THE BOY AVIATORS' POLAR DASH
FACING DEATH IN THE ANTARCTIC
CAPTAIN WILBUR LAWTON (pseudonym for John Henry Goldfrap)
Boy Aviators' Series
By Captain Wilbur Lawton
1 THE BOY AVIATORS IN NICARAGUA; or, In League with the Insurgents.
2 THE BOY AVIATORS ON SECRET SERVICE; or, Working with Wireless.
3 THE BOY AVIATORS IN AFRICA; or, An Aerial Ivory Trail.
4 THE BOY AVIATORS' TREASURE QUEST; or, The Golden Galleon.
5 THE BOY AVIATORS IN RECORD FLIGHT; or, The Rival Aeroplane.
6 THE BOY AVIATORS' POLAR DASH; or, Facing Death in the Antarctic.
CHAPTER I. The Polar Ship II. A Mysterious Robbery III. Off for the South Pole IV. A Message from the Air V. A Tragedy of the Skies VI. A Strange Collision VII. Adrift on a Floating Island VIII. Caught in the Flames IX. A Queer Accident X. The Professor is Kidnapped XI. A Battle in the Air XII. Adrift XIII. The Ship of Olaf the Viking XIV. Marooned on an Ice Floe XV. Dynamiting the Reef XVI. A Polar Storm XVII. The Great Barrier XVIII. The Professor Takes a Cold Bath XIX. Facing the Polar Night XX. A Mysterious Light XXI. A Penguin Hunt XXII. The Flaming Mountain XXIII. Adrift Above the Snows XXIV. Swallowed by a Crevasse XXV. The Viking's Ship XXVI. Caught in a Trap XXVII. The Fate of the Dirigible XXVIII. The Heart of the Antarctic
THE BOY AVIATORS' POLAR DASH
FACING DEATH IN THE ANTARCTIC
THE POLAR SHIP.
"Oh, it's southward ho, where the breezes blow; we're off for the pole, yo, ho! heave ho!"
"Is that you, Harry?" asked a lad of about seventeen, without looking up from some curious-looking frames and apparatus over which he was working in the garage workshop back of his New York home on Madison Avenue.
"Ay! ay! my hearty," responded his brother, giving his trousers a nautical hitch; "you seem to have forgotten that to-day is the day we are to see the polar ship."
"Not likely," exclaimed Frank Chester, flinging down his wrench and passing his hand through a mop of curly hair; "what time is it?"
"Almost noon; we must be at the Eric Basin at two o'clock."
"As late as that? Well, building a motor sledge and fixing up the Golden Eagle certainly occupies time."
"Come on; wash up and then we'll get dinner and start over."
"Will Captain Hazzard be there?"
"Yes, they are getting the supplies on board now."
"Say, that sounds good, doesn't it? Mighty few boys get such a chance. The South Pole,—ice-bergs—sea-lions,—and—and—oh, heaps of things."
Arm in arm the two boys left the garage on the upper floor of which they had fitted up their aeronautical workshop. There the Golden Eagle, their big twin-screw aeroplane, had been planned and partially built, and here, too, they were now working on a motor-sledge for the expedition which now occupied most of their waking—and sleeping—thoughts.
The Erie Basin is an enclosed body of water which forms at once a repair shop and a graveyard for every conceivable variety of vessel, steam and sail, and is not the warmest place in the world on a chill day in late November, yet to the two lads, as they hurried along a narrow string-piece in the direction of a big three-masted steamer, which lay at a small pier projecting in an L-shaped formation, from the main wharf, the bitter blasts that swept round warehouse corners appeared to be of not the slightest consequence—at least to judge by their earnest conversation.
"What a muss!" exclaimed Harry, the younger of the two lads.
"Well," commented the other, "you'd hardly expect to find a wharf, alongside which a south polar ship is fitting up, on rush orders, to be as clean swept as a drawing-room, would you?"
As Harry Chester had said, the wharf was "a muss." Everywhere were cases and barrels all stenciled "Ship Southern Cross, U. S. South Polar Expedition." As fast as a gang of stevedores, their laboring bodies steaming in the sharp air, could handle the muddle, the numerous cases and crates were hauled aboard the vessel we have noticed and lowered into her capacious holds by a rattling, fussy cargo winch. The shouts of the freight handlers and the sharp shrieks of the whistle of the boss stevedore, as he started or stopped the hoisting engine, all combined to form a picture as confused as could well be imagined, and yet one which was in reality merely an orderly loading of a ship of whose existence, much less her destination, few were aware.
As the readers of The Boy Aviators in Record Flight; or, The Rival Aeroplane, will recall, the Chester boys, in their overland trip for the big newspaper prize, encountered Captain Robert Hazzard, a young army officer in pursuit of a band of renegade Indians. On that occasion he displayed much interest in the aeroplane in which they were voyaging over plains, mountains and rivers on their remarkable trip. They in turn were equally absorbed in what he had to tell them about his hopes of being selected for the post of commander of the expedition to the South Pole, which the government was then considering fitting out for the purpose of obtaining meteorological and geographical data. The actual attainment of the pole was, of course, the main object of the dash southward, but the expedition was likewise to do all in its power to add to the slender stock of the world's knowledge concerning the great silences south of the 80th parallel. About a month before this story opens the young captain had realized his wish and the Southern Cross—formerly a stanch bark-rigged whaler—had been purchased for uses of the expedition.
Their friend had not forgotten the boys and their aeroplane and in fact had lost no time in communicating with them, and a series of consultations and councils of war had ended in the boys being signed on as the aviators of the expedition. They also had had assigned to their care the mechanical details of the equipment, including a motor sledge, which latter will be more fully described later.
That the consent of the boys' parents to their long and hazardous trip had not been gained without a lot of coaxing and persuasion goes without saying. Mrs. Chester had held out till the last against what she termed "a hare-brained project," but the boys with learned discourses on the inestimable benefits that would redound to humanity's benefit from the discovery of the South Pole, had overborne even her rather bewildered opposition, and the day before they stood on the wharf in the Erie Basin, watching the Southern Cross swallowing her cargo, like a mighty sea monster demolishing a gigantic meal, they had received their duly signed and witnessed commissions as aviators to the expedition—documents of which they were not a little proud.
"Well, boys, here you are, I see. Come aboard."
The two boys gazed upward at the high side of the ship from whence the hail had proceeded. In the figure that had addressed them they had at first no little difficulty in recognizing Captain Hazzard. In grimy overalls, with a battered woolen cap of the Tam o' Shanter variety on his head, and his face liberally smudged with grime and dust,—for on the opposite side of the Southern Cross three lighters were at work coaling her,—a figure more unlike that of the usually trim and trig officer could scarcely be imagined.
The lads' confusion was only momentary, however, and ended in a hearty laugh as they nimbly ascended the narrow gangway and gained the deck by their friend's side. After a warm handshake, Frank exclaimed merrily:
"I suppose we are now another part of the miscellaneous cargo, sir. If we are in the way tell us and we'll go ashore again."
"No, I've got you here now and I don't mean to let you escape," laughed the other in response; "in my cabin—its aft there under the break in the poop, you'll find some more overalls, put them on and then I'll set you both to work as tallyers."
