Lost Island/Chapter 11
"IF EVER YOU GET THE CHANCE—"
"Thank you very much," said Dave, by no means inclined to jest at the opportunity in spite of Captain Grummitt's tone.
In another two minutes the question of wages had been disposed of, and the two wanderers found themselves installed as members of the Mary Ellen's crew, much to their own satisfaction.
The tug was one of a host of craft that spent most of their time prowling about the waters off Sydney, looking for a ship that needed towing to a berth in the vast harbor, seldom being away more than four or five days at a time. There was little or no formality on board. The skipper was as amiable as he was fat, and he did not expect the crew to exert themselves unduly when they were afloat, waiting about. Notwithstanding his bulky however, he became like a live wire when there was a chance of a tow. He was known familiarly as Lightning Grummitt, and had earned the nickname. Not a tug captain in Sydney harbor could hold a candle to him at his business. He seemed to have an uncanny sixth sense which told him a ship in the distance wanted a tug. He had spent the best part of a lifetime running trading-boats in the Pacific, but for the last twenty years had done nothing but towing work where he was now, and it was becoming second nature for him to know the requirements of different vessels. It would often happen that two or more rival tugs would "spot" a ship at the same time, and then an exciting race would start, for one tug is as good as another to the incoming vessel. On those occasions Captain Grummitt would ring down on the engine-room telegraph "Full speed ahead" three times in succession, and the men below were aware then that the time had come for them to wake up. Every ounce of steam possible was got up, and the skipper knew by experience that it was unnecessary for him to urge that department on. He knew, too, that he could rely on his deck-hands to do their utmost in an emergency.
The second day out the Mary Ellen picked up a schooner that had been beating her way down the coast, and Dave had an opportunity of listening to the brief battle of wits which often takes place between a tug captain and a skipper before the latter definitely agrees to pay a certain price for a tow. During the war of words Captain Grummitt waxed sarcastic and poured out biting comments before a final bargain was struck. Once the hawser was fixed, however, his ruddy face became wreathed in a smile.
"It's all fish that comes to the net," he said a few moments later to Dave, "but we don't care about getting a haul of this kind"—with a contemptuous bend of the head in the direction of the schooner—"too often. Greeks! They would n't let you have the peelings from their finger nails if they could help it. Some of 'em seem to think they 're doing us an honor to tie up behind."
The tug's next engagement was to tow barges heavily laden with coal, from one wharf to another, many miles away, after which the captain proceeded to his favorite hunting ground, outside the entrance to the harbor.
The days passed pleasantly enough for Dave, and he found very little to do, as compared with life on tramps. Sometimes, after satisfying himself that the lookout was wide-awake, the skipper would join the rest of the crew in the cozy cabin, and join in telling yarns while smoking fearsome black cigars that seemed to Dave to have an odor of tarred rope.
One evening, when the tug was rolling gently in the ground-swell and various reminiscences had been exchanged, the conversation drifted towards pirates of other days and treasure-trove,
"That reminds me," Tempest said, "of a queer bit of news Dave here picked up some time ago in America. Do any of you remember hearing of a treasure-ship called the Hatteras being lost in the South Seas years ago?"
"The Hatteras," Captain Grummitt repeated slowly, taking the cigar from his mouth and squinting at the swaying lamp overhead. "No, I don't seem to recall it for the minute. What did she have on board?"
"There was nothing special on board," replied Tempest, "except a consignment of platinum belonging to a passenger who had spent a couple of years or so mining it. He was taking the stuff to San Francisco from Sydney."
"Wait a minute," the skipper interrupted, unscrewing the cigar again, pensively. "I seem to have a hazy recollection of something of the sort, but it's a good long while ago. What happened to the ship! Was n't she set on fire, or something!"
"Nobody knows. She just disappeared."
"Oh, yes, that was it! I was confusing her with another craft. The Hatteras—let me see now—"
Captain Grummitt scratched his head vigorously, an action which always seemed to assist his memory.
"Blow me if that was n't the boat there was a reward offered for," he said at length, his mind leaping back over the years. "But I don't just recall if ever she was found."
"Never," said Tempest. "There is n't a man living to-day can say for a fact what happened to her or to any one on board, except perhaps Dave, and what he knows does n't amount to much, but it's curious."
Several pairs of eyes were turned on the boy in surprise.
"Shiver my timbers!" said Captain Grummitt "Have you found her, lad?"
Dave shook his head regretfully, with a smile.
"No such luck," he said, "though Tempest keeps joking with me about it."
"It's no joke, laddie," said Tempest. "It seems to me you got nearer to it than any one else ever did, only you did n't realize it at the time."
"Well, out with it," urged Grummitt. "What happened?"
