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Non sibi sed omnibus
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"NOTHING but catfish!" growled Dick Daunt, as he jerked the hook out of the mouth of another of the black, slimy, hideous-looking fish, and, knocking its head against the gunwale, flung it overboard.
"Say, I guess that must be about the forty-seventh you've caught, Dick," responded the other occupant of the boat—a lean young American, with a face as clean-cut as a Red Indian's, and a complexion so burnt by wind and sun that it resembled well- tanned saddle-leather. "Ain't it about time we got the hook up and shifted?"
"What's the use?" retorted Dick, whose rather thin face bore an expression of weariness and disgust such as Dudley Drew had rarely seen upon his partner's features. "It's the same everywhere else in this beastly creek. The only thing is to get out to sea and try for sheep's head or crevalle."
Drew looked doubtful.
"I reckon we'll have to pull a mighty long way," he answered. "There isn't a mite of wind."
"Oh. I'll pull!" said Dick. "We've simply got to have some fish for supper. 'Pon my Sam, I can't look a tin of bully-beef in the face any longer!"
Drew's reply was to begin pulling up the anchor.
As soon as he got it home the tide took hold of the clumsy boat and began to set her up on the creek. Dick got a grip of the oars, and, turning her, set to pulling the other way.
The water was like brown glass and although it was late October, the sun beat down mercilessly. If there was any breeze, the lofty walls of cypress and cabbage-palmetto which rose on either side cut it off. Perspiration streamed down Dick's face as he wielded the heavy oars.
Dudley shifted up on to the thwart behind him.
"You give me one of 'em," he said quietly; and though Dick objected, he insisted. Under the double drive the boat moved much more rapidly.
Presently the creek widened, and the trees grew thinner. A number of them, torn from their roots or broken short off, lay in the water.
"Say, but that hurricane has played thunder down here!" observed Dudley.
"I wouldn't have minded that if it had left our place alone," said Dick Daunt bitterly. "It makes me fairly sick to look at the wreck it's made of everything! I was round again this morning and counted. There are only thirty-seven cocoa-palms left out of the whole three hundred; and as for the orange-trees, it will be all of three years before we get a crop again."
"It's pretty bad," assented the other gravely.
"What I want to know," continued Dick, "is what we are going to do about it? You know jolly well, Dudley, that it will cost us a matter of three hundred dollars to replant and put things to rights. Then we've got to live for the next three years until we get a crop. And we haven't more than sixty dollars between us. What's to be done?"
"I reckon that's just what I've been saying to myself ever since the day it happened, Dick. We're up against it. That's a sure thing."
"But see here," he continued, "this isn't any time to be chewing the rag. After supper we'll have it out, and if you've a mind to let go and set to some fresh job—why, I'm not going to do any kicking."
Dick was silent. He realised that Dudley was right. Also he felt somewhat ashamed. It was true that he had put money into the neat little place which lay near the shore of Lemon Bay, but it was Dudley who had made it. Four years' hard work under the tropic sun the young American had put into the place. He, Dick, had only been on it a year. He knew how Dudley loved it, and fully realised what a wrench it would be for him to give it up. What business had he got to grouse when Dudley took it all so quietly?
By this time the boat had crossed the bar, and was out on the placid surface of Lemon Bay There was hardly a ripple on the mirror-like blue. It was difficult to believe that only four days earlier this same pond-like sea had been thundering on the white beach in breakers as high as houses, while the foam-flakes had been driven hundreds of yards inland through the forest.
A sudden tremendous splash made him start, and he was just in time to see something resembling a six-foot bar of silver rise out of the sea, hang poised an instant in mid-air, and disappear again with a sullen plunge.
"Tarpon!" he shouted. "Great luck, Dudley! Mullet must be in the bay."
"That's so!" replied Dudley quietly. "I guess we'll anchor right here and try our luck."
He flung over the anchor, and the boat swung to it with her bow pointing seawards.
Her crew hastily baited the hand-lines and flung them out; and inside two minutes were pulling in bright-scaled mullet as fast as they could handle the lines. The fish averaged about a pound in weight, and were in splendid condition.
The shining pile grew rapidly.
"We'll have plenty to take over to Port Lemon," said Dick. "Old Ladd, the storekeeper, ought to give us a good trade in exchange for these."
At this moment there came a tremendous jerk at Dudley's line. He pulled hard; then, all of a sudden, the line went slack, and when he hauled it in hook, snood, and all were gone.
"Blame the luck!" he exclaimed, in a tone of deep annoyance. "It's a shark! I guess that's finished our sport this journey."
"No; by Jove, I'm not going to stick that!" returned Dick emphatically. "The shark-line's aboard, and if we bait with one of the bigger fish the chances are we'll have the beggar!"
"And be towed all around the bay!" returned Dudley drily.
"Never mind! The mullet will come again. Besides, I want a shark. We're in need of some oil for our boots and harness."
As he spoke he was baiting a thing the size of a meat-hook. There was three foot of steel chain attached to it, and to that again a long coil of stout line.
In a minute or two all was ready, and he threw it out. Dudley had got in his mullet-line. It is no use fishing when sharks are about.
Five minutes or more passed slowly; then the shark-line began to move slowly and jerkily over the gunwale. Dick watched the line with eager eyes. Dudley was quietly raising the anchor.
Foot by foot it stole away, then suddenly began to run out rapidly. Dick, who had risen to his feet, got tight hold of the line with both hands and gave a fierce jerk.
"Got him!" he roared triumphantly, and, springing forward, made the line fast with a couple of turns around a cleat in the bow.
Instantly the line was taut as a fiddle-string, and the boat, pulled by the unseen monster below, began to forge rapidly ahead.
"A big one!" said Dudley briefly, as he slipped into the stern sheets and took the tiller.
The pace of the boat increased. She was heading straight out to sea. A great black triangular fin showed up on the surface and went cutting through the water at a furious rate.
For nearly half an hour this went on, and still the great brute showed no signs of tiring. Dudley glanced back towards the shore, now quite three miles away.
"Looks like we were bound for Cuba," he observed, in his dry way.
Almost as he spoke the shark turned southwards, parallel with the coast.
"Don't worry!" Dick replied. "He's going to give us a free ride to Port Lemon."
Another ten minutes and the pace slackened perceptible. Dick began to haul on the line; but this started his shark-ship up afresh, and he spurted hard for nearly a mile.
Then he slacked up again.
"Mighty nigh time to lance him," said Dudley.
Dick nodded, and picked up from the bottom of the boat a stout six-foot length of bamboo armed at the end with a sharp steel point.
The shark had almost stopped, and was beating the surface with his tail. Dudley took the oars, and pulled quietly up alongside.
Dick was ready. The lance-head flashed in the sunlight as it clove the air, and, aimed to perfection, was buried deep in the steel-gray body.
A sheet of spray flew over them, the boat rocked in the waves caused by the monster's struggles, and the blue water turned pink with blood.
"That was a mighty good lance, Dick." said Dudley. "I don't reckon we'll have a lot more trouble."
But a shark takes a lot of killing. The wound seemed to galvanise the huge brute into fresh energy, and off he went again at the rate of knots, and now heading straight back towards the coast.
But the spurt did not last very long, and presently Dick was able to get his lance to work again. This time he finished the job, and the long torpedo-shaped body floated motionless on the surface.
"Told you he'd take us in again." said Dick, with a laugh, and pointing to the shore, not half a mile away. "We'll beach him, chop out his liver, then slip along to Port Lemon. We can sell or swap our mullet, and get back in time to catch some more for supper."
"Seems a pretty slick programme!" drawled Dudley. "But I'm right with you."
The tide helped them in; they beached the boat, and, hauling the shark ashore, set to work with the big flinching-knife which they always carried.
Well practised as he was in this kind of work, it took Dick only a very short time to rip the great carcass open, and the huge liver, reeking with oil, was taken out and lifted into the boat.
"Wonder if he's got anything else inside him?" said Dick.
"I reckon not. He's hardly large enough to be a man-eater," answered Dudley.
"I'll just have a look. It won't take a minute," Dick said, as he stooped and inserted the knife again.
The skin, harsh as sandpaper, ripped with a grating sound, and then the knife rang on something hard and resonant.
"Hallo!" exclaimed Dick. "Here's treasure trove!"
And thrusting in his hand, he drew out a bottle.
"Say, Dick, he must have been kind of hungry to go lunching on empty bottles."
"It isn't empty," declared Dick, as he held up his find. "It's corked."
"Corked, is it? Let's hope it's ginger-pop inside! I could do with a little liquid refreshment. Here's a corkscrew."
But Dick had already solved the problem of opening the bottle by knocking off its head with the back of the flinching- knife.
"Empty," he said. Then, with a start; "No, by Jove! There's a paper inside!"
"The mischief, you say? Have it out, Dick! Here's the start of a dime novel. Strange manuscript found in the stomach of a tiger- shark!"
"It's manuscript, all right!" Dick's voice betrayed more than a little excitement. "It's a letter."
"A letter! Read it right out, Dick!"
The sheet which Dick had taken from the bottle was coarse, whity-brown paper, the kind used in country stores for wrapping parcels, it was rolled in a cylinder, and Dick smoothed it out carefully.
"Wait a jiffy! How does it go? Ah, this is the right way up! My aunt, what a fist! Looks as if a spider had fallen in the ink- pot, and tried to dry himself on the paper afterwards. All right; don't got impatient! I've got it:
"To anyone who picks up this bottle,—I, Matthew Snell, having lost my boat in the great storm of October 16th, am marooned, and in danger of starving on an unnamed island in the Keys. I will richly reward any person who will bring me food and take me off. The island lies, so far as I have judged the distance, sixty-three miles south-east by south of Cape Saturn. It can be known, when sighted, by the two small peaks on the north-west, the northerly hill being bare of trees.
"Signed this seventeenth day of October.
For several seconds after Dick had finished this remarkable screed, the two young fellows stood staring at one another in complete silence.
Dudley was the first to speak.
"Some tourist chap wrote that for a joke, I reckon, and tossed it overboard from a steamer."
But Dick seemed hardly to hear. His brows were creased, his lips tightly closed. He appeared to be trying to remember something.
"Snell," he muttered—"Matthew Snell." And then suddenly: "By Jove, I've got it! That's the very chap that Ladd told me of somewhere about three months ago."
"Ladd! What's he know of him?"
"He and I were having a yarn that night we got caught in a breeze, and had to stay the night at Port Lemon. Yes; I remember it all now. He told me that an old man named Snell had been in only the day before, and bought a lot of stuff. He'd been in half a dozen times or so during the past two years. Came in a rubbly old sailing-boat, and always got about the same lot of stuff. And the rum thing about it was, he always paid in gold-dust."
"Gold-dust!" exclaimed Dudley, roused for once! "Gold-dust! Say, he's crazy! There isn't no gold-dust in Florida, or any of the Keys, either."
"THAT'S what he said, anyhow," returned Dick obstinately "And if you don't believe me, you'd better ask him!"
"We'll do that, right now!" answered Dudley emphatically. "We're only two miles from Port Lemon, and I guess we'll have the truth out of old man Ladd before we're an hour older."
A little breeze had sprung up, just enough to fill the sail, and with this on the beam, they made good time to Port Lemon, where they tied up at the long timber-built pier, and went ashore, each carrying a string of fish.
The place was only a village, just a few frame houses dumped down in a clearing of a dozen acres behind the broad, white beach. The boys were pretty well known in the place, and several men shouted greetings from the verandahs, and more than one asked them to stop.
But, eager to see Ladd; they excused themselves, and hurried on to Ladd's store. This was a great barn of a place, with long counters running up each side, and behind them shelves fixed against the match-boarded walls, and loaded with every sort of goods, from tinned tongues to teapots, and from women's hats to men's boots.
"Hallo, boys!" came a great booming voice, and Ladd himself stepped forward to greet them.
Ladd was little more than five feet tall, and looked as broad as he was high. He had a huge red face, a long red beard, and a thick crop of the most flaming red hair that ever was seen. He was so fat that he waddled rather than walked, and, in spite of his fat, was always fit and always cheerful.
"Hallo, boys! I been reckoning I'd see you pretty soon. Got some fish for me? Them's fine mullet! where did ye get 'em?"
"Opposite our place," Dick answered. "Got a shark, too!"
"Did ye now? Waal, you lay them fish down over in the ice-box here, and ye can have two dollars' worth of trade for 'em. Guess that storm served you pretty bad, didn't it? You'll be wanting some new stuff up along your place. What kin I do for you?"
"Give us five minutes in your office," cut in Dudley. "Dick, here, has something to ask you."
Ladd looked a little surprised.
"Secrets—eh? Waal, there ain't a lot o' folk here this minute"—looking round the empty store—"and it's cooler here than in the office. What's the matter with having it out here?"
"All right. It won't take long," said Dick. "Do you remember telling me about an old chap called Matthew Snell?"
"Matt Snell! You bet I do! Thet old scarecrow as comes in from the Keys in a boat that looks like it might hev been made out o' the wreck o' the Ark!"
"And paid for his grub in gold-dust?" questioned Dick.
"That's so. Though where he got it beats me. I guess he's the first man as has found dust anywheres nearer than Cuba. They do say there's gold over there, but as for them Keys, I never heard tell of any gold except Spanish treasure and such like."
"But it was dusk?" put in Dick.
"You can bet your life on that, son! I been West, and I know dust when I handles it. And that was a mighty good sample. About twenty-two carat, as I sold it."
Dick glanced at Dudley. He was staring at Ladd with a look of the keenest interest.
"But say," went on Ladd. "What's the trouble? What makes you two fellers so interested all of a sudden?"
Again Dick looked at Dudley, and Dudley nodded.
"Don't you tell if you don't want to," said Ladd.
"But I do want to," replied Dick. "Only I'll ask you to keep dark about it for the present."
"Oh, I'll do that! I'll be mum as an oyster," asserted Ladd, with a fat chuckle.
"Then read this," said Dick, handing him the letter.
Ladd did so, and for once his big face assumed a solemn expression.
"Gee, but this sounds like business!" he remarked. "Where did ye get it?"
"Out of the shark," Dick told him.
"And what are ye going to do about it?"
"Take a trip across," answered Dick briefly.
"I guess it's worth it. Reckon your boat's big enough?"
"Yes; if the weather holds up."
"It's likely to be fine quite a spell ofter that storm."
"But I reckon we shall want some stores, Mr. Ladd," put in Dudley. "That storm's pretty near broke us."
"I'll go you," said Ladd. "If you gets the reward the old feller shouts about—why, you can square up. If you don't—why, that'll be all right. I guess I've had right smart profit out of Matt Snell the times he's been dealing along with me."
"Thanks! That's awfully good of you!" answered Dick warmly. "We'll get off."
Dudley nudged him, and he pulled up short, and looked round in surprise.
Then he saw the reason why Dudley had checked him.
It was not a pretty reason. The man who had just entered the store was the human image of a turkey-buzzard. He had the same small head at the end of a long, scaly-looking neck, and he carried it forward just as does that unclean scavenger of the tropics. His thin, hooked nose was extraordinarily like a buzzard's bill. His skull was bare as a billiard-ball, and a long fringe of dirty-looking hair hung down over his greasy coat- collar. To make the resemblance more complete, he had just the same shuffling walk as the bird which he so faithfully copied.
He was Ezra Cray, Yankee by birth, but with only one Yankee trait in his character. That was meanness. As Ladd had often said: "That feller Cray is so cussed mean, I wonder he don't steal the clothes off of his own back."
"How d'ye, Ladd?" he remarked in a harsh, croaking voice.
"And what do you want?" demanded Ladd, openly hostile.
"I wants some stores when you got time to attend to me," snarled Cray, with an attempt at sarcasm.
"Hev you got the money to pay for 'em?" inquired Ladd.
For answer, Cray took a wad of greasy five-dollar bills out of his pocket, and slammed them down on the counter.
"I got the money if you got the goods!" he snapped.
Dick cut in:
"Then we'll be getting home, Mr. Ladd. Thanks for what you've told us. We'll be round first thing in the morning for the stuff."
"Right, boys!" said Ladd cheerfully. "I guess we can fix it up all right. Good-night to you!"
"That chap Cray gives me creeps!" remarked Dick, as they clambered into their boat again.
"In fact, he's a reptile," allowed Dudley; "the worst around these parts."
"They say he's in with that moonlighting crowd up the creek," said Dick. "Those chaps that run the distillery up in life swamps."
"That's what Sheriff Anderson says, anyway," replied Dudley; "and I reckon he knows."
"Say, Dick," he continued, "you fixed up mighty quick to go to this island."
"Didn't you want to go?"
"You bet. But it means leaving our place to look after itself for maybe a week. You can't count on getting help round this time of year."
"What is there left to look after?" asked Dick, frowning.
"Mighty little," replied Dudley, with a sigh. "All the same, this business is pretty much of a gamble."
"Just so. And if it turns up trumps, and we find the old boy, that reward he offers may just set us on our legs again. A handful or two of that dust will go a long way to repairing the damage. And we might be able to buy a bigger boat, and work the fishing properly this winter."
"That's so. All right, Dick. We'll get to it, then."
Get to it they did. That night they overhauled the boat, rove some new running tackle, mended a hole in the ancient mainsail, and got their gear together. Before daylight next morning they were afloat again, and at six were back at Port Lemon.
Rarely as it was, Ladd was waiting for them. He put a thick finger to his lips, and beckoned them inside the score.
"Say, boys," he said, in a low voice, "I'm afeared you're in for a heap o' trouble. That there fellow Cray is on the job."
"CRAY on the job?" said Dick sharply. "You don't mean to say you've told him?"
"Me tell! What d'ye take me for?" retorted Ladd, his red beard fairly bristling.
"Sorry! I ought not to have said that. But you say Cray is on the game. How can that be? I vow he didn't overhear us yesterday."
"I don't reckon he did. And how in thunder he got wise beats me like it does you. All I knows is that the skunk was in here arter you left, buying stuff for a cruise, and paying for it in good money."
"He may be on a trip after turtles," suggested Dick.
"You wait, young feller. Bernard J. Ladd may be fat, but he ain't a fool. I sorter suspicioned something, and arter he left I slipped out around the back and follered him down to the beach. He was a-loading the stuff on that big centre-board o' his, and along with him was that all-fired rascal Seth Weekes."
"The moonlighter?" exclaimed Dick.
"That's right; the boss o' that gang. I got down behind another boat, and 'twas dark by then, so they didn't see me, and I got a chance to listen. Wasn't much as I could hear, for they talked mighty quiet, but I'm a Dutchman if I didn't hear Snell's name spoke, and more'n once, too."
"The mischief!" mattered Dick. "What's to be done?"
"Done!" repeated Ladd. "Why, get to it, boys! They ain't started yet. I been watching, and there ain't a soul been down to the boat this morning. I reckon they're waiting for some more o' their dod-gasted crowd from up the swamps there. Now, I got all the stuff ready for you, and all you got to do is tote it down. Then you turns round as if you was a-going right home again, and so soon as you're round the point you makes away for this here island."
The two boys exchanged glances.
"He's right." said Dick.
"That's so," replied Dudley quietly. "And even if they do get off soon, we ought to outsail them. In this light breeze we can do a sight better than they can."
"That's right," declared Ladd. "Now here's your stuff, all done up in sacks. Go straight on down to the beach leisurely like. Don't hurry. Act just like you was going home. And say," he went on quickly, "you got a gun along?"
"Yes. I've got my forty-four repeater," said Dudley, "and Dick here has his scatter-gun."
"That's all hunky. Likely you'll need 'em before you're through. You mind this. The law don't run on them Keys—at least, not anything to signify—and it's the chap as gets the drop first as comes out top dog."
He stooped and lifted a sack on to the counter, and then a second. They were heavy, too—each a good load for a man.
"Guess you'll find all you need in there, boys. Good luck to you, and pockets full of dust!"
He gave them each a grip that was like a bear's, and they marched off down to their boat.
The morning breeze was right off the land, and as soon as they were half a mile out they began to feel it. The cat-boat lay over, and a slim feather of foam began to curl up on either side, under her prow.
Dudley looked back.
"We've stolen a march on them, Dick. There's not a soul around on the beach yet."
Hour after hour the breeze held. By nine the coast of Florida was hull down, and they were driving steadily south-eastwards over the wrinkled swells of the Gulf of Mexico. Neither knew much about navigation, but they had a compass, and, in any case, were able to set a course by the sun.
So the long afternoon wore on, and still there was no sign of land.
Dick looked at the sun.
"It will be down in an hour," he said, rather gloomily, "and there's not a ghost of a sign of the island."
Dudley got up, and, standing in the bows, clinging to the forestay, stared round the horizon. At last he turned to the other.
"I believe I can see something. I don't know what it is, but it looks mighty like land. Over there!"
He pointed as he spoke, and Dick slightly altered his course. Within another quarter of an hour Dudley was able to say definitely that it was land of some sort.
Their spirits rose, and they held on, close-hauled as possible.
But now—as almost always happens at sunset in tropical seas—the wind began to fall, and soon the cat-boat was bumping heavily in the smooth swell, her sails slatting aimlessly against the mast.
"It's all right," said Dudley, still cheerful. "We'll get the night breeze after a bit. Then we'll make it. And now I reckon it's 'most supper-time."
Tinned tongue, more biscuits, and a can of fruit in syrup did them no end of good, and as they ate they watched the sun, a huge globe of crimson, dip slowly behind the placid sea.
But it was another hour before the night breeze began to blow, and now it was nearly dark.
Then came a real misfortune. Slowly but steadily a bank of cloud began to rise, and behind its great, grey veil the stars vanished, leaving them lost upon a pitch-dark sea. The breeze began to stiffen again, and Dick, at least, became very anxious indeed.
"We'll have to get a reef in, Dudley," said Dick at last, after a squall which had nearly buried the low-sided craft.
At that very moment Dudley gave a shout:
"Watch out, Dick! Breakers just ahead!"
Dick flung her over on the other tack with lightning speed.
"Gee whiz! But that was close!" exclaimed Dudley, pointing to a tumble of white foam roaring on rocks hardly a biscuit's throw to starboard. "I guess this is the island, all right."
The wind had steadied a little, but the thunder of the surf was terrifying.
"I believe I'll drop the peak," said Dick. "But goodness only knows how we'll ever make a landing."
"Breakers to port!" was Dudley's alarming reply. "Put her over, quick, Dick!"
Dick obeyed like a flash. Only just in time, for now leaping crests were visible through the gloom about fifty yards on the port-side.
"We're right in the middle of it!" growled Dick.
Yet, in spite of the imminent peril on both sides, his hand was steady as steel on the tiller. Given somewhat to grousing at small misfortunes or discomforts, Dick Daunt could always be relied on in a really tight place.
Dudley was standing up, staring out ahead.
"We're sure in the middle of all kinds of reefs, Dick. Keep her as she goes. Seems there's some sort of a channel ahead."
A moment later he had to shout to Dick to luff again. And now all around the waves were breaking white. The boat had run into a very tangle of reefs. It seemed out of the question to ever extricate her.
Ten minutes passed. They seemed like ten hours. Then came a triumphant shout from Dudley.
"We're through. Dick! We're through, old son!"
Dick heaved a deep sigh.
"And where's your blessed island?" he grunted.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before the cat-boat took ground with a shock that sent Dudley sprawling.
He picked himself up.
"You've found it all right," he said drily.
Dick had the sail down in half no time.
"It's only sand!" he gasped.
"Yes; and I guess that's the beach right ahead," answered Dudley. "We haven't a lot to kick about after all."
As he spoke he jumped out into the water. Dick followed his example, and together they pulled the boat up. The tide was falling, and they soon had her high and dry. They anchored her firmly, carrying the hook a good way up the beach, then dropped down under her lee. They were both pretty well played out.
"We don't even know whether this is the right island!" grunted Dick, as he wrung the water out of his trousers, which he had pulled off for that purpose.
"I'm willing to gamble it's the right one," laughed Dudley. "But we can't be sure till morning. Meantime, I reckon we'd better roll up in our blankets and take a snooze."
The advice was good, and within a very few minutes they both were stretched on the sand sound asleep. They were dog-tired, and neither moved until the sun, blazing full in their faces, roused them to the fact that the day was nearly an hour old.
Dudley was first on his feet.
"There are the two hills, Dick!" he exclaimed, with a touch of excitement such as he seldom showed. "We're all right!"
"That's a good-job," Dick answered, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Don't see the old man, I suppose?"
"Not a sign of him. But I guess he wouldn't be looking for us here. Great Scott! Look at the reefs we came through!"
"Bother the reefs!" said Dick. "I saw enough of 'em last night. What I want to see now is my breakfast!"
"It won't be long," smiled Dudley, who was already collecting driftwood for a fire.
Hot coffee and fried flying fish tasted delicious, and having finished their meal, they unloaded their stores, and cached them in the sandbanks behind the beach, covering them over carefully lest Cray's party might arrive.
"What about the boat?" asked Dick.
"We can't cache her; that's one thing sure," said Dudley. "I guess she'll be all right where she is. Cray won't try in through those reefs, even if he does come along. Anyhow, we ought to see his crowd from the hill if they're anywhere on the horizon."
"Right you are! Now for the old man. We'd best go up the hill first, hadn't we?"
Dudley agreed, and they started. Behind the beach was a belt of thick scrub composed of saw-palmetto and bamboo vine, wicked stuff to force a way through. Also, it was haunted by rattlesnakes, from one of which Dudley had a very narrow escape.
Inland the ground rose and the scrub turned to forest.
"This isn't any coral island," said Dick, as he glanced down at the rich, loamy soil.
"Not it! You don't get hills on the ordinary Keys. I reckon this is the top of some old volcano that got licked up out of the Gulf a few thousand years ago. And say, Dick, there's always metals in this sort of rock."
"Then the gold-dust might have come from here after all," said Dick.
"Not a mite of a reason why it shouldn't. Hallo! A creek! Maybe this is the one he washes the dust out of."
"Let's go up it, then."
They did so, and presently found distinct signs of man's handiwork. A dam had been built across the rivulet, and its course turned. There was a shovel sticking in the ground.
"And here's a path!" exclaimed Dick suddenly.
He turned quickly up it, and Dudley followed. They were both getting really interested. The path wound through the thick trees for a couple of hundred yards, and opened quite suddenly into a small clearing, roughly fenced, where corn and sweet potatoes were growing. In the middle was a small log hut thatched with reeds. The chinks were cemented with clay.
"Got it at lost!" exclaimed Dick, running forward.
The door was open. He went straight in, but the room was empty.
"Mr. Snell!" he cried. "Mr. Snell!"
There was no reply.
"He must be out around somewhere," said Dudley. "Guess we'd better go and look."
"I suppose we had," replied Dick slowly, "Still, it's a bit odd that he's not here or at his diggings."
They started out, and, by Dudley's advice, went first to the top of the nearest hill. From here they got a view of the whole island. It was quite small—only about two miles long by a mile to a mile and a half wide.
Dick scanned the horizon. The sea was empty.
"No sign of Cray's crowd, anyhow," he said with some satisfaction.
"Nor of Snell, either." rejoined Dudley. "I wonder where the old fellow's got to?"
"We'll have a look round, anyway," said Dick, turning.
They searched all day, they covered the whole island, they fired shots, they lit a big fire. At dusk, utterly tired out, they crawled back to the shack.
"This beats all!" said Dudley. "The old boy's vanished into thin air."
IT seemed that Dudley must be right. Old Snell was gone, and as Dudley and Dick together walked slowly back to the little house by the creek they discussed his disappearance in hushed voices.
"He was ill when he wrote that letter and set it afloat," said Dick. "He may have died."
"That's so." replied Dudley. "But if that's the case, where's his body? You'd reckon to find it in the hut, wouldn't you?"
Dick nodded frowningly.
"Yes, I suppose you would. But it's not a sure thing, by any means. He'd have been watching the sea, very likely, and would have been too bad to get back. Or he might have fallen over a cliff or into one of these big ravines which run inland from the sea."
"Yes, I guess that's possible," Dudley answered. "Or he might have been bitten by a snake. Say, Dick, there are more snakes on this island than I've got any use for."
"There'll he worse than snakes when Cray and his crowd land," said Dick grimly. "Which reminds me—we'll have to keep a watch to-night."
"I could sleep a week," he said ruefully. "But you're right, Dick. It's a sure thing we'll have to watch."
"There's always the chance that the beggars came to grief in that blow," Dick suggested hopefully. "Or they may have missed the island altogether, and be messing about out in the Gulf miles away."
"I'd give a bit to knew they had," smiled Dudley. "But it's a case of hope for the best, and expect the worst."
"Well," he added thoughtfully, "whatever comes along, that gold's worth a bit of risk. Gee! but we wouldn't need much more than a clear week of digging to put us on the right side of everything."
"I'm with you there," said Dick heartily. "Whatever happens, we're going to stick to the game until we've got our pockets full."
"Shake on that!" replied Dudley. "I'm with you all the way."
Dusk was falling as they reached the little house. At their first visit, earlier in the day, they had not wasted much time exploring. Now they had a good look round.
"Snell must have been a dodgy old chap," said Dick. "He's got everything here top-hole."
"And I don't reckon he was very near starving, either," replied Dudley, rummaging in a cupboard. "Here's grub for a month!"
He began digging out tinned stuff of all sorts, with various packets of rice, sugar, coffee, and hominy.
"And, say!" he added. "He hasn't been gone a great while. Here's a tin of roast beef opened, and fresh yet."
"Well, I'm blessed!" exclaimed Dick, sniffing the meat. "In this weather that would have gone as high as Haman inside forty- eight hours. You're just about right, Dudley. Snell's been here within the past two days."
"Snell or somebody, with a tin-opener," added Dudley.
"I wish we could find the old chap," said Dick seriously. "It's poor luck his going under just before we turn up to rescue him."
"And, incidentally, to take the little bag of dust," put in Dudley. "Well, see here, Dick, there's lots of stuff here, so there'll be no need to go back to our cache for stores. Let's make a good supper, and toss for who takes first watch."
This seemed good to Dick; and Dudley, who was a top-hole cook, set to work with his pots and pans, while Dick got a roaring fire in the stove. In little more than half an hour all was ready.
There was a great pile of waffles, or flapjacks, hot from the frying-pan, a dish of dry hash made of corned-beef, onions, and potatoes all fried together, and a pot of excellent coffee.
They were both starving hungry after their long tramp, and made short work of the good things. Then they drew straws, and it fell to Dick to take first watch.
Dudley lay down at once, and had hardly stretched himself out before he was asleep. Dick watched him.
"Poor old chap! I'm glad he got first nap," he muttered. "He's absolutely dead beat."
Dick was none too fresh himself, for the previous day and night had taken it out of him pretty severely. He hardly dared sit down for fear of dropping off, so went out and strolled about the place.
It was a wonderful night, clear and calm, but rather dark, as there was no moon. Myriads of fireflies flitted over the brook, making sparks of bluish fire in the gloom. The only sounds were the murmur of the brook and, in the distance, the slow wash of the surf on the cliffs.
Dick kept his rifle handy. He did not know at what moment Ezra Cray and his pack of rascally moonshiners and beachcombers might turn up.
Up and down he tramped, now and then resting for a few minutes on a fallen log, but always listening keenly for any suspicious sound. None came; and at last, by the light of a firefly which he caught and imprisoned, he saw that the hands of his watch were almost together at the top of the dial.
He turned towards the house, and was close to the door, when he pulled up short, listening keenly.
A low, moaning roar had suddenly broken the stillness—a most strange and eerie sound, coming as it did through the calm darkness. It was not quite like anything that he had ever heard before, and, for the life of him, he could not place it.
It rose from a moan to a sort of bellow, then slowly died away.
He went quickly in, roused Dudley, and told him. The two came out together. Three or four minutes passed in absolute silence, then again the extraordinary noise broke forth.
"What do you make of it, Dudley?" Dick asked anxiously.
"I'll be blamed if I know! It's the right-down queerest thing I ever did hear. Only time I ever remember hearing anything like it was when I was over in the Yellowstone Park with my dad, when I was a kid. A geyser broke loose, and shot a great cloud of hot water and steam up into the air."
"A geyser—eh? But we've seen nothing like that on this bit of an island. And if there had been one, we'd surely have heard it before now."
"That's so. It beats me, Jim. Still, it don't seem to be anywhere very near, and it isn't the sort of row that Cray and Co. could make, even if they wanted to."
While they talked the thing came a third time, sounding just as before.
"I believe it's out at sea," said Jim. "It's not unlike a foghorn."
"Foghorn! Great Caesar! It would take six foghorns to make a noise like that! Besides, the night's as clear as a bell. I guess you'd best go and take your sleep, Dick. Noise ain't going to hurt us any, and if anything shows up—why, I'll have you out in about half a shake!"
The advice seemed good to him, and so utterly weary was he that, in spite of the weird trumpeting which still continued at intervals of three or four minutes, his eyes closed, and he was very soon as sound asleep as Dudley had been a few minutes earlier.
When he awoke, the pink flush of dawn was visible through the open shutter, and he jumped up in a hurry.
Dudley was collecting kindling-wood just outside.
"You rotter!" exclaimed Dick. "Why didn't you wake me?"
"That's all right," smiled Dudley. "You haven't had any more than your share."
"What about that noise?" demanded Dick.
"It stopped along about two. Haven't heard it since."
"Wish I knew what it was," said Dick, rather uneasily. "Now you stretch out, Dudley. May as well have another short nap while I get breakfast."
Dudley obeyed, but was quite ready for his meal when Dick roused him. They freshened themselves with a dip in the pool behind the dam, then while they ate their food discussed the business for the day.
"Seems to me we'd better rake in all the gold we can," said Dick, "and be sure of something for our trouble, before Cray and his outfit turn up."
Dudley shook his head.
"No, sir. First thing we've got to do is to fix up some place we can hide in. Pretty sort of idiots we'd look if Cray's crowd dropped on us when we were down there in the middle of the brook! There wouldn't be a dog's chance for a getaway."
Rather reluctantly Dick had to admit that his partner was right. They started out, and first of all climbed the hill and had a look round. But the sea stretched empty to the blue horizon.
"Cray's missed it!" Dick declared cheerfully.
"Don't you get too gay," returned Dudley. "He'll make this place sooner or later if he's still above water. There isn't anything would keep that fellow away where gold's in the question. He'll smell it out like a terrier does a rat.
"I guess we'll go right ahead, and fix ourselves up against a surprise," he continued.
They soon reached the rocky cove where they had beached the boat. Dudley was of the opinion that she was not well enough hidden, and they searched for a safe place.
They found it, too. A little to the west was a queer little inlet, which ran deep into the cliff, with a mouth so narrow and shallow it hardly looked as if there was room to push any sort of a boat in. They waded up the channel, and found inside a regular rock-bound harbour. It was hardly fifty yards across, but the water was deep and clear, and still as a pond.
"Couldn't have been better if it was made for us!" declared Dick, glancing up at the tall and almost perpendicular cliffs, which rose to a height of a hundred feet or more on every side, and the shaggy, hanging creepers at the top. "But we'll have to wait till the tides risen a bit before we can put her in."
"Meantime, I guess we'll hunt for something as good for our own selves," answered Dudley. "Some sort of a cave is what I'm reckoning on."
On both sides of the entrance to the hidden pool the cliffs were broken in the strangest fashion. Great slabs had fallen away, and lay in tumbled masses upon the beach. Dark crannies yawned in every direction. This was the side of the island exposed to the north-westerly gales, which are the worst in this region, and the waves had certainly done terrible work upon the rock-bound shores of Golden Key.
Starting from different points, the two began to climb upwards, and presently met on a ledge some fifty feet up.
"I've struck a place," said Dick.
"Guess I've got one, too," replied Dudley. "Let's see yours first, then we can have a look at mine."
Dick's was a shallow cave with a wide entrance. Dudley's was smaller, and less convenient; but the entrance was narrower and easier to hold against attack. Dick willingly agreed that the latter was the better, and they set to work to carry their stores and ammunition up, and hide them. By the time they had finished this job, there was water enough to get the boat into the cove.
"Good work!" said Dudley, as he swept the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand. "Now, I feel kind of happy. Whatever comes along, we've got a right nice place to hide in. It'll take Cray's crooks quite a while to nose out that hidden bay."
"Good name for it," put in Dick, with a laugh. "Hidden Bay, we'll call our harbour, and Crooked Cliff would be about right for this old tangle of rocks."
Dudley nodded, and glanced up at the sun.
"Dinner-time, Dick. And what price washing out a bit of pay- dirt this afternoon?"
DICK stood in the blazing sun, in the middle of the dry creek bed, and stared at something which he held in the palm of his open left hand.
"Talk of little Jack Horner!" he remarked, in a voice which had a note almost of awe.
"Never heard of the gentleman," responded Dudley flippantly, as he came across. "What have you got there?"
Then, as his eyes fell on the object in Jack's hand, he gave a sharp start.
"Holy smoke! Where did you get that?"
"Just picked it out of the last shovelful of gravel, like Jack Horner did out of his Christmas-pie, you ignorant American!" retorted Dick, with a grin.
It was a dull yellow object, the size and nearly the shape of a large hazel-nut, which Dudley took from the other and examined carefully.
"Ten dollars' worth of gold in that," he said, in a voice that was not quite steady. "Either you're in big luck, Dick, or this gravel is as rich as the original Sutter's Creek claim in California."
He stooped swiftly as he spoke, and lifted a second nugget nearly at big as the first, which his quick eyes had detected lying among the disturbed gravel.
"Here's another! Dick, give me a month right here, and we won't either of us need to grow any more oranges or coconuts than we want to eat for the rest of our little lives."
Dick's eyes shone. Small wonder. In all the world there is no experience more exciting than digging for gold and really finding it.
"Then, by Jove," he said, "we'll make the most of the time we have, Dudley."
And, grasping his shovel, he set to work with furious energy.
Dudley knew something about washing gold, Dick nothing at all. But under Dudley's tuition, the young Britisher developed a really marvellous aptitude, and within an hour was whirling his tin pan with a skill quite equal to that of the American boy.
Rich! Rich was no word for it. They had struck a regular treasure hole, and besides occasional nuggets, every pan ran from three or four shillings up to three times that worth of dust.
Snell, Cray—everything else was forgotten, And it seemed no time at all before the quick dusk swooped down, and night put an end to their feverish activity.
They stuck to it till it was too dark to see, then, stiff and aching, limped back to the hut. There they lit the lamp, and turned out the contents of the two old meat cans in which they had been stowing their treasure.
The size of the pile of heavy yellow stuff made them gasp. They stood and stared, gloating over it.
"I reckon we've a pound weight." said Dudley at last. "About three hundred dollars' worth, I'd say."
Dick drew a long breath.
"Sixty quid for five hours' work! Four shillings a minute! My only aunt! You're right, Dudley! If we can only hang on here for a month or two, we'll be able to retire all right."
Then his hard common-sense came to his rescue.
"The sooner we hide this the better. We can't tell what minute Cray's gang may happen along. And it's up to us to feed well and sleep well if we're to carry on at this game again to- morrow."
"That's good goods, Dick. Light the fire while I stow this. I'll bury it under that old log outside."
"That's a good notion. Put it down deep, and cover it up well. Then come and fix up some flap-jacks."
They made an immense supper, then arranged three-hour watches, each promising to wake the other punctually.
This time Dudley took first watch while Dick slept. The three hours passed like so many minutes, and he could hardly believe that he had closed his eyes before Dudley was shaking his shoulder.
"Just on eleven, Dick. And that queer noise has just started up afresh. 'Tisn't as loud as last night, but it comes every four or five minutes, just as before."
"It didn't do us any harm last night," replied Dick, rubbing his eyes. "So I'm not going to worry about it."
As before, the queer moaning went on at intervals for about an hour, then gradually died away. The night passed quietly, and next morning when the two visited the top of Look-out Hill the sea was as bare as it had been twenty-four hours earlier.
"Another day's work for us," said Dudley joyfully. "Come along, Dick! Every minute's worth a dollar!"
Strenuous was no word for the way in which the pair worked that morning. The gravel was as rich as ever, and they picked out no fewer than five nuggets, one of which was twice as big as that which Dick had got the previous evening.
It was long past midday before they broke off for a hurried meal, and by then they had another fourteen or fifteen ounces of dust to cache under the log.
"My word, but I'm stiff!" groaned Dudley, as he got up to put the plates aside. "I'll bet I never worked so hard in all my life before!"
