Lost Island/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI
THE PARLEY

As the keel grated on the beach they all sprang out. In spite of the danger they ran of being attacked any instant, Dave glowed with excitement at the idea of actually setting foot at last on the island.

"What about the boat?" he said.

"The tide is going down," Tempest replied. "She 'll be all right for the present. Anyway, we can't carry her."

They took the precaution of carrying an anchor ashore and digging it into the sand, and then drifted like shadows through the bushes.

"Listen," said Tempest, softly; "I took my bearings as well as possible, but we 're working very blindly in the dark, I want to make for that hill. We shall be safest there. It will be mighty rough going, and you must look out that you don't break your necks. Stick together as much as you can. I grabbed a few biscuits before we left the boat. Goodness only knows when we shall get our next meal, but there 's no time to fol about with provisions now. Follow me, and don't call out unless you 're in trouble."

The next hour was like a nightmare to all three of them. Only desperate necessity drove them forward. Behind lay the possibility of being shot; somewhere in front stood a hill, the nature of which was unknown to them. Their only hope was to find some crevice which would not only provide shelter from the torrential rain, but also form a sort of stronghold. In broad daylight their task would not have been so difficult, but the darkness was intense, and Tempest had to feel his way with nothing to guide him toward his goal except memory, which was fast becoming confused in the maze of tangled undergrowth. So long as the ground seemed to be rising, Tempest felt fairly confident in spite of the baffling conditions, but at length, when he stumbled into a gully and scrambled out, thankful that no bones were broken, he had to confess himself beaten. He no longer knew north from south, east from west. He had tried to force a passage through an impenetrable cluster of trees and had utterly lost his sense of direction while turning and twisting.

On consulting the others he found them equally befogged. Even the Kanaka could only guess in which direction the hill lay, and an incorrect guess might prove dangerous.

"Well, here we are, and here we 'll stop for the present," said Tempest. "I fancy the rain is easing off a trifle. There isn't much fear of Flagg prowling around in this particular spot with his pop-gun till it gets lighter, so we are safe as far as he is concerned. The moment we get a glimmer of the moon we can push on."

Standing there, with the rain trickling down his neck and his clothing sticking to him uncomfortably, bewildered, and more than a little tired, Dave began to wonder for the first time whether treasure-hunting such as this was worth the trouble. The chance of success was extremely vague, anyway; and the difficulties immediately in front of them were sufficient to damp the ardor of any one. He almost felt at that moment that he could barter his share of the problematical treasure for a square meal and a sleep round the clock, in his own comfortable bed in far-away Brooklyn. He was fast becoming despondent when Bruce Tempest came to the rescue with his wonderful fund of cheerfulness.

"You 're very quiet, sonny," he said. "I can't see you, but you don't sound as though you were enjoying this."

"It's exciting, anyway," said Dave.

"I 'll wager you never got anything at the movies that thrilled you as much," Tempest declared. "Everything is real, this trip, including the rain. You will remember it as long as you live. 'Pon my word, I believe it's getting a shade lighter! Don't you think so, Jim?"

"See to go ahead bimeby p'raps," the Kanaka responded. "Rain stop pretty soon."

As a weather-prophet, Jim was a wonder. Sure enough, the rain did ease off about half an hour later, and a pale light showed from a hazy moon. Tempest, however, could not make out much of their position, as they were hemmed in with trees.

"Goodness only knows how we got here," he said. "Jim, do you think you could nose around a bit and try to spot where that blessed hill is?"

Without a word the Kanaka disappeared, nor did he return for some time. Dave was beginning to wonder whether the man had got lost, and was on the point of suggesting that they should give a call to him, when Jim reappeared as silently as he had gone. The moon was growing more distinct every moment now.

"Um hill over there," said Jim, pointing. "Come round this way."

Leaving him to take the rôle of guide, Dave and Tempest followed, and after a while emerged from the trees. A few hundred yards away the hill towered, but the ascent was difficult enough, even though they could now see where they were putting their feet.

"Why, we must have wandered half-way round the island," said Tempest. "Jim, where is the lagoon?"

"’Way across there, I think," the Kanaka replied, pointing.

"Well, all I can say is that it's a mercy we did n't blunder down to the beach where old Flagg is," Tempest commented. "We went round in a half-circle."

