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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

DIVING FOR A FORTUNE

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RGL e-Book Cover 2019

A TALE OF ADENTURE IN THE FLORIDA KEYS


Ex Libris

Serialised in The Children's Newspaper,
The Amalgamated Press, London, 16 Nov- 7 Dec 1935

First book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-10-23
Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

Click here for more books by this author


TABLE OF CONTENTS



CHAPTER 1. — A SPARK IN THE NIGHT

DONALD TARVER sat alone at the tiller of the Spartan.

The boat lay over to the strong warm breeze rushing through the night. It was so dark that he could barely see the big mainsail as a light patch against the starless sky.

Ron glanced at his luminous wrist-watch and saw that it was just on two o'clock. At two he was to call his brother All to take over. But he himself was not specially sleepy, and the old boat was sailing beautifully. This was a splendid breeze, and if it held they should reach Key West by the following evening. He decided he would let All sleep a while longer. Then, just as he had made up his mind, his brother came up quietly out of the tiny cabin. All stood a minute, balancing lightly on his bare feet to the rise and fall of the little ship, looking at the long, faintly luminous wake which trailed behind the cat boat.

"She's shifting," he remarked.

"She is shifting," said Ron. "Had this breeze for three hours, and it looks like holding. Want to take over, All?"

"All right. You turn in."

"No hurry. I'm not sleepy. I like to watch her walk. Even if Slaven has got wise to what we're doing he'll hardly catch us."

All shook his head. "Breeze doesn't make much difference to a speed boat, Ron. What I'm scared of is that he'll be waiting for us at Key West."

"I don't see how that will help him," Ron answered. "He'd have a job to rob us in a big town like that."

"I wouldn't put it past him," All said grimly. "But he's not going even to set eyes on those pearls if I can help it."

"Where have you put them?" Ron asked, lowering his voice.

"In the bowl of the hanging lamp in the cabin,"

"What—in the oil?"

"No, you ass. I've emptied the oil out and put in water instead."

"I suppose it's as good a place as any," said Ron slowly.

"It's a perfect place," All insisted. "Who'd think of looking in a lamp? And even if they did they'd never notice the pearls, for in water they are almost invisible."

"I'll be glad when they're out of our hands," Ron said.

"So shall I," All agreed. "If we lose them we're done."

Ron nodded. "I simply can't imagine what would happen if we had to leave Key Largo. You and I might get a job, but what about Gran and Dad and Mum and Syl? They'd simply starve."

"It would kill Dad to have to leave the island," All said gravely. "He's been there nearly 30 years and made everything. It was an absolute wilderness when he started in."

"It's pretty nearly a wilderness now," Ron said grimly.

"It's not so bad as you think," All declared. "The hurricane did a lot of damage, but the trees will grow again, and we can always plant a fresh lot of vegetables. In two years there won't be a trace of the storm left."

"If we're there to see it," Ron said.

"Don't croak!" All said quickly. "The pearls will pay off the mortgage and give Dad cash to carry on. Gran said they were worth ten thousand dollars."

"It's sporting of her to sell them," Ron remarked.

"She's an old dear," All said. Then the two brothers fell silent, and the only sounds were the hiss of parted water and the soft song of the breeze in the rigging of the stout little craft. Presently All again suggested that Ron should turn in, but Ron shook his head.

"Listen to Rastus snoring. I couldn't sleep with that noise." He was silent for a bit, but after a minute or two spoke again. "All, I wonder why Dirk Slaven is so frightfully keen to get hold of the island?"

"If you ask me, he's just a plain thief."

"Oh, he's that, of course; but that doesn't account for his being so keen to get his paws on Key Largo. After all, it isn't very big or very valuable, yet he's been working for years to get it. He humbugged Dad into borrowing that money which he didn't really want. Now he's only waiting for the day the interest is overdue to foreclose. I've been wondering if there's any sort of treasure hidden on the place. You know Archie Chaplin found eight silver bars on Palm Key," he added.

"You mean that Dirk Slaven might know of something of the kind hidden on Key Largo. He might. And if it's true that's all the more reason why we shouldn't let him get it."

"He won't get it if this breeze holds," Ron declared. "We'll be in Key West before dark tomorrow. The pearls will be in old Bessemer's hands before his shop closes."

"Then we have to bring the money back," said All.

"Nonsense! We stick it in the bank, and Dad can pay Slaven by cheque. He'll pay off the whole thing, and then Slaven can go to Jericho for all we care." He broke off to stare across the sea. "There's a light!" he exclaimed.

A tiny spark hardly bigger than a star was visible in the distance.

Ron got out the chart and examined it by the glow of a small flash-lamp.

"Must be Sand Key," he said presently.

"Let's see what the sailing directions say. 'Dangerous reefs to north of island. Keep light on port side.' You'd better let her off a bit, All."

All altered the course slightly and let out the sheet. The speed of the cat boat increased and she seemed fairly to fly over the long swells.

"We've been travelling a lot faster than I thought," he said.

"We've been shifting all right," Ron answered. "A bit more to starboard, All."

The light, though nearer, was still feeble.

"A pretty poor sort of light," sail All. "And I can't see any land."

As he spoke a strong puff filled the sail, and the stout little boat lay over, fairly hissing through the sea. Next instant there was a crash which flung both boys backward. At the same instant the mast broke short off just above the deck and went overboard. The cat boat stopped as if she had hit a wall.