"Nor I, either," replied Dick, going to the door.
Dick ducked like a dabchick, and leaped back into the house. As he did so a second bullet came ping! through the open door, and buried deep with a heavy thud in the wall opposite.
"The window, Dick!" cried Dudley, as he snatched up his rifle.
Dick slammed the door, picked up his gun, and followed Dudley like a flash through the window.
This put the bulk of the shanty between them and their assailants, and, stiff as they were, they both broke records in crossing the little pitch of open ground behind, and gaining the shelter of the trees.
Dudley was streaking straight away, but Dick overtook him, and caught him by the arm.
"The beach!" he panted. "Crooked Cliff! Here, round to the left!"
He swung in a half-circle, which brought them presently into the very thickest of the scrub. In this running was out of the question, and they were forced to moderate their pace. Presently the ground began to rise, and here Dick stopped.
"Wait a jiffy!" he whispered. "I want to know if they're on our track."
A distant cracking and swishing sound reached their ears.
"You bet they are!" replied Dudley, in an equally low tone. "It's up to us to scoot for all we're worth. Remember, the beach is all open! We want a long lead or they'll drill us as we cross it on our way to the cave!"
Dick nodded, and they were off again, making as little sound as they could. But the brush was thick and close, and tangled in places with long bamboo vines, tough as cord and covered with sharp, crooked thorns.
The sound of pursuit came closer, and—worst of all—came from more directions than one.
"They're spreading out!" muttered Dick. "There must be a lot of 'em. Watch out they don't get a sight of us!"
The brush began to thin again. It was lower, and there was more palmetto. By this they knew that they were getting near to the sea. But although Dick was aware that the general direction was right, he was not by any means certain whether they were going to hit off the break in the cliffs above the beach, and he knew that if they failed to do so they were absolutely enclosed. They would be caught between their enemies and the top of the cliff, and shot down at leisure.
A glance at Dudley's face showed it grim and set as Dick had never before seen it. Clearly he, too, realised how tight a place they were in.
Dwarfed by the strong sea winds, the palmetto became lower. It was hardly high enough to hide their heads. Their pursuers seemed to be gaining. They could be plainly heard, crashing through the harsh fronds of the palmetto, and cursing as they stumbled over the knotted rootstalks which seamed the ground in every direction.
"Duck!" whispered Dudley suddenly, and seizing Dick by the arm, dragged him down. "A nigger!" he said. "I saw a nigger's head above the brush, away over to the right. That ugly beggar Rufe Finn!"
"Over there?" repeated Dick, in dismay. "Then he's between us and the beach. We're done in!"
"There's only one thing for it," said Dudley firmly—"creep the rest of the way. They don't know where we are making, and if they come close we can hear them, and hide up in the thick."
"I suppose that's the only thing to do. But if they do happen to tumble across us—"
He did not finish his sentence, for at that moment the very catastrophe he had been fearing almost happened. A pair of legs, cased in rough high-boots, came crashing into view in a tiny open space not more than half a dozen yards away.
Dick and Dudley together dived in right under the nearest bush, and lay quiet as two rabbits in a gorse-clump. For some moments they hardly dared to breathe. Then the crashing, pounding feet passed on, and disappeared.
"That was Bent—Ambrose Bent," whispered Dudley.
"That's him. Great big brute, and ugly as sin."
"Ugly inside and out," added Dick. "Strikes me we're right up against it, old son."
"I could have drilled him all right," said Dudley regretfully.
"Just as well you didn't shoot. You'd only have brought the rest of the bunch on us. There don't seem to be any very close. Let's push on while we can."
They crept forward. The heat down here near the ground was almost intolerable, and the air was full of sand-flies and midges. Also, there was more than a little danger of snakes. But to these trials they hardly gave a second thought. Their enemies—some of them, at least—were now between them and the sea. Both knew that they were in about as tight a place as they well could be.
They could not choose their direction: they had to go wherever the bush was thickest. And they dared not raise their heads in order to see where they were going. It was only by the slight slope of the ground that they could tell that they were slowly approaching the sea.
"I see daylight," he whispered.
Pushing the bushes aside, they found a yard or two of bare rock; beyond it, sheer cliff, with the waves breaking against its foot.
"Missed it!" groaned Dick.
"Yes: the cove's away to the right," said Dudley, peering out. "But, say, Dick, there's one good thing. Not one of 'em is anywhere near us. See there! They are right down on the beach."
"And right between us and where we want to go," added Dick.
"Gee! but they're a tough-looking crowd!" remarked Dudley. "I can see Cripps, plain as plain, just like an old buzzard hopping along. And there's Ambrose Bent and Rufe the nigger, and two more—five in all."
"And likely one or two more back in the scrub," growled Dick, pushing forward a little to get a better view. "Long odds any way you look at it."
"Might have been worse, I reckon," replied Dudley drily. "Say, Dick, they're looking for our boat!"
"I expect they'll look a while before they find it. Tide's high, and they can't get along the foot of the cliff. Just where are we, Dudley?"
"Right above our caves, I guess." He crept out a little further, then came back. "That's it. We're right on top of Crooked Cliff, and there's Hidden Bay over to the left, where the bushes hang over the edge."
"If there was only some way down from the top!" said Dick longingly. "This is no sort of a place to lie out. They're liable to find us any time if they beat the scrub through."
Dudley turned quickly.
"I reckon there is, Dick. Remember that deep little cleft that came down right on to the ledge?"
"Can't say I do."
"Well, I spotted it all right, and I wish I'd only had the horse sense to climb it and see if it was anyways possible."
"We might have a shot at it," said Dick eagerly. "It can't be very far off, either."
"No, the head of it can't be a great way off. But I guess if we're going to try it we've got to do it right now. Those fellows will be right back again as soon as they see there are no tracks on the beach."
Dick's jaw set.
"Right!" he said briefly. "Keep low, Dudley They won't spot us unless they happen to look this way."
"No need to go outside at all," replied Dudley. "Not at first, anyway. Keep right along, inside the palmetto."
It was good advice, and Dick took it. But the scrub was thick as a hedge, and it was terribly slow work wriggling along through the tough, saw-edged stems.
At last Dick, who was leading, came to a sudden stop. He turned to Dudley.
"Here's your cleft," he said.
Dudley came up alongside. Dick's head was over the edge of a wall of sheer rock. It was the cleft all right, but it was between twenty and thirty feet deep, and the bottom one mass of loose boulders, while the cliff-face itself was smooth, and sheer as the wall of a house. A monkey could not have climbed it. Worst of all, it ran inland, as far as they could see, until it grew so narrow that the palmettoes arched over it.
"A nice trap we've run into!" said Dick bitterly.
"GUESS there's nothing for it but to work inland and try and make the end of it," said Dudley.
Dick nodded, and the heart-breaking crawl through the palmetto began all over again.
It seemed endless, and every minute they expected to hear their pursuers crashing on their track. At last Dick ventured to peer out again. He gave a sigh of relief.
"We can make it here, Dudley."
As he spoke he slipped out, and, catching hold of a palmetto- stem which projected over the edge of the narrow ravine, lowered himself slowly. There was a slight rustle and a grating of loose stones.
"All right!" came Dick's voice: and Dudley, looking over, saw him safe at the bottom of the cleft, which here was no more than ten feet deep. Next moment he was beside him.
"Now I guess we've slipped them," said Dudley, with a sigh of relief.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a rifle rang out. and his soft felt hat went whirling off his head.
For the moment he was confused, but Dick dragged him down behind a boulder big enough to shelter them both.
"It's Wilding!" he hissed in Dudley's ear.
Step by step Wilding decreased the distance separating him from the crouching pair, and all the time the black muzzle of his rifle promised death to the first that stirred. Now he was only twenty yards away, and the boys were forced to almost crush themselves against the ground.
Then, without the slightest warning, there burst out a strange, hooting roar—the selfsame sound that the boys had heard last night and the night before. Only now it sounded infinitely louder than on either of the previous occasions.
Badly startled, Wilding's head jerked round, and for an instant the barrel of his rifle dipped. It was all the chance Dick wanted. Quick as a flash up came his gun, and he fired both barrels almost at once.
The roar of the reports filled the rocky cleft with a deafening bellow, which echoed and rolled like thunder, and two charges of heavy duck-shot, tearing through the air, struck Wilding at point-blank range.
With a yell, he jumped straight up into the air, to pitch, with a sickening thud, right down into the ravine, full on the masses of broken rock which littered the bottom.
For an instant Dick stood staring. His face had gone suddenly white, and he was shaking all over.
"Brace up!" said Dudley sharply. "Brace up, Dick! It was him or us. You had to do it. Run! There'll be more of 'em in two twos."
With an effort Dick pulled himself together, and they started down the ravine. They had to pass close by the shattered body of the man Wilding. It was not a pretty sight, and even Dudley, in spite of his brave words, shuddered as he glanced at the twisted face of the dead man.
As they struggled frantically forward over the heaped-up masses of rocks again came the geyser-like boom and hoot. But this they hardly noticed. They were both too busy in their wild struggle for life.
The slope became steeper. The walls on either side were so lofty that they out off the sunlight. The two moved in a shadowy gloom, so deep that they could hardly see.
Of a sudden they came to a monstrous rock which seemed to bar further progress, for it lay right across the ravine like a huge gate.
"Get on my shoulders, Dudley," said Dick, as he braced himself, with his hands against the rock.
Dudley clambered swiftly up, and stood on Dick's shoulders. He reached up.
"I can make it!" he panted.
Next moment his weight was gone, and Dick, looking up, saw him safe on top of the boulder.
Flinging himself on his face, Dudley stretched down, and Dick, with a leap, caught his outstretched hands. A frantic scramble, and he was beside his friend.
"The sea!" gasped Dudley.
And, sure enough, through the gap at the bottom of the gorge, the blue rollers of the gulf were visible, gleaming in the hot afternoon sun.
The rest of the way, if steep, was comparatively easy, and within another two or three minutes they were on their ledge, and had dashed into their cave.
Both flung themselves down. They were dripping with perspiration and panting with the fearful strain of the past half-hour.
Dudley was the first to recover himself.
"First trick to us, Dick. We've bagged one of them, and got off without a scratch."
"Speak for yourself!" growled Dick. "I haven't a sound inch of skin on my carcass."
Dudley laughed. It did him good to hear Dick joke. He had been afraid of the effect of the killing of Wilding, for he knew that Dick had never before fired a shot in anger. For himself it was different. He had seen rough work in the Far West before coming to Florida.
He struggled to his feet.
"Dick, we've got to get busy," he said. "Cray ain't going to waste any time over getting square. He and Bent'll be mad as hornets when they find Wilding. From now on, it's them or us!"
"It's been that from the first," answered Dick. "The swabs! Plugging at us without a word of warning! I tell you, Dudley," he continued, with a grim quietness that was rather impressive, "it will be shoot on sight from now on! We've got to rid the earth of this crowd, and I'll do it with as little pity as I'd blow out a nest of rattlesnakes!"
"That's right, old son; I'm with you!" agreed Dudley. "But our job now is to make sure they don't get first chance of plugging us. So I guess we'd better get busy, and make some sort of a breastwork. You've got to remember that, when the tide goes down, they can get along the beach just like we could, and then there's always the chance of their rushing us."
"You're right, Dudley. The sooner we start in the better."
There was any amount of loose stuff about, and they soon had formidable walls piled across the ledge at points which they could command from the cave-mouth. Anyone trying to reach the cave would have to climb one or the other. In the daytime they would be in plain sight; at night they would certainly make themselves heard by the fall of the small, loose stones which the boys had heaped on top of each barrier.
While they were at work the moaning roar was heard at its usual regular intervals, but after about an hour died away.
Dick and Dudley, however, had become so accustomed to the sound that they hardly paid any further attention to it.
The barriers finished, the two returned to the cave. What with their long morning at gold-digging, the chase, and the strenuous shifting of rocks, they were both pretty well done.
Dick looked round.
"I think we're all right for the present, Dudley."
"Yes, I reckon so. But what about it if they find where we are, and settle down to starve us out?"
"Take them quite a while," responded Dick, glancing at the comfortable-looking pile of tinned stuff and biscuit. "Old Ladd did us pretty well."
"I'm not thinking so much about grub." said Dudley. "Water's the question."
Dick's face fell.
"You're right, Dudley. I never thought of that. Well, we've got a keg full, anyhow. That'll last us till we can think the thing out. After all, we could surely make a sally by night, and fill up at the creek-mouth?"
Dudley shook his head.
"Cray's no fool, Dick. The water question is the very first that he's going to think of. Before he's twenty-four hours older he'll know, like we do, that the creek is the only drinking water on the island, and he'll take his measures accordingly.
"I must say you're jolly encouraging!" growled Dick. "If it's that bad, we'd best take our boat while we can, and sail back to Lemon Bay, and get help."
"I guess that's just exactly what Mr. Ezra Cray's figuring on." drawled Dudley, and pointed as he spoke.
Round the tall cape to the left a large sail-boat with a crew of half a dozen men had just come into sight. As they watched her the sheet was hauled, and she stood in towards the land.
Dick seized his gun.
"They're making right for the mouth of Hidden Bay," he said sharply. "Surely to goodness, they haven't got on the track of our boat already!"
"GUESS we'll have to fight for it, if that's their lay," said Dudley, as he slipped a clip of cartridges into the breech of his rifle. "We can't afford to lose our boat, whatever happens."
Lying flat on the bare rock behind a low breastwork of stone which they had erected before the narrow mouth of the cave, they waited to see what their assailants would do.
"No, they haven't spotted the mouth of the bay," muttered Dick Daunt presently. "See, they're passing it."
"Then what in the name of all that's queer are they after? Another minute and they'll be in range, and we can plug the whole outfit without a chance of their touching us."
As he spoke. Dudley raised his rifle softly and poked the muzzle through a chink in the breastwork.
"I don't believe they know where we are," said Dick.
"They're not such blame fools as all that," returned Dudley. "Old Ezra is about as cute as they make them. You can just bet he's got a very fair notion of our whereabouts."
Another minute dragged by, while the big boat, with the soft breeze filling her mainsail, came steadily towards them. It was deep water very nearly up to the shore, and the reefs which covered the entrance to the cove were a good way off to the right.
Dick raised himself a little.
"Great Scott, look at that!" he gasped.
"What's biting you?" demanded Dudley.
"A white flag! They're waving a towel, or something of the sort."
"Steady, Dudley!" he added quickly, as Dudley raised his head rather rashly. "It may be only a trick."
"I guest not. Looks to me like they want to come to terms with us."
"Hi, yew, Daunt, be yew there?" came a high-pitched hail from the boat.
"You bet I am," returned Dick, poking his gun-barrel into view. "And ready to give you what's coming to you, too."
"None o' that!" came another voice, gruff as a foghorn. "This here's a flag o' truce as we're flying. Don't ye know enough for that?"
"I know you're a pack of cowardly murderers!" retorted Dick uncompromisingly. "You tried to plug us without any sort of warning, and you've about as much right to fly the white flag as a Venezuelan nigger. Haul your wind at once, or you'll get a dose of lead double quick!"
"That's the way to talk to 'em, Dick," said Dudley approvingly. "Ah, they're putting about in a hurry."
"Not so sure of that. Watch out for squalls, old man."
Ezra Cray, who was at the tiller, had certainly put the helm over; but instead of putting his craft on the other tack, he had merely thrown her up into the wind, so that she lay almost motionless, with her leeches quivering.
"You ain't got no call to talk to us like that," he shouted. "No one asked you to come butting in here, and ef you'd both been shot, it wouldn't hev been no more'n you deserved."
"I like your cheek," answered Dick. "We got the message to come to the old man's help."
"The mischief, you did!" snarled Gray. "I guess we 'uns all had it fust, and ef the old feller wuz loony enough to set another bottle adrift, thet ain't nothing to do with us.
"Now, see here," he continued, "you've hed luck in getting where you be, and I'm not saying you ain't safe so long as you stays there. But thet's only fer just so long as your grub lasts out. Then you've got ter starve or put your hands up."
"That's what you think," put in Dick defiantly.
"Oh, you may bluff all you've a mind to, but we knows! We knows as it's only a matter o' time and o' watching you. Now, see here. I ain't a hard man, and no more is Bent, here."
Dick chuckled, but Cray went on unmoved.
"You've shot up one of our fellers, but we don't bear no malice, and we'll make you a free offer. You kin get to your boat, load her up with the grub as you've brought along, and then git out. Give us your word as you won't come back or won't go shooting off your mouth to any o' the folk at Lemon Bay, and we won't interfere with you no more one way or t'other. There, ef that ain't fair, I don't know what is."
Again Dick gave vent to a hearty chuckle.
"'Pon my word, you are the bold limit! So we're to slope off with our tails between our legs, and leave you to mop up all the gold and generally raid everything worth having on the island. Is that the idea?"
"Thet's precisely the notion, young feller," answered Ezra. "And think yourselves mighty lucky as we've got sech good, kind hearts."
"Something between an alligator and a shark, eh, Cray?" put in Dudley. "No, my dear, kind-hearted friend, it won't work. I tell you straight, it won't."
"I shouldn't think it would," said Dick, in an undertone. "Even if we accepted their terms, they'd fill us with lead before we'd more than shown ourselves. They're just about as trustworthy as a pack of range wolves."
"Then you means to say ez you won't take these here terms?" shouted Cray, falling into a sudden rage.
"You can take that as said," answered Dick.
"Then, by gosh, you're jest as good as dead!" yelled Clay, in a rage. "You needn't to look for a second chance, even if you comes a-begging on your bended knees."
"Bet you you'll do the praying first," was Dick's final jeer, as Cray let the boat fall off, and she began to move again on the other tack.
The boys watched her as she sailed away.
"Why's he holding her so close to the wind?" muttered Dudley. "She's got hardly any way on her. There's no risk from those rocks."
"There's some dirty business on," answered Dick. "Jove, I've a mind to let 'em have it before they're out of range!"
The words were hardly out of his mouth when, as if at a given signal, all five of Cray's motley crew suddenly ducked down under the high gunwale, and five rifle barrels appeared instead.
The ragged volley sent the echoes crashing along the face of Crooked Cliff, and the bullets shrieked overhead or phutted harmlessly against the breastwork of rocks.
"Just what I was expecting," growled Dick. "Let 'em have it, Dudley! They're out of range of my scatter-gun."
Dudley had not waited for Dick's orders. He was already firing. His rifle, a sound if rather old fashioned Winchester, was of .44 calibre, and a bullet of this size is not only a man- stopper, but will penetrate a considerable thickness of wood and make a very nasty hole in a plank.
And Dudley, instead of snap shooting at the heads which just bobbed up above the gunwale, was firing deliberately at the boat itself, aiming as near the water-line as possible.
The first shot was short, and, striking the water, ricocheted over the boat; but the second hulled her, and at the third again splinters flew white, and there came a howl of dismay or pain from one of the crew.
In a hurry, Cray let her drop off, and she darted ahead at greatly increased speed, while her crew fired as fast as they could pull trigger. But apart from the difficulty of accurate shooting from a moving boat, the boys were safe enough behind their breastwork, and so long as the boat was within range Dudley, caring nothing for the bullets that sang and whizzed overhead, continued to fire carefully-aimed shots at the hull of the fleeing craft.
At last she was out of range, and, not wishing to waste ammunition, he ceased firing.
"Five hits, I reckon, Dick," he said quietly, as he turned to his partner.
"No, six," said Dick. "I counted. One was a bit high, but the rest got her right where she needed it. And I'll lay that more'n one of 'em went through both sides of her.
"Ah, watch 'em!" he continued, with a chuckle. "Bailing like billy-ho! Dudley, I'll bet that it will take 'em the best part of a week to make that old tub seaworthy again."
"Just about that, I guess," answered Dudley, chuckling softly. "Say. Dick, I kind of think that Cray's wishing he hadn't tried that trick—eh!"
"I wish I'd had a rifle too," said Dick regretfully. "If there'd been two of us to shoot, we'd likely have sunk the whole outfit, and got rid of the whole crew of skunks."
"Yes, we ought to have helped ourselves to Wilding's rifle. Only I guess we were both so rattled just then we never thought of it."
"Good notion! We'll go out and fetch it. What do you say?"
"You mean before those fellows can land again?"
"That's the idea. I fancy they'll have to go round to the other bay, and, anyhow, they'll have to go pretty slow. The water must be fairly squirting into the boat, and they'll have to handle her mighty easy."
Dudley glanced again at the big boat, which was now just disappearing around the point of land to their left.
"Right you are Dick! This is our chance while they are out of sight. Let's only hope that none of their crew have been left ashore."
"Say, you better let me go alone, and you stay here on guard," he suggested.
But Dick shook his head.
"No, Dudley. We'll slick together, whatever happens. And, anyway, that gorge is no place for one chap to go strolling alone. There's that big boulder to cross, and that's more than a one-man job."
"We'll take a rope to help us over that," said Dudley, and, picking up a coil which lay by the cave mouth, they started.
They wasted no time, but still they were not in such a tearing hurry as before. So the difficulties did not seem so great as they had previously, and, barring a meeting with a rock rattlesnake, a small, dark-coloured, evil-looking brute, which Dick killed by smashing a heavy stone upon it, they had no special adventures on the way.
Wilding's body lay where it had fallen, and Dick shuddered again as he noticed two great, dusky buzzards perched on the ledge overhead, their bare, wrinkled heads almost buried between their hunched-up wing-tips.
"He was a brute, but we can't leave him to those," he said. "We must bury him, Dudley."
"There's a deep crack between those two rocks," replied Dudley. "We can slip his body down there. I don't reckon that buzzards or anything else will get him there."
Dick nodded, and after taking the dead man's rifle and his cartridge-belt, they rolled the body into the cleft, and it dropped out of sight into unknown depths below. This dreadful business finished, they hurried back. The sun was already getting low, and there was still a good deal to be done in the way of making their position impregnable to attack.
"It's a good thing we have this way up inland." observed Dick as they reached the lower end of the gorge again.
"I don't reckon it will be much use to us," replied Dudley, shaking his head. "Ezra knows we've got Wilding, so I guess he knows how we escaped. Most like he'll put a guard somewhere up there ready to drill us if we do go out that way."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Dick slowly. "I expect you're right, old chap. Then in that case he may try to attack us from that side."
"That's so. We'll have to strengthen the breastwork that side."
Reaching the ledge, they slopped and took a cautious survey of the surroundings. But there was no sign of the enemy, and they reached the cave without seeing any.
By this time they were both pretty well done.
"What d'ye say to a mouthful of supper, Dick?" suggested Dudley. "Then we can fix up things."
"Better do it now," said Dick. "Won't be light enough after."
"Just as you say; but I guess I've got to have a drink first. My throat's like sandpaper."
He got up wearily from the rock on which he was sitting, took up the cup, and turned to the five-gallon keg in which they had brought up their drinking-water. His cry of dismay brought Dick to his feet.
"The water—it's gone! There's not a pint left!"
Dick gazed, horrified, at the bullet hole which a chance shot had made in the keg.
DUDLEY was the first to pull himself together.
"Poor luck, Dick! But I guess it's no use crying over spilt milk, or spilt water either!"
"I suppose not. But unless one of us had been potted, they could hardly have hit us harder. There's not a drop of water anywhere up in these rocks, and it's precious unlikely to rain at this time of year. Cray knows that as well at we do, and he'll not run any chances of letting us get to the creek."
"That's so; but, for all that, he can't guard the whole length of the creek with half a dozen men. And the nights are dark now. Seems to me we ought to be able to hit off some place where the creek's not guarded, and fill the keg."
Dick shrugged his shoulders.
"We've got to do it, or die of thirst," he answered quietly. "Well, the first thing is to mend the keg, and the next to get a bit of sleep. We have to be fresh for this business. When do you reckon we'd better go?"
"Soon after midnight. That's the time that Cray's outfit are liable to be most sleepy."
"Right! We'll try it. Meantime, we may as well divvy up the remains of the water, and have some food. We'll have to leave those walls till to-morrow. I'm not expecting any attack for the present. Cray's policy will be to starve us out."
They boiled the remains of the water on their oil-stove, and it gave them just one cup of tea each. Then Dudley had the happy thought of digging out and opening a tin of peaches. These were floating in rich juice, which did as much to quench their thirst almost as the tea. They did not stint themselves, for they knew they would need all their strength and energy before morning, and although neither put the thought into words, yet both knew that if they failed to get the keg filled they would neither of them come back alive.
Dick took first nap, and Dudley, while he watched, carefully plugged the holes in the keg. By dint of beating out a piece of tin flat, and tacking it over the holes, he made a very good job of it.
No one disturbed the quiet of their haunt in Crooked Cliff, and not a sound betrayed the fact that there was a soul beside themselves on the island.
A little before one o'clock they started out. It was a warm, still night, and though there was no moon, it was lighter than they liked. The stars were brilliant, and down in these latitudes they give far more light than even on the brightest of summer nights in England.
The creek fed into the sea about three-quarters of a mile from Crooked Cliff. It came down in a series of rapids from the higher ground, and reached the sea in a little cove beyond the rocky one in which they had originally come ashore.
They had talked the job over between them, and had decided that it would be foolish to risk attempting to fill their keg at or near the beach. One of Cray's men would almost certainty be on guard there. Their idea was to strike a little way inland, where they would have the scrub to shelter them, then to chance finding a place where they could get to the stream under cover of the brush.
The worst of it was that in order to get to the top of the cliff it was absolutely necessary to cross a part of the beach—the same beach where they had first come ashore. Barring the ravine, this was their only way up on to the higher ground. Still, there was not much likelihood of this being guarded, for, as Dudley said, "Cray won't be reckoning on our wanting water to-night, nor for a couple of days yet."
However, there was the oft-chance that someone might be watching, so they resolved to act exactly as though there was, and not run any risk that could be avoided.
Dick carried the keg. They had rigged a sort of harness of rope, so that he could carry it on his back. Dudley, who was the better shot of the two, carried his rifle, and went on a little way ahead. It was arranged that if he saw or heard anything suspicious he was to drop at once, and Dick would follow the same example.
Clambering softly over their barricade, they reached the strip of sand at the foot of the cliffs. It was now half-tide, and the beach would be passable for about the next two hours.
They kept close in under the rocks, and moved slowly and carefully until they reached the break in the cliffs, where the ground ran up at a steep slope towards the scrub. Here they went down on hands and knees, and crawled the whole distance until they gained the shelter of the palmetto where they paused a moment to rest and look about.
"All right, so far," said Dick, "What bothers me is the row we shall make getting through this beastly stiff scrub!"
"That's so," allowed Dudley. "And it's a still night, too. Sound will carry like the mischief. I guess we'd best keep along under the rim of the scrub, and chance finding an opening of some sort. So long as we're close to the sea, the waves on the beach will cover any small noises."
"Yes, and cover the sound of anyone hunting us, too!" growled Dick. "Still, we've got to take our chances!"
A couple of hundred yards further on they found what they were looking for—namely, a break in the dense line of scrub. A belt of rocky ground seemed to run inland from this point, so hard and barren that scarcely anything grew on it.
Bending double, and taking all the cover they could find, they pressed steadily on. The opening took them right through the palmetto belt, and they found themselves among the stunted live- oak and blackjacks, which formed the main woods of the island.
Now they bore away to the left. By this time they were out of all sound of the sea, and as there was not a breath of air stirring, the silence was intense. Each time that either happened to tread on a dead stick or dry leaves the sound seemed to carry like a pistol-shot. And here, in these thick trees it was so dark that it was impossible to tell exactly where they were treading.
Every now and then Dudley, who was still leading, would stop and listen, and it was during one of these pauses that he distinctly caught the faint tinkle of running water. He dropped back to Dick, and told him that they were nearing the brook.
Another hundred paces, and the trees broke away, showing an open space about fifty yards wide, carpeted with tall grass. By the sound, the brook ran down through the centre of this open space.
The two stood together under the shelter of the trees, listening hard.
"It's not the sort o' place we were looking for," muttered Dick, "but I suppose it will have to do."
"Yes; that tall grass will give us some sort of cover," answered Dudley. "I guess we'll manage all right. So far, I've heard nothing suspicious. Have you!"
"Can't say I have; and yet I've had the oddest feeling that someone's been dogging us all the way."
"Fooling!" repeated Dudley, in a surprised whisper. "How do you mean?"
"Hanged if I know!" Dick answered, almost sulkily. "As I tell you, I didn't hear anything. I suppose this creepy, crawly game has got on my nerves or something!"
Dudley did not answer at once. He was puzzled and uneasy. This was something quite new. Dick Daunt was so hard-headed and practical that what he had said was distinctly upsetting.
"Shall we try a bit higher up?" he asked at last.
"No; we've wasted time enough already. This is good enough. I'll go ahead, and fill the keg. And, see here, Dudley, you stick where you are! You'll be able to see plainly enough if anyone comes out into the open. On the other hand, if I'm right, and someone is really following us, you'll be hidden, and able to cut him off."
Dudley hated to stay behind, but had to agree that Dick's plan was the best. Rifle in hand, he took his stand under a thick, low-spreading tree just at the edge of the glade, and watched Dick slip out and go creeping snake-like through the tall grass.
The starlight was enough to show his movements, and Dudley's heart was beating a good deal faster than usual. If he could see Dick, so could anyone else who happened to be prowling round, and what Dick had said about being followed had upset Dudley considerably. Dick was not given to fancying things.
Dick was quite near the stream, when suddenly he seemed to stop. Dudley, peering forward anxiously, saw him apparently struggling. The horrible thought came to him that Dick had stepped on a water viper, and been bitten.
Up went one of Dick's arms, waving wildly, and Dudley, with a deadly fear at his heart, darted forward, and, scorning all concealment, tore across the open towards his chum.
"Stop!" cried Dick hoarsely, as Dudley came within twenty paces. "Stop! Don't come too near! I'm bogged!"
Dudley's gasp was one of relief. Anything was better than snake-bite. But as he cautiously advanced he saw that the matter was serious enough. Dick was up to his waist in a horrible compound of evil-smelling, dark-coloured mire. What was worse, in spite of all his efforts, he was rapidly sinking deeper.
"Steady, Dick!" said Dudley sharply. "Get that rope loose, if you can—the one the keg's tied with. If you can do that and throw me one end, I'll soon have you out."
Dick lost no time in following this advice. But there were many knots, and he sank fast. Luckily, he got it loose in time, and then pulled the keg round in front of him, so that it held him up like a life-buoy.
Dudley came as near as he dared, and at much risk managed to get hold of the loose end of the rope. Then he scrambled back as far as he could, but the ground was so rotten that he had to wait and cut some armfuls of reeds with his knife before he could get foothold.
All this took time, and they both knew that in this bright starlight their movements could be seen from quite a distance.
Dudley put his weight on the rope and hauled. The mud was like so much glue, and at first he feared that he could never get Dick out unaided. Indeed, if it had not been for the keg he never would, for there was no bottom under Dick's feet.
But Dick was able to lift himself a little with the help of the keg, and at last he began to rise. Dudley put all his remaining strength into a tremendous pull, and Dick's body came out like a tight cork from a bottle, and was hauled to firmer ground.
Then both dropped down side by side, and lay panting and breathless, absolutely unable to stir.
At last Dick sat up.
"I ought to be kicked!" he growled. "Walking right into the beastly place like a fool!"
He looked all round.
"Thanks be, there don't seen to be anyone about! Wait here, Dudley. I'll get the keg filled, and then we'll have to scoot. The tide'll be up if we don't hurry!"
"Gee, I'd forgotten all about the tide!" answered Dudley, in dismay. "But let me get the water, Dick. You must be done in."
"No, I'm all right," answered Dick, in a tone there was no disputing.
And, staggering to his feet, he circled widely round the bog- hole, and went cautiously across to the brook.
In a very few minutes he was back, carrying the keg filled to the top. Then there was further delay while the rope was fitted up again into the harness. It was later than either of them liked before they started back again.
Still, there was no sign of Cray's crowd, and they reached the wood unmolested.
"Guess they didn't keep much watch to-night," whispered Dudley.
The two were walking together now, for the barrel was heavy, and they had to change it from one to the other every now and then.
"It's a bit previous to do any halloaing just yet," replied Dick. "We've got the beach to tackle yet!"
They came out of the trees on to the rock strip, and now the sound of the waves breaking softly on the shingle was again in their ears.
"Half-way back," muttered Dick.
And as he spoke Dudley grabbed him by the arm and dragged him down.
"Watch out!" he hissed in his ear. "There's one of them!"
Dick, glancing up, saw the figure of a man looming through the night. He was coming up from the direction of the beach, and had just topped the rise. He was so clearly visible that they could even see the rifle which he carried over his shoulder, and he was so near that they could plainly hear the rustle of his booted legs as they brushed against the saw-toothed stems of the cabbage palmetto.
"He's coming straight for us," said Dick, in a quick whisper. "Get your rifle ready, Dudley!"
"IT'S Rufe," whispered Dudley in Dick's ear.
"It won't be Rufe much longer if he keeps on coming," was Dick's grim reply. "But don't shoot till the last minute, old chap. It will certainly bring the whole bunch down on us."
Tramp! Tramp! The negro's heavy brogans came clumping leisurely across the rock. He was looking from one side to another, but had not seen them yet. Yet if he kept on in the same direction for another few steps he was bound to walk right on top of them.
Slowly Dudley shifted his rifle until the muzzle covered the body of the black scoundrel.
All of a sudden the silence was broken by a cry, a cry so weird and wild and horrible that it seemed to freeze the blood in their veins. As for Rufe, he stopped in his tracks, and glared round.
Then he, too, gave an unearthly yell, and, dropping his rifle, started running like a lunatic, or, rather, like a man scared almost out of his senses.
In his blind panic be ran right past the two boys, passing them so near that he almost trod upon them, yet without even seeing them. His nailed soles struck sparks from the rocks as he tore by, racing for the thick woods at the head of the gap.
No sooner was he past than Dudley popped up his head to see what had scared the man. He dropped again quicker than he had risen.
"Duppy!" he gasped. "Duppy, himself!"
"What are you talking about? What's the matter?" growled Dick, and he, too, raised his head.
"I don't see anything!" he declared, half-angrily.
"But I did," returned Dudley, in an oddly shaken voice. "I saw it as plain as I see you—plainer, for he was all lit up with blue fire."
"Lit up with blue fire! Tell me, what was it you saw?" demanded Dick, in an angry undertone.
"Duppy—Old Nick himself, if you like, or something uncommon like him. He, or it, was right across there, on the edge of the thick scrub opposite. I caught just one glimpse of it, and when I looked again, it was gone."
Dick was silent. He was a very matter-of-fact person, and Dudley's story annoyed him oddly. Yet he could not doubt the truth of it. For one thing, Dudley was not given to romancing; for another, the nigger's terror was plain proof that he, too, had seen something which had given him a real bad scare.
He glanced round. Rufe was out of sight—out of hearing, too. He got up, and adjusted the water-keg on his back.
"Come on, Dudley," he said shortly. "The coast seems to be clear enough."
It was. There was not a sign of any of Cray's ruffians, and the ghost, demon, or whatever it was that had so terrified Rufe, appeared to have vanished into thin air. At any rate, they saw no more of it.
Reaching the beach, they found that the tide had just covered the narrow strip of shingle at the turn of the cliff. They had to wade in the creaming edges of the waves. But the sea was calm, the night was warm, and both were badly in need of clean water to wash off the ill-smelling slime which clung thickly to their clothes. They took their time, and presently arrived safely at Crooked Cliff, and climbed up the steep ascent to their cave.
"Five gallons," said Dick, as he carefully lowered the keg into a safe corner of the cave, where no hostile bullet could possibly find it. "Five gallons. That ought to see us through for the best part of a week."
"Quite a week, if we're careful," answered Dudley, who was pulling off his sopping boots. "All the same, I hope you don't mean to stick here in this little rock-hole for a week."
"No," said Dick thoughtfully. "Not if I can help it."
He yawned as he spoke.
"Let's have a snooze, Dudley. I'm dead-beat. We'll talk over plans in the morning."
"Not a bad notion. I guess we're safe enough for the rest of the night," Dudley answered. "It'll be light in less than two hours."
He rolled himself in his blanket, and stretched out. Dick did the same, and in a very few minutes they were both in the land of dreams.
It may have been risky, but for nights past they had both been terribly short of sleep. In any case, the risk was justified, for when they were at last awakened by the increasing heat of the day, they found that nothing had been disturbed, and that there was no sign anywhere of the enemy.
"A nice hour to get up," chuckled Dudley, glancing out at the sky. "I guess it's close on ten."
"Just on," answered Dick, glancing at the old silver watch, which was a relic of his school days, and which he kept in a solid leather wristlet. "Being on the west side of the island, we don't get the morning sun. Well, I feel a heap better, anyhow."
"And so do I," agreed Dudley. "Hungry as sin, too. I guess we'll have a right good, leisurely breakfast while we're about it. There's no gold to be dug to-day."
"No—worse luck!" answered Dick savagely. Then he pulled himself up. "It's no use grousing, but I fancy we'll be doing something before long. Well, go ahead and spread yourself Dudley. Let's have flapjacks and coffee. Meantime, I'll slip out and have a squint around."
It was a perfectly gorgeous morning, with the sun shining brilliantly on miles of azure-blue sea. Barring an occasional heavy storm, autumn is the finest season of the year in the Gulf of Mexico, and you get days on end of hot sun and gentle breezes.
But, though Nature was so pleasing, Dick did not forget that man was vile, and that this lovely island was at present inhabited by some of the vilest of the whole bunch.
Cray, too, was not only a conscienceless scoundrel, but a very cunning one into the bargain, and he was taking no risks that could be avoided. Dick crept out on hands and knees, and carried Wilding's rifle, which was a .38 bore of modern pattern, and sighted up to 1,200 yards.
He peered first over the right-hand barricade, from which he could catch a glimpse of the beach. There was nothing there, and he turned to the other side. Here no beach was visible, for the tide, now falling, still washed the foot of the cliffs. All was quiet, and he went back into the cave, where Dudley was busy over the oil-stove.
"All serene, Dudley!" he said. "Let's have our food, and then we must strengthen those breastworks."
"Right you are! But, say, you don't reckon Cray's going to try any frontal attack, do you?"
"I don't think he will, but you never can tell. They might try to rush us at night."
"That's so. Anyway, we'd best be on the safe side. The coffee's boiling. Help yourself and open a tin of that beef."
They took their time over breakfast. It was their first leisurely meal for two days, and they made the most of it.
Then they went out, and set to work on the loose stone walls which barred the approaches on either side.
There was any amount of loose stuff lying about, and they kept at it until the place was turned into a regular fortress. They finished by raising a wall in front of the cave-mouth high enough to protect it from any shooting from the sea.
"Guess they'll think twice before they tackle that," remarked Dudley, piling a last stone on top of the coping.
Dudley thought for a while.
"How would it be if we took our boat out tonight and went back to Lemon Bay and got reinforcements? Sheriff Anderson would be pleased as Punch to help us."
"He would, and the notion's not a bad one, Dudley. But the worst of it is that if we do that we lose our gold. The place will be proclaimed as a gold-field. Uncle Sam will take hold, and I don't suppose we shall get a dollar out of it."
"I see what you mean. All right, Dick, we'll play a lone hand, if you say so. We'll hit on some way of getting the better of Cray and his gang yet."
"We will. And the first thing to do, if you ask me, is to try and find some other way up on to the top. So long as we have to cross the beach, or go up that gorge, we're absolutely at their mercy."
"Right-ho! May as well start in at once, I guess," replied Dudley. "If we're careful we needn't expose ourselves."
Dick agreed, and taking their rifles, they started out.
They had reached a point near the foot of the big gully, when Dudley touched Dick's arm.
"There's a chap coming along the beach. He's just rounded the point beyond the entrance to Hidden Bay."
Dick raised his head slowly and peered out, then drew his breath sharply.
"It's Bent," he muttered—"Ambrose Bent! And I'll lay money he's looking for our boat!"
BENT it was. He was a long way off, yet in the clear light there was no mistaking his massive figure and great head sunk between vast shoulders.
He was prowling slowly along the base of the cliff, and every stop brought him nearer to the cleft which was the mouth of Hidden Bay.
Dudley wriggled closer to Dick
"Guess we'd better shoot," he whispered tensely. "Once he gets into the bay, it's all up with us, Dick."
"What's the use?" returned Dick. "He's clean out of range. Besides, you can only see him once in a while. Those broken rocks give him all the cover he needs."
