Lost Island/Chapter 17
INTRODUCING MR. JOE FLAGG
The weather was sizzling hot as the steamer neared Washington Island, which is only about two hundred and fifty miles north of the equator. Dave and Tempest received the pay they had earned on board, according to arrangement, and added it to their joint capital with a feeling of thankfulness, for it seemed likely that every penny they could accumulate would come in handy when the pinch arrived.
The first thing Tempest did when he got ashore was to inquire whether there was likely to be a vessel of any kind going to Christmas Island soon, but he was disappointed. Traders calling at Washington were few and far between.
The population consisted chiefly of colored folk, who appeared to have nothing much to do except bask in the sweltering heat. Dave was feeling distinctly glum, when a short, rotund man, remotely resembling a barrel in shape, rode past on an extremely lean pony. Recognizing strangers, the man nodded and drew rein.
"Can I offer you any assistance?" he asked. Perspiration was oozing in streams from his brow, which he constantly wiped with a very large handkerchief.
"Thanks,'* Dave said; "we wanted to get to Christmas Island."
"Why, that's worse than Washington," said the fat man, "and heaven knows this is bad enough. Nothing ever happens here except the rising of the sun, and then all we can do is to wait till it goes down again. Christmas Island is so near the equator that you could almost jump onto it from there."
"Well, we 're going the first chance we get. Can you say when that might be?"
"Maybe a month," said the stranger. "You can't tell. What 're you going to do in the meantime?" In the intervals between mopping his brow he was studying the boy and Tempest closely, and apparently the inspection pleased him.
"I guess we shall have to find somewhere to stop," Dave said. "It does n't look like a place where we are likely to get work."
"Work!" the man laughed. "No. I 've been here as a planter for some years now, and I confess I never did see any one work yet. To tell you the truth, it's always a mystery to me how anything ever gets done. You have to explode a stick of dynamite behind these colored people to get a move on them. When I was running a store in Dogtooth City, Dakota, I would n't have stood for this sort of thing, no siree! I was strictly business every time and all the time there. I made my pile in Dogtooth City, and I won't say I did n't come pretty near to making Dogtooth City, too. I was mayor of that little burg three times, and sometimes I wonder which particular kind of a fool I am to be here now, when I could go back to Dogtooth and be mayor a fourth time if I liked. They know there that Joe Flagg won't stand any nonsense."
Clearly, Mr. Flagg was naturally garrulous, and he was letting off steam, not having had the opportunity to speak to a stranger for some time. But also he was thinking while he talked, and evidently made up his mind at length.
"It's mighty lonely up at my bungalow," he went on after a scarcely perceptible pause, during which he gave a final and comprehensive glance at the pair, "but I'd sure be tickled to death if you'd come up and stop with me for a while. It seems as though I had n't had any one to talk to in years. Now when I was in Dogtooth City—"
"That's very kind of you," said Tempest, leaping at the chance. "To tell you the truth, we were just beginning to wonder what was going to happen to us. If we can give you any help about the place—"
"Tush, tush!" said Mr. Flagg. "You are doing me a favor. I like to let my tongue wag sometimes, and I 've got nobody to talk to up there but Kanakas."
"By the way, we 've got a Kanaka that we 're taking along with us," Tempest said, nodding his head in Jim's direction. "If you would n't mind giving him a shake-down too—"
"Sure! Bring him right along. This reminds me of old times Why, my house was Liberty Hall when I lived in Dogtooth City. I remember once—"
Mr. Flagg talked on as his skinny pony walked in leisurely fashion over the brow of a hill, along a lane between the waving trees of the plantation, and finally to a rambling house with a wide veranda running all round it.
"Here we are," said Mr. Flagg. "And when I tell you you 're the first people I have had staying under my roof for nearly eighteen months, perhaps you 'll understand how glad I am to have you. It's no hotel, mind you. We have to put up with a lot of things besides heat on Washington Island, but I 've drilled my boy into cooking till he is one splendid artist with the pots and pans, though he did n't even know how to open a can of beans when I first took him in hand. Yessir, Joe Flagg knows how to cook, though I do say it. When I was in Dogtooth City—"
"He's a decent sort of chap, isn't he?" said Tempest to Dave a little later, when they were alone for a few minutes.
"He's great, so far as his hospitality goes," the boy replied. "This suits us down to the ground, but I fancy we shall get a bit tired of Dogtooth City before we say good-by, sha'n't we?"