"What's de matter?" came a terrified shout from the cabin, and Rastus, the middle-aged Negro who had worked for the Tarvers for 20 years, came plunging out.

Ron and All scrambled to their feet.

"The pearls!" cried All, and made a rush for the cabin. Ron grabbed him.

"Too late!" he said, and as he spoke the Spartan slid off the reef on which she had struck and plunged into the depths.


CHAPTER 2. — LOST ISLAND

THE suction dragged the boys under, but they were strong swimmers. They struck out and reached the surface together.

"The pearls!" cried All again; but Ron paid no attention.

"Where's Rastus?" he demanded. "Rastus!" he shouted at the top of his voice.

"Ah'm heah, Marse Ron," came the answer, and there was Rastus clinging to the little dinghy which had been swept from the deck as the Spartan went down and now floated upside-down. Ron gave a gasp of relief.

"Come on, All," he said, and struck out for the dinghy.

All seemed hardly to hear. He was treading water above the spot where the boat had vanished. "The pearls. We must get them," he insisted.

"You can't, man. They're at the bottom," Ron told him. "But don't worry. We'll mark the place and get someone with a diving kit. Just now we have to get ashore."

Ron's hard common-sense had its effect. All swam toward the dinghy, but Ron reached it first. It was still pitch dark, but here the sea was comparatively calm, and between them they rolled the dinghy over right side up, and while two held her the third baled her out. Luckily the oars, strapped under the gunwale, were still in her.

She was a tiny craft, a mere cockle-shell eight feet long and three feet beam. When she was clear of water Ron climbed in over the stern and helped Rastus in.

"Come on, All," said Ron. "Careful!"

All climbed slowly in. The extra weight put the sides of the little craft down almost level with the water and she would not have lived five minutes in the open sea. Here, however, it was plain that they were under shelter of some kind, for, except for a slight swell, the sea was calm.

"Wish I knew where we were," Ron said slowly.

"That light's gone," exclaimed All.

Ron turned. "You're right, All. I believe it was put there on purpose."

"Deliberately, you mean, to wreck us?"

"Just that."

"By that brute Slaven?"

"I shouldn't wonder."

"You take it pretty calmly," said All bitterly. "Don't you realise the pearls are lost? That Dad's ruined; that Slaven will foreclose and take our island?"

"The mortgage isn't foreclosed yet and we're still alive," replied Ronald. He spoke very quietly, but there was something in his voice which steadied All.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"I mean that we aren't drowned with the pearls and that it's up to us to get the pearls. I'm not taking any chances I can avoid about getting to shore."

"Do you mean you think Slaven's there?"

"He or his men. We are going to catch one of them and make him own up."

"You's jest exactly right, Marse Ron," said Rastus, "and ef I catches dat nasty wrecker I make him sorry he eber was born."

"But where is the shore?" All asked.

"I don't know," Ron said. "And I'm not looking for it till daylight. It's calm here, and here we stay until dawn. As I said, we're not taking any chances."

"How long have we to wait?" All asked.

"About two hours, I reckon."

It was the longest two hours any of them had known, and they watched the Eastern sky as a cat watches a mouse hole, longing for the first grey of dawn. It came at last, and within a very few minutes the light was strong enough to see the dim outline of an island about half a mile away.

"But it's to the north!" exclaimed All. "And there's no lighthouse. It can't be Sand Key."

"It's not Sand Key," Ron said. "It's just one of those small uninhabited Keys. If you ask me, I think it's the one they call Lost Island."

"A good name," said All harshly. "We've lost the pearls, we've lost our boat, and now we'll probably lose our lives. No one ever comes near the place. Look at the reefs!"

"I am looking at the reefs," replied Ron, "and at the island. It's covered with scrub, so we can't see whether there's anyone on it or not. But I'll say there is," he added curtly as he began to pull.

"Slaven's men?" said All.

"I told you what I thought," said Ron. "Now sit light. Our job is to get ashore before it's light. That's our one chance of surprising these fellows."

"And we haven't even got the gun," muttered All despondently.

"We're three pretty hefty people," Ron reminded him. "Pity if we can't collar one of 'em."

Ron rowed fast and, dodging in and out among the sharp coral spikes, brought the dinghy safely into a tiny bay with a beach of coarse white sand.

The breeze had died, as it so often does just before sunrise, and everything was deathly still. The only sound was that made by the ripples lapping on the beach and the spider crabs whose claws rustled against the sand as they bolted for their burrows.

"There don't seem to be anyone about," said All as he stepped out of the dinghy, but Ron held up a warning finger. He led the way across the beach, which was bordered by a grove of spike- leaved Spanish Bayonets. Beyond was scrub tangled with thorny creepers. This stood five or six feet high and lay in great dense patches, but there were open spaces here and there.

Ron began to search about, and presently stopped and pointed to the ground.

"Ah see!" whispered Rastus eagerly as he examined the foot marks. "But, mah word, Marse Ron, dat's a big man."

There was no doubt about it. The rope-soled shoes that had made these marks were size ten, and the marks so deep it was plain their owner was not only tall but heavy.

"I don't care how big he is," Ron answered softly, "Come on."

In and out among the thickets he followed the marks. The ground rose a little into a sandy hummock, then dipped. Ron stopped at the top of the slope and flung himself flat. The others did the same.