"Then we've got to get close enough to have a slap at him," replied Dudley resolutely.
Dick glanced quickly round.
"I'll lay he's not alone. Chances are that one of his pals is up on the top somewhere, keeping guard. And if we move out any further, we'll be under fire ourselves."
"We've got to chance that," said Dudley quietly. "I reckon we may just as well be shot as get marooned on this island. We'll never get off in this world if they smash our boat up."
Dick hesitated no longer.
"Right you are, Dudley. But for goodness' sake keep in close."
Dudley nodded, and began to crawl forward. So far, they had been protected against attack from above by the overhang of the cliff. Now they had reached a spot where there was no longer any overhang, and where they could be seen by any person posted on the top.
Dick knew the danger, and kept on glancing upwards. They had gone about fifty yards when his quick eyes caught a movement of some sort almost exactly overhead. It might have been an end of a creeper swaying in the sea-breeze, or even a snake crawling over the lofty rim of the cliff. But Dick did not think so, and he was just in time to shove Dudley violently back when a rifle barked sharply, and a bullet flattened itself viciously against the brown rock not a yard ahead, leaving a dull grey splash on the stone.
"Some shave, that!" muttered Dudley, as he flattened himself back under a projecting ledge.
"Told you so!" growled Dick, who was squeezing in beside him.
"He can't touch us here, anyway," said Dudley, looking round.
"No more than we can get Bent," returned Dick. "Watch him," he added. "He's not fifty feet from the mouth of the bay."
It was true. Bent was coming steadily onwards. He was taking no particular precautions. Evidently he knew quite well that he was perfectly safe from attack, and had known it all the time. It became more than ever clear that his object was to smell out the boat and destroy it.
Anything more maddening for the two boys could hardly be imagined. There they were, in full sight of Bent, just out of range, yet unable to move a yard. The man above was not likely to miss a second time.
"Take a plug at him, anyhow, Dudley," said Dick fiercely. "You won't hit him, but you may scare him."
Dudley took careful aim, and pulled the trigger. The crack of his heavy forty-four sent the echoes ringing along the broken cliffs. They saw Bent raise his head. But he did not even trouble to take cover.
Dudley fired a second time, but with equally little result.
"It's no sort o' use, Dick," he said bitterly. "He knows that, just as well as we do. You can bet he and his partner have got the whole thing mapped out. He'd have to be mighty nigh two hundred yards nearer before I could get anything like a bead on him."
There was nothing for it but to lie quiet and wait, and watch Bent come nearer and nearer to the gap. There was no possibility of his missing it, and, once inside, he had merely to wade up the shallow channel, and pump lead into the boat until he smashed her up and sank her.
The foot of the cliff, just beyond the entrance to the bay, was littered with ragged boulders, the remains of a recent fall from the cliffs above, and behind these Bent disappeared. Next moment he was in sight again. His rifle was along across his back, and he was clambering on hands and knees over the pile of tumbled rocks.
"That sees our finish," said Dick, between set lips. "He can't miss it now."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before there came a heavy thud and a shout of alarm.
"See that!" cried Dudley sharply. "See that, Dick!"
A great boulder, loosened in some mysterious way from the heights above Bent, had come thundering down. It struck a projecting ledge half-way down, broke like an exploding shell, and sprayed downwards in a shower of broken fragments.
They saw Bent fling up one arm to save his head, heard him cry out in sudden pain, and watched him stagger back and drop to his knees.
"Got him!" cried Dick. "Got him, by jingo!"
"Say, but that was what you might call mighty opportune," remarked Dudley, in his driest tones.
"Providential," said Dick.
"And more to come," he added sharply, as there was a fresh rumble, and a second rock, as big as the first, rolled out from the lofty heights and, making a great curve in the air, landed with a tremendous crash on top of the fall below. Like the first, it split to pieces, some of which were flung right across the beach into the sea beyond, sending up a shower of spray which sparkled in the sunshine.
"That's finished him," said Dick joyfully. "He's hooking it."
Sure enough, Bent had had enough. Struggling to his feet, he had turned, and was staggering away in the direction he had come.
They watched until the big man was out of sight in the distance, and hidden by the curve of the shore; then Dudley turned to Dick.
"I don't seem to see any more rocks sliding now," he observed drily.
"Haven't you seen enough?" retorted Dick.
"I guess so. And now I'd like mighty well to know who threw them."
Dick stared at his chum.
"Who threw them!" he repeated, in a startled tone. "They just fell."
"That don't go, Dick. Rocks don't fall just at the proper moment like that, and then stop falling when there's no more need for 'em."
"Nonsense! There's been a fall here quite lately. You can see that for yourself. Why shouldn't some more come down?"
"Not just two like that," Dudley insisted. "They were thrown."
"Then who threw them?"
"Just exactly what I'm asking. Who threw them, and who played 'duppy' last night, and scared that black nigger Rufe out of all his seven senses?"
"You're letting your imagination run away with you," declared Dick. "You don't suppose that any of Cray's crowd are backing us?"
"I don't suppose anything, except that there's someone on the island who don't like Cray and Bent any better than we do. That's all there is to it."
"The sun's been a bit too much for you, old man," said Dick drily. "Let's skin out of this, and get back to our cave."
Dudley shrugged his shoulders.
"Right you are. But go careful, Dick. That chap that was potting at us just now isn't a ghost, anyway."
By crawling along well under the foot of the cliff they were able to return without exposing themselves. They found that all was as they had left it at the cave, and as the afternoon sun was now blazing full on the ledge, turning it into a regular furnace, they went inside into the shade.
"We've got to shift that boat to-night," said Dick presently.
"Where to?" asked Dudley.
"That beats me; but it's not safe where it is."
"It's just as safe there as anywhere. We can't keep it out here under the ledge. The first breeze would bust her up in no time."
"That's true. Yet if we leave her in the cove those beggars will bust her for us."
Dudley was silent for some moments. He was thinking hard.
"Tell you what, Dick. I guess the best thing we can do is to sink her."
"Sink her! exclaimed Dick, in amazement.
"Yes, in the cove. Just take the plug out, and let her sink. We can buoy her, so we can get her up again when we want her, and, at any rate, they won't be able to smash her. Indeed, I guess they won't even see her if they do come nosing around again."
They talked the thing over pretty thoroughly, and Dudley brought Dick round to the belief that it was the only thing they could do. After that, there was nothing for it but to wait there until sunset.
This waiting was horribly trying. They had no books. There was absolutely nothing to do, and even inside the cave it was grilling hot. The whole force of the afternoon sun was concentrated on the western cliffs, so that the rock became almost too hot to touch with bare hands. For another thing, it was maddening to feel that Cray and his gang were at that very moment busy washing gold out of the creek bed. They would probably skin the whole place within a few days.
For once, they neither of them had much appetite for supper.
Dudley, indeed, ate hardly anything, but drank his allowance of tea very thirstily. They could both have done with double this allowance, but it was absolutely necessary to be careful with their water. They could not tell when or how they would be able to get a second supply. The oil, too, for their cooking lamp was running low, and there was no fuel to be got, unless they went up on the mainland to cut it.
They waited till about eleven before they sallied out again, and then very cautiously made their way along the ledge and down to the beach. Luckily, it was a dark night, with a haze of cloud hiding the stars, so there was not much likelihood of anyone spotting them from above.
The tide was higher than they had expected, and when they reached the entrance to the little bay they had to swim. But that did not matter particularly, for in any case they would have had to swim in order to reach the boat. Hidden Bay itself was all pretty deep.
It was eerie sort of work swimming across the surface of that calm, black pool, with the tall cliffs towering on every side, and not a gleam of starlight in the sky. These warm West Indian waters are full of all sorts of queer beasts, such as sting rays, sharks, and even the dreaded octopus. They kept close together, and, although neither said much, they felt anything but comfortable.
Barring oars and boathook, they had already removed everything else from the cat-boat. Even the sails they had taken up to the cave. So now there was nothing to do but fasten the buoys they had brought with them to ropes bow and stern, and, towing the boat into the shallowest water they could find, pull out the plug and let her sink.
Yet even this took a long time, for they were groping in darkness, without a light of any kind to help them. Also they had to be as quiet as possible over the job. It was impossible to say whether some of their enemies might not be watching up above.
It was tiring work, too, for except a short rest aboard the boat they were swimming the whole time. At last it was done, and the boat lay safe on a bottom of firm, smooth rock, in about six feet of water. At any rate, she was safe from rock or bullet.
"Guess I can sleep after this," observed Dudley, as, with an oar under his arms, he began swimming back towards the entrance.
"About tune we did get back," answered Dick. "The cloud is thinning. There are stars showing through it."
"It's going to be right smart of a job to get out," said Dudley. "The tide's making real strong."
It was, and there was a lot of water in the passage, and running in so briskly that it was all they could do to swim against it. Luckily, it was flat calm, or they never would have managed to get through.
Outside, the beach was covered, and the water up to the edge of the cliff.
"Great Scott! Have we got to swim all the way?" asked Dudley.
And Dick caught an undertone of real anxiety in his voice. He himself was tired, and he realised that Dudley must be getting pretty near the end of his tether.
"Take it easy, old man," he said quietly. "There's a pile of rocks just over there. We can have a rest on them, and then go on again."
They paddled slowly towards the rocks. The night was intensely still, and the sea so calm that even the swells which never quite sleep in the open ocean made but a soft swash as they broke gently under the face of the cliff.
The water was slightly phosphorescent, and Dick noticed uneasily that Dudley's figure was outlined by a faint blue light. Should any of their enemies happen to be on top of the cliff, they would have a nice easy target to shoot at.
He kept on glancing up, every minute fearing to see the red flash of a rifle-shot, and so it was that he failed to see another and even more terrible danger.
It was Dudley who saw this first.
"A shark!" he gasped; and began striking out desperately towards the rocks, now only a few yards away.
DICK glanced round, and caught a glimpse of a long, slender shape outlined in blue fire, which was gliding soundlessly up out of the depths to his left.
But even that one glance was enough to show that this was no shark. It was too slim and slender. It resembled rather a giant pike, five times the size of any pike ever seen, and he know it in an instant for that scourge of the Caribbean, the awful barracuda.
Except the shark, there is no fish of so ferocious an appearance as the barracuda, none with a more terrible reputation.
It is a solitary fish, running up to twelve or fifteen feet in length, with a long, slender body, an enormous head, and jaws armed with an array of knife-like teeth. It has very large eyes, jet-black in colour, and the negroes fear it as much as they do the tiger shark itself.
"Go ahead, Dudley!" he cried sharply, and began splashing vigorously.
The barracuda seemed to hesitate. Probably it had never seen men before; perhaps it was not very hungry. But Dick knew that the hesitation was only momentary. It would be only a matter of a few seconds before it attacked. There would certainly not be time for both him and Dudley to reach the safety of the rocks before it shot forward.
He himself was carrying not only an oar but also the boathook. This was a stout, four-foot length of hickory, armed at the end with a steel spike, from the side of which the hook protruded.
Intent only on covering Dudley's retreat, he half turned, and, slipping the oar under his left armpit, grasped the boathook firmly in his right hand.
At that very instant the long, slim shape came darting forward. There was something horribly ominous and nerve-shaking in the utter silence of its swift approach.
With all his strength, Dick drove the pointed end of the boathook at the monster's head. He felt the jar as the steel met the rushing bulk, and although he could not see what harm he had done, he realised that the point had penetrated some part of the brute's body.
Next instant the boathook was wrenched from his grasp; then the surface broke, and out of it soared a huge, dark mass, which looked to be at least six yards in length.
For a moment it hung poised, apparently right over his head, with the luminous spray pouring from its leathery body, then down with a deafening splash, sending a wave clean over him, and half drowning him.
Dick did not waste a second. He flung the oar forward only just in time, too, for as he scrambled wildly forward towards the rock, on to which Dudley was already climbing, and struck out with all his strength. Next moment Dudley had him by the hands, and dragged him up by main force—the long, torpedo-like body of the barracuda shot past with almost the speed of light, and the snap of its closing jaws echoed like the clang of the jaws of a bear-trap.
The two dropped back on to the rocks, and lay gasping, too exhausted and blown even to speak. Dick was the first to recover.
"Thanks, Dudley!" he said. "You got hold of me just in time!"
"Guess the gratitude is due from me, old man," answered Dudley quietly. "If it hadn't been for your boathook, he'd have had me sure!"
"Strikes me the beggar thinks he's going to have us yet," remarked Dick, as he pointed downwards.
Outlined in phosphorescent flame, this huge fish could be seen cruising slowly round the rocks.
Dudley watched the brute for a moment or two.
"How much higher does the tide rise, Dick?" he asked presently.
"I don't exactly know, but I rather fancy high enough to cover this bunch of rocks."
"Then if Mister Barracuda's got patience enough, he's liable to have us yet."
Dick did not answer. There did not seem to be much to say. He did not know a great deal about the habits and customs of the barracuda, but on the face of it Dudley's suggestion seemed uncomfortably likely to be true.
Some minutes went by. The tide rose slowly but surely, and their unpleasant sentinel still moved in circles around the rock. He had got rid of the boathook, which seemed to have sunk. They had not, of course, got their guns. It seemed simply a question of time.
Dudley's teeth began suddenly to chatter.
"What's the matter, old chap?" asked Dick, in sudden anxiety. "Cold?"
"Kind of. I reckon I've got a bit of a chill some way."
The night was almost hot—warmer, indeed, than usual for the time of year. And as for the sea, it was warm as milk. Dick himself was not in the least cold. He felt sure then that Dudley had a touch of fever, and this made him very anxious. Fever in these latitudes is no joke, and needs stiff dosing with quinine and proper sweating.
"And we've got no quinine along with us," he said suddenly.
Dudley laughed outright.
"Quinine won't kill that beauty!" he observed, pointing to the barracuda.
Suddenly Jim turned and picked up the oar.
"No; but this may." he said quickly.
"That oar? You're crazy, Dick. He'd take it in those jaws of his and rip blazes out of it!"
"You wait a while," replied Jim, taking his big clasp-knife from its sheath and fishing a length of cord from his trousers- pocket.
Dudley drew a long breath.
"Gee! That might work!"
"It's going to," said Dick softly, as he set to work to splice the knife to the end of the oar. He took his time over it, and made a thoroughly good job, and when he had finished had a weapon which was certainly not to be despised.
"But how will you get at him?" asked Dudley, who was shivering badly.
"Coax him up. Take your oar, Dudley, and push the blade into the water and waggle it about a bit. He's an ugly-tempered brute."
"I'm to get his goat. I see," replied Dudley, picking up the oar.
"Brace yourself!" warned Dick. "He'll be likely to pull you in if you don't mind out."
Dudley obeyed. He got his feet firmly against a ledge just above the water's edge. Dick stood close beside him, holding the oar-spear in both hands, the point poised just above the dark surface of the sea.
"Now!" he said; and Dudley at once dipped the blade deep into the water.
Like a striking snake, the great fish darted at it, and, seizing the blade in his shark-like teeth, worried it with bulldog fury.
Spray dashed high, and for the moment Dick could not see to strike.
"Quick!" cried Dudley. "Quick! The brute will have the oar!"
Dick hesitated no longer, but drove his spear downwards with all his force. He felt the sharp blade sink deep into the barracuda's side, and, wrenching it out, struck again and again.
The struggles of the monster were terrific. Its flail-like tail thrashed the surface, sending the foam flying in every direction. Yet the creature, in spite of the tremendous stabs, did not for one moment let go its hold on the oar-blade. It shook this as a terrier does a rat, and it was all that Dudley could do to save himself from being pulled into the sea.
"Kill him! Can't you kill him?" panted Dudley.
"The brute won't die!" gasped Dick, jabbing again.
"That's done it!" said Dudley, as the oar-blade was suddenly released. "Hurray for you, Dick! That last whack finished him!"
Dudley was right. Dick, peering over, saw the great, luminous form dropping slowly back into the depths. It was wobbling from side to side, trying to hold an upright position, but evidently at the last gasp.
"Yes, that's done it!" he echoed. "Now, let's get ashore while we have the chance."
He plunged in as he spoke, and Dudley followed. Though they were cumbered with the oars, they wasted precious little time in reaching the landing-place, where they struggled out, and went scrambling away up to the ledge.
"I reckon that's about as close a call as we've had yet," remarked Dudley, as he dropped, dripping, on a rock inside the cave.
"Nothing to what you'll have if you don't get out of those wet things just as quick as ever you can," replied Dick sharply. "Hurry up, that's a good chap! It won't be any kind of a joke if you get down with a go of fever."
Dudley, whose teeth were again beginning to chatter, stripped with all speed, and Dick gave him a rub-down with a piece of dry sailcloth. Then he rolled him in both their blankets and made him lie down on the boat-sail, which he folded over some palmetto fronds.
After that he lighted the oil-lamp, and set to brew some hot tea. It worried him badly that they had no quinine. Ladd, he remembered, had been out of it, and had recommended him to go down to the drug store and get some. But in the hurry of leaving they had both forgotten all about it.
By the time the tea was ready Dudley was almost rigid. He was icy-cold, and even the boiling hot stuff could put no warmth in him. His teeth chattered like castanets, and his pulse was very slow. Dick's heart sank as he realised that his chum was in for a regular go of malarial ague.
He changed his own soaked clothes, and prepared for an all- night watch. After the chill came the fever. Dudley went hot as he had been cold before; his head ached terribly, his skin was harsh and dry. At the worst of it he became slightly delirious, and muttered vaguely about the great barracuda and Ezra Cray. He seemed to get the two mixed up in his mind, and kept begging Dick to drive his spear into Cray and stop him from eating mouthfuls of gold.
At last, but not till long after the sun had risen, the fever abated, and Dudley fell into a heavy sleep. It was not till then that Dick, who himself was aching with fatigue, left him and cooked some breakfast.
He was now more uneasy than he had been at all since they had first landed on Golden Key. Things had been bad enough for the past three days, when they were both well and able to cope with the dangers surrounding them. Now that Dudley was down, he could not for the life of him see how they were to get on. Alone, he could hardly hope to keep watch night and day against Cray, nurse Dudley, and, above all, fetch water.
This was the worst of it all—the water question. He might stint himself, but it was out of the question to cut down Dudley. A man suffering from fever must have plenty of liquid. Having no quinine, the only chance was to keep him going with plenty of hot tea. Luckily, he had half a dozen tins of condensed milk. He could feed him up on this, but, of course, it, too, must be diluted with plenty of water.
THE more Dick thought, the less he liked it. It was, of course, absolutely out of the question to visit the creek by daylight. Yet, on the other hand, if he waited until dark, then Dudley's chill and fever would come on again, and he would be in need of attention.
But no attention would be worth anything unless he had water to give his patient. At last he decided that he would make the attempt as soon as ever it was dark, and trust to getting back within a couple of hours.
About six he used the last of the water for cooking supper. Dudley could not eat, but he drank a cup of tea thirstily. Not until he had finished it did Dick tell him that he had to go for more water.
Dudley begged him to wait, but Dick refused, and Dudley was too weak to protest. Dick left a loaded rifle close by him, and fixing the keg on his back, started out.
It was a clear night. The stars were brilliant, almost bright enough to read by, and Dick's heart was heavy as he crept along the base of the cliff towards the beach. If any of Cray's men were about, they could hardly fail to see him.
He was carrying the Winchester, and that and the keg together made crawling across the beach a very awkward job. The shingle was very light in colour, and he was conscious that he was plainly visible for a long way as he crept from one little clump of rocks to another.
Every time that he reached a clump he would stop and listen; but he was more than half-way across the beach before he heard anything at all suspicious. Then a slight rustle reached his ears, and he dived behind the nearest rock.
Only just in time, for almost instantly a rifle spat flame from the edge of the scrub at the top of the beach, and with a long-drawn wh-e-e-w! a bullet sung just over his head.
Dick was not in the least frightened. On the contrary, he felt a sudden surge of anger, and lifting his own rifle, he took a snap shot at the spot from which the flash of the enemy's fire had come.
The other was evidently on the look-out, for as Dick raised himself, a second bullet whipped past, so near that he felt the wind of it on his cheek. He replied instantly with two shots, and the second apparently got home. He heard a shriek of pain, then a crashing among the harsh palmetto leaves.
He sent a third bullet after the others, and waited.
The crashing died to a rustle, but it was pretty clear that the man was only wounded, and was getting away at best pace. It was no good wasting cartridges by firing at random, but Dick was strongly tempted to run forward and finish the fellow before he could get away.
It was lucky he did not try it, for next moment he heard shouts from two directions, and sounds which made it clear that at least two of the enemy were forcing their way through the scrub towards the beach. He realised that once they reached the edge of the palmetto his own position would be hopeless, and that the only thing he could do was to fall back.
To go back without water was maddening; but there was no help for it. It was that or being shot, and if he was even wounded it would be out of the question to ever reach the creek.
Creeping quickly from one rock to another, he reached the cliff again in safety, but instead of going round the point, and so along the strip of shingle, he climbed quickly up among the ragged pile of boulders facing the north end of the beach, and finding a snug cleft, crouched down and waited.
His idea was that the enemy, being in strength, might possibly try to chase him. If only they would, he had them at his mercy.
Mighty little mercy they would get at his hands, either. Dick's anger, and his anxiety for Dudley, had long ago swallowed up any scruples as to taking the lives of Cray or his gang. This time he would shoot to kill.
For a long time there was dead silence. Once or twice he fancied he heard a slight rustling, but there was a little breeze from the sea, enough to sway the stiff leaves slightly.
"The sweeps! They've funked it!" he muttered at last, and just then his quick ears caught a sound that was certainly not made by the breeze. It was the rattle of a loose pebble under foot.
With his heart heating fast, he craned forward, and presently became aware of a dark something moving cautiously towards the rock which he had so recently vacated.
Dick felt half sick with excitement. If the man reached it, he would be within range. He burned to get a chance at him.
Slowly—very slowly—the fellow advanced. He was crawling on all fours, and quite clearly was not feeling any too confident. Dick swung the barrel of his rifle till he covered him, but in this uncertain light he dared not fire at so long a range.
So, nearly five minutes passed, and by degrees the strain became almost unbearable. Then the fellow stopped short.
He was still a considerable distance from the spot where Dick had reckoned on his reaching, and with an effort he refrained from pulling the trigger on which his forefinger was trembling.
For a long time the man lay quite quiet, flat on his face on the shingle. Then, apparently certain that Dick must have moved from his original position, he slowly turned and began to crawl back the way he had come.
Dick waited no longer. Taking careful aim, he pulled the trigger. With a yell that rang across the sleeping beach, the fellow sprang to his feet, and bolted.
Dick took two rapid shots as he ran, and at the second the man screamed again, and fell forward with such force that he slid across the sand, ploughing it up with his face and hands.
"Two!" cried Dick in triumph; but he rejoiced too soon, for at that moment a regular storm of bullets came thudding into the rocks all around him. The flashes came from three or four places at once, and he realised that almost the whole of Cray's force must have been brought up from the camp.
A splinter of lead or stone, he could not tell which, struck his left wrist, making a shallow gash, which bled freely. But for the rocks protecting him, he must have been shot to pieces. He realised that it was useless trying to carry on against such odds, and hastily scrambled away into the thick of the great pile of heaped boulders.
He had never before been up on this particular part of the cliff, and could not even tell whether it would be possible to reach the ledge by this route. But it would be simply suicide to show himself in the open, even for a second, and he climbed away as fast as possible, trusting that he might find some way out.
The firing continued fiercely, but a few yards took him out of all danger, and he was able to rise to his feet and go forward more rapidly.
Soon he found that there was no way down to the foot of the cliff, so he turned inwards, hoping to reach the cave by clambering along the face of the great landslide. This brought him right up against the cliff itself.
Here he was about forty feet above the sea, and perhaps sixty or seventy below the top of the bluff. He was on a sort of table- land, made by a section of the cliff having at some former time slipped bodily down from above. He was safe enough from his pursuers, unless they followed the same way he had come, and he hardly thought that they would risk that, knowing as they did what a good account he could give of himself with his rifle.
At the same time, there was always the risk that they might try along the top of the cliff, and start rolling boulders over. For this reason he kept in as close under the face of it as he could manage.
Presently he stepped and listened. He was feeling positively desperate at having to go back without the water. The idea of Dudley, with the fever on him, crying out for a drink, and he unable to give it, was enough to drive him mad. He began to think seriously of turning back, and making an attempt to fight his way through.
It was just then that he saw the narrow cleft in the cliff- face close beside him. He gazed at it a moment, hardly thinking of it, for his mind was full of Dudley. But as he gazed, something within attracted his attention. It was a little wavering band of bluish light.
He caught his breath, and stared again. For a moment he fancied that it was the eyes of some wild creature; but soon he saw that it could be nothing of the sort. It was not two dots, but one narrow band of light.
Fascinated, he went nearer. The light flickered faintly, and filled with burning curiosity, he stepped inside the cleft. It was very narrow at the mouth, but opened out a little farther in. Very cautiously he moved forward, until presently he was opposite the gleam. It was on a rock projection from the left-hand wall of the cave.
He raised his hand and touched it. As he took his hand away again, a little of the bluish incandescence glimmered on the ends of his fingers.
He stared at them in dumb amazement, and then, as if the words were dragged from him, muttered hoarsely.
LUMINOUS paint it was, but what luminous paint was doing daubed on the wall of a cave on the coast of a practically unknown island was a problem which fairly staggered Dick Daunt, and he stood staring at it as though he had seen a ghost.
What was the meaning of it? Who had put it there?
It could not have been there for very long, or it would certainly have lost its luminous qualities. Was it a trap of Cray's, or had old Matthew Snell put it on the wall for some reason of his own before he had vanished from the island?
Dick stared at it again, and presently became aware that it was not a mere bar, as he had thought at first, but a roughly- designed arrow, with the end pointing inwards.
It struck him suddenly that this might possibly have been the old man's cache, his secret hoard where he hid his gold. He considered for a moment or two, then stepped back to the mouth of the narrow cleft, and stood listening keenly for a moment or two.
There was no sound of pursuit. He had not expected it. He did not think for an instant that Cray or his men would dream of venturing up among the chaos of tumbled crags. They had far too much respect for their own skins.
He turned again, and very cautiously advanced into the cave.
It was very dark, and, as he did not like to strike a match, he was compelled to feel every step in advance with the butt of his rifle.
Just beyond the luminous arrow the passage curved round at a sharp angle, and as he rounded it there came to his ears a sound which made every pulse in his body thrill. He pulled up short and listened.
Tink—tink! There was no mistake about it. That was the musical splash of water falling drop by drop into a pool.
Hardly able to credit his senses, he took his matchbox from his pocket, and, with fingers trembling from excitement, struck a match. The curve, he knew, would prevent the light from being seen outside the cave.
As the little flame burnt up he held the match out in front of him. The light gleamed upon a little pool perhaps two feet across—just a tiny hollow in the hard, crystalline rock. And every moment its clear surface quivered under the impact of a large drop of water falling from the cave roof above the pool.
"A spring!" he muttered thickly.
And, still hardly able to believe his eyes, he dropped on his knees beside the pool, and, cupping his palms, lifted some of the water to his lips.
It was cold as ice, clear as crystal, beautifully fresh.
He drank, and drank again, and felt new life flow through his veins. All that day he had drunk nothing but one cup of tea, and on the day before two cups only. All the rest of the water he had saved for Dudley.
The match had gone out He struck another, and lit an end of candle which he had in his pocket. By the light of this he began bailing the precious fluid into the keg. Whilst at this work he noticed that the overflow made its way, not outwards to the mouth of the cave, but inwards, where it seeped into a crack and vanished. He saw, too, that the pool itself was not entirely natural, but had evidently been opened out and enlarged by means of a drill, or something of the kind.
"Snell's work," he said aloud. "Not a doubt about it. But what luck! What wonderful luck to stumble on the old man's spring! Now we're all right, so far as water goes. They're welcome to their blessed creek!"
He chuckled softly.
"What a sell!" he went on. "What a sell for Cray & Co.! We've got grub for weeks, and now that the water question is solved, we can laugh at the swabs!"
Then his face clouded.
"If we only had some quinine!" he murmured sadly.
He finished filling his keg, rammed in the bung firmly, and, shouldering it again, blew out his candle, and crept softly out of the cave. In spite of his anxiety for Dudley, he felt a thousand times happier than he had been fifteen minutes earlier. This fresh, cool spring water was infinitely better than that from the creek, and would probably do Dudley good. In any case, they could have all they wanted. They could refill the keg every night, if necessary.
Once outside, he listened again, but still there was no sign of the enemy. He took no unnecessary risks, but crept along as close under the cliff us possible. The climb down to the beach was steep and awkward, but be managed it successfully, and a few minutes later was scrambling up to the ledge by the usual way.
The cave was very still and dark so still that for the moment he paused, with his heart beating hard, before he ventured to slip softly inside.
Then the sound of Dudley's breathing reassured him, and when he struck a light he was both surprised and delighted to see his chum sleeping quietly.
Without a moment's unnecessary delay, he blew out the light again, lay down close by the other, and, tired out with his adventures, was himself asleep inside two minutes.
When he awoke the pink flush of dawn was in the sky, and he got up very softly so as not to disturb the other.
"Hallo, Dick! You awake?" came Dudley's voice, still weak, but much less so than on the previous day.
"It's me all right, old chap. How are you?"
"Fine! But, say, Dick, where in thunder did you get that quinine you fired into me last night?"
"Quinine—I! What are you talking about, Dudley?"
"Quinine—quinine," replied Dudley, a little irritably. "The dose you gave me when you came in. It fixed me up properly."
Dick stared. He began to think that Dudley still had fever, or was delirious again.
"You lie still, old chap," he said soothingly. "I'll make you some tea."
"Shucks! I'm not asking for tea," retorted Dudley. "I'm asking you where you got that quinine last night!"
"I never gave you any quinine. You must have dreamt it."
"Dreamt it! Dreamt I swallowed twenty grains of sulphate! Not much! Why, I can taste it right now. And, anyway, what do you think stopped my chill if it wasn't quinine?"
Dick shook his head.
"Dudley. I never gave you any quinine. You were asleep when I got in with the water, and I lay down and dropped off that very minute."
"Well, if you didn't give it me, someone else did," Dudley asserted firmly. "I was kind of dozing, and feeling real rocky, when someone came along, and laid a light down on the floor behind me, and slipped me a cigarette-paper full of quinine. I swallowed it down, and he gave me a drink from a dipper, and I began to feel better right away."
"Did he speak?" demanded Dick.
"I think he said 'Take this,' but I don't remember a deal about it. I guess I was pretty near off my chump!"
"It wasn't me," said Dick slowly.
"Then I reckon it was the same chap that rolled those rocks off the cliff on to Bent the other day."
Dick looked all round the cave. Nothing seemed to be disturbed. Suddenly he caught sight of a little twist of white paper lying on top of the rock they used as a table. He swooped at it, and unrolled it. Inside was about a tea-spoonful of soft white crystals. He moistened a finger, touched it to the powder, and tasted it.
"Quinine, as I'm alive!" he gasped.
"Guess you'll maybe believe me now!" said Dudley triumphantly.
"I do," Dick replied blankly. "But it beats Banagher who brought the stuff here! Wonder if there's one of Bent's crowd who's white?" he added thoughtfully.
"I guess he wouldn't stay white a great while in that company," answered Dudley. "But, say, Dick, I guess I'll take another little dose, so long as the stuff is there, and then maybe you'll tell me how you came to get that water last night. I'm real anxious to know how you managed it!"
So Dick gave him ten grains more of the precious drug, and then, after lighting the oil-stove and putting on the kettle, spun the yarn of his adventures on the previous night.
The story seemed to do Dudley as much good as the medicine. He chuckled delightedly when Dick told him that two more of the enemy were damaged, and he was absolutely overjoyed to hear of the spring.
"It was mighty smart of you to find it, Dick!" he declared. "No, I don't care a cuss whether it had a painted sign or not. It took nerve to go into that place in the dark, and it was simply great, finding the spring. Now I guess we've got Cray to rights, and I don't care if it snows!"
"How do you mean—got him to rights?" asked Dick.
"Why, he won't know that we've got water, and he'll be reckoning that we're dying with thirst in this little hole of ours. Along about two days from now he'll be calling around to look for our corpses. That's going to be the minute he gets the shock of his misspent life."
"I shouldn't wonder if you aren't right, old man. Anyhow, it's up to us to sit tight for the present. As soon as you're on your pins again, then—as the lawyers say—we will take steps."
Dick got breakfast, and for the first time for two days Dudley was able to eat some solid food. It was the cheeriest meal for a long time past.
Afterwards Dudley went quietly to sleep again, while Dick tidied up, and then set to work to rig up some fishing-lines. It was in his mind that he might slip down to the beach at dusk, and get a few mullet or rock-fish, which would be a pleasant change from the usual tinned stuff.
The day passed peacefully enough, except that about two in the afternoon it breezed up stiffly on top of the tide, and soon afterwards the strange hooting, roaring noise began again. But to this they had got so accustomed that they paid little attention to it.
At dusk Dick scouted up and down, but saw no sign of the enemy, so went down and began to fish, casting a weighted line well out into deep water. He got some mullet, then baited a larger hook with half a small mullet, and to his great delight hooked something big, which gave him five minutes' pulling and hauling before he got it ashore. It turned out to be a fine channel bass of about twelve or fourteen pounds weight.
This was a real prize. There are few better fish than bass, and the change or food would be excellent for Dudley. He did not risk remaining on the beach any longer, but, shouldering his catch, returned to the cave.
With quinine, fresh water, and good food, Dudley pulled round rapidly, and within a couple of days was quite himself again. On the third evening more water was wanted, so Dick prowled off after dark to the cave spring.
He got there without trouble, filled his keg, and had just reached the beach again, when the sharp crack of a rifle broke the stillness. It came from the direction of the cave.
"Cray—he's attacking!" gasped Dick. In an instant be had the keg off his shoulders, and had hidden it behind a rock. Grasping his rifle, he hurried forward through the starlit gloom.
Crack, crack, crack! Three more shots sent the echoes crashing along the cliff.
DICK'S heart was thumping. The long-expected attack had come, and Dudley was alone to meet it. Was ever such ill-luck?
At first he began to run, then checked. If he showed himself he might be shot down before he could reach the cave. The only thing to do was to keep close in under the base of the cliff and try to gain the southern path to the ledge. Then it came to him that the attack was almost certainly coming from the opposite or northern side. If it had been from the south, he must have seen or heard the attackers pass.
He quickened his pace, and gained the southern approach to the ledge. He had to sling his rifle in order to climb. The slope was so steep it needed hands as well as feet for the work.
All the time the shooting went on, now a single shot, then two or three in quick succession.
At last he reached the ledge. It was clear. There was nothing between him and the stone wall which he and Dudley had piled across it. He was right. The firing was coming from the other side.
With a quick run, he gained the wall, and gave the signal whistle which Dudley knew. He waited a moment, but there was no answer, and it was with a sinking heart that he crept through the little tunnel entrance.
The firing had stopped. He could not see or hear anything. There was no light in the cave.
"Dudley!" he called in a sharp undertone.
Still there was no reply, and he dashed into the cave.
He struck a match. There was no one in the place. Dudley had vanished.
"They've caught him!" groaned Dick, and, filled with a sudden rage, crept quickly across towards the northern parapet.
He peered through a loophole. All was quiet. He could see no sign of anybody, and for the moment, was more certain than ever that Cray's gang had somehow managed to catch Dudley and carry him off.
If so, they had no doubt gone up the beach. The tide was full ebb, and there was good going all the way under the cliff, and round the Northern Point.
But in that case they ought still to be visible. They would not yet have had time to get round the point beyond Hidden Bay.
He raised his head to get a good look over the parapet.
It was very near to being the last thing he ever did in this life. From behind the cover of a rock on the ledge, barely thirty yards away, a rifle barked, and his hat flew from his head. As he ducked two more shots rang out.
"So they're still there!" he muttered, as he crouched under shelter of the parapet. He was completely puzzled.
He poked his rifle-barrel through a loophole and waited for any movement. But there was none. The enemy, like himself, preferred to keep under cover, and the starlight was not strong enough to show where they lay hidden.
The whole situation bothered him. If they had made a surprise attack, why the firing? If not, how had Dudley allowed himself to be taken. The parapet was not broken down, and so far as he could tell, the enemy had not been in the cave. The only possible solution was that Dudley must have gone outside the enclosure for some reason, and been caught, and now they were laying for him—Dick.
Yet even so, this did not account for all the shooting.
He racked his brain for the best thing to do, but could think of nothing. More than one of Cray's men was there, waiting for him, and he could not advance without the certainty of being killed. On the other hand, the feeling that Dudley was in the hands of these brutes was simply maddening, and he had an almost overwhelming impulse to make a rush at any cost.
Suddenly he remembered the old ruse of drawing the enemy's fire. He slipped back into the cave, got a stick, and picking up his soft felt hat, which had a bullet hole through the crown, raised it above the parapet.
The moment it was high enough to be against the skyline, two rifles spoke simultaneously. One bullet actually caught the end of the stick, sending a sharp tingle through his hand. But both shots came from cover. It was no use wasting ammunition by firing back.
Dick was almost at his wits' end, when, without the slightest warning, the scene was lit by a sudden blaze of light. From some point higher on the cliff, above the ledge, a great ball of blazing material fell, flaring like a meteor, and dropping neatly on the ledge, lay burning furiously, red, oily flames leaping from it, and making a glare which lit up the whole cliff-face as well as the ledge.
With a yell of terror a man leaped up from behind a boulder in full sight of Dick, and ran like a hare. Instantly Dick let fly. His second shot got the fellow, and he went sprawling forward on hands and knees, then rolled over, and, losing his balance, toppled right over the edge, falling with a heavy thud on the beach below.
At the same moment a second rifle began to talk from the same point from which the flare had come, and Dick saw two more men spring out from hiding-places further away and race back into the darkness. He himself fired at them, but the flare was already dying down, and apparently they both got away unhurt. At any rate, he heard the rattle of their feet, and the clickety-click of loose pebbles falling as they scuttled away down the steep descent at the far end of the ledge.
Silence fell absolute and complete, then just as Dick had made up his mind to advance, a voice came from above.
"Guess we fixed them all right that time, eh, Dick!"
Dick nearly collapsed. The voice was Dudley's.
"You!" was all he could gasp.
There was a rattle of stones, and presently Dudley came scrambling down. How he managed it was a marvel, for the cliff seemed almost perpendicular.
"It's me all right," he observed, as he dropped to the ledge.
"Say, Dick, we did 'em up all right that time. Guess they'll do a whole heap of thinking before they try this game again. That was a mighty good shot of yours. If we keep on this way, there won't be any of them left soon!"
"But how did you do it? What made you go climbing up the cliff like a monkey?" demanded Dick. "You nearly scared the life out of me. I thought they'd got you when I came in and found you gone."
"I knew you'd be scared, Dick," replied Dudley, with a laugh. "But I couldn't help that. Fact is, I'd been reckoning they'd be coming along some night soon, and making preparations according. It was yesterday, while you were down fishing, I found a way up to that perch above. You see, I reckoned that, if they came in force, they might rush our coral, and then we would be needing some place to retire to. As for the flare, I fixed up a couple out of old rags and stuff soaked in oil, and had 'em ready."
"Jove, it was great!" declared Dick heartily. "It was jolly smart of you, Dudley! We might have been in a nasty hole if you hadn't stopped them like that. But who was doing all the shooting?"
"They were. I left my hat on a stick just over the wall. I guess they wasted twenty rounds on it!" He began to hunt round, and presently picked up the missing article. "Gee! It's a good thing my head wasn't in it!" he chuckled, as he examined his headgear, which was simply knocked to pieces. "Guess I'll have to tie a handkerchief over my head next time I go out in the sun."
"And as for me, I'd better go and fetch in that water," said Dick. "I'll leave you to hold the fort while I go."
"I reckon we've done all the holding that's needed for this night," replied Dudley. "And when you come back, we'll just slip down to the beach and see which of the beggars it was that you nailed just now."
Dick went off, and was soon back with the keg. Then they went down to the beach. The man lay there stone dead. He had been shot clean through the body. He was a long, thin, scrawny fellow, with about half an inch of stiff beard on his face. But neither of the boys had ever seen him before. They took his rifle, and left the body for the tide to carry away. Then they went back to the cave and slept peacefully until morning.