It took the trio nearly half an hour to reach the summit, but when they gained the top of the "camel's back" they were in a fine position for observation. Not far below them was the placid water of the lagoon, and the black hull of the Hatteras was plainly discernible. Here, too, they solved the mystery of the Firefly's whereabouts. They had wondered where Flagg had hidden her. Now they could see her moored behind the wreck, in such a position that she would not be observed by any one entering the lagoon.

"I wish I had brought my glasses," Dave said.

"You'd only have lost 'em in the scramble," his companion commented. "Besides, we shall be able to see all we want in a few minutes. Those clouds are rolling away fast."

Half hidden behind a rock, the three peered down at the strange scene for some time. The rain had ceased altogether, and the sand glistened silvery in the moonlight.

Suddenly Dave took a quick inward breath, and his fingers tightened on the rock he was leaning against.

Stealthily, silently, three forms emerged from the shadow below, and moved in the direction of
 
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Three forms emerged and moved in the direction of the Nautilius

 
the Nautilus, which now lay awash, canting over slightly. Of the three forms it was easy to distinguish that of Joe Flagg.

"What's their game now?" Dave asked, speaking in a low voice, as though afraid of being heard by those beneath, even at that distance.

"A little midnight exploration party of some sort," Tempest replied. "We 've got Flagg guessing, and he wants to be sure how things stand. He's not getting much sleep, anyway, since we disturbed his operations. Look, they 're making a bee-line for our old tub, but what on earth they are after I cannot imagine, unless it is to make sure we are not on board."

"There is n't much there for them to steal," said the boy.

Tempest laughed softly.

"Flagg isn't that sort of a thief, lad," he observed. "It takes bigger things than what we have there to interest him. He is quite brainy, in a fashion. I guess they would tell us that in Dogtooth City, if we could ask them; but they have n't got any pleasant memories of him, you may be dead sure. No siree! Joe Flagg is up to some scheme, and I'd give a lot to know what it is. He has the advantage over us for the moment, though. We can do nothing—except keep our eyes open."

Dave nodded. As a matter of fact it was all he could do to keep his eyes open, in spite of the mysterious manœuver that was going on under them.

Warily Flagg approached the Nautilus, and while he stood on guard with the rifle his two Kanakas climbed over the side.

"Good-by, binoculars!" muttered Dave.

"Good-by nothing!" was Tempest's rejoinder. "He may score here again, but the game is n't over yet. No, by jiminy, it's only just beginning, Dave," he went on, warming up. "We 're all guessing now, but we 'll see who wins out in the long run. You can't argue much with a man who is holding up a loaded gun at you, and he knows it. So far that has been his one big advantage—that and the low cunning of sneaking off ahead of us. It's going to be a battle of wits, boy, and there's absolutely no telling what may happen, because he is foxy."

"We are three to three," Dave said.

"Three to three and a gun at present," Tempest corrected. "Great Mackerel! What are they doing with the Nautilus?"

The beach dropped at a sharp angle at the place where the boat had been left, so that in spite of the falling tide she still remained almost afloat. Flagg and his two assistants were putting their shoulders to her bow and heaving her off.

"They can't be going to cast her adrift," Tempest said, puzzled. "What would they gain by that?"

"They could starve us into accepting their terms," the boy suggested.

Instead of leaving the Nautilus to drift away onto the rocks, Flagg and his men climbed on board.

"See, they are taking her over toward the Firefly," said Tempest. "Well, they 've captured her fairly. Still another point in their favor. Dave, boy, the battle is not going well with us. It's about time for us to do a bit of scoring, but I shall feel like a piece of wet rag until I have had a good sleep. Jim, you did a bit of snoring yesterday. Do you think you could keep a watch on them while we turn in?"

"I sleep to-morrow," replied the Kanaka. "You sleep now."

He did not move from his position, leaning over the rock, while the others sought out a dry patch under a sheltering ledge; and like typical sailors they were both in the land of dreams a few moments later. It was broad daylight when they awoke, and the Kanaka still stood there like a statue.

With Dave at his elbow, Tempest looked down from their secure nook; and for the first time they were able to get a clear view of Tai-o-Vai. The peak on which they stood dominated the whole island, enabling them to obtain a wonderful panoramic view. The place was virtually oval in shape, sloping down gradually on three sides from the hill to the shore, and covered nearly from end to end with the impenetrable mass of trees which had proved such a formidable obstacle in the darkness. Beyond the trees the sea, now calm again, lapped the beach lazily. On the fourth side of the hill the slope was precipitous, forming almost a cliff, overlooking the lagoon cupped in its semicircle of rocks. No pathway led down that untrodden ground, but it was possible to scramble to the sea by taking a zigzag route.

