaft but there was no sign of it.
"Bob," he sand in a curiously quiet voice. "Dene and Co. had a spy watching us. They have snookered us. There's no getting up that shaft without a rope."
"And no other way out," asked Bob.
Peter shook his head. "I don't see any," he answered.
"MY turn," said Peter Newcombe as he took the spade from Bob Hamlyn's blistered hands, and started a fresh spell of digging. It was now five in the afternoon.
Six hours had passed since the two had found themselves trapped in the lower level of the Bar Tor Mine and ever since they had been working on the roof fall in the left-hand passage, trying to force away through. It was desperately hard and difficult work and risky, too, for the broken roof was so shaky that the slightest jar brought down fresh lumps of stone. Their miners' hats had saved their heads time and again, but at any moment a rock might crash down, so large and heavy that nothing could save a man caught beneath it. If Bob had been alone he would have been finished long ago: it was Peter's skill and experience which had so far saved them both from catastrophe.
By this time they were both soaked with sweat and getting very tired. The air was not too good and working In this confined space was very trying. Worse than all was the knowledge that, even if they did force a way through the barrier of clay and boulders, there was no certainty that it would lead to freedom. Bob knew that there was a second exit from the mine at a lower level than the adit through which they had entered, but he had never explored it and seemed to recollect that it was not much bigger than a fox's earth.
Peter skilfully levered a large stone out of the fall and Bob lifted it aside.
Peter spoke. "I believe we're getting through. I can feel a draught of air though I can't see anything yet."
He set to work again. It was impossible to hurry for the rotten roof hung like a sword of Damocles over their heads. Both knew that at any moment tons of rock might come thundering down, and even if they escaped burial, such a fall would seal the passage for good and all. There was little hope of rescue from outside for no one knew where they were.
Now Peter was working on the top of the barrier and Bob held his breath In terror of a fresh fall. But Peter cleverly built up on one side the stones he took from the other, and presently looked round.
"There's a real draught now. Bob."
"I can feel it," Bob answered. "Get down and let me have a turn."
"Not yet. This is pretty ticklish and I'm more accustomed to this sort of thing than you are."
"If we get out it will be your doing." said Bob gruffly. Peter did not answer. He went on skilfully shifting heavy stones. At last he stepped back. "Give me the torch," he said. He took it and held it so that its ray pierced between the left-hand wall and the stones which he had built up.
"I can see through, Bob," he announced. "Passage looks to be clear the far side, but there's a bit of work to do still before there's room to wriggle through."
The bit of work was the most difficult and delicate of all, and Bob saw the grim anxiety on Peter's face as he picked the stones out one by one. Slowly he enlarged the opening until it was about a foot across. Every now and then there would be a sharp little crack as a small stone fell from the roof. The rock was rotten. Even Bob could see that, and he was as anxious as Peter.
Peter paused a moment.
"There's daylight the far side," he said, and a thrill of relief ran through Bob's aching body. Once more he glanced up at the roof. In a flash he had grasped Peter and dragged him back. He was just In time to save him as a huge lump of rock weighing at least a ton came crunching down.
"Thanks, Bob," came Peter's voice out of the fog of dust raised by the fall Bob wondered he could speak so quietly. The dust cleared and both stepped forward. Peter shook his head.
"We shall never move that," he said, pointing to the boulder which now crowned the fall. Bob's heart sank horribly, for he, too, could see that their way was blocked for good. The odd thing was that the small hole which Peter had opened had not been closed, but the boulder sitting squarely above it, made it flatly impossible to enlarge it.
"If only we had a pick," said Peter longingly.
Bob pulled himself together.
"Peter, we're both pretty well done. Let's sit down and eat a sandwich and have a smoke. We may think of something.
"Not a bad notion," Peter agreed. He put his hand into his pocket "And I have a flask," he said. "A drop of good whisky."
They sat and ate. Each took only one sandwich. There was no saying how long the half-dozen which Bob had brought would have to last them. But that was something better not thought of.
Bob had a pipe: Peter a case with about a dozen cigarettes. They smoked and talked. Bob's idea was that they might carry rocks back to the winze and build them up so that they might climb on them and reach the top. Peter knew that such a task would take at least a week, but would not say so for fear of discouraging the other. His own notion was to search this lower part of the workings for any tool left behind by the workers.
"Even if we had the crowbar." he said, "I don't believe we could cut away the wall of the gallery enough to squeeze through."
Bob suddenly held up his hand.
"Listen!" he said, tensely. In the silence that followed both heard a scratching sound behind the barrier.
Bob sprang up.
"Judy!" he cried, and next moment the little dog came squeezing through the tiny hole. Judy was not as a rule demonstrative, but now she sprang straight into her master's arms and licked his face.
"I'll be damned!" Peter exclaimed. "How the devil did she find you?"
"If she could talk she'd tell us." Bob said as he hugged his dog. "As it is, we'll never know."
His face lit up. "Peter, have you a pencil?"
"Yes," said Peter, taking out a small notebook with pencil attached. "Will she go?"
"But there's no one there."
"There will be. To-morrow's the day that Mrs. Caunter, the bailiff's wife, comes to tidy up and do my washing."
Peter drew a long breath. "It's a chance anyhow," he said, and began to write. Bob found string and tied the note firmly to Judy's collar. The task was to get Judy to go back. Well she knew that something was very wrong. She had found her master and did not understand why she should leave him. The idea of going back alone to the empty farm house was against all her instincts. Bob had to be almost harsh before he could persuade her to go. And then, as he saw her stop and look back and heard her whine softly.
"That dog's human," said Peter.
"THERE are few humans to compare with her," Bob answered. His voice was harsh with emotion, but Peter understood.
They sat and waited, There was nothing else to do. The damp air bit coldly into their sweat-soaked bodies and not and then one or the other got up and paced to and fro. They had put out their candles to save light, but it was not quite dark, for a little daylight came through the hole. They could see now that the entrance of the adit was only twenty feet away. It was maddening to be so near to freedom and yet so far.
Time dragged by. The light began to fade. It was now six o'clock. It would be eight next morning before Mrs. Caunter arrived at the farm. Then, even if she saw the note, it must be some time before she got help. At the best they had at least sixteen hours to spend in this cold, damp, gloomy prison. For a long time neither spoke but at last Bob broke the silence.
"Could we make a fire out of some of the old pit props?" he asked. "We might," Peter answered, "but the smoke would choke us. We'll have to stick it, old lad."
"Then let's have another sandwich. That will still leave two for breakfast."
Before Peter could answer there came a sharp bark, then a shout. "Peter, are you in there?"
"It's dad," said Peter, then lifted his great voice in a bellow.
"Here we are, Bob and I. We are behind a big fall. You can't come in, that way."
He explained to his father just what he had to do and at once came the answer. "All right. Caunter and another man are with me. Go back to the winze. We'll have you out in no time."
Peter spoke. "Bob, that dog of yours ought to have a medal."
"She shall have rabbit for supper," Bob said. "That will appeal to her far more than a medal."
It was years since Bob had been in London. In a suit of dark blue pin-stripe flannel with Well polished brown shoes, a new felt hat and a lair of pigskin gloves he looked and felt a different man from the shirt-sleeved Dartmoor farmer. Women looked at him approvingly.
Armed with instructions from Mr. Newcombe, he was on his way by bus to the City to interview Mr. Peyton, managing director of the South Western China Clay Company. The report of the expert who had examined the deposit of clay discovered in the Bittifer Mine was in his pocket and was very satisfactory. To Bob all seemed well, in the best of all possible worlds.
Going up Ludgate Hill, he glanced at his watch, found he was early for his appointment so got out at St. Paul's and decided to walk the rest of the way to Broad Street. He had just reached the pavement on the left when someone said: "You look prosperous, Hamlyn."
Bob found himself facing a man a few years older than himself, a man who must have once been remarkably good looking but had now gone badly to seed. The whites of his eyes were yellowed, veins made blue lines in his puffy cheeks, his hair was thin and his waist line bulged. Yet it was only a second-or two before Bob placed him.
"Basil Tiber!" he exclaimed.
"That's who," answered the other. "Come and have a drink."
"Too early. Nothing open yet," said Bob.
Tiber grinned. "Never too early for me, my lad. Basil can get a drink any time, day or night."
Bob glanced again at his watch. "I have an appointment in the city. But I'd like a yarn. Lunch with me."
"Right you are. The Gresham. That suit you?"
"Yes. Meet me there at one."
Tiber nodded and went off.
As Bob walked eastwards his thoughts were busy. Tiber had been the bosom friend of Mark Hingston. He had been with him in the sailing boat when caught in the squall off Miami. It was he who had brought back the story of Mark's death, he himself having been picked up by a fishing boat after clinging to the wreckage for half a day. Bob had never seen him since. It would be interesting to know just what had happened. Then he found himself at his destination and for the time being forgot everything except the coming interview.
When he met Tiber at the Gresham, Tiber looked at him with some suspicion.
"Been making a fortune?" he inquired.
"I'm hoping to make a bit," Bob answered modestly.
"Wish you'd put me on to something good," said Tiber. "I've had no luck since that Florida trip."
"Tell me about it," Bob said as they took their seats.
"I've told all there is to tell," said Tiber rather glumly. "I lost the best pal a man ever had and I've done no good since."
Bob questioned him and, under the influence of a bottle of Burgundy and a good meal, Tiber mellowed and talked. But Bob did not learn much that he had not heard already.
"You came in for what was left, didn't you?" Tiber asked.
"Yes, and I've been trying ever since to make a living out of it," Bob replied.
"Trying successfully, I gather," Tiber sad with a laugh which had a touch of envy in it.
"Three hundred acres of barren moorland, a dilapidated farm house, no stock and no money—what would you have done with that, Tiber?"
Tiber shrugged. "Swapped it for a barrel of beer, if any one had been fool enough to trade."
"I've done better than that. I found china clay."
Tiber's eyes widened. "The deuce you did. Enterprising of you. I very honestly congratulate you."
Bob was a little above himself. He told Tiber the whole story— how he had been shot at, how he and Peter had been prisoned in the mine. After all, why shouldn't he? He had known Tiber a good many years and had nothing against him except that he was a waster. Tiber's interest was intense.
"My hat, what a story! What are you doing—selling or forming a company?"
"A company. I don't want to loaf. I'm going to help to work the new Pit."
"Let me in for a few founder's shares," Tiber asked with a laugh.
"Indeed I shall not forget old friends," Bob assured him. Then Tiber said he must go and they parted.
Two days later Bob received a letter which gave him a considerable shock It ran as follows:
Re: Bar Tor Farm
We understand that you are in occupation of the above estate and propose to work it for china clay. We have to inform that the original owner, Mr. Mark Hingston is still alive and, on his behalf, we must warn you that you have no rights in the property.
Bruce, Powell and Stratton.
BOB went at once to the office of Mr Newcombe's solicitor, Walford, Wharton and Co., and put the letter before the head, Mr William Walford.
"It's just a try on, I suppose," Bob said. The keen faced old man shook his head. "No reputable firm of solicitors would send such a letter unless proof was in their hands."
"But I saw Tiber only the other day. He was with my cousin when he was drowned. He told me the whole story."
"How much do you know about this man, Tiber?" questioned Walford.
"Not much," Bob admitted, "but he was a great friend of Mark."
"Did you tell him about your clay pit?"
"I did," Bob admitted.
"Then it looks to me as if he has been lying to you for some purpose of his own."
"But it was he who brought the news of Mark's death, and it was through that news I inherited." Walford frowned.
"Had Mark Hingston any reason for wishing to disappear?"
"Not that I know of. It's true he was broke."
"And no doubt in debt?"
"I expect he was. Yes, he must have been, for all I got was Bar Tor which was supposed to be of no value at all."
"Then," sad Mr Walford, "in my opinion Hingston deliberately disappeared. He must have told or bribed Tiber to say he was dead."
Bob's face hardened. "What can I do about it? I'm not going to sit down and see myself robbed."
"Speaking as a solicitor," replied the other, "I should say there was nothing you could do except wait and see. Speaking as your friend, I should advise you to get in touch with Tiber and ask a few questions!"
"I'll do it," said Bob grimly, and started away.
"Just a moment," put in Walford. "This man, Dene. It might be as well to discover whether he and Tiber are in collusion; I take that you spoke, of Dene to Tiber?".
Bob bit his lip.
"I ought to be kicked for a fool. I did."
"It was foolish," agreed the solicitor. "Yet quite natural. But keep clear of Dene. You will get nothing out of him and, as we know, he is dangerous. Tiber is the one to tackle." He paused a moment. "No violence, Hamlyn—remember!"
"Not more than necessary," Bob answered with a ghost of a grin.
Bob Hamlyn's two years alone on the Moor had toughened him both in mind and body, and he stood up to the blow better than most men would have done. For all that, he was savagely angry at the trick which had been worked on him and was positively aching to get his hands on Tiber. It was not until he had reached the end of Bedford Row that he remembered he had not Tiber's address.
He stopped so abruptly that a man coming up behind cannoned into him and Bob had to apologise Bob walked as far as Gray's Inn Road and got into an Embankment tram where he sat, blind and deaf to his surroundings, considering his problem. He remembered what Walford had said about Tiber being possibly in collusion with Dene, and it came to him that his best—indeed his only—chance of finding Tiber was at Dene's office.
He felt in his pocket and took out Dene's letter. The address was 97 Red Lion-square. The tram stopped at the top of Kingsway, Bob got out and walked north again. He stopped at a telephone kiosk and consulted the directory and was hardly surprised to find that the firm of Dene and Dawtrey did not figure in it. He went on afoot to Red Lion-square, found number 97, and went into a passage where a board gave the names of the occupants of the various offices. There was no such firm as Dene and Dawtrey.
The lift came down as he stood there and Bob inquired of the liftman who told him that he did not know of any such firm as Dene and Dawtrey, but that a Mr Dene had rented an office on the top floor for a month. He had gone away some days ago, and he had not left any address. Bob thanked the man and turned away, feeling as if someone had punched him in the stomach. He did not see any possible hope of finding Tiber. Suddenly the liftman called after him.
"I tell you where you might find him sir. That's The Crow's Nest, in Lamb's Conduit-street. He was there pretty nigh every evening. I know because I use it, myself."
"Has he been there lately?" Bob asked eagerly.
"He was there night before last, but not last night. Usually comes in between eight and nine."
Bob produced a ten shilling note.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"That's a good Devon name." The man smiled.
"Aye, I be Devon. Come from Chaggyfurd."
"That's my country," Bob told him. "I live at Bar Tor Farm. Know it?"
"Surely," said Coaker.
Bob took a quick decision. He told Coaker in a few words how Dene had tried to swindle him, and Coaker, who quite clearly had no use for Dene, promised to help him in any way he could.
The afternoon dragged badly. Bob in rooms in Charles-street, long used, by Peter Newcombe, occupied part of the time writing to Newcombe, senior, telling him exactly what had happened. Afterwards he wandered about restlessly until it was time to go to "The Crow's Nest."
Coaker was there and introduced Bob to the landlord, whose name was Stagg. He was a stout, pleasant fellow. Bob found a corner seat in the restaurant and ordered a chop. It was good, and he managed to eat it, with some apple tart to follow. He ordered coffee and picked up a newspaper. Nine o'clock came and no sign of Dene, Bob had begun to feel that his evening was wasted when Coaker slipped in.
"He'll be there, Mr Hamlyn, and another gent with him."
"What's the other one like?" Bob whispered.
"About my height, and around 30 years old. Brown hair going thin on top. Looks like he was fond of his drink."
"Tiber," Bob answered. "All right, Coaker. Let me know when they go."
Coaker; who was keen as could be, promised to do so, and Bob stayed where he was. In about half an hour Coaker came to the door and beckoned. He was just in time to see Dene and Tiber going out.
Tiber, he saw at once, was half drunk, but Dene was sober enough. They walked northwards into Queen-street, and presently stopped at the door of one of the tall, narrow, old-fashioned houses. Bob, following on the far side of the street, saw Tiber take out a latch key. He expected them both to go in, but, to his relief, Dene only entered. Tiber went on alone in the direction of Mecklenburg Square.
At this time of night the street was almost deserted. Bob came up quickly behind Tiber and caught him by the arm. Tiber turned and, when he saw Bob, his face went a sickly grey.
Bob spoke in a quiet voice. "You're coming with me, Tiber. Try to bolt and I'll give you the worst hammering you ever had in your life."
His hard fingers bit like pincers into Tiber's soft biceps, and the look in his eyes told Tiber more plainly than words that Bob would do exactly as promised. Bob walked Tiber into Gary's Inn Road, found a taxi, put Tiber in, got in after him, and gave the man the address of his rooms in Charles-street. Not a word was said during the drive, and this scared Tiber worse than anything, which was exactly Bob's intention.
By the time Bob got Tiber into his sitting-room the man was actually shivering. A coward at any time, Tiber's conscience was not helping to any great degree. Bob pushed the man into a chair and stood over him.
"You're a dirty dog, Tiber," he said.
"I was broke," Tiber answered sullenly.
"I told you I was ready to help you," Bob said.
"How could you help me when you had nothing? With Mark alive, the mine isn't yours."
"It was you who brought the news that he was dead," Bob reminded him. "On that, his death was accepted by the courts, and I inherited. I suppose you know you are liable to imprisonment for perjury."
Tiber plucked up a little spirit. "Putting me in quod won't help you," he retorted.
"It might," said Bob significantly. "With you out of the way, Dene would have no link between him and Mark. That is, if Mark is really alive."
"He's alive all right," Tiber told him. "And Dene knows where to find him."
"And where's that?" Bob asked. "Do you think I'm fool enough to tell you?" Tiber asked with a sneer.
Bob stooped, took the man by the shoulders. His eyes, bleared by drink, at once registered an intense fear. But Bob did not strike him. He shook him with a violence that left Tiber limp—and strangely sober.
"Tiber," said Bob, "I've taken a lot of trouble to find you, and, now that I have found you, I'm not letting you go until I have the truth from you. The truth arid the whole truth, mind you. That little shaking is a token of what's coming to you if you don't talk."
Tiber's lips were twisted, his eyes bloodshot. "Dene will kill me," he muttered thickly.
"He won't, because there won't be enough left of you to kill," Bob said calmly. "And anyhow, he won't know unless you tell him."
This point of view seemed previously to have escaped Tiber's muddled brain. He revived a little.
"Where is Mark?"
Tiber looked up at him, determination in Bob's eyes and the powerful hands ready to seize him again.
"Mark's on Cottonmouth Key."
"In the Gulf. About fifty miles from Key West."
"How does he come there?"
"He was picked up the same time I was by a sponge fisher named Mizell. He was pretty bad from a nasty blow on the head. We stayed with Mizell a week and Mark fell for Mizell's daughter. When he got better he told me he had decided to marry the girl and stay where he was. He had got through everything and there was nothing to come back to on this side but debts.
"He had just a hundred pounds left and told me I could have half of it if I would go home and say that he was dead."
He paused, looking towards the sideboard and its decanters. "Give me a drink," he begged, "I'm all in."
Bob saw it was true and gave him' whisky. It pulled Tiber together and he went on.
"I promised. Anyone would have done the same in my place. I didn't see it could do any harm. It—it wouldn't if you hadn't gone pitching me that story of how you'd found a fortune in clay."
"I was certainly a fool to tell you," Bob said cuttingly. "And if you had merely told Mark I might have forgiven you. But to sneak off to that swine, Dene, and the story—that was so dirty there are no words for it."
He paused but Tiber said nothing. He sat, biting his lip and looking abject.
"Dene, I take it, means to make Mark a small offer for Bar Tor?" Bob went on.
"He's going out to see him," Tiber answered. Bob nodded. "I don't imagine there's a post to Cottonmouth Key. Are you going with him?"
"Y-yes. He's taking me."
"And when he's done with you how much do you think you'll get?" Bob asked sarcastically, but had no reply.
NEXT MORNING he was at Mr Walford's office as soon as it opened, and when Walford came in wasted no time telling him the story of his doings. The lawyer nodded.
"You are a quick worker, Hamlyn. Now the obvious course is for you to go to this island with the absurd name, and beat Dene to it. There is no time to communicate with Newcombe so I'll be responsible for the money."
He rang for his clerk.
"Purdy," he said, when the clerk came in, "Find but the quickest way of reaching Key West in Florida. And be sharp. Every minute counts."
"Key West," repeated Purdy. "That's the southernmost point. All right, sir. I'll have it in five minutes."
In less than five he was back.
"The Breman leaves Southampton at four-thirty this afternoon. From New York you take a plane to Miami, change there and take another to Key West. With luck you will do it in just over six days."
"Right," said Mr Walford, who was writing a cheque. "Purdy, 'phone for a berth for Mr Hamlyn."
He turned to Bob.
"If Dene doesn't catch the same boat you should beat him. Here is money. You've time to buy a few essentials. Now get to it, and good luck to you."
"WHAT'S the trouble?" The speaker was a stout American salesman, who stood mopping the perspiration from his streaming face, on the aerodrome at Miami. "What's all the delay?" he went on peevishly.
"Storm warning," a long, leathery American answered him. "They say there's a hurricane somewhere down south. Trouble is no one knows just where it is."
"Waal, if they don't know where it is it can't be very close," grumbled the salesman. "Wish they'd start. I got to go to Key West. Gee!—ain't it hot?"
Bob Hamlyn, who was another of the little group waiting for the plane, agreed. It was early September, and the heat was something that Bob had not only never felt before, but had not dreamed of. Even in the shade of the veranda where they were waiting the temperature was 102 deg. The sun struck down fiercely on the asphalt of the aerodrome, and there was not a breath of wind to moderate it. Close by the Atlantic lay flat as a pond, not a catspaw disturbing its glassy surface. The wind socks of the airfield hung like wet rags. At a little distance two men were standing before a weather map talking in low voices. Their faces were grave. Bob took them to be officials of the Seaboard Company, and went closer.
A boy came up and handed the elder of them a message. He read it and handed it to the other. "Don't tell us a lot!" said the latter, frowning. "They still don't know where the darn thing is!"
"The last report we got it was south of Key West, but that's eighteen hours ago," the elder man answered. "Looks to me like it's stationary. Winds nor'-west at Key West," he continued, "so it seems as if it would go south of the Straits and move into the Atlantic."
The other nodded.
"That's what's likely. Still, there's no telling. The darn things will switch round in a minute."
"Don't start if you think there's any risk, Mike," said the older man.
"And a fool I'd look, keeping all these folk waiting," Mike answered with a toss of his head. "I guess it's all right, Mr Martin. Tell 'em to get aboard."
Martin shrugged. "Just as you say," he replied, and turned.
"It's all right, isn't it?" asked Bob, as the man passed him.
"I reckon so. Maybe you'll get a bump or two, but I guess you're accustomed to that."
"That won't worry me," Bob told him as he followed him to the plane.
It was a real relief to get into the air again. Michael Lane, the pilot, climbed to three thousand feet, and the big plane roared southwards along the rim of the ocean. On one side was the flat blue plain of the Atlantic, and the other a maze of mangrove swamps bordering the coast. Further inland, Bob could see the vast mysterious swamp known as the Everglades, a wilderness of tall, grey green sawgrass, with here and there an island crowned with dark cypress and spindly palmettos.
Bob noticed that radio, reports came in at intervals, but of course they were in code, and no one but the pilot and the operator knew their contents. Meantime, the sky remained clear and, even at this height, there did not seem to be any appreciable wind.
"All bunkum, this storm scare," said the fat salesman, who had the next seat to Bob.
"I'm not so sure," Bob answered, pointing to a dark haze forming on, the horizon. The fat man frowned, but did not reply. The haze thickened; it turned blue-black. It was a cloud which reached from the sky right down to the sea. As the plane raced towards it, covering nearly three miles a minute, the cloud grew thicker until it looked to be as solid as a mountain.
Bob held his breath as they neared it for he felt as if the plane must smash against it. Lightning leaped dazzlingly before their eyes and water smashed like a wave against the glass of the windows, the plane bumped violently in vicious wind currents. The fat man was cursing under his breath and the face of the long man had gone quite yellow.
Bob glanced at the pilot, but he seemed calm and collected. Then, all in a moment, they were clear. The sun shone again and the only difference was that now the sea beneath them was coated with white caps.
"Just a thunderstorm," said the steward as he came along the aisle, and the faces of the passengers showed their relief. Presently the railway was in sight—that strange line which leaps from Key to Key across the sea on concrete-faced embankments. It was derelict, and wide gaps yawned here and there. It had been wrecked by the great hurricane which flattened Miami five years earlier.
"And there's Key West," said the salesman, pointing to a large flat island where white houses gleamed among palms and other tropical foliage, and steamers lay in the docks which faced the ocean. A little later the plane landed on the tarmac and Bob, carrying his suit case, stepped out into heat which seemed even more intense than that which he had felt at Miami. Not only was there no wind but the sultry air seemed absolutely dead.
"Say, but this is terrible!" groaned the salesman. He turned to Bob. "You going into the town?"
"I am," said Bob. "Like to share a taxi, mister?"
"Certainly," Bob told him, and they got into a taxi driven by a coloured man.
"Where do you want to go?" the fat man asked.
"An hotel—just for the night," Bob answered.
"Magnolia's all right. That's where I'm going," the salesman said, and Bob gratefully agreed.
As they drove into a street they noticed that there was hardly any traffic, and that people were busy, nailing slats across windows and taking similar precautions.
"You expecting this here hurricane?" the fat man asked the driver.
"We sure are," was the emphatic answer.
At the hotel it was the same. Those who were not busy with preparations looked anxious and harrowed. There was a crowd around the radio, listening to the announcer from the Meteorological Station and others were keenly watching the sky. Everywhere was an atmosphere of tense expectancy.
Bob and his stout companion got rooms, and Bob went up for a wash and to change his sticky underwear. He stripped and lay on his bed without a stitch, smoking a cigarette and trying to make plans. In spite of the excitement he was not worried. On the contrary he felt distinctly pleased with himself that he had won the race to Key West and beaten Dene. For Dene had not been in the Breman, and there was no other way in which he could have reached New York ahead of Bob. Even if he caught the fast Cunard ship which sailed the day after the Breman, Bob had at least forty hours' start.
The great thing was not to waste his advantage. He must find a boat of some sort in which to reach Cottonmouth Key. Then he remembered the hurricane threat. If the storm was really coming no boat would go out. But Bob was beginning to doubt the hurricane. He had been hearing about it ever since leaving New York, and so far there had been nothing worse than a thunderstorm. He decided to go down to the docks and see if he could persuade someone to take him across to Cottonmouth, so he dressed and went out.
IT WAS now past six and growing dusk. Although the sun had set it was hot as ever. A windless, sticky heat which made Bob gasp for been throttled down, but the screw was turning steadily. Day had dawned and, in the dim light which came through a port above him, he could breath. He felt it worse than the natives for he had had no time to get acclimatised. When he had left New York that same morning the temperature had been in the sixties. It was now, as he saw, by a thermometer in a drug store, window, 92 degrees. And the air was saturated with moisture.
Bob had purposely made no inquiries in the hotel. He did not wish to leave any clue for Dene. He had even given himself an alias in the hotel register, signing his name as B. Harvey of Montreal. The docks were only a few hundred yards away, but they seemed deserted. Most of the big tramps had put to sea for Key West harbour is no place in which to be caught in a hurricane; all small boats had been dragged ashore and housed; the only craft afloat were a few yachts and motor boats, and these were all battened down and double moored. In only one or two did Bob see lights.
He met a coloured man from one of the yachts in a dinghy, and tackled him as he landed. Bob asked if there were any motor boats for hire. The man looked at him as if he thought him slightly insane.
"Ain't yo' heard dere's a storm coming?" he asked.
"I've heard nothing else all day, but I haven't seen it yet," retorted Bob.
"No, and yo' won't see it until half an hour afore it comes," was the reply. "But if yo' take a look at de weather glass yo'll know she ain't very far off; she'll break befo' mawning."
"But can't I get a launch and be away before it comes?" Bob asked. "I'm ready to pay."
The man made a sound between a laugh and a snort. "If yo' offered all de money in dem big banks in Washington no one wouldn't be crazy enough to take a boat out to sea tonight. Money ain't no good when yo're dead and drowned."
Bob was annoyed. There was no cloud and the stars were beginning to show in a clear sky. "Can I hire a boat and go by myself?" he asked.
"Yo' can't, boss. Yo' would have to buy it. Now I'm gwine back to nail up my windows and, if yo' got sense, yo'll go home, too."
He walked off but Bob kept on down the wharf. There was a streak of obstinacy in his make-up, and, in spite of what the darkie had said, he still believed he might secure a craft of some sort. He had looked out Cottonmouth on a chart and believed that he could find it single-handed. With a good launch it would be only a few hours run.
Presently he spotted just the sort of launch he was looking for. It was moored only a little distance out. He wondered if it were possible to find out who owned it. He was standing, gazing at it, when he heard or thought he heard someone moving behind him. He whirled to see a squat, dark-skinned man coming at him through the dusk. The fellow was armed with an ugly-looking stick.
With Bob attack was always the best form of defence. He sprang at the fellow. A second man came swiftly in behind him. A sand bag rose and fell, striking Bob across the base of the skull. He dropped inert.
The squat man looked round to make sure no one was in sight.
"Dat was sure neat, Louie," he remarked as he bent over Bob's insensible body. A moment later he straightened up and thrust something into his pocket. He beckoned to the other. "T'row him over."
The next thing Bob knew he was struggling in the water. He was completely dazed, he did not definitely know what had happened, yet he had survived a blow which would have killed a man less strong and fit than he, and had risen to the surface. A strong swimmer, he struck out mechanically towards the dock wall. He reached it, but there was nothing to hold. He shouted, but his voice was so feeble it sounded to him hardly more than a whisper. He clawed at the unyielding stone, but could not find even a crevice in which to hook his fingers. He had no strength left, he was sinking when he heard the quick splash of oars behind him.
"Hold on!" came a deep voice. "Hold on! We'll have you." A hand caught him by the collar. "Steady, Scipio! Balance the boat. I can I get him in."
Bob felt himself being drawn out of the water, he tried to speak but could not make a sound. He was vaguely conscious of someone bending over him, then the face vanished, and for a second time all went black.
When Bob came back once more to consciousness he was lying in a comfortable bunk, and, by the sound of powerful motor engines and the thrash of a screw, was aware that the craft—whatever it was—was being driven at high speed out to sea. His head ached abominably, he felt weak as a child, and was terribly thirsty. He tried to sit up with the idea of finding water but before he could do so a light was switched on and a deep voice said in a soft Southern drawl:
"So yo' come round. Yo' wanting a drink?"
"Please," said Bob, and the speaker, a stocky negro with a pleasant face, at once poured out a glass of lemonade and gave it to him. Bob drank and felt better.
"Was it you pulled me out?" he asked.
"No, sah. It was de boss pulled yo' out. He's Marse Randolph Lestor and dis heah boat is de Mocassin."
"I'm very grateful to him," Bob said, "and if I may ask one question—where are you bound?"
"Up de west coast, sah. We'se running from dat dar hurricane, but Cap'n Parslow, de skipper, he's keeping close to shore so dat, if it do catch us up, we kin run for shelter."
Up the west coast! Bob's wits were coming back to him and it seemed that thinks were not so bad as they might have been. Cottonmouth Key lay off the west coast. There might still be a chance of reaching it.
"Can I see Mr Lestor?" he asked the negro.
"Not to-night, yo' can't. Mr Lestor, he hab turned in and you better get to sleep. Yo' has been hurt pretty I bad."
That was true and Bob decided that he must wait till morning. He asked; for another drink.
Then the man left him and Bob quickly dropped off to sleep.
He woke to find the vessel pitching and rolling in what was evidently a very heavy sea. The engines had been throttled down, but the screw was turning steadily. Day had dawned, and in the dim light which came through a port above him he could see the tops of waves dashing against the thick glass of the scuttle.
He sat up. He was still giddy, and the back of his head was very sore but his strength had come back, and he felt very much better. The jug of lemonade was in a rack beside him, he took a long drink, then lay down again. His clothes were not in the cabin and the suit of pyjamas which he found himself wearing, were not the garments in which to interview strangers. Besides, it was still very early and the odds were that his host was not yet up.