Dick was very silent at breakfast, and by the slight frown which creased his forehead, Dudley knew that he was thinking up some plan. But Dudley asked no questions. He knew that sooner or later Dick would broach his project.
Dick finished his mug of coffee, then spoke.
"You're pretty fit again, Dudley?"
"I guess so," was the quiet reply.
"What d'ye say to trying a bit of scouting to-day?"
Dudley did not answer at once, and Dick went on:
"You got a goodish way up that cliff last night. Do you think we could get to the top?"
"Not from where I was," Dudley answered. "There's right smart of an overhang above the place I got to."
"Still, there ought to be some way up," Dick insisted. "You know we decided to try for a way up, that day before you went sick."
"I reckon we could find some road, if we look long enough," agreed Dudley. "But what's your notion if we do get up?"
Dick considered for a moment.
"It's this way. We've finished two of Cray's crowd for keeps, and I certainly hit two others that night I tried to cross the beach. My notion was that we should try and find out how many there are left. If Cray only had seven in the first place, he's got but three able-bodied men left. That's not such long odds!"
"It would be a mighty good thing if we could find out, old son. But we don't really know how many he did have first go off. You see the beggar knew we were here ahead of him, and I guess he brought one or two more than he reckoned to originally."
"Still, seven was about as many as that boat of his would carry comfortably, and he wouldn't want too many to share up the dust with him."
"That's so. Well, I guess we'll have a look around, anyhow," said Dudley. "All the same, we'll have to be mighty careful if we're going cruising around these cliffs in the daytime!"
"We shall that!" agreed Dick. "Still, we're not overlooked, even if they have got a chap posted up topside, and if we slip out quietly, they won't be any the wiser."
"I guess we'll take our guns, anyway," observed Dudley, picking up his rifle.
The cave being on the western side of the island, the beach below was always in shadow until midday. All the same, the two took every precaution against being seen as they slipped through the little opening in the southern barricade, and crept along the ledge.
"You're right about the overhang," said Dick presently, as he glanced up. "There's not a dog's chance of climbing unless we can find a gully or gap of some sort."
Gullies and gaps there were, but none led high enough to give the boys a chance to gain the top of the cliff, where the palmetto fronds rustled harshly in the sea breeze. At last they reached the big fall at the south end of Crooked Cliff.
"Bit risky going up this in daylight," said Dick doubtfully.
"I guess it's all right," replied Dudley. "Don't reckon there are any of Cray's folk around to-day. What's left will be too busy with the dust to think of us. Besides, I haven't seen that water-cave of yours yet."
"And I could do with a drink," he added, with the smile that lit up so pleasantly his lean and usually rather grave face.
"We'll be all right there, if we can reach it," said Dick. "But keep under cover all you can, Dudley!"
He led the way up the steep side of the great mass of broken rock, and they gained the top quite safely. Then Dick went down on hands and knees, and literally crept to the cave.
"We might almost as well be potted ourselves as let Cray's lot into the secret of the spring," he explained.
"That's so. I guess they wouldn't waste much time dynamiting it," agreed Dudley.
The little pool was brimming, and they both drank deeply of the clear, cool water.
"Mighty good!" declared Dudley, as he took his flask and filled it. "I never tasted better water. But, say, Dick, this cave goes on right away into the cliff. I'd like mighty well to follow it up."
As he spoke, he held up the bit of candle which they had lighted, and its gleam illuminated a narrow passage which ran deep into the heart of the cliff.
"I don't believe it will do us any good," he said. "And we haven't got an awful lot of candle."
"Let's go in a piece," begged Dudley. "Guess we've got plenty of candle to burn for half an hour, anyway."
"Why are you so keen?" asked Dick.
"I'd like to see if we can find any more sign of the fellow who painted up the sign for you. Looks to me like this passage had been used some time. The floor's sort of worn."
Dick still hesitated. He felt an odd reluctance to venture into the depths of this unknown cave. But Dudley urged strongly, and as he had said, there was plenty of candle for quite half an hour. Eventually he yielded, and Dudley joyfully led the way forward into the narrow, winding passage.
FOR some distance it was all plain sailing. The passage, it is true, was narrow, crooked, and in places the roof was so low that they had to bend almost double. But the floor was sound enough.
All the way the passage ran up at quite a steep angle, and the odd thing was that it was nothing but a passage. It never widened out into anything you might call a cave.
Here and there had been small roof-falls, but on the whole the roof, like the floor, seemed fairly sound.
"Rummiest cave I ever did strike!" observed Dudley, turning to Dick. "Don't look to me like it was cut by water, and, anyway, this ain't limestone rock!"
"Hadn't we better turn back?" suggested Dick.
"Pshaw! It's just getting interesting," declared Dudley. "And the candle ain't half done yet. Besides, mind you, we're going up hill all the time. Looks to me like this might take us out up at the top if we keep on long enough."
Dick yielded again, though somehow it was against his better judgment. He had a queer dislike to the whole proceeding. They turned another corner, and Dudley pulled up short.
"Guess this is where the circus ends," he remarked.
Dick stepped up. Sure enough, they seemed to have come to an end. There was a blank wall in front of them.
"I'm glad of it!" he growled. "I'm sick of the place!"
Dudley was not listening. He stepped quickly forward.
"My mistake! Here's a way through."
Before Dick could remonstrate he had squeezed through a narrow crack in the wall to the left-hand side and disappeared, leaving Dick in pitch-darkness.
Next moment there was a thud, a sharp cry, and a sharp scuffling sound.
For a moment Dick stood paralysed with sudden alarm. But only for a moment. Hastily he struck a match, and, holding it well in front of him, pushed his way into the gap.
"Dudley!" he shouted. "Dudley!"
Weird echoes sent his shout rolling and roaring horribly through unseen passages and crevasses. There was no other answer.
Again and again he shouted, but there was no reply.
The second match burned down till it scorched his fingers, and he dropped it. For a moment or two he stood in the pitch- darkness, struggling desperately to get a grip of himself and to make up his mind what was best to do.
The wisest course would be to return, fetch all the rope he could, and find an oar or something to which he could fasten it, so that he could safely explore the depths into which Dudley had fallen.
On the other hand, this would take some considerable time, and the thought that, meanwhile, Dudley might be bleeding to death in the horrid depths below there was simply unbearable.
It was a horrible dilemma, and for the very life of him Dick could not tell what was best to be done.
Then, as he stood there in that awful darkness, with his mind torn by conflicting emotions, out of the depths below came a faint groan.
"Dudley!" he cried again, and waited, craning forward.
Still there was no answer, but after a while another groan.
So Dudley was still alive. What was more, the sound told Dick that he was not, after all, so very far below.
In frantic haste, Dick ransacked his pockets. He found a scrap of paper—an old envelope—and, opening it out, lit another match and set fire to it.
It flashed up with a bright flare, and the light showed him Dudley—Dudley lying flat on his face, with his arms stretched out, at the bottom of the sleep slope. And the slope, to Dick's intense relief, was hardly more than a score of feet in length.
He hesitated no longer, but pushed his way through the opening and dropped into a sitting position. Then, spreading out his hands, palms downwards, to break his full, he slid forward.
In spite of his precautions, the speed of his descent nearly took his breath, and it was all that he could do to save himself from crashing right on top of Dudley.
But he was not hurt, and as soon as he could gain his feet he at once struck another match, and finding the candle, lit it. He fixed it on a little ledge, where it burnt clearly in the windless air, and turned and lifted Dudley.
Dudley was bleeding badly. There was an ugly cut over his left eye. His face was very white, and his looks gave Dick a fresh shock.
Suppose that Dudley were badly hurt how on earth was he ever to get him out of this horrible place?
Once more Dick cursed his foolishness in not having put his foot down definitely and stopped his chum from penetrating further into this miserable cave.
He tore up his handkerchief and began by bandaging the cut. He managed to stop the flow of blood; and Dudley moaned again, and moved slightly. But his eves were still closed.
Dick had whisky in a flask. It is a thing which most men carry in a country where poisonous snakes abound. And Dudley had water in his bottle. He had filled it at the spring. Dick mixed a pretty stiff drink in the metal cup, and managed to get most of it down Dudley's throat.
The result was excellent. Dudley gasped, choked a little, then his eyes opened.
"Say w-what's up?" he asked, in a faintly surprised tone. Dick told him.
"I'm real sorry!" said Dudley. "I never thought of a slide like that. Guess I must have half-scared the life out of you."
"You certainly did," said Dick rather grimly. "But how are you? How do you feel? You haven't broken anything, have you?"
"Nothing, except my head," replied Dudley. "And, thanks be, that's pretty hard! No; I guess I'm all right, Dick—right enough to get back to our place, anyway."
"About time, too," he added, glancing at the candle. "It won't be any sort of a picnic to get left around here in the dark."
He sat up as he spoke; then, with Dick's help, rose rather unsteadily to his feet.
"As ugly a little trap as over I did see!" he observed, glancing up at the narrow opening through which they had arrived in this part of the cave. "Dick, I guess you'll have to go ahead and give me a hand. I don't fancy I'm great on climbing right this minute."
"All right, old chap!" answered Dick. "Luckily, I've got a bit of rope with me. It's only a few feet which I had for the keg, and slipped into my pocket; but it's going to come in useful, if I'm not mistaken."
"Mighty useful," answered Dudley, as Dick turned and started to clamber up the slope.
He got up about six feet, then slipped back.
"Confound it!" he exclaimed angrily. "It's all wet, and slippery as so much ice. Wait! I'll take a run at it!"
He went back a few steps, took a sharp run, and reached a point a foot or two higher than before. Then he flung himself flat, grasping for a hold.
There was none, and, as before, he slid back to the bottom. Now, for the first time, he began to get a little alarmed.
"It's like so much glass, Dudley. There's been water dripping here for a few thousand years, and the whole surface is polished. What's more, there's no sort of handhold. Looks to me as if we shall have to cut out steps, or something of the sort."
"Then I guess we'll have to be smart about it," replied Dudley, trying to speak lightly. "I don't reckon that candle is going to burn for another half-hour."
Dick whipped out his big clasp-knife, and set to work. He hacked away for a minute or so, then turned to Dudley. In the feeble light of the candle-flame, Dudley saw real alarm on his friend's face.
"Can't touch it!" he said curtly. "It's harder than cement."
DUDLEY kept his head.
"See here, Jim, I'll give you a shoulder up. Then maybe you can reach some sort of hold. Take your boots off first."
"Are you fit for it?"
"Guess I've got to be," Dudley replied curtly.
They tried the plan suggested, but there was no hold of any sort, either on the slope or on the walls. It was just like trying to climb one of those steep slides of blue ice which you may find in an Alpine crevasse.
Time and again Dick struggled to reach the top, but never got within six feet of it. He did not give up until he was dripping with perspiration and almost dropping with the strain. The knees of his breeches were in rags, and his knees themselves bruised and bleeding.
"It's no use, Dudley!" he said. And the very quietness of his voice and manner impressed Dudley far more than if he had shown impatience or anger.
"And it's all my fool fault!" said Dudley bitterly.
"Just as much mine as yours!" replied Dick. "I ought to-have put my foot down. I felt all the time there was something going to happen. But don't let's slang one another, for any sake. The candle won't last more than another fifteen minutes. Let's make up our mind what to do."
"I guess, as we can't get back, we'd best go on," said Dudley. "See here, Dick! We've been coming uphill all the way, I don't reckon we're thirty feet under the top of the cliff this minute. And the air's good. I'm gambling on this cave opening up top side. What do you say? Shall we try it?"
"We don't seem to have any choice. Come on!"
Dick picked up the candle as he spoke, and they started.
As Dudley had said, the air was good. That and the upward slope were all they had to go on. Both were perfectly well aware that the journey they were engaged upon was a gamble—a gamble in which the stake was their lives. If they failed to find an opening above, they were done for. There would be nothing for it but to sit there in the pitchy, ink-black darkness, and wait for the inevitable end.
Reflections of this kind do not make for cheerfulness, and neither spoke as they hurried on through the seemingly endless passage. The slope became more gradual. In fact, the floor was almost flat, yet the cave still had the same curious appearance of a single rift running through the heart of the solid rock. It was never more than a dozen feet wide. Sometimes it shrank to three.
They came to a very narrow place—so narrow, in fact, that they could only just squeeze through. Beyond, the cave widened again, and split into no fewer than three separate and distinct passages.
Both pulled up short, and stood staring at the openings. All were about the same size.
"What shall we do, Dick," said Dudley, with a reckless laugh—"toss for it?"
Dick did not answer. He glanced at the candle. There was not half an inch left. Four, or possibly five, minutes, then darkness!
"Shall we toss for it?" repeated Dudley. Then, struck by a fresh idea: "No; let's see which one the air is coming down. Hold the candle up, Dick. There'll be a draught down one or the other of the passages."
Dick tried the left-hand passage. The candle flickered ever so slightly.
"That's it," said Dudley. "There's a breeze down that one. Come on!"
"Wait!" said Dick. "We must try the others."
He did. From the middle and the right-hand passage, there was also draught enough to flutter the little flame.
"Gee, but that's tough!" exclaimed Dudley, bewildered. "I wonder if they all open out on top?"
Dick shook his head. He did not know what to do. And every second brought the small remaining bit of candle nearer to its end.
In desperation he blew it out.
"We can talk in the dark," he said sharply. "Now, what's it to be?"
"I vote for the middle," said Dudley.
At that moment Dick gave a quick cry.
"Look! What d'ye mean? How in sense can one look at anything in this? Gee, it's as black at a cellar at midnight.
"Look—to the right!" said Dick. "The blue arrow—the same as at the bottom—the same that showed me the way to the spring in the lower cave!"
"I see. I see now. The arrow in luminous paint. Say, Dick, but I told you someone had been here before us. That settles it. Light up again, and let's shift. I guess we're all right at last!"
Dick wasted no time in doing so, and the pair turned into the tunnel farthest to the right, and pushed on as rapidly as they dared.
"We're still on the upward slope, Dick," declared Dudley. "I have a feeling we'll be all right now. We can't be a great way under the top of the cliff."
Dick did not answer. Certainly, he felt far more hopeful now that the luminous arrow had definitely proved that someone had been before them in this strange rock tunnel. Still he could not be certain yet that there was any opening above. The first explorer might have had some other reason for travelling up this particular passage. If he had had enough candles and some means of climbing the slope, he might have gone back by the same way that he had come.
Still he did not confide these misgivings to Dudley. Dudley was weak from his fall. It was everything to keep up his spirits until they got out of this horrible mess.
On and on they went, Dick with his eye on the candle. It was burning perilously low, and if they did not very soon reach daylight, they would be left in the black darkness, which would make every movement fraught with the most extreme peril.
He kept a sharp look-out on the floor and walls but saw no further sign of the original explorer. More than once the tunnel threatened to pinch out altogether, but always they just managed to squeeze through.
The flame of the candle gave a sudden jump. The wick was falling over into a little pool of melted wax.
"Quick!" said Dick. "Quick as you can, Dudley. She's just going!"
Dudley responded nobly, but just here the floor was desperately rough, and it was all that either of them could do to keep their footing. Dick caught his toe, stumbled badly, the last atom of wick toppled over, there was one final jet of flame, then it was over, and darkness settled like a pall.
For a moment neither spoke. It was Dudley who broke the silence.
"Guess you've got a few matches still, Dick?" he asked, in a voice which by an effort he made sound casual and cheery.
"A few," Dick answered. "But we'd better keep them till we actually need them. I'm going ahead, Dudley I can feel my way with my rifle at each step. You follow as close as you can."
It is bad enough to walk across a room in the dark, even when one knows where all the furniture stands.
It is a horrible task to find one's way by night over a piece of rough moorland. Imagine, then, what it means to grope along a tunnel deep under the earth in darkness far more intense than that of the darkest night above ground—a tunnel which winds this way and that, but is never straight for ten paces together, with a floor ridged with rock and littered with boulders, and a roof sometimes well overhead, but more often so low that one has to bend double to avoid beating out one's brains against it.
It was about as ghastly an ordeal as either Dudley or Dick could have imagined in their very worst nightmares. Each step was a matter of several seconds, and even after probing the ground in front, with their rifles, they constantly stumbled or even fell, while once Dick nearly knocked himself silly against a great spar of rock which jutted out from the wall.
It seemed to Dick that they had been hours groping through the horrible gloom, and he was just going to propose that he should stop and strike a match, when his rifle-butt struck a solid wall of rock.
"Steady!" he called to Dudley, and began groping for the curve in the passage which he fancied that they had come upon.
He had struck more than one similar place already, where the tunnel turned at almost a right-angle.
But no opening met his touch. Everywhere was solid rock, and a spasm of fear gripped him. At last they had struck the blind alley which had been his nightmare all along.
"I can't find the way," he said, and in spite of himself, his voice shook a little.
"Light a match!" said Dudley.
"I'm just going to."
Even the tiny flicker seemed blinding as an electric lamp.
A groan, which he could not repress, came from Dick's lips. He was right. The passage ended. They were in a blind alley.
"Steady, old chap!" said Dudley quickly. "Keep the match going. We may only just have turned out of the right road. Come on back!"
Dick obeyed. But he moved quite mechanically. He had lost hope at last. He believed that they were finally lost.
Dudley was almost running. It was all Dick could do to keep up. Then the match went out, and he had to light another. Only seven left!
"Hurray!" came from Dudley. "I told you so!" As he spoke Dick saw him turn into a broader passage to the left.
"Come on, Dick; this is the right way, I'll bet!"
Dick followed. This other passage ran quite steeply up for almost twenty paces, then made a sharp bend again to the left. Just before he reached the bend, the second match went out.
Dudley had already turned the corner. Dick had stopped a moment wondering whether to risk another match or not, when a yell—a regular howl of triumph—pealed from above.
"I told you so! I told you so, Dick! Here's daylight—daylight, I tell you!"
Dick made a rush, stumbled, fell, picked himself up, then swung round the corner, and, before his dazzled eyes, saw a blaze of sunshine through a long, narrow rift.
Both bolted together. They ran like two travellers who, dying of thirst in a desert, suddenly see a pool before them. Another minute, and they were both outside, and had flung themselves down on the hot, rocky ground, in the full blaze of the afternoon sun.
Dudley spoke first.
"Dick," he said slowly and impressively, "if you ever catch me monkeying in a pit like that again, I'll ask you, as a personal favour, to bat me over the head, and leave me for the buzzards. You hear?"
"Me, too, Dudley! I've had enough of caves to last me for the rest of my life!"
He glanced at the sun, and then at his watch.
"D'ye know we've been in that place a matter of six hours?" he said gravely. "Strikes me the sooner we make tracks for our own little hole in the cliff, the better!"
"I guess you're right. Just let's have a drink of water, and I'm your man."
They finished the contents of the water-bottle, and Dick tightened the bandage on Dudley's head. It was not until that it suddenly occurred to them that they were actually on top of the cliff, and that they had to get back again.
The place they were in was a small opening in the thick palmettoes, one of those spots so rocky that nothing would grow there. Dick crept up to the edge, and peered over. All around was a wilderness of the grey-green palmetto-fronds. There was no sign of the enemy.
They were quite two hundred yards inland from the sea, and considerably more than a hundred feet above it.
He went back to Dudley.
"We're up a tree, old man! It's a question of the beach or the gully, and I don't know which is the worse. Either way, we are liable to run into Cray's sentries. It strikes me that the best thing we can do is to creep along to the high ground above Rocky Bay, and wait until dusk. You see, they won't dream of our coming from this side, and if anyone is on guard there, why, we ought to be able to slip up behind, and lay him out before be knows what's up!"
"I guess you're right, Dick," replied Dudley. "But, see here. We've got all of three hours before dark. What do you say to doing a little of the scouting that you talked about this morning?"
"Nothing I'd like better," declared Dick. "But what about you? Are you fit after that crack on the head?"
"There's nothing the matter with me," declared Dudley. "Honest, I'm feeling first-rate."
"But it'll mean work." objected Dick. "It's no joke crawling through this stuff, and that you know as well as I do. Then suppose we are spotted, and have to run for it?"
"Guess I can do my share all right," said Dudley quietly.
Dick glanced at him sharply. But he had to acknowledge that Dudley looked wonderfully little the worse for his tumble. He was tough as shoe-leather, was the young American. The way he had shaken off the dose of fever was proof enough of that.
"Right you are, then," he said. "I don't see why we should not get bang up against their camp without being spotted."
"That's what I'm reckoning on," agreed Dudley. "They won't be dreaming that we're on top of the cliffs, let alone anywhere near their outfit."
Knowing the ground as well as they did, the pair had no difficulty in keeping under cover all the way across, and it was not long before they sighted the roof of Matt Snell's shack. At the same time, they became conscious of a low, roaring noise, which seemed to come from the creek beyond.
"What the blazes is that row?" asked Dick, frowning.
"Cradler, if I'm not mighty well mistook," answered Dudley.
"But they must have the deuce of a lot to make that noise."
"A right good few, I reckon," replied Dudley drily. "Let's go a piece nearer."
They crept up, bending double and dodging from tree to tree. By this time they had become experts at the scouting game, and they worked coolly in until they were on the very edge of the belt of trees surrounding the clearing.
Dick poked his head out cautiously. He gave a gasp of surprise.
"You're right, Dudley. They've got a young army at work. And just look what they've done!"
The change since the boys had last set eyes on the place was certainly startling. A number of trees had been felled, making the clearing much wider, and the timber had been cut up and built into a long, shed-like barrack.
The creek had been dammed higher up, and evidently by someone who knew something of engineering, for there was plenty of water- power available.
But what struck Dick and Dudley as the most startling part of the business was the number of men who were at work. There were fully a score, all niggers, and these were toiling desperately in the waste of gravel which had been the creek bed, wielding pick and shovel and cradle with amazing energy.
The cause of this energy was not far to seek. On either side of the clearing stood a man with a rifle in his hands.
The latter were both mulattoes, and as evil-faced a pair as Dick or Dudley had ever set eyes on.
AS for the negroes themselves, they were a sorry lot. Most of them looked half-starved. Their ragged shirts and jean trousers were almost dropping off their bony frames. Many had scars old or new, and all, without exception, had a scared, sullen look.
"Where did Cray get them?" Dick demanded of Dudley.
"Where did he get them?" repeated Dudley. "It's sure plain enough. They're out of a convict-camp, every man jack of 'em."
Dick turned a startled face to the other.
"How in the mischief could he do a thing like that? They guard the camps, surely?"
"Guard them! Yes—against the niggers. But I don't reckon the average camp has more than eight or ten guards. Suppose Cray slipped some rifles to the niggers by night, the guards wouldn't get much of a show."
"And you think that's what he's done?"
"There's no sort of doubt about it, old son. Those are convicts if ever I saw them. Only I reckon," he added grimly, "they're a darn sight worse off now than they ever were in any camp on the mainland."
"Cray might have got 'em loose, as you say, Dudley," said Dick, after a pause. "But how'd he ever ship 'em out here?"
"That's simple enough. They'd know well enough that if they stayed around in Florida there'd be a sheriff's posse at work running them down in no time. Most likely Cray had a schooner or launch handy in the nearest creek, and filled them up with some lying yarn about running them over to Cuba. Once they were aboard, he wouldn't have any further trouble."
"Jove, I believe you must be right! The beggar is a bigger blackguard than ever I took him for. Seems to me, Dudley, we're up against something pretty big."
"That's what I've reckoned all along," replied Dudley, in his quietest drawl. "But, say, Dick, they must be getting out a whole heap of dust!"
"They must," he said. "And what we've got to do is to make sure they don't have a chance of getting away with it, that's all."
"We'll make a mighty good effort, anyhow," smiled Dudley.
For some minutes they lay quiet in their cover, watching the busy scene before them. The niggers were kept going the whole time. If one of the wretched men paused even to wipe the perspiration from his streaming forehead, the nearest guard would be on him with a storm of oaths. Once, when one of the miserable, half-starved creatures slipped and fell, the ugly mulatto dashed at him, and beat him savagely with a dog-whip which hung at his waist.
Dick growled deep in his throat, and shifted his rifle so that the muzzle bore full on the brutal guard. But Dudley touched his arm.
"Not yet," he whispered significantly.
They saw nothing of Cray or Bent, but there were two white men lounging in the shade in front of Snell's shack. It was significant that each had his rifle by his side. Evidently they were ready at a moment's notice to help the mulattoes in checking any attempt at a rising on the part of the negroes.
The shadows were lengthening, the sun was getting very low, and presently Dudley spoke in Dick's ear.
"I don't reckon we can do anything more to-night. What d'ye say to getting back? We've been away from home a mighty long time.
"Right you are," Dick answered. "It's the beach, then—not the ravine."
"The beach, I guess," said Dudley, as he followed Dick back into the wood.
They did not hurry, for the sun was not yet below the horizon, and they did not wish to venture across the bench until it was down. On the other hand, they did not mean to wait until dark. They wanted light enough to see the sentry, if there was one, but not enough to betray themselves.
All the way across they did not see a soul, and when they at last came out on the fringe of the palmetto scrub above Rocky Bay, the beach was as bare as on the day they had landed. It seemed so, at least, although it was quite possible that one or more of their enemies might be hiding among the rocks which lay so thickly below.
"Shall we risk it?" Dick asked quietly.
"Guess so," was the brief reply.
"Better spread a bit," suggested Dick. "More chance of spotting 'em if they're lurking among the rocks."
"And keep down as much as you can, Dudley," he added.
They did not say anything more, but both were breathing rather more quickly than usual as they left the friendly shelter of the palmettoes, and crept out into the open. There was precious little cover on the slope loading down to the beach, and for the first forty or fifty yards they were exposed to bullets from below.
But none came, and when, after a quick dash, they met again under the protection of a jutting ledge of rock, both were surprised, as well as relieved.
"Don't reckon they set any sentry, after all," said Dudley.
"I expect the real reason is that they don't expect us to go messing about in broad daylight," replied Dick.
Dudley grunted. He was clearly not quite satisfied.
They pushed on again. Still no sign of life, and they reached the big landslip without any interference, and within a very few moments were clambering safely among the wilderness of boulders which had fallen from the cliff above. They were hot and thirsty by this time, and stopped at the water cave for a drink. Dudley shivered slightly as he glanced up the narrow, twisted passage beyond the spring.
"Gee, I hope I'll never have to go up there again!" he remarked.
"I'm not keen to myself," replied Dick. "All the same, there'd be nothing in it if we had a good rope and plenty of candles, And some day," he added significantly, "it may come in mighty handy—if we were chased, for instance."
"Oh, I guess I'll go up fast enough if I have to," Dudley answered, with a shrug. "But it won't be any sort of a pleasure excursion that'll take me there."
The sun was long down, but the clear tropic twilight still lingered in the sky as the two climbed the steep path to their cave in Crooked Cliff.
"Seems as if we'd been away about a month," said Dick, as he wriggled through the little opening in the barricade.
"I'll be mighty glad of some supper, that's one sure thing," remarked Dudley.
"Me, too!" agreed Dick, as he turned in at the mouth of the cave.
Next moment he came staggering back almost on top of Dudley.
"W-what the thunder—" began the latter.
Dick's answer was a groan.
"Look at that!" he muttered hoarsely.
Dudley stepped forward, then stopped like Dick, and stared in speechless, horrified amazement at the scene before him. The cave was a wreck—or, rather, its contents were.
The stores were gone, the water-keg was smashed; so was the little oil stove, while the can holding their small stock of paraffin had been stamped flat.
Their blankets had disappeared, the beds of carefully-piled palmetto leaves had been burnt. Dick's gun, which he had left behind in favour of the late Wilding's rifle, had shared the fate of everything else. Barring ashes, and a few broken fragments, the cave was in fact as bare as the day when they had just found it.
Small wonder that the two stood, shaken and speechless. This was the worst blow that could possibly have befallen them.
"The brutes!" ground out Dick suddenly—"the infernal brutes!"
His fists were clenched; a small red patch glowed over each cheekbone. Never had he looked so dangerous.
"No use cussing, old son," replied Dudley; "The fault's our own. We'd no sort of business to go off and leave the place all day."
"Some of 'em must have been watching us, I reckon," he added. "Spotted us out of sight, and then ripped in and made hay."
Dick had very quickly recovered his self control. He was already poking about among the ashes and rubbish.
"Trying to find if there's anything left," he explained. "We shall want a meal of some sort before we start on the return campaign."
"But there's nothing here," he added—"not so much at a bone or a bit of biscuit."
"Wait," said Dudley suddenly; and, passing Dick, went to the far end of the cave and reached up as high as he could stretch. In a minute he was back with half a tin of bully beef and a handful of biscuits.
"Where on earth did you get those from?" he demanded.
"If you'd said 'in earth' you'd have been mighty near right," replied Dudley, in his best drawl. "It's real simple, Dick, after all. The last two days I've been bothered with rats—the little black cave-rats, you know. They must have come down from the top, though how they found their way beats me. Anyway, they ate up all the rest of that last lot of cooked fish, so I fixed up a hole in the rock, with a stone in front for a door, and anything that I couldn't put back in a tin I stuck up there.
"So," he added, with a smile. "I guess it's the rats you've got to thank, and not me."
"Rats or you, this may make all the difference," replied Dick gravely. "It would have been a precious poor show for us if we had had to start out starving, and that's just about what it would have amounted to."
"How much are you going to save for breakfast?" asked Dudley, as he looked at the small amount of food lying on the stone between them.
"Not a mouthful," replied Dick grimly as he took out his knife and divided the meat into two equal portions—"not a mouthful. It's Cray who's going to provide our breakfast to- morrow morning."
For once Dick looked slightly startled. He glanced inquiringly at the other.
"I mean it," said Dick doggedly. "Cray has robbed us. Now it's up to us to rob him."
DUDLEY munched thoughtfully at his dry biscuit.
"It's some contract, Dick," he said slowly.
"I quite admit that. But what else is there to do?"
"I was sort of thinking we might take the boat and get back to Lemon Bay for reinforcements. If Cray and Bent have raided a convict camp, why, I guess Sheriff Anderson will be real pleased to hear just where they are."
Dick shook his head.
"That's no use, Dudley. We've got no grub, we've got no water- keg, and we've got no sail."
Dudley gave a low whistle.
"Gee, but I'd clean forgot the sail! We had it in here for a bed. I guess you're right, Dick. We've got to buck against Cray for what we need."
"Of course we have! And we'll do it, too!"
"Just when do you reckon to set about it, old son?"
"An hour before sun-up to-morrow morning. They won't expect any attack. They won't think we've got the check for it. We must slip up as close as we can, jump the shack, and pour lead into everyone we can see."
Dudley slowly shook his head.
"Won't work, Dick."
"Why not?" demanded Dick.
"I reckon you forgot we've got to get up the cliff first."
"We can go up through the water cave."
"I guess not. We haven't a candle or a rope."
Dick gave an impatient exclamation.
"I'd clean forgotten that! Then the only thing is to take to the gully.
"And get plugged for our pains. You're forgetting a whole heap more, Dick. Cray's crowd are reckoning that they've got us to rights. They know as well as we do that we can't stop here without grub or water. You can take your oath that they've got the beach and the gully guarded to-night, and that they'll keep a guard there from now on. Whichever way we try to go, they're bound to nab us."
Dick was silent. He realised that what Dudley said was perfectly true. There seemed no way out of the fix.
"What in the name of sense are we to do, then?" he asked at last in a tone that was very near despair.
"If we can't go by land," replied Dudley, "I guess we'll have to take to water. That's all I can see for it.
"But I've told you we have no sail!"
"We don't need it. The oars are safe. They're hid in a cleft down below—just where we came ashore that night after the fight with the barracuda. My notion is that we slide out a couple of hours before light, go down into Hidden Bay, bail out the old tub, and pull right around the north end of the island."
"And what then?"
"That leaves me guessing. Take our chances, I reckon. Maybe we can slip ashore, maybe we could raid one of their craft."
"One of them?" repeated Dick.
"Yes. I'm reckoning they got a second one to bring over those niggers of theirs. And the boats will both be in that big bay up on the eastern shore."
"Jove, it's worth thinking about!" declared Dick, his confidence reviving somewhat. "Right you are, Dudley! We'll try your scheme."
He paused, and thought for a few moments.
"One thing's bothering me," he continued. "When they raided the cave, why didn't they stay here and lay for us? They could have got us both without any sort of trouble if they'd done that."
"I've been kind of thinking the same thing myself," answered Dudley. "My notion is that they must have been scared. We've soaked it into them every time we've run against them, and I guess they're a bit shy of losing any more of their men."
"I expect you're right," returned Dick. "And now I vote we lie down and take a nap. We've got to be fit for what's before us to- morrow."
"I guess one of us ought to keep watch," said Dudley.
But Dick said no. He declared he felt sure that there would be no attack during the night. And anyhow, if anyone did come round, they would be sure to knock down the loose stones which they had piled over the gaps in the outer walls.
"Besides," he added, "we're both pretty well fagged out, and we've simply got to be fresh for the morning."
Dudley, who was half asleep already, agreed, and they lay down on the bare rock, and were asleep in next to no time. Luckily, the night was so warm that they did not suffer for lack of blankets, and both were so tired that they could have slept standing up.
When people have been living in constant danger for some time, it is wonderful how the slightest sound arouses them. Dick suddenly found himself sitting bolt upright, broad awake, staring around him through the gloom.
"The stones!" he muttered. "Yes; I heard some fall! Not a doubt about it!"
"That's not our wall," whispered Dudley. "That's a biggish boulder gone over the cliff."
"What for? What are they playing at?" growled Dick.
"Might have been a bit of a slip from the top," said Dudley.
"Not likely. That's the second I've heard. No; Cray's up to some dirty trick."
"The sound comes from the north side," he added. "It's just on the cards that they're having another shot at our boat."
As he spoke he slipped out, and, carrying his rifle ready cocked, made his way towards the northern barricade. Dudley followed. Just inside the wall Dick stopped, and held up his hand.
Crash! came another rock, then the thud as it reached the shingle.
"That hit sand, not water," he muttered in a puzzled tone. "They're not at Hidden Bay."
"It's a mighty queer business!" replied Dudley, badly puzzled.
At that very moment there came from close behind them a shattering roar. From the mouth of the cave which they had just left leaped a great blaze of flame. There followed a thunderous crushing as rocks rained down, some of the pieces leaping out across the ledge and rolling away over it to the beach below.
For some seconds the two were absolutely struck dumb by the shock. They lay where they were, unable to speak, their hearts pounding against their ribs.
Then Dick raised himself.
"Just in time," He remarked grimly.
"B-but what the mischief—" stammered Dudley, for once knocked clean off his balance.
"They mined it," cut in Dick curtly. "A time fuse. Wonder we didn't see or hear it; but they're engineers enough to hide a thing like that."
"Cray, you mean?"
"Cray, of course. Now we know why they didn't wait for us. They reckoned to do the job without risk to their dirty skins."
"B-but if that was the game, what in thunder made them go rolling rocks to wake us up and get us out just in the nick of time?" asked Dudley.
"There you've got me beat," responded Dick, as he rose to his feet and went back to the cave.
It was a cave no longer. The charge had been a heavy one, and had brought down the whole of the roof. The floor was piled high with masses of shattered rock. The spot in which they had been lying two minutes earlier was buried under tons of jagged debris.
"A fairly close call," remarked Dick.
"All the better for us," answered Dudley, who, as usual, had recovered his spirits with marvellous rapidity.
"What do you mean?"
"Clear enough, I should have reckoned. They'll be so precious certain that they've not only slain but buried us that they won't worry about us any more."
"Jove, you're right! I hadn't thought of that!" Dick chuckled grimly. "They'll get a worse shock than Rufe did that night he saw the ghost!"
He paused and looked round.
"I don't feel like sleeping again," he added "Suppose we make a start?"
Dudley agreed, and like two shadows they passed through the barricade, which they had piled with so much labour, and so down to the bottom of the cliff.
THEY found the oars safe in the cleft, and, taking them, made their way silently along the beach to Hidden Bay. The tide was rising, but there was still space to walk. They kept as near the base of the cliff as possible. Both had in mind the possibility of more rocks thundering from above.
They had to swim across to the spot where they had sunk the boat, and neither of them liked the job. Though sharks and barracuda were not likely to invade the pool, yet there were other creatures, equally or even more terrible, that haunt, deep places under dark cliffs.
But nothing troubled them, and, reaching the boat, they set to work to raise her and bail her out. It was a slow job and a long one, and even the slight splash of the water as they dipped it out made more sound than they liked. The tall cliffs caught every murmur, and sent it whispering from wall to wall.
At last it was done, and, soaked themselves, they sat in the soaking boat, and sculled her carefully out. The tide was now running in fast, and it was all they could do to force the broad- beamed craft against the swift current that swirled through the narrow entrance.
Once outside, the work was easier, and, turning to the left, they pulled away towards the Point. Exercise soon warmed them, and once around the Point the tide was with them, and they bore away for the big bay which, though they had never actually visited it, they had seen from the look-out hill at the north of the island.
The false dawn which shows before the real dawn was glimmering in the east as they reached the mouth of the bay and they lay on their oars and waited until there should be light enough to see what was before them.
The haze which had hung like a curtain across the sky was lifting before a little waft of easterly breeze, and stars, dimming before the dawn, were showing through. The boat drifted slowly, the tiny ripples slapping monotonously under her counter.
Dudley peered forward through the greyness.
"I told you so, Dick. There are two craft lying there."
"I see," answered Dick. "One seems to be a schooner."
"That's so. She's too big for us to handle. I guess we'd better try our luck with the other."
"She's a rotten old tub," answered Dick.
"Cray got her in here," Dudley reminded him. "She'll take us back, if need be."
"But you don't want to slope out?" replied Dick sharply.
"It wouldn't be any good if I did. Even if we could get away with her, they'd catch us in the schooner. No, I guess we'll stick to your plan, Dick. But I don't see why we shouldn't make a raid on the old boat, and collar a sail and some grub, if there is any aboard."
"That sounds reasonable," answered Dick. "Let's get to it. But pull quietly, Dudley. We've got to get alongside without their hearing us."
Cray's cat-boat lay quite close to the shore, and about a hundred yards from the schooner, which was moored further out in the bay. There was no light or any sign of life about either craft as Dick and Dudley pulled softly in towards the cat- boat.
Slowly—very slowly—they crept upon her. At a couple of boat's lengths away Dudley slipped his oar, and picked up his rifle from the bottom of the boat. Dick paddled on.
Then he, too, slipped his oar, and crept to the bow. Next moment his hand gripped the side of Cray's boat.
She was a lubberly thirty-footer, open amidships, decked in forward. She was dirty, ill-smelling, and all her tackle lay tangled and unkempt. But Dick's heart sang. So far as he could see, there was no one aboard.
"All right," he whispered bark to Dudley. "Make fast and come aboard!"
Dudley wasted no time in complying, and the two set to work with a swift silence to find what they needed. They got a sail, cordage, a boathook, some oilskins, and a spare water-breaker. But what they could not find was food. Every locker appeared to have been cleared. They turned everything inside out, but not so much as a crumb of biscuit rewarded them.
Dick glanced at the sky. The east was already turning rosy; the stars had dimmed.
"What is it, Dudley?" he said sharply. "The schooner or—"
"The schooner," Dudley answered instantly.
"She'll have men aboard," warned Dick.
"And grub," said Dudley curtly, as he settled on his thwart and picked up his oar.
THE dawn breeze was blowing freshly now, and the veil of cloud which had covered the sky all night was being swept away. The light was rapidly increasing—far too rapidly, indeed, for their purpose. Already the shores of the bay and the heights of Lookout Mountain were clearly visible. Yet they dared not pull too hard, for fear of the sound of the oars reaching the ears of any who happened to be aboard the schooner.
As he pulled, Dick kept looking round over his shoulder at the schooner. But there was no sign of life aboard her, and he hoped against hope that she might have been left unguarded.
If this were so, the game was in their hands. She would certainly have stores of some sort aboard, and once they could fill their own boat and get away, they would sink her and be off. For the moment he regretted bitterly that they had not sunk Cray's cat-boat.
But there was no time left to think of that. Already they were almost alongside the schooner. Swiftly Dick shipped his oar, and, reaching up, caught hold of the rail. Like the cat-boat, the schooner was old and dirty, but she was a stout, weatherly craft of about forty to fifty tons measurement.
Not a sound did they make as they brought their boat alongside, and, after making her fast, scrambled softly on to the deck of the larger craft.