Harry looked blank at this. He had counted on rambling over the ship and examining her at his leisure. It seemed, however, that they were to be allowed no time for skylarking. Frank, however, obeyed with alacrity.
"Ay, ay, sir!" he exclaimed, with a sailor-like hitch at his trousers; "come, Harry, my hearty, tumble aft, we might as well begin to take orders now as any other time."
"That's the spirit, my boy," exclaimed the captain warmly, as Harry, looking a bit shamefaced at his temporary desire to protest, followed his brother to the stern of the ship.
Once on board there was no room to doubt that the Southern Cross had once been a whaler under the prosaic name of Eben A. Thayer. In fact if there had been any indecision about the matter the strong smell of oil and blubber which still clung to her, despite new coats of paint and a thorough cleaning, would have dispelled it.
The engine-room, as is usual in vessels of the type of the converted whaler, was as far aft as it could be placed, and the boys noticed with satisfaction as they entered the officers' quarters aft, that the radiators had been connected with the boilers and had warmed the place up to a comfortable temperature. A Japanese steward showed them into Captain Hazzard's cabin, and they selected a suit of overalls each from a higgledy-piggledy collection of oil-skins, rough pilot-cloth suits and all manner of headgear hanging on one of the cabin bulkheads.
They had encased themselves in them, and were laughing at the whimsical appearance they made in the clumsy garments, when the captain himself entered the cabin.
"The stevedores have knocked off for a rest spell and a smoke and the lighters are emptied," he announced, "so I might as well show you boys round a bit. Would you care to?"
Would they care to? Two hearty shouts of assent left the young commander no doubt on this score.
The former Eben A. Thayer had been a beamy ship, and the living quarters of her officers astern left nothing to be desired in the way of room. On one side of the cabin, extending beneath the poop deck, with a row of lights in the circular wall formed by the stern, were the four cabins to be occupied by Captain Hazzard, the chief engineer, a middle-aged Scotchman named Gavin MacKenzie, Professor Simeon Sandburr, the scientist of the expedition, and the surgeon, a Doctor Watson Gregg.
The four staterooms on the other side were to be occupied by the boys, whom the lieutenant assigned to the one nearest the stern, the second engineer and the mate were berthed next to them. Then came the cabin of Captain Pent Barrington, the navigating officer of the ship, and his first mate, a New Englander, as dry as salt cod, named Darius Green. The fourth stateroom was empty. The steward bunked forward in a little cabin rigged up in the same deck-house as the galley which snuggled up to the foot of the foremast.
Summing up what the boys saw as they followed their conductor over the ship they found her to be a three-masted, bark-rigged vessel with a cro' nest, like a small barrel, perched atop of her mainmast. Her already large coal bunkers had been added to until she was enabled to carry enough coal to give her a tremendous cruising radius. It was in order to economize on fuel she was rigged for the carrying of sail when she encountered a good slant of wind. Her forecastle, originally the dark, wet hole common to whalers, had been built up till it was a commodious chamber fitted with bunks at the sides and a swinging table in the center, which could be hoisted up out of the way when not in use. Like the officers' cabins, it was warmed by radiators fed from the main boilers when under way and from the donkey, or auxiliary, boiler when hove to.
Besides the provisions, which the stevedores, having completed their "spell," were now tumbling into the hold with renewed ardor, the deck was piled high with a strange miscellany of articles. There were sledges, bales of canvas, which on investigation proved to be tents, coils of rope, pick-axes, shovels, five portable houses in knock-down form, a couple of specially constructed whale boats, so made as to resist any ordinary pressure that might be brought to bear on them in the polar drift, and nail-kegs and tool-chests everywhere.
Peeping into the hold the boys saw that each side of it had been built up with big partitions, something like the pigeon-holes in which bolts of cloth are stored in dry-goods shops—only much larger. Each of these spaces was labeled in plain letters with the nature of the stores to be placed there so that those in charge of the supplies would have no difficulty in laying their hands at once on whatever happened to be needed. Each space was provided with a swiveled bar of stout timber which could be pulled across the front of the opening in heavy weather, and which prevented anything plunging out.
Captain Hazzard explained that the heavy stores were stowed forward and the provisions aft. A gallery ran between the shelves from stem to stern and provided ready access to any part of the holds. A system of hot steam-pipes had been rigged in the holds so that in the antarctic an equable temperature could be maintained. The great water tanks were forward immediately below the forecastle. The inspection of the engines came last. The Southern Cross had been fitted with new water-tube boilers—two of them—that steamed readily on small fuel consumption. Her engine was triple expansion, especially installed, as the boilers had been, to take the place of the antiquated machinery boasted by the old Thayer.
"Hoot, mon, she's as fine as a liner," commented old MacKenzie, the "chief," who had taken charge of the boys on this part of their expedition over the vessel, which was destined to be their home for many months.
"Some day," said Frank, "every vessel will be equipped with gasoline motors and all this clumsy arrangement of boilers and complicated piping will be done away with."
The old Scotch engineer looked at him queerly.
"Oh, ay," he sniffed, "and some day we'll all go to sea in pea-soup bowls nae doot."
"Well, a man in Connecticut has built a schooner out of cement," declared Harry.
The engineer looked at him and slowly wiped his hands on a bit of waste.
"I ken his head must be a muckle thicker nor that," was his comment, at which both the boys laughed as they climbed the steel ladders that led from the warm and oily regions to the deck. The engineer, with a "dour" Scot's grin, gazed after them.
"Hoots-toots," he muttered to his gauges and levers, "the great ice has a wonderful way with lads as cocksure as them twa."
A MYSTERIOUS ROBBERY.
Their inspection of the Southern Cross completed, the delighted boys accompanied Captain Hazzard back to the main cabin, where he unfolded before them a huge chart of the polar regions.
The chart was traced over in many places with tiny red lines which made zig-zags and curves over the blankness of the region south of the eightieth parallel.
"These lines mark the points reached by different explorers," explained the captain. "See, here is Scott's furthest south, and here the most recent advance into south polar regions, that of Sir Ernest Shackleton. In my opinion Shackleton might have reached his goal if he had used a motor sledge, capable of carrying heavy weights, and not placed his sole dependence on ponies."
The boys nodded; Frank had read the explorer's narrative and realized that what Captain Hazzard said was in all probability correct.
"It remains for your expedition to carry the Stars and Stripes further to the southward yet," exclaimed Frank, enthusiastically, as Captain Hazzard rolled up the map.
"Not only for us," smiled the captain; "we have a rival in the field."
"A rival expedition?" exclaimed Frank.
"Exactly. Some time this month a Japanese expedition under Lieutenant Saki is to set out from Yokahama for Wilkes Land.
"They are to be towed by a man-of-war until they are in the polar regions so as to save the supply of coal on the small steamer they are using," went on the captain. "Everything has been conducted with the utmost secrecy and it is their intention to beat us there if possible—hence all this haste."
"How did our government get wind of the fact that the Japs are getting ready another expedition?" inquired Frank, somewhat puzzled.
"By means of our secret service men. I don't doubt that the Japanese secret service men in this country have also notified their government of our expedition. England also is in the race but the Scott expedition will not be ready for some time yet."
"You think, then, that the Japs have secret agents keeping track of us?" was Frank's next question.