He lay back and began to piece together the events of the previous evening. His thoughts were not pleasant. What a fool he had been! It had never even occurred to him that Tiber would have friends in Key West, and that he and Dene had nothing to do but cable them to get rid of him. How Tiber must be chuckling now to hear of his fate.
Then a more cheering thought occurred. These men who had attacked him had not seen his rescue. They would report to Dene that he was dead and Dene would no longer be in any desperate hurry. Possibly he would come south from New York by train instead of by plane. If he did that meant he would not reach Florida for two or perhaps three days. If this was the case Bob had time to look round. All depended upon this man who had picked him up—what was his name?—Lestor. From the comfortable appointments of the cabin he was probably a rich Northerner on a cruise to Southern waters. In which case he would hardly refuse to put into Cottonmouth.
WHILE various thoughts chased through Bob's brain he became aware that the motion of the ship was becoming less violent. He looked out again and saw through a mist of rain a low, jungle-clad point of land. He realised that they were running into shelter of some kind. Within a few minutes the vessel was on even keel, and presently the engine stopped and he heard the sound of an anchor chain running out through a hawse hole.
He got up, opened the door of his cabin and looked into a narrow passage from which four cabins opened. Forward he could see a small saloon. Bob was looking towards the saloon, hoping to see his black friend when the cabin door opposite opened and a girl came out. She wore a pale blue dressing gown and on her feet were blue quilted silk slippers. Bob had an impression that she had dark hair with a sort of reddish sheen eyes of a deep pansy blue.
"Good morning," she said, quite unembarrassed. "You must be our castaway. How are you?"
Bob pulled himself together with an effort. "Barring a sore head, I am very fit, thank you. I was hoping to find our coloured friend and receive my clothes. Then perhaps I can begin to express my gratitude to Mr Lestor."
She laughed, a pleasant, deep throated laugh.
"I'll send Scipio to you. Your clothes are in the galley. If they are dry you shall have them. If not, we will find you something of Pop's. Breakfast will be ready in about half an hour. And the bathroom is at the stern end of this after passage. I am going there now and I will call you when I have finished."
Bob went back into his cabin and sat down on his bunk. So this was Lestor's daughter. Bob had met a number of pretty girls during the Atlantic crossing, but not one to hold a candle to Miss Lestor.
He was still considering the matter when Scipio, whose second name was Mack, came in with Bob's clothes which he had not only dried, but managed to press and make quite decent.
Bob questioned him eagerly.
"Where are we?"
"We'se in Shark Bay, sah. We done run away from de worst ob de storm, but de tail caught us and Captain Parslow, he say we better get in heah where we be safe till it pass over."
"Then we'll stay here a while?"
"I reckon so," Scipio answered.
Bob wanted to ask where they were bound and how many people there were aboard, and a dozen other questions, yet felt that he had better wait until he met his host. After all it wasn't quite the thing to question a servant. And just then Miss Lestor tapped on the door.
"Bath's ready," she said. "You're next."
He found that Scipio had provided him with not only a razor and hairbrush, but, miraculously, a new tooth brush; so he went to breakfast, cleanly shaved and feeling almost his old self. Miss Lestor and her father were already in the saloon. Lestor was tall, loosely built, with thick grey hair and moustache, a Virginian. At sixty he was still a handsome man. He greeted Bob with old-fashioned courtesy and politely put aside his thanks.
"The least one can do when one sees a man drowning is to pull him out," he remarked. He spoke with a gentle drawn and hardly a trace of American accent. "Merle tells me she has met you already," he continued, "but neither she nor I know your name."
"I am Robert Hamlyn, sir. I come from Devon. And I had better tell you just how I came to be in the sea, or you may think worse things of me than you are probably thinking at present."
"Sit you down first and drink your coffee, Mr Hamlyn, and don't be afraid that we shall think badly of you. I'd say you were the victim of some of those dock thugs. When we undressed you, we found your pockets empty."
Bob hastily thrust his hand into his breast pocket. He went rather white. His pocket book was gone with his with his money, his return ticket and all his papers.
"Have you lost much?" Lestor asked.
"Everything," said Bob bitterly, "except the clothes in my suit case at the Magnolia Hotel in Key West."
Lestor shook his head. "I am truly, sorry, Mr Hamlyn."
Bob shrugged. "It can't be helped, sir. It was my own silly fault, messing about there in the dark alone. But these men who attacked me were paid to do so."
"Paid!" repeated Merle in a startled voice. Her dark eyes were fixed on Bob with such real sympathy as comforted him strangely.
"I should like to tell you the whole story," he said, "if it wouldn't bore you."
"Please do," said Randolph, and Merle nodded quick agreement. So Bob told his story and no man could have asked for a more sympathetic audience. When he had finished both Merle and her father sat silent. Mr Lestor was the first to speak.
"So this cousin of your is on Cottonmouth," he said, slowly. "And it is evident that the sooner you see him the better." He paused.
"I wish—"—he began again and just then the door opened and in came a tall young man whose remarkably good features, were spoiled-by a half sulky, half haughty expression.
"Morning Merle," he said, "Morning Lestor. Devil of a night we had. I'm black and blue. We ought to have stayed in Key West." Then he saw Bob.
"Who's this?" he asked, frowning. "I didn't bargain for passengers on this cruise."
Lestor rose. "Let me introduce you to Mr Robert Hamlyn. Mr Hamlyn—Mr Vane Halford, the owner of this yacht."
Halford did not even bow; he stared rudely at Bob.
"How did you come here?" he demanded.
It was Merle who answered. "If you hadn't drunk so much at dinner last night, Vane, you must have heard us getting Mr Hamlyn aboard. He was attacked on the wharf, sandbagged and flung into the water. He would have drowned if I had not chanced to see what happened. Pop and Scipio got him out."
"Then why didn't you put him ashore?"
"Put him ashore," repeated Merle, and her voice was suddenly like tinkling ice. "Do you not realise that we had not a minute to spare? We were running from the storm. Even half an hour's delay might have been fatal." Vane Halford was not pacified.
"We don't want strangers with us on this trip," he said in a surly tone. "You know that as well as I, Merle."
Bob spoke. "You had better put me ashore, Mr Halford. Let me assure you that I have no wish whatever to remain on your yacht or in your company."
Halford reddened. Lestor cut in.
"Vane, you are behaving disgracefully. Here is an English gentleman who has been beaten up, badly hurt, robbed of everything he possessed and—worst still—delayed on business which might bring him a fortune. Through no fault of his he is your guest and you can do nothing better than insult him. Let me tell you that, if you do put him ashore, Merle and I will accompany him, and you can continue this voyage alone."
This was plain speaking with a vengeance. It staggered Halford. He bit his lip.
"Perhaps I was hasty," he said in a much milder tone. "I've got a hangover this morning, and anyhow, this isn't a pleasure trip."
He turned to Bob. "I apologise, Mr Hamlyn. You will be welcome to stay aboard until we can land you at some convenient spot."
"I am obliged, Mr Halford," he said formally.
"Now sit down, both of you, and eat your breakfast," Merle ordered, and Bob, who was very hungry, for he had had nothing to eat since lunch the day before, was glad to obey. Halford ate nothing but a grape fruit, and presently left the saloon. Lestor watched him go, waited till the door closed behind him, then he spoke to Bob.
"I trust you will not take Halford's ill manners too seriously. He is upset, partly by the amount he drank last night and partly by the storm."
"Please don't think of it," Bob said quickly. "I am only too sorry to have been a cause of disagreement. But in any case, he has apologised, and that ends the matter so far as I am concerned."
Lestor smiled. "That is what I should have expected you to say, Mr Hamlyn. I am not often mistaken in my estimate of a man."
Bob reddened. He was not accustomed to compliments. At the same time he was very pleased, for somehow the good opinion of Lestor seemed worth having. Lestor went on. "I will see what can be done about putting you ashore on Cottonmouth. I will let you know after I have spoken to Halford." Bob thanked him gravely, and Lestor went out, leaving Bob alone with Merle.
"You have told us your story, Mr Hamlyn," she said. "I wish I could tell you ours. All I may say is that we out not on any pleasure cruise, but on an errand which is at least as risky as yours. Would you like to come on deck?"
She led the way up the companion, and Bob, following, found himself on the deck of a sixty-foot launch, broad-beamed and powerfully built, the sort of craft that would stand up to any weather short of a hurricane. She was anchored under lee of a long sandy spit on the outer side of which waves were breaking heavily. It was blowing pretty hard, and the sky was full of hurrying cloud, yet the air was far fresher than it had been on the previous evening.
"It is clearing," Merle said. "We shall be able to leave quite soon."
Bob Heard the relief in her voice and wondered. She seemed to read his thoughts. "Delay is as bad for us as for you, Mr Hamlyn. And the sooner we can get to our destination the sooner we shall be able to send you to yours."
At this moment her father came up from below, and Bob saw lines of worry on his face.
"There is something wrong with the engine, Merle," he said. "Parslow says that it will take the better part of a day to put it right."
"A day!" cried Merle, and the sharpness of her dismay started Bob.
"IT will give them time to catch us," Merle said to her father.
Randolph Lestor laid a hand on his daughter's shoulder. "Don't be so troubled, my dear. They won't know where to find us."
Merle shook her head. "Cabot will find us. I—feel certain of it."
Before Lestor could reply Vane Halford came running up from, below. His handsome face was ugly with anger. "If this isn't the limit!" he exclaimed. "The engine was working perfectly when we came in. Why should it go wrong?"
He turned to Bob. "Do you know anything about engines?"
"A little about car engines," Bob replied modestly. "I haven't much experience of marine engines."
"I wish you'd go down and have a look."
Bob hesitated. He felt that the man in charge would probably resent a stranger poking his nose into his business.
"What is supposed to be wrong," he asked.
"Parslow says it's the pump—the circulating pump—whatever that may be. Go on down and have a look, Hamlyn. You may get more out of him than I have. I don't know one end of the darn thing from the other."
Bob glanced at Merle, but she gave him no hint. He could see she was very worried. There seemed no help for it so he went below. In the gangway a man met him. He was bullet-headed with sleek black hair, a small black moustache and sharp beady eyes. Although he wore dungarees he was something of a dandy.
"Are you Captain Parslow?" Bob asked politely.
"That's me," replied the man. "Reckon you're Mr Hamlyn."
"I am. I came down to see if I could be of any use. I've had some experience of motor engines."
"That's right kind of you," said Parslow, "but we don't need no help. Grogan and me, we can tackle the job. Fact is there ain't room for more than one man to work at a time." Parslow was perfectly polite, but at the same time quite definite in his refusal. "We shan't waste no time," he added. "As I told the boss, we reckon to get her fixed by evening."
Bob went slowly up again and told Halford what Parslow had said.
Halford scowled. "This waiting is the very devil," he muttered and, without giving Bob a word of thanks, went below again.
Merle came to Bob. "Did you find out what was wrong, Mr Hamlyn?"
He told her what Parslow had said.
"I am afraid there is nothing for it but patience," he said.
Bob opened a couple of deck chairs. "It won't do a bit of good to worry over a delay that can't be helped," he remarked. "Sit down and be comfortable and tell me something about your country. My ignorance of America is simply colossal."
Merle sat down, but it was Bob who did most of the talking, it was not until afterwards that he realised how cleverly she had turned the conversation to England. He found himself telling her about his struggle to make ends meet on Bar Tor Farm, of his shooting and fishing, and, more particularly, about Judy. He described just how Judy had saved the lives of Peter Newcombe and himself when trapped in the Bittifer Mine. Now, he found, he had all Merle's attention. For the moment she had forgotten her own troubles and was leaning forward, her charming face slightly flushed, her beautiful dark eyes eager with interest.
"How glad she will be to see you when you get back!"
"Yes," said Bob. "Whether I'm successful or not it won't make any difference to Judy."
"I know. That's the lovely thing about dogs. It doesn't matter whether you are old or ugly or broke or even a criminal, your dog loves you just the same."
Two hours passed, but the two were so engrossed they neither of them noticed the passage of time. They were unpleasantly recalled by the voice of Vane Halford.
"Merle, I'm going ashore in the dinghy. Come with me for a walk." He was standing over them scowling. It came to Bob with a most unpleasant shock that he was jealous.
Merle got up slowly. "Do you think it's wise?" she asked. "Should we not keep together in case—" She did not finish her sentence, but Halford, of course, knew to what she referred.
"We'll have time to get back if we see anything,'" he said, sharply. "It'll do you good to stretch your legs."
His hectoring tone made Bob boil, but he was not in a position to resent it openly. Merle agreed and went, and Bob saw them pull across to the sand spit and land. The wind had now quite dropped, but the sky was still cloudy.
Bob walked up and down the deck and was presently joined by Mr Lestor.
"May I ask a question, Mr Lestor?" Bob said. "It's rather a personal one, and I don't want to seem impertinent."
"I don't think you could be that," replied the elder man in his curiously gentle voice.
"Then I'll ask it but don't answer unless you wish to. Is your daughter engaged to Halford?"
Mr Lestor seemed embarrassed. "I can hardly give you a direct answer," he replied. "Halford, I think, takes it for granted that Merle will marry him. Of her feelings in the matter I am by no means so sure."
"Thank you, sir," said Bob, and began to talk of something else. He did his best to interest the elder man and to some extent succeeded. Yet Lestor gave Bob only half his attention. His eyes, kept ranging the sea, and he was plainly very uneasy. Bob wondered greatly what was the cause of all this uneasiness. All that was plain to him was that the Lestors and Halford were intensely anxious to reach some destination before they were intercepted.
ALL four gathered in the saloon for supper, for it appeared that Parslow was on watch during the meal. The mechanic, Grogan, was putting the finishing touches to the pump, and there seemed a prospect of an early start. Scipio was a first-class cook and the grilled shad were delicious. The launch had a refrigerator, so butter and cream were firm and sweet, and there was an excellent chicken salad.
Yet in spite of the good food it was not a happy meal. That was due to Halford, who was fearfully nervous and jumpy. Bob, watching him, decided that the man not only drank too much, but had long made a practice of it. His hands were shaky, his temper simply vile.
"He'd crock in any real crisis," Bob said to himself, but he was not aware how soon this private prophecy was going to be proved true.
It was Merle who first heard the sound. "A 'plane," she said suddenly.
All listened, and a moment later all heard the distant thunder of powerful engines. Vane Halford sprang up.
"It's Cabot!" he cried and sprang to the door. He turned the handle, but it would not open. He wrenched it furiously, but it did not yield. He turned to Scipio who was in the room.
"What the hell's the matter with this door? It's stuck. Come and open it, you black ape."
Bob saw Scipio stiffen. There is nothing a negro hates worse than being called black. All the same he came quickly to the door and took hold. But it would not open.
"Parslow!" Halford roared. "The door's stuck. Open it."
From the other side came Parslow's voice. "It ain't stuck. It's locked. You stay right where, you are until I get ready to let you out."
With a shriek of rage Halford pulled a pistol and fired through the panel. In the narrow space the report was deafening. "That won't do you no good," Parslow jeered. "I reckoned you'd do something like that so kept to one side. But don't do it again for I got a gun, see?"
Merle looked at her father.
"Parslow has turned traitor. Cabot must have bought him. What are we to do?"
Bob was the only one who did anything. Pushing Halford aside, he flung himself at the door, putting all his eleven stone of solid bone and muscle behind his thrust. A panel cracked.
"Stop that!" came Parslow's voice. No jeering in it now. It was cold and deadly. "Stop it right now or I'll shoot."
Lestor caught Bob by the arm. "He means it, Hamlyn. Keep away!"
Bob was furiously angry, yet he never let anger blind him. Besides he had heard the threat in Parslow's voice.
"You're right," he said, in a low voice, "but is there no way out? Can't we get behind this dirty traitor? There are four men here—only two outside."
"Three. There's the oiler, Crane. And you may be sure Parslow has armed them all. As Merle says, Cabot has bribed him."
"Who is Cabot?"
Merle heard the question.
"You will see him in a moment if you come to the port," she said.
The roar of the engine had ceased. Bob, looking through the port, saw the seaplane coming down, side-slipping skilfully. She was a big cabin monoplane and Bob could see that she was armed. She struck the water some distance from the launch, her floats sending up a cloud of spray. Then, with her twin propellers turning slowly, she glided across the smooth surface until within a hundred yards of the Moccasin. There she came to rest and anchored. The cabin door opened and a man stood in the opening. A tall, broad-shouldered man, but the distance was too great, and the light was not strong enough to see his face.
"That is Cabot," Merle said to Bob. "I'd better tell you," she went on rapidly. "There is treasure on Barracuda Island. That is where we are bound. Cabot, who was a rum-runner and is now simply a pirate, got to know that father had found a manuscript giving details of the treasure. He means to have that manuscript and, now that Parslow has turned against us, I don't see how we can stop him from getting it."
"We've darned well got to try," Bob answered. "Are there any arms here besides Halford's pistol?"
"None in the saloon," Merle told him. "Pop has a rifle and a pistol in his cabin and I have a shotgun. But even if Parslow has not got them already we cannot reach them."
A splash interrupted her. The dinghy has been put over and Grogan was rowing across to the 'plane. Halford saw him and springing to the window raised his pistol. Before he could fire Bob had him.
"You idiot!" said Bob. "Even if you did happen to hit him what good do you think it would do? Can't you see the machine-gun on that plane? Steel jacketed bullets would riddle the sides of the launch and finish the lot of us before the report of your pistol had died away."
"Let me go!" cried Halford, struggling violently. "I am master of this ship. I'll do as I please."
Bob held him firmly. "You can do as you please with your own life, Halford," he said harshly. "But you are not going to get Miss Lestor and her father murdered so long as I'm here to prevent it."
"Coward!" roared Halford, and then Mr Lestor interfered.
"Hamlyn is perfectly right, Vane," he said. "And if you controlled your temper you would realise it. Give me that pistol."
He wrenched it out of Halford's hand and dropped it into his own pocket. Bob released Halford who fell into a chair and sat glaring. Bob paid no attention whatever. He was watching the dinghy. It had reached the seaplane, and the big man had stepped into it. Heavy as he was in build, he seemed light as a cat on his feet. He was followed by a second man, then Grogan turned the dinghy and rowed straight back to the launch.
They saw Cabot swing easily aboard and heard Parslow speaking to him. "They're all boxed below, Cabot. Halford's got a gun, but I don't reckon he'll use it. He's rotten with drink, and jumpy. They got a Britisher aboard and he's the only one as is likely to make trouble."
Cabot laughed. "I got a simple way with folk that start trouble, Parslow. Well, you done your job all right, and I'll sec you get your pickings. Now I'm going down."
Bob's brain had been working overtime, but so far he saw no way out. The saloon had only one door and that, he knew, was guarded. True, the ports were big enough to squeeze through, but that would not help for they were in full view of the plane and its machine-gunner, and although the sun had set it was still daylight.
He glanced at Merle. Her charming face was drawn with anxiety, but she was perfectly cool and collected. So, too, was her father. Halford had simply flopped.
The key turned in the lock. Cabot came in. Though he was probably not yet 50 he was quite bald. He had a great hooked nose, a wide, thin-lipped mouth and pale blue eyes. Entirely ruthless and distinctly formidable, Bob thought. Those cold eyes roved over the five in the saloon and fixed on Lestor.
"You know what I come for," he said with, a bleak smile.
"I know only too well, you crook," Lestor answered.
Cabot shrugged. "Hard words don't break no bones, and no bones won't be broke so long as you don't start nothing. Hand over that book, Lestor, and you can go on your business. I won't take nothing else." Lestor faced the repulsive intruder, and Bob felt a thrill at the older man's courage.
"The book is hidden in a place which you will have the greatest difficulty in discovering. No one knows where it is except myself. And, Cabot, the man who searches for it is apt to die unpleasantly."
Cabot was unmoved. "Looks like you knowed I was after it," he remarked.
"I knew very well you were after it."
Cabot nodded. "I been after it a long time. It was just your luck as you found the book afore I did. But I ain't arguing. I'm taking the book. You going to give it up quiet?"
Lestor looked at him calmly. "I will see you in Hades before I give up that book."
Cabot again shrugged his huge shoulders. "You're kind of foolish, Lestor. You ain't in Baltimore where you can call a cop on the 'phone. You're a long way off and a long way from any sort of help. I gotta gun in my plane as can riddle this here craft and sink it and send you all to the sharks. And I'll do that, maybe worse, if you, don't do what I say."
As he spoke he cast a look at Merle, which made Bob furious. Then he went on.
"I ain't in any rush. I don't do a lot of night flying, so I ain't starting out of here till morning. I'll give you an hour. You and the dame—"—again he looked balefully at Merle—"—can talk it over and, when you're ready to hand over the book, you can knock on the door and say so."
He paused once more. "But don't be more than an hour," he ended, and left the saloon.
The five people in, the room heard the key turn in the lock, and for a few moments there was silence. Vane Halford was the first to speak.
"It's no use. You'll have to give him the book directly." He turned to Bob. "What do you say, Hamlyn?" he asked in a very low voice.
Bob glanced at Merle and she saw the look.
"Don't think of me," she said, in a quick whisper. "I'd sooner die than let that man rob us."
"I HAD better explain, Hamlyn," said Merle's father. "I won't waste time telling you how this old document by Don Carlos Aguiar came to my possession. As you may know, much loot was buried on these Florida Keys during the 17th and early 18th centuries and a good deal has been found. This script gives the location of a quantity of plate taken from the Spanish ship Santa Maria by a man named Pieterson, and buried on Barracuda Key. I went into the matter very thoroughly and convinced myself of the truth of the story. You may think it a mad sort of gamble, but there are others who think it worth an effort.
"Unfortunately I had not money to charter a yacht and go in search of this treasure.
"Mr Halford came to the rescue. He leased the island, and has paid a large part of the expenses. He is to take half of whatever we find. It was not until we had everything ready I discovered that Cabot was also on the track of the treasure. Without doubt he obtained his information from the man who sold me the manuscript. I paid the fellow a good price and in return he promised to keep silence, but he must have talked. Now you know as much as we do." Bob nodded.
"Thank you for telling me, Mr. Lestor. There is only one other thing I would like to ask. Do I take it that you have sunk most of your money in this expedition?"
"Practically all I had, which was not much. I was hit by the depression. I was a cotton grower and you will know to what depths the price of cotton sank."
"Then," said Bob, "you are prepared to take pretty heavy risks to keep this book out of Cabot's hands."
Halford broke in. "What's the use of talking about risks?" he snarled. "No risks will get us out of this. There's only one thing to do—give Cabot the book and get back to civilisation."
Merle stepped across in front of Halford. The scorn in her lovely face made her superb.
"If Mr. Hamlyn has any suggestion to make that may help us, Father and I are ready to take any risks."
Halford dropped back in his chair, biting his lip and scowling. Bob spoke but in a whisper.
"I have a suggestion. It may sound pretty crazy, but we're in such a tight place that we can't be choosers. It's getting dark. In another ten minutes it will be too dark for anyone in the 'plane to see the launch or the reverse. My notion is to slip out of one of these ports, swim across to the 'plane, and see if I can't fire it."
Merle's eyes widened.
"Oh, now it sounds looney," said Bob with a smile, "but probably there's only one man on board and he won't be keeping any special watch. Anyhow, the last thing he will be expecting is a visit from a swimmer."
"It's madness," said Merle's father.
"I don't think it mad, boss," said Scipio, who had been listening keenly. "I think it am a mighty good notion and if Marse Hamlyn will hab me, I'll come along. You knows I'se good in de water Marse Lestor."
"Good for you, Scipio!" said Bob, and though he still spoke a voice that was a little above a whisper, there was a warm approval in his tone. "All the same I'd rather go alone. Two men make more splashing than one. But if I fail you might try, Scipio."
Scipio nodded. The coloured man was as keen as Bob himself.
"It will end in all of us being bumped off," Halford muttered.
"Don't worry," said Bob with cold contempt. "If it doesn't work you can tell Cabot that you did your best to stop it."
Halford's eyes were venomous as those of a snake as he glared at Bob, but he said no more. Bob glanced at his watch.
"Half an hour gone and it's quite dark. I can't risk swimming in clothes."
Merle got up. "You are the bravest man I have ever met," she said. "I wish I could help."
She went to the far side of the saloon and sat out of sight of him. Bob stripped swiftly. Scipio meantime put matches in a corked bottle to which he tied a string so that Bob could hang it round his neck.
"I won't take the gun," Bob said. "It may be more useful to you than to me. In any case a shot would attract attention."
The next thing was to get into the water without being seen or heard.
It was not likely that anyone was watching for Cabot and Parslow were drinking together in the foc'sle. They had been heard to go there. All the same the night was very quiet and any splash would attract attention.
Bob squeezed out through the port and hung with his feet in the water; then Scipio took him by the wrists and lowered him. He slipped into the sea with hardly a sound.
"Dat's a brave man, boss," said Scipio as he watched Bob's head appear on the surface, and saw him begin to swim very quietly away from the launch.
"You are right, Scipio," said Lestor.
Luckily there was a light in the cabin of the 'plane which gave Bob his direction, and once beyond the ring of radiance from the electric lights of the Mocassin, he began to swim faster. The sky was overcast, the water was smooth and warm as milk, and there was not much phosphorescence. As he swam lie was wondering how he was going to get into the 'plane. If the door was shut, as it probably would be, that was going to be awkward. It wouldn't be much use trying to open it from the outside. If he tried anything of that sort he would probably find a pistol at his head. The worst of it was that he had not much time. Cabot's ultimatum would be up in another twenty minutes, and it made Bob shudder to think what that brute might do. Cabot, he felt certain, had as little scruple as a hungry wolf.
Bob came closer to the 'plane and floated. The machine bulked huge, its great wings showing pale in the dim light which came from the cabin windows. The cabin itself was a terribly long way above him. It seemed to him that he was bound to be spotted if he climbed up to it. Yet somehow he had to get inside. The thought of failure never occurred to him. Merle depended on him, and he would not fail her. There was very little tide. Actually the rise and fall of this eastern coast of Florida is only about four feet. There was just enough to swing the big machine to her anchor chain.
Bob decided to swim round her and see which was the best part of the floats on which to land. Keeping his arms well below the surface, he paddled nearer, and suddenly something shot out and struck the water with a splash at a little distance. It gave him a nasty shock, and he let himself sink until only his nose was above the water.
Then, as the slow current took him onwards he caught sight of a dim figure standing on one of the floats, and suddenly realized that Cabot's third man was fishing. What he had heard was the weighted line striking the water.
Cautiously raising an arm, he got hold of the opposite float and waited. A long minute dragged by, then at last he saw the man jerk at the line and begin to pull in hand over hand.
This was Bob's chance. With a couple of swift strokes he came up behind the fellow, reached up, caught him by one leg, and jerked him backwards into the sea.
THE man's head was under water before he had time to shout, and Bob took very good care that it was kept under. He dived pulling the other down with him. The man kicked desperately, but Bob hung on like; grim death and, since his own lungs were full of air, managed to hold the fellow down until his struggles ceased.
Then up he came and, draping the limp body over one of the floats, clambered up to the cabin. Bob had to take the chance of there being a fourth man, and was mightily relieved to find that the cabin was empty. Empty of men, but he at once saw several things which would be of value to him. The first was a collapsible boat; the second, three life-belts; the third, a long barrelled .38 calibre revolver with a belt of cartridges.
There were two machine guns in the place and a rack of small bombs. The first thing Bob did was to take one of the life-belts and hurry down again. The man he had left below might be— probably was—one of the world's worst toughs, but all the same he could not be left to burn or drown. Bob fitted the belt around his body and set him adrift.
The tide would set him over on the sand spit which was close under lee of the spot where the plane was anchored. Leaving him to take his chance, Bob raced back and got out the boat. It only weighed about twenty pounds, so he got it down easily, opened it, and set it afloat. For a third time he visited the cabin, slipped on a suit of blue overalls which he found there, loaded the big pistol, strapped it around his waist, then set to work on his final task—that of firing the plane. He had to arrange this so that the fire would not be too rapid. The blaze would be terrific when the petrol caught. It would light the sea for miles around. Bob wanted to be back at the launch before this happened.
In a locker he found a mass of oily rags. These he laid on the floor as far as possible from the tanks and, after wetting them with petrol, set fire to them. As a fierce red flame sprang up he went out of the door, shut it firmly, dropped down on to the float, stepped into the little boat, picked up the paddle and was off as hard as he could go.
So far he had had marvellous luck, but he was very well aware that he needed a lot more if his attempt to rescue Merle and her father was to be successful. Dare a man expect so much? It was essential that Cabot and at least one other man should leave the Mocassin if the odds were to be reduced enough to give him and Lestor and Scipio a chance to master the mutineers. If the 'plane burned too fast it might be that Cabot would not even attempt to put out the flames. He might decide to stay aboard the Mocassin and use her for his treasure seeking. In that event, things would be worse than before. Another point was that he himself had to get aboard the launch without being seen. Not only that but he had to get below and release the prisoners.
All these thoughts flashed through Bob's brain during the few moments it took him to paddle back. He could have covered the distance in less than half a minute, but going that way he would certainly have been seen by Cabot or the mutineers. It was essential to circle round in the darkness and come upon the far side.
As he passed some fifty yards behind the stern of the Mocassin he was conscious of a red glare upon the dark water and at the same time heard a shout of alarm from the deck of the Mocassin. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw flames bursting from the windows of the 'plane. Another few seconds and he himself must be seen.
He turned his little boat and, using all his strength, drove her in under the far side of the Mocassin. Breathless, he hooked his fingers into the sill of one of the cabin ports and hung on.
On deck all was excitement. He heard Cabot swearing savagely as he went over into the dinghy. Then came a furious splashing of oars. Two less, anyhow, and of the mutineers Bob had a shrewd suspicion that the only one who counted for much was Parslow.
The blaze from the burning 'plane was mounting each moment; it was no use waiting longer. Bob reached up caught the gunwale and swung aboard. He saw the dinghy with Cabot and another man aboard. It had almost reached the 'plane. Bobs eyes roved along the deck of the launch and in the glare he saw one man standing gazing, as if spellbound at the mounting flames. He was Grogan and he had his back to Bob.
This was no time for scruples. The danger was too great. Bare- footed, Bob raced soundlessly across the deck and brought the barrel of his heavy pistol down on Grogan's skull. He flung up his hands and dropped with a crash. Bob sprang towards the companion way. Before he reached it someone shot up out of it like a Jack-in-the-box. This was the oiler, Crane. Bob went at him like a charging ram, his fist caught him in the jaw, and Crane fell backwards down the stairs to land in a heap in the alleyway below.
So far so good, but where was Parslow? If Parslow was not put out of action before Cabot got back, all that Bob had done so far was in vain. Bob was not long kept in doubt. A shot crashed out from below and he felt as if a horse had kicked him in the side. He went down.
"Got him, by God!" he heard Parslow cry in savage triumph and springing over Crane the man came running up the steps. But Bob was far from dead and his pistol was still in his hand. As Parslow's body rose above the deck Bob fired. Parslow stopped short, a look of utter amazement showed in his sloe-black eyes, his knees gave way, he toppled over and fell on top of Crane.
It was the first time Bob had ever shot a man, but he was too excited to let that worry him. He still had difficulty in breathing and was in great pain, but he made a desperate effort and crawled across to the rail. By this time the plane was a vast torch which lighted up everything for miles around. Cabot, realising that the machine was beyond salvation, had turned, and he and his companion were already within a few yards of the Mocassin. His man was pulling, Cabot sat in the stern with a pistol in his hand. In the crimson glow of the fire, Cabot's face was not a pretty sight. A splinter struck him in the forehead, making a nasty cut from which blood streamed into his eyes, blinding him. He kept on pulling the trigger, but his bullets went high. He heard the dinghy bump against the side and knew it was all up. Next moment Cabot would be aboard, and there was no one to stop him. Yet there was.
A pistol cracked so close above Bob's heard that the report almost deafened him. Prom the dinghy came a yell of pain, followed by a splash.