"That's easy," said Tempest. "All you have to do when you see it coming is to butt in with some other subject, and he switches off all right."
Mr. Flagg certainly went out of his way to be agreeable to his guests, and both Dave and his companion found it a particularly pleasant change to live in a comparatively comfortable house and be waited on. Joe Flagg was as amusing as he was fat, and he often sat by the hour puffing at his pipe, telling remarkable stories of his early life in the West, when men really carried six-shooters just as they do to-day in the movies. In spite of his rotundity Joe Flagg was a very active man. He was always wiping perspiration from his brow with the great handkerchief, but the way he got round on foot put his scraggy pony to shame. Also he was an amateur sailor of no mean ability, and often went for a long cruise, accompanied by a couple of Kanakas, in a three-ton sailing craft in which he seemed to take more interest than he did in his plantation or anything else. He appeared to be devoid of fear. His boat certainly rode well in a heavy sea, but the rougher the weather the more Flagg liked it.
"I'd run the three of you over to Christmas Island myself," he said one day, "only I don't want to lose you."
"You 've never been as far as there, have you?" Tempest asked.
"Not quite, but pretty nearly."
"You must know these waters well, then."
"I ought to," said Flagg. "I 've been pottering around in 'em for years."
Tempest was thoughtful for a few moments. He caught Dave's eye. The same idea had occurred to both of them at that instant.
"There was a bark called the Hatteras went ashore somewhere around here years ago," Tempest said at last. "Did you ever hear anything of it?"
Joe Flagg rubbed his chin with a pudgy forefinger.
"The name is kind of familiar," he said, "but I don't place it for the minute. There's a good many ships have hit trouble in this locality at one time or another."
"Did you ever land on Fanning Island?" Dave asked.
"Why, yes, more than once," replied Flagg. "We sheltered under there three days last fall when it was blowing hard."
"Do you know any of the islands to the south of there—in the direction of Christmas Island, I mean?" asked Tempest.
"Yes, in a way," Flagg said. "There are n't many of 'em till you get nearer the equator. Pretty lonely spots too, let me tell you."
"Did you ever notice a wreck on one of them?" Dave said.
"More than one," replied their host, "but I don't remember anything particular about any of 'em. The sea does n't leave much of them except a few ribs after a year or so."
Again Dave and Tempest exchanged glances.
"I wonder whether you happen to know of an island round about there that has a biggish hill on it that looks like a camel's back," Tempest said.
"There is one with a hill on it," replied Flagg, reaching for a chart, "and that may be the one you 're talking of. You see, they 're all very low in the water. That island with the hill must have been bumped up by an earthquake or something. I never noticed a camel's back on it, but you'd probably only see the resemblance from one side. I'm not quite sure, but I think this is it," he went on, indicating the point on the chart with the stem of his pipe. "You thinking of setting up a real estate business there?" he asked, with an amused smile. "I give you my word that it's one dreary place."
How many times had Dave and Tempest pored over their chart and speculated idly on which of the little dots indicated the island that was their goal!
"It certainly does just about fit in, does n't it?" Tempest said to Dave with a touch of enthusiasm. "We 'll make for there first, anyway."
"Well, it's none of my business," said Mr. Flaggy "but if there's any way I can help you, put a name to it."
"That's very kind of you," said Tempest, apparently absorbed for the moment in getting an obstinate pipe to burn. Here was Old Man Opportunity hammering hard. Mr. Flagg had a boat that was perfectly suitable for the trip. Mr. Flagg and his two Kanaka sailors knew the waters as well as any one else. Mr. Flagg, also, probably knew the very place Dave and Tempest were so anxious to reach. Tempest did some hard and quick thinking in a very few seconds. It would only be fair, if they took Mr. Flagg into partnership, to give him a full share of the possible proceeds. After burning his second match Tempest had decided that he and Dave would carry out their original program and do the whole thing off their own bat if possible. At least they could make their one big effort. If that failed,—if they could not get a boat, or if they got a boat and could not find the place they were looking for,—it would always be possible to come back to Joe Flagg and put the proposition up to him on a proper business basis.
"No, I don't see exactly that you can do anything for us," Tempest added at length. "There's a wreck there that Dave and I have a particular fancy to look over, and we 're going to make a trip in that direction from Christmas Island, when we get there. It may be waste of time, but we 've set our minds on it. There was some stuff worth a pile of money on the Hatteras when she was lost, but that's a good many years since."