Bending low, so as not to be seen from the shore, Dick slipped across to the hatch. He and Dudley were both barefoot, so they made no sound as they crossed the planking.
"Can you hear anything?" whispered Dudley, as Dick bent over the hatch.
"Not a sound! I believe she's empty."
"Gee, but what luck! Get on down, then. We haven't much time. The sun's 'most up already, and it's not going to be healthy if Cray spots us before we can get away."
Dick nodded, and, rifle in hand, slipped softly down through the open hatch. It was very dark below, but presently he made out the door leading into the cabin. It was just aft the butt of the main-mast, and it was closed.
He turned the handle, and pushed it softly. The hinges were rusty and creaked horribly.
"Ezra—that you?" came a harsh voice, and in the dim light Dick saw a man rise off a bunk at the right-hand side of the room.
Like a flash he darted at him.
Unfortunately, there was a raffle of cordage on the floor. Dick caught his foot in it, and went sprawling. Before he could pick himself up, the man, with a startled exclamation, leaped up and flung himself upon him.
"Who are you?" he demanded, with an oath, and his great coarse hands pinned Dick by the shoulders, and held him, face downwards, against the dirty, sour-smelling floor.
"Gosh! It's one of the cubs!" he exclaimed fiercely, and his grip tightened. "How in blazes did he get here? Well, I guess it's up to me to see he don't get out again!"
"Dudley!" Dick managed to shout, in a half-stifled voice. Almost before the cry was out of his mouth, he heard Dudley's bare feet thud on the planking as he dropped down through the hatch. The man who held him uttered a savage oath, and, releasing his grip on Dick, spun half-round.
Instinctively Dick knew that he was drawing a pistol, and threw all his strength into one great heave.
The cabin shook with the roar of the report, but Dick's sudden movement had spoilt the fellow's aim, for next moment Dudley was upon him, and driving at him with the butt-end of his rifle, knocked him spinning against the wall of the cabin.
Even so, he managed to fire a second time, and Dick felt the wind of the bullet pass his cheek as he sprang to his feet. Before the fellow could pull trigger a third time, Dick had him by the throat with one hand, and with the other caught his wrist in such a grasp that the pistol dropped from his nerveless fingers, and Dudley snatched it up, and dropped it into his own pocket.
The man, a great burly brute, full two stone heavier than Dick, still struggled fiercely, while his language was enough to scorch the very air.
"Shove something in his mouth!" ordered Dick, and Dudley, picking up an old cap from the floor, jammed it into the man's mouth, completely cutting short his unpleasant eloquence. Then, while Dick held him, Dudley quickly cut some length of rope from the raffle on the floor, and they tied him firmly and left him.
"Confound the fellow!" panted Dick. "He's hung us up a good ten minutes. Buck up, Dudley! We've got to get our loot as quick as we can."
"You bet we have!" replied Dudley, as he hurried forward. "And I guess some of the swabs will have heard those shots, too. Dick, we've got to hump ourselves if we ever did in our lives!"
He dashed into the galley, and Dick followed, to find him already flinging open cupboards.
"What swine they are!" Dudley exclaimed, in disgust, as he tossed a quantity of dirty plates and dishes aside. The whole place was, indeed, simply filthy, and horribly ill-odorous.
"Ah, here are some tins!" Dudley went on. "Bully-beef and brawn—nothing else in the way of tinned stuff. But here are beans, and coffee, and sugar. We sha'n't do so badly after all."
"Any candles?" asked Dick.
"No, but there's plenty of oil. That drum looks to be full. And I guess there are matches. Gee, but this is spoiling the Egyptians with a vengeance!"
"Give us an armful. I'll take it up," said Dick.
"No, wait; I guess we'll take it all at once. You don't want to be seen from the shore."
"Our boat may be seen, anyhow."
"I reckon not. She's well under the lee. If they're keeping a guard anywhere it will be on the south side of the bay. That's nearer to the creek and the shanty."
"You may be right," Dick answered, as he rolled a huge bundle of stuff in a blanket. "But hurry—hurry, Dudley! It's getting lighter every minute."
"There, I guess this will do," said Dudley, shouldering a mass of loot. "Keep us going for a month, I guess. You go first, Dick, and give us a hand up the hatch. This stuff weighs mighty near a hundredweight."
Dick sprang swiftly up the hatch. Next moment Dudley heard a gasp of dismay, and saw his face close over the opening.
"There's a whole boatload pulling off, Cray in command." As he spoke, a rifle cracked, and a bullet sang somewhere overhead.
"Leave that stuff," said Dick urgently. "Leave it, and come on deck. We've got to get the sail up, and hook it. It's our only chance!"
Dudley was up like a shot. One glance was enough to show that Dick was right. The boat was coming off the southern side of the bay, and there were six men at the oars. If the pulling was a bit ragged, there was no doubt about the pace at which she was travelling. There was a wave at her bow as though she was being driven by steam. In the stern-sheets sat Cray and another white man. Each had his rifle, and they were already beginning to fire.
"The mainsail!" cried Dick, and, regardless of the bullets that were already humming and screaming overhead, the two bent themselves to the task.
It was a big, heavy sail, and at present sodden with dew and desperately stiff. To raise it properly needed at least three men, but as there were only two, the two had to do the work of three as best they might.
Foot by foot she rose, but for every foot the boat gained several yards, and the bullets came thicker and closer every moment. The only thing that saved the two boys was the fact that the breeze, blowing straight into the bay, had kicked up a lumpy little sea, which set the boat bobbing, and made accurate shooting out of the question. But bullet after bullet smacked through the heavy canvas, each with a sound like the bursting of a paper bag, and it seemed only a question of time before one or the other was hit.
By the time the big sail was up, the boat was indeed no more than a couple of hundred yards away, and the worst of it was that the anchor was sill down.
"Knock a bolt out of the shackle!" gasped Dick, as he let the sheet fly, and hurried aft towards the latter.
Dudley did not waste a moment in complying. From somewhere he got a hammer, and though the bullets sent white splinters leaping from the bulwarks, he pluckily managed to knock out the bolt, and the chain went rushing overboard, and sank with a loud splash.
Instantly Dick hauled on the sheet, and the schooner at once gained way. But the wind was blowing right into the mouth of the bay, and Dick saw at once that they would have to beat out. This gave the pull-boat a tremendous advantage. Cray saw it as plainly as Dick himself, and in his harsh, croaking voice was yelling at his men to pull for the entrance, and cut off the fugitives. At the same time he and Bent kept up their firing, no doubt hoping to disable one or other of the boys.
Their own boat was still trailing alongside the schooner, and taking off half her way. Dudley saw this.
"What shall I do?" he shouted.
"Cut her loose," answered Dick. "It can't be helped."
With a slash of his knife Dudley snicked the rope. The poor little cat-boat at once dropped astern, and went bobbing away towards the beach. Even at that ugly moment Dick felt a pang of regret to see her go.
The schooner, relieved of the drag, quickened at once. The ripples began to hum under her fore foot. But even now she would not point properly up into the wind.
"Come and take the tiller, Dudley!" shouted Dick. "I must get some head sail on her!"
"No, I'll do it," returned Dudley sharply; and, regardless of the bullets which screamed past, began to haul vigorously on the foresail.
It seemed a miracle he was not hit. The big mainsail was dotted with holes. Twice a bullet smacked into the mainmast with a loud thud. Another struck the gunwale, only a yard or so from Dudley, and a splinter stuck in his shirt-sleeve, just grazing his arm.
Up came the foresail, and as it caught the wind the schooner at once began to point better. Dick's spirits rose.
He meant to run as near as possible to the northern shore, then come about and make straight out of the mouth of the bay.
It looked as if he might just do it. The worst of it was that he knew nothing of the depths. For all he knew, there might be shoals anywhere. If they went aground, it was all up.
Cray's boat was not moving as fast as the schooner, for she was pulling dead into the teeth of the wind. At the same time, she was making a straight course for the mouth of the bay, and Dick saw that she must arrive there quite as soon as the schooner.
The opening was not more than two hundred yards wide, and he and Dudley would be under fire at point-blank range. The question was whether they could escape without being hit. It was going to be nip and tuck any way you looked at it.
THE breeze was puffy and uncertain, and as the schooner approached the northern shore of the bay, the high ground above cut off the wind, and she was almost becalmed. She lost way, and when Dick put her about, hung in stays, and for some moments seemed to be going to drift ashore.
Then a welcome gust caught her, she came round, and as her big sail filled lay over and began to really travel.
"Will you make it, Dick?" asked Dudley, who was now lying down flat handling the fore sheets.
"With any luck I shall," Dick answered, his eyes fixed on the enemy boat, which was now nearly at the mouth of the bay.
"Keep your gun ready," he added.
"You bet!" replied Dudley emphatically. "I reckon this is the time we pay off some old scores!"
"Don't be too sure," laid Dick grimly. "They'll have more than two rifles in that boat. We're going to catch it hot as we go by!"
"Why go by?" returned Dudley lightly.
Dick flashed at him a questioning look.
"Go for 'em. That's what I mean," said Dudley coolly. "Run 'em down!"
Dick's lips tightened.
"You're right. The earth will be sweeter when the ground sharks have finished with them!"
While under the shore, the schooner had been almost out of range of the boat, and for the moment the firing had ceased. Now each moment was bringing them nearer to their enemies, and the sharp crack of Winchesters had begun again, and bullets were lopping across the schooner. But the boys, keeping flat, were no longer in the danger they had been while they were making sail, and the chances now seemed distinctly in their favour.
The schooner was pointing well. Dick held her to it till her leeches quivered. Above all, he was anxious to get out on this tack, and not to have to go about again. At present she was reaching right up for the centre of the entrance, the exact spot where Bent and his crew of rascals were waiting.
To his joy, he saw that they seemed to have no suspicion whatever of his purpose.
Dudley lay flat on his face, with his rifle handy beside him. He was not shooting, for the sheets demanded all his attention for the moment. There was a curiously intent look in his eyes as he watched the boat.
Bent's men had stopped rowing—all but two. The rest had all picked up rifles, and the firing was hot indeed. A perfect pestilence of bullets came showering across the schooner.
Dick got a puff, and managed to head up a little more.
"Good! Good!" chanted Dudley. "We'll get 'em now!"
"Confound 'em!" he growled, a moment later. "They're on to it, Dick. They're pulling out!"
So it was. Cray seemed suddenly to have realised the danger. He yelled an order, and at once two more oars were out, and the boat was rapidly pulled towards the northern shore of the bay.
"Shall I go about?" growled Dick. "Is it worth it?"
Dudley hesitated a moment. It was a cruel disappointment to have to refrain from carrying out his cherished plan. In his mind's eye, he saw the whole boat load of ruffians ground down under the schooner's bow, left struggling in the rough water.
But he had a cool head, had the young American. He knew that each moment increased the risk of one of them being hit. Even as he thought, a missive from Bent's rifle hummed like a vicious wasp close over his head.
"No," he answered. "Carry on!"
Dick let her fall off a little. He could safely do so. They had plenty of sea room. The schooner's pace perceptibly increased. The open sea was almost under her bow. She seemed to know it.
Cray and Bent were shouting hoarsely to their men. Every oar was shipped. The whole eight had rifles to their shoulders. It was almost like being under fire from a machine-gun.
Yet, protected by the solid bulwarks, the two boys were still unhurt, and every moment brought them nearer to the open sea and safety.
"Right under their noses!" chuckled Dudley. "Gee, but won't they be sick!"
And then—then, at the very last minute, when all seemed over bar shouting—came disaster, swift and sudden. A bullet aimed high—but whether by chance or design they never knew—cut the mainsail halyard.
Down with a run came the great sail, the gaff crashing to the deck, but most fortunately missing the two boys. Not so the sail. The great mass of stiff canvas dropped right on top of them, and covered them under its folds. They were both literally buried and blinded.
Dick was the first to struggle out. The schooner had run up into the wind, and lay almost motionless, tossing slightly.
"Dudley!" he cried. "Dudley!"
He thought at first that his chum was killed, but a movement under the canvas reassured him.
Forgetful of everything else, he plunged forward, and began frantically hauling away the sail.
Next moment Dudley came crawling out.
"Don't bother about me!" he gasped out "Your rifle! Get your rifle, quick! They'll be aboard us in two twos!"
Dick jumped for his rifle, which was lying in the cockpit aft. Before he could reach it, there came a bump alongside.
"Hands up!" roared a harsh voice. "Hands up, or by—"
Cray's language will not bear print. It sent a shudder of disgust through Dick; but he, seeing the black muzzle of a rifle bearing full on his head, with a finger itching on the trigger, had no choice left. He raised his hands above his head, and stood grimly facing his enemies.
"Shoot 'em!" came a voice from the boat. "Drill the cubs, Cray. What are ye waiting fer?"
"Keep your infernal mouth shut, Bendall!" snapped back Cray. "I guess I'm boss here!"
"Keep yer hands up, the both o' ye!" he continued, addressing Dick and Dudley. "Try any tricks, either one of ye, and I'll do what Bendall sez!"
As he spoke he stepped aboard. Bent and another man followed him.
"Degan, you tie 'em," ordered Cray. "Be sharp. The schooner's a-drifting, and we don't want to let her go aground."
Degan, a sallow, thin-lipped, gap-jawed ruffian, with his few remaining teeth bright yellow from snuff-chewing, rapidly carried out Cray's orders, and lashed the hands of Dick and Dudley behind their backs. He did his work with such brutal force that the cords bit into their wrists, causing them great pain.
"Come aboard, the rest o' ye!" ordered Cray. "All but you, Bendall. Yew take the boat back. Now then, splice that there uphaul, and get the sail up. Be smart, I tell yew!"
All was hurry, the men falling over one another in their haste. Haste, indeed, was very necessary, for the schooner was drifting rapidly with the wind, and the tide within a very few minutes was bound to go ashore on the north side of the bay.
For the moment no one paid any attention to the two boys, who were left by themselves in the stern.
"Poor luck, eh, Dick?" muttered Dudley.
"My fault!" Dick answered bitterly. "If I'd only grabbed my rifle I might, have held them off!"
"Now you're talking foolishness!" said Dudley curtly.
"I guess you thought I was knocked out! Any chap would have done the same as you. It was all just a bit of rotten luck."
"I can't make out why they didn't finish us right off!" Dick remarked in a puzzled tone.
"I don't know, either; but I'm just as pleased. 'Where there's life—' You know the rest, Dick!"
"Hope, you mean! Jolly little, I'm afraid. Cray's only reserving us for something more unpleasant ashore."
But Dudley refused to be discouraged.
"Keep your heart up, old son! We'll dodge 'em yet, as we've done before. And just remember that there's one of 'em that isn't as black as the rest. The chap who left that quinine for us is white inside, whatever he may look outside."
Dick cheered up a little.
"I'd forgotten him for the minute. All right, Dudley. We'll keep a stiff lip as long as we can. There, they've got the sail up. It won't be long now before we see what's going to happen to us."
Cray himself took the tiller and sailed the schooner back to her anchorage. The boys saw their own boat ashore on a sandy beach, where, unless there was a bad storm, she would probably come to no harm. Then Cray's pull-boat came alongside, and Dick and Dudley were flung into her with brutal and unnecessary violence.
It was a long mile from the landing-place to the camp, and every one of Cray's unpleasant followers seemed to take a special delight in kicking or prodding the helpless prisoners along the rough track. They were both pretty nearly done by the time that they reached the camp.
Cray himself had not said much, but there had been a look on his yellow, scrawny face which to Dick seemed ominous. He could not help wondering what new devilry the man was meditating. He had already seen enough of his methods to realise that he had about as much heart or pity as a hyena. The only thing to do was to follow Dudley's advice, and await what was to come with such pluck as they could muster.
Arrived at Snell's hut, Cray went in with Bent, leaving the boys under guard outside. Through the window Dick and Dudley saw the precious pair refreshing themselves from a square bottle, no doubt holding corn whisky.
"The boss is a-priming himself up!" said Degan to Bendall, with an ugly chuckle. "Guess he's a-thinking how he'll settle it with them cubs. There's Wilding and Crowe they've shot up, and they hev to foot the bill some way."
"I reckon he'll tie 'em up and skin 'em first!" observed Bendall, a bulky, bulbous-nosed, black-bearded brute, with a cast in one eye, which made him a little more repulsive than even the yellow-mouthed Degan. "Skin 'em with a raw hide, and arter that we might hov a bit of target practice."
"Ay, thet wouldn't be bad fun," replied Degan. "Or mebbe we'll roast 'em a piece fust, and then hev the shooting match."
Dick know, of course, that their idea was to frighten Dudley and himself. He pretended not to hear; yet, for all that, he was aware that they were not necessarily exaggerating. Cray was capable of anything which his cruel mind might invent, and, so far as he knew, Bent was just as bad.
Presently Cray and Bent came out. Cray stood in front of the two boys, and looked them up and down with a sneer in his pale- blue eyes.
"Thought yerselves smart, did ye? Thought yew was smart enough to fool Ezra Cray?"
He chuckled harshly.
"So we did," replied Dick carelessly. "It was just luck, that shot which cut the halyard!"
"Jest luck, was it?" snarled back Cray, suddenly venomous. "I guess yew'll think it luck afore I've done with yew. You're my meat now, yew whelps! Now yew're going to be paid fer butting in here and killing my folk, and trying to steal our gold."
Dick's lip curled. "If you're going to murder us, get on with it! But, for any sake, don't be so long-winded about it!"
A flush of rage rose to Cray's sallow cheeks, and his pale eyes glittered.
"Yew brat, yew! So yew are asking for it! Well, by gosh, yew shall have it!"
He pulled a pistol from his pocket, and pointed it full at Dick's head. But Dick was so wound up that having his head blown off did not at that moment seem to matter in the least. He faced the brute with a steady stare. Not a muscle in his body moved. He stood like a rock.
It was here that Bent broke in:
"Shoot if yew've a mind to, Cray; but don't keep pushing that there gun in the brat's face! Yew ain't scaring him worth a cent!"
Dick flashed a wondering glance at the huge, sullen-looking man. Was it possible that there was something human behind that brutal-looking exterior?
"No, I'm derned if I'll shoot!" replied Cray, in the queer, grating voice which always reminded Dick of an unoiled hinge. "I'm derned if I'll shoot! Shooting's a long sight too good for them cubs. I kin fix 'em so they'll come and ask for me to put a bullet through them before they're much older!"
"March, dern ye!" he added.
He jammed the muzzle of his pistol against Dick's neck, and drove him off in the direction of the rough-looking barracks close by the creek. He forced him and Dudley inside; then shouted:
"Rufe! Here, yew Rufe!"
The big nigger came hurrying up from the gravel patch below, where he had been helping to keep watch over the unfortunate diggers.
"Got two pair irons left, Rufe?" asked Cray.
"I guess so, boss!"
"Then yew jest fix them on the legs o' these here cubs!"
Rufe grinned, showing rows of teeth that looked as big as tombstones.
"All right, boss; I'll fix 'em!"
DICK'S lips tightened. He realised now what was afoot. He glanced at Dudley. Dudley's face was white, but with anger, not fear, and his eyes sparkled dangerously. Dick knew that if his chum's bands were loose for an instant. Cray's life was not worth one minute's purchase. He made him a quick sign to control himself, for he knew that what Cray was longing for above everything else was to break down the cool contempt with which his prisoners regarded him, and wring from them some sign of emotion.
In a minute or so the huge nigger was back with the irons, which, at Cray's command, he proceeded to rivet on the ankles first of Dick, then of Dudley. They were regular prison irons—the sort that are put on runaway or refractory convicts. They were connected by a long and heavy chain which was looped up and fastened to a belt around the wearer's waist.
When all was finished Cray surveyed them with an evil leer.
"Now, I guess you won't run a great way!" he snarled. "But yew'll work, my young friends. Yes, yew'll work like niggers—like black niggers, only a dern sight harder!"
He cackled again like an angry jackdaw, and the sound filled Dick with a sudden and intense longing to drive his fist into the face of the evil beast.
"Now, take 'em down to the washings," ordered Cray. And Rufe, only too glad of a chance to pay off his score against the white boys, strutted off, driving them, helpless, before him.
They were taken to the waste of bare gravel where the wretched convicts toiled under the rifles of their guards, and there the thongs which bound their wrists were loosened, and each had a shovel thrust into his swollen, stiffened hands.
"Now dig!" snapped Cray. "Dig, dern ye, or I'll hev ye out and tie ye up and warm ye till yew do!"
Dick saw that there was no help for it, and, quietly taking his shovel, began to turn the gravel into the nearest cradle.
But Dudley hesitated.
"Come on, Dudley," said Dick under his breath. "Get on with the work. It's the only thing to do for the present."
Dudley's face was like death. There was a look in his eyes which Dick had never seen before.
"With the niggers," he whispered—"with the niggers! Dick, I wish I'd gone overboard! I'd rather be in the jaws of a tiger-shark than here!"
And Dick, knowing the old Southern blood which flowed in his friend's veins, and the horrible degradation which it was to him to work with niggers, for once had no word of comfort to offer.
FOR a time Cray's white associates stood by the creek-bank and amused themselves by jeering at the two now recruits to the labour gang. But after a while, and as they got no answers from their victims, that sort of thing began to pall, and they went up to the shack for breakfast.
Dick and Dudley had had no breakfast—nothing since the scanty meal of bully-beef and biscuit on the previous night. And they had gone through a great deal during the past twenty-four hours. They were very weary, and soon became faint with hunger.
Dick saw Dudley's face go from white to grey, and as the hours passed, and the sun blazed down hotter and hotter, saw him stagger as he lifted shovelful after shovelful of the gravel. True, there was water—plenty of it—and even the two brutal mulattoes who guarded them did not prevent them from drinking as much as they pleased. It was only this that kept them going.
At noon one of the mulattoes in charge blew a whistle, and the gang straightened their bent backs and slouched away to their barracks. Dick and Dudley followed. Dudley staggered as he walked. He was still suffering from that bad blow when he had fallen in the cave on the previous day. That and the heat and humiliation—to say nothing of stark hunger—had brought him very low indeed.
Yet Dick did not dare offer to help him, for fear the guards might interfere. The latter forced them into the hut with the negroes.
The place was filthy. It swarmed with flies, which settled in humming hordes on the refuse lying about. No civilised person would have kept a pig in such a place. Around it was a rough but heavily-built stockade of logs, with two rows of barbed wire along the top. The entrance was closed by heavy bars, which fitted into sockets and which were set with great spikes.
For the negroes themselves such precautions seemed quite unnecessary. The unfortunate creatures were in such miserable condition that not one of them could have run a hundred yards even if there had been no fence at all. Not one of them had so much as spoken to Dudley or Dick. They seemed hardly to notice them. Hollow-cheeked, gaunt, ragged, and dirty, whatever their crimes had been, they had paid for them a thousand times.
As soon as they were all inside the enclosure rations were dealt out. To each man was given a handful of coarse maize-meal, known as hominy, and a single slice of what is called in the South "white meat." or sow belly. This is the cheapest and nastiest form of salt pork, cut from the "razor-back" hogs which roam the pine-forests of South Florida.
The boys took their rations in silence. There was no use complaining. Food was absolutely necessary in order to keep themselves alive. To each was also handed a tin can, presumably for cooking purposes. Rufe, who dealt out the rations, added a jeering recommendation to hurry up with their cooking, for they'd have to go to work again in an hour's time.
They were both so utterly worn out that the mere exertion of making a fire seemed beyond them. Yet they could not by any possibility eat the food raw.
They withdrew to one corner of the place, and there Dick forced Dudley to lie down while he himself collected some chips, and, following the example of their fellow-slaves, lit a small fire.
There was water in a barrel by the gate. He boiled the hominy, and toasted the rashers on the end of a bit of stick. There was not time to cook the hominy properly, while the bacon should have been soaked first to make it eatable. But, horrible as the stuff was, it did something to fill their stomachs, and for the rest of the time they lay flat on their faces, resting, as far as rest was possible.
Too soon came the whistle summoning them back to the afternoon's toil. The heat seemed worse than ever, for the breeze had died away, and the sun blazed down with terrible force.
Soon Dudley began to flag again. Dick watched him anxiously. Dudley had barely recovered from the ague, and working in the sun with their feet in wet gravel was the surest way of bringing it back again. But Dudley did not utter a word of complaint. He kept on like a machine, shovelling the golden gravel into the cradle. Golden it was, in truth. They could actually see the specks of yellow metal in almost every spadeful.
It was about five o'clock that the trouble came. Quite suddenly Dudley reeled and, in the very act of lifting his shovel, dropped.
Dick instantly dropped his own shovel, and, lifting him, carried him to the grass at the side of the creek.
The nearest mulatto got there as soon as he did. He was a yellow-faced mongrel, known as Zeke Russ, a short, square man, with high cheekbones like a Chinaman, and a face deeply pitted with scars of smallpox.
"Yo' white man, what yo' think yo're doing?" he began, in a hectoring tone.
"My friend has fainted," answered Dick quietly. "Fetch some whisky."
For a moment—so strong is the word of the white man where the nigger is concerned—Russ hesitated. But only for a moment. Then he burst into an ugly laugh.
"Whisky! Mo' like a whip—dat's what he wants!" And so saying, he kicked the insensible Dudley brutally in the ribs.
It was the last thing he ever did in his life. Without a sound Dick was on him. Russ had his rifle, and Dick nothing but his bare hands. Yet Russ never had a chance.
Before Russ knew what was happening Dick, ironed as he was, had wrested the weapon from him. Russ, terrified at the cold fury which blazed in Dick's eyes, stumbled backwards.
Dick swung up the butt, and brought it down on the yellow brute's head with a force that even the double thickness of a negro's skull could not resist. The bone crushed like rotten wood, and the man dropped as does a poleaxed bullock. He was dead before he reached the ground.
There came a yell from the other guard, who was on the far side of the creek-bed, but before he could make up his mind whether to shoot or run, Dick had him covered with the captured rifle.
"Put up your hands!" he ordered, and there was a ring in his voice which caused the other to obey with almost ludicrous haste. His rifle clattered on the ground, exploding in its fall.
Now was Dick's chance to escape. Yet what could he do with his legs ironed, and Dudley still insensible on the ground?
"Pick up that rifle, one of you!" he shouted to the negroes.
Not one moved. Terrified, nerveless from long ill-usage, they stood herded like so many sheep.
Shouts came from the direction of the hut. With the tail of his eye Dick saw four men running down towards the creek.
He ground his teeth in despair. He could not move, and he dared not turn his rifle aside from the second guard for fear the man might recover from his panic and regain his own weapon.
It was Cray himself—Cray, Degan, and two other men who were charging down towards him. All were armed.
"What's up?" roared Cray. Then, with a fierce oath: "It's them whelps again!"
"Stop!" shouted Dick, in a voice that carried further than Cray's bellow of rage. "Stop! If any of you come another step I'll shoot your other guard!"
IT was a queer scene. Dick, white-faced and desperate, standing over Dudley's insensible form, kept his rifle-muzzle full on the wretched guard, who, with no cover to protect him, stood shaking and shivering in an extremity of terror.
For a moment or two there was dead silence. No one moved.
At last Cray, much against his will, was obliged to bottle up his wrath.
"What yew want anyways, yew, Daunt?" he demanded in a voice hoarse with badly-suppressed rage.
Dick's answer was prompt. He had already decided what he would ask for.
"Our boat, enough provisions and water to take us across, and a half-share of the gold."
Cray burst into a jeering laugh.
"Yew wants the earth ploughed up and fenced in, don't yew?"
"Those are my terms, and easy ones, too. We were here before you, and, by rights, all the gold is ours. We staked the claim. As for you, if you got your deserts, you'd all be hung. You came over here and did your level best to murder us in cold blood, and now you're kicking because I ask for only half the gold."
Cray was about to burst out again, but Bendall spoke to him in a voice too low for Dick to hear what he said, and Cray refrained. When he spoke again it was in a milder tone.
"You've got the drop on us, an' I s'pose we'll hev to do as you say. But I can't do nothing without Bent. Guess I'd best go along up to the cabin and ask him."
"No, you don't," retorted Dick. "Call to him. He can come down here."
He could see rather than hear the oath that Cray stifled in his throat. But he obeyed, and shouted loudly for Bent.
Bent must have been asleep, for it took more than one call to rouse him. Then his great hulking figure appeared, slouching lazily down from the direction of the hut. He did not look so angry or dismayed as the other three white men. Dick, in fact, fancied there was a half-amused expression on his face, as if he was not altogether sorry to see the fix Ezra was in. He was not carrying a rifle, but for all Dick knew, probably had a pistol somewhere about him.
"So the boy's got the drop on ye, Ezra!" he growled out in his harsh, heavy voice.
"It's that fool Russ!" snarled back Cray.
"Seems to me he's paid for his fooling," answered Bent. "Wal, yew, Daunt, what ye got ter say?"
Dick repeated his terms.
"Seth thar ain't wuth thet much," returned Bent. "Guess yew'll hev to shoot him up if yew wants to."
"I don't want to," retorted Dick; "and if I have to, I'll get one or two of you besides. You'd better remember that."
"Wal," said Bent leisurely, "it's right possible yew might git Cray here or one on us afore we pulled you up. Still, I guess we've had enough o' this here shooting. Tell ye what I will do. Yew kin take your boat, the grub and the water, and fifty ounces of gold between yew. Yew, on your side, gives us your word that yew'll git straight back to Floridy and won't say nothin' to nobody. How does thet suit yew?"
Dick hesitated a moment. Fifty ounces of gold was two hundred pounds. It was enough to get him and Dudley out of the worst of their difficulties. And he had the feeling, too, that he could put some reliance on Bent's word—much more, at any rate, then he could on Cray's. Besides, he longed to be quit of the island and all the miseries and hardships they had undergone. Above all, there was Dudley to be thought of—Dudley, who was now no use for fighting or anything else.
And while he hesitated, Dudley's voice came to his ears.
"Don't you do it, Dick! Half or nothing!"
He glanced down. Dudley's eyes were open and bright as ever.
"Half or nothing!" he repeated. "And that's a long sight more than the swabs deserve."
"It's half or nothing, Bent And think yourselves lucky I don't ask more."
Bent laughed—actually laughed. It was a hoarse, rumbling sound, and was oddly prolonged by a louder, deeper rumble. All this time it had been getting rapidly darker, and Dick, casting a quick glance at the sky, saw that a storm was working up. The heat had been terrific all day, and now a thunder burst was coming to clear the air.
This might improve their chances, or it might not. Anyhow, there was no time to consider the matter, for Bent was speaking again.
"Nothing doing, young feller. Ez I said before, yew'll hev to shoot the nigger if yew wants to. He ain't wuth fifty ounces, let alone anything more."
"Shoot Ezra—not the nigger!" came Dudley's voice quick and low.
Like a flash Dick turned his rifle from the cowering Seth, and levelled it full on Cray.
"I'll have Cray, not the nigger!" he shouted.
Cray gave a howl and dropped in a heap flat on the ground. Dick kept the rifle remorselessly levelled on him.
"That won't do you any good, Cray!" he cried. "I couldn't miss you if I tried!"
"Look out, Dick!" came a sharp exclamation from Dudley. "Look out behind!"
Dick whirled to meet the coming danger. He was just too late.
A rope came hissing through the air. And the noose at the end settled over his head. Before he could tear it off, it tightened, and the next instant he was jerked off his feet and dragged backwards, his rifle clattering to the ground as he fell.
Dudley made a desperate effort to reach the rifle. He was too weak, and fell back.
"Wal done, Rufe! Good for yew, Rufe Finn!" came a triumphant yell from Cray, and, springing to his feet, he dashed across, the stretch of bare gravel.
"THOUGHT yew was smart, eh?" Cray emphasised his sneer with a kick from his heavy boot, which made Dick gasp. "Thought yew'd got the drop on us, did ye? Never knowed I waz fooling ye!"
He chuckled fiendishly, and kicked Dick again.
"Take 'em across, Rufe," he continued. "Tie 'em both to them two trees up in front o' the cabin."
Rufe jerked Dick to his feet. Dick's hands were tied behind his back as they had been in the morning. He was entirely helpless. Dudley, too, was tied. Not that there was any necessity for this, for the young American was too weak and exhausted to offer any resistance.
Dick hardly thought of his own plight. He was too desperately anxious on Dudley's account. If they two were to be tied up and thrashed, as he fully expected, it was hardly likely that Dudley would survive it. Bitterly he reproached himself for not having kept a sharper look-out for the trickery which he felt he ought to have suspected from the first. Now—now he could do nothing. At that moment he would have given all the gold in the island, if he had owned it, just to have his hands free and the rifle back in them. Cray, at any rate, would not have survived for many seconds.
They were dragged bank across the desert of upturned gravel in the fast-gathering darkness, and as they were brought to the two trees which stood in front of the cabin, all Cray's lawless crowd was gathered round—all except the guard Seth, who was herding his wretched charges into the stockade.
"Tie him here," said Cray, licking his thin lips in malicious glee. "I'll teach him! I'll give him something besides gold!"
He went into the cabin, and came back with one of those rawhide quirts which are used for riding-whips in the south. Cruel things they are, and will cut through a horse's hide, let alone a man's.
Rufe was already in the act of tying Dick to the thick trunk, spread-eagling him against the rough bark so that the whip might have the more terrible effect.
And then—then from the darkness above leaped a tongue of white electric fire. So fierce and brilliant was the flash that Cray staggered back, half blinded. There followed instantly a crash which made the solid ground quiver. Then, as the echoes died, came a drumming roar like the sound of a great waterfall.
"Thet's the rain a-coming, Cray," observed Ambrose Bent, in his harsh voice. "Guess you'd best to put off this here little entertainment until the shower's over."
Cray swore savagely. But the man had been badly scared by the flash. He was secretly afraid of lightning. And the intense blackness above daunted him. After a moment's hesitation, he told Rufe to take the two back to the stockade, and keep a good watch on them.
"Yew got to keep guard to-night, 'stead of Russ," he said. Then he turned on Dick.
"Don't yew think you're going to get off one lick of it!" be snarled. "To-morrow, at sun-up, yew'll be tied up here again, and I'll lay I won't leave ye enough skin between ye to make a belt out of! Get to your kennel, ye dogs, and ye can spend the night a-thinking what's coming to yew in the morning!"
He and the gap-toothed Degan helped Rufe to take the two boys to the stockade. Before they reached it the storm burst in all its fury. It turned black as night, the lightning blazed in wide, ribbon-like flashes, which darted in and out among the trees in a most terrifying fashion. The thunder roared like great siege guns, but the wind and rain were so terrific that between them they almost drowned the bellow of the thunder.
Cray fairly funked it, and bolted for the cabin, but Rufe and Bendall took good care to see the prisoners carefully shut up.
Dick and Dudley dropped down in the corner of the shed which they had taken possession of at dinner-time. The roof was anything but watertight, and the rain beat in upon them from every direction. But as they were soaked to the skin already this made little difference.
The worst of it was that lighting a fire or cooking was out of the question, and the bacon and hominy were, of course, utterly uneatable without some sort of preparation.
Dick hardly thought of his own predicament. He was worried to death about Dudley. He believed that the exposure would simply finish him. Oddly enough, it did nothing of the sort. The coolness which the deluge of rain brought seemed to revive his chum, and he seemed stronger and brighter than at any time during the day.
But Dick was very down.
"If I'd only had the sense to look out behind!" he groaned. "To be caught like a bullock with a rope—it makes me fairly sick with shame!"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Dudley "That was my job, if anyone's. I guess you haven't got eyes both ends of your head, have you?"
"But I might have known they were up to some game with all that parleying," declared Dick, still unable to forgive himself. "It's no use talking, Dudley. I was a thick headed ass. I wouldn't mind so much if I hadn't got you into the hole as well."
"I reckon you're talking through your hat, Dick," replied Dudley drily. "Even suppose you had plugged a brace of them, what difference would it have made? How far could we have run with these irons on? Stop grousing, and let's see if there's any chance for us to light out before morning."
It was the wisest thing he could have said, for his suggestion at once turned Dick's thoughts into a more useful channel.
"Are you fit for it?" he asked doubtfully.
"Get these irons off, and you'd mighty soon see," declared Dudley.
"That's the rub. We can't do it without a file, and we might as well wish for the moon."
It seemed he was right. The last thing that either of them was likely to obtain was a file. They talked it over again and again, while the thunder bellowed overhead, but no possible plan suggested itself for escape.
The storm lasted about an hour. Then it died away, and the rain stopped. But the sky still remained covered with heavy clouds, and the thunder rumbled in the distance.
Someone crept up to them. It was one of the wretched negro slaves.
"Boss, you got any matches?" he whispered to Dick.
"Why, yes; I've got a few," Dick answered, fishing out the little corked bottle in which he kept his matches.
"Dat's all right, boss. I done cut up some fat wood for kindling, and I kin fix up a fire all right. You got-ter eat, ef them debbils gwine to beat you in the mawning."
Dick was touched.
"That's very kind of you," he said. "It's a fact we need some food pretty badly. If you can light a fire, I'll come and do the cooking."
"No, sah; I do de cooking. We 'uns am all mighty pleased 'cos yon killed dat no count Zeke Russ."
The wretched man who spoke was mere skin and bone. He was half-starved, and less than half-alive. A lump rose in Dick's throat, and it was all he could do to thank him.
"What's your name?" he asked, and the man answered:
"Dan, is it? Well, Dan, if ever I get out of this place, I'll never rest till I get you out, too. So remember that, and keep your heart up, if you can."
He then turned to Dudley, and suggested that they had better try to make their corner of the shed waterproof. There was a big stack of palmetto-branches lying outside which the negroes had cut for bedding, and some of these they had spread earlier in the day to use for bedding. Dick thought that they might weave some of these together as a shelter.
He lifted a pile of them, and as he did so something slipped through his hands, and fell with a slight clinking sound to the hard ground.
Dick dropped the branches, and, turning, began to grope about.
A moment later Dudley heard him give a quick gasp. Then Dick bent over, and put his mouth close to Dudley's ear.
"A file!" he whispered. "A file!" His voice, low as it was, shook with excitement.
Before Dudley could answer, the thunder bellowed again almost overhead, and once more the rain beat in huge drops on the roof of the crazy shed.
"YOU first, Dudley. No, it's no use objecting. Sit tight, and let me get to work."
In a moment Dick was at it, cutting away at Dudley's irons with an energy which no metal could withstand. The file was new and sharp, and the roar of the storm entirely drowned all other sounds. There was no need for caution, and Dick made the most of his opportunity.
He began on the link closest to the band which clipped Dudley's right leg, and in little more than five minutes it was through. Then he turned to the chain on the other leg, and soon that, too, was severed.
The storm still raged as he set to work upon his own fetters. The file was now getting a little blunted and the work took somewhat longer. But the noise and the darkness made all safe, and within another quarter of an hour Dick, too, was free.
He stood up, and stretched his legs rejoicingly.
"We're our own men again, Dudley. Now for the next act!"
"Guess we might dig," suggested Dudley.
"I don't know about that," replied Dick doubtfully. "These palisades are sure to be planted pretty deep. Cray wouldn't be apt to risk the niggers getting out."
There was a rustle close beside them. Both started violently, and Dick was on the point of flinging himself on the dark figure which loomed vaguely alongside, when Dudley caught hold of his arm.
"Go slow! It's Dan."
"Yas, it's-me, sah. I done watched you cut dem irons off, and I was gwine to ask yo' to lend me dat file when yo' done wid him. Ef yo'll do dat, I'll show yo' all a place whar yo' kin dig out real easy."
"You're sure you know of such a place?" demanded Dick.
"Yo' bet I'm shuah! Didn't I help build dis place when ole Buzzard Cray brought we 'uns ober hyah? I jest fixed it a purpose, and I could ha' got out any night, only it wasn't no sort o' use as long as I had dem irons on mah legs."
"Show it us," said Dick eagerly. "You shall have the file, and welcome."
"Den yo' come along mighty quick. Yo' got to got clear befoah dis hyah storm go ober."
There was sound sense in Dan's words, and they followed him at once.
He went very slowly, and at last stopped.
"Dis am de place," he said, and his tone was one of absolute certainty. "Dese hyah logs, dey ain't planted deep like de rest. Ef you digs under dem, yo' all will get out for shuah."
Dick and Dudley went down on hands and knees, and began scratching at the earth. It was the usually gravelly stuff, and on the face of it was not the sort of material which would be easily moved without a spade.