"All is quiet in the enemy's camp," Tempest said. "There's nobody moving about on the deck of the Firefly."

"What puzzles me," Dave said, "is why are they stopping here so long? Evidently they have n't found the platinum, or we should n't see their heels for dust. They must have made a fairly good search on the Hatteras by now."

"Surely!" Tempest agreed. "But Flagg must still have some hope, or he would have cleared out. The trouble is that we shall lose the game altogether if they do happen to strike the stuff while they are holding us off, for then they can put up their sails and leave us guessing worse than ever."

"The sooner we take a hand, the better, then,"Dave said. "What about making another attempt to come to terms with the old villain?"

"It's worth trying," said Tempest. "At least we could n't lose anything. Let's hold a council of war. Jim, we want to have a little pow-wow with that nice kind gentleman down there with the pop-gun, but he's got a horrid temper, and he might forget himself and start shooting if he saw any of us. We won't trust him any more than he trusts us. What do you suggest?"

Jim looked down thoughtfully at the scene below for a while,

"Um talk with Meester Flagg and no shooting, eh?" he said at last.

"You 've got the idea," said Tempest, encouragingly.

"Jim fix um up," he declared. "You come half-way down hill and wait."

"Don't you do anything rash, now," Tempest said. "We don't want to have him taking potshots at you."

The Kanaka grinned, which was the nearest he ever came to actually laughing. Without another word he began the descent, the others following. When they had gone within a hundred yards of the edge of the trees near the Hatteras, he motioned them to stop, and then he crept forward alone. While still hidden by the bushes he uttered a peculiar call, evidently intended to attract the attention of the other Kanakas.

There was no response the first time, and Jim repeated the cry.

This time an answer reached them faintly through the trees.

Jim began to speak in his native tongue. The sounds were meaningless to Dave and Tempest, who could only listen and wonder. After a while Jim came back toward them and beckoned.

"Meester Flagg stand ashore without gun and talk if you no go too close," he reported. "If you go close, he 'll grab gun and shoot."

"Very amiable of him, I'm sure," Tempest said, as they went down to the beach. "I take my hat off to you, Jim, all the same."

Flagg had come off the Firefly in a dory, near which he was standing. Evidently the rifle was lying in the boat ready for any emergency.

"You 're looking well this morning," Tempest greeted him. "Evidently this climate agrees with you."

"I 've no time for fool talk," the other jerked back. "What have you got to say to me?"

"We just thought we should like to know how you are progressing."

"That's my business," Flagg snapped.

"Our business, if you don't mind," Tempest corrected. "And really it is very generous of me to include you like that. Anyhow, I'm willing to make one last offer to you. Let us work together on this job, and forget any unpleasantness there may have been, and split the proceeds into three."

"You 're in a nice position to dictate terms to me, are n't you?" Flagg sneered. "No, there is only one thing I will agree to."

"And that is?"

"I 've got your boat and your grub. I did n't ask you to come here. You can starve to death for all I care. You will do that pretty soon. The only alternative is that I 'll give your boat back to you if you clear right out."

"I am afraid Dave Hallard and I have come too far to agree to that, Mr. Flagg," replied Tempest, striving to keep his temper under these difficult circumstances. "Are you sure I can't persuade you to change your mind?"

"That's all I have to say on the subject," said Flagg.

"In that case, all I can do is to wish you a good morning. It is to be war to the finish. I'm sorry, because, to tell you the truth, I 'm beginning to believe we 're all on a wild goose chase."

"What makes you think that?" Flagg asked suspiciously.

"That is my business," Tempest responded, turning his back.

"You 'll sing another tune when your stomachs get empty," Flagg snarled after him, a remark which Tempest did not deign to answer.

"Back to our stronghold for the present, Dave," he said to the boy. "He's as obstinate as a mule, and it would n't surprise me in the least if he tried to hunt us out and force us off the island at the point of the rifle."

"Did you mean that—when you said you thought we were all on a wild-goose chase?"

"Partly," Tempest replied. "As a matter of fact, things don't look too rosy, do they? But I really said it to see how he felt on the subject."

"He did look a hit sick," Dave commented.