"Go to it," said Flagg encouragingly. "Never let a chance slip by. That has always been my motto, because if you don't grab your chances in this world, you won't get anywhere. But if I may express an opinion without discouraging you, it seems like a mighty slender chance to me. Perhaps you 've never seen a real storm in this part of the world, eh? I mean the sort of storm that smashes everything. Well, I tell you that anything but rocks on the beach gets beaten up into splinters in very little time. I'm afraid you won't find any wreck there. If I'm not too inquisitive, what is the stuff in the vessel! You 've got a nice job on if it is at all bulky."
"Platinum," Tempest replied. "It is worth a good deal more than gold nowadays. It would be easy enough to handle if ever we got the chance to handle it."
Joe Flagg shook his head slowly many, many times.
"1 hate to sound like a wet blanket," he said, "but you 're up against some proposition. Do you know what part of the ship this treasure stuff was stored in?"
"Well, it would n't be in the hold," Tempest said. "We figure on it being in one of the cabins, or perhaps the owner had given it into the captain's care. He might have had it locked up in his quarters."
"Yes, but my dear man," Flagg said, "you don't tell me seriously that you expect to find the captain's cabin there now, with the remains of his breakfast on the table just as he left it?"
"Well, we 're going, anyway, are n't we, Dave?" replied Tempest. "You see, Mr. Flagg, there is just this point. The bark is n't lying in an exposed place. She is—or was—squatting snugly, weighted down with sand, in the shelter of a lagoon where the sea practically could n't smash her up. At any rate, she would have a far better chance in there than she would if she were just lying stranded on the rocks in the open."
"That makes a difference," said Flagg, more encouragingly, "though you 'll have to go there to find out how much difference. Listen to me, Tempest. I'm a man of business, as any one in Dogtooth City will tell you, and all my life I 've willing to take a chance when there was a good thing going. You know well enough that there are big difficulties ahead of you. Now, why not let me come in on the deal? My boat is lying here in Shavay Bay doing nothing in particular. I could provision her for the trip and land you right back here on this beach with the stuff—if we found it. What do you say? Of course, I would n't want to do it for nothing. The whole thing is a matter of speculation. I suppose there's only you and the boy in on the proposition. Suppose we say split the proceeds into three?"
Dave looked at his friend inquiringly. He had great respect for Tempest's judgment, and would have fallen in with any suggestion Tempest thought fit to agree to. The idea sounded fair enough. Anyway, Dave was not actuated by any mercenary motive; so far, the love of adventure had carried him toward the Hatteras as much as had any hope of monetary reward. Tempest knew that, and he avoided the boy's eyes for the moment. Of course, it would have been by far the easiest course to do as Flagg said, but from a purely business point of view the notion struck Tempest as being stupid. If Mr. Flagg had suddenly descended with his boat on them while they were marooned after the wreck of the Manihiki, it was very possible that Tempest would have leaped at the chance of making the little fat man a partner in the matter. But as things were, it was different. Fortune had favored them greatly by bringing them so close to the spot they were struggling to reach. Perhaps fortune would do more for them. The weather remained perfect. It would be so easy to offer a third of a possible fortune in return for this proffered assistance.
"I'm very much obliged to you," he said, after careful deliberation, "and I don't mind saying it's a big temptation, because it sounds fair; but you see, Mr. Flagg, we 've made up our minds to worry through alone. I'm not very obstinate in the ordinary way, but when I do set my teeth into a thing it takes a whole lot to get 'em out again. I 'll tell you what I would be very glad to do, though. We want a boat. You know that. Let us have yours for the trip, and in return we will pay you whatever you think is reasonable for the hire of it. And on the top of that, we 'll undertake to hand over a thousand dollars more in case we are successful. Are you agreeable?"
The discussion of high finance evidently made Joe Flagg perspire more than ever. He mopped his brow industriously, but shook his head.
"No, sir," he said. "Nobody goes off in the Firefly except when I'm in her. I 've allus made that a rule, and I allus shall. I come in as a partner for a third of the spoil, or the Firefly stops where she is."
"Then there is nothing more to be said on the subject, Mr. Flagg, and I'm sorry we can't do business with you," said Tempest, with an air of finality.
"All right," said their rotund host, indifferently, "I don't blame you. Probably I'd feel the same way myself if I were in your shoes. A difference of opinion in a little matter of business need n't alter friendship, need it? Now, I remember when I was mayor of Dogtooth City—"