"Wish we'd got something to dig with," said Dudley, in a low voice.
"We have. There's the file!"
"Doan't you go using dat file, boss!" put in Dan hastily. "Yo'll be breaking it or somethin'. Hyah's what yo' kin dig with!"
The two dug and delved with desperate energy.
The broad, flat pieces of iron formed excellent tools for shifting the gravel, and soon a good-sized hole yawned at the base of the palisades. Of course, it rapidly filled with water, for the whole ground streamed. But as Dick and Dudley were already as wet as it was possible to be, this did not trouble them much. Their chief anxiety was whether Dan had really known the proper place to dig. It seemed to them that, in this pitch darkness, he might very easily have made a mistake.
But Dan was quite confident. Dick had suggested that he had much better go back to the shed, so as to avoid trouble in case Rufe did come in. But he refused.
"I'se gwine to wait till yo' all gets out," he said. "Den I'll go back. Dey won't catch old Dan. Nebber fear dat."
Dudley gave a low exclamation.
"Dan's right. I've struck the bottom of this pile. It's not a foot down, Dick."
So anxious were they that Dick and Dudley forgot all about the chances of the guard coming in, and in the end it was Dan who saved them from being detected.
"Rufe's a-coming!" he whispered sharply, and was off like a shadow for the shed.
Dick was on his feet in a second, and had Dudley by the arm.
"Come on!" he hissed, and dragged him away to cover.
A moment later the light of a hurricane-lamp gleamed inside the shed, and under half-closed lids Dick saw the burly figure of the negro passing along the line of sleepers who lay on their beds of soaking leaves.
The man stopped opposite to Dick and Dudley, and flung the light across them. But both lay absolutely still, and, apparently satisfied, he passed on, and went out again into the rain.
Once more Dick held his breath in suspense. Rufe's way out would take him quite close to the burrow. A lightning flash, even the light of his lantern, might be enough to show up the heap of soil, and to put an end to all their hopes.
SUDDENLY Dick found that he could not bear the suspense.
"I'm going to follow," he whispered swiftly in Dudley's ear. "You wait." Then, before Dudley could answer, he was on his feet and outside.
Rufe's figure loomed huge in the light of his swaying lamp. It was raining as hard as ever. The drops shone like silver lines as they crossed the illuminated space. Dick noticed these things subconsciously. All his attention was concentrated on the man himself, and, clutching his piece of hoop-iron, he crept, shadow- like, in the big negro's track.
Suddenly the familiar glare of a fresh flash shone blue through the thick rain-mist. For a fraction of a second every thing was clear as day. And, as ill-luck would have it, Rufe was exactly opposite the tunnel.
Dick saw him start, heard the thick exclamation he uttered, and saw him turn and stride towards the heap of fresh earth.
Every pulse in his body tingled. Would Rufe cry out, or would he not? He did not. He strode across to the spot, and, holding his lantern over the opening, bent down to investigate.
Like a flash Dick sprang. He lit fair and square on the man's back, and his weight sent the big nigger sprawling forward. He had not time to fling out his hands to guard himself, and his bullet-head rapped against the stockade with a force that made the solid fence quiver.
Almost before his bulky body reached the ground. Dick's fingers met in his throat. There was no need. The blow had done the business. Rufe lay like a dead man, stunned and utterly insensible.
The lantern had fallen, and gone out in the fall. All was dark as ever.
Next instant Dick heard Dudley's voice.
"You've got him?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"You bet!" said Dick briefly. "He's knocked out. Gag him before he comes to."
Dudley felt in the negro's pockets, found a handkerchief of sorts, as well as rope, and also a pair of handcuffs. Within half a minute Rufe was not only gagged, but handcuffed into the bargain.
"I guess he won't trouble us much more!" chuckled Dudley.
"Come on, then! Let's finish our tunnel before the other chap misses him!"
Dudley laughed—actually laughed.
"Tunnel! Well, I guess not. I've got the key. What's the matter with the gate?"
"But Seth'll be there."
"Not likely. Not in this weather. He's inside the guardhouse. And even if he is waiting, what's the harm? we've got Rufe's rifle. Pity if the two of us can't bold up one nigger between us!"
"Yes, I suppose we can do that much. Come on, then! But, I say, oughtn't we to tell Dan?"
"Dan's right here, boss," was the answer; and the shadowy form of the negro appeared alongside. "But doan't yo' worry about me. Yo' leab dem bars loose, and ef I kin file these here irons off me befoah mawnin', I'll get out all right!"
"We'll stop and help you if you like," declared Dick. "Suppose we collect the whole bunch of you, and rush Cray's camp?"
Dan shook his head.
"Not a bit o' use, boss. One file won't cut all dem irons—not in one night. And, anyway, dose oder niggahs, dey ain't got no rifles. No, de bes' ting is for yo' white men to go on out, and fix up some ways ob gettin' back to Floridy. Den yo' bring help, an' fix up dat Ezra an' all his crowd proper!"
There was no doubt about it. Dan was right. Besides, the rain was beginning to slacken. The cloud would probably break soon, and what was to be done was best done in the dark. Dan slipped back again to the shed and, after taking Rufe's rifle and lantern, Dick and Dudley went softly over to the entrance.
They stopped and listened. They could hear no one. They waited until a faint flicker of lightning from the fast-receding storm showed up the surroundings.
"The coast's clear," said Dick softly. "All we've got to do is just to walk out."
As he spoke he unlocked the padlock on the chain holding the big bars in their places with the key which he had taken from the helpless Rufe, and pulled the lower bar out of its socket. Then very quietly the two walked straight out of their prison.
"Easy as pie," said Dudley, who seemed a new man since the escape had been broached.
"Easy, once we had the file," corrected Dick. "We'd never have done a thing without that!"
"That's so," allowed Dudley. "I'd like mighty well to know how it got there!"
"Same way as the quinine got into the cave, I expect," replied Dick. "But there's no time for making guesses now. What are we going to do?"
"Finish what we started on this morning," Dudley answered promptly. "Collar the schooner and get away!"
"That's my notion, too," agreed Dick. "But it won't be any soft snap in this darkness and gale!"
"I guess not," said Dudley. "But it's the only way we shall ever get quit of Cray and his little lot. Myself, I'm real sick of messing about like we have been doing, hiding up in all kinds of dog holes, and getting nothing out of it!"
Dick gave a grim laugh.
"We'll get our own back all right this journey," he declared confidently. "If we can skip with the schooner, Cray's crowd are marooned. Our little cat-boat won't take the half of them, even if she's afloat. And after this storm, I rather fancy she's bust up!"
While they talked they kept going briskly in the direction of the Big Bay. It was shocking bad travelling, for in the dark they stumbled over the palmetto roots, and got caught up in the thorny bamboo vines. But it was gradually growing lighter, and by the time that they were in sight of the sea some stars were visible, and they could see the bulk of Look-out Mountain looming dark against the night sky.
They went straight to the spot where they had been brought ashore in the morning.
"There's the schooner," said Dudley, pointing.
Sure enough, she was plainly visible, rising and falling in the heavy swell which was sweeping in from the sea. She was about two hundred yards from shore.
"Yes; but where's the boat?" questioned Dick uneasily.
Dudley looked round. There was no sign of her.
"Gee, but I believe she's gone adrift!" he said quickly. "Yes, by thunder, so she has! Here's her mooring rope, and it's broken right in the middle. It's chafed through in the storm, and she's gone!"
For a moment or two neither spoke. This was a terrible and quite unforeseen blow.
"There's our own," said Dick suddenly.
"But she's ashore at the inner end of the bay."
"All the more likely to be safe. Come on! We must try and get hold of her. If we can, we can use her to reach the schooner."
He started off at once around the edge of the bay. It was fearful going, and the gale, that still blew in from the sea, whipped the spray in their faces, while at times the gusts were so strong they could hardly stand against them.
Presently he found that Dudley was no longer beside him. He turned quickly. Dudley was staggering as he walked.
"I had a tumble," he explained. "Knocked most all the breath out of me, I guess!"
His voice was so weak and hoarse that Dick was scared.
"You take my arm!" he ordered.
Even so, they could only go very slowly. By the time they reached the lower end of the bay the sky was clear and the stars gave light enough to see a long way, but it still blew as viciously as ever. Dick looked all round.
"No sign of the boat," he muttered. "Wait here, Dudley, and I'll get up on the higher ground!"
"I'm afraid she's gone up," said Dudley sadly.
Dick left him, and climbed a bluff a little way inland from the beach. From this point he could see for a good distant; but although he searched with his eyes every yard of water that was visible, he could see nothing whatever of the cat-boat.
It was at this moment that the sound of a rifle-shot came down wind. He started, and turned his eyes towards the camp.
From the height at which he stood he could see right over the low brush as far as the site of the camp.
Lights were flashing. He could see one moving rapidly from the direction of the cabin towards the stockade.
He gave a low whistle of dismay.
"The beggars are on to our escape," he muttered; and ran back to Dudley with the news.
"Yes, I heard the shot all right," said Dudley. "Dick, I guess we'll have to take to the bush again!"
"No; I'll swim out to the schooner."
"That I swear you won't," retorted Dudley. "The bay's full of sharks. And even if you could do it, I can't. No, old chap, we're up against it all right. We've got to take to the scrub again, and chance that our luck will turn!"
Dick gulped down his bitter disappointment. The two turned back from the water, and, climbing up to the higher ground, dived into the thick palmetto. Hardly had the harsh fronds closed behind them before they heard the sound of heavy boots crashing through the undergrowth less than a hundred yards away.
BOTH crouched low in the thick palmetto while Cray's men swept by.
There came a shout.
"The boat's gone. The cubs hev got aboard the schooner!"
"I guess not," was the answer, in Bent's harsh voice. "Thet there boat's broke loose in the storm, and gone adrift. Ef they wuz in the schooner, they'd hev got her under way by this."
"Thet's so. They'd hev been off before now," agreed the first speaker.
"Then, where be they?" asked someone else.
"Somewheres up in the scrub," answered Bent "Far enough away from this, anyways. Thet I'll lay!"
"I only wish we'd got them dogs!" came Cray's snarling tone. "We'd hunt 'em down mighty quick!" He burst into a perfect torrent of evil language.
"Save your breath, Cray," he advised. "Cussing ain't going to hurt 'em any. Guess we'll find 'em all right in the morning. They ain't got no grub, and the island ain't big enough to hide 'em. Anyways, I'm not a going to fool round here in the wind and the dark any longer!"
"Some o' you better set a guard on the schooner," was his last advice.
Then the boys heard him turn and tramp heavily away.
Cray gave some angry directions to two of his men to wait and keep an eye on the schooner; then he, too, made off, leaving his followers cursing their ill-luck in having to spend such a night on the open beach.
"A nod's as good as a wink," remarked Dick Daunt to Dudley. "We're all right till morning. The next thing is to find some place out of the wind, where we can lie up for the rest of the night."
"Are you cold, old chap?" he added anxiously, at he caught the sound of Dudley's teeth chattering.
"I reckon I am," allowed Dudley. "But that don't signify. Once we get moving again, I'll soon warm up!"
They started off again in search of shelter. But it was far too dark to tell where they were going, and the scrub made any sort of travelling desperately difficult. More than that, they were both tired out, aching in every bone, and so wet that their very skins were bleached like a washerwoman's hands.
Dick still had his corked bottle of matches, but it was out of the question to make a fire. Even if they could have found any dry stuff, the light would at once have attracted the attention of their enemies.
At last Dick gave it up.
"It's no use, Dudley. Let's make a wind-break, and wait till morning. We're only finishing ourselves with this sort of thing."
"I reckon you're right, Dick," Dudley answered, and his voice was so hoarse and so weak that it frightened Dick. Dick was in terror of Dudley getting another attack of fever, and this time there would be no quinine.
They were in the thickest of the thick palmetto, and this in itself did a good deal to break the wind. Dick began wrenching off the fronds. They were so tough that it took all his strength to tear them from the stems. Some he plaited together to make a sort of shelter, others he piled as a bed. He went on until his hands were too sore to pull any more. Then the two huddled close together, and prepared to wait for dawn.
It was not really cold. Anyone wearing ordinary British clothes could have stayed out that night, without much discomfort. But the boys were wearing only breeches, boots, and flannel shirts. All their garments were ragged and wet through. Their teeth chattered as the strong gusts came off the sea, sweeping across the scrub, and making the stiff leaves rattle as they passed.
Never had either of them known time to drag so terribly. It was not as though they had anything to look forward to. Morning would not bring breakfast, a bath, a change of clothes, or any sort of comfort. On the contrary, it would bring a renewal of pursuit, flight, hunger, the chances of being recaptured.
To think of falling again into the hands of Cray made Dick's flesh creep. He knew now, by actual experience, of what brutalities the man was capable.
Yet, in spite of all the troubles that the day must bring, he had never in all his life been more thankful to see at last the pale gleam in the eastern sky, which heralded the dawn. Down in latitude 25, sunrise is not the slow and tedious process it is in our far northern latitudes. Rapidly the yellow gleam changed to rose, and that to bright gold, and then the great, flaming orb seemed to rush up over the horizon.
The two crept to an open space where the rays struck full upon the bare sand. There they stretched themselves at full length, and soon the genial warmth began to draw the chill of night from their cramped and numbed bodies. Their soaked clothes steamed and dried, and the sand became hot to the touch.
"Gee! But it's almost worth freezing to get warm again," said Dudley presently, as he turned over on his face and stretched his thin, brown arms wide on either side. "I feel as if could stay here all day, Dick, couldn't you?"
"Not without breakfast," returned Dick, rather grimly. "See here, Dudley, as soon as you're thawed out, we've got to start and hustle for grub of some sort."
"And it'll be some hustling, too!" remarked Dudley. "Unless we raid the camp, I don't reckon we're going to see anything fat in the way of breakfast."
"Porridge," said Dick meditatively. "Porridge and cream, bacon and eggs, nice crisp toast, and fresh butter. Coffee—big cups, with hot milk and lots of sugar—"
"Quit that!" broke in Dudley, almost savagely. "Quit it, I tell you!"
"I'm sorry, old man. I—"
He stopped again, making a motion for silence. Just ahead, under the edge of the palmettoes, the sand was heaving as though something were pushing it up from below.
BOTH waited breathlessly, and in about a minute a small round head appeared, not unlike that of a snake. It was followed by a thick body, covered with a brownish yellow shell, and next moment the creature showed complete as a good-sized tortoise.
"A gopher!" exclaimed Dudley; but before he could move, Dick had lunged forward and captured the queer-looking creature.
"Here's our breakfast, old son," he said, with an attempt at cheerfulness.
Dudley looked at the ugly beast doubtfully.
"I mean it!" said Dick. "Niggers eat 'em, and though I've never tried one, they say they're quite good. Now let's find a place where we can light a fire without being spotted."
"Guess we'd better go round the end of Look-out Mountain," suggested Dudley.
"Guess again," replied Dick. "No," he continued more seriously, "that would be foolishness. Cray will take it for granted that we shall be hanging around for a chance to collar the schooner or our old boat, and the first place he'll look for us will be this end of the inland. Our best plan, it seems to me, will be to go to the eastern end."
"I reckon you're about right," he said. "Come on, then, and bring the breakfast!"
There was not much risk of any of Cray's folk being up and about so early, and, anyhow, the scrub was thick.
The two made straight up the backbone of the inland, passed the camp half a mile to the south of it, crossed the creek, and got into the thick woods beyond. Here, where there was small chance of smoke being noticed, they camped in a little glade, and, gathering dry sticks, lighted a fire.
Their knives had been taken from them, but they still had the two pieces of hoop-iron with which Dan Grayson had provided them. With one of these, and a big stone, Dick managed to break the under shell of the gopher, and to clean it. Then, leaving the upper shell still on, he buried it in the embers, and raked the hot ashes over it.
He made Dudley rest while it cooked, and he himself went up on the hillside, a little above the glade, and kept a look-out. There was no sign of any movement near by, and after about an hour, he came down again, and disinterred the gopher from its fiery bed.
"Gee, it smelts like chicken!" declared Dudley, as the savoury fumes reached his nostrils.
"And tastes like it, too!" added Dick, as he tested a morsel on the end of his finger.
They were not far wrong. The gopher turned out excellent, and as there was quite three pounds' weight of meat inside the tough shell, made a good breakfast, even for two really hungry people.
Dudley threw away the last clean-picked bone.
"I feel a heap better, Dick," he said—"a whole heap better. But I'm mighty tired, and if you ask me, the best thing that we can do is to find a quiet place and get a sleep. We haven't had any to speak of for forty-eight hours past, and we don't know when we're going to get any again, so it's up to us to store some up while we've got a chance!"
"I was thinking the same thing myself. The only trouble is, I don't just know where we can lie up."
Dudley glanced at the blunt-topped hill above them.
"There ought to be tidy holes somewhere round here. The scrub is mighty thick."
"We'll try," replied Dick, and scrambled stiffly to his feet. "I vote we go up the brook. It's going to be infernally hot soon, and we must keep near water!"
The woods were marvellously quiet and peaceful as the two made their way through them, keeping up the left-hand bank of the stream.
It was difficult to imagine that less than a mile away Cray and his rascally crew had their headquarters. This part of the island looked as though human beings had never yet set foot there.
The ground became steeper, and the brook came tumbling down from above in a series of tiny waterfalls. Then quite suddenly they came to its source. This was a good-sized pool, which had been artificially deepened by a dam of earth and logs.
A biggish tree had been felled across the outlet, and this had been the beginning of the dam, which had been finished with smaller stuff, stones and the like.
The boys stopped and looked at it.
"I wonder who did that?" said Dick.
"Old Snell," Dudley answered promptly.
"How do you know it wasn't Cray?"
"Look at the stuff growing on it. That's been made months—maybe a year ago."
"Industrious old chap!" remarked Dick "Jove, it's a pity he got wiped out! If he was still on the island, he'd be very useful to us!"
"I reckon he would," allowed Dudley "I wonder what became of him?"
"Don't you suppose that was his skeleton that we found?"
Dudley shook his head.
"Shucks, Dick! That fellow had been dead for weeks! And old Snell had been in his house less than twenty-four hours before we arrived. Why, the meat we found open hadn't had time to go bad!"
"I'd forgotten that," said Dick slowly. "Well, he's gone, anyhow, and it's up to us to get out of this ugly hole by our own two selves!"
He stopped as he spoke by the edge of the dam, and, kneeling down put his face to the water, and had a long drink. Dudley followed his example.
"That will keep us going for a bit," said Dick. "Now, what about lying up in those trees beyond? I don't fancy it likely they'll run into us there."
"It looks good to me," agreed Dudley; and after a look round they pushed on again.
The pool lay at the lower end of a long, narrow, heavily- wooded ravine, which had high sides thickly covered with brush. It seemed an ideal place in which to hide during the heat of the day, and they thought it was about the last place where their enemies would think of looking for them. The brush was so thick that it was out of the question to walk through it. They had to creep on hands and knees.
Fifty yards above the pool they found a tiny open space. Above it was a tree, a sort of evergreen oak, with a thick trunk and a great spread of branches. Underneath, it was cool and delightfully shady.
"Right here is my bedroom," said Dudley.
"Couldn't find a better spot," rejoined Dick.
They flung themselves down on the ground, which was thickly carpeted with dead leaves, and within less than a minute were dead asleep.
The sun rose higher, the shadows shortened, and began to lengthen again, but the two worn-out youngsters did not move a single inch.
It was nearly four in the afternoon when Dick stirred and slowly opened his eyes. For a moment or two he lay quite still, staring up into the branches above.
He shivered slightly.
"Ugh! What a dream!" he grunted. "I thought Cray had us sure!"
He turned his head, and was about to sit up, when all of a sudden he froze. A faint gasp of horror escaped his lips, and, leaning on one elbow, he remained absolutely motionless, staring with wide-open eyes at the sight before him.
TEN feet from him—not half a dozen from Dudley's head—was coiled a large snake. Its colour was a pale buff, and on its back were black marks in the shape of diamonds. It did not need the ugly, triangular, flat-topped head to tell Dick that what he was looking at was the king of the pit vipers, the dreaded diamond rattlesnake.
The brute's head was raised a few inches above the coil. Its tail was just visible, with the bony rattle at the end. So near was the creature that Dick could actually count the rattles. They were twelve in all, showing that the reptile was twelve years old.
For several seconds Dick stared in fascinated horror at the great snake. It must have been nearly six feet long. The bite of such a creature meant death to the bitten within at most half an hour. His blood ran cold. Dudley was within easy reach of those terrible poison fangs, and if he so much as moved in his sleep his death-warrant was sealed.
Without moving a muscle, Dick looked round for the rifle. It lay between him and Dudley. He knew that it was loaded. He had seen to that before he lay down to sleep.
The question was, could he pick up the rifle and aim it without enraging the serpent or awaking Dudley?
There was no choice. It was the only thing to do, and he braced himself for the effort.
Hardly daring to breathe, he stretched out his left hand for the rifle. He moved it but an inch at a time. He knew that any abrupt movement would mean disaster.
The snake did not stir, but Dick felt the brute's deadly eyes upon him. Horrible eyes they were, cold, brilliant, and unwinking, with a suggestion in them of deadly malice.
He got his hand upon the rifle, and drew it towards him. At the same time he rose very slowly and gradually, so that he was sitting upright.
And still the snake did not move.
Then he had to raise the rifle to his shoulder. And now the rattler seemed to grow uneasy. Its head rose a little, and he could see its forked tongue licking in and out. A smell like that of fresh-cut cucumber filled the air. This is characteristic of the rattler tribe when angered.
The strain on Dick was awful. At any moment Dudley might move. He was always a light sleeper.
Still, Dick did not hurry, but continued very leisurely raising the rifle. Any hasty movement on his part must be fatal to Dudley.
At last the butt rested firmly in the hollow of his shoulder. In spite of the strain, he was steady as a rock. He would only have one shot, and if this did not finish the horrible brute, the second would be too late to save Dudley. Lightning is no more rapid than the strike of an angry rattler.
The creature's head was higher now. Dick aimed, not straight at its head, but at its neck. Then, if the bullet failed to cut the spine, it would at any rate crash through the coils beneath.
With an inward prayer that he might not miss, his finger tightened on the trigger. The report crashed out, startlingly loud in the breathless stillness of the hot afternoon, and simultaneously the rattler's coils quivered, then sank flat upon the ground.
The muzzle had been within a yard of Dudley's head. He fairly leaped out of sleep, and sat up, staring round with startled eyes.
"What—what—" he began.
Dick did not speak. He merely pointed at the snake. So perfect had been his aim that the head lay a foot away from the coils. The bullet had decapitated the reptile.
Dudley drew a long breath, as he mentally measured the distance which separated the dead horror from his own body.
"Thanks, Dick!" he said. "I guess that was a pretty good shot!"
"Not so dusty for me," Dick answered, as he rose to his feet. He was very pale, but otherwise much as usual. "And now, Dudley, I fancy we had better be shifting. The sound of that shot will have been heard pretty much all over the island, and we want to be quite some way off before Cray & Co. arrive on the scene."
"Hush!" muttered Dudley, and held his hand up for silence.
Next moment came a rush of feet, Without another word, both the boys plunged, head down, into the thick brush and raced away as fast as the thickness of the scrub allowed.
Dick took the lead. He dodged in and out among the thicker clumps of bush. Sometimes he was forced to burst a way through a tangled mass of creepers, but where he could he went round. Dudley followed close at his heels.
"Keep low! Keep low!" whispered Dick sharply, as they crossed a little open space. The warning was emphasised by the crack of a rifle and the vicious spit of a bullet close above their heads.
They were running up the ravine. Suddenly they came face to face with a cliff too steep to climb. Dick glanced quickly round. The cliff was equally steep on either side.
"We're in a blind alley!" he gasped.
"There must be some way up!" said Dudley desperately.
"No; we're boxed!" As he spoke Dick thrust fresh cartridges into the magazine of his rifle.
"Find some cover, Dudley," he bade his chum. "If there are not too many of them we may still be able to hold them off."
Dudley ran forward a little way. Dick stood facing down the gorge. The sound of pursuit was plain. He could hear a number of men crashing heavily through the thick scrub.
Dudley came dashing back.
"There's a way up. Creepers hanging over. I guess we can climb it!"
He pointed as he spoke.
Dick shook his head.
"No earthly! It's on the cards we can climb it. But what's the use? They'll pot us as we climb."
For a moment the two stared at one another. Dudley realised that Dick was right. The climb must be slow and difficult, and they would be perfect targets for their pursuers as they climbed.
"It's all right, boys!" came a voice from out of the scrub. "It's all right! No need to hurry! We've got the cubs boxed!"
No need to ask who had spoken. There was no mistaking Ezra Cray's harsh, grating tones.
"I'll get him, anyway!" growled Dick between set teeth, as he dropped flat on the ground, his rifle held firmly to his shoulder. "Whatever happens, he sha'n't brag he's caught us a second time!"
Dudley's eyes flashed, a curious gleam lit his keen face.
"Your matches, Dick—give me your matches!"
For an instant Dick thought that his chum had suddenly gone crazy.
"Matches? What do you want with them?"
"Give me them, sharp! No time to talk!"
Dick saw the other had a plan. He whipped out his corked bottle, which still held about a dozen matches.
Dudley had already picked up a dead branch covered with dry leaves. He tore up two or three handfuls of sun-dried wire-grass, and twisted them into the branch. Then, striking a match, he set fire to his improvised torch, and, hurrying a little way back down the gorge, thrust it into a clump of dry brush.
In spite of the rain of the previous night, eight hours' blazing sunshine had dried out the thicket, so that it was like so much tinder. In an instant the scrub sprang into flame.
Dudley rushed from one clump to another, firing everything as he went. Within an incredibly short space of time he had a wall of fire reaching almost from one side of the gorge to the other. It crackled and roared, sending up showers of sparks and great volumes of dark smoke.
The heat was terrific, but what little wind there was blew down the gorge, so that it carried the smoke towards their pursuers.
"Now's our chance!" cried Dudley, as he led the way back to the top of the gorge. "Sharp us you can, Dick, or they'll be out of the lower end and get round on us."
Dick did not waste a moment. He seized the end of a tough grape-vine which hung down over the low cliff, and pulled himself up as best he could. It was a hard scramble, and every moment he expected to hear Cray or his men open fire.
But the shouts and yells which came from below told a different story. Cray's men, if not Cray himself, were evidently panic-stricken by the roar of the blazing scrub and the huge masses of smoke which were beating down upon them. It seemed that they had all run for it.
Dick reached the top of the low cliff in safety.
"Catch!" cried Dudley, and flung the rifle up to him. Then he himself tackled the creeper and began to climb. He was slower than Dick, and Dick could do little to help him. It was some minutes before he reached the top, and then he was so done that he could hardly stand.
"Get on my back. I'll carry you," offered Dick.
"You're crazy!" retorted Dudley. "They'd have us before we could get a hundred yards. No; double back. That's the scheme. Double right back, and lie up in that thick stuff above the pool. It's a risk, of course, but I reckon they'll make sure we've gone straight on."
Dick saw that he was right. There was plenty of cover all the way, and, unless there was a pretty good tracker among their pursuers, Cray would never dream that they had gone back.
He took Dudley's arm, hurried him into the thickest of the scrub, then they both went down on hands and knees and crawled softly into the very heart of the stuff, where they dropped, panting and dripping, with exhaustion.
Next minute they heard Cray's buzzard-like croak coming from the opposite side of the ravine.
"D'ye see 'em, Bendall? Hurry, ye fool! They can't hev gone far! Hurry!"
"The smoke's so derned thick I can't see nothing!" Bendall answered hoarsely.
Dick raised his head a little. He was listening eagerly.
"Don't you worry, old son!" whispered Dudley in his car. "I'll lay my share of the gold they'll never catch on to our little double. There's mighty thick cover on the east slope of the hill. They're dead sure to reckon we've run for it."
Some moments passed. In spite of Dudley's encouraging words, Dick was in a great stew.
From their hiding-place they could see nothing that was going on, and the roar of the fire drowned most other sounds.
Down in the gorge the whole of the scrub was ablaze, and the flames rose fifty feet or more into the air. The draught caused by the heat had become a brisk breeze, which swept the fire faster and faster down towards the pool. Sparks rushed through the smoke in myriads and were caught by eddies and scattered this way and that. Even where the boys crouched in the scrub, some thirty feet above the bed of the gorge, and fifty feet away from the edge, they could feel the heat.
At last Dick could stand the suspense no longer. He raised himself very cautiously.
"Say, what are you doing?" asked Dudley.
"I want to see what these fellows are at."
"A sight more likely they'll get their eyes on you!" returned Dudley. "You'd best lie low."
Unwillingly Dick crouched down again
"It's getting mighty warm!" said Dudley presently.
Dick did not answer. He was straining his ears for some sound of their pursuers. But the crackling and snapping of the flames in the gorge below made it impossible to detect footsteps.
The air grew stifling. Smoke blew down upon them in clouds.
Suddenly Dudley started up.
"Say, Dick, the fire's over the edge! The scrub's alight on top of the cliff!"
He pointed as he spoke, and Dick could distinctly see little crimson tongues of fire flickering through the thick stuff within a few yards of where they lay.
"Guess we'd better shift if we don't want to be roasted," continued Dudley. "It's coming our way!"
They shifted without delay. It was time, too. Rabbits, snakes—all sorts of small creatures were coming towards them, driven by the fire. The worst of it was that the boys dared not rise upright. They were afraid of being seen. They ducked and dodged, making the best speed they could under the circumstances.
All of a sudden the scrub ended, and they found themselves on the bare hillside, with no cover of any sort, except a few rocks.
"This is a nice joke!" growled Dick, as he paused and looked out across the bare space. The nearest trees were at least a couple of hundred yards away. "Your little scheme has cut both ways, Dudley."
Dudley crawled out into the open and took a quick glance around.
"Can't see anything of Cray's crowd," he said, in a tone of relief.
"Then we'd better do a bunk across the open," Dick replied.
Dudley shook his head.
"I guess we can do better than that. What's the matter with turning right round and making back down the creek again.
"The way we came? You're crazy, man! It'll take us right past the camp again."
"MAYBE it will," said Dudley. "But where's the harm? Most all Cray's folk are over in the other direction. There must be two looking after the schooner, and two more busy with the niggers. I guess there won't be many left to form another search-party."
"By Jove, I believe you are right! The only thing I don't quite see is where you want to make for."
"Right over to the south side—our old quarters. We shall be a darned sight safer there than anywhere else."
"That's not a bad notion. We can spend the night in the spring cave."
"And he sure of a drink of water for supper, anyhow," smiled back Dudley.
Dick had no doubt in his mind that Dudley was right. There was far more cover near Rocky Beach. Besides, they knew the ground better. And then there was always fresh water in the Spring Cave. Grub, of course, was an awkward question. They could only hope to get hold of another gopher, or perhaps some crabs or oysters.
The smoke was blowing thickly above them, and under its cover they ran rapidly in a south-westerly direction, until they reached the woods below the gorge. Here they were able to slack a bit, and take things more easily.
"We shall have to look out as we get near the mouth of the creek," said Dick presently. "As likely as not we shall meet Cray and his little lot on their way back."
"I guess not," Dudley answered. "We've come too quick for that. They'll be plunging around in the scrub at the east end of the island for the next hour or more."
He was right. Reaching the edge of the palmetto-scrub above Rocky Bay, they reconnoitered carefully before venturing into the open, but saw nothing of Cray or his men. They climbed the big heap of the landslide on the west side of the bay, and by the time they reached the Spring Cave were only too thankful for a long drink of the ice-cold water from the little rock cup.
Dudley went to the mouth of the cave, and dropped down upon a rock. Dick perched himself on another.
"This is all very well," said the latter. "But what does it lead to?"
"Sleep, anyhow," refilled Dudley, with a smile. "We're safe enough here, and, in spite of my nap, I can do with a night's rest."
"Must say I should like something to eat first," grumbled Dick. "Sleep's all very well, but it don't fill one's tummy."
"That's true, Dick," Dudley answered more gravely. "I'll allow the grub problem is a mighty awkward one. I was kind of wondering if we went and hunted among the rocks in our old cave, whether we might dig out a tin or two of meat."
Dick sat up straight.
"That's quite on the cards," he said. "Anyhow, it's good enough to try. What do you think? Shall we try it now?"
"Better wait a while, I guess," Dudley answered thoughtfully. "There's still nearly two hours' daylight Let's stop here an hour, then if we don't see anything of Cray's push, we'll go on and have a dig."
Dick agreed that this was a good notion. In an hour Cray would either sweep round to the beach, or he and his followers would probably have returned home for supper, and left the rounding up of the fugitives for another day.
They lay back comfortably, and took it easy while the shadows lengthened; then, when the sun was not more than half an hour high, crept out and reconnoitered carefully. There was not a sign of anything moving, so they started for the old cave.
The tide was coming in, and when they got down to the beach beyond the slide, there was only just room to walk between the water and the cliff.
The cave which they had abandoned in such a hurry was a pitiable sight. Cray's infernal machine had wrecked it most thoroughly. The whole roof was down, and the interior one mass of piled-up boulders. They stood and surveyed it with aching hearts.
"Then don't look. Come in and dig," retorted Dick.
It was precious hard work, shifting the masses of broken rock and their hands grew sore, and their backs ached after half an hour of it.
Dudley straightened himself slowly and painfully.
"I don't reckon we'll ever get to the bottom of this," he observed mournfully. "It's no sort of use."
And just then Dick gave a cry of delight.
"No use, you say! What price this?"
As he spoke he lifted triumphantly a squarish, red-labelled object. It was a tin of corned-beef.
"Bully for you, Dick!" exclaimed Dudley, and reached across to take it from Dick's hand.
The movement saved his life. At that very moment a shot rang out, and a bullet flattened on the side of the cave in a line with the point where Dudley's head had been one second before.
Without an instant's hesitation. Dick hurled the tin which he had just found at the man who had fired. So quick was he that it reached its mark before the would be murderer could pull trigger a second time, and Rufe Finn—for it was he—went over like a poleaxed bullock, with his blunt nose flattened to his face, and most of his front teeth adrift.
Dudley wheeled just in time to see the nigger go down.
"Good man, Dick! Gee, it'll be some time before he eats beef, or anything else for that matter!"
"Take his rifle!" snapped Dick. "Don't waste time. The rest aren't far off."
He snatched up his own rifle, and stepping quickly to the mouth of the cave, cautiously looked out.
Crack! Crack! came two shots almost simultaneously.
Dick sprang back. His eyes were bright with the light of battle.
"The whole outfit are coming across the cliff face," he said quickly. "What shall we do—fight or hook it?"
"Clear out," answered Dudley instantly. "We can't hold this place. We must reach the ravine if we can. We ought to be able to hold them up there."
"Keep low, Dick," he added. "For any sake, keep low. If you're hit we're done in!"
The ruins of the old breast work which they had built to defend their cave just after the coming of Cray & Co. lay thick on the narrow platform outside, and gave cover enough, so long as they kept well down.
The moment they were outside, rifles began to talk again, but they flung themselves flat, and crawled on hands and knees in among the boulders until they were round the bulge of the cliff. Then they both sprang upright, and were off along the ledges towards the mouth of the ravine.
"Don't break your neck, Dudley!" panted Dick, as Dudley took a risky leap from one point of rock to another. "They don't know the ledges as we do. They won't be within range again for five minutes."
"Yes, but we've got to get cover of some sort. What do you want to do—hide in the ravine?"
"Yes, go right up it, and into the scrub beyond. We can dodge them there. Palmetto won't burn, so they can't smoke us out."
As he spoke, Dick turned uphill, and began to climb quickly towards the funnel-like mouth of the ravine. Dudley came close after.
They had nearly reached their goal, when from above a fresh shot rang out, and a bullet struck a rock within a yard of Dick, and ricocheted with a vicious ping.
Dudley gasped with dismay.
"Then, by thunder, they've got us!" he exclaimed. "They've got us covered!"
For a moment the two crouched low behind a projecting ledge. They were absolutely at their wits' ends. A more hopeless plight could hardly be imagined. They could not go back, for Cray and his followers cut off their retreat. They could not go up, for the man posted on the bank of the ravine could pick them off at his pleasure. Beyond—that is, to the west—the beach was already covered with the rising tide, and as for the cliffs, they were absolutely perpendicular.
They were, literally, between the devil and the deep sea.
AGAIN the man by the ravine pulled the trigger, and the report of his rifle echoed along the face of the rugged cliffs.
Dick and Dudley were safe for the moment beneath their ledge. It was plain that the second shot was a signal to Cray.
It was instantly answered.
"Where be they, Degan?" came Cray's croak from some distance back.
"Jest underneath me," shouted back Degan. "They cayn't get away. You kin take your time."
"Can't get away!" echoed Dick in a fierce whisper.
"Dudley, it's the sea for us."
Dudley glanced down at the blue water heaving gently at the base of the cliff. He shivered. Small blame to him, either! Dick knew the reason of his hesitation.
"Sharks or not, it's better than falling into Cray's hands again," he said gravely. "And if we can once get round the Point we may do 'em yet."
Dudley set his teeth.
"Go ahead! I'm game!" he said briefly.
The ledge they were on ran shelving downwards to within a few feet of the water. And so long as they were on it they were entirely hidden from Degan. From Cray, too, until he was very much nearer than he was at present.
Once their resolution was taken, the two wasted no time in carrying out their plan. They scuttled down the ledge like two rabbits, and came to its end not their own height above the sea.
"Leave the rifles." whispered Dick. "We can't swim with them."
As he spoke he thrust his into a crack in the rocks. Dudley did the same. Then Dick let himself down from the ledge and hung by his hands.
"Softly!" he said. "Don't make a splash. They can't see us, and we'll be a hundred yards off before they know what's become of us."
Dudley nodded. Dick dropped quietly into the sea, and waited for his chum; and Dudley, with splendid pluck, followed him.
The water was calm, and quite warm, and the two swam along side by side, keeping as close under the cliff-foot as they could. As he swam Dick kept a sharp look-out in all directions. But there was no sign of sharks, or of the even more dreaded barracuda.
The splash of the slow swells breaking on the cliff drowned other sounds, and they could no longer hear their pursuers' voices. Striking out steadily, they were soon opposite to the narrow mouth of Hidden Bay.
Dick glanced at Dudley. Dudley was not nearly so strong a swimmer as himself.
"Can you keep going?" he asked anxiously.
"I guess so," was the quiet reply.
"We could dodge into Hidden Bay if you liked."
"No use. We couldn't get out again.
"Maybe we could after dark."
Dudley shook his head.
"Guess I'd rather swim in the daylight," he answered grimly.
It was at this moment that a shout rang out, loud enough to be heard even above the slow boom of the surf.
"They've spotted us!" muttered Dick. "Look out for lead!"
"Apparently, however, the man who had spotted them was in some place from which he could not shoot, and the two had gained nearly fifty yards more before the crack of a rifle woke the echoes along the cliff-face.
"Didn't hear that bullet," observed Dudley, quickening his stroke.
"The range is pretty long. We've got a fine start. Don't hurry, old man. There's a long stretch before we round the Point."
"And a longer stretch before we can make any sort of a landing," he thought, but did not say so. As a matter of fact, he had not the faintest idea where they would be able to land, even if they were lucky enough to escape the bullets of their enemies.
Two rifles rang out simultaneously, and a little jet of spray leaped from a wave-top to Dick's right. It was no use ducking or dodging. They must just keep straight on, and trust to luck that they would not be hit. There was this much in their favour—that the range was now over three hundred yards, and that two heads bobbing among the waves at such a distance need mighty good marksmanship to make sure of.
Next came a regular volley, and bullets pitted the water all around.
"Rotten shooting!" said Dick, with a grim chuckle. "We've got the tide with us, and next thing they know we'll be out of their range altogether."
He was right. A rapid current swirled along the base of the diff, and was more than doubling their ordinary swimming pace.
"Gee, but that was close!" gasped Dudley, as a bullet dipped past his ear and struck the water not twelve inches in front of his nose.
It was a chance shot, for after that, although the firing went on for some minutes, nothing else came near enough to be dangerous. And every minute the Point showed nearer.
"Keep close in," advised Dick—"as close as you can, Dudley."
As he spoke he turned slightly to the left, meaning to skirt the Point as closely as possible.
