Lost Island/Chapter 15

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


 

CHAPTER XV
LAUNCHING THE MUD TURTLE

There was still no sign of the missing man at the camp when the sun rose, and a fear that had haunted Dave began to become very real. He was now firmly convinced that his friend had gone for a swim and been drowned. In a very dismal mood he walked down to the bay where they usually took their dip, and searched, fearing to find what he was searching for.

"Jim," he said at last, "we 'll put up some lunch and spend the rest of the day going over every foot of this island. There's always a chance."

Systematically they explored the southern and western extremities of the place, and the sun was already slanting. westward when they came to the rugged territory in the north. Dave had very little hope left, when suddenly Jim gave a cry of delight which brought the boy to his side at a run.

On one of the few patches of ground which did not consist of hard rock two or three footmarks were distinctly visible.

"We get him yet," declared the Kanaka, now moving quickly from place to place like a hound eagerly picking up scent. A score of yards farther on he stooped over a broken twig and silently pointed to it. Under it was the faint imprint of a shoe heel.

Gradually they progressed almost to the northern shore, guided by one indistinct mark after another and shouting as loudly as possible every few minutes.

At length the Kanaka put his hand on Dave's shoulder suddenly, his head bent in a listening attitude.

A faint cry reached the boy's ears.

"Thank goodness!" he said solemnly.

Five minutes later he was by Tempest's side,

"Hello, old top," said the latter, in a weak voice. "You don't happen to have a plate of ham and eggs about you, and a quart or so of coffee, do you? I'm ravenous. I could n't find a restaurant open anywhere round here."

"Stop fooling!" said Dave. "Where are you hurt?"

"I guess I ought to be nearly all right by now," Tempest said with a grin. "I 've been doing nothing particular but nurse it for about thirty hours. I twisted my ankle a bit yesterday, and I must have bumped my head in falling, because I don't remember much about it."

"Well, cheer up," said Dave. "We 'll soon get you home now."

"Oh, I 've been cheered up for the best part of an hour," said Tempest. "I heard you and Jim yelling the top of your heads off, but the wind was in the wrong direction for you to hear me shouting back. I knew you'd roll up sooner or later. Sorry to give you so much trouble. Jim, you 're as strong as a rhinoceros, if not so good-looking. If there is n't any sign of a taxicab, would you mind giving me a pickaback as far as our little dump, and I 'll promise never to call you an ugly old sinner again?"

Without a word the Kanaka stooped, and Tempest scrambled onto his back. He winced once or twice as they traveled over uneven ground, for, in spite of his cheerfulness, his ankle was very painful. Tireless as a horse, Jim carried him all the way, and deposited him gently at the camp, where Dave assumed the rôle of doctor. It was now his turn to apply a cold compress, but the sprain had been a severe one, and the swelling did not go down appreciably for three days.

While the patient was lying resting his injury he and Dave had a long talk on the possibility of their being picked up. Five weeks had elapsed since the crew of the ill-fated Manihiki set sail. It was only possible to speculate, of course, as to what had happened to the small craft. There had been no very rough weather on the island, but that was not much to go by, as a terrific storm might sweep by within fifty miles and never be noticed where they were.

"It is a little early to get impatient, yet," Tempest commented. "If they have all been sunk, we may be left here till we have beards down to our knees, and not a soul would be the wiser; but we can safely wait three months before making up our minds for that sort of thing."

"I suppose we could n't possibly try to make the trip in our dory!" Dave suggested,

"There's no law against it," Tempest said, "but you don't catch this child trying the experiment. You remember what happened not long ago when you and Jim were out fishing and the wind got up a bit. And you were practically under the shelter of this island all the time. You can imagine what it would be like if a regular gale hit that cockleshell."

"Well, could n't we build a boat?"

"I 've thought of that. But it's a big undertaking, you know, and I never made anything out of wood but a dog-kennel. I'm game to try, though, if you like. It 'll amuse us if it does nothing else. Let us start by giving her a name. What are you going to call this wonderful craft! How will the Mud Turtle do!"

"That 'll do finely," said the boy. "We will start on her as soon as you can walk."

Though neither Tempest nor Dave knew it, the day they laid the keel of the Mud Turtle the crew of the Manihiki were being landed at Melbourne, their plans having gone somewhat astray. They had covered half the distance to Fiji laboriously by tacking against adverse winds most of the time, and had reduced their ration of water by half, as their supply of that precious liquid was getting perilously low, when a steamer nearly ran them down in the middle of the night, the only lamp on the long-boat having been broken. The helmsman on the steamer heard their cries just in time to swing aside, and the men from the Manihiki were only too thankful to accept the offer of a passage to the first port the vessel was bound for. There was no wireless on board, so until he reached Melbourne Captain Peters was unable to notify his owners of the loss of their vessel and the plight of those he had left on the island. A month was to elapse, moreover, before the next vessel was to leave Sydney for the scene of the shipwreck.