"I got him," came the voice of Scipio. "I got him."
Bob wiped the blood from his eyes. The dinghy floated upside down; of Cabot and the other man there was no sign.
"Good, Scipio," said Bob hoarsely. Then everything went black, and for the second time in his life he fainted.
AS before, Bob found himself in his bunk. His head was bandaged, and the light on the bed table was shaded. Merle sat beside him, reading.
He gazed at her for several moments, then suddenly started up only to drop back with an ill-suppressed moan. His right side seemed on fire. Merle dropped her book and got up quickly. She leaned over him and the look in her eyes made him forget his pain and everything else.
"Merle!" he said and, reaching up caught her hand.
She smiled at him. "How do you feel?"
"Splendid," said Bob. She shook her head. "Then why that moan when you tried to sit up?"
"Just a stitch in my side," Bob answered.
She laughed again then turned serious. "Your side is black and blue, Robert Hamlyn, and you may be very grateful it is no worse. It was that cartridge belt you wore which turned the bullet."
Bob went grave.
"Parslow—is he alive?"
"Yes. He was as lucky as you. Your bullet just creased the top of his skull. He was unconscious for an hour, but he has come round now and father, who is something of a doctor, says he is very little the worse."
"I'm glad," Bob said simply. "It's a nasty business to kill a man even if he deserves it. But what about Cabot?"
"He is on the sand spit with' both his men. He was not too badly hurt to swim there."
"So there hasn't been much slaughter after all," Bob said thoughtfully. "But I'll admit I did hope Cabot was finished. That fellow isn't human."
"He's a horror," she said emphatically. "It made my flesh creep to be in the same room with him.. But I don't suppose we shall see much more of him." Bob's head was clearing. "Hang it all!" he burst out. "I've no business to be lying here. There must be a lot to be done."
"Don't you think you've done your bit?" Merle asked, and again Bob saw that look in her eyes, which thrilled him deliciously in spite of his pain. "But you need not worry," she went on. "Father and Scipio have done all there it to be done for the present. Crane has helped, too. It seems he never wanted to 'rat,' but was too afraid of Parslow to disobey him. Pop is satisfied that he won't give any trouble. Grogan has concussion, so he can't do any harm. Father has decided to put Parslow on the sand spit with Cabot. He can go in the little collapsible boat that belonged to the plane and that will give them all a chance of getting ashore."
"I hope they'll enjoy it," she said, with sudden sharpness. "It's all swamp and jungle, and there's no settlement within miles."
"And what then?" Bob asked.
"We are going to work the yacht ourselves. Crane can manage the engine. Pop knows enough navigation to set a course. Scipio can steer, and I shall turn cook and dish-washer. We mean to leave in the morning." She paused, then went on. "And, Bob, father and I have agreed that we shall visit Cottonmouth just so that you can see your cousin. No—" as he began to protest. "It's the very least we can do. If it wasn't for you we should all be dead by now, or worse."
"Merle," Bob said, and spoke very earnestly. "I don't feel now as if my clay business mattered two pins. I want to help you to dig up this treasure."
There was no mistaking his intense earnestness. But Merle shook her head.
"The treasure won't run away. But if Dene and Tiber reach Cottonmouth before you, your chance of fortune is lost. It will only mean a day's delay, Bob. And, afterwards, if you can get some agreement from your cousin—after that we shall be glad of your help." She stood up straight. "Now I am going to get you some food and afterwards you must sleep. If you don't you won't be fit for anything."
When she had gone Bob lay quite still in spite of all his pains and aches, in spite of the uncertainties of his position and the unpleasant fact that he was absolutely penniless, he was happier than he had ever been. This wonderful girl cared for him. He was sure of it. Halford? He didn't count.
Presently Merle was back with a daintily set tray. Hot soup, toast, fruit salad with cream, and a cup of coffee. She sat with him while he ate, then took the tray away and came back with a glass of lemonade.
"Have you got everything you want?" she asked.
"No, not everything." Bob caught her hand and drew it to his lips. There was a lovely flush on her face as she looked down at him.
Suddenly she stooped, kissed him full on the lips, and in a flash was gone.
When Bob woke sunlight was streaming in through his port. He felt immensely refreshed and amazingly happy. He sat up. The movement hurt but nothing like so badly as on the previous night. He examined his side. It was, as Merle had said, black and blue and very tender. But the wet compress that had been put on had taken out the worst of the inflammation and Bob felt sure that he would be himself again within twenty-four hours.
There came a knock on the door. Scipio entered. His white teeth showed in a happy smile.
"Yo' look fine."
"I am fine, thanks to you, Scipio. I never heard how you got out of the cabin."
"Jest bust down de door," Scipio answered. "When I heard dat shooting I knowed you was back. Golly how dat plane did burn!"
"I was scared to death it would blaze up before I could get back," Bob said.
"What yo' do to dat man as was in de plane?" Scipio asked. "I ain't heard nothin' yet."
Bob told him how he had caught the man fishing, pulled him down, and half drowned him, how he had fired the plane, and of his meeting with Parslow.
Scipio shook his woolly head. "I wish yo'd shot dat man dead, Marse Hamlyn. He's bad, he is."
"Same to you, Scipio. You ought to have killed Cabot, for he's worse."
"I sure tried mighty hard," said Scipio regretfully. "But I nebber done much pistol shooting."
"You did jolly well, anyhow," Bob said genially. "You saved my bacon. Cabot would have had me next shot. By the way, did you save the dinghy?"
"I got dat, sah," Scipio became suddenly business-like. "Miss Merle, she say you stay in bed. She come after a while and see if you fit to get up."
"But I want to get up now. There's lots to be done, Scipio."
"Yo' done your share' o' de work last night," Scipio answered drily. "And what Miss Merle says—dat goes here. Now yo' lie quiet and I bring yo' breakfast pretty soon."
When Scipio had left the room Bob got up and shaved. He wasn't going to let Merle see him looking like a tramp. But he was in bed again when Scipio arrived with an excellent breakfast. He had only just finished it when Merle arrived. The sun still streaming through the port caught her hair and brought out bronze lights.
Bob sat and gazed at her.
"Can't you even say good morning?" she tried to be stern but her eyes were dancing. Bob flung out a long arm and caught her to him.
"Merle, I love you," he said.
She let him kiss her then drew away. She made him a little curtsey.
"Is this a proposal, Mr Hamlyn?"
"As near as I can get to it," said Bob.
She turned serious. "We met less than two days ago. I Are you sure?"
"As sure as a man can be of anything in this world, Merle. From the first moment I set eyes on you I adored you."
"It's funny," said Merle softly, "but I'm afraid it's the same with me."
She stepped forward, and this time it was her arms that went round Bob's neck.
IT was some time before they could get off. They had to force Parslow to join his companions on the sand spit, and Mr Lestor insisted upon sending some provisions in the boat. Halford was furious.
"Murdering swine. Let them starve! Do 'em good," were the mildest of his remarks.
Halford had recovered from his scare of the night before, and was as hectoring in his manner as ever. He did not even thank Bob for the way in which he had pulled them out, but he did agree to putting him ashore on Cottonmouth. It was quite plain that Halford wanted to get rid of him. But Bob wondered what Halford would say or do if he knew of what had happened in Bob's cabin a little earlier.
Actually Bob gave little thought to Halford. He despised him for a drunken weakling. It was a mistake, and so Bob was to discover before he was much older.
It was nearly mid-day before the Mocassin got under way. By that time Bob was up and dressed. When he came on deck Lestor was at the wheel, Crane was running the engine, Scipio was swabbing the deck, Merle was in the galley. Everyone was busy except Halford, who stood moodily smoking in the bow.
Bob looked towards the Spit, but no one was there.
"Cabot and Co. have gone across to the mainland," Lestor said. "That collapsible boat only holds two, so they had to make two trips of it."
"Just as well for them they went," said Bob. "It looks as if it was going to blow."
Lestor glanced at the sky. "Very much afraid it is," the older man agreed. "The glass is falling again."
"Not another hurricane?"
"No. We don't get two such storms one after another. This will probably be a nor'westerly gale."
"Why worry?" Bob asked. "The Mocassin is a good sea boat and I understand we have plenty of petrol."
Lestor shook his head. "It isn't that. It's my navigation. I never knew much and I've forgotten most of what I did know. And these seas are full of low-lying keys and sandbanks."
"Then hadn't we better stay in the bay here," Bob asked.
"I don't want to waste time," Lestor told him. "And lam hoping we may reach Cottonmouth before it comes on heavy. It's only about sixty miles, and we ought to get there before dark.-There must be some shelter where we can lie for the night. Then next day we can reach Barracuda."
"I'm coming with you to Barracuda," Bob said. Lestor's eyes widened. "Coming with us. But you have your own business to attend to, Mr Hamlyn."
"I hope to finish that pretty quickly. If I can get a written agreement from my cousin—and I haven't much doubt he'll give it to me when he hears the facts—that is all that is necessary. A week or two of delay before I return to Key West makes no difference at all. In any event, I should have no means of getting back from Cottonmouth unless you take me."
"I had forgotten that. I had completely forgotten that, Mr Hamlyn."
Bob interrupted him. "Your daughter, sir, calls me Bob."
For a moment the older man looked surprised; then he smiled. "Why, of course. Though we have known one another so short a time I count you as a friend."
"Thank you, sir," Bob said simply. He laughed. "I have already forgiven those thugs who threw me off the wharf."
"Very nicely put, Bob," came Merle's merry voice from behind them. "Luncheon is ready. I hope you will enjoy my cooking."
"I shall," said Bob. He spoke to Merle's father. "You go down, sir. I'll take the wheel. I can steer if you'll give me the course."
"No need for that," Merle said. "Scipio is taking over for an hour. Here he is."
Scipio took the wheel in most competent fashion. Lestor gave him the course, then he, Merle and Bob went down to find Vane Halford already in the saloon. They were now outside and, with the strong breeze, the little ship was lively. A jug of iced lemonade fetched away and slid into Halford's lap. He jumped up with an oath.
"Why aren't the fiddles rigged?" he wanted to know.
"You might have done that, yourself," Bob suggested mildly. "Most of us have been pretty busy this morning."
"You, for instance," sneered Halford.
This was too much for Merle. "Bob was hurt," she' said sharply. "He ought to be in bed now."
"So you call him Bob," snarled Halford. "Getting good friends, aren't you?"
Bob rose. "Take that back, Halford," he said. His tone was deadly, and the sudden blaze in his eyes brought Halford up with a round turn.
"I didn't mean any harm," he muttered.
"Is that meant for an apology?" Bob asked flatly.
"Yes," Halford answered sulkily, and went out to change his soaked trousers.
Bob turned to Lestor.
"I'm sorry, sir. I suppose I ought to remember that he is in a way my host."
"You said no more than was necessary, Bob," replied Lestor. "There are times when Halford is insufferable."
The wind strengthened steadily and the Mocassin pitched like a cork in the heavy seas. The wind was dead ahead and progress was very slow. When dusk fell they were still a long way from Cottonmouth. Lestor consulted the chart. He pointed to a long narrow island shaped like the new moon. The horns pointed to the south.
"That is Crescent Key," he told Bob. "It is close abeam. I think we had better take shelter behind it for, even if we reached Cottonmouth, we could not hope to land you before dark."
Bob agreed that it would be much better to run for shelter, so they changed course and, after another half hour of bucketing in a steadily rising sea, they rounded the western end of Crescent Key and anchored in four fathoms under its lee.
"That's a blessing," Merle said. "Now we can cook supper; and sleep in peace. How do you feel, Bob?"
"Fit as anything," Bob declared. "I'm coming to help you to peel the spuds."
"Spuds?" Merle repeated, puzzled. "Potatoes," Bob laughed. "Irish potatoes in your language."
They went down chaffing one another cheerfully, and Vane Halford watched them with jaundiced eyes. He was savagely jealous for, in his selfish way, he was in love with Merle.
"That fellow won't trouble us much longer," he muttered under his breath, but Scipio, who happened to be just behind, heard the words. Later he went to Bob's cabin and told him. "Dat man mean you no good," he said.
Bob laughed. "I know that, Scipio, but I can't say I'm scared. What can he do?"
"He do something bad," said Scipio, darkly. "Yo watch your step, Marse Hamlyn."
Bob slept well and woke to find that the gale had abated. It was, however, still blowing briskly, and when they got under way and left the shelter of Crescent Key, the dark blue waves were capped with foam crests. But the Mocassin ploughed through them stoutly and before midday they sighted Cottonmouth. It was larger than Bob had expected, and had a dreary look. Surf broke heavily on its white sand beaches behind which stretched a wilderness of saw palmetto and tangled scrub.
Bob examined it through glasses. "I can't see a house," he said, "and there's no sign of a harbour."
"There's a small bay on the south side." came a voice, and Bob was surprised to find Halford standing beside him. "Yes, I have been here before;" he added in response to Bob's inquiring look. "But I never landed so I don't know where the houses are. But probably near the bay."
It was the first, time Bob had heard Halford speak reasonably and civilly, and he responded at once. "I expect you are right. Anyhow that is where I must land. It's too rough anywhere else."
The Mocassin proceeded cautiously towards the south side of the island—cautiously because the sea was a maze of shoals. The bay, as Halford had said, was small, and there was no house in sight. But about half a mile inland was a clump of sizeable trees where a house might be hidden. The Mocassin anchored and the dinghy was put over.
"We shall wait for you, Bob," Lestor said, "if you can't find a house, come back and we will try further round the coast."
Scipio rowed Bob ashore. "Don't yo' be too long," he said, as Bob scrambled out on to the beach. "I don't like de look ob his heah place."
He walked across the beach and plunged into the scrub. It was thick as a hedge and full of thorny vines. But when he had pushed a little way in he found that it grew in clumps with openings between. The ground was sand covered with a sort of lichen and, since the tangled masses of saw palmetto cut off the wind, the heat was terrific. The openings were narrow and winding. He had to walk four or five times the distance that he would have covered could he have gone in a straight line. The land dipped and he found himself on the edge of a belt of swamp.
Now he realised how the island had got its name for the hot malarious mud swarmed with thick, stumpy snakes lying in tight coils. They were cottonmouth mocassins only less dreaded than the terrible diamond-back rattlesnake. There was no crossing this swamp. He had to go round and watch every step of his way for fear of treading on one of these deadly horrors.
The swamp belt was nearly a mile long. It was an hour and a half before Bob at last reached the trees. There were black-jack oaks of no great height. He climbed the highest and looked round. There was no sign of a house, but a ridge of high land across the centre of the island cut off all sight of the western and northern shores.
He turned to look at the Mocassin. He could hardly believe his eyes to see her under way and already a couple of miles to the east. By the plume of spray at her how she was being driven at top speed.
BOB was so staggered he almost lost his held on the branch to which he was clinging. It was beyond belief that the Mocassin should clear away and leave him marooned. Neither Merle nor her father would consent to anything of the kind, and while Halford, he knew, would be only too glad to get rid of him, it was absurd to think that he could carry off the launch against the will of the others. Scipio alone would be more than a match for Halford, and Scipio simply loathed the man.
Suddenly he spotted a second launch. She was apparently chasing the Mocassin. Bob stared at her till his eyes ached, but she was much too far away for him to be able to see anything that might identify her. His thoughts flashed to Cabot. Was it possible that he had been taken off from Shark Bay and was now hunting the Lestors? Although this suggestion seemed wildly unlikely it was the only possible explanation.
Bob swore under his breath. Here was he sitting at the top of this accursed tree, on this infernal lonely island, surrounded by scrub and snakes, when he would have given all he had, including his prospects of the clay, to be with Merle and her father in the Mocassin. Rage never got a man anywhere. Bob knew that. He watched the Mocassin till she was a dot on the horizon, noticed with satisfaction that she seemed to be running away from the other launch, then climbed down and took stock of his position.
It was not too good. He had no food, and—what was much worse—no water. The heat was terrific, and already he was very thirsty. Except for the swamp Bob had not seen any water on the island and the swamp water was putrid and poisonous. Worst of all, he had no notion where Mark lived. Indeed, he had begun to doubt whether any one lived or could live on this barren, snake- infested island. It might be that Tiber had lied. Yet, remembering how scared Tiber had been that evening when he had been forced to confess, Bob did not think it likely that he had done so. There might be better country on the far side of the divide.
Anyhow, that was the only chance, so Bob started towards the higher ground in the centre of the island. It was a journey that any man would remember to the end of his days. To gain a mile in a straight line he had to walk three. Though the wind was still strong it did not reach him in the narrow, airless alleys between the huge, solid hummocks of scrub, and the sun burned down upon him with relentless force. Thirst became an agony, and a man less strong than Bob would have given up and dropped before he even reached the height of land.
At long last he did reach the top of the ridge. It was no great height, certainly not more than 70 or 80 feet above sea level. But here the growth was not so dense and the breeze reached him. He dropped in a patch of shade under a black-jack and lay quite still for many minutes. Then he scrambled to his feet and went on. Another quarter mile and he reached the western side of the ridge. Here the ground fell away and he saw the sea. Biting deeply into the shore was a narrow-mouthed bay and above trees, which made a grove at its inner end, rose a mast. From among the trees a curl of grey smoke was carried by the wind.
Bob drew a deep breath. There was someone on the island. It remained to be seen whether Mark was here. The scrub was not so thick on this side of the slope. If it had been, the chances of Bob reaching the little bay would have been slim. When in the end he sighted two small houses he was all in.
Two great yellow dogs—hound dogs the negroes call them—came rushing out, barking savagely. Bob, who knew dogs, chopped and sat on the ground and the two big brutes stopped short and did not attack him. A moment later q man appeared. A long, lank fellow with a leathery face and grizzled hair; he wore snuff-coloured trousers, a shirt that might once have been blue, and a home-made, broad-brimmed hat of palmetto twist. He stared at Bob much as Robinson Crusoe might have if he had met a white man on his island, then roused to shout at the dogs and order them away.
"And who might you be, stranger?" he asked suspiciously. Bob tried to speak but his tongue and throat were so dried that he could only make a croaking sound.
"I'll be doggone!" the man exclaimed. "He's nigh dead o' thirst— Sairy!"
A woman appeared.
"Bring a dipper o' water," the man shouted. The woman hurried back into the house and came out quickly with a gourd of water. It was lukewarm and slightly brackish, but to Bob it was the most delicious fluid that had ever flowed down his throat. The woman knelt beside him, holding the dipper to his lips. She would not let him drink all the water at once.
"Taint good to drink too much when anyone's as dry as you be," she said.
Bob found his voice. "Thanks a thousand times," he said. "I've walked all across the island and I never knew it could be so hot."
"You walked plumb across the island!" exclaimed the man in evident amusement. "And you ain't snakebit?"
"Not that I know of," Bob answered with a smile. "All the same I never saw so many of the ugly brutes since I was born."
"You was lucky," said the man gravely. "Ain't many as would risk crossing Cottonmouth Key unless they had high boots on. What in sense did you do it for?"
Bob took another drink and looked up. "Well, I rather think it was to see you. Is your name Mizell?"
"It sure is." turned and looked at his wife. "Sairy, I'll lay a dollar as this here gent is some kin to Mark."
"I'm Mark's cousin," Bob said. "My name is Robert Hamlyn."
"Mark's cousin!" exclaimed Mizell. The change in his manner was immediate, and Bob realised that both Mizell and his wife must be fond of Mark. "Wal, I swan! Come right in the house, Mister Hamlyn. We're surely pleased to see you. And ain't it jest too bad that Mark ain't here? He've talked of you often."
"MARK not here," Bob repeated quickly. He rose as he spoke, but staggered and Mizell steadied him with a strong arm. "Where is he?"
"Two friends o' his come here this morning in a launch. They said as they had good news for him. They'd found a fellow as was ready to buy some property Mark had in England. They took him along to Key West to sign some papers. They was reckoning it would be quite a bit of money. They did talk of two thousand dollars—"
Bob broke in. "Was one called Tiber?" he asked.
"That's it; and the other was named Dene. Soft-spoken sort or feller. Sairy and me, we didn't cotton to him, but Tiber, he said Dene was all right, and Tiber's an old friend of Mark, so I reckon there won't be no harm come of it."
"I'm afraid there'll be a lot of harm," said Bob, heavily. His spirits had dropped to zero. Dene and Tiber had beaten him after all. What made it harder was the thought that, if only he had not let Vane Halford humbug him and land him in the wrong place, he would have been in time. Mizell spoke.
"What seems to be the trouble. Mr. Hamlyn? Is that Dene a crook?"
His wife interrupted. "Don't go asking questions, Abe. Can't you see Mr Hamlyn is poorly? Help him in the house, and I'll make some coffee, and then maybe he'll be able to tell all about it."
She was right. Bob was all in, and this final blow had been very nearly a knock-out. They helped him into the house, a frame building of sawn planks which had evidently been brought from the mainland. There were only two rooms and a kitchen, but they were clean and decently furnished. There was a good veranda shaded with cypress vine and morning glory, and on this Bob was established in a big rocking-chair. The breeze blowing in from the sea made it comparatively cool. Mrs Mizell hurried off to the kitchen; Mizell himself went into the living room and same back with a bottle and glass.
"This ain't no tanglefoot, Mr Hamlyn," he said. "It's good rye whisky—ten years old. I reckon it'll keep ye up till Ma brings the coffee."
It was good whisky, and it was exactly what Bob needed. By the time the coffee arrived his head was clearing, and he was beginning: to think again. With the coffee Mrs Mizell brought biscuits, and—as they had no butter—guava jelly. She was delighted at Bob's appreciation of them. While he ate he told them briefly of his clay discovery, and how Dene had plotted to do him out of Bar Tor Farm.
"The clay may be worth a lot of money," he said. "And, of course, believing Mark to be dead, I thought it was all mine."
"Which wasn't unreasonable," agreed old Mizell. "Mark's all right, and we like him first-rate, but he's kind of weak, and he didn't ought to have let you think he was dead when he weren't."
Bob went on. "When I heard he was alive I made Tiber tell me where he was, and I came out in a hurry. I flew from New York to Key West. There two of Tiber's thugs knocked me out, robbed me of all I had, and threw me into the sea."
"Land sakes!" cried Mrs Mizell. "However did you get out?"
He told her and explained how the Lestors had brought him to Cottonmouth. He did not waste time telling his new friends of the adventure in Shark Bay, but merely said that the Lestors had landed him on Cottonmouth, meaning to wait for him, but that they had been forced out to sea, and no doubt they would call for him again. Then he went on to explain the plan he had proposed to put up to Mark. He, Bob, would have worked the clay and, in return, would have paid to Mark a percentage of the profits.
"Mark's share might have come to two thousand dollars a year or more," he ended with a touch of bitterness.
Mizell, who had been leaning forward in his chair, listening keenly, brought his hard hand down with a smack on his thigh. "I never did hear of a dirtier swindle. And that Tiber pretending to be Mark's friend. Mister, we got to stop this."
"What have you got to stop, father?" came a voice, and Bob looked up to see a small, plump girl with blue-black had and great dark velvety eyes, looking at them with a puzzled expression on her pretty face. "And who is this?" she asked, pointing to Bob.
"This is my daughter, Nita," Mizell said to Bob. "She's married to Mark. Nita, the gentleman is Mark's cousin, Robert Hamlyn. Reckon you knows his name." Bob managed to get out of the chair and bowed. To his surprise Nita made him a pretty curtsey.
"I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr Hamlyn," she said, and Bob realised that this girl had had an education very different from that of her parents.
"May I return the compliment," he said, and was rewarded with a charming smile.
"You set right down, Mr Hamlyn," said Nita's mother. "You ain't fitten to stand up. He've walked clear across the island, Nita, and was all tuckered up when he got here."
"I should think so," said Nita. "I wonder he is alive to tell the tale. Did you come to see Mark, Mr Hamlyn?"
"I did," said Bob, "but since we are cousins don't you think you had better call me Bob?"
"That's real nice of you," she said. "I wish Mark was here to meet you."
"So do I," said Bob, and the sudden grimness in his voice startled the girl.
Her father came to the rescue and explained. If he was not an educated man he could put a story into plain words, and do it quickly and well. Nita's pretty face went serious as she listened.
"But this is terrible," she said gravely. "And poor Mark was so pleased at the notion of getting two thousand dollars. We do need money sadly, Cousin Bob, for the sponge fishing has been bad, and father and Mark have been just working themselves to the bone to make a living."
"Mark working!" Bob could not help exclaiming.
"He surely is," said Mizell. "A good worker, too, now he's married and settled."
"I'm jolly glad to hear it," Bob declared. "He was always a good, kind fellow and generous, too, but he had too much money. Cousin Nita, I congratulate you on making a man of him."
Nita blushed charmingly, but her father cut in. "See here, Mr Hamlyn, it's right nice to hear the way you speak of Mark, but if we going to do anything to stop these here swindlers we ain't got no time to chin wag."
Bob looked at him in surprise. "What can we do? They're half way to Key West by now. They'll be there by night, and the agreement will be signed and sealed first thing in the morning. After that Dene and Tiber will get back to England just as quickly as they can travel."
"But they promised to bring Mark back," exclaimed Nita.
"Not a hope," Bob said. "Once they have got what they want out of him that's the finish so far as they are concerned. Mark will be lucky if he gets even the two thousand dollars. It was ten thousand Dene offered me for the farm."
Mizell was standing up with a very determined look on his leathery face. "If you're able, Mr Hamlyn, we'll go right along."
"Arter 'em, of course. That's my cat-boat down there." He pointed to the harbour where Bob saw a stout looking boat with one tall mast.
Bob stared at it.
"But it's a sail boat," he said.
"And she can surely sail," Mizell said. "You willing to try it?"
Bob's eyes shone. "Try it! Man, I'd swim, if I thought I could catch them."
THE rest, the food and—more—the thought that there was a possibility of stopping Dene and Tiber, had put new life into Bob. He strode down to the harbour. Mizell waited just long enough to pick up some equipment and followed. Mrs Mizell busied herself picking up food. Arrived at the little landing, Bob took, stock of the boat. She was less than thirty feet long, but broad-beamed and half-decked. She wasn't too clean, yet the rigging and everything about her seemed to be thoroughly sound.
Mizell came up just as Bob had got aboard. "Kin you handle a boat any?" he asked.
"A little," Bob said modestly. "I have done some sailing off the Devon coast."
"Fine," said Mizell. "Long as you kin take the tiller we'll get along." As he spoke he was busy hoisting the main sail. A cat-boat has only two sails, a big main and a small foresail. The mast is stepped far forward. The first thing Mizell did was to reef the big sail.
"Be plenty wind outside," he said.
"All the better," Bob answered. Mizell grunted and went on with his work. Mrs Mizell and Nita arrived with baskets of food. Nita spoke to Bob.
"You'll bring Mark back, Cousin Bob?"
"We certainly will, Nita," Bob promised, and then Mizell released the mooring rope, the sail filled and the boat glided out towards the open sea.
Bob waited until they were clear of the land before speaking.
"Do you really think we have a hope of catching them, Mr Mizell?"
"It's a hope, mister," the other answered. Bob looked doubtful. Himself, he could not imagine how any sail boat, however fast or well handled, could a launch, especially when the launch had three hours start. He said so.
Mizell, who sat at the tiller, with a corncob pipe in his mouth, cocked an eye at the sky.
"Depends on the weather," he said. "The rains ain't over yet. We'll likely have thunder afore long. And this here boat o' mine kin stand a heap more'n one o' them pesky launches. 'Nother thing—I knows these waters better'n that fellow, Da Sousa, as owns the launch. He's a yaller belly."
Bob looked puzzled. "Yellow-belly—what's that mean?"
"He've got a yaller streak, a wide one. If she blows he'll run for shelter." He broke off. "Mister, I been thinking. You said as this here launch, Mocassin, were going to wait for you but, when you climbed that tree, you seed her going away. I'd like ter know what her folk did that for. Weren't weather, anyway."
"It wasn't weather," Bob agreed. "She was being chased. See here, I'd better tell you the whole thing. I left out a lot."
There was plenty of time, so he gave Mizell a full account of the happenings in Shark Bay, of Cabot's attempt to hold up the Mocassin, the burning of his plane and how they had left Cabot and his companions marooned on the lonely coast. He continued. "When I spotted the Mocassin making out to sea another launch was following her. I made up my mind it was Cabot and I expect that Mr Lestor thought the same. But now I'm inclined to think that this second launch was the one Dene and Tiber come in."
Mizell took his pipe from his mouth, he nodded. "Reckon you're right. 'Taint hardly likely as Cabot got off that soon. All the same he wouldn't be there long. He've got a big launch called the Flame and they'd know where he'd gone. Wouldn't be very long afore they come after him." He gave a dry chuckle. "Gee, I'd like to hey seed Cabot's face when you fired that plane o' his. Reckon you're the first one as has got ahead of him fer a long time."
"You know him then?"
"I surely do and a bad one he is. Used ter run whisky from the Bahamas. Now there ain't any devilment he don't dip his fingers in. Mister, you better pray you don't ever get in his hands. He's got as much pity in him as a swamp rattler, and no more."
"He's a nasty bit of goods," Bob agreed. "And I certainly hope I never set eyes on him again." He stopped. "Hulloa, what's that?" he asked as a boom like distant gun fire rolled across the sea.
"That's thunder, mister, like I said." He pointed to the south-west and Bob saw a dark haze blotting the blue horizon. He thought of the furious storm that his plane had encountered between Miami and Key West, and did not feel happy. These storms were always accompanied by wind, and it hardly seemed to him that this little half-decked boat could stand up to the sort of sea that such a storm would bring. Mizell, however, was undisturbed.
With one knee over the tiller, he was refilling, his pipe.
"Will the storm come this way?" Bob asked.
"I reckon," agreed Mizell quietly and fell silent.
The wind was increasing. It was a little aft the beam and the cat-boat lay down and raced across the waves. By the length of the white wake streaming behind her, she was travelling at least as fast as the average launch. Mizell handled her superbly and, although spray flew over her constantly, she hardly shipped a drop of water. Bob began to realise that Mizell was not boasting when he said that his little craft could stand more weather than a launch.
The cloud increased and within the next half hour had blackened about a quarter of the visible horizon. But it was still a long way off. The wind, however, was constantly hardening and presently Mizell spoke.
"Got ter put another reef in her. I'll set her up in the wind. Reckon you can hold her there while I do the job?"
"I'll do that or I'll reef," Bob said.
"Reckon I'll reef. You ain't hardly rested arter that walk."
Mizell threw the little ship into the wind and Bob quickly changed places and took the tiller. He noticed how weatherly the cat-boat was. She rode the big seas like a cork while Mizell rapidly tied the reef, points. It was time, too, for now it was blowing almost a full gale.
Mizell chuckled. "Da Sousa will be plumb scared. I'll lay a quarter he's run for shelter already."
"Have you any notion where?"
"Crescent Key most like. Same place as you laid last night."
"And how far are we from the Key?"
Mizell pursed his lips. "Might be ten or twelve mile."
"Then we could do it before dark. Think it's worth trying?"
"It's our best bet," Mizell agreed, and changed course, slightly.
Bob had done a good deal of sailing during holidays, and had been through Portland Race, in half a gale. But never before had be experienced anything like this mad race across the Caribbean, driven before a tropical thunderstorm. Reefed right, down as she was, the little cat-boat fairly flew. At times Bob held his breath, fearing she would drive right under, but always she lifted. Mizell was wonderful. A man who was insignificant on land Bob saw to be a first-class sailor. His hand on the tiller was absolutely sure, and he knew his stout little ship as an experienced jockey knows his horse.
The storm, which had taken a long time to work up, now broke in earnest with rain so heavy that it actually flattened the great seas. Lightning gleamed through the blackness of the giant cloud, it darted from one horizon to the other, but the thunder was drowned by the roar of the gale, and the screeching hiss of the driven spray. It was almost dark, and how Mizell got his course Bob had not an idea, for there was no light in the tiny binnacle. At first Bob had been frankly scared, but soon he forgot fright in thee wild exhilaration of this flight through the storm. He was drenched to the skin, but the water was warm as new milk and he took no harm.
