Lost Island/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX
UNDER THE SOUTHERN CROSS

"They can't call us sundowners, with this grub on board," Tempest said, shouldering the parcel. "I don't mind having a lazy time now and again when I 've earned it, but no man breathing shall call me a sundowner."

"What's that," asked Dave, trudging along.

"A sundowner, my son, is a peculiar breed of creature that would as soon fondle a rattlesnake as do a day's work. He is born tired and never gets over it. He faints right away at the sight of a pick or shovel; and if he should happen to do an honest day's labor, he talks about it for years afterward. He has reduced the art of dodging work to a science. Most all farms in Australia will give a man a square meal and some sort of place to sleep in in return for a few hours' help, but the sundowner is foxy. When he sees a farm on the horizon he lies down and basks till evening. Then, just when it's getting dark and too late for him to be put to anything useful in the fields, he rolls up for free board and lodging."

"Talking of somewhere to sleep," Dave said, "can you tell me where we are likely to spend the night?"

Tempest laughed.

"It's about ten hours too early even to think of that," he said; "and anyway we don't need to worry, or else we sha'n't sleep so well. What's wrong with a hay-stack for a bed! Once you 're fast asleep you might be there just as well as in the best bed money can buy."

The two amateur tramps had a total of thirty miles to walk to reach Albany, and more than half that distance had been covered by the time they decided to halt for the night. A barn containing plenty of dry hay stood temptingly near.

"What could one want better than that?" Tempest asked, after a brief inspection of the place, "There's no electric light, but one must n't expect too much at the price, and there's a full moon. Neither of us will need rocking to sleep to-night, and we shall want a good rest, because we have a big walk in front of us to-morrow."

Dave, having grown accustomed to strange sleeping-places, was in a sound slumber five minutes after his head touched the pillow of hay. When Bruce Tempest heard his deep, regular breathing he took his old pipe from a pocket, sat on a fence near, and smoked placidly for half an hour. He always made a point of not smoking in a barn when he was appropriating it for a night's lodging, partly because there was always the danger of losing his lodgings by burning the barn down, and partly because he felt the farmer might appreciate the little act of courtesy if only he knew. As one who had not a care in the world he knocked the ashes from his pipe at last, hummed a sailors' ditty, and then strolled to his primitive couch. He, too, was soon in the land of dreams.

The sun was just peeping over the horizon when the two wanderers awoke; and before having breakfast they went down to the adjacent beach for a refreshing plunge into the sea. Afterward they pushed on, covering ten miles before the sun "was over the yard-arm," as Tempest put it, when they fell in with a party of road-menders taking their midday rest. With typical Australian hospitality, the road-menders invited Dave and his companion to join them in their noon meal.

It was evening when the two arrived in Albany, tired, hungry, and with the price of one scant meal in their possession.

"It would be fun if we could both get fixed up on the same boat," Dave suggested. "You 're not particular which way you go, are you?"

"North, south, east, or west, will do the same," Tempest replied.

"Well, I'd rather go east," Dave said, "if luck will let me. It is n't as though my dad had seen me off and all that sort of thing. I told him when I wrote that I should be back by now, and I guess he's kind of expecting me. Goodness only knows when I shall get home again if I have to sign on some ship bound westward from here."

"Don't worry, sonny. Things nearly always pan out right by themselves, as I 've said before. So long as you live clean, pay your way, and can look every man straight in the eyes, there's hardly a thing in the world that is worth a wrinkle. Besides, if you fuss over every blessed thing that comes along, you 've got no steam left in you when the time comes for you to make a big effort."

"Such as what?" asked Dave, wondering what manner of thing could give Bruce Tempest a wrinkle.

"Oh, I don't know for the minute," the man said. "Just once or twice in everybody's life there comes a time that he thinks it worth while to forge ahead, whatever it costs. It does n't need to be something selfish. Some people keep themselves tuned up all the time. I don't. Perhaps I 've got too slack," he added ruefully, glancing down at his tattered coat. He was wearing his "best" trousers, having left the other disreputable-looking garments behind when he sallied forth from the log-cabin. "I wonder whether I should have enough pep left in me to make a real effort now if I wanted to. Anyway, there's a chance to get a move on to-night if we want a berth to sleep in."