The captain's reply was cut short by a loud crash. They all started up at the interruption. So intent had they been in their conversation that they had not noticed the Jap steward standing close behind them and his soft slippers had prevented them hearing his approach. The crash had been caused by a metal tray he had let drop. He now stood with as much vexation on his impassive countenance as it ever was possible for it to betray.
"What on earth are you doing, Oyama?" sharply questioned Captain Hazzard.
"I was but about to inquire if the cap-it-an and the boys would not have some refreshments," rejoined the Jap.
"Not now, we are busy," replied Captain Hazzard, with what was for him some show of irritation. "Be off to your pantry now. I will ring if I want you."
With an obsequious bow the Jap withdrew; but if they could have seen his face as he turned into his small pantry, a cubby-hole for dishes and glasses, they would have noticed that it bore a most singular expression.
"It seems curious that while we were talking of Jap secret service men that your man should have been right behind us," commented Frank. "I don't know that I ought to ask such a question—but can you trust him?"
The captain laughed.
"Oh, implicitly," he said easily, "Oyama was with me in the Philippines, and has always been a model of all that a good servant should be."
Soon after this the conference broke up, the boys having promised to have their aeroplane on board early the next day. Frank explained that the machine was all ready and in shape for shipping and all that remained to do was to "knock it down," encase it in its boxes and get a wagon to haul it to the pier.
"Say, Harry," said Frank earnestly, as the boys, having bade their leave of Captain Hazzard, who remained on board owing to press of business on the ship, made their way along the maze of wharves and toward a street car.
"Say it," responded Harry cheerfully, his spirits at the tip-top of excitement at the idea of an almost immediate start for the polar regions.
"Well, it's about that Jap."
"Oh that yellow-faced bit of soft-footed putty—well, what about him?"
"Well, that 'yellow-faced bit of putty,' as you call him, is not so easily dismissed from my mind as all that. I'm pretty sure that he had some stronger reason than the one he gave for coming up behind us as silently as a cat while we were talking."
"But Captain Hazzard says that he has had him for years. That he can trust him implicitly," protested Harry.
"Just the same I can't get it out of my mind that there is something wrong about the fellow. I wish he hadn't seen that map and the proposed route of our expedition."
"Oh bosh, you are thinking of what Captain Hazzard said about the Jap secret service. Our friend Oyama is much too thick to be a secret service man."
"He simply looks unimpressive," rejoined Frank. "For that reason alone he would make a good man for any such purpose."
"Well, here comes a car," interrupted Harry, "so let's board it and forget our Japanese friend. Depend upon it you'll find out that he is all O. K. long before we sight an iceberg."
"I hope so, I'm sure," agreed Frank; but there was a troubled look on his face as he spoke.
However, not later than the next morning, as they were screwing up the last of the big blue cases that contained the various parts of the Golden Eagle, Billy Barnes, the young reporter who had accompanied the two boys in all of their expeditions, including the one to Nicaragua, where, with their aeroplane they helped make Central American history, as related in The Boy Aviators in Nicaragua; or, Leagued with the Insurgents,—Billy Barnes, the irrepressible, bounced into the garage which they used as a workshop, and which was situated in the rear of their house on Madison Avenue, with what proved to be important news of the Jap.
"Aha, my young Scotts and Shackletons, I behold you on the verge of your departure for the land of perpetual ice, polar bears and Esquimaux," exclaimed the reporter, striking an attitude like that assumed by Commander Peary in some of his pictures.
"Hullo, Billy Barnes," exclaimed both boys, continuing their work, as they were pretty well used to the young reporter's unceremonious calls, "What brings you out so early?"
"Oh, a little story to cover in the Yorkville Court and I thought as I was up this way I'd drop off and pay my respects. Say, bring me back a polar bear skin, will you?"
"A polar bear skin?" laughed Frank, "why there aren't any polar bears at the South Pole."
"No polar bears," repeated Billy lugubriously, "what's the good of a pole without polar bears. Me for the frozen north then. I suppose you'll tell me next there are no natives at the South Pole either."
"Well, there are not," rejoined Frank.
"But there are sea-elephants and ice-leopards and—" began Harry.
"And sea-cats, I suppose," interrupted Billy.
"No," exclaimed Harry, rather nettled at the young reporter's joking tone, "but there is the ship of Olaf—"
Frank was up like a shot.
"Didn't we give our word to the Captain not to mention a word about that?" he demanded.
"That's so," assented Harry, abashed, "but I just wanted to show this young person here that he can't treat our expedition with levity."
"The ship of Olaf, eh?" mused the young reporter, "sounds like a story. Who was Olaf, if I may ask?"
"You may not ask," was Frank's rejoinder. "As you know, Billy, we have been frank with you, of course under the pledge of secrecy which we know you too well to dream of your breaking. You know we are bound for the South Polar regions. You know also that the object of Captain Hazzard is to discover the pole, if possible; in any event to bring back scientific data of inestimable value; but there's one thing you don't know and of which we ourselves know very little, and that is the thing that Harry let slip."
"All right, Frank," said the young reporter, readily, "I won't say any more about it, only it did sound as if it had possibilities. Hullo! ten o'clock; I've got to be jogging along."
"What are you going to court about?" inquired Frank.
"Oh, a small case. Doesn't look as if it would amount to a row of pins. A Jap who was arrested last night, more for safe-keeping than anything else, I guess. He was found near the consulate of his country and appeared to be under the influence of some drug. Anyhow, he couldn't look after himself, so a policeman took him to a station-house. Of course, there might be a story back of it and that's why I'm on the job."
"A Jap, eh?" mused Frank curiously.
"Yes; do you number any among your acquaintance?" inquired Billy.
"Well, we do number one; don't we, Harry?" laughed Frank.
At that moment the telephone bell rang sharply in the booth erected in the workshop in order to keep out noise when anyone was conversing over the wire.
"Wait a second, I'll see what that call is," exclaimed Frank, bolting into the booth. He was in it several seconds and when he came out his face was flushed and he seemed excited.
"What's the matter—trouble?" inquired Billy, noting his apparent perturbation.
"Yes, it is trouble in a way," assented Frank, "I guess we'll take a run to court with you and look over this Jap of yours, Billy."
"Think you know him?"
"That's just what I want to see."
"You seem very anxious about it. Anything wrong?"
"Yes, very wrong. That was Captain Hazzard on the wire, and a mysterious theft has occurred on the Southern Cross."
OFF FOR THE SOUTH POLE.
The court-room was crowded as the boys entered it, but armed with Billy's police card they soon made their way through a rail that separated the main body of the place from the space within which the magistrate was seated. On the way over Frank had related his conversation over the wire with Captain Hazzard. It appeared that Oyama, the Jap, was missing and that several papers bearing on the objects of the expedition which were,—except in a general way,—a mystery to the boys themselves, had been stolen.
Putting two and two together, Frank had made up his mind that the Jap whose case Billy had been assigned to investigate was none other than Oyama himself, and as they entered the space described above his eyes eagerly swept the row of prisoners seated in the "Pen."
"I was sure of it," the boy exclaimed as his eyes encountered an abject, huddled-up figure seated next a ragged, besotted-looking tramp.
"Sure of what?" demanded Harry.