By degrees the darkness lessened and presently there came a rent in the cloud through which the setting sun showed, the colour of molten iron. It was like looking into the mouth of a celestial blast furnace. But it still blew hard, the wind tearing off the crests of the combers and sending them flying horizontally, like snow, and still lightning flickered and danced overhead like veins of fire.
"Seed the worst of it," Mizell shouted. He had to shout, the wind was so strong. "And thar's Crescent Key," he added, pointing to a shadow on the horizon which was just emerging from the flying storm cloud.
"And you kept your course all through that!" Bob exclaimed. "Mr Mizell, you're a real navigator."
Mizell grinned. "Best drop the 'mister,'" he advised. "My friends mostly calls me Abe. Now we'll have to hurry, for it's going to be dark mighty soon, and I'll lay they won't be putting out any riding light. We'll shake out a reef and get along."
A few hours earlier Bob would have thought it absolute madness to use so much sail, but now he had complete trust in his companion. This time he did the work himself, and got a word of praise from Abe for his smartness. Within a very few minutes the cat-boat was again rushing through the gathering dusk towards the long, low island ahead.
Mizell set a course for the western end of the Crescent and Bob sat, straining his eyes for sight of Da Sousa's launch. He felt it was only a forlorn hope, yet it was the only hope, for if Dene and Tiber had driven on ahead of the storm, they would already have reached Key West.
The sun was down and the twilight of the tropics is very short. The light was almost gone when they neared the long point of sand on which great breakers were roaring, sending up tall clouds of foam. Through this mist of spray a dark object became dimly visible.
Bob turned to Mizell. "She's there," he said. Mizell merely nodded. His eyes were on the sea, and his sinewy hands clamped on the tiller. Neither spoke again until they had weathered the dangerous point with its maze of outlying sandbanks, then Mizell flung her up into the wind, and she glided into smooth water.
"I reckoned she was here," Abe said. "I knowed Da Sousa wouldn't face that wind."
"She's here, Abe," Bob said, "but what are we going to do about it? There'll be three men aboard, not to speak of Dene and Tiber, and we're only two."
"Sousa ain't got but one man besides himself. He's too mean to pay a third hand. And you got to remember as Mark is aboard. Soon as he hears my voice he'll take his share. I ain't seed him in a fight yet, but he ain't yaller anyhow. But Sousa, he's yaller plumb through. Put a gun on him and he'll melt like pitch in the sun."
"But we haven't got a gun." Mizell grinned. He motioned Bob to take the tiller and went forward. From under the coaming he drew a waterproof case, and from this took out a gun. It was an old- fashioned ten-bore wild fowling gun in beautiful order.
"She'll throw a charge o' buckshot a good eighty yards," Mizell said. "Take hold of her while, I runs up close, and if anyone starts trouble don't you waste time. Let him have it right away."
Bob took the gun, and Abe steered the cat-boat towards the launch. Those aboard had seen her now. A shout of warning came from her deck. Then the rattle of a chain.
"They're casting off," Bob said sharply.
As he spoke he could hear the sudden vibration of the engine. There was no doubt about it. Someone aboard the launch had been keeping watch, and had seen the cat-boat stealing up soundlessly through the gloom. He had knocked the pin out of the anchor shackle; the engine started, and the launch was already moving. But the cat-boat still had way, and there was a chance she might overtake the launch before the latter got into her stride. Abe Mizell threw her up a couple of points into the wind so as to keep her between the launch and the open sea. A strong puff careened her, and she shot up almost alongside the launch.
"Keep away or I'll shoot!" came a venomous voice from the launch. Bob recognised it as that of Dene. Abe answered. "Shoot if ye want to—but it's the last thing as ye'll ever do. Thar's two charges of buckshot ready to let daylight into ye."
"What do ya want?" came another voice, a badly scared one, if Bob was any judge.
"Want ye to heave to, Sousa," roared Abe. "Me and some friends need a word with ye."
"Keep her going, you fool!" snapped Dene, and Bob felt a momentary wonder that Dene's ordinarily soft voice could be so vicious. Whoever was handling the engine did keep it going. The beat of the screw quickened, and the launch began to draw ahead. Abe hung on like grim death. He was still so close alongside that the launch could not turn across his bow to reach the open sea. With each puff of wind Abe drew up, then as the puff died, the cat-boat dropped back. "We can't keep this up," Bob said to Abe. "Engines are bond to beat sails."
"That's so if we was out to sea," Abe answered quickly, "but we ain't. Jest wait. Something's going to happen pretty soon."
Before Bob had time to inquire what Abe meant, the "something" did happen. With a crunching sound the launch ran hard upon a sandbank. Her bow reared almost out of the water, and she stopped as short as if she had hit a cliff.
"Now's your chance," cried Abe, as he ran the cat-boat close alongside. Drawing far less water than the launch, she did not touch the ground, and Bob, gun in hand, swung himself over the low rail of the launch.
WHEN Bob jumped into the launch a man came at him. It was Dene, and Bob, holding the heavy gun, was at a disadvantage. Dene had a pistol. He did not fire it, but struck with it at Bob's head. Bob managed to twist the gun round and take the blow on the barrel. Then he dropped the gun, and since he was too close to Dene to hit him, flung his arms around the man's body. He was surprised at Dene's wiry strength. Dene was taller than he, but lighter, yet Bob could not throw him, and the two wrestled furiously on the wet deck, over which spray from the small waves was breaking.
"Sousa! Here—help!" Dene shouted and, out of the tail of his eye, Bob saw a squat, yellow-faced man coming up, with a wrench in his hairy paw. One smack from that spelt finish, and Bob put out all his strength in a desperate effort to end the struggle. His foot slipped, he lost his balance and came down, Dene on top of him.
"I've got him," Dene panted. "Quick! Let him have it."
He drew himself sideways to give Da Sousa room to strike, and Bob saw the heavy wrench raised above his head. Then a shadow crossed his line of sight, there was the flash of a striking arm, the plop of a fist meeting flesh, and the yellow-faced man staggered back and fell with a crash that shook the deck. Bob's rescuer caught Dene by the collar and wrenched him away with a force that split his shirt all the way down the back. He, too, went to the deck with stunning force. Bob was up like a shot, and the first thing he did was to snatch up the wrench which had fallen from Da Sousa's hand.
"You don't need it, Bob," came a voice, and Bob found himself facing Mark Hingston.
Surprise left him speechless for, even in this dim light, the man before him bore so little resemblance to his cousin as he had last seen him, that Bob could hardly believe him to be the same man. Instead of the plump, soft, exquisite, whom Bob remembered, here was a man who looked harder and browner than Bob himself. His waist line appeared to be almost halved, his chest measurement seemed to have doubled, and big muscles stood out on his bare arms. Mark chuckled.
"I don't know what you're doing here. Bob, but I'm glad to see you."
"Let's clean up and I'll tell you. Where's Tiber?"
"Below, I should think. Between sea sickness and pure funk he's limp as a wet sponge."
"And the fourth man?" questioned Bob.
"He don't count. But I'll tie up Da Sousa. He'd have brained you if I hadn't spotted what was up."
"I know it and I'm grateful," Bob said, as he set to work to tie up Dene. He used Dene's handkerchief for tine job and left him flat, with his wrists fastened behind his back. Mark treated Da Sousa in the same way and, before they had finished, Abe had secured his little vessel alongside and climbed aboard. He looked round.
"The launch won't come to no harm here," he said, "and I reckon she'll float when the tide makes. Mark, you got anything to drink?"
"Tiber has a bottle of whisky. Come on down and we'll sample it."
The three went down into the cabin, Mark produced the whisky, and Bob and Abe each had a drink. Mark, Bob noticed, drank only lime juice and water.
"Rum thing your turning up like this, Bob," said Mark, as he took a seat. "What made you leave your bank for these parts?"
"I left the bank two years ago," Bob said. "I've been living on Bar Tor farm ever since."
Mark's eyes widened. "What in sense were you doing there?"
"Trying to make a living. I suppose it didn't occur to you that I was your next heir."
"Give you my word I never thought of it. And if I had I'd never have dreamed of your taking on Bar Tor." He stopped a moment, then went on with a rush. "But there must be money in the place. Else, why did Dene want to buy it?"
"You bet there's money in that there land," put in Abe. "And you better be mighty glad as Bob here and me caught up with ye afore ye signed it away. That son of a dog, Dene, were set on swindling ye out of a fortune."
Mark looked amazed. "Darned if I can see where the fortune comes in! Dene told me he wanted it for a client who was a sort of hermit."
"Much the same yarn he pitched me," said Bob. "But I'll tell you the whole story, Mark, and you can see for yourself what a mess you left by pretending you were dead when you weren't."
"I never supposed it would matter to anyone except some of my unfortunate creditors," Mark answered. "But go ahead, Bob. Least I can do is to listen, after you've come all this way to talk."
Listen he did while Bob described the finding of the china clay in the old Bittifer Mine and the narrow escape of himself and Peter Newcombe after they had been trapped. It was not until Bob related how he had met Tiber and how Tiber had sold him that Mark was moved to speech.
"The dirty dog!" he "And after all I've done for him! He told you one lie, Bob. He had the whole of my last hundred as his price for going home and telling the lawyers I was dead. Said it was a risk and that he must be paid for it. Hang it, he's worse than Dene."
"But not half so dangerous," Bob said. "I haven't finished yet." He went on to tell of how he had forced the truth out of Tiber, of his race across the Atlantic, and how he had flown to Key West. When he came to the attack upon himself on the quay Mark was moved to fresh wrath.
"They're a couple of murderers. Bob, we'd be justified in taking 'em back to Cottonmouth and swinging 'em on the first live oak."
"We'll fix 'em afore we're done with them," put in Abe.
Bob told of his rescue by Mr Lestor and Scipio, and related briefly his experiences in Shark Bay. Mark looked grave when Bob mentioned Cabot. He, like Abe, knew a deal about this pernicious pirate.
"It'll be bad for the Lestors if Cabot gets after them," he said. "He'd think no more of murdering them all and sinking their bodies in the sea than you or I would think of shooting rabbits."
"I know," Bob answered, "and I want to get to their help as soon as possible. Abe has promised to take me to Barracuda as soon as this business is fixed up."
"That won't take long," Mark assured him. "Bar Tor is yours, Bob. I've no claim on it whatever."
Bob's face lit. This was indeed a new Mark. Then he shook his head.
"Don't be foolish, Mark. Remember that you're a married man, and that sponge-fishing will never bring you a fortune. Besides, legally, Bar Tor is still yours. Listen. I suggest that you deed the place to me and that I for my part engage to pay you half the profits. Will that suit you?"
"No, it won't," protested Mark. "The thing's absurd. I'll deed the place to you, as you suggest, and when you get it going you can send me a hundred a year. Living is cheap on Cottonmouth and, with that money, we'll all be in clover."
"No, you must have your proper share of the profits," Bob insisted. He turned to Mizell. "You agree with me, Abe?"
"I think you're all white," said Abe. "I reckon Mark better give ye that deed and leave it to you to pay him jest what ye think right."
"That's a go," said Mark. "Let's fix it up right away."
"I don't think we can," Bob told him. "We need a lawyer to draw up the agreement."
"Probably you're right," said Mark. "Let's push on to Key West and find one. If we start now we'll get in some time to-morrow, and have it all settled up by night."
"And meantime Cabot may reach Barracuda," Bob said. He paused, then went on quickly. "Mark, the clay doesn't count with me compared with the risk to Merle Lestor and her father."
MARK whistled softly. "So that's the way of it. You're fond of the girl, Bob."
"I'm engaged to her," Bob said.
Mark stared, then chuckled. "Quick work, old son. I congratulate you, and I'm game to help in any way I can. How about it, Abe?"
"I reckon you're right, Mark," Abe answered gravely. "Bob here, he deserves as we should help him, and I've told him I'd take him along to Barracuda."
"I'll go along," Mark said, "but seems to me we can fix this thing up before we start. Suppose I make a will, Bob, leaving Bar Tor to you. Abe can witness it and that will make you safe if I get scuppered. Then I'll write out an agreement, giving you the Bar Tor and, even if it's not exactly legal, it will prevent Dene getting his dirty paws on the place. Later, when the Barracuda business is fixed up, we'll visit Key West and get everything ship-shape."
"Right, Mark. Let's see if we can find pen and paper."
"I can get that," Mark told him, and got up. He found some sheets of plain paper, a rusty pen and a bottle of ink, and there, in the low roofed cabin of Sousa's launch, by the light of an oil lamp, Mark wrote out the two documents and signed them, and Abe added his signature as witness. Abe sighed with relief as he laid down the pen.
"Writing ain't my long suit," he explained. "Still I reckon they kin read that."
"They'll read it all right," said Bob as he folded the sheets and put them in his pocket. "And now we may as well be shifting, eh, Abe?"
"Not just yet," came a sarcastic voice, and there was Dene at the door, a. pistol in his hand, and a sneer on his dark face. Bob glanced round quickly. He had brought the gun down with him, but it was leaning against the wall out of his reach. It would be impossible to get hold of it before Dene could fire.
"This is my silly fault. I thought Tiber was too sick to move."
Dene's lips twisted in an ugly grin.
"Yes, you were a bit too confident, Hingston. The result is, we've got you all ends up. Hamlyn, hand over those papers."
Bob shrugged. "Suppose I've got to, but they won't do you any good, Dene. Now that Mark is wise he will never sign away his property."
"Don't be too sure about that," said Dene. "In fact, he's going to do it before he's an hour older," he added wickedly, "or Da Sousa and I will know the reason why. But I'll have that will and the agreement first."
"You can have them, Dene," said Bob, stepping forward. In doing so he deliberately moved in front of Mark. Mark was not slow to take the hint. Snatching up the whisky bottle, he flung it straight at Dene's head. Dene ducked instinctively and the bottle missed him, splintering against the bulkhead behind him. Before Dene could recover Bob was on him. With his left hand he grasped Dene's wrist, forcing it up, with the other he drove hard at Dene's face. The pistol exploded with a crash that extinguished the lamp, but the bullet buried itself in the ceiling and Dene slumped to the floor.
"Say, but that was real neat," remarked Abe as he took a matchbox from his pocket. Bob cried a-warning. "Don't strike a light. Da Sousa's loose."
"He don't amount to nothing," Abe answered scornfully as he struck his match and re-lit the lamp. "I see you've got Dene all right," said Mark coming forward. He grinned. "That shapely nose of his will never be quite the same again. Tie him up, Abe. Bob and I will round up Da Sousa and Tiber."
Without Dene, Tiber and the half-breed were helpless. They made no resistance, but, all the same, were both tied up. Bob, Mark and Abe met again in the cabin and Bob suggested that the sooner they got away the better. Mark looked at Dene, who had come round and was lying scowling up at them. "Give me a hand with this blighter," he said.
"You want to take him along?" Bob asked. "You surely aren't going to leave him here!" returned Mark.
"Why not? The launch is aground and will be for some hours. We shall be miles away before it floats."
"But we're not going to let Dene and Tiber get off scot free!" Mark exclaimed. "Hang it all. They'll get a pretty long term of imprisonment for a swindle like this."
"They would if we had them in England," Bob answered, "but we can't get them there. We can't even spare the time to take them to Key West."
Mark came nearer and whispered in Bob's ear: "You're forgetting that Dene overheard what we were saying. Suppose he turns up at Barracuda?"
"That's not likely," Bob answered in an equally low voice. "For one thing, Sousa wouldn't take him there. He'd be too scared of Cabot. And what on earth can we do with two prisoners? There's no one to guard them on Cottonmouth."
"There's Nita and her mother. They'd take jolly good care of them."
"Yes and have to feed them. And you know, yourself, you wouldn't be happy about it. You would have to stay and look after them. Much better leave them here. The odds are they'll go straight back to Key West."
Mark still looked doubtful.
"Dene ain't the sort to give up as easy as that," he whispered. "He's dangerous. How would it be to stick the whole bunch on Crescent Key and leave 'em there till we come back for them?"
"There's no water there and no shelter. They wouldn't live forty-eight hours. No, there is only one thing to do—leave them here on the launch and clear out as quickly as we can."
"You're boss," Mark answered and went out. As Bob followed he wondered if he was doing the right thing. If he had only known it, he was making as big a blunder as when he had first talked to Tiber.
On deck they found the greaser, a small, inoffensive man, who seemed to be half Indian, half negro. They told him that, as soon as he was gone, he could release Sousa and he meekly agreed, Then the three went aboard the cat-boat and cast off.
The night was dark, and, although the thunderstorm had passed, there was still plenty of wind with a lumpy sea running, and the wind was almost dead ahead, and so long as it remained in that quarter, it was one long beat back to Cottonmouth. Abe had decided to return home before making the trip to Barracuda because, with three aboard, they would need fresh water and stores. Also he was anxious to let his wife and Nita know that Mark was safe. In any case it was not much out of the way, for Barracuda lay to the west of Cottonmouth Key. Bob, too, was anxious to call at Cottonmouth, for he thought it possible that the Mocassin had returned there to take him off.
Morning dawned grey and cheerless. There was no land in sight, and the sea was still uncomfortably rough. Mark managed to boil up a pot of coffee on the oil stove under shelter of the half deck, and all three were glad of a hot drink and some cold food. As the sun rose the clouds broke, and it grew so hot that soon the sun burned out the wind, and for hours there were nothing but cat's-paws which would drive the cat-boat a few hundred yards, then leave her heaving on the long, slow swells. The delay was maddening, and Bob longed for an engine to drive them. At last, tired out, he lay down in the shade of the half deck and slept. Abe roused him.
"It's coming up right thick," he said. "Reckon we better reef down."
BOB scrambled out and looked at the sky. Thick it was and no mistake. The vast blue-black cloud that blocked the western horizon was rimmed with masses of vapour, white as cotton wool, which rolled and boiled with the wind behind them. It was another thunderstorm. Nothing wonderful, in that, for at this time of the year thunderstorms sweep the gulf every day, but this was a bad one, and it looked to be bearing straight down upon the cat-boat. He and Abe had just time to reef and make all snug before the first gust came racing across the sea, tearing the tops from the waves.
"Dead ahead," Mark grumbled, and Bob was surprised to see how calmly he took it.
The wind was worse than the storm, which he and Abe had met on the previous afternoon, while the lightning was so close it fizzled like red hot iron dipped in water, "We'd better heave to, Abe," Mark went on. "If we run we won't get back in a week."
"That's so," Abe agreed. "Guess we'll put out the sea anchor and ride to it."
The sea anchor was a triangular contraption of spars and canvas, which held the boat's head to the wind, and for three long hours they rode to it in a sea so tremendous that time and again Bob made up his mind that the stout little craft could not last another minute. Yet Abe and Mark took it calmly enough. They never seemed to think that there was any particular danger. Their only grouse was that they were losing time and distance.
At last it blew over and just, before sunset the sky cleared and the wind backed to sou-west. Abe shook out the reefs and headed once more for Cottonmouth Key.
"How long before we get in?" Bob asked.
"Midnight, if the wind holds," Abe answered. "If it don't there ain't no saying."
Bob made no reply. He was worried. All his thoughts were of Merle. He was desperately anxious about her. Short-handed as they were in the Mocassin they were in no shape to fight such storms as had swept the gulf the last two days. Halford was not only undependable but a positive danger, and Bob knew he would try any trick to separate Merle from the man he hated so heartily. Then, too, there was the threat of Cabot. If the launch picked him up he would not waste time in getting to Barracuda. Once again Bob felt that he would cheerfully give up all chance of his English enterprise to be at the side of Merle and her father.
The wind did hold, and, under the light of a crescent moon, the cat-boat reached the mouth of Abe's little harbour about half an hour before midnight. The lights from windows of the two little houses gleamed through the trees and, as the small vessel glided in towards the wharf, there were Mrs Mizell and Nita waiting and waving.
The moment Mark jumped ashore Nita flung herself into his arms. It did Bob good to see how devoted the two were, one to another. A more curious match could hardly have been conceived than this ex-man-about-town and the daughter of a Florida sponge fisher. Yet their happiness was complete, and Bob felt a little pang of envy as he thought of the difficulties before himself and Merle.
Then Nita turned to Bob. "They have been here," she told him eagerly. "The Mocassin, I mean. And, oh, Bob, she's lovely."
"Merle! She's been here?" Bob exclaimed.
"They came yesterday, about three hours after you'd left. Miss Lestor and her father came ashore. I told them how you'd walked all across the island among all those snakes and how dead beat you were, and she went quite white. Bob, she's mighty fond of you."
"I'm glad you met her, Nita," Bob said warmly. "But did she say why they left just after I'd landed?"
"Indeed she did. They saw a launch coming, and this Mr Halford, he declared it was Cabot and that the only thing was to clear out. Merle said he was just crazy scared."
"He would be," growled Bob. "And of course it was Sousa's launch."
Nita nodded. "Yes, and the coloured man, Scipio, he found that out. So Mr Lestor insisted on going back. Merle said that Mr Halford did all he knew to stop him, and that at last Mr Lestor got real angry and told him he would lock him in his cabin if he didn't behave. But I reckon Merle's told you all that. She's left a letter for you."
"A letter!" repeated Bob. "Where is it?"
"Up at the house. It won't run away," said Nita with a sly smile. But Bob was already hurrying to the house and Nita turned to her husband. "He's worse than you, Mark," she chuckled, and Mark grinned delightedly.
Bob had already found the letter when the others reached the house, and was reading it by the light of the lamp. This was what Merle had written:
Can you ever forgive us? Nita has told me about your terrible journey across the island. I am so thankful that you made it safely and have fallen into such kind hands.
Father and I would like to have waited until you came back, but Vane is crazy to get on to Barracuda. He said you might not be back for a week, and that, of course, is true.. If we were delayed that long Cabot might reach Barracuda ahead of us, and that would be fatal. We count on getting there first so as to make preparations in case he does attack. We hope to be able to bar the harbour there against his entrance. If we can do that I think we are fairly safe.
All the same, I wish you were with us. Father is getting old and, though Scipio is splendid, he is not capable of dealing with an emergency. As for Vane,-he is not only useless but dangerous. He is mad with jealousy.
Mrs Mizell says her husband will bring you to Barracuda when you return. If you do follow us, be careful, Bob. Do not risk falling into the clutches of Cabot and—above all—do not enter the harbour without first giving us warning. I have no time to write more. God be with you,
Supper was already on the table, but Bob paid no attention. He sat gazing at, Merle's letter. It was his first love letter and precious beyond words. Yet for the moment his thoughts were concerned with Vane Halford rather than Merle.
"Not only useless, but dangerous," Merle had said. And Merle did not speak lightly.
IF the decision had rested with Bob the cat-boat would have sailed again that night. But Abe had hardly had a wink of sleep for the past thirty-six hours, and during that period had kept the tiller through two heavy storms. Tough and wiry as he was, he clearly needed rest. Mark said so to Bob, and Bob, of course, agreed. So after supper they all turned in, and, in spite of his anxiety about Merle and her father, Bob went to sleep almost at once.
It seemed to him that he had hardly closed his eyes before Mrs Mizell roused him. The first glimmer of grey dawn was barely visible, and Bob was drugged with sleep. All the same, he was up at once, and he and Mark went down to the sea for a plunge.
"Not a breath of wind," said Bob unhappily, as he looked at the glassy surface of the little bay.
"It will come with the sun," Mark told him. "Don't look so worried, Bob. You'll see your girl before night. Nita is tremendously taken with her. Says she's a peach."
Bob glanced at Mark, who had just come out of the water, and stood, stark, on the little landing stage. He was lean, tough and muscular as Bob himself, and burned to the colour of a well-baked loaf.
"Strikes me I'd say the same about Nita," he remarked.
Mark's eyes brightened. "You're right, old man! It was the biggest piece of luck that ever came to me, to meet her. It's only since I came to Cottonmouth that I've begun to live."
"Don't you feel a bit lonely, Mark. Don't you miss your London friends?"
"Man, I never had any friends," Mark answered sharply. "Only hangers-on. I work hard. I live hard. I'm as fit as a flea, and I'm happier than I ever believed possible."
"I hate dragging you away from your island and your wife, Mark," Bob said, but Mark got almost cross. "Don't talk rot! You got me out of the hands of those two dirty dogs. The least I can do is to lend a hand to you. But there's Nita calling. Breakfast's ready."
It was no use hurrying over the meal, for there wasn't a breath of wind. Even when the sun came up there were only cat's- paws, and they had to use the dinghy to tow the cat-boat out of the harbour. Then they found a light but fairly steady breeze from a little south of west, the sails filled, and with Nita waving to them from the point, they slipped away on their voyage. Abe had never landed on Barracuda, but he had passed it. He told them it was larger than Cottonmouth and higher. As for the treasure, he had never heard of that, but admitted that most of the Keys had stories of buccaneer gold, and that he himself had once found a quantity of silver doubloons on a beach of Cottonmouth, where they had no doubt been washed up from a wreck.
Two hours passed before Cottonmouth was out of sight and still the breeze did not strengthen. It was very hot and the usual thunder heads were beginning to pile up all around the horizon. Flying fish broke from the sides of the slow swells and skittered across the sea to drop often into the very mouths of ravenous bonito. Now and then a green turtle could be seen floating on the surface. It was pleasant enough from the point of view of a yachting trip, but Bob would have given a finger for a real breeze.
Mark tried to console him. "We'll get plenty of wind later, Bob, he promised.
"Another of those infernal thunderstorms," Bob growled. "Have to lie to again, and I'll bet we don't get there before tomorrow."
"It's no use croaking," Mark told him. "All the same I'm pretty sure we'll make it before dark." Midday came and they made a meal of the ready cooked food which they had aboard. Luckily there was plenty of water for the heat was now intense. The sun was burning out the wind, and the big main sail flapped. At times they were merely drifting. Towards two the clouds thickened and thunder began to rumble. The daily storm seemed about due and now at last it began to breeze up. The wind veered, northerly and soon the cat-boat was lying over and a long white wake proved that she was really moving. There were ugly gusts at times, and Abe had to watch her carefully. Left to himself, he would probably have reefed, but knowing how keen Bob was to get on he did not do so.
"There's the storm," said Mark presently pointing to the south-east. The horizon in that direction had gone the colour of blue-black ink, and was criss-crossed with lightning flashes, while the low rumble of thunder did not cease for a moment.
"I don't reckon she'll come our way," Abe said, "but that ain't saying we won't run into another."
Bob was scanning the horizon all round. Suddenly he pointed. "Isn't that a ship?"
So far they had not seen a craft of any kind, and now all three concentrated their gaze on the tiny black speck far away to the south-east. Abe fished out his glasses. He could not use them, for he had his work cut out to steer. He handed them to Bob, who focussed them. He stared for a few moments, then lowered them.
"It's a launch, Abe. A big one." Abe motioned Mark to take the tiller and reached for the glasses. He, too, took a long look, and his lean jaw tightened.
"You're right, Bob. I wouldn't wonder if she was Cabot's Flame."
Bob bit his lip. "And headed for Barracuda," he remarked.
"I'd rather that than she was headed for us," Abe answered. As he spoke he took the tiller again and changed course, letting the cat-boat 'run free.
"We'll soon see," he added. "With the wind almost aft the cat- boat began to travel in earnest, fairly hurdling the rising seas. Mark now had the glasses and was watching the launch.
"She's the Flame all right," he said presently. "She's changed course. She's after us."
BOB frowned. "I don't understand. If that's Cabot's ship why isn't he making straight for Barracuda? It isn't as if he could know that I was aboard your boat, Abe."
"There ain't no saying what that feller knows," Abe answered. "But, he's surely changed course and coming arter us."
"He'll have his work cut out to catch us," Mark put in. "So long as this wind holds we have the legs of him."
"Aye, but we can't carry all this here sail very long," Abe told them. "Wind's strengthening all the time, and won't be long afore we have to heave to and reef."
After that there was silence a while except for the whistle of the wind in the rigging and the hiss of the spray that flew over them. Bob had the glasses and kept them fixed on the launch.
"She's gaining," he said at last. "She's a lot bigger than the Mocassin and better able to stand up to this sea. And she must have pretty powerful engines."
"Reckon she'll need 'em before she ketches up with us," Abe answered.
A gust heavier than any yet heeled the little ship till her gunwale was level with the water. Abe threw her up into the wind. "Hold her, Bob. Mark and I will reef her."
The job was done in a surprisingly short time, yet even so the launch seemed to have grown considerably before Abe's little craft was off again. The storm to the south-east was passing away but another thunder clump was forming in the north-west. The sky was covered with confused clouds and the wind came in heavy gusts. Abe was no longer making for Barracuda, but simply trying to get the last ounce of speed out of his stout little craft.
"If that second storm works up we can beat 'em," Mark told Bob. "An' if the rain comes on heavy we'll change course and puzzle 'em that way. Don't worry, Bob."
"What worries me is why he's chasing us," Bob answered. "You'd think he'd be hell bent to get to Barracuda."
Mark shrugged. "I've no more notion on that subject than you. But it's all to the good if we can keep him away from Barracuda. Didn't Miss Lestor say that they wanted time to prepare their defences?"
"That's what she said. All the same I don't see what they can do. The only men in the Mocassin are Mr Lestor and Scipio. That chap Halford is as much use as a sick headache."
"Two men can do a lot if they have time," Mark said. "They may have a gun they can mount. It doesn't take much of a shell to sink a launch."
Mark was so confident that Bob felt somewhat cheered. But when he looked again at the pursuing launch his spirits sank again. She was coming up hand over fist, and was already near enough for them to see the waves breaking over her bows as she drove through them.
Bob turned to look at the storm cloud. That, too, was coming down fast with the wind. Already it was blowing so hard that Bob trembled for the cat-boat's rigging. If he had not already seen how seaworthy the little craft was he would have been really scared. The sea was now growing big, the stays were humming like harp strings and the waves broke with an angry hiss. The sky was darkening, the blackness had mounted to the vault of heaven while veins of livid fire streaked the huge cloud. Abe had his work cut out to hold his little ship as she bucked and veered amid the breaking waves.
Still the rain did not come and still the launch gained. The launch was getting a tremendous dusting and all in the cat-boat hoped that her engines would not stand the strain, but she was well handled and evidently staunch for she carried on. Bob began to feel badly scared and, glancing at Abe, saw that his lips were tightly compressed. Mark spoke in Bob's ear.
"Even if they do catch up they can't do anything, Bob."
"They can run us down," said Bob grimly.
"They daren't. They'd hole the launch for a certainty. If the wind holds till dark we'll get away."
"Then let's pray it does," said Bob, "for that's our only hope."
"There's the rain," said Mark suddenly. It came across the sea in one solid grey sheet and, as it struck them, everything was blotted out beyond a distance of thirty yards. Its force was so tremendous that it flattened out the breaking waves.
Instantly Abe put the cat-boat about. She came round as if on a pivot and lying over to the force of the wind shot away in a southerly direction.
"But we shall run right into the Flame," Bob grasped. "Not a bit of it," Mark answered. "We've plenty of time to cut across her course before she sees us. Abe has done, it on purpose, because, of course, Cabot will take it we've gone the other way."
Bob made no reply. He felt sure that Abe knew best, but he almost held his breath as he gazed into the murk, expecting each instant to see the Flame drive into sight. It was not until a good ten minutes had passed and the cat-boat had covered the better part of two miles that he began to feel better.
"What did I tell you?" said Mark. "Cabot's all of five miles away now, and if the rain lasts another ten minutes we'll lose him altogether."
The rain was not quite so heavy as at first, but heavy enough to cut off sight of anything beyond a couple of hundred yards. The cat-boat was running with the storm and so keeping inside its radius. She was getting a pretty heavy dusting, and Mark and Bob had to keep the balers going but Abe handled her superbly and, when at last the rain ceased, there was no sign of the Flame or of anything else but themselves on the great circle of tossing sea. Bob sighed with relief and turned to Abe.
"What now, Abe?" he asked.
"Reckon we'll carry on, Bob. Likely Cabot's made straight for Barracuda but there ain't no saying what's in that fellers' mind. If he got any suspicion as you be aboard this craft he'll turn and come arter us. I'll lay he ain't forgot what ye did to him at Shark Bay. Cabot don't forgive very easy."