Ron pointed. In an open space in the hollow below was a small pool of clear water, and beside it a tent. Even as they dropped the flap of the tent was pulled back and a man came out. The Sun was just rising, and against the clear golden light he bulked enormous. A huge fellow—six feet two if he was an inch, broad shouldered, deep chested, and weighing at least 15 stone. Rastus's black face lengthened.

"Golly!" he muttered! "He too big for us!"


CHAPTER 3. — THREE TO ONE

OF the three Ron was the only one who was not dismayed.

"Don't worry. We'll get him," he whispered. "Wait till he starts his breakfast. We can slip up on him while he's eating. I'll get behind and jump on his back. You two come up, one each side. A pity if the three of us can't hold him. What do you say, Rastus?"

"Ah reckon it's de only way, Marse Ron."

"Are you game, All?"

"Of course." Lal's eyes were very bright. Ron knew he could depend on his brother.

The big man was at the pool. He drew a bucket of water, peeled off his shirt, and sluiced his great body. Then he lit a small fire and, while it burned up, dried himself and put on a clean shirt. He had a kettle slung above the fire, and while it heated he fried fish in a pan with bacon. When it was ready he moved the pan, and as the kettle boiled they watched him make a pot of coffee. Then he got out some biscuits and sat down to his meal.

Ron pinched Lal's arm and pointed, then began to crawl down the slope. Patches of scrub gave cover, and presently the three of them were behind the tent. They had moved so quietly that the big man had clearly no suspicion of their presence. Ron put his lips close to Lal's ear.

"You go to the left, Rastus to the right. Jump him the moment I'm on his back."

All nodded. He was quivering with eagerness. Rastus was not so keen, yet Ron knew he would do his best.

Ron came to his feet. He crept round the tent. The back of the sitting man looked broad as a house, but Ron did not wait to think of that. He hurled himself forward and with one spring landed like a cat on the man's back. He flung his arms around the great corded neck and pulled back with all his might. At the same moment All caught the man by the left arm and Rastus came plunging in from the other side.

Rastus was not quite so quick as All. Before he could get a grip the giant's right arm shot out, and his great fist, catching the Negro in the chest, sent him flying backward. He landed flat on the ground and lay, winded, unable to move. The force of the big man's forward movement dragged Ron off his feet. He clung desperately, doing his best, but his efforts seemed to make no difference at all. In one motion the big man was on his feet and had whirled round with such force that Ron was jerked from his hold and catapulted to the sand.

Poor All alone had not a dog's chance. A huge hand caught him by the collar and lifted him into the air like a puppy.

"Is this a hold-up or are you all gone plumb crazy?" questioned his captor. His voice was deep and he spoke with an America accent, but he did not seem particularly angry or upset.

All was furious. "It's all very well to pretend to be innocent," he retorted. "How much did Slaven pay you to wreck us?"

"Slaven," repeated the big man in his quiet drawl. "I don't reckon I've met the gent. What seems to be the trouble?"

"Oh, you'd say anything," began All bitterly, but Ron, who had struggled to his feet, stopped him. Ron, level-headed as he was, had already decided that there was a mistake of some kind. This big man did not look the sort to be one of Slaven's gang.

"Who are you?" he asked.

The big fellow looked down at Ron, and there was a suspicion of a smile on his face.

"Looks to me it's I who ought to be asking the questions. Still, I don't mind telling you that I'm Billy Machlin, and my job isn't wrecking. It's sponge-diving."

Ron stared at the other. For the life of him he could not see anything crooked in the big man's face. It was a craggy sort of face, but the eyes were grey and clear, and there was a glint of fun in them.

"Sponge-diving," Ron repeated slowly. "And you've nothing to do with Slaven?"

"Never heard of him. See here, boys, set yourselves down and tell me all about it. Looks to me there's something needs clearing up."

"A lot," said All angrily, but Ron checked him again.

"I'll tell you, Mr Machlin. Only first let's pick up Rastus. I'm afraid you've hurt him."

"Just knocked the wind out of him," replied Machlin as he stepped forward and lightly lifted Rastus.

"Doan't yo' worry about me," Rastus said. "I ain't hurt, none to speak of. But yo' suah hits like a hammer, Marse Machlin. Yo' tell him, Marse Ron."

Ron spoke quickly. He didn't waste words, yet it took a good five minutes to tell the whole story, how Slaven held the mortgage on their land, which he meant to get, by fair means or foul; and then the wreck. When he had finished Machlin nodded.

"Some story," he said. "That cyclone last week, it was surely bad, and it was lucky for me I was safe here on dry land and my boat in the cove and double-anchored. See now, I never saw or heard of this Slaven, and as for that false light he hung out I never saw that either, or I'd have done something about it. Fact is, it never occurred to me that anyone would be landing on a desolate place like this, and I was sleeping like the dead in my tent." He paused. "You believe me?" he asked quietly.

"I believe you," Ron said promptly.

"And all thinks yo're telling truth," put in Rastus.

Machlin turned to All. "What about you?"

All nodded. "I've come round to Ron's idea," he agreed. "You—you don't look like a crook."

Billy Machlin laughed. It was a deep-throated, hearty laugh which somehow cleared the air and made them all feel better.

"I'm glad of that, son. And I will say it was kind of brave of you all to go for me the way you did. I reckon you're needing some food. Sit still while I fix up breakfast, then we'll see what we can do about these pearls."

"You mean you'd dive for them?" All exclaimed.

"I mean I hate crooks like this Slaven, and it looks to me as if it was up to me to take a hand in the game."