"Why, that Oyama was the man who stole the papers from the Southern Cross."
"Well, there he is now."
Frank indicated the abject object in the corner who at the same moment raised a yellow face and bloodshot eyes and gazed blearily at him. There was no sign of recognition in the face, however. In fact the Jap appeared to be in a stupor of some sort.
"Is that little Jap known to you?"
Frank turned: a gray moustached man with a red face and keen eyes was regarding him and had put the question.
"He is—yes," replied the boy, "but——"
"Oh, you need not hesitate to talk to me," replied the stranger, "I am Dr. McGuire, the prison surgeon, and I take a professional interest in his case. The man is stupefied with opium or some drug that seems to have numbed his senses."
"Do you think it was self-administered?" asked the boy.
"Oh, undoubtedly. Those fellows go on regular opium debauches sometimes. In this case perhaps it is very fortunate for some one that he was imprudent enough to take such heavy doses of the drug that the policeman picked him up, for a lot of papers were found on him. They are meaningless to me, but perhaps you can throw some light on them."
"The papers, we believe, are the property of Captain Hazzard, the head of the government's South Polar expedition," exclaimed Frank, whose suspicions had rapidly become convictions at the sight of the Jap. "We have no right to examine into their contents, but I suppose there would be no harm in our looking at them to make sure. I can then notify the Captain."
"You are friends of his?"
"We are attached to the expedition," replied Frank, "but I must ask you not to mention it, as I do not know but we are breaking our promise of secrecy even in such an important matter as this."
"You can depend that I shall not violate your confidence," promised Dr. McGuire.
It was the matter of few moments only to secure the papers from the court clerk. There was quite a bundle of them, some of them sealed. Apparently the thief, elated over his success in stealing them, had indulged himself in his beloved drug before he had even taken the trouble to examine fully into his finds. One paper, however, had been opened and seemed to be, as Frank could not help noticing, a sort of document containing "General Orders" to the expedition.
It consisted of several closely typewritten pages, and on the first one Frank lit on the magic words,—"—AND CONCERNING THE SHIP OF OLAF, THE VIKING ROVER, YOU WILL PROCEED ACROSS THE BARRIER, USING ALL DISCRETION, AS A RIVAL NATION HAS ALSO SOME INKLING OF THE PRESENCE OF THE LONG-LOST VESSEL AND,—"
Though the boy would have given a good deal to do so he felt that he could not honorably read more. He resolutely, therefore, closed the paper and restored it to its place in the mass of other documents. There was, of course, no question that the papers were the property of Captain Hazzard, and that the Jap had stolen them. The latter was therefore sentenced to spend the next six weeks on Blackwell's Island, by the expiration of which time the Southern Cross would be well on her voyage toward The Great Barrier.
As the boys left the court, having been told that Captain Hazzard's papers would be sealed and restored him when he called for them and made a formal demand for their delivery, they were deep in excited talk.
"Well, if this doesn't beat all," exclaimed Frank, "we always seem to be getting snarled up with those chaps. You remember what a tussle they gave us in the Everglades."
"Not likely to forget it," was the brief rejoinder from Harry.
"I'll never forget winging that submarine of Captain Bellman's," put in Billy.
"Well, boys, exciting as our experiences were down there, I think that we are on the verge of adventures and perils that will make them look insignificant," exclaimed Frank.
"Don't," groaned Billy.
"Don't talk that way. Here am I a contented reporter working hard and hoping that some day my opportunity will come and I shall be a great writer or statesman or something and then you throw me off my base by talking about adventure," was the indignant response.
"Upon my word, Billy Barnes, I think you are hinting that you would like to come along."
"Well, would that be so very curious. Oh cracky! If I only could get a chance."
"You think you could get a leave of absence?"
"Two of 'em. But what's the use," Billy broke off with a groan, "Captain Hazzard wouldn't have me and that's all there is to it. No, I'll be stuck here in New York while you fellows are shooting Polar bears—oh, I forgot, there aren't any,—well, anyhow, while you're having a fine time,—just my luck."
"If you aren't the most contrary chap," laughed Frank. "Here a short time ago you never even dreamed of coming and now you talk as if you'd been expecting to go right along, and had been meanly deprived of your rights."
"I wonder if the Captain——," hesitated Harry.
"Would take Billy along?" Frank finished for him, "well, we will do this much. We have got to go over to the Erie Basin now and tell Captain Hazzard about the recovery of his papers. Billy can come along if he wants and we will state his case for him, it will take three boys to manage that sledge anyway," went on Frank, warming up to the new plan. "I think we can promise you to fix it somehow, Billy."
"You think you can," burst out the delighted reporter, "oh, Frank, if you do, I'll—I'll make you famous. I'll write you up as the discoverer of the ship of Olaf and—"
"That's enough," suddenly interrupted Frank, "if you want to do me a favor, Billy, never mention any more about that till Captain Hazzard himself decides to tell us about it. We only let what we know of the secret slip out by accident and we have no right to speculate on what Captain Hazzard evidently wishes kept a mystery till the time comes to reveal it."
"I'm sorry, Frank," contritely said Billy, "I won't speak any more about it; but," he added to himself, "you can't keep me from thinking about it."
As Frank had anticipated, Captain Hazzard agreed to ship Billy Barnes as a member of the expedition. He was to be a sort of general secretary and assist the boys with the aeroplane and motor sledge when the time came. The reporter's face, when after a brief conference it was announced to him that he might consider himself one of the Southern Cross's ship's company, was a study. It was all he could do to keep from shouting at the top of his voice. The contrast between the dignity he felt he ought to assume before Captain Hazzard and the desire he felt to skip about and express his feelings in some active way produced such a ludicrous mixture of emotions on Billy's face that both the boys and the captain himself had to burst into uncontrollable laughter at it. Laughter in which the good natured Billy, without exactly understanding its cause, heartily joined.
A week later the final good-byes were said and the Southern Cross was ready for sea. She was to meet a coal-ship at Monte Video in the Argentine Republic which would tow her as far as the Great Barrier. This was to conserve her own coal supply. The other vessel would then discharge her cargo of coal,—thus leaving the adventurers a plentiful supply of fuel in case the worst came to worst, and they were frozen in for a second winter.
In case nothing was heard of them by the following fall a relief ship was to be despatched which would reach them roughly about the beginning of December, when the Antarctic summer is beginning to draw to a close. The commander of the Southern Cross expected to reach the great southern ice-barrier in about the beginning of February, when the winter, which reaches its climax in August, would be just closing in. The winter months were to be devoted to establishing a camp, from which in the following spring—answering to our fall—the expedition would be sent out.
"Hurray! a winter in the Polar ice," shouted the boys as the program was explained to them.
"And a dash for the pole to cap it off," shouted the usually unemotional Frank, his face shining at the prospect.
As has been said, the Southern Cross was an old whaler. Built rather for staunchness than beauty, she was no ideal of a mariner's dream as she unobtrusively cleared from her wharf one gray, chilly morning which held a promise of snow in its leaden sky. There were few but the stevedores, who always hang about "the Basin," and some idlers, to watch her as she cast off her lines and a tug pulled her head round till she pointed for the opening of the berth in which she had lain so long. Of these onlookers not one had any more than a hazy idea of where the vessel was bound and why.