Bob repressed a shudder. Cabot, he felt very certain, would never forget or forgive the destruction of his plane and his marooning at Shark Bay. A tiger would be less likely to forget the robbery of her cubs, and Cabot was a human tiger. What he would do to an enemy did not bear thinking about, and there was little more law now in the Caribbean than there had been in the days, of the buccaneers.
Bob's thoughts turned to Merle. If Cabot had given up the chase of the cat-boat he must now be nearing Barracuda. It made him shiver in earnest to think of Merle in the power of that vulture-faced brute.
"Shall we get to Barracuda tonight, Abe," he asked suddenly.
"I'm reckoning to git there afore I morning," Abe answered. "Winds veering and if she don't drop we'd ought to be off the Key just arter moon rise. But I ain't changing course yet awhile."
The gale had now dropped to a strong and steady breeze and as the storm drove away down wind the sea grew less heavy. The clouds broke, the sun came out and dried their soaked clothes. The sleek black forms of a shoal of porpoises broke through the waves, and now and then the bright blue dorsal fin of a great sail fish showed for a moment above the surface.
The crew of the cat-boat paid little attention to sail fishes or porpoises. They were all the time watching for the Flame. There was no sign of her and, after running for another hour, Abe changed course and turned north. They shook out the reef and the cat-boat under full sail, danced along at her best rate of speed. She was doing, so Abe said, between eight and nine knots. It was the perfection of sailing and, if Bob had not been so bitterly anxious, he would have enjoyed it. As it was, he sat almost motionless, his eyes fixed on the northern horizon.
They passed a small barren island which Abe said was Sand Key, and presently Mark got out their provisions and made coffee on the little spirit stove. In spite of his worry Bob was hungry enough to make a good meal.
The sun set behind narrow bars of dark cloud, the air was fresh and sweet after the storm, the cat-boat drove on steadily, rising and falling with the regularity of a pendulum. Darkness fell, but the stars were brilliant. Bob volunteered to take the tiller while Abe got some rest, and Abe agreed and gave him the course. Mark, too, lay down on a spare said and slept the quiet sleep of a tired, healthy man. Bob felt a little less unhappy for every minutes was taking him nearer to Barracuda and Merle. If it had not been for Cabot he would have been content, but this man! stood like a nightmare between him and his hopes.
As he sat with one eye on the compass and the other on the leach of the mainsail, steering almost mechanically, he was puzzling his head to think what Cabot would do—whether he would land at once on Barracuda or whether he would find the Mocassin and attack her. He remembered what Merle had said in her letter— that the cat-boat was not to enter the harbour. It seemed as if the Lestors had in their mind to arrange some defence. The question was whether they would have had time to do it.
He was roused from his anxious thoughts by sight of a light that suddenly appeared on the port bow. Abe had told him that they would pass another small nameless Key, and for a moment he thought that the light must be on this Key, but then he saw that it was rising and falling with the send of the sea. He roused Abe and pointed it out, and as he did so the light flickered and died. Abe, wide awake in an instant, got out his glasses and made a quick inspection.
"Light a flare," he ordered. "That there's a wreck if I ain't mightily mistaken. Give me the tiller."
Mark sprang up, and it was he who found the flare in the locker under the bows. He lit it and it blazed up, flinging a ruddy glare on the heaving sea. It showed the wreck of a small boat deep in the water and, clinging to the stump of the broken mast, a solitary figure. It showed also a dark mass in the background. This was the little island of which Abe had spoken.
"Hey!" shouted Abe. "Hang on. Be with you in a minute." He turned to the others. "Looks like he's hung on a reef. There's reefs all round this island. Don't do fer to take the cat-boat in too close. Reckon we gotter use the dinghy."
The dinghy was collapsible and Mark and Bob jumped to open it out and get it over. There was still sea enough to make the operation ticklish and Abe decided it would be best to anchor. The depth proved to be only about six fathoms, and presently the cat-boat was tugging at her cable. Then Mark and Bob dropped the dinghy over. There was room in it for two only, and Abe decided that Mark had better go. He had had more experience in handling this sort of craft than Bob. To Bob it was surprising to see the skill with which his cousin managed the frail little craft. He rowed with short, strong strokes, and it was only a matter of three or four minutes before he reached the wreck and took the survivor aboard.
As he turned to pull back a shaft of brilliant white light cut the night. It came from a searchlight set in the bows of a large launch which had glided out suddenly from behind the island.
"Gee!" Abe exclaimed. "It's the Flame."
BOB was so staggered that for a moment he did not move. Abe dived forward and came out from under the half deck with his big duck gun.
"Keep down, Bob!" he, ordered, sharply, and Bob dropped. But he knew it was no good. They must have seen him already from the launch. The launch drove down upon the cat-boat in absolute silence. When she was within 50 yards Abe hailed her.
A harsh laugh came from the darkness behind the searchlight.
"Shoot all you want, Mizell. You won't do us no harm. But just to put you wise, there's two tommy guns trained on you and either would put enough lead in you to sink your ship."
"He's right, Abe," said Bob in a low voice. "It's no use making your wife a widow. The odds are they only want me."
"Think I'm a-going to-give ye up ter that son of a dog?" returned Abe harshly.
His big gun crashed with a sound like a young cannon, but nothing happened. The searchlight at which he aimed must have been protected in some way, for its bright beam still picked out every detail of the cat-boat. Again the laugh. Bob knew it for Cabot's.
"That's enough, Mizell. Shoot again and I'll riddle ye. I ain't going to have my paint spoiled by no Florida cracker. You'll come right aboard—you and Hamlyn and Hingston. I needs you in my business." As he spoke the dinghy came alongside and Mark scrambled aboard.
"It was a trap, Abe," he said swiftly. "This fellow wasn't in any danger. He could have swum ashore if he'd wanted to."
Abe glanced at the rescued man, who was still in the dinghy. In the glare of the searchlight he was seen as a Seminole Indian, one of the tribe which still lives in the Everglades, but which has now become more or less civilized.
"Its Bimini," Abe said sharply.
The Indian stared at Abe. "Boss I never knowed it was you," he answered in a horrified voice.
"When you quite done chinning, you better come aboard," Cabot called sarcastically.
"And what about my boat?" Abe asked harshly.
"That's your trouble, not mine," Cabot retorted, then Bimini spoke in a quick low voice.
"I see arter her, boss. Don't yo' worry."
Abe was bitterly angry. "Come out from behind that there light." he cried. "Come aboard here, Cabot, and face up ter me if ye ain't scared."
"See here Mizell," Cabot's tone was a danger signal. "I ain't got time to argue with you and I ain't goin' to. Your life don't mean anything to me one way or another. I'll give you while I count ten to get into that dinghy and come aboard. After I count ten I'm shooting."
He began to count. Mark grasped his father-in-law's arm. "Go on, Abe. While we're alive we've a chance against the blackguard, but it won't help any of us to have you killed. Think of Mother and Nita."
Abe moved sullenly forward and got into the dinghy. Bob stepped in with him. "Perhaps they won't want you, Mark," he whispered. "I'm the one Cabot's after."
Bob was wrong. Cabot insisted on Mark coming aboard the Flame, so Bimini rowed him across. As he did so, the Indian whispered a few words. "I never knowed it was Mr. Mizell as Cabot was after. If I had I'd hev seed him to blazes afore I took on the job. You tell him I'll see to the cat-boat. Cabot, he said I could hev her fer my trouble, but I'll take her back ter Cottonmouth."
When Mark climbed aboard the big launch Cabot was standing on the deck with Bob and Abe in front of him. Cabot had his left arm in a sling. That, no doubt, was the result of Scipio's bullet. Mark had never before seen the man, but he understood at once why Bob had called him a vulture. With his great beaky nose, bald forehead, and filmy eyes he bore an extraordinary resemblance to the turkey buzzard, the winged scavenger of the Southern States. Only no buzzard ever looked half so vicious or so dangerous. He turned to Mark.
"Your name Hingston?"
"It is." said Mark, and the way he faced up to the brute made Bob proud of him.
"I got a couple o' friends o' yours aboard," said Cabot, his lips twisting in a smile which never reached his eyes. "Hey, Dene. You and Tiber come up here."
Bob bit his lip, and Cabot, whose narrow eyes missed little, saw it. He chuckled harshly.
"That's where you fell down, Hamlyn," he said. "If you'd had the sense of a louse you'd hev hove 'em both overboard."
"As you would have done if you had been in my place," replied Bob. His sarcasm was wasted on Cabot.
"As anyone would have done except a Britisher," he retorted. "I seed 'em as I come along past Crescent Key with their boat hard and fast on the sand. And they was glad enough to talk in exchange for being took off."
Dene and Tiber had come up and were listening. Dene laughed. "The boot's on the other foot now, Hamlyn," he jeered.
Bob turned on him. "You'll be lucky if you have any boots or anything else by the time Cabot has done with you," he retorted.
So far from being insulted, Cabot laughed.
"Looks like you learned something since you met me, Hamlyn." His face hardened. "And you're due to learn a lot more if you live," he added significantly. "Get on down below all of you. I'll come and talk to you when I get ready."
Two hard-faced fellows, armed with pistols, herded them below. All five were driven into a good sized cabin aft and the door locked on them. The engines had started again and the Flame was being driven at full speed. Dene and Tiber were not looking so cocky. They were unarmed, and were realising that, if it came to a scrap, they would not stand an earthly chance against any two of Abe's party.
Bob tackled Dene at once. "How much have you told Cabot?"
"That's my business and his," Dene snapped.
Bob shrugged. "Dene, you think you're a bad man. Compared with Cabot, you're a baby in arms. If you've told him about the clay he'll have that as well as what he's after on Barracuda."
"You're crazy," Dene retorted, and then a man came in.
"You, Hamlyn. The boss wants to see you."
Bob was not feeling amiable. "Speak civilly, you dog," he answered, swinging on the fellow so sharply that he took a step backwards. The ship was rolling heavily. The man lost his balance and fell. Before he could recover Bob was on him, and had snatched the revolver from his belt. The man opened his mouth to yell but, before he could utter a sound, the barrel of the pistol smacked down on his head. He quivered and lay still.
"Good work, Bob!" said Mark. "Now you have a gun let's rush 'em. If we can get Cabot we'll have the launch."
"LOOK out fer Dene," cried Abe sharply and made a rush. He was just too late. Dene, slippery as an eel, had got outside the cabin and slammed the door upon Abe. Before they could get it open again Dene was out of sight.
"That's queered our pitch," said Mark, and he was right. Almost at once came Cabot with three of his toughs, all armed to the teeth.
"Put that gun down," said Cabot to Bob. "I'll allow you're smart, but you ain't got an earthly against my chaps."
"I could get you before they got me," Bob told him.
"Maybe you could," Cabot answered, and even Bob had to admire the man's coolness. "But then you'd die and Mizell and Hingston as well. They ain't got no guns."
Bob still held his pistol on Cabot. "Probably we shall die anyhow," he said, harshly.
"I ain't aiming to kill you," Cabot told him. "Fact is you're worth more to me alive than dead."
"You're frank anyhow," Bob said. "I'll take your word."
He laid his gun on the table by which he had been standing.
"Looks like you got sense," said Cabot. He pointed to the man Bob had floored. "Take him along," he ordered curtly, and two of his followers lifted the stunned man and carried him off. Cabot addressed Bob.
"You willing to come to my cabin?" he asked.
"I'd have come before if that fellow had been half way civil," Bob answered and followed Cabot.
Cabot opened a door, and Bob was surprised at the luxury which surrounded him. The Flame was a big ship, nearly twice the size of the Mocassin, and Cabot's cabin was about twelve feet by ten and furnished with a brass bed, a small but handsome roll-top desk, a wardrobe and good chairs. A fine Eastern carpet covered the floor, there was electric light, and hot and cold water were laid on.
"Sit down," Cabot said. "And help yourself to a drink."
Bob sat down, but refused to drink. He did not fancy drinking with this man. Cabot poured himself a drink and sat down opposite Bob. He pushed a box of cigars across the table. Then he spoke.
"See here, Hamlyn, you come nearer to finishing me than any feller I ever run against. It took courage to swim across to my plane and fire it like you did at Shark Bay. I swore as I'd get you, and I reckon I done it, though I'll allow that was your fault fer letting them two skunks, Dene and Tiber, stay alive when you'd ought to have sunk 'em." He paused, but Bob did not speak. He went on. "Tiber talked. He's the sort as opens up when he's got a couple o' drinks in him. He told me about this here clay pit. Belongs to you, don't it?"
"It does," Bob answered.
"And I reckon you're wanting to get back and see to it."
"I'm hoping to," Bob said.
Cabot nodded. "And you can do that very thing if you're agreeable to give me a hand first."
Bob was beginning to boil inwardly, but outwardly kept cool. "How do you mean?" he asked.
"You know as well as I do," said Cabot with a touch of impatience. "I'm meaning, that there treasure on Barracuda. See here, you ain't tied to old man Lestor?"
"I'm his friend," Bob answered. "That's the only tie between us."
"You ain't in his pay then?"
"Then see here. I want you to persuade him to give up that there writing as tells where the stuff's hid. Of course I can take it off him if I've a mind to, but I don't want to hurt the old coot or his daughter."
"You mean you might get hurt, yourself, in doing so," Bob suggested.
An ugly gleam showed in Cabot's hooded eyes. "You ain't fool enough to think that, Hamlyn. I'm telling you the plain truth when I says I wants to get this stuff without a fuss. Anyways I been after it longer than Lestor. You do as I say and I'll see as you and Lestor and his daughter gets back safe to Key West. What's more, I'll see as Dene and Tiber don't worry you no more."
Bob's brain was working quickly as he listened. He realised that Cabot was indeed speaking the truth. Either the American authorities were getting sick of his activities and were hard on his track so that he wanted to make enough at one coup to clear out, or else he was afraid that Lestor would destroy the manuscript rather than hand it over. This Bob thought was exactly the sort of thing that Lestor might do.
Cabot was watching him keenly. "What about it?" he asked. "You going to do as I say?"
"Sorry I can't oblige you, Cabot. As I told you, Lestor is my friend. I'm out to help him get his treasure if it's there, not to hinder him."
Cabot's ugly eyes narrowed, his great body stiffened. "You better remember as you're my prisoner, Hamlyn. And your cousin. And old Mizell. If I figured to dump ye all three overboard this, minute there ain't a thing to stop me."
"No, I suppose not," Bob drawled. "But you know as well as I do that Lestor would burn that book before he ever let you lay your hands on it."
The savage glare in Cabot's eyes made Bob certain that this was exactly what Cabot feared.
"If Lestor burns that book I'll likely burn you," Cabot threatened.
"So that's what you meant when you said I was worth more alive than dead," he remarked, looking Cabot full in the face.
"Sure!" Cabot answered. He scowled. "You boob, why don't you come in with me? You and me together, we could do something."
Bob stared back at him. "So could you if you'd keep off the crooked stuff. But I suppose it's too late to suggest that."
"Crooked stuff," repeated the other with a sneer. "I prefer plain robbery to the fancy brand. Everyone as makes money makes it crooked." He broke off. "But I got something else to do than talk this way. I give you a last chance. Are you going to do as I say or ain't you?"
"The answer, Mr Cabot, is no."
Again those hooded eyes narrowed. "Then you say goodbye to your clay mine," Cabot snarled. He clapped his hands and two men instantly appeared.
"Put him in the stern cabin," he ordered. "And irons on him. And if you let him play up like he did before, what's coming to him Won't be a circumstance to what'll happen to you."
IT is a nasty business to be tied up and one degree worse to be ironed. When, added to this, you lie on a hard floor just over the screw of a vessel that is being driven hard through a lumpy sea discomfort amounts to torture, and after an hour of it Bob was aching all over and feeling that, if it lasted much longer, he would start shrieking. He tried hard to keep his mind off his present miseries and to think of other things. He began to believe that he had been a fool to defy Cabot. It might have been better to pretend to fall in with his views. As it was, he was helpless and he dreaded the effect on Merle, when she heard of his plight. For hear it she would. Cabot would somehow get word to the Lestors that he had their English ally in his power, and that worse doings would befall him if they did not hand over the secret of the hiding place of Pietersen's treasure.
Merle, he felt sure, would make any sacrifice in order to secure his safety and her father would back her. It seemed all odds that Cabot would secure the treasure and afterwards—what would happen afterwards? Likely as not Cabot would cut all their throats, for human life meant absolutely nothing to him. At best he would leave them marooned upon the island.
From any point of view the outlook seemed hopeless, and Bob's mental misery was so great that for a time he almost forgot his bodily torture. He wondered what was happening to Abe and Mark! At any rate he hoped they were not in so bad a plight as himself. His only small consolation was that Dene and Tiber had put their heads into the lion's mouth. If he and Mark were wiped out Dene at any rate would never get his hands on the clay, for he would most certainly share the same fate. Cabot would leave no troublesome witnesses to his steal.
The dreary night dragged on. The only alleviation of Bob's misery was that the sea became less rough, and the motion of the Flame less violent. This meant that it was getting near dawn when, in these latitudes, the wind nearly always falls. It occurred to him that they were also getting near Barracuda. The island where they had been trapped was not more than thirty or forty miles from the Treasure Island. There was no port in this little dog hole that was his prison—nothing but a ventilator which gave just enough breathing air—so Bob could not see whether dawn was yet in the sky.
For some time past Bob had been aware of a faint scratching sound, but paid no particular attention. Now all of a sudden he heard a whisper.
"Bob, you there?" The voice was Mark's and Bob got such a shock that for a moment he could not answer.
"Bob, are you there?" came the question again.
"Yes. Where are you, Mark?"
"Next cabin. They shifted all four of us in here. Soon as they left Abe and I got on to Dene and Tiber. We tied and gagged 'em. We heard 'em push you in here so I started on the partition with a knife. It's yellow pine, hard as oak, but I've managed to cut a small hole."
"Good man," said Bob. "It's a comfort to hear your voice. I was wondering what had become of you."
"We're all right, so far. What did Cabot say to you?"
Bob told him. "I believe I was a fool to defy him," he ended.
"What the deuce else could you have said?" Mark asked. "He's cute as a cart-load of monkeys. He'd know if you tried to fool him."
"Yes, but what are we going to do now?" Bob asked. "We must be getting near Barracuda."
"We're quite close. You can't see it because it's too dark, but Abe says we're only a couple of miles off it. Far as we can make out, Cabot is sneaking in with all lights out."
"Then it's still dark."
"Still dark, but dawn's due in half an hour," Bob groaned. "Then Cabot reckons to get in before light and surprise them."
"That's his notion," Mark whimpered. "But I reckon he's due for a surprise. Nita told Merle about the Flame and Merle and they'd be watching."
"They may watch," said Bob, "but what's the good? What can Lestor and Scipio do against this crew. Cabot's got ten or twelve men and, machine guns.",
"I wouldn't despair," Mark said. "According to what you've told me, Lestor has a good head on him."
Bob was not comforted. He could not see what defence the Lestors could put up against Cabot's big ship and crew of pirates.
"See here, Mark," he said in the lowest possible whisper. "How would it be to put the position up to Dene? Tell him he can have the clay if he and Tiber will back us. Make him understand he's in just as tight a place as we are."
"Nothing doing," Mark answered. "He'd agree and sell us the next minute. Best thing I can do is to try and enlarge this hole and get you out. You and I and Abe might put up some sort of show together."
"I'd be no use," Bob said. "They've ironed me."
"That's hell," growled Mark, and then Bob heard Abe's voice.
"We're coming right up to Barracuda. I can see her against the sky."
"Can you see any lights?" Bob asked.
"Nary a light. But the harbour's deep and narrow. I don't reckon we'd see anything until we came abreast of it. Anyways Lestor ain't going to show any light if he's got sense."
The Flame's engine beat had quieted to a hardly audible throb as she was stealing through the dark water like a ghost. Bob lay quiet. His body at least was quiet, but his thoughts were tumbling over one another. It was maddening to know that he was within a mile or two of Merle, yet utterly unable to help or warn her of the danger that was creeping upon her father and herself. He hoped—prayed that one of them was on the look out. He hardly gave a thought to the treasure; it was Merle's safety for which he was so desperately anxious. The thought of her in the power of Cabot nearly drove him crazy.
Earlier in the night he had heard people moving on the deck above him. Now there was not a sound. Abe spoke again through the hole in the partition.
"Looks like we're opposite the harbour. She's turning in to land."
"How much can you see, Abe?" Bob asked.
"Mighty little. There's cloud over the moon and the dawn ain't begun to show yet. I kin see a spit o' land covered with mangrove out to the west, and looks like we're headed in towards it."
There was a pause. Abe went to the port, but presently came back, crouched down and spoke again.
"Aye, Cabot's working her inter the mouth of the bay."
"Could you see the Mocassin?"
"Nary a sign of her. But she might be there, lying up in the dark."
"No light showing anywhere?" Bob asked.
"Not as I could see. Gee, but I wish we could get you out, Bob."
The screw was now barely turning, but Bob had no doubt that Cabot was pushing into the mouth of the harbour. Mark was now watching at the port. He came back and whispered to Bob.
"We're almost in. There's a light dead ahead. It's not the Mocassin. Looks as if it was on shore. I'd say it was a lighted window, with a blind clown or a light curtain over it."
Bob groaned again. "Then they don't know. Cabot will surprise them. Mark, isn't there anything we can do?"
"If there was I'd do it. I did think of getting out of the port, climbing on deck and trying to bash the fellow at the wheel, but the port's too small. Can't get my shoulders through it. And the door's locked, and I've a notion there's a fellow in the passage outside. Wait! I'm going to have another look."
Bob lay back. He was dripping with perspiration, he was terribly thirsty, and between exhaustion and anxiety, almost done. Still the Flame crept on. Abe told him that he was actually in the mouth of the harbour. It was narrow, he said, but wider further in. So far as he could see out of the port, the Mocassin was not there. But he could not be certain.
The lighted window was plainer now. It was certainly the window of a house, and the light was sufficient to give Cabot his bearings. Just as Abe finished speaking there was a slight grating sound as if the keel of the Flame had touched bottom. From above came a sharp order to reverse the engine. Almost before the command was out of Cabot's mouth the dawn quiet was broken by a deep boom, the Flame's bow lifted then with a crashing noise dropped again.
"By God, they've mined her!" cried Mark. His voice was drowned by yells from above.
"She's sinking!" they howled, and bare feet pounded the deck till it echoed like a drum.
"They've mined her," Bob repeated, and for a moment felt a throb of triumph. It was succeeded by the unpleasant recollection that, if the Flame sank, he would infallibly sink with it.
THE Flame was sinking, for already the floor on which Bob lay was tilted. Her bow compartment was filling rapidly. It could be only a very few minutes before she slid to the bottom. He heard the two boats being launched in a desperate hurry, and it was quite clear that neither Cabot or any of his men were going to waste time or risk their lives in coming below for their prisoners.
Mark took time to call out to Bob. "All right. We'll have you out, Bob!"
Then he and Abe were attacking the door.
What they were doing it with Bob had no idea, but by the sound they had got hold of something solid. It was only a matter of seconds before the door gave with a shattering crash, and Bob heard them at the door of his own cabin. A panel splintered, but the door was solid. Bob had a bright idea.
"Try the handle," he shouted. "I don't believe it's locked."
Mark heard and tried, and the door opened at once.
"What fools we are," said Mark as he grasped his cousin and heaved him to his feet. They had put leg irons on Bob which were locked to his handcuffs, but he was able to walk with help.
"Get Dene and Tiber, Abe," he told his father-in-law. Abe scowled.
"We'll save a heap o' trouble if we leave 'em where they be," he answered, but all the same he went, after them.
Time, too, for already water was welling up into the corridor, and it was clear that the Flame was making ready for her final dive. Dene and Tiber sneaked from a bolt hole and rushed for the companion. Abe came after them.
"The dogs," he growled. "What did I tell ye?"
Bob was stumbling along. It was impossible for him to move quickly.
"Get on my back," Mark ordered and, hoisting him up with a strength that amazed Bob, made for the stairway. With Abe's help he got Bob to the deck. There they saw two boats pulling up the channel into the Bay, but when they looked round the deck, there was not so much as a life-belt and the bows of the beautiful little ship were already level with the water.
"All right, Bob," said Mark. "It's no distance to the shore. We can swim it easy."
"Not with these ornaments," said Bob, lifting his manacled hands.
Mark left him and made a dash below.
"Mark," yelled Bob. "Don't be a fool. She's sinking."
Sinking she was. Her bow was dipping, her stern rising. Bob was frantic. He shuffled desperately across the deck, shouting to Mark to come back. Abe caught hold of him. "Don't be a fool, Bob. You can't do nothing. Anyway here he be."
At the very last moment Mark came plunging back carrying a life-belt.
"I knew there was one in the saloon," he panted as he hastily buckled it round Bob's body. He had barely finished before the Flame took her final plunge. All three were dragged down with her, but luckily the water was shallow so there was no great suction, and in a moment up they came, spluttering. The belt, Bob found, was just enough to balance his irons, but he was unable to swim. Mark caught and held him, and Abe trod water close beside them.
"We can tow him between us," Mark said. "Only question is which side we'd better try."
"There's mangroves both sides," Abe said, uncomfortably. "If it's swamp we'll have a hell of a job to got through 'em."
At that moment a hatch cover from the wreck shot to the surface close by them. Mark grasped it.
"Get on top of it, Bob," he told his cousin. "Then we can tow you fine."
"I don't believe you'll have to tow me at all," Bob said. "Here's a launch coming."
Abe looked round. "Dog-gone if ye ain't right!" he exclaimed. "But who in sin is it?"
Bob stared at the little ship which suddenly appeared in the mouth of the channel.
"Mocassin!" he shouted at the pitch of his voice. "Merle!"
"Who is it?" came the quick response.
"It's Bob, Merle. Bob and Mark and Abe Mizell."
"Bob!" came a cry and up shot the Mocassin.
Merle herself helped to pull the three soaked men over the rail.
"Oh, Bob!" she cried and flung her arms round him. Then she became conscious of the irons. "What are these? Who did this?" she demanded.
"Never mind now, dear," said Bob swiftly. "I'll tell you all in a minute. But Dene and Tiber are in the water somewhere. We can't let them fall into Cabot's hands."
"Why can't ye?" asked Abe sourly, and Mark backed him. "I'm sure we don't want them."
As he spoke a muffled cry came from the dim water. "Help! I'm sinking."
"That's Tiber," Bob said. "Hang it all we can't let him drown."
"No, we can't let him drown," Lestor agreed. "Push her across Scipio."
Scipio, at the wheel, turned the Mocassin towards the figure which could be dimly seen, struggling in the water. They were only just in time for Tiber was actually sinking as they reached him.
Dene was only a few yards away and they pulled him in too. As they hauled Dene in, the flat crack of a rifle came from the land from the inner end of the bay and a bullet sang overhead. A second, better aimed, struck the hull of the Moccasin, with a loud clang.
Without waiting for orders Scipio swung the launch round and drove out to sea.
"Where are you going," Bob asked Merle.
"To another harbour on the north side. But come below, Bob. We must get those irons off you, and you must have dry clothes."
Merle ran to fetch lemonade and her father brought whisky.
"Where's Halford?" Bob asked.
"In his cabin. He says he's sick, but I think he's only shamming. Never mind him, Bob. We must get those irons off."
The little greaser, whose name was Manuel, found a file and, while the Moccasin drove on through the quiet sea, the irons were cut off Bob. Lester brought dry clothes for all three of the rescued, men and they changed in his cabin.
"Treasure or no treasure, you're got one," said Mark.
"I'm luckier than I deserve, Mark," Bob said gravely. "But I shouldn't be here to enjoy my luck if it hadn't been for you and Abe."
"Only for you I'd have been kicking my heels on Key West docks, flat busted and unable to get home," Mark answered. "So now we're quits."
"You all are talking like the trouble was over," put in Abe as he pulled a shirt over his head. "You better believe it ain't so long as Cabot's alive."
"We'll fix him all right," said Bob, who refused to be downcast.
There came a tap at the door. "I'm getting breakfast," Merle called. "And afterwards we are going lo have a council of war."
A few minutes later they were all in the saloon, with the exception of Scipio, Manuel, Dene and Tiber. Dene and Tiber were locked up in a cabin forward of the saloon. Vane Halford was there. He looked yellow and ill. Bob felt sure that whisky was the main source of his trouble. That and jealousy. He was sulky as ever and barely responded to Bob's introduction of Mark and Abe.
In spite of Halford breakfast was a cheery meal and, while he ate, Bob told what had happened since he had left the Mocassin at Cottonmouth. Merle's charming face went very grave as Bob related the story of the way in which Cabot had trapped them and of how he himself had been left, ironed, in the after cabin.
"Oh, Bob!" she exclaimed in horror. "The last thing dad and I thought was that you were aboard the Flame."
"A jolly good thing you didn't know," said Bob bluntly. "As you had you might have hesitated to mine her. As it is, the Flame's at the bottom, and it looks as if we were on top at last."
Lestor spoke. "Don't be too sure, Bob. Cabot and his men are alive and ashore, and some at least have rifles. You may take it that all have pistols. And they have the house."
"But they have lost their stores and provisions," Bob said. "All we have to do is to sit tight until they starve."
Lestor shook his head. "It's not so easy as that. There are plenty of sweet potatoes and vegetables in the garden, and a certain amount of food in the house. They can catch all the fish they want. They can hang on for a long time."
"Then I reckon we got to go ashore and clean 'em out," Abe remarked, "it ain't likely they got a lot of ammunition, and you got plenty, Mr Lestor."
"Yes, and we have a couple of machine guns," Lestor answered. "All the same I don't want to come down to shooting unless it's absolutely necessary. I hate killing, and I certainly don't want any of you folk to be shot down in a quarrel that doesn't concern you."
Halford, who had sat silent and scowling all through the meal, broke in. "I can't imagine anything crazier than going ashore and fighting it out with Cabot's toughs. What chance should we have in all that thick bush? There's only one sensible thing to do— return to Key West, tell the authorities we've got Cabot boxed up on Barracuda and get them to send enough cops to arrest him and his whole bunch."
There was a moment's silence, then Abe spoke.
"That sounds right enough, Mister, but you gotter remember as you'd have to tell the cops the whole story—why we were going to the island and what all the trouble was about. And that's a law as the State kin claim the half of anything found on these here Keys. I don't reckon you'd have much to divide arter the Revenue men had got through with the stuff. No, sir," he ended. "We gotter finish this job, ourselves."
"ABE'S right," Bob said. "We have to do this job on our own. And as things are it shouldn't be too hard. Is there a path from here to the other harbour?"
"A track," Lestor told him.
"Then my notion would be to land about midnight without delay. If we wait, they may find where we are, but as it is I imagine that Cabot believed we've cleared out."
"You may be right, Bob," said Lestor, but he spoke doubtfully. "Yet they outnumber us heavily."
"Bob's right," put in Mark with conviction. "If we go tonight we shall take them by surprise. One burst from a machine-gun ought to be enough to convince them. They'll put up their hands."
"So long as there's no killing," he said.
"At least no one's been killed so far," said Bob, with a smile. "And once we've rounded up Cabot and Co. it shouldn't take, long to dig up the stuff, if it's there. Then we shall clear out and leave our kind friends here. As you say, they won't starve."
The only one who had no suggestion to make was Halford. He sat silent, looking one degree more sulky than usual. On deck a little later Abe spoke to Bob.
"Bob, ye can kid the old gentleman all ye like, but there ain't going to be no survivors if I kin help it. I ain't pining to hev Cabot calling round at Cottonmouth. As I told ye before, he don't forget very easy."
"I certainly shan't shed any tears if the whole lot are wiped out." He frowned. "I'm fairly certain every one of them would hang if he had his deserts."
Abe came closer. "There's one aboard here that's nigh as bad," he said in a low voice; "Thet there Halford. And, Bob, he sure hates you."
"Don't I know it?" Bob said. "But the fellow's drunk more than half the time. I don't think he's got brains left to do much harm."
Abe grunted. "I've knowed that kind do a heap o' harm. I tell ye I'm watching him."