CHAPTER 4. — THIRTY FATHOMS DOWN

BILLY MACHIN'S hot coffee seemed to the boys the most delicious drink they had ever tasted. The hot fish was equally good. The sun, gaining strength, dried their wet clothes and warmed their chilled bodies, and Billy's big frame and calm confidence cheered them.

"It was luck, finding you," All said, as he finished his second mug of coffee.

"If you'd been a day later I wouldn't have been here," Billy told him.

"I thought you said you were sponge-diving?" exclaimed Ron.

"So I was, but seeing there are no sponges it's time to quit."

"Then—then you can't spare time to help us?" said Ron.

"I've all the time in the world," said Billy, with a twinkle. "I'm my own boss. And I'm interested in these pearls. Do you know just where your boat sank?"

Ron explained as well as he could, and Billy looked thoughtful.

"Bad luck, son! That's the deepest water anywhere around the Key—it's nearer 30 fathoms than 20."

Ron looked at him and frowned.

"Are you alone here?"

"Look in the tent if you doubt it."

"But you can't dive alone. You must have someone to pump air down. Even I know that much."

Billy's face relaxed.

"That's a fact, son. Yes, I've got an assistant, Sam Setters. But you wouldn't catch him camping up here. He lives in the boat."

"Sorry," said Ron, and Billy laughed.

"That's all right. I'm glad to see you have your wits with you. Now suppose we go and have a look-see."

Both boys jumped up, but Ron paused.

"What about the chap that hung out that light? He might be on the island."

"He might, but I'll lay he's not," Billy said. "My notion is that Slaven or some of his men were watching you when you started. They probably had a speed-boat and followed just out of your sight till they were sure which way you were going. Then they shot ahead, stuck up the false light, and shifted off to some other Key."

Ron looked thoughtful. "But wouldn't they wait to see what happened?"

Billy nodded. "Yes, I reckon they waited till they heard the crash and then landed and doused the light. But the odds are that, when they did land, they spotted the riding light of the Bonito, my boat; so they wouldn't stay. Still, we'll have a look round. The tracks'll tell us."

He led the way up the slope and the others followed. Billy went along the top of the ridge and, twisting through the great scrub belts, came out on a sandhill facing the sea.

"That's where the light was set," he said, pointing. "You can depend on that. Wait here while I scout round. We don't want to mess up the marks."

In spite of his great bulk Billy Machlin walked as lightly as a cat. He vanished among the grey-green bushes and the boys waited.

"What luck finding a chap like that!" Ron exclaimed.

"You're sure he's all right?" All said in a worried tone.

Ron squeezed his brother's arm.

"Don't worry. Billy will get our pearls back. I'm sure of it. Here he comes."

Billy came striding back.

"I was right," he said. "I found the pole they hung the light on. And their tracks go right back down to the beach. They didn't come inland at all. Now I'll take you down to my ship and we'll see what the depth is over your craft."

The Bonito lay in a snug cove on the north side of the island. She was a small schooner with a motor. Sam Setters, a grizzled old Yankee from Maine, was in charge. His eyes widened at sight of the boys and Rastus.

"Got company, Billy! They the chaps that came in the speed- boat last night?"

"You saw her?" Billy asked.

"Heard her. Too dark to see anything."

Billy introduced the boys and told Sam their story.

"Well, I'll be diddled!" said the old chap. "If I'd known anyone was setting up a trick like that I'd have taken the old scatter gun and tried my luck, light or darkness. Where do you reckon them wreckers have gone?"

"Back to their boss, to get their money, I guess," said Billy. "Sam, I'm taking the schooner round the island. Got to get those pearls if it's the last thing I do."

"Sure thing!" agreed Sam, and at once began getting up the anchor.

The others helped and Billy started up the engine. Within a very few minutes the Bonito was chugging in and out among the reefs round to the other side of the island. The whole sea to the south was strewn with reefs. It was one huge death-trap.

In all this maze it was anything but easy to find the exact spot where she had struck for it had been too dark to get any landmarks; but Billy, who had been here for nearly a month, knew every yard of the waters, and presently he cut out the engine and told Sam to drop the anchor.

"I reckon that's what you hit," he said, pointing to a long, narrow, knife-edged ledge just below the surface. "With the tide as it was at three this morning there'd have been just about two feet of water over it."

Ron peered over the bow of the schooner into the blue beneath. Last night's breeze had quite died out and the sea was calm.

"As I told you," Billy said, "there's a big hole here, I'd better go down and have a look."

"But can you? Isn't it dangerous?"

"Diving ain't as safe as digging in a garden," Billy answered, "but I wouldn't call it dangerous. Obey the rules and you won't get much harm."

"Rules?" repeated All.

"Yes. See to your gear before you go down, have a good man at the pump, and don't come up in a hurry if you go deep."

"What happens if you do?" All asked.

"You get 'bends,'" said Billy grimly. "Then you're paralysed or die."

"If it's 30 fathoms how long does it take you to come up?" Ron asked.

"Roughly, an hour and a half," said Billy, and began to strip. They watched him don thick woollen undergarments; then the canvas diving dress, with its watertight rubber cuffs at wrists and ankles; and next Sam put on Billy's feet the great brass-toed boots each weighing 28 pounds.

The ladder had been dropped. Bill climbed out on it, and Sam screwed the huge copper helmet on the collar ring and hung 28 pounds of lead on the diver's chest and as much more on his back. When all was complete Sam screwed the thick face glass into the front of the helmet, stepped across to the pump, and began to turn. Billy signalled all was right, opened the valve that he might get way to sink with, and began to descend.