As the Southern Cross steamed steadily on down the bay, past the bleak hills of Staten Island, on by Sandy Hook, reaching out its long, desolate finger as if pointing ships out to the ocean beyond, the three boys stood together in a delighted group in the lee of a pile of steel drums, each containing twenty gallons of gasolene.
"Well, old fellow, we're off at last," cried Frank, his eye kindling as the Southern Cross altered her course a bit and stood due south down the Jersey coast.
"That's it," cried Billy, with a wave of his soft cap, "off at last; we're the three luckiest boys on this globe, I say."
"Same here," was Harry's rejoinder.
The blunt bows of the Southern Cross began to lift to the long heave of the ever restless Atlantic. She slid over the shoulder of one big wave and into the trough of another with a steady rhythmic glide that spoke well for her seaworthy qualities. Frank, snugly out of the nipping wind in the shelter of the gasolene drums, was silent for several minutes musing over the adventurous voyage on which they were setting out. Thus he had not noticed a change coming over Harry and Billy. Suddenly a groan fell on his ear. Startled, the boy looked round.
On the edge of the hatch sat Billy and beside him, his head sunk in his hands, was Harry.
"What's the matter with you fellows?" demanded Frank.
At that instant an unusually large breaker came rolling towards the Southern Cross and caught her fair and square on the side of the bow. Deep laden as she was it broke over her and a wall of green water came tumbling and sweeping along the decks. Frank avoided it by leaping upward and seizing a stanchion used to secure the framework holding down the deck load.
But neither Harry nor Billy moved, except a few minutes later when another heavy roll sent them sliding into the scuppers.
"Come, you fellows, you'd better get up, and turn in aft," said Frank.
"Oh, leave me alone," groaned Billy.
"I'm going to die, I think," moaned Harry.
At this moment the new steward, a raw boy from Vermont, who had been at sea for several years, came up to where the two boys were suffering.
"Breakfast's ready," he announced, "there's some nice fat bacon and fried eggs and jam and——"
It was too much. With what strength they had left Billy and Harry tumbled to their feet and aimed simultaneous blows at him.
It was a final effort and as the Southern Cross plunged onward toward her mysterious goal she carried with her two of the most sea-sick boys ever recorded on a ship's manifest.
A MESSAGE FROM THE AIR.
It was a bright, sunshiny morning a week later. The Southern Cross was now in sub-tropic waters, steaming steadily along under blue skies and through smooth azure water flecked here and there with masses of yellow gulf weed.
The boys were in a group forward watching the flying fish that fled like coveys of frightened birds as the bow of the polar ship cut through the water. Under Dr. Gregg's care Billy and Harry had quite recovered from their sea-sickness.
"Off there to the southeast somewhere is the treasure galleon and the Sargasso Sea," said Harry, indicating the purplish haze that hung on the horizon. [Footnote: See Vol. 4 of this series, The Boy Aviators' Treasure Quest; or, The Golden Galleon.]
"Yes, and off there is the South Pole," rejoined Frank, pointing due south, "I wish the old Southern Cross could make better speed, I'm impatient to be there."
"And I'm impatient to solve some of the mystery of this voyage," put in Billy, "here we've been at sea a week and Captain Hazzard hasn't told us yet anything about that—that,—well you know, that ship you spoke about, Frank."
"He will tell us all in good time," rejoined the other, "and now instead of wasting speculation on something we are bound not to find out till we do find it out, let's go aft to the wireless room and polish up a bit."
The Southern Cross carried a wireless apparatus which had been specially installed for her polar voyage. The aerials stretched from her main to mizzen mast and a small room, formerly a storeroom, below the raised poop containing the cabins had been fitted up for a wireless room. In this the boys had spent a good deal of time during their convalescence from sea-sickness and had managed to "pick-up" many vessels within their radius,—which was fifteen hundred miles under favorable conditions.
Frank was the first to clap on the head-receiver this morning and he sat silently for a while absently clicking out calls, to none of which he obtained an answer. Suddenly, however, his face grew excited.
"Hullo," he cried, "here's something."
"What?" demanded Harry.
"I don't know yet," he held up his hand to demand silence.
"That's queer," he exclaimed, after a pause, in which the receiver had buzzed and purred its message into his ear.
The others looked their questions.
"There's something funny about this message," he went on. "I cannot understand it. Whoever is calling has a very weak sending current. I can hardly hear it. One thing is certain though, it's someone in distress."
The others leaned forward eagerly, but their curiosity was not satisfied immediately by Frank. Instead his face became set in concentration once more. After some moments of silence, broken only by the slight noise of the receiver, he pressed his hand on the sending apparatus and the Southern Cross's wireless began to crackle and spit and emit a leaping blue flame.
"What's he sending?" asked Billy, turning to Harry.
"Wait a second," was the rejoinder. The wireless continued to crackle and flash.
"Cracky," suddenly cried Harry, "hark at that, Billy."
"What," sputtered the reporter, "that stuff doesn't mean anything to me. What's he done, picked up a ship or a land station or what?"
"No," was the astounding response, "he's picked up an airship!"
"Oh, get out," protested the amazed Billy.
"That's right," snapped Frank, "as far as I can make out it's a dirigible balloon that has been blown out to sea. They tried to give me their position, and as near as I can comprehend their message, they are between us and the shore somewhere within a radius of about twenty miles."
"Are they in distress?" demanded Billy.
"Yes. The heat has expanded their gas and they fear that the bag of the ship may explode at any moment. They cut off suddenly. The accident may have occurred already."
"Why don't they open the valve?"
"I suppose because in that case they'd stand every chance of dropping into the sea," responded Frank, disconnecting the instrument and removing the head-piece. "I have sent word to them that we will try to rescue them, but I'm afraid it's a slim chance. I must tell Captain Hazzard at once."
Followed by the other two, Frank dashed up the few steps leading to the deck and unceremoniously burst into the captain's cabin where the latter was busy with a mass of charts and documents in company with Captain Barrington, the navigating commander.
"I beg your pardon," exclaimed Frank, as Captain Hazzard looked up, "but I have picked up a most important message by wireless,—two men, in an airship, are in deadly peril not far from us."
The two commanders instantly became interested.
"An airship!" cried Captain Hazzard.
"What's that!" exclaimed Captain Barrington. "Did they give you their position?" he added quickly.
"Yes," replied the boy, and rapidly repeated the latitude and longitude as he had noted it.
"That means they are to the west of us," exclaimed Captain Barrington as the boy concluded. He hastily picked up a speaking tube and hailed the wheel-house, giving instructions to change the course. He then emerged on deck followed by Captain Hazzard and the boys. The next hour was spent in anxiously scanning the surrounding sea.
Suddenly a man who had been sent into the crow's nest on the main mast gave a hail.
"I see something, sir," he cried, pointing to the southwest.
"What is it," demanded the captain.
"Looks like a big bird," was the response.
Slinging his binoculars round his neck by their strap, Captain Barrington himself clambered into the main shrouds. When he had climbed above the cross-trees he drew out his glasses and gazed in the direction the lookout indicated. The next minute he gave a shout of triumph.
"There's your dirigible, boys," he exclaimed, and even Billy overcame his dislike to clambering into the rigging for a chance to get a look at the airship they hoped to save.