The task of building the Mud Turtle was a more formidable one than even Tempest had anticipated. To begin with they had very few planks that were of any service for the purpose. One of the spars off the Manihiki made a rough keel, but almost all the rest of the material had to be hewn out of green trees. They had plenty of tools, however, and though the skeleton of the craft would probably have convulsed a professional boat builder with laughter, it had at least more resemblance to a boat than a dog kennel, as Tempest pointed out.

The Mud Turtle was sixteen feet in length, and somewhat narrow in order to overcome some of the difficulty of getting curves. As a matter of fact she consisted chiefly of angles. From the first she had no pretentions to elegance, and in spite of her builders' ingenuity there were awkward gaps where the rough planks positively refused to meet, this necessitating a great deal more caulking and patching than was consistent with beauty.

"How fast do you think she will sail?" Dave asked when they had her about half finished.

"About a knot an hour, if we get out and push," Tempest replied lugubriously. "Pity we did n't let that engineer bring the donkey engine ashore. We could have rigged it up and converted our wonderful boat into a steamer, maybe p'raps, as Jim says."

The Kanaka, who had distinct ideas on the subject of boat building, but whose ideas had been overruled because Tempest thought a catamaran such as they could construct would be as dangerous as a bundle of dynamite, viewed the Mud Turtle with something akin to suspicion, if not actual distrust; but he worked on her just as cheerfully as the others, putting in long hours with the saw on green timber and using other carpenter's tools with remarkable skill considering they were all strange to him.

It was decided to have the boat half decked in, lest they should encounter bad weather, but before tackling that part of the job Tempest and Dave made up their minds to set their vessel afloat for a trial trip, just to see how she took to the water. Before sliding her down the beach they went over every seam and applied pitch liberally. She looked more like a disjointed miniature coal hulk than anything by the time they had her ready, and when Dave ran a critical eye over her he had certain misgivings.

"She's no racer, certainly," he said, "but considering she is the first boat we ever made the result is n't so bad, is it?"

Tempest glanced over her awkward lines.

"I 'll tell you better when I see her dancing over the silvery waves," he replied cautiously.

"We 're ready now, are n't we? All together. Push."

The Mud Turtle slid down the greased boards with the grace of a lumbering elephant, Dave, Tempest and Jim hanging on to her tenaciously. Just as she plunged into the water they all three leaped up the side. The boat had come down a considerable slope, and threw up a large wave as she dived. The water was dead calm, and the Mud Turtle shot out twenty feet from the shore, but even as she was doing so her builders realized that something was radically wrong. She was canting over at a perilous angle, and the strain of being launched had strained her timbers alarmingly. In half a dozen places jets of water were squirting into her, and in one place where a patch had been sprung the sea was coming in faster than it could have been bailed out.

Jim looked at the wreck of their hopes with a perfectly blank expression. Perhaps he had anticipated something of the sort all the time. Dave, standing ankle deep in the bottom of the boat, frowned gloomily. Tempest, leaning against the side of the craft that was highest out of the water, in an attempt to keep her balanced, laughed long and loudly.

"I don't call it a bit funny," the boy said, watching the Mud Turtle slowly settle down.

"I refuse to burst into tears about it," Tempest said. "It is a whole lot funnier to see her going down now right here than it would have been if we had got about fifty miles away from shore in her and then she had started to play tricks on us."

"I suppose it is, really," agreed Dave, who was beginning to absorb from Bruce Tempest some of his unquenchable good spirits whatever happened. "But can you suggest what we 're going to do with her now?"

"She would fetch a lot of money anywhere—as a curiosity," said Tempest "But I'm afraid the buyers of this interesting maritime monster will have to be quick, because in a few more minutes the sad sea waves will have closed over her for ever."

"Can't we do anything with her?" the boy asked, smiling now in spite of his disappointment.

"She is getting too wet to burn. That's all I can think of."

"What about putting ballast in to keep her upright?"

"You'd have to put enough rocks in to force the bottom out of her. No, I'm sorry to say it, Dave, but the Mud Turtle is a hopeless failure. Come on, we have either to swim ashore or go down with the brute."

And so, in six feet of water, they pushed off from the boat a few minutes before it quietly sank. Its gunwale was disappearing as they reached shore.