Bob nodded. "He will stay aboard here. We shan't take him with us. And Scipio, he had better stay aboard, too. He's a sound chap."
Abe agreed. "Looks like you and me and Mark'll make the army. It's long odds, Bob."
"Don't forget the tommy guns," Bob said. "One burst might finish Cabot's lot if we got them where we want them."
"Aye, but it's a mighty big 'if'," Abe answered. "Still and all I reckon we'll turn the trick. And now I'm going to hit the hay," he added. "And if you got sense you'll do the same fer it don't look like we'll get a lot o' rest to-night."
He went below, but just then Merle came up and Bob, who had not yet had a word alone with her, beckoned her into a chair under the awning and seated himself beside her. She slipped her hand into his.
"Oh, Bob, it's good to see you again. The last two days have been bad."
"I've missed you horribly, Merle," Bob answered, "and I've been so desperately anxious about you. When Abe told me about the Flame I knew Cabot would be after you."
"You caught up with your cousin. That's one good thing," Merle said. "I like him, Bob. And I liked his little wife."
"It's a mutual admiration society, darling, for they're both crazy about you. It's just as well, for my peace of mind, that Mark is happily married."
"I don't think I could have fallen in love with Mark, even if he'd been a bachelor. But he's a fine fellow. He isn't a bit the waster you described, Bob."
"My dear, the change in him is; simply paralysing."
"That's Nita," Merle said.
"Nita and hard work," Bob agreed. "They've hardly two dollars to rub together, they work all day and they seem to be completely happy."
He paused, then went on slowly. "Merle, I hate running Mark into danger. If anything happened to him it would kill Nita."
"I know," said Merle gravely. "Bob, if it lay with me I would turn the Mocassin round this minute and make straight back for Key West. I believe I could persuade Dad that it was the best thing to do."
"You might, my dear, but I don't think he would ever get over it. He has made great sacrifices to get here, and to give up when we are within a mile of the hiding place would almost break his heart."
Merle sighed. "That's true. But I am very troubled about it, Bob. The odds are very heavy against us, and we both know that Cabot is utterly without scruple."
"He certainly is all kinds of a brute," Bob agreed. "And we should do the world a service by wiping him out. I'm hoping we can do just that for, once he is out of the way, his men won't count for much. I don't feel like your father about it. I'm frankly out to finish Cabot."
"I don't blame you, Bob," Merle said, gravely. "Now that I have seen Cabot I do not think one would have any more compunction in killing him than if he were a rattlesnake."
She sat quiet for a few moments, gazing at the thick mangroves which bordered the tiny bay. Great crabs were crawling in the ooze under the matted roots and the mud steamed under the blaze of the morning sun.
"You'll take Scipio," she said presently.
"No." Bob's tone was firm. "Or if I do, Abe must stay aboard. Fact is, Merle, I don't trust Vane Halford."
Merle shrugged. "He simply doesn't count one way or another."
Neither Bob nor Merle had the faintest notion that Halford, crouching down inside the deck house, was listening to every word they said. The man's face was almost black with rage. If he had had a weapon he was crazy enough to have shot Bob down but, fortunately, he had not a pistol.
"I don't count," he muttered between clenched teeth. "So that's what they think of me. I'll show them whether I count before they're much older."
He crept away and went down to his own cabin.
Bob and Merle, sat chatting for a long time, then Merle insisted on his getting some sleep. He argued that it was too hot to go below, so she agreed that he should remain where he was in his deck chair, so long as he shut his eyes and did not talk.
And Bob had hardly closed his eyes before he was asleep.
Merle sat watching him for a little while, then went quietly away to see about lunch. This, it had been agreed, was not to be a set meal for they were to have supper early so as to allow the raiding party to get some sleep before they started. But Merle had to send some food to Dene and Tiber who were kept locked in the forward cabin.
Scipio took their meal to them and reported that they were complaining bitterly of the heat. It was hot—fiercely hot—and soon after three the daily thunderstorm broke, with crashing thunder and torrents of rain.
"It will choke off Cabot's men, if they're trying any exploring," Mark said to Bob.
"I wish I knew what they were about," Bob answered gravely. "I've been trying to put myself in Cabot's place. His men, of course, would be crazy to search for the treasure, but he would know how utterly futile that was. Seems to me his idea would be to get away and find help."
"I ain't so sure about that," Abe put in shrewdly. "Ye see he'd know we was after the stuff, and my notion is as he'd hang around waiting fer us to turn up. Maybe he don't believe as we've left at all."
Bob looked a little startled.
"You may be right," he said slowly. "And in any case he wouldn't risk trying to get away in one of those small boats. They wouldn't live five minutes in one of these storms."
"Aye, but he wouldn't hev to go so far as the mainland," Abe answered. "There's an island called Diamond Key that ain't more'n twenty miles westward from this. And there's a tough crowd lives there. Ef he started one evening he could make it afore morning."
Bob began to look worried. "I wish I knew what he was up to. Could we take the boat and sneak round to Narrow Bay and have a look?"
"Nary a hope," Abe said. "They'll be like hawks. I reckon our only hope is to rush 'em just afore moonrise, like you said."
The storm passed as they sat talking and smoking, and a little later Merle came up to tell them that supper was ready. She and Scipio had cooked a capital meal which began with a dish of pompano, those delicious fish which are peculiar to the Caribbean, and ended with excellent coffee which Merle, they all agreed, made better than anyone else. It was a cheerful meal. Even Vane Halford was not so sulky as usual, and actually offered to come with them. This offer Bob politely refused, telling Halford that someone must stay aboard to protect Merle in case anything went wrong.
"And, now you people had better go and rest," Merle said.
Vane Halford watched them go. There was an ugly gleam in his blood-shot eyes. He got up.
"I'm going on deck for a smoke, Merle," he said.
For half an hour he sat in the hot dusk, smoking one cigarette after another. The little ship was strangely quiet. At last he got up and went below. Merle was lying back in an armchair, sound asleep. Just opposite her father, who had stretched himself on a lounge, was equally deep in sleep. Vane Halford chuckled evilly.
"So I don't count, eh?" he said aloud.
HALFORD prowled round the ship. Everyone, with the exception of Dene and Tiber, was deeply asleep. The dose of allonal which Halford had placed in the coffee pot had done the trick. Even Scipio and the little greaser, Manuel, had had their share and were as completely drugged as the rest. Halford had appeared to drink his coffee, but had taken very little. It would have required a much heavier dose to put him under; he had been drugging himself for years past.
He went to his own cabin and took a small sniff of cocaine. This braced him and as soon as he began to feel its effects, he went to the cabin where Dene and Tiber were confined and unlocked the door. He had taken the key from Lestor's pocket.
Dene, who was lying in his bunk smoking, looked up and stared at Halford.
"What do you want," he asked curtly. "I came to have a little talk with you," Halford answered, and his manner was so significant that Dene sat up abruptly.
"If it's anything interesting I'm ready to listen." He paused. "You're Halford, aren't you?" he asked.
"I am Vane Halford," Halford said, crisply. "I am owner of this yacht. Your friend, Hamlyn, has jumped into my command and, since the others are all backing him, I have to use my brains to get the better of him."
Dene stiffened and Tiber, too, sat up and listened. Dene was watching Halford intently and, being a man with much knowledge of the seamy side of life, realised that his visitor was under the influence of some drug. But that did not matter if Halford was able to help him out of the unpleasant fix in which he found himself. So far he had spent a lot of money and got nothing out of it. His prospects of landing the clay concession had vanished into the blue, and now all he could expect was to be put shore on the wharf at Key West to find his way home as best he might. Anything was better than that.
"Quite so," he said, smoothly. "It would seem that you want Tiber and myself to help you. Is that the case?"
"That's the idea," Halford answered. "And if you will you won't suffer. I am prepared to pay and pay well for help."
Dene almost purred. This was the goods. Tiber, too, showed symptoms of active interest. Dene spoke.
"Quite so, Mr Halford. I may say I am never opposed to earning money. But what do you want us to do?"
"I want you to get Hamlyn out of the way. I don't think you like him any more than I do."
"I don't like him. That's flat. Nor does Tiber. But when you speak of putting him out of the way, what exactly do you mean?"
"Put him overboard. Finish him," Halford's voice fairly grated with malice.
Dene shook his head. "I'd gladly see him dead, Mr Halford, but it doesn't run to cutting his throat. I've too much respect for my own."
"No one would be any the wiser," said Halford eagerly. "They're all asleep. We three are the only ones awake in this ship. I've seen to that."
Dene looked at him with new respect. "You mean you've drugged them?"
Halford nodded. "Allonal in coffee. They're sleeping like the dead. Not one of them will move for seven or eight hours."
"You certainly used your brains," Dene allowed. "Then the ship is practically yours."
"That's so," Halford agreed with a triumphant grin. "And once Hamlyn is out of the way I don't think the rest will give us much trouble."
Dene leaned forward. "How would it be if we put him ashore? Far as I know, Cabot don't love him any better than you do."
Halford considered. "That would do, I reckon," he said. "And after that—what?" Dene asked.
"Tie up Mizell and Hingston, get under way and make back for Key West."
Dene nodded. "But what about this comic treasure?" he questioned. "I thought that was what you were after."
"Cut that out!" snapped Halford. "For all I know, it doesn't even exist. I took this job on because old Lestor was ga-ga about it, and I wanted to keep in with him. It's his daughter I want."
"Quite so. A charming girl." Dene nodded. "And as soon as Hamlyn is out of the way you will have a clear field. The suggestion is then that we take him ashore, tie up Mizell and Hingston and start back at once."
"That's it," said Halford eagerly. "We'll be half-way back before any of them wake up."
"And the reward, Mr Halford. You suggested some cash."
Halford pulled out a bundle of greenbacks of such a thickness as made Dene's eyes bulge. He peeled off ten of them. "Here is five hundred dollars. You'll get as much again when we reach Key West."
"Very generous," said Dene as he pocketed the bills. Then suddenly his right arm shot forward and his fist catching the unsuspecting Halford exactly on the point of the jaw, sent him down with a crash. His eyes were closed. He lay quite still.
"You haven't killed him?" exclaimed Tiber in alarm.
"Killed him, you fool. He's only knocked out. Tie him and gag him. But first we'll have the rest of that wad."
"Halves," said Tiber sharply. Dene tossed him a rough half of what he had taken from Halford's pocket.
"No time to count now. We'll do that later. Tie him up quickly. We've no time to waste."
"What are we going to do, Dene?" Tiber asked anxiously. "There'll be a row when they find this chap tied up."
"They can row all they like. We shan't be here to hear 'em."
"You don't mean you're going ashore?"
"Of course I'm going ashore. What I'm wondering is where old Lestor has hidden that treasure book. If we had that we should hold all the cards."
"But Cabot's got the treasure craze, too," Tiber remonstrated as he finished tying Halford. "And I don't see him sharing up."
"He'll have to," Dene said calmly. "Lestor has arms aboard this ship. I heard them speak of tommy guns. With one of those and a couple of belts of cartridges we have Cabot like that!" He held up his fist tightly clenched.
"I thought we were after the clay," Tiber complained.
"We'll have that as well. By the time we have finished with Hamlyn and Hingston they'll be glad enough to hand over anything they have in exchange for their skins."
Tiber looked doubtful. So far he and Dene did not seem to have had much profit for their trouble, yet Tiber had not lost his faith in Dene, and now it did look as if the luck was turning. True, the last thing Tiber wished to do was to see more of Cabot, yet, if Dene said this was necessary, he probably knew best, and in any case it was no use running against him.
"All right," he said, "but what do we do now?"
"You go round and collect arms and ammunition. I'll search Lestor and see if I can find any record of the treasure." He paused and pointed a finger at Tiber. "And see here, no whisky, Tiber. If you find a bottle you can bring it along, but don't you dare take so much as a single drink. You get me?"
Tiber scowled. If there was one thing to which he had been looking forward for the last few minutes it was a drink. He had not had one for more than 24 hours.
"I see," he answered sulkily and went off.
Dene went direct to the saloon where he found Merle and her father still in a deep sleep. He proceeded to search Lestor's pockets. But the only paper he found which had anything to do with the treasure was an agreement signed by Randolph Lestor and Vane Halford, that the treasure, if found, was to be equally shared between them.
HALF an hour later Dene stood in the little engine room of the Mocassin. He had spent the intervening time in a vain search for the manuscript describing the hiding place of the treasure, but had failed to find it. That was not surprising, because it lay in a neatly contrived hiding place under the floor of Lestor's own cabin. And, even if Dene had known where to look, he would never have got away with it, alive.
Now, his idea was to disable the engine—not completely but temporarily so that, if anything delayed his return with Cabot, any of the sleepers who awoke would not be able to leave. But Dene had little knowledge of petrol engines and the only thing he could think of was to remove the sparking plugs. This he did and, putting them in his pocket, went on deck. There he found Tiber with two pistols, a machine-gun, ammunition, some food and a bottle of whisky, and a couple of electric torches. Dene looked over the collection.
"Good enough!" he said. "Now shove 'em in the boat and we'll get ashore."
The dinghy was very small, and when the two and their load were in it, the gunwale was dangerously near to the water's edge. But the inlet was tiny, and the distance between the launch and the shore was not more than a couple of hundred yards. Also the water was smooth as glass, so, though neither were expert oarsmen, they reached the shore safely. They found a little beach backed by thick bush, and pulled the boat up and hid it. The next thing was to find the track. It was very dark, and they had to use their torches. At last they discovered a small opening in the undergrowth, and started along it. Barracuda was very different from Cottonmouth, for it was covered with soil, not sand. The result was that the whole island was forest, except the hills in the centre, where Carib pines grew.
The path had not been used for a year or two, and in places great creepers completely barred it, making it most difficult to follow. If Dene and Tiber had known what they were about they would have brought a machete to cut their way. As it was, they had to dodge and duck, catching their shins on fallen logs and their clothes in hooked thorns.
To improve matters, the air fairly hummed with mosquitoes and sand flies, which bit so viciously that they had to tie their heads up in handkerchiefs. There were ominous rustlings in the bushes on either side, and once a pair of red eyes glared at them, frightening Tiber almost into a fit. The creature turned and went crashing away. It was only a wild pig, but that neither of them knew, and Dene was almost as badly scared as his companion.
The narrow path was muddy and in places very steep. Since they were both wearing light shoes they kept on slipping and stumbling. Both were sweating profusely, and the loads they carried seemed to grow heavier every minute. Progress grew slower and slower. At the top of a rise Tiber stopped. "Dene, we'll never get to this darned place! We'd better go back."
"Keep moving!" Dene snarled. He poked Tiber in the back with the muzzle of his pistol, and the wretched Tiber went forward. Dene, too, was cursing himself for having started on this expedition without knowing something more about the lie of the land, and he himself was doubtful whether they would ever find Narrow Bay or the house that stood at the head of it.
Their worst handicap was the darkness. The moon was not up, and the canopy of trees cut off all light from above. They dared not use more than one torch at a time for fear the batteries would not last, and the light of one torch was not enough for this sort of travelling.
Soaked to the skin, dripping with perspiration, in agony from a thousand bites, the two men struggled on. They came to a swamp where they were up to their knees in evil-smelling mud, and when they got out on the far side, they were covered with leeches. They had to stop and tear off the bloodthirsty creatures, leaving their legs dotted with bleeding wounds. Dene was cursing steadily under his breath, but Tiber was so done that he could hardly stand, and finally they were obliged to drop the machine-gun and ammunition, and Dene had to carry the bag of food.
Up hill and down until at last they came to the height of land where the trees were less thick, and from this point saw the stars reflected in the sea about half a mile ahead. Dene drew a long breath.
"We're past the worst. Come on, Tiber."
Tiber was reeling with exhaustion, but the knowledge that they were nearly at the end of this nightmare journey encouraged him and he staggered on. At last they came out of the bush into a cleared space where bananas were growing, and saw a little way in front the dim outlines of a building.
"There are no lights," Tiber said hoarsely.
"Why should there be?" Dene retorted. "They're not likely to be wasting oil at this time of night."
"We shall have to look out or we'll get shot."
"Leave that to me," Dene answered confidently. He went forward. They came out of the bananas on to a patch of sweet potatoes all overgrown with weeds and sand spurs. Dene walked very quietly. A flash of summer lightning glimmered overhead, and in its light they saw the house standing dark and deserted. There was no sign of any watcher.
Dene stopped. "House!" he shouted. There was no answer.
"I don't believe they're here at all," said Tiber.
"Don't be a fool. Where else could they be?" Dene answered irritably. He shouted again, but only echo answered. He went forward. Though he tried to conceal it he was almost as nervous as Tiber. Shouting at intervals the two came up to the house. It was a long building with a veranda in front. It looked as if money had seen spent on it, but was now rapidly going to pieces through neglect.
Once more Dene shouted. "Cabot, are you there? This is Dene."
"I told you so," Tiber snarled. "They've left. We've had all this filthy journey for nothing."
For once Dene had no reply. He went round to the front and entered the house. It had been occupied lately. That was plain enough, for there were dirty plates and glasses on the table. He went through into the kitchen. The embers of a wood fire still smouldered in the rusty iron stove and on the floor were dirty footprints. Yet there was no one about.
"What's it mean?" he muttered. "Cabot only had those two small boats. Surely to goodness he can't have gone to sea in them." He went out and called to Tiber, who sat doubled up on the veranda steps. "Come on down to the sea," he told him. "They must be there."
"Go yourself," snapped Tiber. "I'm through. Can't walk another step."
Dene scowled, then without a word went on down to the cove. The light of his torch showed fresh footmarks in the sand below tide mark. It was now nearly full ebb. The boats were gone. Dene swore savagely and went back up to the house. Tiber had disappeared. He called to him but there was no answer, then went into the house. In one of the rooms he found Tiber asleep on a dirty mattress.
He shook him. "Wake up! We've got to go back," he said.
Tiber roused. "Go to blazes!" he said fiercely. "It's you who have mucked the whole thing up. We might have been half way back to Key West if you'd had any sense."
Mad with rage, Dene smacked the other across the cheek. Tiber leaped up and with despairing strength drove his fist into Dene's face. Next minute the two were fighting like a pair of wolf- dogs.
AN icy shock roused Bob from depths of sleep. Someone had thrown in his face a glass full of intensely cold water. His senses were still half numbed with the drug which he had swallowed, and when he opened his eyes and saw Cabot standing over him he fully believed that he was in the grip of a nightmare.
"Give him another," said Cabot. "He ain't properly awake yet."
A second glass of iced water dashed in Bob's face made him realise that Cabot was fact not fancy, and he struggled up to a sitting position. Cabot laughed and Cabot's laugh was not a pretty sound.
"You!" Bob got out.
"Me!" jeered Cabot, "and I'll say it was mighty thoughtful of you to save me such a heap of trouble. What sort o' jag have you all been on?"
Bob's senses were coming back and suddenly he knew what had happened. "Drugged!" he said savagely.
Cabot chuckled again. Despite the loss of his ship he was in better humour than Bob had seen him. "Reckon as Dene or Tiber must hev got loose and doped you. Wal, as I said before, it saved me and my chaps a lot o' trouble. The Mocassin ain't so good a boat as the Flame, but she'll serve." He paused. "Get up," he ordered with sudden harshness. "And don't try no tricks, for you're the only one o' your crowd as ain't tied."
Bob saw that two of Cabot's men stood behind him, each with a pistol in his hand. He pulled himself together and got to his feet. But the drug was still affecting his legs. He staggered and had to catch at the head of the couch to keep himself from falling.
"He's copped it proper," jeered one of Cabot's toughs. "Want a arm, mister?"
"Much obliged," Bob said politely, "but if you'll let me have a glass of water to drink I can accompany you."
"Yes, give it to him," Cabot ordered. "He'll need all his wits before we're through with him."
Bob drained the glass and felt his head clearing fast. The shock of finding Cabot in command once more had been stunning but he knew better than to let Cabot see how it had affected him. The only quality for which Cabot had the least respect was courage. He laid the glass down.
"Thank you," he said. "And what is the next step, Mr Cabot?"
"You will step into the saloon," Cabot answered. "And in case you feel skittish you better remember there's three guns on you."
"The odds are so long," drawled Bob, "that I cannot afford to neglect them."
He walked steadily into the saloon. Everyone was there and, as Cabot had said, all, were tied. The only exception was Merle who sat by her father. She caught Bob's eyes as he came in and, in spite of this horrible disaster, he felt a thrill of pride at her calm, proud bearing. Of the lot the only one who looked scared was Vane Halford, who sat licking his dry lips, and casting furtive glances at his captor. Bob saw that he had a bad bruise on one cheek. Mark nodded to his cousin, but did not speak. His face was hard set, but the one of them all who looked really dangerous was Abe, and Bob knew that if he were given the ghost of a chance, he would take it without thought of consequences. Two others of Cabot's men were on guard, guns ready in their hands.
"Set down there," Cabot bade Bob, pointing to a chair. Cabot himself stood and looked round at his prisoners. His filmy eyes settled on Lestor.
"Guess you're about ready to give up that there book, Lestor?" he said.
Lestor faced him. "And if I do not," he answered. "Do I have to tell you over again?" Cabot said. "All I'm going to say is that it ain't you I'll start on, and that you don't get an hour to think about it like you did before."
Lestor looked round and Bob spoke.
"Don't think of me, Mr Lestor," he said quietly.
"Nor me," added Mark. "In any case it's no use Cabot torturing us, for Bob and I haven't a notion where the book is."
Cabot grinned and his grin was worse than his scowl.
"But he'll sure enjoy listening to you holler when Dex Raffy gets to work with his whip." He cast a sinister glance at Merle. "His daughter'll be here to listen, too," he added.
"Dad, you'll have to, let it go," she said. "It isn't your fault that we are in this trouble."
Lestor's fine old face twitched slightly, and he turned his eyes on Halford. Halford quivered as if it was he who had received the first cut of the whip. Then Lestor spoke.
"My daughter is right, Cabot, but that does not help us. Yes I am still in a position to make terms. Wait!" he said sharply as Cabot started to speak. "The book you want is in this ship, but so hidden that anyone searching for and finding it, will die. And, since you would probably be that person, you must admit that you owe me something for showing you this secret. I require your assurance that all of us shall go safe if the treasure is given up to you."
"You talk big," said Cabot with a sneer. "But I ain't one to haggle over a job like this. Once I got the stuff I'm shifting out of this here part of the world, and my chaps with me, and you and your crowd can stay on this Key and grow bananas for the rest o' your lives or until someone comes and takes you off. But since you sunk my ship I'm taking yours in exchange. Now speak up quick. My patience is kind of wearing thin."
"I agree," said Lestor quietly. "If you will take off these cords I will myself get the book."
A gleam of triumph showed for an instant in Cabot's hooded eyes. He stepped forward and, without waiting to untie the cords round Lestor's wrists and ankles, slashed them with his knife.
"No funny business,", he said warningly. "If that there trap was to catch me it wouldn't help you none. Dex Raffy 'ud see to that."
"You have had my word," was the sharp reply. "It has never yet been broken. The hiding place is in my cabin."
Cabot nodded. He spoke to his second in command, a squat, hairy, deep-chested man with pale grey eyes.
"You stay here, Dex, and watch 'em. Pete, you come along with me. Lestor, you walk first."
The three went out and in the dainty little saloon there was a tense silence. Even Raffy and his hard faced followers seemed to feel the strain. The wait was not long—only a matter of perhaps five minutes—but to Bob at least it seemed much longer. Deep in bitter thoughts he did not even look at Merle. It was Lestor of whom he was thinking. This man had risked everything in a venture on which failure was now to descend. At last the door opened and Cabot came in with Lestor and the man called Pete. In his hand Cabot held a roll covered with what looked like brown wrapping paper.
"I got it, Dex," he said triumphantly. "And looks to me like we won't have much trouble finding the stuff. Dex, you shut the men up, but I reckon you better put Halford in a cabin by himself. Ef ye don't it ain't likely he'll live till morning. Seems it was he as doped his pals. The gal can go to her own cabin. Me, I'm going to set here a while and study this lay out."
BOB, Mark and Abe were imprisoned in one small cabin. They had already been searched and not so much as a pocket knife had been left on them. Since the door was locked and the port too small to get out of they were quite helpless. The one act of grace on the part of Dex Raffy was that they had been given a jug of water. They needed it for the heat was great and all were still suffering from the effects of the drug.
Mark spoke. "Who'd have thought of Halford playing up like this? The fellow must be crazy. But after he'd drugged us, what made him stay in the ship?"
"He didn't mean to," Bob answered. "It's plain enough what happened. He went to Dene and Tiber and suggested that they throw in with him. The idea was, I think, to go to Cabot and offer to share the treasure."
"And they turned on him," said Mark. "That's about the size of it. You saw the bruise on his face. Dene probably knocked him out. Then Dene and Tiber took the boat, went ashore and straight across to Narrow Bay where they made some sort of bargain with Cabot."
"But they ain't with him," Abe put in.
"No," said Bob, "and it's my guess they're tied up at present in the house at Narrow Bay. I don't see Cabot sharing the treasure with those two."
Mark frowned thoughtfully. "Dene would know that. He's as cunning as a fox."
"I don't know what happened any more than you, Mark. I'm only telling you what I think."
"It ain't no use wasting thoughts on Dene and Tiber," said the undaunted Abe. "What we got ter think about is how ter git the old gentleman out o' this tarnal mess."
"Got any notions on that subject, Abe?" asked Mark hopefully.
"We can't do nothing now," Abe said in a whisper, "there's too many of 'em aboard. But to-morrow, when Cabot goes off arter the treasure, his chaps'll be split and there might be a chance."
"We'll grab it if there is," Mark said. He looked out of the port. "Day's breaking," he added. "I guess it won't be long before Cabot gets busy. Bob, have you any ideas where the stuff is hid?"
"Very little. All. Lestor told me was that it was in the high ground in the centre of the island. There's a hill and I've a notion it's buried somewhere in the side."
"Chap as buried it knowed what he was about," Abe said. "Most o' them pirate chaps buried their stuff in the beaches. They forgot as every tide and storm shifts the shingle, and there's been a right smart lot of hurricanes since this stuff was put under ground."
Before long they heard movements on deck and in the galley. Someone, probably Scipio, was getting breakfast. Now and then Cabot's harsh voice gave orders, and just at sun rise he, with three of his men carrying shovels, picks and other tools, got into one of his two boats and pulled ashore.
"How many men has he got?" Mark asked.
"Only nine, including himself," Bob told him.
"Then there's five left aboard," Abe said thoughtfully. "And four of us, counting the old gent. If we could only get free," he said longingly.
"Not a hope," Mark told him. "Raffy'll see to that. Wonder if they'll bring us some breakfast. I could do with a cup of coffee."
It was a long time before anyone came near them, then at last Raffy with one of his men unlocked the cabin door.
"You can come out and hev a wash," he said, "but you'll come, one at a time. I ain't taking no chances." He pointed to Abe. "You first, Mizell."
One by one they were taken on deck and allowed to sluice themselves down with sea water. Then they were locked up again and Scipio brought them some food. Bob had hoped for a glimpse of Merle, but did not see her. No doubt she was keeping to her cabin. It was Merle who was Bob's chief anxiety. He had little trust in Cabot's promises.
The long, hot day dragged by. The three prisoners dozed and talked by turns. All sorts of ideas for escape were discussed, but there was not one which promised any hope of success. Before night Cabot would be back with the treasure, and the best that could happen to them would be to be left marooned on the island with only a very scanty supply of food, and little hope of rescue.
The usual thunderstorm broke early and passed quickly. By three o'clock in the afternoon the sun was blazing again and the heat in the cabin almost beyond endurance. But the little ship was quiet enough. Cabot's men seemed to spend most of the day sleeping except those who were on guard. All the time one man was guarding the deck and another below. Dex Raffy saw to that.
Dusk began to fall, and still no sign of Cabot. The sun had set before the three prisoners saw figures approaching the boat, which lay on the little beach at the inner end of the harbour.
"Where's the stuff?" Mark asked. "I can't see them carrying anything except their tools."
"Like as no there weren't nothing there," Abe said.
Bob looked serious. "If that's the case Cabot will think Lestor has been fooling him."
"Here they come," Mark said. "And a thunder cloud would be a mild description of Cabot's face. Something's gone wrong with the works."
Cabot came over the side and they heard his heavy step on the deck above. Then he came below, and at once shouted for Raffy to bring out Lestor. "Bring the others, too," Cabot added, and the tone of his voice made Bob certain that something was very wrong. Their cabin door was opened, and they were hustled into the saloon. Just as they arrived Lestor and Merle were brought in. Cabot stood in the middle of the room. His clothes were soaked and covered with mud, and his expression as he glared at Lestor was terrifying.
"So you thought you could trick me," he barked. "Maybe you reckoned you could escape while I was on a fool's errand. But you're still here for me to teach you what it means to play such a game."
Lestor stood facing the rum-runner and there was not the slightest trace of fear on his fine face.
"Do you mind explaining yourself, Mr Cabot? I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about."
His extraordinary calmness had its effect on Cabot. The man still glared, yet there was now a slight look of doubt on his repulsive face.
"Mean to tell me you didn't know all about this here hiding place," he demanded.
"I am telling you that I know exactly what the written instructions of Don Carlos Aguiar described—no more and no less. I gave these instructions to you, and I am now asking you why you have not brought back the treasure, and why you are abusing me in this manner."
"You're telling me you ain't seed the place?" Cabot growled.
"How could I possibly have seen it? I arrived in Narrow Bay twenty-four hours before you did, and the whole of the intervening time was spent in arranging the defences which sank your ship. Certainly I have never been anywhere near the hill in which the treasure is hidden. Again I ask you what is your grievance. Is it that you cannot find the place, or is it that someone has already looted the hiding place?"
"I found it right enough," Cabot answered, "but whether anyone's took it or not I ain't able to say. The pit's full of water."
Lestor's eyes widened, slightly. "A pit, is it?" He shrugged. "Well, Cabot, if I had known that the treasure was under water I should have brought either a diving suit or a motor pump. The fact that I have neither of these things aboard should be absolutely proof that I was entirely ignorant of the conditions."
Cabot grunted. "One thing you got me beat at, Lestor, That's talking. But looks like I got to believe you, for you ain't got no diving suit in this ship, and there's a sight too much water in that there pit to pump out. Forty feet if it's an inch."
"There's not a word about water in the directions," Lestor told him. "You've read them so you ought to know. What are you going to do about it?"
"Go right back to the mainland and get a suit. You and your folk'll stay on the island while I'm gone."
He turned to Dex Raffy.
"Get the anchor up and push round to Narrow Bay. I'm leaving Lestor and the others in the house, and you'll look after 'em while I'm gone. Pete, put them fellows back in their cabin."
Abe's eyes were bright when he, Mark and Bob were locked up again.
"This gives us a break, boys. It'll be all of three days afore Cabot comes back. And we'll be on land. A heap might happen in three days."
Bob opened his mouth to speak, then checked himself. Personally, he couldn't see Raffy giving them a ghost of a chance of escape, but he was not going to discourage Abe. Abe sat quiet awhile, thinking. Presently he spoke again.
"Wonder if the old gent had any notion about this here water," he remarked.
"He said he didn't," Bob answered reprovingly.
Abe shook his head. "You're mistook, Bob. What he said was as he'd have brought a diving suit if he had knowed. Maybe he did bring one and hid it up arter he first landed. Forty foot of water," he mused. "Sounds to me like it was a sink hole. Wish I could get around and hev a look."
He relapsed into deep thought, then the engine started, and they were on their way back to Narrow Bay.
IT was quite dark when, they reached the small harbour called Narrow Bay, but Cabot insisted on the prisoners being landed at once. They were given just time to pack a few necessities, then were ferried ashore.
"And if any of you tries to run my chaps has orders to shoot," said Cabot ominously.
Among those landed was Halford, and Bob, much as he disliked and despised the fellow, was shocked at his appearance. Cut off for twenty-four hours from drink and drugs, Halford was in a pitiable state. He was shaking as if he had ague and hardly able to walk. He fell down on the steep path up to the house, only to be jerked roughly to his feet by the guards. Cabot's men, brutes as they were, had little sympathy with one who had double-crossed his own partner.