Viewed even through the glasses she seemed a speck, no larger than a shoe button, drifting aimlessly toward the south, but as the Southern Cross drew nearer to her she stood out in more detail. The watchers could then see that she was a large air craft for her type and carried two men, who were running back and forth in apparent panic on her suspended deck. Suddenly one of them swung himself into the rigging and began climbing up the distended sides of the big cigar-shaped gas bag.
"What can he be going to do?" asked Captain Hazzard.
"I think I know," said Frank. "The valve must be stuck and they have decided now that as we are so near they will take a chance and open it and risk a drop into the sea rather than have the over-distended bag blow up."
"Of course. I never thought of that," rejoined the captain, "that's just what they are doing."
"That man is taking a desperate chance," put in Professor Simeon Sandburr, who had climbed up and joined the party and looked with his long legs and big round glasses, like some queer sort of a bird perched in the rigging. "Hydrogen gas is deadly and if he should inhale any of it he would die like a bug in a camphor bottle."
Interest on board the Southern Cross was now intense in the fate of the dirigible. Even the old chief engineer had left his engines and wiping his hands with a bit of waste, stood gazing at the distressed cloud clipper.
"The mon moost be daft," he exclaimed, "any mon that wud go tae sea in sic a craft moost be daft. It's fair temptin' o' providence."
At that instant there was a sharp and sudden collapse of the balloon bag. It seemed to shrivel like a bit of burned paper, and the structure below it fell like a stone into the ocean, carrying with it the man who had remained on it. Of the other, the one who had climbed the bag, not a trace could be seen. Even as the onlookers gazed horror-stricken at the sudden blotting out of the dirigible before their eyes the loud roar of the explosion of its superheated gas reached their ears.
"Every pound of steam you've got, chief," sharply commanded Captain Barrington, almost before the dirigible vanished, "we must save them yet."
The old engineer dived into his engine room and the Southern Cross, with her gauges registering every pound of steam her boilers could carry, rushed through the water as she never had before in all her plodding career.
"Heaven grant we may not be too late," breathed Captain Hazzard, as, followed by the boys, he clambered out of the rigging. "If only they can swim we may save them."
"Or perhaps they have on life-belts," suggested Billy.
"Neither will do them much good," put in a voice at his elbow grimly. It was Professor Sandburr.
"Why?" demanded Frank, "we will be alongside in a few minutes now and if they can only keep up we can save them."
"The peril of drowning is not so imminent as another grave danger they face," spoke the professor.
"Sharks," was the reply, "these waters swarm with them."
A TRAGEDY OF THE SKIES.
It was soon evident that the two men were supporting themselves in the water. Their heads made black dots on the surface beneath which the heavy deck structure of the dirigible had vanished. Through the glasses it could be seen that they were swimming about awaiting the arrival of the vessel which was rushing at her top speed to their aid.
Soon the Southern Cross was alongside and a dozen ropes and life buoys were hastily cast over the side. But even as one of the men grasped a rope's end he gave a scream of terror that long rang in the boys' ears.
At the same instant a huge, dark body shot through the water and then there was a whitish gleam as the monster shark turned on its back with its jaws open displaying a triple row of saw-like teeth.
"Quick, shoot him," cried Captain Hazzard.
But nobody had a rifle or revolver. Frank hastily darted into his cabin for his magazine weapon but when he reappeared there was only a crimson circle on the water to mark where the terrible, man-killing shark had vanished with his prey. Attracted, no doubt, by the mysterious sense that tells these sea tigers where they can snap up a meal, other dark fins now began to cut through the water in all directions.
The second man, almost overcome by the horror of his companion's fate, however, had presence of mind enough to grasp a rope's end. In a few seconds he had been hauled to the vessel's side and several of the crew were preparing to hoist him on board when two of the monsters made a simultaneous rush at him, Frank's revolver cracked at the same instant and the sea tigers, with savage snaps of their jaws, which, however, fell short of their intended prey, rolled over and vanished.
The rescued man when hauled on deck was a pitiable object. But even in his half famished condition and with the great beard that he wore there was something very familiar—strangely so—about him to the boys. Frank was the first to solve the mystery.
"Ben Stubbs," he exclaimed.
"Who's that that called Ben Stubbs," exclaimed the man over whom a dozen sailors and the doctor had been bending.
"It's me," shouted Frank, regardless of grammar, "Frank Chester."
The amazement on the face of the old salt who had accompanied the boys in Africa and the Everglades and shared their perils in the Sargasso Sea, was comical to behold.
"Well, what in the name of the great horn-spoon air you boys doing here," he gasped, for Harry and Billy had now come forward and were warmly shaking his hand.
"Well, answer us first: what are you doing here?" demanded Frank.
"Coming mighty near my finish like my poor mate," was the reply.
"Perhaps your friend had better come in the cabin and have something to eat while he talks," suggested Captain Hazzard to the boys.
All agreed that that would be a good idea and the castaway was escorted to the cabin table on which Hiram Scroggs the Vermonter soon spread a fine meal.
"Wall, first and foremost," began Ben, the meal being dispatched, "I 'spose you want to know how I come to be out here skydoodling around in a dirigible?"
"That's it," cried Billy.
"It's just this way," resumed the old sailor drawing out his aged pipe. "Yer see, my pardner, James Melville,—that's the poor feller that's dead,—and me was trying out his new air-craft when we got blown out ter sea. We'd been goin' fer two days when you picked up the wireless call for help he was sending out. I used ter say that wireless was a fool thing ter have on an air-ship, but I owe my life ter it all right.
"Ter go back a bit, I met Melville soon after we got back from the treasure hunt. He was a friend of my sister's husband and as full of ideas as a bird dog of fleas. But he didn't have no money to carry out his inventions and as I had a pocketful I couldn't exactly figure how to use, I agreed to back him in his wireless dirigible. We tried her out several times ashore and then shipped her to Floridy, meaning to try to fly to Cuba. But day afore yesterday while we was up on a trial flight the wind got up in a hurry and at the same moment something busted on the engine and, before we knew where we was, we was out at sea."
"You must have been scared to death," put in Professor Sandburr who was an interested listener.
"Not at first we wasn't. Poor Melville in fact seemed to think it was a fine chance to test his ship. He managed to tinker up the engine after working all night and part of yesterday on it and as we had plenty to eat and drink on board—for we had stocked the boat up preparatory to flying to Cuba—we didn't worry much.
"Howsomever, early this morning, after we'd had the engine going all night we found we was still in the same position and for a mighty good reason—one of the blades of the propeller had snapped off and there we were,—practically just where we'd been the night before and with no chance doing anything but drift about and wait for help. Melville never lost his nerve though.
"'We'll be all right, Ben,' says he to me, and though I didn't feel near so confident, still I chirped up a little for I had been feeling pretty blue, I tell you.
"Right after we had had a bite to eat he starts in hammering away at the wireless, sending out calls for help while I just sat around and hoped something would turn up. Some observations we took showed that we had not drifted very much further from land in the night on account of there being no wind. This looked good for it meant that we were, or should be, in the path of ships. The only thing that worried me was that mighty few coasting vessels carry wireless, and I was surprised when we got an answer from what I knew later was the Southern Cross.
