Lost Island/Chapter 22

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CHAPTER XXII
A MIDNIGHT VENTURE

Dave and Tempest were by no means cheerful when they regained their refuge on the hill. The last of the biscuits had already been eagerly devoured, and all three of them had an uncomfortable desire to attack a hearty meal. Thirsty also, was bothering them a good deal.

"Something has got to give way soon," Tempest said, "or else Flagg will have a complete walk-over."

"What a horrible thought!" Dave ejaculated. "And yet I don't see how we can live on the memory of a few biscuits for more than another forty-eight hours."

Tempest was leaning over the rock with his eyes glued on the Hatteras. Flagg and his assistants were doing something on the wreck, and sounds of hammering ascended—as though they were smashing woodwork. It was evident he meant to leave no stone unturned before abandoning his search.

"Sometimes I feel sorry I dragged you into this, Tempest," the boy said. "It looks as if it were going to turn out a fizzle."

"I'm not sorry—yet," Tempest replied. "I 'll be able to tell you more about my feelings to-morrow. I'm wondering whether that old villain really would shoot in cold blood if we went down there boldly and got busy on the Hatteras. It would be an exciting experiment."

"Too exciting for me," said Dave. "I don't like the look in his eye when he's pointing the business end of that rifle at us. Yes, I'm afraid he would shoot, because he knows it's a long way to the nearest policeman. He could polish us off without a soul being the wiser except his Kanakas, and at a pinch he could say it was done in self-defense."

"I'm afraid it may come to that at the finish," said Tempest, grimly. "Personally, I have n't the least desire to have holes bored in me. A crazy sailor once put a bullet into my ribs, and it was a distinctly unpleasant experience. All the same, I don't see how anything can be done now but make an attack in force. Once I got hold of his firearms, I'd make him dance. Whether we ever get any treasure or not, I should just love to come out on top in this deal, wouldn't you?"

"We might make a surprise attack somehow. I expect one of them is always on the lookout for something of the sort, though."

"A surprise attack is what I have been thinking of for hours," Tempest said. "But it's a pretty difficult proposition, let me tell you. Jim, are you willing to take a bit of a risk? I 'll buy you anything in the wide world that you fancy, as soon as I can, if you 'll stand by me in this."

"What you do, Jim does," the Kanaka responded nonchalantly.

"Good man! All we can do is to wait for an opportunity, and then we 'll rush the citadel, so to speak. Not just now, however. It does n't look to me as though it would be exactly healthy down there at the present minute."

All day long the trio watched and waited, while the hammering and smashing on the wrecked "Hatteras" continued and the gnawing pangs of hunger grew steadily.

"I believe I could eat my shoes," Dave said desperately toward evening of the longest day he could remember.

"You 'll probably get all you want in the way of grub before morning, somehow or other," Tempest replied. "We are staking everything on this next throw, you know. If we lose and don't get hurt in the gun-play, we shall get our boat back, anyway. Flagg will be only too glad to see the back of us. If we win, we shall get our boat back just the same. So you can make up your mind to be ready for supper or a funeral."

At sunset Flagg and his Kanakas left the Hatteras and returned to the Firefly in their dory, one solitary figure remaining on deck on guard. An early moon lit up the scene distinctly—much too distinctly for Tempest's liking.

"Jumping Cæsar!" exclaimed Tempest, several hours later, "but I 've got a notion. Jim, you can swim like a fish, can't you? I have seen you doing stunts in the water that would make an otter green with envy. Thank goodness, I'm fairly good myself at that game. There is one positive, certain thing, and that is that two of the men on that boat will be snoring like pigs about midnight. Two from three leaves one, or at least it did when I went to school. Dave, my son, I'm afraid we shall have to leave you out of this little performance except as a spectator, though you 'll come in useful after the first stage. Jim, it is risky, but it is worth while under the circumstances. We will wait until the 'witching hour,' and then do our fish act. One of us may get potted in the excitement, and perhaps both of us, but we simply must do something, and this looks to me like a golden opportunity to catch Flagg napping."

As all remained quiet at midnight, the three descended the hill and made for the beach inside the lagoon, but a considerable distance away from the Firefly.

"Not a sound, mind!" Tempest cautioned. "Everything depends on being able to steal a march on them. I know you 're just burning to come along with us, Dave, but you could n't do any good and two can do the thing more quietly than three. I want you to stop right here for about twenty minutes. I'm afraid, if you move, you will be heard by their sentry, and the less alert he is the better. After a while you can creep through the edge of the trees until you are opposite the Firefly, and there ought to be something doing by then, though goodness only knows what it may be."

Stripped of their clothes, Tempest and Jim crawled down to the water's edge, taking advantage of a ridge of sand for cover most of the way. Dave stood watching, with his heart beating fast. This was the climax of their adventures, and he dreaded to think of the danger Tempest was running. He would have attempted to dissuade his friend from going, but Tempest was in no mood to brook interference. Nothing short of an earthquake would have held him back.