There were several coastal boats tied up at the various wharves, and Dave and his companion began a systematic search for work. The third vessel they tried wanted hands, but she was bound up the west coast, farther away from America than ever; so they left her, undecided, pending a further search. At last fortune favored them. The Neptune, a rusty old tramp, was leaving the following day on a leisurely trip eastward, picking up cargo where she could for any port on the way to Sydney; and she could do with a couple more deck-hands. Dave's experience hardly justified him in signing on as a deck hand, but no question was raised as to his age, his build being equal to that of many a boy two years older.

The mate who engaged him asked Dave several questions, which were answered satisfactorily.

"You 're a bit young," the mate said, "but I guess you 'll do." And Dave flushed with pride when he found himself enrolled as an ordinary member of the crew.

It was fortunate that he had spent as much of his time at sea as possible learning the ins and outs of his trade, for this knowledge became of great value to him now. Bruce Tempest, too, gave him some quiet coaching, and after a week as an able-bodied seaman Dave found little difficulty in carrying out the routine duties of a tramp's deck-hand. He was in the watch of Mr. Slazenger, the mate who had engaged him, and when that officer found the boy a hard worker and willing to learn, he made allowance for his inexperience.

The Neptune made slow headway, but she was a fairly good sea-boat, and Dave enjoyed this ambling trip more than he had being on either of the other vessels. So long as the crew did their work the captain did not interfere with them unduly, though, as one of the older hands explained: "When he do want to put up a kick he wears his heaviest boots."

On more than one occasion the captain, a Queenslander named Phelps, gave Dave a kindly word of encouragement and chatted pleasantly. The boy was coiling a rope when Captain Phelps showed how it could be done more expeditiously.

"Do you come of a sea-going family?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Dave replied. "My father was a ship's master, and so were his brothers."

"Your dad at sea now?"

"No, sir. He's been retired for a good many years. He used to run clippers, chiefly in the North Pacific trade."

"Hallard, Hallard," said the captain, rubbing his chin reflectively. "I seem to remember the name somehow. It's a long time since I traded out of America to China, but the name seems familiar. What is his given name?"

"Andrew."

Suddenly the captain glanced at the boy with a gleam of amusement in his eyes.

"Did you ever hear him speak of a clipper called the Bessie M. Dobbs?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," said Dave. "That was the boat that he made a record run in."

"Bless my soul!" exclaimed Captain Phelps. "Why, I was in 'Frisco when the Bessie M. Dobbs shot through the Golden Gate on her thirty-fifth day out of Hong Kong."

"Thirty-third day, sir," said Dave, never likely to be inaccurate about that little bit of family history.

"Thirty-third, was it? Well, I know it just beat the record of the schooner Sierra Nevada by a day, and there was a lot of talk about it at the time, because it was reckoned that the Sierra Nevada's record could never be beaten by a sailing ship. The Bessie M. Dobbs nearly had her sticks torn out of her on the way. Captain Hallard only shortened sail once during the whole run across, and that was when she was poking her nose under water. Bless my soul, and here's his slip of a kid learning sailoring on the old Neptune! Well, Captain Hallard would n't remember me, though I was one of those who shook hands with him after he landed, but when you get back home tell him I say he's got a son who 'll make a sailor."

"Thank you, sir, I will," said Dave, immensely pleased.

During their watch below, Tempest and Dave often had time for a yarn, and sometimes during the hot, moonlight nights they would spend hours on deck, chatting, under the wondrous spell of the Southern Cross.

"It is a mystery to me," Tempest said one evening while they were leaning over the rail and watching the antics of a shoal of flying-fish, "how people can spend their lives cooped up in cities and factories, working like slaves to pay big rents and getting mighty little pleasure out of it all, when a life like this is possible. I suppose, really, we can't all go to sea, and lots of folk would think this was rotten compared with an evenings in a movie palace, but I know which I like best, yes, siree. Why did n't you wait till your father said you could come, Dave? What was it about the old sea that got you?"

"Don't know," replied Dave reflectively. "It seemed to be growing on me gradually without my knowing it, though of course I always knew I should be a sailor sooner or later. I think what really set me off was talking to an old man who was painting the side of a ship. He yarned for about an hour, and after that I did n't feel like waiting much longer.'

"Well, was it anything like what the old man said?" Tempest queried.

"I don't remember much of what he did say. One queer thing he told me, though. It was about a derelict they'd found half buried in the sand on some island in the South Seas. I did n't forget the vessel's name, because it had been called after Cape Hatteras. When I got home I told Dad about it, and he said there was a boat called the Hatteras that had been lost years and years ago with a lot of platinum on board."