During all the time the trio were marooned they kept a fixed rule that every three hours during the day one of them was to ascend the hill where the flagpole stood and scan the horizon through the binoculars. As the weeks sped into months they became more hopeful, for the time was now nearing when the steamer sent by the crew of the Manihiki might put in an appearance. Whatever doubts Tempest may have had on that score, he said nothing about them. He knew well enough the grim possibilities that might overtake a small, crowded boat on a trip of four hundred miles, and there were times when he thanked his stars that neither Dave nor he had undertaken the trip. At the same time, it occurred to him there was a distinct chance that they might have to remain where they were for a year or more, and, rather than miss the opportunity of attracting some boat that might pass in the night, he kept the bonfire of brushwood near the flagpole ready to light. Sometimes he and the boy would stroll up to the look-out post during the evening and yarn, while keeping a watch on the dark waters.

One night—it was the night of their seventy-second day on the island—Dave, having dozed most of the afternoon, felt little inclination to sleep. His two companions were in the land of dreams. Stepping softly, to avoid waking them, he passed out of the hut, and strolled out into the night air. A thin crescent of the moon shed a pale light, and the stars glistened like a myriad of diamonds set in the sky. First he strolled slowly down the silvery beach and stood near the edge of the water, whose waves were lapping the sand gently. He stood there a few minutes, drinking in the tropic beauty of the scene, and then, to get a wider view, walked up the hill to the flagpole.

Scanning the horizon as a matter of habit, his eye rested for a second on something far away where the starlit sky seemed to dip down into the ocean. He stood still as a statue and tried to find it again. Surely it was imagination—or was it? He could have been positive that just for a fraction of a second a greenish light twinkled in the distance. Perhaps it was a star. At any rate he could not pick it out again with the naked eye, so he walked down for his binoculars. Five minutes later he was back on the hill, peering through the glasses.

Suddenly his heart gave a thump. That was no star. The greenish hue was unmistakable. Like a hare, he leaped down to the camp, shouting to awaken Tempest.

"Matches, quick!" he yelled excitedly, fumbling in Tempest's pocket. "There's a ship away off, fifteen or twenty miles to the south'ard."

"And I was just getting off to sleep so beautifully!" expostulated Tempest, who, however, did not allow any grass to grow under his feet. He and Dave made a dead heat of it up to the flagpole, Jim lumbering up in the rear.

"Where away?" asked Tempest, while Dave put a light to the dry twigs.

"Right over there, in a line with my finger. Use the glasses, or else you can't see it." The boy's finger shook a trifle as he pointed.

"Thunder! You 're right, laddie!" Tempest said after a moment. "More brushwood, quick. Jim, you scalawag, I 'll skin you alive if you don't get busy. The fourth of July is n't in it with this for a bonfire. Get an ax, you Kanaka. Bushes—trees—whole forests if you can find 'em!"

Already the flames were licking their way above the pile of brushwood, and Dave and Tempest were wildly tearing at the branches near by. Soon the Kanaka, with gleaming eyes and mighty strokes, was tearing off more fuel, which was quickly flung to the top of the bonfire.

"That's the style!" Tempest shouted as the fire threw their figures up in its glare. "If she's going straight by there, we may only have a little while to attract her attention. Jiminy! We ought to have a fire they could see in Australia!"

Regardless of scratches and cuts, they toiled on, while the flames rose higher and higher. Tempest pausing only now and again to take a squint through the binoculars. At that distance it was very difficult to see whether the vessel was putting about.

After about half an hour of this strenuous labor he leaned, breathless, against the pole to steady the glasses.

"I can't see a blessed thing of her now," he said. "Here, Dave, you have a try."

The boy looked long and carefully.

"I don't see the green," he said, "but if I'm not mistaken there's a white light in about the same place."

"More trees—more forests, Jim, or I 'll tear your ears off. That's the mast head light. She's put about. Say good-bye to the little pigs on this island, Dave, because I'm a Dutchman if you 'll get the chance to do it soon. We 'll be bound for furrin parts before you know where you are."

Another half -hour showed unmistakably that the ship was heading direct for the beacon. The trio still kept the flames leaping until the vessel was about a mile off, and then they went down to the beach, where the steady thump of her propeller was distinctly audible. Soon the rattle of an anchor-chain came over the water, and the dark form of a dory came creeping over the lagoon.

Dave was wildly elated. Tempest, now that the suspense was over, almost seemed to be losing interest. It was beginning to dawn on him that he had been as happy on the island as he ever was anywhere. The Kanaka squatted on the sand with expressionless face, not even giving a grunt of satisfaction when the dory ran on the sand.

"Hello, there!" said a voice. "Anybody at home?"