"It was just as Melville was getting your answer that I noticed the bag. The air had grown hot as an oven as the sun rose higher and about noon I looked up just to see if there wasn't a cloud in the sky that might mean a storm, and perhaps a change of wind that maybe would blow us back over land again. What I saw scared me. The bag was blown out as tight as the skin of a sausage, and it didn't look to me as if it could swell much more without busting.
"I pointed it out to Melville and he went up in the air—worried to death.
"'The gas is expanding,' he explains, 'it's the sun that's doing it. If we don't let some gas out we'll bust.'
"And if we do we'll drop into the sea," says I.
"'Yes, that's very likely,' he replied, as cool as a cucumber, 'when the evening comes and the gas condenses, with what we've lost, if we pull the valve open, we won't have enough to keep the ship in the air.'
"'There's only one thing to do,' he went on, 'we must wait till this ship I've been speaking to by wireless comes in sight. Then we'll take a chance. If the worst comes to worst we can float about till they pick us up.'
"That seemed a good plan to me and I never gave the sharks a thought. But when you drew near and it seemed as if the bag was going to bust in a second's time and we tried to open the valve—we couldn't. The halliards that work it had got twisted in the gale that blew us out to sea and they wouldn't come untangled.
"Melville takes a look at the pressure gauge. Then he gave a long whistle.
"'If we don't do something she'll bust in five seconds,' he says.
"Then I suddenly made up my mind. Without saying a word to him I kicked off my boots and started to climb into the rigging.
"'What are you going to do?' asked Melville.
"Open that valve, says I.
"We saw you climbing and could not imagine what you were doing," put in Billy.
"Wall," continued the old sailor, "I managed fine at first, although that thar gas sausage was stretched as smooth and tight as a drum. The network around it gave me a foothold though, and once I was half-way round the lower bulge of the bag—where I was clinging on upside down,—I was all right.
"I had the valve lever in my hand and was just going to open it when I felt everything cave in around me like something had been pulled from under my feet—or as if I had been sitting on a cloud and it had melted.
"The dirigible had blown up.
"Luckily I kept my wits about me and deliberately made a dive for the sea. It was a good height but I struck it clean. Down and down I went till I thought I'd never come up again. My ear-drums felt like they'd bust and my head seemed to have been hit with an axe. But come up I did eventually as you know, and found poor George Melville there, too. Of the dirigible there was not so much of as a match-stick left. The rest you know."
Ben's voice shook a little as he reached the latter part of his narrative. The rugged sailor's face grew soft and he winked back a tear. The others said nothing for a few seconds and then Captain Hazzard looked up.
"Since you have become one of us in such a strange way, I presume you would like to know where we are bound for?"
"Wall, if it ain't askin' too much I would," rejoined the rugged adventurer.
"We are bound for the South Pole."
Ben never flicked an eyelid.
"Ay, ay, sir," was all he said.
"I have a proposition to make to you," continued the captain. "We need a bos'n, will you sign on? If you do not care to we will put you ashore at the first convenient port or hail a homeward-bound ship and have you transferred."
The old sailor looked positively hurt.
"What; me lose an opportunity to see the South Pole, to shoot Polar bears—"
"There aren't any," put in Billy.
"Wall, whatever kind of critters there are there," went on the old man, "no, sir; Ben Stubbs ain't the man to hold back on a venture like this. Sign me on as bos'n, and if I don't help nail Uncle Sam's colors to the South Pole call me a doodle-bug."
"A doodle-bug," exclaimed Professor Sandburr, "What kind of a bug is that? If you know where to find them I hope you will catch one and forward it to me."
"I guess doodle-bugs is like South Polar bears," he said.
"How is that, my dear sea-faring friend?"
"There ain't any," laughed Ben, blotting his big, scrawling signature on the ship's books.
On and on toward the Pole plied the Southern Cross. One night when she was about two hundred miles at sea off the mouth of the Amazon, the boys, as it was one of the soft tropical nights peculiar to those regions, were all grouped forward trying to keep cool and keeping a sharp lookout for the real Southern Cross. This wonderful, heavenly body might be expected to be visible almost any night now, Captain Hazzard had told them. Old Ben shared their watch.
The little group was seated right on the forefoot or "over-hang" of the polar ship, their legs dangling over the bow above the water. Beneath their feet they could see the bright phosphorous gleam as the ship ploughed onward. They were rather silent. In fact, except for desultory conversation, the throb of the engines and the regular sounding of the ship's bell as it marked the hours were the only sounds to be heard.
It was past eight bells and everyone on the ship but the helmsman had turned in, leaving the boys and Ben on watch, when there came a terrific shock that caused the vessel to quiver and creak as if she had run bow on into solid land. Captain Hazzard was thrown from his bunk and all over the vessel there was the wildest confusion.
Shouts and cries filled the air as Captain Hazzard, not able to imagine what had happened rushed out on deck in his night clothes. The sky had become overcast and it was terribly black. It was hardly possible for one to see his hand before his face. A heavy sulphurous smell was in the air.
"What is it? What has happened? Did we hit another ship?" shouted Captain Barrington, appearing from his cabin.
The helmsman could give no explanation. There had been a sudden shock and he had been knocked off his feet. What had struck the ship or what she had struck he could not make out. Captain Barrington knew there were no rocks so far out at sea and he also knew that he could not be near land. The only explanation was a collision with another ship, but had that been the case surely, he argued, they would have heard shouts and cries on the other vessel.
"Send forward for the boys and Ben Stubbs, they had the watch," he commanded.
A man hurried forward to execute his order but he was soon back with a white scared face.
"The young lads and Bos'n Stubbs aren't there," he exclaimed in a frightened tone.
"Not there," repeated Captain Hazzard.
"No, sir. Not a trace of them. Beggin' your pardon, sir, I think it's ghosts."
"Don't talk nonsense," sharply commanded his superior. "Have the ship searched for them."
"Very good, sir," and the man, with a tug at his forelock, hastened away to spread the word.
But a search of every nook and cranny of the ship only added to the mystery.
Neither the boys nor Ben were to be found.
Had ghosts indeed snatched them into aerial regions, as some of the more superstitious men seemed inclined to believe they could not have vanished more utterly.
A STRANGE COLLISION.
We must now turn back and ascertain what has become of our young adventurers and their rugged old companion. We left them sitting on the bow—or rather perched there in positions none too secure in case of a sudden lurch of the ship.
"I smell land," had been Ben's sudden exclamation after one of the prolonged silences which, as has been said, possessed them that night.
The boys laughed.
"Laugh away," declared Ben, "but I do. Any old sailor can tell it."
"But we are two hundred miles at sea," objected Frank.
"Don't make no difference, I smell land," stubbornly repeated the old sailor.
"Maybe the wind is off shore and that's the reason," suggested Billy.
"A sensible suggestion, youngster," approved Ben. "I guess that is the reason for there is no island in this part of the world that I ever heard tell of. But say," he broke off suddenly, "what's come over the weather. It's getting black and the stars are blotted out. There's a storm brewing and a bad one, or I'm mistaken."
The boys agreed that there did seem to be every indication of an approaching tropical disturbance of some kind. The air had suddenly grown heavy and sulphurous. There was an oppressive quality in it.