CHAPTER 5. — THE SINK-HOLE

RON turned quickly. "What a chap you are, All! Always getting up scares."

"It might happen," All said. "Slaven may be hanging about, watching. If he knows there's a diver on the island he'd do his utmost to stop our getting the pearls."

"It's the last thing he's likely to know," Ron retorted. "He knows we're wrecked and that how he can foreclose. That's all he cares about."

Old Sam called to Ron. "Guess you'd better put the phones on and listen to what Billy's got to say," he told him. "I don't hear too well with this pump going."

Ron put the telephone over his ears. At once he was conscious of a bubbling of air and sounds of slow movement.

"Are you at the bottom, yet, Mr Machlin?" he asked.

"I'm down. But drop the Mister, Ron. My friends call me Billy."

Ron felt a little thrill of pleasure, "All right," he said. "How deep is it?

"Twenty-six fathoms. That's pretty near 160 feet. I'm all right but I can't move fast. Water feels thick, if you get me."

"Is it dark?"

"Not quite. Sort of blue light, but can't see far."

"Have you found the Spartan?"

"Not yet. It's thick down here: weeds and stuff. Big cliff behind me, but pretty flat underfoot."

There was a long wait. Old Sam glanced at the sky. "Wind coming, I reckon," he said.

"What—a storm?" Ron asked anxiously.

"Just a breeze." was the brief reply.

Billy's voice again from below. "I've got her. Bumped right up against her."

"He's found her!" Ron told the others.

"That's fine," said Rastus delightedly.

Ron spoke through the phone. "What's that you say, Billy—capsized?"

"It's a fact, son. I never saw a wreck that way before; she's upside-down."

"Then you can't get into the cabin?" Ron asked anxiously.

"I'll need a stick of dynamite."

"Can I send it down, Billy?"

"Take too long for me to fix it. I've been down about as long as I can stand. I'm coming up. But don't worry. I'll go down in the afternoon and blast her. Tell Sam I'm starting up right away."

"About time, too," was all Sam said when Ron told him.

Ron realised that a breeze had risen and was steadily strengthening, and before long the schooner was pitching uncomfortably. Billy meantime was coming up by stages, and by the time he reached surface spray was breaking right over the schooner, and they were only too glad to get up the anchor and run for shelter. Again wise old Sam looked at the sky.

"No more diving today, Bill," he remarked.

"Don't look like it," Billy admitted. He turned to the brothers, "Don't you worry," he told them. "This won't last."

Disappointed as they were, his cheery confidence put fresh heart into the boys.

Rastus stayed aboard the schooner with Sam, but the boys went with Billy back to his camp and had dinner. Then, as it was still blowing briskly they decided to explore the island and see if they could find anything for supper. Billy said there were some rabbits, so took his gun.

They saw only one rabbit, which bolted before Billy could get a shot. All plunged into a patch of scrub to try to drive it out and Ron heard a yell and a thud.

"What's up?" he shouted.

"Look out!" came a smothered cry from All.

"Where are you?" Ron demanded.

"In a hole—regular pit trap. I'm not hurt, but I can't get out without help."

Pushing through the bushes, Ron found himself on the edge of a pit. It was about eight feet deep and the same across. Luckily the bottom was deep in dead leaves, so All had taken no harm from his tumble, but, as he said, he could not get out without help.

Billy lay flat on his stomach, got hold of All and pulled him up.

All stared down into the pit. "Who in the world took the trouble to dig a hole like that?" he said.

"It dug itself," said Billy, with a laugh. "It's what they call a sink hole. There's a thin layer of limestone just below the surface with hollows under it, and sometimes it breaks away and drops down. Some of these holes are regular wells full of water. So you were lucky."

They walked all round the island but saw no more rabbits. On the way back Billy showed them another sink hole. This was only about six feet deep, but had a kind of cave in one side.

"I use it for a larder," Billy said. "It's the coolest place on the island."

Billy opened a tin of corned beef for supper, mixed it with chopped onions and broken biscuit, and fried it in a pan. The boys voted it first-rate, Afterwards they sat by the fire and yarned. Billy was telling them a story when Rastus came running.

"Marse Billy," he panted, "dar's a launch coming in and a heap of men aboard. Marse Setters, he say to tell yo' he tink dem some ob dat Slaven's gang and dat dey's arter us folk."

"How many men, Rastus?"

"Reckon dere's eight or ten. Bad folk, Marse Setters say."

"They're bad right enough," Billy growled. He turned to the boys. "They mustn't know you are on the island. You'd better hide. The sink hole's the place. Now scoot. Lie low until I come for you."

The sink hole was only about 50 yards from Billy's camp and was just inside a belt of thick scrub. By this time it was nearly dark, so the risk of the boys being spotted by the enemy was very small. Standing on a box at the bottom Ron was able to see over the rim, while the bushes overhead hid him perfectly.

"There's a light," he told the others. "They're coming to Billy's fire. Three—four—five of them. All armed."

"Slaven's men?" All asked.

"Certain to be. They're at the fire and Billy's standing up to meet them. I wish I could hear what they were saying."

"They won't get much change out of Billy," All said. Ron did not answer. He was watching the scene by the fire. The leader of Slaven's men, a thick-set, hard-faced fellow, was questioning Billy, and Billy was answering quietly and peacefully. The leader raised his voice, so that Ron could hear him plainly.