The moment he turned he began to feel the pull of the current. The tide was in some way turned outwards from the curve of the cliff. He had to fight hard to keep close in.
He glanced at Dudley, and saw that, in spite of his efforts, he was being drawn gradually further out from the cliff.
"Guess it's too strong for me!" panted the latter.
Instantly Dick struck out and came alongside Dudley.
"Hang on to me," he said quietly. "We'll make it all right."
At first Dudley objected; but Dick insisted, and the other yielded. Dick, wisely, did not try to haul his friend right back across the current, but swam obliquely, keeping as near the shore as he could, without exhausting himself.
This was just as well, for when they did reach the Point they found themselves in a swirl of contending currents. The water was rough, too, and, into the bargain, Dudley was tiring. It was all that Dick could do to fight their way out of the turmoil.
But he did it at last, and they found themselves in calm water, well round the Point, and out of sight or reach of their enemies. Dick raised himself in the water, and took a look along the shore. His heart sank. So far as he could see, the cliff swept on without a visible break of any kind. There was no bay, no beach—not even an isolated rock to which they might cling and rest themselves.
Dudley was watching him. He saw the look on Dick's face, and realised what it meant.
"Don't look healthy—eh, Dick?" he asked.
"To be quite honest, it doesn't," allowed Dick. "I can't see a landing-place. All the same, one can't see much from sea level. It's quite on the cards there may be some opening, and not far off, either. Anyhow, we're safe from Cray, and there don't seem to be any sharks about, so we can just take it easy."
"You lie on your back, Dudley," he added—"lie on your back and float. I can tow you along."
Dudley obeyed, and in this way they travelled slowly for about two hundred yards in a north-westerly direction along the base of the cliff. But search as he might, Dick could see no possible landing-place, and he began to realise that he himself was getting badly fagged. He paused again, and trod water.
A swell lifted him slightly, and he had a glimpse of a long, smooth rock—a sort of spur running out into the sea from the base of the cliff. It was a long way off, and it looked terribly steep; yet, such as it was, it was the only possible chance in sight for making a landing.
He pointed it out to Dudley.
"Come on!" he said cheerfully. "If we can make it, we ought to be able to climb out."
"All right," Dudley answered. His voice was very weak and hoarse, and Dick was frightened to notice how blue-white his lips were.
They started again, Dick towing Dudley as before. But Dick himself was so tired that they took a long time in reaching the spur. The nearer they got to it, the lower Dick's hopes sank. The spur was quite smooth, with no handhold or foothold of any sort, and far too steep to climb upon. It looked to him as if their last chance was gone. For himself, he did not feel as if he could swim another hundred yards. His legs and arms felt heavy, and all his muscles numb.
One of the long, slow swells that came softly in from the open sea broke upon the spur, and as the blue water washed upon it there came a curious, low, booming sound.
"It might almost be hollow," thought Dick vaguely, as he paddled slowly in towards it.
"It is!" he cried suddenly.
"It is what?" asked Dudley hoarsely.
"Hollow," answered Dick, in sudden excitement. "There's a hole in it—a hole in the rock-spur, just above water level. That last swell broke into it and made that queer, booming noise."
"A HOLE—a cave mouth, do you mean?" demanded Dudley, sharing Dicks excitement. "Gee, but you're right! I can see it myself now."
"Can you keep yourself up a minute, old man?" asked Dudley anxiously. "It's going to be a bit of a job to reach it."
"You bet!" Dudley answered briefly.
They were now quite close under the spur. The hole, which was not more than a yard across, was in the very face of the curious spur, which stuck out from the main cliff like a buttress. On the face of it it seemed a most useless sort of refuge, for the water was already breaking into it, and at high tide it would be completely submerged.
But it was a case of "any port in a storm." Neither of them could keep afloat much longer. If they could gain even a few minutes' rest, it might be possible to go on again and reach some other landing place.
Dick swam as near as he dared to the lower end of the buttress, then waited for the next swell. As it lifted him he struck out hard. He felt himself flung forward against hard rock, with a force that almost knocked the breath out of his body. The water broke over his head, blinding and confusing him; then as the wave dropped back his groping fingers found a ledge, and grasped it desperately.
It was the lower rim of the opening, and in a moment he was standing upright on the ledge.
"Now then, Dudley! Quick, before the next swell comes!"
Stooping down, he managed to grasp Dudley's outstretched hand, and, using all his strength, dragged him safely up alongside.
"That's good!" he gasped. "Now, hang on tight. There's another swell coming."
It came washing up to their waists, and tugging at them so strongly that Dick realised that the next one would probably carry them clean off their hardly-gained perch.
"We must get inside. It's our only chance," he said, with sharp decision.
"Out of the frying-pan into the fire, I guess," remarked Dudley; "or perhaps I should say, out of the waves into the water." But all the same he followed Dick without a moment's hesitation.
Inside, the opening was very like one of those huge pipes which carry the water supply of big towns. It was about the same size, almost as round, and almost as smooth. But it was not by any means straight. Indeed, the angle at which it ran upwards, combined with its steepness, made it anything but easy to crawl up it.
Yet crawl they had to, and quickly, too. Both were painfully aware that, if caught by the next swell before they were beyond its reach, they would be licked out as swiftly and easily as a fly is licked down by the swift-darting tongue of a toad.
A hollow roar, a dash of spray, and Dudley, forcing his way up into the unknown gloom above, felt the water washing to his knees. He jammed his elbows against the two sides of the rock pipe, and held on like grim death.
The wave felt back, and he heard Dick's voice anxiously inquiring if he was safe.
"Still here," panted Dudley, "but I reckon we'll have to go a bit higher before we can call ourselves real safe."
"You're right. The tide's got some feet to rise still. Come on. It's not so steep above, and the air's quite good. Want a hand?"
"I guess not. I'm good for a bit yet."
Dick climbed on. Dudley could not see him, but he followed upwards through the darkness. As Dick had said, the slope was not quite so steep above, and by the time the next swell came booming after them they were well above its upward rush.
"Here's a flattish bit," came Dick's voice. "I vote we rest a while."
"Seconded and carried unanimously," replied Dudley. "To tell the honest truth, I haven't often wanted a rest quite so badly."
"Or grub either," returned Dick soberly. "It's a long time since we finished the gopher."
"We sha'n't even find a gopher in this drain-pipe," said Dudley. He paused a moment or two, then spoke again in a more serious tone. "Say, Dick, do you reckon we'll ever get out of this?"
"Get out of it? Of course we'll get out of it!" returned Dick quite sharply. "See here, Dudley, because you're fagged out there's no need to chuck up the sponge. Once the tide's fallen again I'll go down, and swim along till I find some landing- place. Then I'll come back for you."
Dudley did not answer. Dick realised that for once his chum had come pretty near to the end of his tether.
"Buck up, old chap!" he said persuasively. "We've been in just as bad places before, and got out. Anyhow, we're better off than we were twenty-four hours ago. Then we were Cray's slaves. Now, at any rate, we're free."
"Yes, we're free," said Dudley "free to sit here and starve in the dark, free to take to the water and be snapped up by sharks, free—if we can ever get ashore to be shot down by Cray's men."
Dick said no more. It was clear that Dudley was beyond comfort for the present. He sat still, shivering slightly in the strong draught which blew down from somewhere above.
Boom! A long-drawn swish. A shower of salt spray broke over them.
Dick sprang up.
"Come on, Dudley! The tide hasn't turned yet. We've got to get a bit higher."
"What's the use?" asked Dudley in a dull voice.
Dick reached down and caught hold of him.
"Come on!" he said, and though he spoke quietly enough Dudley obeyed.
They scrambled on up the curious passage, slipping and sliding as they went, and often in danger of falling back. The rock which they crawled over was all smooth. Not a sharp corner anywhere. Dick realised that it was all water-worn. At times the waves must certainly come right up it. He began to wonder uneasily if they would be able to climb high enough to escape the reach of the surf at full tide. Every wave which broke below sent a gust of sound up the tunnel, followed by a blast of air.
But between times the down-draught was strong, showing clearly that the tunnel, like the spring cave, had some connection with the upper air.
For perhaps five minutes they climbed steadily, then Dick's fingers, groping for a hold, found a broad ledge. He scrambled up, and discovered a flat surface.
"Where are you, Dick?" came Dudley's voice from below.
"Don't know; but I've found standing room, anyhow. Here, take my hand!" He reached down and helped Dudley up.
"Struck a kind of cave, haven't we?" said Dudley, groping about.
"Seems like it," Dick answered. "I think I'll use just one match to see where we are."
In spite of the long swim, Dick's matches, carefully preserved in the little cork bottle, were still dry. He struck one, and, shielding it from the draught with his hat, looked round.
It was, as Dudley had said, a cave—a very small one; in fact, a mere bulge in the long, bottle-necked tube up which they had crawled. They could see the tube itself, both above and below, with sides almost as smooth as though the dark-coloured rock composing them had been polished.
The match burned Dick's fingers, and he dropped it.
"We shall be all right here for the present, Dudley," he said. "The best thing we can do is to perch ourselves, and wait until the tide falls."
Dudley hesitated. He hated the darkness and chill of the place. He would like to have climbed higher, and chanced finding a way out. But he had the sense to know that both he and Dick were very near the end of their tether, and that rest was what they needed most of all.
"I guess we had," he said reluctantly, and dropped down beside Dick, with his back against the wall of the little rock chamber.
They were too tired even to talk, and in spite of their wet clothes, their hunger, and the chill of the darksome place, both dozed off. They were roused by a deep hooting roar, resembling that of a steam siren, and both leaped up in a violent hurry.
"Great Scott, what was that?" exclaimed Dudley, grasping Dick's arm with a force that proved how badly he was startled.
"It—it must be a wave!" stammered Dick, who was almost as much scared for the moment as Dudley.
At that instant there came a swishing sound, and then a spray of salt water broke over them in a fine mist.
"I know!" said Dick sharply. "I know! Dudley, d'you remember the hooting that puzzled us so the first days we were on the island—that we heard so plainly when we were in the cave on Crooked Cliffs?"
"I do that," answered Dudley in a puzzled voice. "But—but I don't understand."
"Why, it's plain as a pikestaff, and if I hadn't been an absolute idiot I'd have thought of it long before! It's a blowhole!"
"A blowhole!" repeated Dudley, in a tone which proved to Dick that he evidently did not yet understand. "What's a blowhole?"
"This—this is a blowhole! A rock funnel, the bottom of which is below high-water mark, while the top opens somewhere above. I've seen one on the north Cornish coast. When there's any sea on the waves run right up to it, and burst out of the top. I don't quite know why it makes such a row, but it's something to do with the air that's carried up."
Dudley gave a low whistle.
"Then we—we are in the pipe of the infernal thing!" he muttered, in a tone of dismay.
"That's about the size of it!" returned Dick calmly.
Dudley gave a bitter laugh.
"Then this finishes it! From that first burst, it's quite dear there's a storm working up. Now, I suppose there's nothing to do but wait until we're washed out."
"It's no use meeting trouble half-way, old chap!" answered Dick, as quietly as before. "Seems to me we were precious lucky to strike this little cave place before the first big wave came. And as that didn't do us any particular harm, perhaps the others won't, either. Remember, it isn't very far off high tide."
He had hardly finished speaking before there came another roar. It was louder than the first. The solid rock seemed to quiver under the shock, and a faint phosphorescence gleamed through the darkness as a great spout of water rushed past them up the rock tube.
Part of the wave sprayed out sideways, washing the floor of the little cavern in which they had found refuge, but the mouth of it was so small that the amount of water which found its way through was not enough to be dangerous or to threaten to wash them away.
For some ten seconds the fierce rush continued; then they could feel it falling back, rolling in a thundering cataract back to the sea from which it came. The noise, the rush, the feeling of the enormous power exerted, together with the impossibility of getting any further away from the spout, was absolutely terrifying, and left them both gasping.
Yet there was nothing to be done. They could but remain where they were, and hope against hope that in the end they might come out of it alive.
And so it went on for over an hour. Sometimes it would be five minutes between the upbursts, sometimes only three. Some rushes were much heavier than others, and once a full foot of water gushed into their refuge, and it was only by clinging to a tiny projection which Dick found in the wall that they were saved from being washed right out and drawn down that roaring pipe into the depths below.
At last, after what seemed an eternity of suspense, the waves began to slacken, and to come at longer and longer intervals. Then one came which failed to reach the cave at all, and fell back before doing so.
Still, they did not dare to more. They almost held their breath, waiting in frightful anxiety to see whether it was only a temporary respite. For all they knew, a heavy gale might be working up, in which case the surf would break higher than the entrance, even at low tide.
But time passed, and the bursts grew less and less frequent. There were still terrifying sounds down below, gurglings and hissings, as if some huge sea monster was writhing in its death agony.
"It's over at last!" said Dick, rising to his feet and beating his arms across his chest to try and restore circulation. The strong draught which had been blowing upon their soaked bodies had chilled them both to the bone.
Dudley scrambled up.
"Then, for any sake, let's get out of it, Dick!" he begged. "I've sure been through some ugly times the last week or two, but that beats all! I'd rather start to swim back to Florida than stick another hour like the last!"
"I'm with you there, Dudley," Dick answered. "It wasn't exactly enjoyable. 'Pon my Sam, I've had enough of caves and darkness to last me the rest of my life. What's it to be? Are we to try to climb up top-side?"
"Top-side or bottom-side, it's all the same to me, so long as we get out of this!" said Dudley. "Let's have one more match, Dick, just to start us on our way."
"Right!" Dick answered, and carefully struck one of his few remaining matches. Its flickering light shone on two soaked, white-faced, shivering scarecrows. Indeed, Dudley's appearance gave Dick a nasty shock. But neither had much time to comment on the other. They were too eager to see whether the upper part of the funnel was or was not too steep to climb.
"It looks all right!" said Dudley, with a sigh of relief, and, worming his way out through the narrow mouth of their [cave, started to climb up the funnel].
"Steady a minute!" came Dudley's voice from above.
Dick dropped his match and followed. The darkness was intense. He could hear Dudley wriggling and writhing on above him, but could see absolutely nothing.
It was desperately anxious work. The inside of the pipe was so smooth that there was no hand-bold. They had to wedge their knees and elbows against the sides and force themselves up by degrees. But the worst was that they could never tell when they would come to some place which was beyond their powers to surmount. In that case, it was more than doubtful whether they would ever be able to get down again to the bottom without slipping and falling the whole distance.
"Steady a minute!" came Dudley's voice from above.
Dick heard him struggling.
"Are you stuck?" he asked anxiously.
"Mighty near it!" answered Dudley, panting.
"Wait! I'll give you a hoist!"
Dick wedged himself as best he could, and, getting hold of one of Dudley's feet, held it firmly. Dudley wriggled himself upwards.
"All right!" he gasped. "I'm over that bit, but it's worse above."
It was, and so bad did it become that Dick was forced to strike another of his cherished matches in order to see the way. The light showed a curve in the funnel which was steeper and—what was worse—wider than below. The extra width made it all the more difficult to prop themselves against the sides.
"We're against it!" muttered Dudley. And then the match went out.
"Shall we try to get down again?" asked Dick.
"No use; we must go on."
Dudley began struggling up again. Dick heard him breathing hard as he struggled for hold, and braced himself, expecting every moment that he would slip. But Dudley stuck to it.
"I'm round the curve!" he panted.
Dick followed, but the way above was no easier. They were both dripping with perspiration, and almost done. From his own feelings, Dick knew how Dudley must be suffering. Their hands were raw and bleeding, their knees and elbows were a mass of bruises. Yet they had to keep going, for there was no place where they could rest for even a minute. Even the little cavern where they had spent that horrible hour would have been a harbour of refuge compared with what they were suffering at this moment.
All of a sudden Dudley gave a sharp exclamation.
"The light!" he cried. "Did you see the light?"
Dick thought that the strain had been too much for the highly- strung young American. He believed that his imagination was playing him tricks. It was, of course, just possible that he was glimpsing the upper end of the tunnel, but, even so, it must be night long ago, so how could he have seen a light?
"I saw no light," he answered. "Can you see it now?"
"No: it was just a flash. It's gone now. But I saw it, I'll swear to it."
Dick did not answer.
"Don't you believe me?" cried Dudley angrily.
"I'm sure you thought you saw it," replied Dick soothingly.
"You call me a liar!" burst out Dudley. And just then a flash of strong reddish light showed quite plainly at a little distance overhead, then vanished again.
"I beg your pardon, Dudley!" said Dick quickly. "I saw that, anyhow. But for the life of me I can't imagine what caused it. If you hadn't seen it already. I'd have thought I was dreaming."
"You bet your life we're going to find out what it is!" declared Dudley sharply. And by the scuffling sound Dick knew that he was climbing fast.
Dick, too, was so excited that for the moment he forgot his fatigue. He forced himself upwards close behind Dudley.
Once more the light shone out, and its gleam was enough to show that it came from the mouth of another passage opening at right angles of the blowhole.
The latter now became easier. The slope was less acute. Two minutes more and the pair crouched side by side at the entrance of the side-passage.
There was no light coming from it now, yet the spot where they were was not quite dark. Not a dozen feet above was the open air. There were no stars; it was evidently a dark and cloudy night, yet compared with the utter gloom in which they had been groping so long it seemed almost light. They could hear the wind rattling the palmetto fronds, they could smell the earth wet with rain.
For some seconds they remained motionless, breathing hard. Dudley was the first to speak.
"Which is it?" he asked, in a voice which quivered a little with excitement. "The tunnel, or the top?"
Dick glanced upwards, measuring the angle with his eyes.
"There's no choice," he answered softly. "This top bit is straight up and down. We couldn't climb it without a ladder.
"Then it's us for the tunnel," replied Dudley eagerly. "Come on, Dick!"
DICK seized Dudley's arm.
"Steady a jiffy! Don't go running your head into it! A light doesn't come by itself. There's bound to be someone there."
"Of course there is! But whoever it is, he's not one of Cray's crowd."
"No; I don't suppose it's one of them. But if not, who the mischief is it?"
"How can we tell till we see?" Dudley was getting more and more excited. "Anyway, I'm going to find out. You can stay here if you've a mind to."
He wrenched himself free, and, springing into the cross passage, hurried along it. Dick, in a terrible fright, went after him as fast as he could go. But Dudley had the start, and next moment he heard him wrench something aside—it seemed like a curtain.
Instantly a flood of light shone out, illuminating the whole passage.
"What's that?" came in supernatural tones, as a man holding a rifle sprang forward. "Who are you? Where do you come from?"
Now Dick saw the man. He was tall, upright, and very thin. He had a long, grey beard which came half way down his chest, and his hair, which hung over his shoulders, was equally silvery, and contrasted strongly with his skin, which was almost the colour of a ripe walnut.
"I'm Dudley Drew." Dudley answered quickly. And then, with a flash of inspiration: "And you—you are Matthew Snell!"
The old man backed a step and stared at the intruder.
"Drew it is!" he muttered, in a tone of extreme amazement. Then, after a moment's silence: "Where's your partner?"
"Just behind me," replied Dudley, and suddenly laughed. "Come on, Dick, let me introduce you to Mr. Matthew Snell."
"Come in," said Snell gravely.
Dick noticed that he spoke slowly and like a man who is unaccustomed to using his voice. It was just as if his vocal organs needed oiling.
Dick stepped in, and found himself inside a small but most comfortable rock chamber. The floor was level, the roof was high. In the centre was an iron brazier in which a fire of charcoal was burning. The smoke was carried up to the roof by a pipe which disappeared through a small crevice above. There was a cot with blankets, a couple of stools, and some cases of provisions lay against the walls. The entrance was covered by a rough curtain of heavy sacking. It was this which had cut off the firelight. The gleams they had noticed from below must have been caused by Snell himself raising this curtain.
For a moment or two Snell regarded his two guests gravely.
"Waal," he said at last, "I didn't ever reckon you'd find me, and I haven't no notion how you did it. But I guess—I guess I ain't altogether sorry."
"I'll soon tell you how we did it," began Dudley.
But the old man cut him short.
"I guess I can wait to hear about that, mister. You and your friend look to me to be jest about done in. Set yourselves down by the fire, and I'll fix you some coffee. After that I'll be right glad to hear what ye got to say."
Coffee! The boys had almost forgotten what it looked like. Old Snell opened a tin, piled half a cupful of the brown powder into a tin billy, poured on hot water from a kettle, and set it on the fire to boil up. The fragrant steam that rose smelt more delicious than anything that either of them could imagine.
Next, Snell cut bacon—great thick slices—and set them to sizzle in a pan. From another tin he extracted biscuits and crumbled them to fry in the boiling fat.
He worked very deliberately, and yet it was not more then ten minutes before the meal was ready and served out on clean tin plates.
"I reckon this is a speshul occasion," said the old man, speaking for the first time since he began to cook. "This here's the last but one, but I reckon we'll celebrate."
With that he opened a tin of condensed milk and let a goodly portion of the thick, sweet stuff dribble into each mug.
He took a little of the food himself, but ate slowly, and watched with evident enjoyment the way in which his two guests cleaned up every mouthful set before them.
"See here, Mr. Snell," said Dudley solemnly as he finished his portion. "If I live to be a hundred. I'll never enjoy a meal again as much as that."
"Same here!" said Dick heartily.
Snell smiled, and the smile gave his queer, brown old face a very pleasant expression.
"I'm mighty glad I had the grub to give you," he said, as he sipped his coffee.
"And we're mighty glad to find you alive to give it us," replied Dudley.
The words evidently pleased the old man, for he smiled again.
"And now, gents," he said, "I'd be pleased to know how you stumbled on this here cache of mine."
They told him, first one speaking, and then the other, and it was clear by the way he listened that the story was full of interest to him. When it came to their perilous climb up the blowhole, be tugged sharply at his long beard, and his eyes, pale blue, but still keen, glistened.
"Waal," he said slowly. "I've seen enough of you lads to know you had grit; but I'll be durned if I thought as anyone could have climbed up that there pipe in the rock."
"You've seen enough of us?" repeated Dick curiously.
"Why, of course he has!" put in the quicker-witted Dudley. "Say, Dick, don't you realise that Mr. Snell here has been sort of looking after us all the way through? Have you forgotten the ghost, or the quinine when I was so bad with fever, or the file which you found in the nigger shack? I guess we've got to thank him for all that, and, maybe, more that we don't know of."
Old Snell nodded quietly.
"You're right. Mr. Drew. I've been round a good bit of nights, since you got ashore. I guess, maybe, it was a pity I didn't let ye know I was still on the island. But the fact is, I've been here alone so long I kind of felt I didn't want to have nothing to do with no one else. An old chap like me gets that way arter he's been on his own for years."
"Then why did you chuck those bottled messages into the sea?" responded Dudley instantly.
"Those?" questioned Dick. "We only found one."
"And what did Cray find?" retorted Dudley.
"Mr. Drew, he's right," said Snell "There was four in all as I put adrift. I'll tell ye. 'Twas in the big storm as my boat was busted up. I wasn't well at the time—had a go of chills and fever. It seemed to me I didn't want to die alone here. I guess I got a regular scare. So I put them there bottles afloat.
"When I got better I began to wish I hadn't have done it, and it was then as I fixed this here place up so as I could go to it if anyone did come. Then one day, going out early, I seed you two on the beach by the creek mouth. I got plumb scared, and just nacherally cleared out.
"Maybe I'd have come round in a day or two when I seed there wasn't no harm in you. But just as I was thinking of it, this here feller Cray and his crowd o' scallywags landed. Arter that I made up to lie low, and lie low I have ever since, 'cept when I've gone out of nights to try and lend ye a hand on the quiet like."
Dick spoke up.
"You'll lend us a hand openly now, Mr. Snell, won't you?" he begged. "The three of us ought to be able, between us, to drive those ruffians off the island."
Snell winced a little at Dick's quick speech. Then he nodded.
"I guess I'll have to. I guess if we don't get rid of 'em soon it'll be too late."
Dudley glanced at him sharply.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because," Snell answered, in his quiet, slow voice—"because I ain't got grub left for the three of us for more'n about three days."
FOR a few moments no one spoke. Snell's announcement had startled the boys badly. Then Dick broke the silence.
"We're not going to sponge on you, Mr. Snell," he said sharply. He turned to Dudley. "It's up to us to do our own foraging," he continued.
"You bet it is!" declared Dudley.
Old Snell raised his hand.
"What's the use of talking like that?" he said quietly. "If the food will last the three of us three days, it will only last me alone for nine days. Now, do you reckon as Cray is any more likely to leave in nine days than in three?
"No, of course, he ain't," he continued. "And I'll ask ye another question. Is it like that an old feller like me is going to be able to put it over Cray's crowd by himself? Have sense, young fellers! The three of us together can, maybe, do something inside of three days, so long as we're fed up proper; but you two without grub won't be no more use than I would be alone at the end o' the nine days!"
Dudley laughed outright.
"You've sure got the rights of the argument, Mr Snell. Then, so far as I understand, you mean we are to share up the grub, and try between us to get rid of Cray's little lot before it's all gone?"
"That's so!" replied Snell emphatically.
Dick, who had been listening in silence, broke in.
"I've got a scheme." he said. "I don't know whether it will work, but it might. Have you got any dynamite, Mr. Snell?"
"Yes, Mr. Daunt. As luck has it, I've got a dozen or so sticks left. They're right here in the cave!"
"That's good. Well, see here. You know that pool that the creek comes out of?"
"I guess I ought to," replied the old man, with a smile. I'd a right to, seeing as I built that there dam myself, so as to get water down in the dry season for washing the gravel.
"Well," said Dick, "it occurred to me that if we blew it up, there'd be a rare big rush of water down—enough, anyhow, to rattle those sweeps. Then, while they're trying to find out what's up, I thought we might have time to rush the schooner and get away with her."
"You'd use a slow match, you mean?" said Snell.
"Yes, one long enough to give us time to get right down to the bay after we'd lighted it."
"Have to be a mighty long match, I guess!" replied Snell doubtfully.
"Wait! We can do better than that," declared Dudley. "What's the matter with blowing up the dam, like Dick says, only, instead of going for the schooner and running away, laying for Cray and his fellows just outside the cabin? If we did it just about dawn, they'd come running out when they heard the water roaring down, and we could shoot most of 'em before they knew what was up!"
It was a daring scheme, and for a moment the two others stared at Dudley.
"What about rifles?" asked Dick suddenly.
"I've only got one," said the old man. "A .44 he is, and a good 'un."
"There are the two we left at Crooked Cliffs," said Dudley, "just before we took to swimming. I guess they're there yet."
"Yes, we could go after those," he said thoughtfully. "We might get them at dawn."
"Get them! You bet we con get them!" declared Dudley. "Any old time we like! Don't you see, Dick, Cray thinks we're done in! You bet your sweet life neither he nor any of his crowd have the least notion that we're still alive!"
Dick's face cleared.
"I hadn't thought of that; but I expect you're right, Dudley. I've no doubt they imagine that the sharks have got us long age. They sure know that there's no landing place beyond the Point!"
"Then we'll get those rifles first thing in the morning," declared Dudley. He turned to the old man. "Say, Mr. Snell," he continued gleefully, "this is going to be a proper surprise-party for Mr. Cray. He's hasn't a notion there's anyone left alive on the island but his own little lot. He'll get the shock of his life when the guns begin to talk to-morrow morning.
"The last shock, we'll hope," added Dick grimly.
Snell spoke in his slow, deliberate fashion.
"I guess we'll have to postpone this here outing, young gents. We can't fix it for to-morrow!"
"Why not?" demanded Dudley.
"Why, because if you've got to get them rifles first, it's a- going to make it too late for any surprise-party the same morning. See here! We've got to get all across the island in the dark, and it's a-going to take right smart of a time to fix that there dam—dig the holes, put the sticks in, tamp 'em, and fix the train.
"Anyways," he continued, "you boys hev had a mighty hard time lately. It won't do you no harm to rest up for twenty-four hours, and make up some sleep. Ain't I right?"
Dick nodded sagely.
"You are," he declared—"quite right. And as for the grub 'question,' so long as we've got enough to last over to-morrow, why, that's all that matters. At least, that's the way it looks to me."
"I reckon that's so," allowed Dudley.
He was nodding as be sat on his stool, and Snell saw it.
"You get right down on that there cot, Mr. Drew," he said, with unusual quickness. "Pull those wet things off of you, roll up in a blanket, and sleep. You hear me?"
"B-but it's your bed." Dudley objected drowsily.
"It's yours for to-night, anyway," declared Snell. "You do as I say, or I'll get your pardner to put ye there!"
Dudley made no further objection. Indeed, he was far too nearly asleep to make any, and he was hardly stretched on the cot before he was in the land of dreams.
"A good job, too," observed Dick. "The poor chap's had a rotten time the last few days, Mr Snell!"
"I guess you've had much about the same," said Snell drily; "and if you're wise, you'll follow his example. There's plenty o' palmetto leaves there in the corner, and a spare blanket on top."
Dick yawned, and took the old man's good advice. He was asleep almost as quickly as Dudley, and never had sleep been more refreshing then in that warm, dry cave, with no fear of any enemy pouncing upon him.
It was Snell who roused Dick.
"Five o'clock, Mr. Daunt," he said. "Coffee's ready, and your clothes is dry!"
Dick jumped up.
"'Pon my word, you're an angel, and not very much disguised at that!" he declared with a laugh.
Then, as Snell was about to wake Dudley, he stopped him.
"Let him sleep," he said. "It's just as easy for me to bring two rifles as one, and he needs sleep, and lots of it. You know he's hardly over that go of fever yet!"
Snell nodded approvingly.
"Right you are, Mr. Daunt. We'll let him lie till he wakes of himself. I guess he'll be all the fitter for the next night's job!"
Dick dressed rapidly, and put away two cups of the delicious hot coffee.
"And now, how do I get out of this place?" he asked.
"I reckon that would puzzle you a bit. Come along outside, and I'll show ye the trick!"
The trick was a ladder ingeniously made of one long pole with crosspieces fixed through augur holes, and an iron hook at the top. This was hanging on pegs in the passage into the inner cave. It was quite light, and Snell took it down without help, pushed the end up through the top of the blowhole and hooked it against the rocky rim of the pit.
Dick ran up it easily, and turned at the top to wave a good bye to old Snell.
"I'll leave the ladder right here," said the latter. "And mind you don't go a-losing of your way. 'Taint the easiest place to find!"
"I'll look out," Dick promised; and stepping over the edge, found himself once more on top of the island.
It was for once a dull morning. There had evidently been another storm overnight. He took his bearings carefully, wondering as he did so at Snell's skill or luck in finding such a wonderful hiding-place, then started away for Crooked Cliffs.
To reach the spot where he had left the rifles he had to go right up to the head of the ravine, drop into it, and work down it to the cliffs. It was a nasty place, for if any of Cray's men did happen to be on guard he would be absolutely at their mercy. But, knowing as he did that Cray in all probability believed that he and Dudley were drowned or eaten by sharks, he had little fear of anyone having been left on watch.
As it turned out, he was right. There was no one about, and he gained the cliff face in safety. Now he began to fear that perhaps Cray's people might have discovered the rifles, and carried them off. He was hugely relieved when he found them in the cleft where he had left them, somewhat rusty with the rain, but otherwise all right.
He got back without further incident, and it was barely six, and Dudley still sound asleep, when he found himself safe back in the cave.
"You ain't wasted a lot of time," said Snell, with quiet approval. "Ay, they're a right useful couple o' guns, and takes the same cartridges as mine does. You set right down, and get the rust off of them, while I finishes getting breakfast."
"Seems to me you haven't wasted much time, either, Mr. Snell," replied Dick, with a laugh, as he noticed the preparations for breakfast.
"Wal, it's sort of pleasant to cook for folk as can appreciate it," replied the old man. "And I guess you two ain't had enough to eat anyways the last week and more."
Whether that was true or not, they certainly had no cause to complain that morning. Snell had actually made fresh baking- powder bread, and this with plentiful fried bacon, and a big pot of coffee, made such a breakfast as neither had tasted since they had been on the island.
The day passed quietly, and, after a splendid supper, they turned in very early, and it was again Snell who woke Dick on the following morning.
"It will be dawn in a little over an hour," said the old man. "I guess we'd better think of shifting."
Dick was on his feet like a flash.
"Jove!" he exclaimed. "This is the day we really start business."
The three were pretty heavily-laden when they started away from the blowhole. They had the three rifles, all their ammunition, a quantity of dynamite, and fuse, and a heavy steel crowbar. They also carried food for the day.
It was still quite dark, and not a star was visible anywhere. It was curiously still, and the air had not the usual freshness of the early morning. Snell sniffed once or twice, and looked around.
"Guess there's something brewing," he muttered "Seems to me like we've struck a right stormy spell." Then he started at a pace wonderfully rapid for a man of his age, and in almost complete silence the three walked as quietly and quickly as possible towards the other end of the island.
For all the sign of life they came across, there might never have been a another soul but themselves on the island. There were certainly no sentries out. As Dudley had said, Cray doubtless felt sure that at last the two boys were polished off, and he and his precious crew safe to raid the gold at their will.
It was still dark when they reached the pool and there they rested for a few moments before setting to work. Grey dawn was just beginning to glimmer as Snell pointed out the spot for the first charge, and as soon at there was light enough to see their hands all three went at it.
Snell evidently knew exactly what he was about. Small wonder, for he had been mining over half America, from the Yukon to Mexico. He opened up no fewer than four holes, then himself inserted the dynamite, and cut and fixed the fuses.
"I guess that ought to lift it," he said as he regarded his work.
Dudley chuckled softly.
"Gee! But Cray'll get a shock when all this water comes roaring down!"
"You better wait till it does before you laugh," said old Snell quietly. "Dams is funny things. They don't always go the way you expects they will.
"Still," he added, as Dudley's face fell, "there ain't no call to worry. This here is fixed mighty nicely, and I've allowed half an hour, as near as I can guess for the fuse to burn. That ought to be enough, I reckon."
"Heaps," declared Dick.
"Be you ready, boys?" asked Snell.
"You bet!" Dudley answered, picking up his rifle.
"Then I'll touch her off," said Snell, and proceeded to do so.
AS soon as the fuses were lit the three hurried hastily away through the trees, keeping fairly close to the edge of the brook which, in itself, was running higher than usual, owing to the recent heavy ruins. It was a grey morning. Although the sun was above the horizon, it was not visible. A queer, yellowish haze covered the sky. The air was unnaturally close, and it was already so hot, that big drops of perspiration rolled down their faces as they tramped through the wet undergrowth.
Outwardly, the three were calm enough, but Dick's heart was beating much more rapidly than usual. He fully realised how much hung upon the success or failure of the plan for ridding the island of Cray's pestilent horde. If they succeeded, not only was the gold theirs, but also—and what was for the present even more important—the store of provisions and the schooner. Without the provisions they could not stay and work the gold. Without the schooner the gold was useless, for they were marooned, and could not get back to the mainland.
The undergrowth was thick, and as they neared the camp they were forced to go more and more quietly. They were still a quarter of a mile away when Dudley suddenly held up his hand, then dropped silently into cover. The other two followed his example. Dick crawled close.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Someone moving on ahead there. Ah, I see him: It's Degan!"
Degan it was. He had a double-barrel in his hands, and was prowling across a bit of open ground.
"He's after pigeons," muttered Dick. "They come down to the creek about this time. I saw some the other morning."
"Dern the luck!" said old Snell softly but emphatically. "We ain't got a deal o' time to waste. I wish as he'd hurry up."
But the sallow Degan stopped and seemed to be peering up into the sky.
"How'd it be to stalk him and bob him over the head?" suggested Dudley eagerly.
"Too risky," said Dick, with decision.
For at least five minutes they were forced to crouch and wait for the wretched Degan. Every moment made them more uneasy. At last, however, he shifted and walked straight down the edge of the creek towards the camp.
The three jumped up hurriedly and followed.
Suddenly from the distance came a low, booming sound, which shook the air like distant thunder.
"That's done it!" grunted Snell. "Boys, she's bust, and we've got to move mighty quick!"
Quick they were, but not so quick as the flood. In a moment or two they could hear it coming with a deep toned roar which grew louder every instant.
"Run!" cried Snell. "Run! Keep a bit back from the water. They ain't a-going to notice us so long as we're behind 'em."
Run they did, but they were still nearly two hundred yards from the cabin when the great flood wave came thundering by. It carried with it logs, branches, all sorts of rubbish, and the roar it made was deafening.
"They've a-heard it!" exclaimed Snell, as the three emerged from the thickest of the scrub on to the edge of the open ground fifty or sixty yards from the cabin.
He was right. Four men were in the act of rushing out of the cabin. In the distance could he seen the negro slaves, scuttling away out of the gravel flat as fast as their ironed legs would carry them.
"Make for the cabin, boys! That's what we want!" ordered Snell.
His keen old face gleamed with the fight of battle, his pale- blue eyes shone.
"Don't you shoot yet. Time enough when I gives the word."
There was no need for the last order. As a matter of fact, neither Dudley nor Dick could have brought themselves to blaze away at men who were at the moment running in the opposite direction.
At this moment the flood wave from the broken dam had just burst out of the narrow channel above on to the open expanse of gravel where the gold digging had been going on. It turned over with a fierce hissing, and in the twinkling of an eye was seething across the level in a great sheet of white water. The sound it made as it caught the loose gravel and sent hundreds of tons of it piling together, was indescribable.
Under cover of the hiss and rattle Snell and the two boys bolted for the cabin. They came to it from the back, and had almost reached it when Degan, who, it seemed, must have paused among the trees to watch the flood come by, suddenly appeared in sight, running at right angles to their course.
He saw them, and they him, at the self-same moment. He gave a yell, and, flinging up his gun, fired both barrels at them. But in his haste the shots flew high. Before he could reload, Snell had pulled up short and taken quick aim. A spit of flame leaped from the muzzle of his rifle, and Degan crumpled up like a wet rag and collapsed.
Without a word Snell rushed on, and reached the cabin. All three rushed in together.
The place was empty.
"The hogs!" muttered Snell, glancing round at the dirt and confusion of the place, the dirty dishes, soiled blankets; and the swarms of flies.
"Get to the windows, boys," he continued sharply. "Pile them mattresses for shelter. I'll take the door. And shoot straight. We've got to get 'em all afore they reaches us!"
Dick and Dudley obeyed at once. Looking out, they could see Cray, Bendall, Weekes, and the big nigger, Rufe Finn. These four were all down by the edge of the flooded grovel. They were talking and gesticulating furiously, but what they said could not be heard. The noise of the flood was still too great.
Dick wondered why they remained there, why they had not returned to the attack. Then it occurred to him that they had actually failed, in the roar of the wave, to hear the first three shots; nor had they yet missed Degan.
They were very excited about something, but whether it was the flight of the negroes or the breaking of the dam Dick could not, of course, tell.
The water began to drop quickly. The wave was already past, and on its way down to the sea. The gravel began to appear again.
Then all four suddenly turned to the left, and began to hurry up-stream. It was clear that they meant to cross, if possible, and try to collect their negroes.
Suddenly Cray, who was leading, pulled up short. He had almost fallen over Degan's dead body.
If the whole situation had not been so desperately serious, Dick could almost have laughed at the expression of horror and dismay on Cray's face.
He bent down and examined the man. The other three crowded round. Naturally, it did not need much examination to see the cause of death. Snell had shot very straight, and his bullet had gone clean through Degan's throat, breaking his neck, and killing him instantly.
Dick saw Cray point to the bullet-hole, watched him pick up Degan's gun, and eject the two empty cartridges. The whole four men were evidently desperately excited and anxious.
Then Cray stood up and looked all round. His eyes fell on the cabin. He saw that the door was closed, and noticed the mattresses piled in the lower parts of the windows. He pointed excitedly, and gave his men some orders.
At once they made for the trees.
"Shoot, boys!" cried old Snell. "Shoot afore they gets to the trees! Sharp, now, or they'll get around us!"
As he spoke he began to fire rapidly.
At his second shot that great, cruel brute, Rufe Finn, reeled and toppled over. Cray and the other two dropped flat, and began firing back. Bullets rattled on the cabin. One came through the upper part of the window, just over Dick's head, and thudded into the opposite wall.
Dick no longer felt any scruples. He and Dudley both set to work, and the firing became hot and heavy. For some minutes no one was hit on either side. Then suddenly Dick, leaning out a little too far, felt a sharp blow on his left forearm.