Bob managed to be beside Merle and walk with her up the path. He whispered to her that Abe was looking for a chance, but she begged him earnestly not to run any risks.
"Not unless we see a real chance, Merle," Bob agreed, then suddenly they were interrupted by a voice.
"That you, Cabot?"
"It's Dene," Bob whispered.
Raffy spoke. "No, this ain't Cap'n Cabot, it's Raffy."
"That's good," said Dene confidently. "Tiber and I came over to give you some news, but it seems you got ahead of us."
As Dene spoke he stepped into the light of Raffy's torch. Dene as a rule was something of a dandy. Now his clothes were in rags and covered with mud and green mould, while his unshaven face was blue, with a sprouting beard. To improve his appearance he had a black eye, a split lip and a badly swollen nose. Raffy stared at him, then burst out laughing. Dene grew angry.
"Take me to Captain Cabot," he said sharply.
"He don't want to see you," Raffy said. "And I guess I don't either. Clear out."
Dene's face reddened. "I insist on you seeing your captain. It was through me that you have secured the Mocassin and, I presume, the stuff."
"Don't kid yourself," replied Raffy roughly. "And don't try to kid me, neither. You didn't have nothing to do with it. It were Halford here as doped the party. You clear out now and take your pal, Tiber, along with you. Git, afore I start shooting."
For a moment Dene looked absolutely dumbfounded. Then he recovered himself.
"I am going down to the ship," he announced.
"Go on then," jeered Raffy, "and see what the boss says to ye."
He laughed again as Dene stalked past. "Wonder who gave him that eye," he said and just then Halford went down again, flat on his face in the narrow, muddy path. Raffy gave him a fierce kick and, when Halford only groaned, lifted his foot to give him another.
Bob sprang forward. "Stop that, Raffy. The man's ill."
Raffy turned the light of his torch on Bob's face. "You gone plumb crazy?" he demanded. "Don't you know as this was the son of a dog as doped you last night?"
"I know that better than you," Bob returned grimly.
"Always heard as Britishers were crazy," he remarked. "Now I knows it. Get on to the house."
He jabbed Bob in the ribs with the muzzle of his pistol, then stopped and jerked Halford to his feet. Another few minutes and all were herded into the house.
Raffy addressed them. "The boss have left me in charge. Ef you behaves yourselves and does as you're told there won't nothing happen to you. But play up—just once—and you won't git a second chance." He spoke to Scipio. "You'll cook like you did in the ship and see you do it right." Then he assigned the rooms.
As before, Bob, Mark and Abe were shut up together. Their room was on the ground floor. Merle and her father were given two rooms upstairs, and Halford was contemptuously told he could sleep in the kitchen. He did not remonstrate. Never in his life had Bob seen a man so completely crushed.
From the window of their room Bob saw the Mocassin making out to sea, and presently heard steps on the veranda. Then Raffy's voice. "What in Hades are you doing here, Dene?"
"I've come back to sleep," said Dene.
"You can't sleep here. There ain't room."
"But there's no other place," insisted Dene.
"There's the whole derned island," Raffy told him.
"But hang it all, I can't sleep out of doors."
"Then go and build yourself a shack. There's plenty of trees." His voice turned suddenly dangerous. "Git out—you and Tiber, both. And don't show your ugly faces round here again or there'll be lead waiting you."
Mark, listening, whistled softly.
"Dene ain't exactly popular. Gad, I wouldn't be him to- night."
"He'll be all right," Abe told him. "Ain't nothing worse here than mosquitoes."
"But he doesn't know that," said Mark. "I say," he added thoughtfully, "I wonder if Dene's got a gun. He had one in the launch."
"That's a notion," said Abe. "But I reckon we better turn in. To-morrow's a day."
Each had a mattress stuffed with Spanish moss and, since the window was screened, the room was fortunately free from mosquitoes. Mark and Abe slept soundly, but Bob lay awake, listening. It was Merle for whom he was so desperately anxious. But the house was quiet enough, the only sound being the changing of guards.
As on the previous day they were let out next morning for a wash. Bob asked Raffy to allow them to bathe in the sea, but was sharply told there was nothing doing. Scipio saw to it that they had a decent breakfast. Indeed, his cooking was so good that Raffy told him he reckoned Cabot would give him a job. Abe was very anxious to get a word with the negro, but never had a chance, for when Scipio came into the room, one of the guards was always with him.
All that morning the three discussed in whispers plans for breaking away, but, without weapons, they were helpless. There was no sign of Dene or Tiber. This day was the hottest Bob had known since the one before the hurricane. He asked Abe if another hurricane was brewing, but Abe thought not.
"I wouldn't mind if she did come," Abe said. "Ef there was a right big blow it might give us the chance I'm looking fer. But I don't reckon thar'll be anything more'n a thunderstorm."
Thunder began to brew before midday. Not a breath of air stirred, and the heat was so intense that Bob felt as if his head was bursting. Raffy and his guards lay around on the veranda drinking quantities of water. One thing for which Bob was grateful was that they had no whisky.
Thunder heads piled up like mountains. They looked as solid as mountains. The edge of the cloud crossed the sun and instantly a darkness like that of an eclipse fell upon land and sea. Then came a blaze, of light followed instantly by a violent explosion. But no wind, no rain.
"A dry storm," muttered Abe frowning. A second flash and crash. From the window they saw a great pillar of smoke rise in the forest just across the clearing. It was as if a large shell had struck there.
"Coming right over," Abe said. "Watch out fer the next."
No more than ten or twelve seconds elapsed before it came. To Bob it was as if a great shell had exploded under his feet. He was flung out of the chair in which he had been sitting on to the floor, where he lay half stunned, yet not quite unconscious. He heard a crackling sound and managed to drag himself up. Mark, too, was on the floor, but apparently not much hurt, for he was trying to scramble up.
"Hit the house. It's afire," Mark said hoarsely.
Bob looked round. The whole end of the room was smashed and the branches of a great pine showed through the broken timbers.
"Where's Abe?" Bob got out. But of Abe there was no sign. He had disappeared.
ABE had gone. There was no doubt of that, yet Bob hardly gave a thought to Abe. The house was afire and Merle still in it. He went out through the opening in two jumps, landing in the middle of the fallen tree which was blazing like a bonfire. So, too, were the planks which formed the gable wall. Scrambling through the flames, regardless of burns, Bob sprang on to the veranda and was making for the house door when he ran slap into Raffy.
"What the—?" began Raffy pulling his gun from its holster. Bob paid no more attention to the pistol than if it had been a pipe stem.
"The house is afire. Miss Lestor is inside. Get out of my way. I have to get her out."
"You'll get lead in you if you don't stop still," growled Raffy, and as he spoke there was another shattering clap, then down came the rain not in drops but in one solid sheet. No fire- fighting apparatus ever made could compare with this cataract from the clouds. Almost before there was time to look round the fire was black-out. Raffy barely glanced at the rain.
"How did you get out?" he demanded savagely.
"Just walked," said' Bob coolly. "The tree knocked out the whole gable end."
Raffy uttered a bitter oath. "Hingston and Mizell—they out, too?"
"I haven't a notion," Bob lied. "I was thinking only of the Lestors."
Raffy swung towards the door, then stopped. "Come on with me. And if you makes a wrong move I shoot."
"Don't be a fool," said Bob scornfully. "Who's going out in this? Besides, if I did run, where could I go?" Bob had learned already that this was the only way to talk to Cabot and his toughs. Anything like truckling to them was fatal. It worked.
"All right. But all the same you come along with me," Raffy said in a somewhat less truculent tone.
Bob went into the house with Raffy and down the passage to the end room. Outside the door the man called Pete lay, insensible. Raffy swore again and, stepping over him, turned the key.
Mark was lying flat on the floor with his eyes closed, and Bob chuckled inwardly at the cunning of his cousin. Abe, of course, was not there. Raffy stopped short and Bob saw dismay in his pale eyes. But Bob himself dropped on his knees beside his cousin.
"Mark! Mark, old man, are you much hurt?" he asked, with every appearance of intense anxiety.
"Where's Mizell?" roared Raffy. He grasped Bob by the arm. "Where's Mizell?" he demanded.
"How should I know?" Bob retorted. "Can't you see that Mark is hurt?"
"He can be dead for all I care," replied Raffy brutally. "It's Mizell I'm worrying about."
He glanced down at Mark. "Pick him up and bring him along," he ordered. "I'll see you two safe afore I start hunting that dirty cracker."
Bob heaved up Mark and got him on his back. "Where do you want us to go?" he asked.
"Next room—and be sharp!" Bob saw that Raffy was scared as well as angry. "What's the trouble?" he demanded.
"Cabot'll raise Hades about Mizell getting away," was Raffy's answer.
"What can Mizell do?" Bob asked. "He can't get off the island. And he certainly can't get the treasure."
Bob was trying to delay pursuit as long as possible. If Abe remained free till night the odds were that he would find Dene, get his pistol from him, and come back. And Abe Mizell, armed with a pistol, was some degrees more dangerous than a tiger. He was a dead shot, a first-class woodsman, who could move silently as any cat, and he could see in the dark a great deal better than any of Cabot's companions.
Bob's suggestion seemed to comfort Raffy a little, but it did not make him any more polite.
"It don't matter whether he can get the treasure or not," he answered. "He's run against orders, and I reckon he knows what's coming to him. Soon as this is over I'll get him."
He opened the door of the other room. "Go inside," he ordered, "and even if the wall falls down, don't you and Hingston try to get out. If you do you'll be shot like dogs."
Bob turned on him. "Does Hingston look as if he could run?" he rapped out so sharply that for a moment Raffy looked startled. "Go and catch Mizell if you can, but stop talking nonsense!"
Raffy snarled, but went out, and the moment the door slammed behind him, Mark opened his eyes.
"That's the way to talk to the fellow," he said with a soundless chuckle. "Bob, we've fooled him properly. Abe's a mile away by now—and it's still raining buckets."
"Yes—but what can Abe do?" Bob asked. "Even if he finds Dene, Dene may refuse to give up his gun."
"He can refuse all he likes—Abe will have it!" Mark told him. "You don't know my respected father-in-law as I do."
Bob shook his head.
"If Abe does get the pistol I don't see what he can do against such odds. It isn't as if we could help him."
"We'll help him all right when the time comes—perhaps before then. Listen! Pete's knocked out, and Raffy will take at least one man with him when he goes to look for Abe. That leaves three only. If we could put Scipio wise we might do something." He paused. "Why are you looking so solemn, Bob?"
"It's Merle I'm thinking of," Bob told him. "If you and I and Scipio were the only ones to be considered there's no risk I'd refuse. But suppose they got us, what do you think would happen to Merle?"
Mark bit his lip. "Yes," he said slowly. "Merle is the problem. On the other hand, we can't let Abe down if he comes back with a gun."
As he spoke, he was walking slowly up and down the room. He stopped suddenly and went down on hands and knees.
"What's up?" Bob asked in a low voice.
"Felt a board give. Yes—it's rotten as punk," replied Mark in an equally low tone. "Bob they must have run out of yellow pine when they were building, and this floor is partly soft wood. It's full of dry rot. A child could pull up these two boards. We can walk out any time we like."
Bob came across and examined the boards. Mark, he found, was right. Two planks were quite rotten and, since the house was built on three-foot piles, it would be a simple matter to lift this part of the floor and drop through. The beauty of it was that no one would be the wiser unless they came into the room while the prisoners were escaping.
Mark was looking out of the window which was barred by pieces of two by four nailed across the frame.
"Bob," he whispered. "Raffy is starting. He's taking that foreign-looking chap, Losky, with him. Of the three left Pete is probably still out. Can't we do something?"
BOB watched Raffy and the man named Losky moving away through the bananas. Raffy had two pistols at his waist and Losky carried a rifle.
"If we only had one of those guns," Bob breathed, and turned to his cousin. "Sun's coming out, Mark. It would be crazy to start anything yet. We must wait until dark. When Scipio comes with our supper we must try to get a note to him to tell him what we're up to. Then he will be awake and ready to give us a hand. And you'd better continue to sham ill. They all saw me carrying you."
Mark looked disappointed. He was the sort who hated to wait. Yet he could not help seeing that Bob's plan was wise.
"All right," he said at last. "We will wait till after supper, but I don't know how you are going to get a note to Scipio. We 'haven't a scrap of paper and, even if he had, the guard would be sure to spot it."
"If you could take the guard's attention off for a second or two I might be able to give Scipio a whisper," Bob said. "Now you'd better lie down in case anyone comes in. There's a breeze now, and it's a bit cooler."
The two sat talking in low voices, while the sun dropped lower. The storm had quite passed and the air was fresher. They could hear Scipio moving in the kitchen, but otherwise the house was quiet.
Suddenly Bob stiffened. "Hear that, Mark?" he asked.
"Shots," Mark said. "A long way off, but those were shots, I'm sure."
Bob paled a little. "Do you think they've got Abe?"
"Much more likely to be the other way about," was the reply. Mark's confidence in his father-in-law was unshakeable.
They listened keenly but there was no more firing. Half an hour passed, the sun was just setting when Bob, who was watching at the window, started and turned to Mark.
"Rally's coming back. He's helping Losky. Losky's hurt."
"What did I tell you?" Mark replied triumphantly. "Abe got him."
"Which means that he has found Dene and taken his pistol from him," said Bob. "But, Mark, this adds to the odds against us. I'd hoped Raffy would be away after Abe. Now, with Abe loose and armed, Raffy won't do any sleeping to-night."
"He'll be lucky if he ever does any more sleeping," Mark answered. "I'll make you a small bet that Abe gets him before morning."
"I hope he does, but I haven't your confidence, Mark. The odds are long. But here comes Raffy and, if I ever saw a man in a rage, he is. Listen. We'll probably hear him, even through the door."
Raffy rounded the end of the house and presently they heard him all right.
"Curse you! Are you all blind? Can't some of you give me a hand?" he roared. There were hurried steps on the veranda.
"What's up, Rally?" The voice was that of Pete, and Bob frowned. He had hoped the fellow was out of it, but evidently he had only been stunned by the lightning.
"What's the trouble with Losky?" Pete went on in a startled voice.
"If you'd got any eyes you could see," retorted Raffy. "He's got a bullet through the leg. Help him up the steps."
There was a moment's pause. Clearly they were getting the wounded man to the veranda. Pete called. "Cottle, get some bandages. And tell that nigger to fetch hot water. What happened, Raffy? I suppose it was Mizell, but where did he get a gun?"
"Dashed if I know unless it was from Dene. But he had one right enough and he was laying for us. The son of a dog bush- whacked us."
"And you didn't get him?"
"I put two bullets into the bush where his shot came, but I reckon he was behind a log, for I heard him laughing. And after that the swine called to me as he was coming to get the rest of us to-night. I hope he tries," he added venomously. "If he does, I'll have him before morning." He went on speaking, but lowered his voice so that Bob and Mark could no longer hear what he was saying.
"Good old Abe!" said Mark, his eyes shining with delight.
"But why didn't he get both of them while he was about it?" Bob asked in a puzzled voice.
"I think," said Mark, "that he acted as he did just in order to give these chaps the jumps. They'll all be out tonight and likely as not they'll finish by shooting one another."
Bob nodded. "If Abe does come we will do our best to lend him a hand."
"He'll come," Mark said, "and we'll wait till he turns- up."
In spite of Mark's confidence Bob was not happy. One man, even if armed, was no match for four and, without Losky, there were four of the enemy left. These were Raffy, Pete, a thin-faced bitter eyed man called Cottle, and a half Mexican whose name was Valesco. If all four went out to hunt Abe it was on the cards that he, with his bush craft, might dodge them and pick them off, one by one, but if they stayed in the house Abe was helpless. He could not attack, single-handed and it seemed hardly likely that Dene would help. Dene was too fond of his own skin.
Darkness fell, and after a while Scipio came with their supper. Pete was with him. He looked at Mark lying flat on his mattress, his eyes closed.
"What's the matter with him?" he asked.
"Same as was the matter with you a few hours back, only he got it worse," Bob answered. "The lightning burnt his leg. You can see for yourself."
Pete stooped to look at a small burn which Mark had received from, a falling ember, and Bob seized his chance.
"To-night," he said to Scipio in the lowest possible whisper, "We can get out. Watch."
Scipio did not say a word, but the look of intelligence in his eyes told Bob that he understood. He and Pete went out, the door was locked, then Mark looked up with a grin.
"You managed that rather neatly," he said. "By Jove, but I'm looking forward to Abe's arrival."
Time-passed. Scipio, took away the dishes and Bob and Mark, listening, were aware that Raffy and all his men were on guard.
"You may just as well take a snooze, Bob," Mark said. "Abe won't hurry. He knows that the longer he keeps them in suspense the more jumpy they'll get."
"I'm getting jumpy myself," Bob grumbled, but all the same he lay down and presently dozed off.
Then suddenly Mark was shaking him and he sprang up.
"Listen!" Mark whispered. Bob listened, but all he could hear was a whip-poor-will calling and calling out in the night. A most melancholy sound.
"That's Abe," Mark said.
"How do you know?"
"It's his regular signal. Anyhow there aren't any whip-poor- wills on these small Keys."
"Will Raffy know that?"
"He may. Listen! It's coming nearer."
"We'd better get out then," Bob said.
"Not yet. The game's only begun. I'll lay Abe's got some trick up his sleeve."
The whip-poor-will ceased; a little owl began its odd, high- pitched hoot.
"They'll begin to take notice soon," Mark said eagerly. "Some of them are stirring now."
"Do you reckon that's a bird?" they heard Pete say outside.
"What else could it be?" Raffy asked.
"I don't know, but it's a queer noise."
There was silence a while then all of a sudden came the unearthly scream of a panther. Bob jumped.
"That can't be Abe," he said.
"It's no one else," Mark assured him. "Now watch out." There was a sudden crashing sound as something came pounding full speed through the bushes beside the clearing. It was too dark to see what it was but Cabot's men evidently decided it was Abe for with one accord they rushed out and started firing.
In a flash Mark had the boards up, and he and Bob dropped down and crawled through the dust beneath the house. There was always the chance of meeting a snake, but they were both far too keen a give a thought to snakes and in a moment or two were both outside.
Mark would have charged recklessly onwards but Bob caught him by the arm.
"Keep with me," he ordered urgently. "There's someone just ahead of us. We must have his gun."
THE sky was clear so it was not quite dark, but the position of the man was made plain by the flashes from his pistol. He was blazing away into the bushes, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger.
Bob slipped up behind him, jumped on his back and he went down on his face with a force that knocked the breath out of his body. It was no time for niceties. Before the fellow could force a cry from his crushed chest Mark had wrested the pistol out of his hand and gave him a rap over the skull which laid him out.
"It's Cottle," Mark said. "That leaves three only."
"Two, I think," Mark said drily as a shriek followed a shot from the trees opposite and there was the sound of a heavy fall. "Keep down, Mark. It would be bad if Abe mistook you for one of the enemy."
They crouched behind a guava bush, trying to make out where the others were. For a moment the firing had stopped.
"Pete," whispered somebody so close that Bob almost jumped. The voice was Raffy's. Mark dived forward in Raffy's direction. He moved so quickly that Bob was not in time to stop him.
"Put them up!" came Mark's voice. "You're covered."
A pistol crashed. Mark reeled back, falling almost on top of Bob, and Bob forgetting all caution in his fury of rage, sprang up and hurled himself on Raffy. Raffy pulled the trigger, but there was only a click. It was his last bullet that had brought down Mark.
Then Bob was on top of Raffy and the two were fighting like furies. Raffy was the heavier man and his strength was enormous. He wrapped his long arms around Bob's body and rolled him over. Bob was conscious of an agony of pain in his back. There was a sharp edged rock beneath him and he felt as if his spine was being broken. He went limp with agony, and Raffy quickly shifted his grip and caught him by the throat. Bob struggled desperately, striking at Raffy's face with his fists, but the pain in his back paralysed him and his blows were feeble.
Now Raffy recognised him.
"So you got out again, Hamlyn." He laughed horribly. "There won't be no third time—that's one thing sure."
A dark shadow rose above Raffy, something fell on his head with a sound like an axe on a block of wood. The breath went out of his lips with a whistling sound and he dropped on top of Bob.
"And you won't laugh again—that's another shuah thing," said Scipio. Those were the last words Bob heard before he faded into unconsciousness.
"HE ain't hurt any to speak of, Marse Mark." The soft, husky voice was Scipio's. "Marse Bob ain't going to die. I guess he ain't hurt so much as you be."
Bob opened his eyes, and saw Mark standing over him. He gasped. "I—I thought Raffy shot you."
"So he did," replied Mark, "but his bullet only scored the top of my skull. It knocked me out, but I came round before you did. The miracle was that he didn't plug you."
"He did his best," Bob told him. "Luckily for me his pistol missed fire or else he'd used his last cartridge. But he nearly throttled me."
"He won't do nothing like dat again," remarked Scipio. "All reckon dat old hunk of firewood busted his skull."
Bob sat up and gasped with the pain in his bruised bock. "You mean he's dead?" he said, sharply.
"He's dead, shuah enuff," said Scipio.
"And so's Cottle," added Mark. "I must have hit him harder than I thought. And Velasco has a bullet through his chest. I don't think he will last long."
"What about Pete?"
"Abe's looking for him. Pete cleared when he saw he was the only survivor."
"We must get him," Bob said. "He's dangerous. Give me a pistol and I'll go and help Abe."
Mark grinned. "You old son of a gun," he said, affectionately. "Why it's about all you can do to stand, let alone run after Pete. Come back to the house. Abe will attend to Pete."
Ruefully Bob had to acknowledge that Mark was right. His back was infernally painful. So the three went back to the house and the first thing Bib did was to crawl upstairs and release Merle and her father.
"Bob, you are hurt," was the first thing Merle said. "A bit bruised, my dear, but it was cheap at the price. The only one of Cabot's men who has escaped is Pete, and Abe is after him. It's Abe we have to thank for the whole business. He got out during the thunderstorm."
"But so did you. I saw you from the window," Merle said. She pushed him gently into a chair. "Tell us, please."
He told them quickly what had happened, and Merle listened, entranced. But it was her father who spoke.
"Bob, I told you just after we first met that I knew a man when I saw one. I tell you now I'll be proud to have you as one of the family."
Bob went red. "You're too kind, sir. But it was Abe turned the trick. And Mark and Scipio did at least as much as I."
"Mark and Abe belong to your family," said Merle. "So they will belong to us." She bent down, put her arms around Bob's neck and kissed him. Then a grave expression crossed her face. "Now we must go down and see about these wounded men," she ended.
Scipio was waiting for them with the news that Valesco was already dead. Losky, the first to be shot, had had his wounded leg roughly dressed, but was in great pain. Merle cleaned and redressed the wound. Mark had an ugly graze across the skull, which was still bleeding, but this was soon strapped up. Bob's back was one big bruise, and Merle decided that the only thing was hot water; Scipio had that ready in no time and volunteered to keep compresses on. As for Merle, Bob insisted on her going to bed.
By this time it was nearly dawn and, just as the first grey showed in the East, Abe came in. He was plastered with mud and so worn he could hardly speak. Scipio got hot coffee for him and he told his story.
"I found Dene and Tiber easy enough," he said. "They was in an old shack just back of the clearing. Dene, he didn't want ter give up his gun, but I kind of persuaded him."
"What with?"' Mark asked.
"I didn't use no violence," said Abe with a grin. "Jest told him as he and Tiber was likely ter starve ef something weren't done and I throwed in a hint or two about catamounts which scared him and Tiber considerable. Arter that I guess you knows what happened. I had one piece of luck. Nigh fell over a pig lying in them bananas so I let out a yell and the pig, he charged right down past the house. That's what brought them fellers out, shooting."
"And we have the lot except Pete," Mark put in. "Did you see anything of Pete?"
Abe shook his head. He looked troubled. "He've got clear away," he said. "I follered him a good piece but lost him in the thick palmettos down by the shore."
"He can't do, much harm," Bob said. "Not all by himself."
"Don't ye believe it, son," said Abe gravely. "I'd a darn sight sooner hev a real catamount loose around the place. The feller has a gun and he won't stick at nothing. Ef any of you sees him shoot him jest like you would a rattler. And now," he added. "I'm reckoning to take a sleep. But one o' ye will have to keep guard all the time."
"One minute', Abe," said Bob. "What about Dene and Tiber?"
"I told 'em as they could come up here for grub, but as there wasn't no room for 'em in the house. I reckon they'll be along for breakfast. They ain't ate nothing but bananas since they left the Mocassin."
Lestor volunteered to do sentry duty while the rest slept. Bob did not wake until Scipio roused him with news that breakfast was ready. Bob was still stiff, but Abe massaged his back and, after a sluice with cool water from the pump, he felt almost himself again. Merle had taken a hand with breakfast and, though there was no butter and the milk was out of a tin, they had fresh bread, fresh fruit and excellent coffee. At ten they gathered for the meal. All were there except Halford, who was in his room and refused to come out.
"It's fine to be together again," Mark said, with a sigh of content.
"You're mighty cheerful, Mark," said his father-in-law, "but you better remember as Cabot's due back afore long. What do ye reckon to do with him?"
Mark looked black for a moment then cheered up. "We have guns, now," he said. "And, of course, Cabot won't know that we are laying for him. We'll hold him up as he lands."
"That sounds mighty nice and simple," Abe answered, "but I reckon as you're forgetting Pete. Ye can take your oath Pete ain't going to let his boss land so innocent like."
"Then we shall jolly well have to hunt down Pete," Mark declared. "Cabot won't be back for at least two days. That gives us time."
Abe shook his head. "It ain't as simple, as that, Mark. Thar's a heap o' cover on this island, and ef we had a score of men instead of four it might take two weeks instead o', two days ter git that chap. And ye got ter remember as he's armed."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the flat crack of a high powered rifle cut the hot stillness. It was followed by a scream of pain.
MERLE sprang up but was hardly on her feet before Bob caught her and swept her down. Just in time for next moment a second bullet drove a hole through the window pane immediately above their heads and plunked viciously into the far wall.
"It's Pete," Abe said and, snatching up his rifle, scuttled out of the room. Bent double, Bob and Mark followed. Abe was lying under cover of a bush and firing down hill into the swamp from which the bullets had come.
"It ain't a morsel o' use," he told them disgustedly. "The feller's in cover. Even if we'd got a tommy gun I don't reckon as we could reach him."
A man lay flat on the bare ground in front of the house. It was Dene and, when they reached him, they found that he was shot through the body. Scipio very pluckily picked him up, carried him in and laid him on a bed. Merle and he attended to Dene while Abe, Bob and Mark set to stalking the man who had shot him down. When Merle went to the kitchen for hot water she found Tiber there. He was green with fright.
"Is Dene much hurt?" he asked shaking.
"Dying," Merle told him, and he shivered again.
"We came for food," he explained. "We thought you'd finished all of Cabot's men."
"One is still loose and he is the worst of the lot," Merle told him. "Get yourself some food."
She went back to her patient.
There was nothing they could do, for Dene was bleeding internally. He was conscious and appreciated Merle's help. At the same time he was furiously angry at having been shot down in this fashion.
"I wouldn't have minded so much if the fellow had given me a chance to get back at him," he said hoarsely. "Do you know who he was, Miss Lestor?"
Dene smiled crookedly. "I was a fool to pitch in with that lot," he told her. "I only hope Mizell will, finish him. I'd die easier if I knew he'd gone first."
He lay quiet a while then spoke again.
"Have you plenty of guns?" he asked.
"We have the rifles and pistols left by Cabot's men," Merle told him.
"There's a machine gun out in the woods, the one Tiber and I lifted from the Mocassin night before last." He explained how they had been forced to drop it, and Merle assured him that they would get it. He asked for water and Merle gave it to him. Then as he was drinking he choked, fell back and died.
Merle had seen too many horrors in the past few days to feel specially, shocked. She covered the dead man's face and went to the window. After a little while she saw Abe and the other two coming back. She sighed with relief. When Abe arrived he was scowling.
"The dirty bush-whacker's down in the mangroves. It 'ud be plumb crazy to try and follow him there. I only hopes the skeeters eats him alive. Dene bad hurt?"
"Dead," Merle told him. Abe grunted. "I'd be a liar if I said I was sorry. It was him and Tiber left us in this here mess."
Merle told him of the machine gun, and his eyes brightened. "That's something anyway. Reckon I'll go get it right away. It might make all the difference when Cabot comes back."
"But Pete may be waiting for you, Mr Mizell. Oh, do be careful."
"Reckon Pete's too busy scratching hisself right now. Them skeeters is bad down there. Don't you worry, missy. He won't come out o' them mangroves afore dark. Mark and me, we'll go right away, afore the rain comes."
They went and to the others fell the unpleasant task of burying the dead. They dug the graves in the banana patch behind the house where they were safe while they worked, from Pete's bullets. But all the time Merle sat in a sheltered spot in front of the house, with a pistol in her hand, ready to fire it as a warning, if she saw or heard anything suspicious. She was thankful when the gruesome work was over and the others returned to the house. Abe and Mark got back with the gun just before the afternoon storm broke.
"Seed anything of Pete?" was Abe's first question.
"There was no more shooting," Merle told him. "But we were careful not to offer him any target."
"You done right," Abe said, "but I'd give a heap to know jest where that gent is lurking right now. I reckon them, skeeters have drove him out o' the mangroves."
"He has no grub either," Mark added. "He can't be having a very happy time.'
"Make him all the more vicious," Abe remarked. "I wouldn't wonder ef he sneaked round arter a bunch o' them bananas after dark. Now I'm a going ter fix up that gun. She's all right except fer a mile o' rust, and there's two belts o' cartridges."
He set to work at once with rags and oil and in a short time pronounced that the gun was in perfect order. By that time the rain had ceased and the sun was getting low in the west.
Abe spoke again. "We das'sent show any lights tonight. I reckon the best thing'll be ter cover up them winders with blankets and such like. And two of us'll hev to stand guard all night. Ef Pete managed to sneak up close ter the house there ain't no saying what damage he might do."
It was good advice and they followed it. The windows on the ground floor were shrouded with blankets and any stuff they could find for the purpose, and Merle was strictly warned not to expose herself either at a window or on the veranda. All realised that they were living in a state of siege and acted accordingly.
Halford came to Bob and asked if he might help to watch. Bob stared. His first impulse was to return a contemptuous refusal, but something he saw in Halford's face made him hesitate. "Can you keep awake?" he asked I curtly.
"I can't sleep," Halford answered, and Bob realised that he spoke no more than the truth. In spite of all he had suffered at Halford's hands Bob for a second time felt sorry for him.
"Yes, you can take your turn," he said quietly, and the look in Halford's eyes made him glad of his decision.
Mark was scornful, but Merle gave Bob's arm a little squeeze, and told him that he was quite right. In spite of his anxieties Bob was happy. To be in the same house with Merle, to see her constantly, to help her in small tasks and to be helped in turn was pure joy. Supper that night was eaten behind shrouded windows, with the lamp turned low, and the company was much more serious than at breakfast. While they ate they talked.
"Cabot may come most any time now," Abe told them, "and we got to be ready."
"Surely not before to-morrow night," said Lestor.
"I'll allow it ain't likely he'll come afore tomorrow but, ef he had good weather and ef he gits that there diving suit right away, he might be here by morning." Abe paused. "Did you bring along a diving suit, Mr Lestor?" he asked.
"I did not. There is no need for one. In point of fact I deceived Cabot, for I knew all the time that the treasure was in a pit. That information was not in the manuscript. I had it from another source. The pit is the spring from which rises the small stream which comes down the house into the bay, and at present the water runs out over the rim. But formerly there was an outlet at the bottom and this was closed by Don Carlos for the purpose of hiding the treasure. I believe that a dynamite cartridge, exploded in the right spot, will open the old channel and drain the pit."
Abe looked at him with admiration.
"Gee, you fooled Cabot proper!" he said, "but what about dynamite. You got any?"
"There is enough for our purpose hidden under the house. And there is also a quantity of slow burning fuse in a waterproof case."