"You big oaf, you may be telling the truth, but I'm going to search the island. And if you're lying it'll be bad for you." He paused. "And you'll come along with us," he added angrily.


CHAPTER 6. — IN THE FOG

"THEY'RE coming this way," Ron whispered, and ducked back.

The party passed within a few yards of the edge of the scrub and Ron felt shivers creeping down his spine. If these men spotted the footprints they were bound to find them. But they passed on.

All spoke. "Our dinghy, Ron," he said in a scared voice. "I'd forgotten that. Suppose they find it?"

"I never thought of that," Ron replied. "But it's pulled well up under the bank and it's too dark to spot it."

Time dragged on. There was no sign of Billy or of the enemy. The boys grew very anxious. It was nearly midnight when at last they heard steps in the distance.

"They're coming up from the other side," Ron said, and got back on his box. "No," he said presently. "It's only one. It's Billy. He's coming back to the fire."

Ron sighed with relief. "He's all right, anyhow."

"Then we can come out," All said.

"No. Billy said we were to wait till he came for us. Sit tight."

Billy reached the camp and built up the fire into a blaze. But he did not even glance in the direction of the sink hole. He heated up some coffee and drank it, then went into the tent.

"What's he playing at?" All demanded. "Have we got to stay here all night?"

"We stay here until he comes for us," Ron said firmly. "Whatever Billy does you can be sure he's got good reason for it. Best thing you can do, All, is to try and get some sleep."

"Sleep on this bare rock!" retorted All.

"Better do that than run any silly chances."

All submitted; he usually did when Ron put his foot down. The wind had fallen, the sky had cleared, and stars were twinkling overhead. It grew quite cold and they shivered. Toward morning a dank, cold fog climbed up from the sea and covered everything in a clammy cloud. Now the cold was really bitter. It was impossible to sleep, and All got almost sulky.

"It's too bad of Billy," he grumbled. "Sleeping warm in his tent while we're perishing."

"Sleeping, eh?" came a deep voice from overhead. "Say, boys, you must be frozen, but I couldn't help it. Those fellows have been hanging round all night and only just left. They couldn't find anything, but Rudge, their boss, was plumb full of suspicion. He reckoned that, if he let on he was going back to the launch, I'd go off and fetch you. It's mighty lucky you did as I said and lay doggo. If you had come out you'd have been tied up aboard the launch this minute."

"You told us to wait till you came," Ron said. "That was good enough for us."

"Come right back and we'll fix up something hot."

"You're sure it's safe?" Ron asked.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't. I tracked the gang all the way back to their launch before I came for you. They'll be pushing off as soon as the fog lifts."

Hot coffee put fresh warmth into their chilled bodies, and, when they had rolled up in blankets, they were all asleep in a matter of minutes. Yet it seemed to Ron that he had hardly closed his eyes before Billy was shaking him awake.

"Sorry, son," said Billy, "but we've got to be shifting if we want those pearls."

Ron yawned and sat up.

"All right," he answered, then, as he looked out and saw it was still thick as ever, "but you can't go out in this."

"Can't I? Boy, I'm praying it'll last. I know my way among the reefs a sight better than Rudge and company. I'm reckoning to have the pearls and be away before they're awake."

"Won't it be a frightful risk?"

"A sight less risk than waiting till it clears. Come right along."

They didn't even wait for breakfast. Billy said Sam would find them some food. The mist lay thick as a pall as they went softly down to the shore. By Billy's orders no one even spoke. Billy's dinghy had not been interfered with. The oars were muffled with rags, and they moved across the quiet water as silently as a swimming sea bird. Sam was waiting. He seemed to take it all as a matter of course.

"How far is the launch, Sam?" Billy asked.

"Quarter mile or more," Sam told him.

"Question is whether they'll hear the engine."

"They'll hear it all right," said Sam, "but they'll reckon we're scared and clearing out."

Billy grinned. "I hadn't thought of that, but you're right, Sam. It isn't us they want. When it clears they'll have another tramp around the island; then they'll leave."

"Then hadn't we better wait till they go?" Ron suggested.

"Where should we go? We'd have to stay away all day, and the fact is I haven't a lot of petrol. This fog won't clear for at least three hours, and by that time we'll have the pearls and be away with them."

Ron said no more. The motor was started and the schooner went straight out to sea. After running about two miles, and as there was no sound of pursuit, Billy brought her round and made for the other side of the island. Keeping outside the reefs, he came in and anchored at the same spot as on the previous day. The mist was thick as ever and the sea like glass.

Billy got into his suit, and Sam fixed up a stick of dynamite with a fuse.

"I have to make two trips," Billy explained. "First I put the charge into the hull, then I come up and we fire it with a wire. I can't stay down because of the concussion; Then I go straight down again and get the pearls. It's six now. I'm reckoning to finish the whole job by soon after nine. Sam thinks the mist will last till the breeze comes up about ten."

Billy went down. It took only a few minutes to fix the charge, and he was up again by half-past seven. As soon as he was out of the water Sam touched the button. They felt the bump of the explosion, but it was so deep that only a few bubbles came up. Billy took off his helmet and weights, had some hot coffee, rested a few minutes, then went down again. Ron waited anxiously at the phone. In a very few minutes Billy's voice came. "I've got 'em. Coming right up."

At that moment Ron felt a cool draft on his face. He glanced across at Sam and saw that he had felt it too.