"Was it the same boat?" Tempest asked, lazily.

"Don't know," said Dave. "It sounded to me as though it might have been, but Dad did n't seem to think so."

"Then your old friend the sailor did n't get the treasure, eh?"

"He did n't know anything about it. You see, his ship was only sheltering off there, and they rowed ashore just to have a look at the derelict. Perhaps they would have been a bit keener if only somebody had remembered that there was a lost treasure-ship called the Hatteras."

"Did the old man say exactly where it was?"

"No. He just mentioned that they were running between Christmas Island and some other island, when they had to take shelter."

"Well, there's many a syndicate taken a sporting chance on a thing like that and made a little fortune," Tempest commented. "Now, after your father told you there was a treasure-ship called the Hatteras, why did n't you go back and pump the old man to find out the exact bearings of the island!"

"In the first place, as I say, Dad did n't think it was any good after all that time; and in the second place the old man's ship had put to sea again."

"Where to?"

"Don't know. I did n't ask him."

"Heigh-o," Tempest laughed "They say opportunity knocks at every man's door once in his life, and it seems to me, David Hallard, that you were n't listening when your turn came. You 've kind of lost that island, eh?"

"But you don't think the stuff would be there, do you?"

"Me? How do I know, laddie! Maybe—and maybe not. Anyway, it is n't any use shedding tears over it now, is it?"

"I never did shed any tears over it," Dave said. "I got excited about it at the time, naturally, not because I wanted the money for myself exactly, but—"

"But what?"

"Well, perhaps it was silly, but it struck me it would be great to find the treasure and fix up my dad again as he was before he lost all he had in New York."

"The spirit is all right," commented Tempest, grinning, "If only you had n't gone and lost your island as soon as you'd found it! Old Man Opportunity does n't usually knock twice at the same man's door, but if ever he does come again, mind you listen with both ears, Dave."

Port after port they called at, once they got through the Bight, and Dave was filled with interest by the busy scenes of dock life. At some places the Neptune was only tied up for a few hours while the chattering winches hauled several tons of cargo from her capacious hold: at others they spent several days. Tempest was familiar with most of these ports, and Dave found in him a most entertaining guide when they got the opportunity of stretching their legs ashore.

While off Cape Otway, running towards Melbourne, the Neptune encountered one of the great mail boats, with her engines stopped for some trifling repair. The Neptune's course took her close to the side of the big ship which towered like a mountain over the wallowing little tramp.

Dave, having taken a message to the captain, happened to be on the bridge as they ran alongside. Hundreds of passengers leaned over the rail looking at the small steamer, which dipped her flag and received the same polite salutation.

Captain Phelps, recognizing the grey-whiskered skipper of the liner, waved his hand.

"Want a tow?" he called out laughingly.

"Not to-day, thanks," replied the skipper of the liner. "You 're a bit too fast for us. Where 're you bound?"

"China to Japan with hot water," replied Captain Phelps, as the little Neptune waddled out of earshot.

Dave and Tempest had only signed on the tramp for the trip as far as Sydney, and the boy was sorry when the run was drawing to a finish, for the Neptune was a comfortable ship, as tramps go, and the weather had been almost perfect.

"I suppose you 'll join a vessel bound from Sydney to New York," Tempest said as they sat on the hatches, watching the coast of New South Wales slide past.

"I was thinking of it," Dave replied.

"What about a run in one of those trading vessels through the South Sea Islands?" Tempest suggested. "There's nothing like it in the wide world. They poke about buying that dried cocoanut stuff they call copra, and other things, from the natives, going from one island to the other till they get a full cargo. I know the skippers of two or three of the ships, and we could be almost certain of getting a berth. Like to come?"

"I'd like to, of course," Dave said. The romance of the South Sea Islands had always appealed to him greatly. "About how long should we be away?"

"Between two and three months, I guess. It depends on what sort of luck the captain has in picking up a cargo."

"I might not get a chance again in years," Dave said thoughtfully. "Perhaps Dad would n't mind so much. I could be back in Brooklyn before Christmas, anyhow."

"Just as you say, sonny," Tempest observed. "I don't want to upset your plans, but there's the chance staring you in the face, and there's thousands of youngsters would give their ears for one like it."

"I 'll go," Dave agreed, unconsciously taking yet another step in the direction Fate was drawing him.