Abe nodded. "That's okay. But we ain't doing no treasure hunting till we're settled with Cabot—aye and Pete, too."
"I quite agree," Lestor answered, "but I confess I see much difficulty in dealing with Cabot. With this machine-gun it might be possible to sink the Mocassin, but that we must avoid because, without her, we shall be marooned here indefinitely. We require her for our return journey."
"We surely, do," Abe agreed, "but there ain't no need to damage the Mocassin. Ef we put a burst inter her and didn't sink her Cabot 'ud jest turn around and clear out. The way I sees it, we lays fer him down by the water's edge and lets him have it soon as he starts to land."
The elder man shook his head. "More bloodshed," he said sadly.
Abe stiffened. "Shedding Cabot's blood ain't going to hurt me none whatsoever," he returned. "There ain't no sense getting all net up over a feller like that. Ef we shoots him we're saving the G-Men a job. He'd go the chair soon as they got their hands on him. I personally knows of three fellers he's murdered and there ain't no doubt there's plenty more. Fact is, shooting's too good fer him." He looked round. "Time we was moving. Which of you is coming along down with me tonight?"
IN answer to Abe's query as to who was going to accompany him Bob and Mark both spoke, but Abe chose Mark.
"You ain't hardly fit yet, Bob," he said, "and I reckon it'll be better ef you stays around the house to-night. You'll hev to keep your eyes mighty wide for Pete'll be mooching around, watchin' his chance. Keep a special watch on the end o' the house where the lightning struck. One o' ye ought to be round thar all night." He paused; then went on. "I wish I knowed how many bullets that gent has got in his pocket, but thar ain't no telling."
He got up. "Mark, you better take a bit o' netting to cover your head. And ef you got an old pair of gloves take them, too. You won't be able to smoke or make a smudge, and the skeeters will be mighty thick."
He and Mark moved silently away and disappeared into the gloom down the path leading to the sea.
Bob divided the night into watches. He and Lestor took the first, Lestor and Scipio the second, and Bob decided to carry on the third with Halford. Since Scipio had all the cooking to do it was only fair that he should get more sleep. Bob told Halford that he could share the morning watch, and that he would call him at three. It seemed there would be no need to call the wretched man, for Bob could hear him constantly moving up and down his room. Halford was still suffering agonies from being cut off from his usual stimulants.
The early part of the night was very dark. The moon had not yet risen and clouds covered the sky. It would be comparatively easy for Pete to crawl up under cover of the darkness, and Bob was very anxious. He prowled about from one end of the house to the other, watching and listening. Not a breath of wind moved, yet the night was by no means so quiet as it would have been in a cooler country. Crickets whirred in the tree tops, and tree frogs bleated like lost lambs. A low hum caused by the million wings of flying insects never ceased. Small wild things moved. These were the hunting hours for opossums and racoons, and every rustle they made in the foliage of the trees near the house caused Bob's tightly strung nerves to jump. There were too many trees near the house for safety. They gave far too much cover for the lurking enemy. The suspense was desperately trying, and Bob felt that he would cheerfully have given his clay pit and all he had to know exactly where Pete was and what he was doing.
Lestor was equally anxious, but showed it less than Bob. He remained in the dining room with the window half open, watching the open space in front of the house. He had a pistol, and Bob was very sure that he would give a good account of Pete if he once set eyes on him.
So the first three hours passed, then Scipio came on duty, and Lestor suggested to Bob that he had better lie down and sleep for a bit. Bob lay down on the bed in the room with the hole in the floor, but sleep was out of the question. Indeed he did not feel that he could ever sleep again until Pete was accounted for. Several times he got up and looked out, but it was too dark to see anything. He heard Scipio moving quietly about.
Pete must be getting very hungry. He certainly had no food with him, and he had now been twenty-four hours without anything to eat. Bob remembered what Abe had said about the man visiting the banana patch, and decided that this was what he would certainly do. It came to him such a visit offered the best chance of catching him. With Bob to think was to act. He got up at once, picked up his pistol and went out into the passage. Scipio met him.
"What yo' doing, Marse Bob?" said the negro reproachfully. "Don't yo' know as yo'd ought to be resting?"
"I can't rest, Scipio. Not with that fellow hanging round. See here, I've a notion that he may sneak round to the banana patch. The moon will be up presently and that's the time he will choose because he will be able to see the fruit. I'm going to hide in that patch of guava bushes and wait for him. If I can only get him we can all have some sleep."
Scipio was not happy. "It might be de udder way round. Suppose Pete gets yo', Marse Bob?"
"I'm taking no chances, Scipio. I'll be under cover in the guava before the moon's up."
"Ah doan't like it, boss."
"Don't be foolish," Bob answered impatiently. "If I can't move as quietly as that fellow it's a pity. And once I'm under cover I'm perfectly safe. Now don't come running out if you hear shots. It's your job to stick here and guard Miss Merle."
"Ah'll do dat, Marse Bob. Befoah yo' go I want to ask what I do about dat Tiber."
"Where is he?"
"He's asleep in de kitchen."
"I should leave him there. I don't fancy he will make trouble. Dene's death has scared the stuffing out of him. But keep an eye on him."
"Ah'll do dat. Yo'll be careful, Marse Bob," he begged.
"Bet your life I'll be careful. If I can only kill or capture Pete I don't think we shall have much trouble in finishing off Cabot."
Bob nodded and slipped away. He did not open a door but went out through the hole in the floor which he and Mark had used on the previous night.
The moon was not yet up when he gained the open, but it was so near the horizon that the eastern sky showed a silvery gleam. There were still clouds about, but they were thinning. It was not as dark as an hour previously. Bob stood close under the wall of the house, where he could not easily be seen, and looked up towards the bananas which stood in a large clump about seventy or eighty paces from the house. The huge leaves curling over nearly reached the ground and afforded perfect hiding to anyone standing among them. Between the house and the bananas were bushes, clumps of sassafras and tall poke weeds. Cover of a sort, and Bob, bent double, crept from one to another. He had his pistol in his right hand, and every nerve was taut.
He did not make straight for the clump, but worked over to the right, where the guava bushes grew. Guavas stand only seven or eight feet in height, but make a regular thicket. There was no sign of movement, and presently Bob found himself safely ensconced in the edge of the guavas. Here no one could see him, but he himself had a good view of the bananas. Time dragged as he stood and waited. He began to wonder whether he was not taking a lot of trouble for nothing, yet the conviction was strong that Pete would visit these bananas. They were the only food outside the house that he could find on the island. The moon rose, but was still so close to the horizon that the shadow in front of the bananas was long and black.
Bob stiffened. He had heard a rustle among those big leaves—very slight but quite unmistakable. His heart pounded, but he did not move. He wanted to be quite certain that it was Pete and not some animal. It might be the pig which Abe had stumbled over on the previous night. Again the rustle—this time louder. Bob distinctly saw a plant shake. Someone was in the act of cutting a whole bunch of bananas. Bob had a frantic impulse to rush forward, but controlled it. Pete—if it was Pete—would hear, and Bob knew how quick he was with a gun.
With every nerve on stretch, Bob waited. He could see the man moving. He had cut a whole bunch of bananas; he was carrying them away on his back. Now was Bob's chance. He dashed forward. He was within ten steps of the bananas when his foremost foot caught in something, and down he went with a force that knocked the breath out of his body.
Before he could gather himself together or fill his empty lungs, a dark shadow came between him and the moon, something rapped down on his skull with the force of a kicking horse. A shower of stars exploded inside his head, and that was all he knew for some time to come.
A RACKING headache and a feeling of suffocation were Bob's first sensations when the power of thought began to return. He realised that he was tied firmly to a tree and also gagged. The moon was now well up, and there was light enough to see Pete seated on a dead log close by. For the moment Bob was unable to remember what had happened, but Pete was there to inform him. Seeing his victim move, the gangster rose to his feet.
"Thought yourself smart, didn't you, mister? But this time you was out-smarted. You reckoned I'd be sure to come arter them bananas, and I knowed that's what you'd think. I was one jump ahead o' ye all the time." He paused and chuckled sourly. "That wire as tripped you come off the fence. I fixed it—and I fixed it right. And now I reckon you're wondering why I didn't finish you right off." He paused again, and showed his yellow teeth in a hideous grin. "But I can do better'n that. Afore long the old man and the nigger'll be wondering what's come o' you. They'll be out to see. Then I gets 'em both, and I'm keeping a third bullet fer you. Abe'll hear the shooting and come a- running. By that time I'll be in the house. By sun up there won't be no one left alive on the island except the gal and me." Again he chuckled triumphantly, and never had Bob heard a more evil sound. Pete went on. "Now I'll leave ye to think it over. You got an hour or two to find out as it don't pay to buck Cabot or, any o' his crew."
Three o'clock came and Bob was not back. Lestor was uneasy. "I think one of us ought to go out and look for him," he said.
Scipio shook his woolly head.
"Marse Bob done told me we wasn't to go out. He's in dem guava bushes, a waitin' for Pete. Yo' go to bed, Marse Lestor. Ah'll carry on."
"No." The old gentleman's voice was emphatic. "I should not dream of leaving you alone, Scipio."
"But ah'll get Marse Halford," Scipio urged.
"Fetch him if you like, but I should not trust him as a guard."
"Ah tink him all turned round, boss."
"Changed, you mean. Yes, I felt that, too, but he is terribly nervous, and no one knows what he might do in an emergency." He looked out of the window. "It is clouding up again. The moon is hidden. It is going to be very dark, and that is all to the advantage of this wretched prowler. I shall stay up, Scipio."
When his master spoke in that tone Scipio knew better than to argue. The two settled down to watch. The clouds grew thicker and it became as dark as in the early part of the night. It was oppressively hot.
Halford came down and asked where Bob was. Lestor told him. He said nothing, but looked worried. He wandered about restlessly. Two more hours dragged by, then came a blaze of lightning, a crash of thunder and the trees bent under a furious gust of wind.
"Ah wish Marse Bob was back," Scipio said, in a troubled voice as he looked out into the black turmoil. "He can't do no good in dis heah storm and it's gwine to rain buckets pretty soon."
Yet the rain held off and the wind increased. There was a crash as a tree fell not far from the house. Through the roar of the wind came the cry of an owl.
"That's Abe," said Lestor and, sure enough, a minute later Abe and Mark reached the house.
"Weren't no use staying down there," Abe said. "The craft ain't built that 'ud dare pass them reefs to-night. So Mark and me, we reckoned to come up afore the rain come." He looked round. "Where's Bob? Weren't he going to take this watch?"
Lestor quickly explained how Bob had gone out to stalk Pete. "And he has been out since about midnight," he added. "I am very uneasy."
"I don't blame ye," said Abe shortly. "I reckon I'll go and see what's up."
"Marse Bob say dere wasn't no one to go," Scipio urged.
"I'm a going," said Abe flatly, as he took out his pistol and examined it. The wind was on the front of the house so Abe slipped out the back way.
Though dawn was near the darkness was intense, and the roar of the wind drowned all other sounds. Abe, who knew well the danger from the desperate Pete, bent double and glided like a ghost from bush to bush. He was half way to the guava thicket when a lightning bolt shot across the sky. Down went Abe fiat on his face.
That lucky flash had shown him Bob's figure pinioned against a tree no more than thirty yards away and the darkness had hardly shut down again before the quick-witted islander had realised exactly the state of affairs.
"Pete caught him and tied him up as bait," he muttered. "Gee, but it's lucky as it's me and not Scipio as went out."
Completely hidden by a clump of poke weed Abe lay still, but his mind was working overtime. If he had been able to count on darkness he was sure he could reach the tree and release Bob, but he knew that any moment a fresh flash might show him to Pete and that meant death. No, the only chance for both Bob and himself was to stalk Pete. Pete, he was sure, was in the guavas, because, from them, he could see not only Bob but anyone approaching from the house, so Abe set to working round to the back of the guava patch. It was desperate work for, if a lightning flash showed him up as he crossed an open space, a bullet was certain. Another man might have hurried, but not Abe. He crawled like a snake from one bit of cover to another, and when the next flash came, was under the far end of the guavas. The white blaze showed a dark figure barely ten paces away, standing with his back to Abe, and up went Abe's pistol.
Before he could fire darkness shut down like a lid, and thunder followed. Abe rose to his feet. To him Pete was vermin to be exterminated in any way possible, but he was not taking any chances. Now he would have to wait for another flash. The wait was long, for the centre of the storm was still distant. Abe stood like a statue, his pistol pointed in the direction of the unseen figure.
At last it came and for an instant everything was bright as day. Abe fired and, as he fired, dropped flat to the ground. He heard a yell. He could not tell whether it was pain or terror; then the thunder drowned all other sounds.
"Seems like as I got him," Abe said to himself in a satisfied tone, but still he did not move. Pete might be foxing. Once more lightning fled across the sky, a double flash which seemed to last three times as long as the former ones. It showed Abe two things, one that Pete was gone; the other that his rifle lay in the spot where he had been standing. Abe crept forward. It was possible that Pete had a pistol as well as the rifle, but Abe did not think so. He reached the spot and, groping; found the rifle.'
The next flash solved the mystery. Abe's hastily aimed bullet had struck the stock of the rifle just behind the trigger. It had ruined the weapon, while the shock of the impact must have numbed Pete's hands and almost frightened the life out of him. He had bolted. Before Abe could give any further thought to the matter, down came the rain. No danger now of being seen, so Abe hurried across to the tree where Bob was tied.
"Bob, it's Abe," he said. There was no answer. Bob's head hung sideways, his body was limp.
ABE'S muscles were tough, but it was all he could do to carry Bob's body back to the house in the teeth of the hurricane of wind and rain.
Scipio came to meet him.
"What de matter, Marse Mizell?" Then as he saw Bob. "Dey done killed him?" he cried in a lamentable voice.
"Shut your mouth and git some hot coffee!" Mizell retorted hoarsely. "And tell Mark to come and help me."
He staggered into the sitting room and laid Bob on the couch. Lestor came in. His face was drawn and haggard.
"Is he dead?" he asked.
"Not yet, he ain't," Mizell answered, "but he's mighty nigh it. He've been tied to a tree fer hours, and that devil, Pete, gagged him so he couldn't hardly breathe. Help me strip him. I got ter see if he's wounded."
Mark hurried in, and they stripped Bob of his soaked clothes. Abe gave a sigh of relief.
"He ain't hurt. Wrap him up warm, and I reckon he'll come round."
They wrapped Bob in blankets. Scipio brought hot coffee, and Abe thankfully drank a cup. Mark, who was bending over Bob, looked, up.
"He's breathing better. Colour's coming back to his face. What happened, Abe?"
Just as Abe finished his story, Merle came into the room, and Abe turned to her. "You don't need to worry, Miss Merle. Bob's coming round all right."
Merle went quickly across to Bob, and, as she bent over him, his eyes opened. He smiled faintly.
"Hulloa, Merle!" he said hoarsely. "I never expected to see you again. I didn't deserve to after being such a fool."
"How did Pete get ye?" Abe asked.
"I don't see as ye could blame yourself," Abe said. "Give him some coffee, Miss Merle, and let him hev a sleep. I reckon he'll be all right again arter a nap."
The rest went out, leaving Merle with Bob. Scipio got breakfast, and Abe hung his soaking clothes to dry before the stove. By the time breakfast was ready the storm was passing, and it was daylight.
Merle came out of the sitting-room.
"Bob's asleep," she said. She went up to Abe and took both his hands. "You saved him," she said. "I shall never forget it, Mr Mizell."
"Shucks!—it weren't nothing!" Abe answered with his dry laugh. "Best of it is as Pete has lost his rifle. But I sure wish he'd lost his life as well. Now let's eat, fer we got to go back to the cove and watch out fer Cabot."
Neither Abe nor Mark had had any sleep the past night, but they insisted on going back to keep guard at the cove. Lestor and Scipio were to remain at the house during the morning, then relieve Abe and Mark at dinner-time.
Bob slept peacefully, and Merle watched him. No one knew where Pete was, but the guard was not relaxed for a minute. Though Pete had lost his rifle, it was possible he might still have a pistol. The day was fine, since a good breeze blew, it was not so hot as it had been.
At midday Abe and Mark returned to the house. Abe's first question was for Bob.
"He has pulled round wonderfully," Merle told him. "He wants to get up and take his share in the watch."
Abe chuckled. "He's tough, Bob is. But you keep him resting, missy. I reckon he'll need all his strength afore this time to- morrow."
Merle shivered. "You mean that Cabot will come?"
"Sure thing. Now Mark and me will eat and get a bit of shut eye. Your dad and Scipio is taking on the watch fer the next four hours."
Abe had the sailor's knack of sleeping anywhere at any time, and getting the most out of a few hours, while Mark was so tired that he went off as quickly as Abe.
For a while Halford had to be trusted to keep an eye on one end of the house while Merle watched the other, but later Bob got up and relieved Merle so that she could prepare supper.
Just before dark Abe came up. He had left, Mark alone for a few minutes while he came up to fetch food for them both.
He took Bob aside.
"Ef you feels up to it you better come along with Mark and me."
"You bet I'm up to it," Bob answered quickly. "Except that I'm a bit stiff I'm as good as ever."
"You looks it," said Abe approvingly. "I'm taking Scipio along with us. Mark and the old gent, they kin guard the house."
Carrying a can of hot coffee and a big packet of sandwiches Abe, Bob and Scipio went down to the water's edge, then Mark left for the house. Abe had built up a breastwork of logs and stones which protected the three from firing from the sea. They had the machine gun, one rifle and two pistols.
The night came on cloudy but calm, and there was a good deal of sheet lightning at first, but this died away about midnight, and since the moon was not yet up it was very dark.
"Ah reckon Cabot come any time now," said Scipio.
"I wish he would," Bob grunted. "These mosquitoes are eating me alive. Can't I have one cigarette, Abe, if I squat down behind the logs?"
"Nary one," replied Abe. "You gotter remember as Pete is still loose around."
"I wonder where he's got to," growled Bob. "There hasn't been a sign of him since yesterday."
As if in answer to his words, a shot rang out from the direction of the house. "Reckon that's him right now," said Abe sharply.
All three stood, listening tensely.
"Shall I go up, Abe?" Bob asked.
"I guess not," Abe said. "Ef anyone goes it had better be me; but there ain't no real need fer any of us to go. Mark kin deal with the skunk."
"There's only been that one shot," Bob said uneasily. He was thinking of Merle. Suddenly someone came running hard down the slope from the house.
"Mizell," came Halford's voice. "Where are you?"
"Right here," Abe answered, Another moment and Halford reached them. He was sweating profusely and his eyes were wild.
"Cabot's there," he gasped. "He's at the house. He's got Merle— all of them. He's shot Mark." He stopped, panting for breath.
Bob grasped him by the arm. "Are you crazy?" he demanded. "It's time, Hamlyn. Cabot let me go to tell you. He's got Merle."
Bob stood as if frozen. Abe spoke. "He ain't lying, Bob. That was the shot we heard."
"HOW—" began Bob.
"No need ter ask," said Abe swiftly. "It's us as is the fools. Pete has warned Cabot some ways. I reckon fixed, up some signal and the Mocassin went round to the other bay. Likely she come in jest arter dark and Cabot come around by the trail through the woods and waited up by the house till it was dark enough ter git on with the job."
"That's how it was," Halford said hoarsely. "Cabot told me so, himself. The swine laughed." Halford stiffened suddenly. "If I'd a knife I'd have killed him."
Bob snatched up his rifle and was turning to go when Abe grasped him forcibly.
"Wait, Bob! I reckon Halford's got something more ter say. Did Cabot give ye any word fer us, Halford?"
"He did. He said that, if you interfered, he would kill Merle and her father."
Halford covered his face with his hands. "It's all my fault," he groaned—"All my fault. Why don't you shoot me?"
The first shock was passing. Bob was becoming himself again, and even in his agony of terror for Merle was able to feel some degree of pity for the wretched Halford.
"Cheer up, Halford," he said kindly. "You'll be more use alive than dead. Is Mark dead?" he forced himself to ask.
"No, he isn't dead. I think he was shot in the leg. I don't know how badly he is hurt. They wouldn't let me go near him."
Abe spoke. "Listen here, all of ye. It ain't a mite of good our going to the house. Ef we did Cabot ud do just what he says. But you can take your oath the first thing as Cabot will do is go arter the treasure. He'll hardly wait fer daylight to start. And we got ter be thar, up the hill afore him."
"I don't see how it will help," Bob said.
"I don't rightly know myself," Abe confessed. "But our only chance is while they're doing the diving. Thar'll be one to go down inter the pit and one'll have to work the pump. So that leaves only three 'stead of five."
Bob brightened a little, then his face fell again.
"But they'll take Merle and her father with them," he said. "That means we can't attack."
Abe nodded. "Most like that's jest what they will do, but we'll be hid where Cabot can't see us, and it's on the cards we kin jump him. Anyways," he added with fierce earnestness, "it's the only chance we got."
Bob nodded. "Then we'd better go at once so as to get there before daylight," he said in a harsh, dry voice.
"Can I come with you?" Halford asked.
"Better if ye didn't," Abe said. "Be you afraid to go back to Cabot?"
"I'm afraid all right," Halford admitted, "but I'll go if you say so."
Abe looked at him oddly. "Looks like ye've more nerve than I reckoned," he said slowly. "Then I'll ask ye to go back to Cabot and tell him as you've give us the message and that you reckon he's got us beat."
Halford turned away but Bob stopped him. "Is Cabot very angry about losing his men?" he asked.
"He doesn't care," Halford answered. "He said there were all the fewer to divide the stuff among."
Bob nodded. "That would be his view. Halford, if we don't meet again I'd like to say that it's all right between us. And—and, if you get a chance, give Merle my love."
Halford didn't speak. Bob had the idea that perhaps he couldn't. He nodded and was gone.
Within a few minutes the other three started. None of them had ever been to the Treasure Hill, and their only guide was the brook which Lestor had told them rose there. This was the darkest hour of the night, and the ground across which they had to travel would not have been easy in daylight, much of it was thick bush, and there was no sort of path. Also they had to go quietly for it was essential that Cabot should have no idea of their destination. To make their task still more difficult they had to carry the machine gun and its ammunition.
Dawn was just breaking when at last they found themselves on rising ground, with tall, spindly pine trees outlined against the greying sky. From somewhere above came the tinkle of falling water. Abe stopped them.
"I don't reckon we better go on further this way," he whispered. "They might see our tracks. We gotter find some place to hide, and we gotter be mighty quick about it fer Cabot won't waste no time. As I told ye, it's my notion G-men is after him, so he reckons to git the treasure and clear out right away." He looked round. "Guess we'll go round back of the hill and come up the other side," he suggested.
The hill was bigger than Bob had thought, and it was broad daylight before they found the cover they needed in a clump of thick saw-palmetto a good way up the slope, and well above the hollow in which the pit lay. Here they hid themselves and saw that all their firearms, including the machine gun, were ready for use.
It was a heavenly morning. Bobolinks hopped and chattered among the undergrowth, and in the distance a mocking bird was fluting. The rising sun cast long black shadows from the tall pine trunks and a faint, cool breeze stirred in their dark tops. But Bob's eyes were strained down the hill, and every minute of waiting was an ugly age of torture.
Scipio was the first to give word of Cabot's arrival.
"Dey's a-coming," he whispered. The negro, whose ears were keen as those of a fox, had heard the enemy approaching, but it was some minutes before Bob caught sight of Cabot's great angular form stalking uphill through the trees as he led his party to the treasure pit. Three of his men carried the diving dress and pump, the fourth, Pete, was in charge of the prisoners. Abe leaned forward.
"They got Mark along," he muttered. "He ain't dead, anyway."
Mark was limping badly. Lestor and Halford were helping him. He looked terribly white and ill, and a red mist of rage clouded Bob's eyes as he realised how cruelly his cousin must be suffering.
Cabot reached the edge of the hollow in which the pit lay. "Tie 'em up!" he ordered. "Each to a separate tree." Then he raised his voice. "Hamlyn, in case you're watching, jest remember the message I sent ye. Try anything, and I, personally, shoots the prisoners."
TO Bob it was a hideous ordeal to watch Merle, her father, and poor Mark being tied to three separate trees, and, by the look on the faces of Abe and Scipio, they were equally affected.
Abe turned and whispered in Bob's ear. "Set tight, Bob. Jest remember as they gotter go down the pit. That's when we'll git our chance."
Bob merely nodded. He could not trust himself to speak. As soon as the prisoners had been made fast to the trees, Cabot and two of his men set to work on the diving suit. It was Pete who put on the suit. The others felled a small tree and rolled the trunk over the mouth of the pit, which was about twenty feet across. They rigged a block and tackle, and within a very short time all was ready for Pete to descend.
One thing Bob noticed was that Halford had not been tied up like the others. Apparently Cabot did not think he was worth the trouble. But they made him work, forcing him to help in rolling the log and carrying things. The wretched fellow looked only half alive, and when he stumbled under loads, they cursed him loudly enough for Bob to hear every word they said. Bob wondered how anyone could stand being treated in such a way. But Halford seemed to have lost all sense of self-respect, and, in spite of his bitter anxiety for Merle, Bob felt sorry for him.
To the treasure itself Bob no longer gave a thought. He would have given it—if he owned it—his clay pit, everything he possessed, to have Merle and her father and Mark alongside him. For even when Cabot had secured the treasure, there was no saying what he would do to his prisoners. He might take them away with him as hostages. In fact, the more Bob considered the matter, the more certain he felt that this was exactly what Cabot would do.
Aware that three armed men thirsted for his might take them away with him as shields to prevent being fired at. He would take them aboard the Mocassin, and after that who could say what would happen? Bob ground his teeth in helpless despair, and racked his brain in vain for any way out.
He turned to Abe. "Abe," he whispered, "could you pick off Cabot with your rifle?"
"Aye, and what do ye think them others would do?" replied Abe grimly. "That's two on 'em ready with guns in their hands. We gotter wait."
It was true, and once more Bob relapsed into silence. Now Pete was fully dressed in the heavy diving suit. Cabot himself fixed the helmet on his head and screwed it home. A rope was attached to Pete's waist, and the loose end rove through a pulley attached to the log. Cabot ordered Halford to work the pump. Presently Pete swung over the rim of the pit and disappeared from view. Halford pumped. To Bob it seemed that the unfortunate man had nothing like strength for the task. For the past two days he had eaten hardly anything.
In the strong morning light his face was that of an old man. Bob, glancing at Abe, saw his lips had tightened. He, like Bob, had hoped that one of Cabot's men would have done the pumping. He had not dreamed that Halford would have been forced to the task. This went far to cut out the chance for which they had both been hoping. Halford's strength was failing, his strokes' grew slower.
Cabot turned on him savagely. "Keep it up ye dog!" he snarled and struck the unfortunate man across the face with his open hand.
Instantly Halford let go of the pump handle and, without a sound, flung himself on Cabot. Cabot at the moment was standing on the very edge of the pit. The force of Halford's rush sent him backwards. He and Halford together went over the edge, and Bob and his companions plainly heard the splash as they hit the water.
After that everything happened at once. All of Cabot's three remaining men rushed to the pit. One seized the pump handle and began to work it, the other two got busy with ropes.
Bob, Abe and Scipio were swift to seize their chance. Before the echo of the splash had died they were racing down hill. They were right on top of the pump man before he saw them and yelled. At the same time he pulled a pistol. But Bob's revolver was ready in his hand. He fired and before the other could, pull the trigger he went sprawling. The remaining two, finding themselves covered by a rifle in Abe's hands and a machine-gun in Scipio's, could not surrender quickly enough. They fairly yelled for mercy.
"Keep 'em covered, Scipio," Abe ordered, then quickly disarmed the prisoners, flinging their pistols into the pit.
Bob began to work the pump. He was close enough to the sink hole to look over the edge. There was no sign of either Cabot or Halford. All he could see were bubbles rising through the dark water from Pete's diving dress.
Abe, too, glanced into the pit.
"Keep watching," he said briefly to Bob and ran across to Lestor. He cut him loose, gave him the knife, and told him to release Mark and Merle, then hurried back to the pit.
"Any sign on 'em?" he asked of Bob.
"None," said Bob. Abe turned to the two men whom Scipio was still holding under his gun. With Scipio's knife Abe cut lengths of rope and tied them firmly. They made no resistance. The loss of their leader seemed to have taken the heart out of them.
Abe stepped across to Bob.
"Signal to Pete as we're drawing him up. We can git the stuff later. We got to look arter Mark."
Bob nodded and jerked the signal cord. Then Abe and Scipio hauled Pete up while Bob continued pumping.
Within a few moments Pete's great glass-fronted helmet appeared above the surface, and as he rose they saw that he was dragging a body behind him. The body was Halford's.
"Dead as salt herring by the looks of him," muttered Abe as he lifted Halford out. Then they pulled Pete up and took the helmet off him. The expression on Pete's face as he looked round would have made them laugh if any one had felt in the least like laughing. In his heavy suit, Pete made no more resistance than the others, so leaving him to Scipio, Bob and Abe set to work to give Halford first aid.
A little later Merle joined them.
"Is he dead?" she asked in a very low voice.
"I'm afraid so," Bob said sadly, but he did not relax his efforts for a moment. Long minutes passed. Sweat was streaming off Bob and Abe but, though they felt it hopeless, they would not give up.
Suddenly Merle spoke. "He is breathing. Oh, Bob, he is coming round."
It seemed a miracle yet it was true and presently Halford's eyes opened.
"Cabot," he whispered hoarsely.
"Cabot is dead and you're alive, Vane," Merle said gently. "Thanks to you everything is right, and tomorrow we shall all be aboard the Mocassin and sailing away from this horrible island."
Her words, or perhaps it was the tone in which she uttered them, seemed to satisfy Halford. He smiled faintly and relaxed. Abe stared at him an instant, and there was an expression on his face that none had ever see before.
"I'll be dog gone," he muttered, then turned and hurried across to Mark.
ACTUALLY it was more than a week before Merle's prophecy was realised.
Mark, who had been shot through the thigh and nearly killed by Cabot's brutal treatment, was very ill for some days after they had carried him back to the house. He had high fever, and it was lucky they had drugs to dose him from the Mocassin's medicine chest. Halford, too, was in bed for forty-eight hours, but recovered much more quickly than Mark. The mere fact that the rest treated him like one of themselves seemed to do him more good than food or medicine.
Merle nursed the patients, Bob stood guard over the prisoners, while Merle's father with Abe and Scipio recovered the treasure.
There was no great difficulty in dynamiting the old channel and the treasure, together with the body of Cabot, which was found in the mud at the bottom of the pit, consisted of a considerable quantity of seventeenth century silver plate in very bad condition, yet valuable because of its age, six bars of virgin silver weighing in all more than a hundredweight and a half, black and soft as lead, and two golden goblets, one small but of beautiful workmanship, the other massive, weighing sixty ounces and set around the base with fine square cut emeralds. The value of this latter piece was more than that of all the rest put together. Lestor, who knew plate, thought that it might fetch anything up to £4,000.
They brought the Mocassin round to Narrow Bay, packed the treasure carefully, and went aboard. They took Tiber with them, but the four survivors of Cabot's crew were left on the Key. Abe declared they could not be bothered with prisoners, and Lestor agreed. In any case Pete and his companions had a house to sleep in, food for some weeks, and Cabot's two boats, so at the pinch they could reach one of the neighbouring Keys.
The Mocassin left early on the eighth morning after Cabot's sudden end and, as she drove out across the calm sea on her way to Cottonmouth, Bob stood with Merle in the stern and looked back at the island where they had seen and suffered so much.
"Glad to see the last of it, darling?" Bob said.
"I am," she answered. "But all the same it was worth while, Bob."
He nodded. "Yes, we didn't do so badly. Your father will have enough to live on."
"I didn't mean that," Merle answered, and Bob looked down at her with a puzzled expression.
She took him by the arm, turned him round and pointed to Vane Halford, who stood by the rail, talking and actually laughing with her father. The old sullen expression was completely gone. It was a different face, a different man.
"That's what I mean," she said, softly. "And Mark is happy, too," Bob added.
"What about us?" said Merle, squeezing his arm.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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