Ron took off the phones for a moment. "Breeze coming?" he asked in a low voice.

Sam scowled. "Looks mighty like it," he answered in a worried tone. "See here, don't say a word to Billy. Whatever happens we aren't going to let him hurry."


CHAPTER 7. — THE FOG RISES

"YOU told us the fog wouldn't clear before ten," said All to Sam.

"If I was that good a weather prophet I wouldn't be earning my living turning this pump," Sam answered sourly. "All I said was that at this time of year it don't usually clear afore ten."

Another puff made the mists writhe and curl. They were thick, and it was plain that it would take a good deal of wind to blow the fog quite away. At the same time they had to remember that Billy must take an hour and a half to come up.

Ron was horribly anxious, for if the fog cleared before Billy reached the surface the chances were that Slaven's men would sight the schooner. The island was low and flat and the schooner's mast would be easily seen from the far side. If the launch did come after them they were helpless. Two boys and an old man were no match for eight or ten toughs like those in the launch. Besides, these were armed.

There was nothing to do but wait and watch, and that perhaps was the most trying part of it. Time dragged on. The breeze did not seem to strengthen much. Sometimes there was a puff strong enough to ripple the glassy surface and make the fog curl and swing like smoke, then it would die away again.

Through the telephone Billy told Ron that he was at the 50- feet level. He had to wait there for ten minutes.

"Fog holding, Ron?" he asked.

"Fog's holding," Ron answered, but he did not add that it was considerably thinner than it had been.

Suddenly All was beside him and motioned him to remove the ear pieces.

"Hear that?" he whispered.

Ron listened, and a shiver ran down his spine, "A launch," he answered.

"The launch," All said.

"They're a long way off," Ron answered.

"They'll be in sight in five minutes," All said quietly.

It was true. The launch was moving up slowly around the western end of the island, and it was only a matter of minutes before her crew must sight them. And the odds were that Rudge, savage after his sleepless night, would seize the schooner as well as the pearls and maroon her crew on Lost Island. It meant ruin for Billy as well as for themselves. Ron stood silent, biting his lip. The only sounds were the steady thud of the air pump and the more distant beat of the launch's engine.

"Ron, what can we do? We must do something."

Ron looked round. The faint breeze had died away again, the mist was almost as thick as ever, yet at any moment a fresh puff might lift it and reveal the schooner to her enemies. In any case the sound of the air pump would guide them.

"Think—think of something," begged All. "We can't let Billy down."

"There's nothing we can do," said Sam bitterly.

Ron did not seem to hear, but All, watching him, realised that his brother had suddenly come to a decision.

"Take the phones, All," Ron said.

"What are you going to do?"

"Stop the launch. No time to explain."

All obediently took the phones. Ron ran below. In a few moments he was back again, stripped. He carried a coil of rope, which he had twisted round his body, and Billy's sheath knife was in a belt around his waist. Sam's old eyes brightened.

"Holy smoke! I never thought of that," he muttered, as he continued pumping.

"I don't understand," All said, but no one answered.

"Good luck to ye, son," Sam said, and Ron slipped overboard, silent as a seal, and struck out in the direction of the launch, All put his hand over the phone mouthpiece.

"What's he going to do, Sam?"

"He's going to stop the launch, boy. But don't be thinking of him. 'Tend to Billy."

Ron was a fish in the water. He swam swiftly toward the launch with hardly a splash. No one knew better than he the risks he was taking or the difficulty of the job before him, but, on the other hand, no one could be more desperately determined to carry it out.

The tide was low, the fantastically-shaped coral reefs showed above the surface. Ron swam from one to another, taking advantage of every bit of shelter. He dared not go too near them, for the spikes of coral rock are sharp as knives. There was another risk too, and a worse one. Sharks. They had not seen any that morning, but there are sharks all through these waters. He carried the knife to protect himself in case he was attacked, but if a shark did tackle him it meant finish to his hopes.

He rested a moment, floating on his back behind a reef. The sound of the launch's engine was plain in his ears and he could sense the vibration of her propeller. It comforted him a little to realise that she was coming very slowly. Her crew knew the dangers that surrounded them and were taking no chances.

Ron swam on again and a minute later saw the launch. She came creeping like a shadow through the mist. A big craft 40 feet long and fully four feet out of the water. Through the fog Ron could dimly see the forms of men on her deck. They were talking in low voices, but he could not hear what they said. Ron raised himself in the water and had a quick look round. He was on the edge of a channel which curved like a bow. There was plenty of water in the channel, but it was narrow and bounded by irregular masses of coral rock.

Ron was opposite the arc, the centre of the bow which was its narrowest part. He remained there, with his head only just above the surface, treading water and getting breath for his dash.


CHAPTER 8. — PARTNERS

ALL depended on the speed of the launch as she came past. His heart thumped and his mouth felt dry as he thought what would happen if he failed.

The launch came puttering along. There was a man up in the bow leaning over, watching the water. Every now and then he shouted instructions to the steersman. Ron waited till the launch was within 50 yards of the rock behind which he was hiding, then he quickly loosened the coil of rope, took three long breaths, sank, and began to swim under water.

The sea was clear as crystal. If anyone aboard the launch was looking in his direction he was almost bound to see him. The mist was his only protection, and that was rapidly thinning. Already the sun was beginning to break through. What Ron hoped was that by this time all eyes aboard the launch were on the schooner.