"As far as we know at present," Tempest explained, "There has only been one bark of that name lost in the South Seas. Dave happened to be talking to an old sailor on the quay at Brooklyn this year, and got wind of a bark called the Hatteras that was lying half buried in sand on some island."
"Where?" Captain Grummitt asked, his interest aroused.
"Goodness knows! But wait a minute. The old sailor does n't appear to have known, or remembered, that there was anything of value on the Hatteras, but as soon as Dave told his father about it Captain Hallard remembered the story, though he did n't think there would be anything of value left on the wreck after all this time. Whether that is so or not, however, nobody can say, really, as nothing has ever been heard of any one finding the platinum."
"But did n't the sailor give Dave any idea where he saw the wreck!" Captain Grummitt asked.
"Somewhere near Christmas Island," Dave put in.
"Now we 're getting on," said the skipper. "How near?"
"Some distance away, I guess," replied Dave. "They were running toward Christmas Island from another place when they came across it."
"Did he mention the name of the other place?"
"Yes, but I don't remember what it was now."
"Well, let's see," observed the skipper, diving into a deep locker. "I 've got an old chart of the Pacific somewhere here. P'raps that will help you to remember. Ah, here it is!"
Captain Grummitt carefully spread the sheet on the cabin table, and with a pudgy forefinger indicated the position of Christmas Island.
"Now, you run your eye over that section," he said. "There's precious few places around there big enough to have a name, so it should n't be a difficult job."
"Here it is—Fanning Island," Dave announced.
"Umph!" said the skipper, re-scratching his pate. "That gives you your bearings, in a manner of speaking, but you know them two islands are n't quite as near to one another as they look on that chart. The next question is, how long had they passed Fanning before they hit the wreck?""I don't think he mentioned any definite time, but he said something about being a day's steaming off their course," said Dave, struggling to recall more of the ancient mariner's yarn.
"That helps in a way," the skipper commented. "But which direction had she drifted in—east or west!"
"I have no idea."
"Umph!" The captain was silent, lost in thought for a moment or two.
"Did he say anything particular about the island?" he asked at length.
"The wreck was in a lagoon," Dave said, "and there was a reef of rocks outside the lagoon, because they thought the ship must have struck those rocks and drifted over them afterward on a very high tide."
"We 're getting on," commented the skipper. "What else?"
"I only remember one other thing. There was a sort of hill on the island, and in the distance it seemed to be shaped rather like a camel's back."
"That's definite enough. Of course there are lots of islands around those waters with lagoons, and a lagoon most generally has a bunch of rocks round it, but it's long odds you would n't find two islands there with a lagoon and a hill like a camel on it. There's another thing. If you see a hill like a cow or a donkey, you 'll know it is n't that one."
"On the other hand," said Tempest, who had been listening with curious interest, "if you see the camel, it is worth making a mighty careful search in that neighborhood for the treasure-ship."
"You bet your sweet life it is!" said Captain Grummitt. "If I was twenty years younger and did n't have to spend my time dodging around Sydney Harbor looking for the price of the family's victuals and rent, hang me if I would n't put in a spell hunting for that old treasure-ship."
"Do you really think it might be worth while?" Tempest asked, his habitual manner of carelessness cast aside for the moment.
"Well, if you put it up to me that way," said the skipper, blowing rings of smoke between each few words, "it's a hard question. You see, you can't get away from the fact that there is, or there was, a bark called the Hatteras there not very long ago, unless this old sailor invented it, and there's no sensible reason for supposing he did that. Then again, if any one had ever found that treasure, the papers would have had a long yarn about it, and none of us ever heard of that happening. I could tell you a whole lot more of what I think about it if only I could get one peek at the wreck. Such a lot depends on what state she is in. Mebbe there's nothing but her ribs left by now, in which case, good-by treasure. But if she's pretty deep in the sand, and if she has n't broken in half, I don't see why there should n't be a fair chance of this stuff still being on board. You see, there's a powerful difference between leaving it all these years in the main street of Sydney and leaving it stranded on a little island where nobody in their sane senses would think of poking their noses. There's islands there that don't have a human being on them once in a hundred years or more, and then, as likely as not, they might not happen to spot a half-buried wreck."
As he listened to Captain Grummitt, Dave began to see new interest in the lost Hatteras, and he would have liked to kick himself for not pumping his ancient mariner more.
"I think some fine day we shall have to go treasure-hunting, Dave," Tempest said with a quiet smile.
"If ever we get the chance," agreed Dave, cheerfully, as though a little trip to the neighborhood of Christmas Island was as simple as a jaunt on a trolley-car.
"If ever you get the chance," said Captain Grummitt, nodding his head with each word, "don't you miss it! But how in thunder you 're to get the chance is more than I know, because there ain't no ferry-boats running to Christmas Island this summer, nor any other summer, and you can take it from me the walking from here to there is pretty bad. Yes, sir. Pretty bad!"