The shock sent him reeling, but he was himself again in a moment. He realised that it was nothing but a flesh wound and, hastily knotting a handkerchief round the arm to stop the bleeding, got back to his place.
As he did so he saw Cray, Bendall, and Weekes suddenly spring to their feet, and bolt for all they were worth for the trees. He fired again, and Snell and Dudley also let loose.
"That's a bull!" shouted Dudley, as Bendall went sprawling.
But the other two reached the trees in safety, and disappeared.
"Keep your eyes peeled, boys." said Snell warningly. "I guess they'll try and sneak around and get us from the other side!"
"We're three to two, anyway, now," replied Dudley. "I guess we're all right."
"A fight's never finished till it's won," retorted Snell. "You mind that, Mr. Drew!"
Then he noticed Dick's arm.
"Say, are you hit?" he asked anxiously.
"Nothing but a scratch," declared Dick.
"Come right here and let me see," said Snell.
It was curious how the fight had changed the old man. He had lost all his nervousness, and his slow speech had given way to a crisp, sharp way of talking. He appeared ten years younger.
He had a look at the arm, allowed that it was nothing serious, and made a thoroughly good job of binding it up.
"Now," he said, "you two boys might as well set to work and fix the place up a bit. One's enough to do the watching for the present. And see how much grub they've left here."
Dick and Dudley obeyed at once, and the first thing they did was to open the cupboards and hunt for food.
To their surprise they found very little. There were three tins of meat, a small piece of bacon, about a pound of coffee, a little sugar and salt, and not much else, except a good-sized bag of meal.
"WHERE have they got to? It's my notion they've cleared out altogether!"
Dudley spoke quite sharply. More than half an hour had elapsed since Cray and Weekes had vanished together into the trees, and since then nothing had been heard or seen of them.
"Let's go out and have a look," he continued. "I'm sick of hanging about here among all these flies and dirt!"
Old Snell shook his head.
"I guess not," he said. "I wouldn't do it, Mr. Drew. They'll sure have the first of us that goes outside!"
"What do you say, Dick?" demanded Dudley "Do you reckon Ezra Cray has got the patience to lay for us all this time?"
"I'm hanged if I know!" replied Dick. "It seems funny that they should stick out there so long. Still, I'm willing to be guided by Mr. Snell!"
But Dudley was not satisfied.
"Let's make a test, anyhow—try the old dodge of sticking a hat out of the window on the end of a stick!"
"Try that if you've a mind to," said Snell indulgently "But I guess Cray'll wait to shoot till he's mighty sure of getting one of us!"
"Tell you what," put in Dick. "I've got a better dodge than that. Why not make a dummy, and push it out of the door? The light's none too good, with all these clouds, over the sky. It ought to draw their fire, if anything will!"
Dudley jumped at the idea. He found an old suit of overalls in a corner, and began stuffing them with some of the Spanish moss used for bedding by the late occupants of the place.
Dick helped, and inside five minutes they had rigged up a very fair representation of a human figure. With a hat on its head, and well pulled down over what would have been its eyes, it might have deceived anyone at a hundred yards distance.
They tied it on the end of a pole, then Snell pushed the door open very quietly, and Dick and Dudley between them poked the dummy slowly out.
Nothing happened. The stillness remained unbroken by any sound except the ripple of the brook, from which the flood had long since run down.
"I told you so," said Dudley. "I told you so, didn't I? They've gone!"
At this instant old Snell gave a sharp cry of warning, and raised his rifle to his shoulder.
Before he could pull the trigger came a frightened yell.
"Doan't yo' shoot, boss! Doan't yo' shoot!"
And a dusky, ragged figure sprang up out of the grass from the very point at which Snell was aiming.
"Why, it's Dan—Dan Grayson!" exclaimed Dick. "He's all right, Mr. Snell! He's the nigger who helped us escape the other night from the stockade!"
"All right!" he shouted to the negro. "Come along, Dan, we sha'n't hurt you!"
Dan came forward. He was in absolute rags, and miserably thin. A wretched-looking object altogether. He limped as he walked, and they saw that he still was wearing leg-irons. Yet, for all that, he was looking almost cheerful as he came up.
"I DONE know you'd fix dem fellers." was Dan's greeting, as he came in. "I done told yo' all so, didn't I?"
"Where do you come from?" demanded Dick.
"Up out ob dem woods, de odder side ob de creek," was the answer. "Dat's whar we all ran when de big flood come down."
"And where have you been since?"
"Waiting round till dat Cray go off."
"What—is he gone?"
"Bet yore life he's gone, he an' Seth Weekes wid him!"
"Which way did they go?"
"Down to de schooner, I guess, whar all de rest went."
"Where all the rest went!" repeated Dick. "What do you mean, Dan?"
"Why, I reckoned you all knowed dat dey'd gone, and dat was why yo' ran in when yo' did," replied Dan, in evident surprise.
"We don't know anything about their going!" retorted Dick sharply. "Who has gone, and where?"
"Bent; he done took four ob de chaps, and went off to de schooner jest about sun-up. I guess dey was a-gwine ober to Havana or Key West to get grub."
Dick looked at the others in dismay.
"We're a day too late!" he groaned.
Snell kept his head.
"Maybe they haven't started yet. I guess we may have a chance of stopping 'em yet!"
"That's so!" said Dudley, snatching up his rifle.
Dick paused a moment.
"Dan," he said quickly, "you stay here and take charge. Don't you go letting the other niggers come stealing! There's Degan's gun down by his body. You take it, and hold 'em off if they play the fool!"
"You bet I will, boss!" declared Dan, grinning. "And I jest hopes as you will shoot all dem oder debbils," was his parting wish, as Dick hurried after the others.
"Cray's got a long start," he said, as he came up with Dudley.
"He has that!" Dudley answered. "But for all we know, Bent may have sailed before Cray and Weekes reached the bay. In that case, we'll have to look out mighty sharp."
"If they're aboard, the schooner won't be out of sight yet," replied Dick. "We shall be able to see as soon as we get out of this beastly scrub."
They hurried along at the top of their speed. In spite of the heavy clouds, it was abominably hot. The air seemed absolutely stagnant, while the sky was covered with a sort of mist which had a queer, yellowish tinge.
Dudley, who was quite himself again, after his long rest and good feeding, got a little ahead of the others, and was the first to break out of the scrub on the edge of the ridge.
"There's the schooner!" he cried.
Dick came panting up. An angry exclamation escaped him.
"I thought as much. We're too late! She's sailed!"
Sailed she had, but only just. As yet she was hardly outside the bay. The wind was so light that she was hardly moving. She just had steerage way, and no more, but the tide was helping her out.
"Then I reckon Cray and Weekes are aboard all right," said Snell, as he came up.
"I suppose they are!" said Dick bitterly.
Dudley broke in.
"Seems kind of funny to me that Cray didn't bring his crowd back to tackle us," he said. "There must be seven or eight of them left, even now—quite enough to put us out of the running if they'd meant business."
"Yes," said Snell, "if they'd have meant business. But I guess most of 'em have had enough of business of this kind. Take it all in all, they've lost five, if not six men out of their crowd since they landed, and if they'd have tackled us in earnest, as you say, they'd ha' been mighty certain to lose two or three more.
"Now it seems to me," he continued, "that they're done the wisest thing they could. I don't doubt they got all or most of their gold aboard, and a pretty tidy lot it ought to be. What they've said to 'emselves is as they got their lives and their gold and their ship, while we got the island and the niggers and mighty little anything else. No, sir, there ain't nothing the matter with their argument so far as I can see."
They stood watching the schooner move slowly out of the bay, under the heavy, lowering sky, and for some moments none of them spoke again.
At last Dudley broke the silence.
"And what do you reckon we're going to do now?" he asked, rather bitterly.
"Get back and rope in those niggers before they've stole all the grub!" replied Snell, with calm good sense.
They went back, and found every one of the wretched slaves gathered around the house. There were no fewer than twelve in all. The faithful Dan had collected all the spare rifles and ammunition, and was sitting over them with his shot-gun.
"They ain't touched a thing," he announced triumphantly. "But," he added, "I reckons they's all durned hungry."
"Where does Cray keep their grub?" asked Dick.
"Dat's locked up in de house whar de guard lib, ober by the logs!" was the answer.
"By the stockade, he means," explained Dudley. "I guess we'd better bring it all over here."
Snell agreed, and they took half a dozen of the men and went across. They found several barrels of hominy, a supply of bacon which, with care, would last a month, and a good amount of molasses and corn meal. These they had carried across to the cabin. Then they gave out rations, and told the wretched negroes that they could cook their dinner, and have a day's holiday. But they ordered them not to go away, and gave Dan instructions to let them know if any tried to bolt.
After that they set to work and cooked a meal for themselves, of which they were badly in need.
The next task was a very unpleasant one. They had to bury the dead men. The negroes dug the graves, and the bodies were covered up without ceremony.
All this time the heat was increasing. What little breeze there had been was dying out completely, and the sky was the colour of dirty copper.
"There's weather brewing," remarked old Snell, with an eye on the dull horizon. "I don't know as I ever saw it look much worse. If it wasn't so late in the season I'd be looking for a proper cyclone."
"We've had one already this autumn," remarked Dick. "I hope to goodness there won't be another. And now, Mr. Snell, what are we going to do? What's your notion as to how we are to carry on?"
"I was jest going to say as it was about time for a council of war," replied the old man. "Ef you want to know my notion. I was thinking we'd best set to work and build a new boat. There's grub to last while we do it. We've got plenty of lumber and plenty of labour."
"And when we've built it?" asked Dick.
"Ship these here niggers back to where they belong, get a right good load of stores, and come back here with proper appliances to wash out the rest of this here gravel."
"That sounds good to me!" declared Dudley. "What do you say, Dick? D'ye think it's a good plan?"
"The best!" said Dick heartily. "And that reminds me. If Cray & Co. haven't found it and dug it up, our little hoard ought to be still under that log just outside. There's enough to buy all the grub we want for six months."
"You needn't to worry about that," smiled Snell. "Before I left this old shack I planted my little lot o' dust right under the path by the gate. I don't rightly know how much there is, but I guess it's more'n I can tote at one journey. It took me two days to carry it to the cache."
The boys stared.
"Why, you won't need to do any more digging!" exclaimed Dick.
Snell smiled again.
"No. I expect I've enough to keep me the rest of my natural," he answered. "And, as we're talking of it, I guess we may as well see if it's there yet. We'd better tell Grayson to shift them niggers away first."
This was done, then Snell took a spade, and they went out to find the gold.
"I reckon we'd better hurry!" remarked Snell, as he glanced again at the sky. "It's a-coming mighty soon now."
"Gee, but it does look black!" agreed Dudley. "It's worse than that thunder-storm the other night!"
Snell struck the spade into the ground and began to dig. He went down almost two feet, and then the steel struck something hard.
"Still thar," he said, with a twinkle in his clear blue eyes. "I guess Cray would be mad to think he's walked over it a hundred times and never knowed it was thar!"
A strange, droning, roaring noise had been going on for some moments, but so keen were all three on their treasure-hunt that they had not even noticed it. Now, however, it grew so loud that Dick glanced up.
He gave a shout of dismay.
"Down, all of you! Down on your faces. It's a tornado!"
As he spoke a huge column of what looked like black smoke came marching off the sea on to the island. Its foot was on the ground, its head in the clouds. Around its vast spinning form lightning played in violet and blue flashes. Its roar was appalling.
"Down!" roared Dick again. "It's coming right on top of us!"
With a screech like a thousand steam sirens the tornado swooped upon them. Darkness blacker than the blackest night covered the sky, yet illuminated every moment by the livid play of lightning around the swirling column of the storm.
Deafened, blinded, stunned by the appalling uproar, Snell and the two boys lay flat upon the bare ground, driving their fingers and toes into the earth in the hope of anchoring themselves, and saving themselves from being whipped away like straws in a whirlpool.
Louder and louder grew the indescribable roar; then Dick had the feeling that giant hands were striving to pluck him up from the ground, while he was pounded all over by dust, sticks, every kind of rubbish, which struck him with a force as if they had been fired from the muzzle of a gun.
So fearful was the weight of the wind that for the moment he almost lost consciousness. He felt as though his body was being crushed under a ton of stone.
The seconds seemed like minutes as he clung desperately to his hold amid the frightful turmoil. Above the screeching of the spinning column he heard a crack like the firing of a six-inch gun. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the awful pressure was relaxed, and he lay panting, breathless, hardly knowing whether he was dead or alive.
It was Dudley's voice. Dick rolled over, and saw Dudley struggling to his feet. His face was very white, and there was a smear of blood on his forehead where something had struck him, and cut a long, shallow gash.
"Where—where's Snell?" panted Dudley.
Dick got unsteadily to his knees, and glanced round. The tornado had passed, and was screaming and thundering a way over the hill on the eastern end of the island. But although it had gone, it was still almost as dark as ever; it was blowing a full gale, and the rain was coming down as if the bottom of the sky had fallen out.
"Snell! Mr. Snell!" Dick shouted.
There was no answer.
"Great heavens, he's gone!" gasped Dick.
"Not much, he ain't!" came a voice; and Snell himself, his clothes in tatters, and his face plastered with mud, rolled out of an adjoining palmetto bush.
"Gosh, I thought it was the end of the world, sure!" he exclaimed, as he scrambled to his feet, and began to wipe the mud from his face. "What about that there gold? I can't even see the hole!"
"The storm's filled it in for us," replied Dick, who was now on his feet and looking round. Suddenly he gave a sharp exclamation. "Where—where's the cabin?"
He might well ask. It was gone. There was simply not a sign of it left except one corner post. The rest of the stoutly-built structure had vanished—literally wiped off the face of the earth.
"Gee, but I thought I heard a crack!" said Dudley. "Dick, this is the everlasting limit. What in sense are we going to do now?"
"There's always the cave," answered Dick. "I don't fancy that's gone, whatever else has."
"The cave! Man alive, what's the use of that? We can always find shelter of some kind; It's grub I'm thinking of!"
"I'd forgotten!" he exclaimed, in a tone of dismay. "I'd clean forgotten that all the grub was in the shanty. By Jove, we're in the soup this time, and no mistake!"
"What's left of the stuff will be soup right enough if we don't hurry up and look for it." put in Snell. "Call up them niggers, if there are any of 'em left, and set 'em right in to picking up anything that remains!"
Dick at once started across towards the stockade. It was actually raining so hard that he could not see the stockade until he got down to the edge of the creek. The water was already rising, and took him to his knees as he wade across.
THE stockade was still there. The tornado had missed it. Dick wished that the contrary had been the case, and that the cabin had been left instead.
He shouted for Dan, but the thunder, the rain, and the wind drowned his voice. He had to go right into the stockade to find him. There Dan and several others of the negroes were cowering under what shelter they could find.
They were scared almost out of their wits. Even Dan Grayson, who was much superior to most of them, both in sense and pluck, was half silly with fright. Dick had to pick him up and shake him to get any sense into him.
"It's all right, Dan," he said. "The storm's over. Come on with me. The cabin's gone, and the grub with it. We've got to try and pick up what we can, or we shall all starve. Bring the other men, and come quickly!"
"Dey's only five left," whimpered Dan. "De oders was dat scared dey ran out in de woods, and I guess dey's all killed!"
"Then bring your five, and come on!" ordered Dick curtly.
The stream was rising so fast under the terrific downpour that it was all they could do to get across. Then, having at last got Dan to thoroughly understand what was wanted, they all scattered in an easterly direction to see what they could find.
They were ordered to bring what they could into the shelter of a big evergreen oak which grew near the site of the cabin, and which, oddly enough, had escaped the tornado completely.
It was nearly an hour before the last returned, and the amount which they had collected between them was so small that the white men looked at one another in silent dismay.
Seven tins of meat, a tin of coffee, half a bag of more than half-melted sugar, one piece of bacon, and about ten pounds of soaked and spoiled hominy, which had been recovered from a broken bag which Dudley had found wedged under the roots of a torn-up tree. That was all.
"I guess that ain't a lot for eight grown men," remarked Snell, as he took stock of the salvage.
"It will keep us for just about two days," replied Dick.
"There's gophers," said Dudley hopefully. "And maybe we can catch a few fish."
Dick shook his head.
"We lost our lines when the cave in Crooked Cliffs blew up. Still, we must do what we can, or else we shall jolly well starve! You see, we've got no boat, so we're absolute fixtures here until some ship happens to come along!"
"And that's likely to be a mighty long time," said old Snell. "I've been here a matter of five years, and though I've seen ships pass to the southward, there's never been one within hailing distance all that time!"
"Then it seems we're in a pretty ugly fix," remarked Dick, frowning. "We can't get on without grub—that's one thing sure!"
Dudley suddenly laughed. The others stared at him in amazement.
"I'm sorry," said Dudley. "It isn't any sort of a laughing matter, but I was just thinking that it's kind of comic that we should be hung up here, with enough gold to buy out a department store, and the whole lot isn't worth a fifteen-cent can of bully beef!"
"See here, boys!" broke in Snell, in his matter-of-fact way. "You're both of you right. The gold's no use to us here, and grub's the big question. It's just possible that the niggers may he able to catch us a few fish, and, of course, there's gophers, and maybe rabbits. But whatever we kin get, it won't keep us very long. Fact is, we've got to get off the island, and do it mighty quick, too!"
"But we can't. We've got no boat," cut in Dudley.
"What's the matter with building one?" said Snell. "We've got plenty of timber, and I've got a set o' tools. We'd ought to be able to fix up something as will float!"
Dick and Dudley stood staring at him. Evidently this was a suggestion that had never occurred to either of them.
"It's a goodish way across to Florida," said Dick presently; "and we've nothing for sails or rigging. Do you think we could over build a craft that would do the journey?"
"I guess we'd better try mighty hard if we don't want to sit here and starve," Snell answered uncompromisingly. "O' course, there's one other way as we might manage."
"What's that?" demanded the other two in one breath.
"Wait here until Cray comes back with the schooner, and take it off him."
"Gee, but that's a notion!" exclaimed Dudley.
"If he does come back," put in Dick. "You forget the tornado. If that caught the schooner, he and his pack of ruffians are at present providing a fine meal for the sharks!"
"That's so," allowed Snell. "And even if it missed 'em, they ain't having exactly what you might call a pleasant voyage. It's a-blowing great guns!"
This was very true. The rain was pretty well over, but the sky was still dark as ever, and a heavy gale from almost due west was roaring across the island. It was cold, too. The temperature had dropped considerably, as it always does after one of these circular storms, and the wind whistled through their soaked clothes, chilling them to the bone.
"Wal," said Snell, "I guess we won't do no good waiting around here and getting clemmed. We'd best give these here niggers their rations, and get right along back to the cave. Ef we can't have much supper, anyways we can keep dry and warm."
The others agreed. There was, indeed, nothing else to do. They dealt out to Dan enough food for him and his four miserable- looking followers. Then, carrying the rest between them, they started back across the island in the direction of the blowhole.
Reaching the high ground, opposite the inner end of Big Bay, they met a blast which they could hardly stagger against. Dudley pulled up and turned his back to the wind. Dick, a few paces in front, heard the other give a sudden shout, and turned quickly round.
"The schooner!" cried Dudley, pointing out to sea. "The schooner! Look at her!"
Sure enough, there was the schooner, or, at any rate, some vessel of just her size. Her topmast was gone, all her foresails seemed to have been blown away, and even her big mainsail was in ribbons. She appeared to be about two miles off the western end of the island, and was driving before the gale apparently out of control.
For a moment or two all three stared at her in silence. Then Snell spoke.
"She'll never make the bay," he said quietly. "She's doomed, anyway."
ON came the schooner. In spite of the ragged remnant of sail, which was all that was left to her, she was travelling at a tremendous speed. As she came nearer it seemed to Dick that there was just a chance of her reaching the mouth of the bay.
Suddenly, he started forward.
"Come on!" he cried. "Come on, you two! There may be a chance of doing something, after all."
Neither of them quite knew what he was after, but both followed. The mouth of Big Bay opened due north, but the two points of land which marked the opening were not the same in length. That on the east ran out further than the western horn, and at the extreme end of the eastern point was a ridge of rocks running out into the sea.
Rightly or wrongly, Dick calculated that the schooner would probably weather the western point, but with her present lack of head-sail would hardly be able to come up into the wind so as to make the opening into the bay.
Failing this, she would either have to endeavour to beat out to sea again, or else she would infallibly go ashore on the eastern reef.
All this he pantingly explained to Dudley as the two ran side by side towards the eastern horn of the bay. Snell, unable to travel so fast as they, was gradually left some distance behind.
As they came near to the point the roar of the waves breaking on the reef became almost deafening. Huge rollers driven before the gale came smashing down upon the dark-coloured rocks, and leaping up again in vast columns of foam. The spindrift, carried inland by the wind, beat upon their faces.
At last they reached the outer end of the projecting point of land. It was a low bluff, no more than twenty feet high, and, but for the protection afforded by the reef, the waves would have been breaking clean over it.
The schooner was now less than a mile away. She rose and fell with tremendous plunges over the giant seas. Now she dipped into a trough so deep that all her hull was hidden, and only the top of her broken mast was visible; next moment she was hoisted like a cork on to the top of a tremendous comber, poised there as though the wind would lift her and send her hurtling through the air.
"I reckon she'll pass the island altogether," Dudley told Dick. He had to shout to make himself heard above the yell of the storm.
Dick did not answer. He was gazing at the battered craft with the most intense anxiety. It seemed indeed as if what Dudley said might be right, for the schooner was still some way out, and if she held her present course would probably pass clear of the bay and clear of the reef also.
But a minute later he turned to the other and spoke in his ear.
"No. They're trying to work in. Watch! They're getting a bit of head-sail on her. It's their only chance for their lives—to get in, I mean. If she blows past she's bound to go under. She can't live another half-hour in that sea, and it's getting worse all the time. Ah, look! She's coming round!"
"Gee, but she is!" exclaimed Dudley. "I believe they'll do it now!"
A look of dismay crossed his face.
"Supposing they do make it," he said anxiously, "what are we going to do? We can't tackle the bunch of them."
"Why not? We've got our rifles."
"Ay, why not, Drew?" put in Snell, who had come up. "There ain't more'n six of 'em left, and I don't reckon they'll be so mighty full of fight after what they have been through the last few hours. Eh—what do you say, Daunt?"
"Why, I think we could handle a dozen in their fix," replied Dick.
"Watch her!" broke in Dudley. "She's coming round to it!"
"But she is making a terrible lot o' leeway," responded Snell, as he gazed keenly at the battered craft. "It's going to be nip and tuck, anyway you put it."
He was evidently right. Her crew had succeeded in getting a rag of head-sail on the schooner, thus giving her some sort of steerage way, and she was now heading in for the mouth of the bay. But, with wind and tide full on her beam, she was moving two feet to the east for every three south. In vain her helmsman tried to keep her up. She drifted sideways like a haystack.
"Jerusalem, but it's going to be a close call!" panted Dudley, almost breathless with excitement. "I believe she'll do it, though. I say, hadn't we better get down to the landing, and he ready for 'em? As soon as they're in calm water they'll have a chance to get their guns out."
"Not a bad notion, I guess, boys," said Snell. "Being only three to six, it's up to us to put it over them in a kind o' surprise-packet. You see, 'tain't the men we want; it's the schooner herself, and what's aboard her."
He was in the act of turning away when from seaward there came a crack like a gun-shot.
"What's that?" he cried.
"Her foresail—it's gone!" Dick exclaimed. "Blown clean out of the bolt-ropes!"
"Then I guess we may as well stay right here," replied Snell gravely, "for that's settled it. Any as comes ashore now won't need no rifles to finish 'em."
The boys did not answer. They were watching the schooner with horrified eyes. The loss of the head-sail, small as it was, had deprived her people of their last chance of safety. The clumsy craft had already fallen off her course, and was drifting helplessly towards the reef. They could see men running frantically up to the bows in an effort to bend another sail. It was no use. There was no time. Through the roar of the wind wild shouts came faintly to the ears of the watchers on the point.
It seemed at first as though the schooner would strike on the outer end of the reef, in which case she would no doubt drive over it, and, tearing her bottom out, sink in deep water behind. But, apparently, the tide was running very slowly into the bay, and carrying the disabled craft with it. She came nearer every moment, and the three on shore strained forward, half inclined to think, after all, that she might yet be saved.
Their anxiety was painful. Not for the rascally crew of the schooner. For Cray and his associates pity was wasted. With the possible exception of Bent, they were human beasts, who were far better under the sea than above it. No; their anxiety was for themselves.
If the schooner came ashore where they could reach or salve her, she would supply them with everything which they most needed—food, sails and rigging for their new craft, fishing-tackle, and the like. If she were lost, their own prospects were of the blackest. It would take weeks to build a boat fit for the voyage to the mainland. How were they to live until the task was accomplished?
"She'll do it!" panted Dudley. "She's inside the reef right now!"
The others did not speak. They could hardly breathe, so intense was their anxiety.
The schooner was now but a hundred yards away. She was headed almost directly for the spot where they stood, but under the send of the great waves she was flung nearer and nearer to the reef with every sea that raised her.
So near was she that they could actually see the faces of the men on her deck. There was Cray, more like a buzzard than ever, his yellow face a mask of terror, clinging to the stays on the leeward side. Ambrose Bent was at the wheel. His huge form swayed to the pitch of the vessel, but, brute as he was, there was, at any rate, no sign of fear on his hard face. The others, flat on the deck, clung for dear life to the raffle of broken cordage. They were washed to and fro by every wave that broke aboard.
"She'll do it," said Dudley again, but there was no conviction in his tone. The best that could be hoped for now was that the schooner would escape the reef, and come ashore at the foot of the bluff inside the bay.
An enormous wave came rushing into the mouth of the bay. It seized the schooner, lifting her so high that she seemed actually above the level of the bluff upon which the three were standing. Swooping onward with the speed of an express train, it carried her forward directly towards them.
With a deafening roar the huge mass of water struck the bluff, flinging up a great curtain of foam that for a moment cut off sight of everything beyond. When it fell they stared round in blank amazement.
The schooner was gone.
Dudley rushed forward to the very edge of the bluff.
"There she is!" he cried. "There she is!"
The others, craning forward over the edge, caught sight of a dark object some few yards to their right—that is, further into the bay. It was the hull of the schooner. The remains of her mast was gone, her deck was swept clear, yet there was her hull apparently fixed and immovable.
"She's wedged," cried Dick—"wedged between two rocks; fixed there as tight as a cork in a bottle!"
"She won't stay there long," Snell answered grimly. "Won't take more'n two or three o' them big waves to bust her to matches."
Dudley gave a sudden shout
"One of them is swimming! Say, Dick, we got to give the beggar a hand!"
He pointed as he spoke, and Dick saw a head appear amid the welter of foam under the lee of the schooner. Its owner was swimming, and swimming strongly, but it looked all odds against any chance of saving him. The bluff was between him and safety.
Dudley began to run along the edge of the bluff. Dick followed.
"What's the use? You can't do nothing!" cried Snell. But they paid no attention, and rushed on.
Dick saw what Dudley was aiming at. About fifty yards further up the shore of the bay the bluff was broken down, and a slant of rocks sloped out towards the water. This was out of the full sweep of the waves, but, all the same, it was constantly hidden by great sheets of spray.
Without the slightest hesitation Dudley clambered down, keeping as much us possible on the lee side of the rocks. Dick followed close behind.
"Can you see him?" shouted Dudley, sweeping the spray from his eyes with the back of his hand.
Dick, clinging to a rock at the end of the ledge, peered over into the boiling turmoil beneath.
"Yes, there he is! Give me a hand, Dudley."
It was Bent's head he caught a glimpse of amidst the driving spray. The man was still swimming, but only feebly. He seemed hardly able to keep himself above water.
Another wave came. Bent was lifted, and flung like a ball straight towards the rock on which Dick clung. With one arm clasped round a projecting point, Dick stretched forward, and with a desperate effort clutched one of Bent's hands.
Then the wave broke over him, wrenching and tearing at him, trying with savage fury to force him from his hold. He was blinded, suffocated. He felt as though his last ounce of strength was gone, and that he must either let go or follow Bent into the raging cauldron below.
Then he felt a grip on his collar.
"Hang on!" came Dudley's voice in his ear. "Hang on, old man!"
The wave passed, the water drained away with a sucking rush. But Dick was so nearly spent that he could not lift Dent. It was all he could do to maintain his hold.
"Wait! I'll get hold of him," said Dudley, as he wormed himself forward. Letting go of Dick, he managed to seize Bent, and between them the two dragged the man round under the lee of the rocks just in time to escape the full weight of the next wave. Here there was shelter of a sort, and Bent, recovering a little, was able, with their aid, to clamber up to safety.
He could not stand. The moment he was out of reach of the leaping waves he dropped flat upon the ground, and lay panting, his heavy face the colour of lead.
"Any more down there, Dudley?" sang out Dick.
"Can't see any. No; I don't believe there's a soul left."
"And a mighty good job, too!" said Snell, who had just come up. "One more mouth to feed, as it is. I don't see what you boys wanted with pulling that big, ugly feller out o' the sea. He'll only make trouble for us all."
"Hang it all, one can't leave a chap to drown!" Dick answered sharply. "And, anyway," he added, "he's the best of the bunch. He may be a pirate, but he did try to stop Cray from torturing us."
"Wal, let it go at that," said Snell, shrugging his shoulders. "Anyways, you better leave him where he is for the time, and see what we can salve from the schooner. I reckon she won't last a long time in this here sea."
It certainly looked as though he were right. Each breaker made a clean sweep over the battered hull, and although the sea was not quite so heavy where she lay as it was on the reef itself, it seemed a wonder that she did not break up at once.
But she was very stoutly built, and although her deck had already been absolutely cleared, her hull itself was still whole.
A little further up the bay there was a strip of beach below the bluff, and here wreckage was already beginning to come ashore. Dick saw this, and, hurrying down, secured several lengths of rope which he coiled and brought back up the bluff.
"What are you up to?" asked Dudley, as he saw Dick hurrying back towards the place beneath which the wreck lay.
"To get aboard before she breaks up," Dick answered hastily. "You and Snell give me a hand."
"You're crazy!" retorted Dudley "You'll be swept off by the first wave, and pounded to mush on the rocks."
"Not if I'm on a rope. You can lug me back if a big sea breaks."
Dudley would not hear of it.
"I'll be no party to your killing yourself!" he declared angrily. "Say, Mr. Snell, Dick here wants to go down the bluff on a rope. Tell him it's no use."
"It's plumb foolishness," agreed Snell. "There's no man could live half a minute on that there hulk. And, by gosh, it's getting worse every minute!"
Dick, in his turn, grew angry.
"I can do it, I tell you! What's the use of fooling round up here? The only grub between this and Florida is down in her hold. And how much is going to come ashore if she breaks up? Surely to goodness, it's better for one chap to take a bit of risk than for the whole lot to starve.
"See here," he added desperately. "If you chaps won't help me, I'll darned well get Bent to hang on to the shore end of the rope! He's pulled round, and quite able to do it!"
Dudley was almost in despair. He knew Dick so well that he realised he was in deadly earnest, and he was well aware that there was no stopping him once he had made up his mind to any particular course of action.
"For any sake, put your foot down," he whispered in Snell's ear.
Dick paid no attention. He was rapidly knotting the ropes together. Then he hurried across to where Bent, now somewhat recovered from his battering, was seated under the lee of a clump of palmetto.
"I'm going down to the wreck to try and get some of the grub out of her," he said sharply. "Are you able to help me?"
"I guess so," said Bent, rising slowly to his feet. "But I guess, too, mister, that ef yew do go down thar, it's a-going to be the last thing yew'll ever do in your life!"
"SOMEONE'S got to do it," snapped Dick; "or else you'll starve with the rest of us. There's only two days' grub left on the island!"
As he spoke he was knotting one end of the rope round his own body. Dudley and Snell were almost in despair, Dudley in particular. He looked at Dick, then down at the wreck, which was now as bare as a bald head, and sluiced every moment by the ever- growing seas. The wind was increasing every minute, and at times it was almost impossible to stand against the furious gusts.
Ambrose Bent rose to his foot. He took hold of the loose end of the rope in his enormous hands.
"Be you sot on trying it, mister?" he asked of Dick, in his deep, grunting voice.
"Yes," said Dick curtly, "Come on!"
Bent gazed at the boy, and there was a queer look on his thick, heavy face.
"I guess you're white." he said, "I guess there ain't no yellow streak in yew. Yew kin jest take that there rope right off of yourself."
"What the mischief are you talking about? For goodness' sake, hurry up!" retorted Dick irritably. "The whole hull will be gone before I can get down to her!"
"There ain't no need for yew to do daown," drawled Bent. "Thar's grub an' to spare without your killing of yourself down among them there rocks.
"Oh, I ain't crazy!" he continued, as he saw the incredulous amazement of the other three. "Old Snell, thar, he looks ez if he thought I was loony or lying, but I ain't either. The stuff's cached—thet's why yew ain't seed it. We cached it becos we was skeered them there niggers might got a hold of it. But I knows where it be, and yew kin hev it any time yew've a mind to.
"So, you sees," he added, with a grim smile, "yew lads didn't do yourselves sech a bad turn as might be when yew pulled me outer the water."
He was telling the truth. There was no longer any doubt about that—at least, in Dick's mind. As for Dudley, he drew a long breath of deepest relief. Never in his life had he been more miserable than during the last few minutes since Dick had announced his intention of going down the bluff.
Before any of them could speak again there was a crash that sounded loud above the scream of the gale and the roar of the waves.
"She's gone!" cried Dudley. "She's gone!"
All four turned quickly. A wave more gigantic than any yet had caught the stern of the schooner, lifting her with such irresistible force that her hull was broken clean in two. Before their eyes she melted into a litter of planking which for a moment blackened the heavy waves, then was almost immediately scattered in every direction.
"Come on!" said Dick sharply. "Come down to the beach, all of you! Every plank is precious if we've got to build a new craft!"
He was right. They all knew that, and they followed him down to the strip of beach. Within the next few minutes all sorts of stuff, carried inwards by the rising tide, began to come ashore.
For the next two hours, until the tide covered the beach, and drove them back to higher ground, they toiled furiously, and their efforts were rewarded by a great stack of timber, as well as several casks of flour, biscuits, and other odds and ends.
By that time they were all aching with fatigue. Also, it was fast getting dark.
"Guess we may as well get home, boys!" said old Snell, who had done his full share in the work of salvage. "Supper and sleep ain't a-going to hurt any of us!"
"Where be yew going?" asked Bent, who had been putting his great strength to good use. "Back to yewr old cabin?"
"There ain't any cabin left," returned Snell sharply. "And anyway, if there had have been. I guess you folk made it a derned sight too dirty to live in!"
"Cray always was a hog!" observed Bent, not at all offended.
Snell whispered to Dick.
"Say, d'ye reckon we better take him to the cave?"
"Every time!" Dick answered. "We can keep an eye on him there!"
So Bent went with them to the blowhole. The other three watched him keenly, but he did nothing in the least suspicious. Dick came to the conclusion that he really was to some extent grateful for his rescue, and that he was able to see that all his interests lay in making himself agreeable to his rescuers.
All his old associates were gone. He himself could do little alone against three well armed men. No doubt he had made up his mind to make the best of a bad job, and was willing to be as helpful as possible in the hope that he might perhaps be allowed to go free with a small share of the gold.
It was to Dudley that Dick confided these ideas. To his surprise, Dudley did not agree.
"I wouldn't trust the fellow round the corner," he said. "No sir. Bent may not be as bad as Cray, but he's not white. He'll do us down if he gets one little chance, and don't you forget it!"
"But what can he do?" remonstrated Dick.
"Nothing, if I can shoot quick enough!" answered Dudley. Then, in a more serious tone: "See here, Dick. There's thousands of pounds of gold ready, dug and waiting in that cache. Bent ain't the sort to let that go. It's my belief he'd cut the throats of the lot of us if he saw his chance. So you just watch out. That's all I've got to say!"
There was food enough in the cave for that night, and whatever Dudley's suspicions, Bent showed no sign of justifying them. He said little, but helped with all the work. Next morning they were all up bright and early. The gale had blown itself out, the sun shone warmly, and a light breeze rippled the blue sea.
They set to work at once. Bent, true to his promise, showed them the cache where the food had been buried. There was plenty for them all for about a month. They collected the negroes, rationed them, and went down to the bay to get in all the wreckage that they could find.
They got a great deal—so much that their hopes rose. It seemed as if it would actually be possible to build a boat fit to take them to the mainland.
They built a small slip at the sheltered end of the bay, and set to work. By the second evening the keel was laid.
Snell knew what he was about, and Bent proved a useful workman. He behaved so well that even Dudley's suspicions seemed to be allayed.
For about a week the work went on well. Then they found themselves short of nails, and it was necessary to go and hunt up the ruined remains of the cabin in order to pull from it all the iron they could find.
But the pieces were scattered for half a mile among the trees, and much seemed to have vanished altogether. They spent a whole day at the work, and it was a very discouraged party who gathered again by the stockade to compare notes and see what they had got.
Snell looked very serious.
"I'll be blamed if I know how we're ever going to finish out, boys," he said gravely. "We ought to have another twenty pound o' nails!"
Dick and Dudley did not answer. They were both feeling depressed.
"Whar's Bent?" asked Snell presently. "Maybe he's done better'n the rest o' us!"
"I haven't seen him since dinner-time!" said Dick.
"No more have I!" he exclaimed. Without another word he hurried off.
"What's up?" cried Dick. But Dudley did not pause.
Dick ran after him, and caught him at the cache.
"I told you so," said Dudley grimly, pointing at the pit, which was open. "I told you so! He's put it over us all right!"
And Dick, gazing with horrified eyes at the almost empty cache, could only acknowledge that Dudley had had more sense than he.
"But whar's he gone?" demanded Snell, when they told him what had happened. "Whar's he gone? He can't have left the island!"
"Not unless he swam for it," replied Dick grimly.
"Or built a raft," put in Dudley.
Snell shook his head.
"I ain't got no notion what the feller's up to," he said.
"Well, I'm going down to the bay," said Dick, picking up his rifle. "Dudley, you'd best slip across to the south side, and go on round by the blowhole. We'll meet there and report."
He went off at a run. He was very sore, and very angry. What Bent was playing at he could not conceive, but at any rate he had credited the man with common decency. At the same time, he was utterly puzzled.
Pushing rapidly through the thick bush on the way to the bay, he heard heavy footsteps coming towards him. Next moment Bent himself appeared, slouching along with his usual long, slow stride.
Dick fairly gasped with surprise, and suddenly flung up his rifle.
Bent raised his arm. There was a curiously sheepish expression on his face.
"You don't need to shoot, pardner, unless you wants to," he said. "I wuz a-coming back!"
Dick stared, then slowly lowered his rifle.
"Perhaps you'll be good enough to explain," he said curtly.
"I'll tell ye," said Bent, "or mebbe yew'd best come and see."
He turned and led the way down to the bay. He took Dick right round to the western side where the water was shallow, and mangroves grew out on the foreshore. He led the way straight down among these, and presently they came to a little opening.
There, floating in a sort of tiny dock lay the cat-boat!
Dick could hardly believe his eyes. He had thought her wrecked long ago; yet here she was, safe and sound as the day they had left her adrift to board the schooner.
"I found her a week ago," said Bent. "She ain't hurt any. Must hev just drifted in here."
"And you were going off with her?" said Dick severely, pointing to the stores aboard.
Bent nodded shamefacedly.
"Why didn't you, then?"
"Guess I couldn't!" growled Bent.
For a moment Dick stared at him. Then impulsively he put out his hand.
"I knew you were white!" he said shortly.
TWO mornings later the four white men arrived safely at Lemon Bay. They landed before dawn, and not a soul was about.
When they were all out of the boat, and had tied her up, they paused and stood together on the beach. Then Dick handed to Bent a small but heavy leather pouch.
"That's your share," he said. "I think it's enough to start you anywhere you like to go."
"Guess I'll shift out o' here anyways," he said, with a slow grin. "Mebbe I'll go west. Waal, good luck to ye, Mr. Daunt! Good luck to all of ye!" He shook hands all round, then turned, and without another word vanished in the gloom.
"I've seen worse chaps!" remarked Dick quietly.
"A heap!" agreed Dudley. Then, in a more cheerful tone:
"What price digging old Ladd out of bed? Gee, but he'll stand on his red head with joy when he sees us turn up again safe and sound!"