Lost Island/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII
THE SKELETON IN THE SAND

Advancing on tiptoes, Tempest stretched out his hand to gain possession of the revolver, and his fingers were almost closing on it when one of the flooring boards creaked. Flagg, who had evidently been slumbering lightly, stirred uneasily. Casting caution to the winds. Tempest reached forward impulsively, bumping against a table as he did so.

With a startled exclamation, Flagg half raised himself in his bunk, but by that time the weapon was in the other man's hand, and the muzzle was pointing straight between Flagg's eyes.

"Don't move an inch!" Tempest said in a voice which carried conviction. "Jim, fasten that door. We'll bottle up the other Kanaka till this gentleman has thoroughly grasped the situation."

"That—that thing's loaded," gasped Flagg, beginning to regain his self-possession after the shock of being so rudely awakened.

"I suspected the fact," said Tempest. "And just because it is loaded, you will be more reasonable."

"Well, don't point it at me. It might go off."

"It not only might, but it will if you make a move. Jim, see if you can find any more rifles or six-shooters around."

Jim turned out lockers and ransacked pockets, but was unable to find anything except a box of cartridges, of which Tempest immediately took possession.

"Now," said the latter, "the game is up, as far as you are concerned."

If looks could have killed, Tempest would have been a dead man. Flagg, however, had wonderful control over himself, and his expression altered.

"We've all come on a fool's errand, Tempest," he said, in tones that were intended to he ingratiating. "There may have been treasure here at one time, but there isn't now."

"All the more reason why you can scoot back to Washington Island at top speed with an easy mind," was the uncompromising reply.

"Of course, there's always a chance, if we searched long enough—"

"You've had your chance, Flagg, and you took it dishonorably. You won't get another until we have had ours."

"But couldn't we all work together? It's a bigger job than you seem to think." The man still, apparently, cherished the hope that the Hatteras treasure might be located.

"Listen to me," said Tempest. "I did intend, if ever I got this opportunity, to give you the biggest hiding you ever heard of. You deserve it—and worse. I'm not sure I shouldn't be doing a kindness to you by teaching you a lesson. You 're a sneak, Flagg, a low sneak-thief. I have felt like punching your fat head until you cried for mercy. But now that you are where I can do it, I won't soil my hands on you. A bullet is more the sort of medicine you need," he added, suddenly warming up and pushing the muzzle of the revolver within an inch of the man's forehead.

Flagg squirmed. For a moment fear showed in his eyes.

"Bah!" said Tempest. "You're a chicken-hearted old scoundrel, after all, when it comes to a pinch, and when you aren't holding the gun. See, I'll give you ten minutes to clear out. Jim, take the dory ashore, and bring off the Kanaka. You needn't be afraid of leaving us alone. I've got something here that will keep our friend quiet."

Jim rowed to the beach and there found Dave standing on guard over his prisoner, with a stout piece of driftwood in his hand. The man had recovered, but was lying still, evidently realizing that the boy had him at a disadvantage.

"What's happened?" Dave asked eagerly.

"Meester Flagg going for li'le trip," Jim replied. "He take this feller with him."

Dave ordered the prisoner forward, and the trio pushed off again in the dory. They found Tempest, as Jim had left him, still master of the situation.

"Say good-by to Mr. Flagg, Dave," Tempest observed quizzically. "He is just about to take a sea voyage for his health, and you may not see him again."

"Sorry he can't stop," said the boy, dryly. "Why, we were just beginning to like him! Say, Tempest, I don't want to interfere with the program, but the sooner I get some grub, the sooner I shall begin to forgive him."

"Righto. A pleasant journey, Flagg. And let it be clearly understood that if we see you hanging around here again, I'll shoot in dead earnest. Savvy?"

Flagg had been lying on his back, apparently accepting the situation now as one in which he was hopelessly beaten. Neither his cunning nor his tenacity, however, had deserted him. As a last desperate resort he made a sudden grab to wrest the revolver from Tempest's hands, knowing that if the move succeeded he would turn the tables again. His wrist was powerful, but fortunately the other man was half expecting some such trick. He bent the weapon down, involuntarily tightening his pressure on the trigger as he did so. There was a deafening explosion, and a bullet bored its way through the bottom of the bunk, missing Flagg by the breadth of a finger.

Flagg sank back limply.

"I give in," he murmured. "Let me get out of this."

"You'd better," said Tempest. "If that had killed you, it would have been your own fault. Jim, Dave, hop into that dory. Take the rifle with you. Now, Flagg, you 're to make a start as soon as we get off this boat, see? If you don't, I shall begin boring holes in it."

But Mr. Flagg was thoroughly subdued, and the sails of the Firefly began to flutter without the slightest delay.

"I don't think he will come back, somehow," Tempest commented as the craft passed through the channel and into the open sea. "All the same, we must keep our eyes skinned. But for the love of Mike, let's get something to eat."

Nothing had been disturbed in the Nautilus. Even Dave's cherished binoculars were exactly where he had left them. In a few minutes the trio were ravenously devouring a meal and regaling themselves with steaming cups of coffee, after which they took turn and turn about in keeping watch until dawn.

As soon as it was light, Dave and Tempest paid their first long-deferred visit to the Hatteras, and the boy's face fell as he scrambled onto the ruins of the bark. The ravages of time had not left much of her framework. Her hull was more or less intact, being embedded deeply in sand which had silted around her. In places her deck had caved in, and most of the woodwork had either been rotted or washed away. Flagg had evidently been breaking away timbers in the neighborhood of the poop, endeavoring to reveal any locker which might contain the platinum, but the task did not seem to have been a very promising one.

Tempest scratched his head and pulled a wry face.