Swimming just below the surface, he could see the big dark bulk of the launch moving toward him. He could see her screw turning slowly. Slowly as it circled, the launch was forging steadily ahead, and already her sharp stem was almost opposite. Ron quickened his pace. In sudden terror that he might be too late, he drove forward with all the power in his body and came right in under the side of the ship.

Now was the critical moment. If he were seen it was all up. One push of a lever and the launch would shoot away at a speed impossible to match. But there was no sign that anyone had noticed him.

The launch had bilge keels, projections from her sides, under water, to keep her from rolling. With one hand Ron caught hold of the bilge keel, with the other he pulled forward one end of the coil of rope. Then he let go, and next moment the propeller was opposite. With one swift movement he pulled the end of the rope right across the shaft between propeller and stern.

Instantly the rope began to wrap itself round the propeller. Ron released the rope and struck out desperately. He had to gain shelter before he dared to rise.

His lungs were almost bursting when a dark mass ahead showed that he was approaching a rock. Even then he had to swim round it, and when at last he struck upward and filled his lungs he was so nearly done that he had to hold on to a spike of coral to keep himself above water.

The blood was pounding in his head so that it sounded like hammers, but this lasted only a few moments, then as it passed he became aware of loud angry shoutings close by.

"It's weed, I tell you—weed round the screw. It's no use your swearing at me, Mr Slaven, I can't do nothing."

"Weed!" Ron recognised Dirk Slaven's high-pitched voice. "Don't talk to me about weed. There's no floating weed in these waters." His voice rose suddenly. "Some of you get a pole and push her off. Quick, or she'll be on the reef."

Ron peered around the corner of the reef. The launch was drifting helplessly; the tide setting down the channel had turned her head round and was forcing her in between two great crags. Her crew were buzzing like bees. Two men up in the bow were trying to fend her off the reefs with long poles, others were hanging mat fenders over her sides.

It was no use. Without her engine the launch was helpless. Although the men did manage to stave her off the first rock, she swung round broadside and next minute had gone fast aground.

Ron waited no longer. He swam off, and presently was climbing over the side of the schooner.

Old Sam looked at him. "That was a right good bit of work, son," he said. "Reckon you saved Billy's schooner as well as your pearls. Billy'll be proper pleased when he hears."

All was wildly excited.

"What did you do, Ron? how did you do it?"

"Got the rope round her propeller, All. It's snarled up so tight it'll have to be cut off coil by coil."

"You mean they're stuck?"

"They're fast on a reef until someone tows them off."

"And on a falling tide," grinned Sam. He looked at his watch.

"Billy'll be up in another half hour," he said, "Ron, you go and rub yourself down and get your clothes on."

By the time Billy with the pearls had reached the surface the fog was gone and a breeze blowing. As soon as the helmet was off Sam pointed to the launch, and Billy's stare of amazement made the boys chuckle. Then Sam told Billy exactly what Ron had done. Billy's great hand came down on Ron's shoulder like a ton of brick.

"Boy, I'm proud to be your partner," he said in a tone which made Ron's cheeks go red. "And they don't know yet who did it to them," Billy laughed. "Watch 'em—buzzing like hornets, and can't do a thing."

"We'd better clear out, hadn't we?" said All.

"They'll drown if we do," said Billy.

Billy nodded, "Wonder what they'll pay to be towed off," he said slowly.

"Bullets most likely," Ron answered.

"Yes, if we went now, but if we wait till the wind gets up they may be ready to talk."

They waited, and within an hour the sea was flecked with white caps. The schooner plunged at her anchor, spray was breaking over the launch. Then, as they watched a string of flags broke out above the launch.

"Told you so," said Billy. "They're shouting for help."

Under her motor the schooner moved down the channel till within hailing distance of the launch. Slaven, tall, thin, hawk- faced, stood at the rail. "Machlin, we want a tow, I'm ready to pay."

"What'll you pay?" Billy asked briefly.

"Five hundred dollars."

Billy laughed. "That launch is worth five thousand, and she'll be scrap in an hour if she stays on the reef."

"What'll you take?" demanded Slaven.

"You sank the Spartan, Slaven. You might have drowned those boys. That's what you have to pay for."

"Five hundred would pay for the cat boat, and I'll add five to that."

"Nothing doing," Billy said. "My price is that mortgage you bold on Key Largo."

"What!" Slaven's voice was a scream. "You must think I'm crazy."

"Better crazy than drowned," observed Billy. "There'll be half a gale in an hour."

"You better do what he wants, Slaven," said Rudge. "Wind's getting up, and once she starts bumping we're done."

Slaven waved his arms, he protested furiously, but Billy simply looked at him. A wave slapped against the side of the launch and the crest of it struck Slaven in the chest and knocked him backward. His crew, no seamen, were panic-stricken.

"All right," he snarled. "I agree."

"I'm not taking your word, Slaven," Billy said. "I'll have it in writing before I tow you off."

Slaven was forced to consent. He wrote out the agreement and Rudge witnessed it. The paper was tied to a lump of coral and thrown aboard the schooner. Then, and not till then, Billy flung a rope across.

They towed the launch round under the lee of the island and left her crew to do the best they could with her. Then the schooner made out to sea.

"Guess there's no need to sell those pearls," said Billy. "We go right back to Key Largo. I'm kind of curious to know why Slaven was so keen to steal your island. Looks to me there might be sponges."

Billy was right. There were sponges—lots of them. He and the Tarvers worked them in partnership.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library.
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