Sliding into the water like seals, the pair struck straight out, with the intention of making a wide detour, so that they could approach the Firefly from the seaward side. That, Tempest considered, would at least give them a better chance of reaching their goal without being detected. He was fully aware of the enormous odds that were against them—odds much greater than he had allowed Dave to suspect. Only desperate need had driven him to this undertaking. His chief fear was that they would be seen from the Firefly, and probably shot before they had a chance to board her. If they did happen to be lucky enough to get onto the boat unobserved, they would still have their work cut out. He knew he could depend on Jim to stand by him, whatever occurred, but two men, unarmed, were not likely to have much chance against Flagg and his crew if it came to a rough-and-tumble.

These thoughts raced through Tempest's brain as the pair glided along for the first ten minutes. When he considered it safe to turn they headed straight for the Firefly, and then the most hazardous part of the journey began. It was now more necessary than ever to exercise caution, for though the dark form of the Kanaka was almost invisible, Tempest's face gleamed in the moonlight occasionally. He swam under water as much as possible, coming to the surface only to take breath, and moving slowly so that scarcely a ripple marked their progress. It was eery work; and though Tempest was a brave man, a chill ran down his spine more than once when he reflected how probable it was that a bullet would be their greeting. One careless splash would be almost certain to attract the attention of the sentry on the Firefly, and Tempest did not like to think what an easy target his face would make.

The Nautilus lay anchored near the Firefly, and their object was to reach her safely first if possible. The suspense of the last stretch was terrible. The Kanaka now disappeared under the water for long distances, and showed little more than his mouth and nose when he came up again; but Tempest had not the marvelous skill of the South Sea Islanders. While completely submerged he progressed with powerful strokes, and he did not venture to take breath until his lungs seemed to be bursting.

He was never more thankful for anything in his life than when they reached the side of the Nautilus. Hanging on there, and taking a much needed rest, he listened intently before daring to make the next move. Not a sound reached his ears. With infinite caution he paddled round the prow and, grasping the cable of his boat, raised his head a trifle.

This nearly ended in his undoing. At the stern of the Firefly one of Flagg's Kanakas was squatting, his head resting on his hand. Across his knees was balanced the rifle which had hitherto kept the invading force at bay. This much Tempest took in at one lightning glance, when his hand slipped on the wet cable, and the Kanaka spun round as he heard the slight splash Tempest could not avoid making.

Like a stone the swimmer sank and made for shelter behind the Nautilus, with a dreadful fear that the lookout had seen him. The Kanaka, however, after staring with suspicion in the direction of the noise, came to the conclusion it must have been made by a fish, and settled down again to his long, monotonous vigil.

Tempest waited impatiently for a while, and then ventured to take another peep. The sentry did not appear to be particularly alert. On the contrary, it almost looked at that distance as though his head was nodding sleepily. Tempest held up a warning finger to Jim, motioned him to remain where he was, and glided through the water nearer to the Firefly. With infinite caution he placed his hands on the side of the boat and raised himself partly out of the water, until his face was within a few feet of the sentry.

The Kanaka was fast asleep at his post.

Tempest could hardly believe his good fortune. Quietly as a ghost he disappeared back into the sea, and swam to where Jim was waiting. At the far side of the Nautilus he gave his companion a few whispered instructions, and then the pair of them stole to the stern of Flagg's craft.

Inch by inch the two men raised themselves over the side, fearing to awaken the sleeping Kanaka with the slightest oscillation, but so carefully did they work that the boat hardly moved. The sentry was nodding peacefully when Tempest's hand closed over his mouth like a steel vise, and Jim gripped his legs.

The startled sentry instantly began to struggle, but he could only squirm. Tempest had him by the throat, and his fingers tightened. The terrified Kanaka showed no sign of submission. So far there had scarcely been a sound, but it would not have needed much of a scuffle to bring the other two on the scene. Tempest had no intention of choking the sentry. The situation was extremely critical, when Jim wrested the rifle away and gave the victim a blow on the head with the butt end.

The sentry collapsed, unconscious, and Tempest stood motionless for a while, listening to see if the sound of the blow had disturbed the others. There was no sign of movement, however, in the little cabin, so the unconscious Kanaka was lowered over the side, and Tempest and Jim towed his form to the beach. Dave appeared out of the shadows and approached them.

"You have n't killed him?" the boy asked anxiously in a whisper.

"No. You keep guard over him. Thump him on the head with a rock or something if he gets too lively. We may have our hands quite full enough with the others. Come on, Jim, quick as you like."

While Dave stood on guard over the captive, Tempest and Jim swam off again to the Firefly and regained her deck as silently as before. Flagg's bunk was in the cabin just forward of the cockpit. An oil lamp was burning, and by its light Tempest could see the form of their arch enemy reclining in his bunk. Within reach of the sleeping man lay a revolver, which glistened in the rays of the lamp. At the far end of the cabin was a door, evidently leading to the place where the other Kanaka was asleep.

With Jim at his heels, Tempest took a step forward.