"It's no use spoiling the ship for a penn 'orth of tar," he said lugubriously. "Now that we are here, we might as well finish the search; but it's pretty clear that this isn't where we get rich quick, eh, Dave?"

Though their hopes had now dwindled down to zero, they worked hard throughout that day and the following one without the slightest encouragement. With an immense amount of labor they dug into a cavity which appeared to have been the captain's cabin, and cleared it of tons of sand. They came across sundry half-decayed articles, and tore away the covers of one or two lockers, the contents of which had all nearly rotted.

By the end of the second day it was obvious that there remained no reasonable prospect of recovering the lost platinum from the wreck.

"It's no good," said Tempest, taking a seat on one of the ship's old ribs and lighting his pipe. "We've had a run for our money, and that's about all we can say. I've no regrets, and I hope you haven't either, Dave. It was a sporting chance, and a good one at that, so far as we could judge. You don't get a good sporting chance every day of your life. Poor old Jim, here, gets the thin end of it, because we can't pay him any wages at all. I'm sorry for that, because he has been a brick."

Jim shrugged his shoulders. He did not seem to feel that the others were under any obligation to him.

"Well, we'd better make a move for Washington Island, I suppose," Dave observed lugubriously. "We can't spend the rest of our lives here."

Jim was scanning the sky and the horizon carefully.

"Better stop here to-night," he said. "Pretty rough bimeby. Big wind coming."

"Bother you, Jim! No, I won't say that You're a great weather-prophet, though how in thunder you know there's going to be a storm without looking at a barometer is more than I can tell. I guess you feel it in your bones. The sky certainly did look a bit angry as the sun went down, but nothing very special. Let's get back to the Nautilus. Good-by, Hatteras! Sorry there's nothing doing, but you certainly have provided us with an interesting trip, if not a particularly profitable one."

Dave looked back regretfully at the old wreck as he left her for the last time. He was disappointed, not so much on his own account as on that of his father, whom he had so much hoped to cheer with visions of wealth. With Tempest, the matter seemed to have been already forgotten. He was laughing as gaily as though such a thing as a treasure-hunt had never been suggested to him.

Before it was time to turn in for the night the storm that Jim had prophesied began to put in an appearance. Dark clouds raced across the sky, and sudden gusts of wind screamed through the rigging of the Nautilus.

"No need to keep a lookout for Flagg to-night," Dave commented, with mingled emotions. "He could come and camp here as long as he liked now, so far as we are concerned. If he hasn't got back to Washington Island yet, he will be having a rough night.'

"Plenty more wind coming," declared Jim.

"If that is so, I'm glad I'm not out in the open sea in a twenty-five-foot boat," observed Tempest. "A lagoon like ours is a blessing under such circumstances. Dave, I have a fancy for a stroll on the shore to-night. Coming? It will be the last time we shall tread on Tai-o-Vai."

They all three dropped into the dory and paddled to the beach. There was no rain, and the great camel's back sheltered them from the wind. They had not landed five minutes, however, before the gale switched round with startling suddenness, and a fierce blast, coming straight in from over the lagoon, nearly knocked them off their feet and enveloped them in a whirl of fiercely driven sand.

"Gosh!" Tempest shouted, endeavoring to wipe some of the grit out of his eyes. "Now who'd have expected that? It's a regular typhoon. Looks to me as though we were going to have some difficulty in getting back to the Nautilus."

"Plenty more wind bimeby," said Jim, impassively.

"If it gets much worse, it'll blow the blooming island away," complained Tempest. "Ouch! Here comes another dose of sand!"

This time the storm burst on them with all its force, and they staggered in the overwhelming cloud of fine sand which beat savagely on their backs, filled their hair, ears, mouths and clothing, and left them temporarily blinded, although instinctively they covered their eyes with their hands. Dave stumbled and fell, but Tempest dragged him to his feet again. Grasping the boy's shoulder, and keeping his own back to the force of the blast as much as possible, he forced his way in the direction of the trees. It was like moving in a nightmare, for he could only guess vaguely in which direction that shelter lay. He called hoarsely to Jim, but his voice was swallowed up in the roar of the gale. Sometimes falling, himself, and regaining his feet with difficulty, he pushed grimly on. It seemed a long while before he felt the low bushes on the outskirts of the wood brushing against his legs. They gave him renewed hope. Unable to see a thing, he forced his way under the trees, dragging Dave, and at length, having struggled a little way into the timber, sank down panting, and choking with sand.

They lay there well over an hour before the force of the storm decreased, and then, having recovered somewhat, began to shout for Jim. Presently they heard an answering call, and the Kanaka came toward them through the trees. As soon as he had lost sight of the others he, too, had sought shelter.

"For goodness' sake, don't say it's going to blow harder soon, Jim," said Tempest.

"Pretty near finished," replied the Kanaka. "Fine again quick."

Like most sudden tropical storms, it died down rapidly, and before long the island was bathed again in radiant moonlight, without a breath of air stirring. Only the thunder of the surf on the outer reef, and curious shallow cavities dug in the silvery sand by the whirling wind, remained to show how terrific had been the force of the storm. In places, whole stretches of beach had been scooped away, to be piled up farther on like drifts of snow.

Dave and Tempest surveyed this strange effect of nature in her angriest mood.

"Gee, but it is a wonder we came out of that alive!" said Tempest, thankfully.

Dave did not answer for a moment. He was leaning forward a little, with his eyes fixed on an object which protruded through the sand in one of the excavations left by the gale far above high-water mark, at the edge of the trees. The object gleamed like a streak of silver in the moonlight. Prompted by curiosity, he stepped down toward it. An instant later he called to his friend, his voice sharp with restrained excitement:

"Tempest! Come here! It's—it's a skeleton!"