"I'm going aft to tell the captain that there's a bad blow coming on or I'm a Dutchman," exclaimed Ben, starting to scramble to his feet.
"Better hold onto that stay or you'll topple overboard," warned Frank, as Ben, balancing himself, got into a standing posture.
"What me, an old sailor topple over," shouted Ben, "Not much younker, why I—"
The sentence was never finished. At that instant the shock that had aroused Captain Hazzard and terrified the whole ship's company hurled him headlong into the night and the boys, balanced as they were on the prow of the trembling ship, were shot after him into the darkness as if they had been hurled out of catapults.
Frank's feelings as he fell through the darkness he could not afterward describe, still less his amazement when, instead of falling into the sea, fully prepared to swim for his life, he found himself instead plunged into a sticky ooze. For several seconds, in fact, he was too amazed to utter a sound or move. It seemed he must be dreaming.
Then he extended his hands and almost gave a cry so great was his amazement.
He had encountered an unmistakable tree trunk!
He was on land—not dry land—for the boy was mired to the knees in sticky mud,—but nevertheless land. Land in midocean.
Hardly had he recovered from his first shock of surprise when he heard a voice exclaim:
"Can anyone tell me am I awake or dreaming in my bunk?"
"What's the matter, Billy?" hailed Frank, overjoyed to know that one at least of his comrades was safe.
Before Billy could reply Harry's voice hailed through the darkness.
"I'm up to my neck in mud. Where are we, anyhow?"
"We're on dry land in midocean, shiver my timbers if we ain't," came a deep throated hail, which proceeded from Ben Stubbs.
"Thank heaven we are all safe anyhow," cried Frank, "this mud is mighty uncomfortable, though."
"Well, if it hadn't been here we'd have been eaten by sharks by this time," Billy assured them; an observation all felt to be true.
"Where can the ship be?" exclaimed Harry's voice suddenly.
"Miles off by this time," said Frank. "I don't suppose they have even missed us and even if they have it's so black they could never find us."
"Let's see where we are," suggested Ben, "anyhow I'm going to try to get out of this mud. It's like a pig-pen."
His observation struck the boys as a good suggestion and they all wallowed in a direction they deemed was forward and soon were rewarded for their efforts by finding themselves on real dry land. By stretching out their hands they could feel tree trunks and dense brush all about them.
"It's no dream," declared Frank, "we are really on land. But where?"
"Maybe the ship was way off her course and we are stranded on the coast of Brazil," suggested Harry.
"Not likely," corrected Ben, "and besides if we'd hit land the ship would be ashore."
"Then what can we be on?" demanded Frank.
"Give it up," said Billy.
"Anybody got a match?" asked Frank.
Luckily there were no lack of these and as the boys carried them in the waterproof boxes they had used on their previous expeditions they were dry. Some were soon struck and a bonfire built of the brush and wood they found about them.
It was a strange tropical scene the glare illuminated. All about were palm trees and tropic growth of various kinds; many of the plants bearing fruits unfamiliar to the boys. Some large birds, scared by the light, flapped screaming out of the boughs above them as the bonfire blazed up. They could now see that they had been pitched out of the ship onto a muddy beach, the ooze of which stuck to their clothes like clay. The spot in which they stood was a few feet above the sea level.
"Well, there's no use trying to do anything till daylight," said Frank, "we had better sleep as well as we can and start out to try and find a house of some sort in the morning."
All agreed this was a good plan and soon they were wrapped in slumber. Frank's sleep was restless and broken, however, and once or twice he had an uneasy feeling that something or somebody was prowling about the "camp." Once he could have sworn he saw a pair of eyes, like two flaming points of fire, glare at him out of the blackness; but as it was not repeated, he assured himself that it was only his nervous imagination and composed himself to sleep once more.
A sharp thunder storm raged above them shortly before daybreak and they were compelled to seek what shelter they could under a fallen tree trunk. The storm was the one that had blackened the sky some hours before. Luckily it was as short as it was sharp, and when the sun rose it showed them a scene of glistening tropic beauty.
But the boys had little eye for scenery.
"What are we going to do for breakfast?" was Billy's manner of voicing the general question that beset them all after they had washed off some of the mud of the night before.
"Tighten our belts," grinned Harry.
"Not much; not while them oysters is there waiting to be picked," exclaimed Ben pointing to some branches which dipped in the sea and to which bunches of the bivalves were clinging.
"I've got some biscuits in my pocket," said Frank, "I brought them on deck with me last night in case I got hungry on watch."
"Well, we'll do fine," cheerfully said Ben, as having heated some stones he set the oysters to broil on them.
Despite his cheerful tone, however, not one of the little party was there that did not think with longing regrets of the snowy linen and bountiful meals aboard the Southern Cross.
Breakfast over, Ben announced that the first thing to do was to try to find out where they could be. It was agreed for this purpose to advance along the beach for five miles or so in opposite directions, the group being formed into two parties for the purpose. Harry and Frank paired off in one party and Ben Stubbs and Billy formed the other. They were to meet at noon or as soon thereafter as possible and compare notes.
Frank and Harry tramped resolutely along the beach under a baking hot sun till they felt as if they were going to drop, but they held pluckily on, fortunately having found several springs along their line of march.
From time to time they eagerly scanned the expanse of sparkling sea that stretched before them; but it was as empty of life as a desert.
"Do you suppose the ship will make a search for us?" asked Frank.
"How can we tell," rejoined his brother, "they will have found out we are gone by this time and will naturally conclude that we fell overboard and were drowned or eaten by sharks."
Both agreed that such was probably likely to be the fact and that if the coast on which they were cast away proved to be uninhabited their situation might be very serious.
"On the other hand, the ship may have gone down after the collision," suggested Harry, "how she ever came to graze this land and then escape I can't make out."
"I've been puzzling over that, too," replied Frank, "there's a lot that's very mysterious about this whole thing. The Southern Cross is, as you know, equipped with a submarine bell which should give warning when she approaches shallow water. Why didn't it sound last night?"
"Because there must be deep water right up to this coast," was the only explanation Harry could offer.
"That's just it," argued his brother. "But what is a coast doing here at all. We are two hundred miles out in the South Atlantic, or rather, we were last night."
"The charts don't show any land out there, do they?"
"Not so much as a pin point. Some of the deepest parts of the ocean are encountered there."
"Then the ship must have been off her course."
"It seems impossible. She is in charge of experienced navigators. Her compasses and other instruments are the most perfect of their kind."
"Maybe it is a dream after all, and we'll wake up and find ourselves in our bunks," was all Harry could say.
Before Frank could find anything to reply to this extraordinary suggestion he gave a sudden tense cry of:
Both boys stopped and above their quick breathing they could hear the beating of their hearts.
Human voices were coming toward them.
Luckily Frank had his revolver, having been using it the day before in shooting at huge turtles that floated lazily by. He had by a lucky oversight neglected to take it off when he had finished his target practice, merely thrusting it back into its holster. He drew the weapon now, and grasping Harry by the arm pulled him down beside him into a clump of brush.
"We'll hide here till we see who it is coming," he said.
ADRIFT ON A FLOATING ISLAND.
The voices grew nearer and suddenly to his amazement Frank heard his own name mentioned. The next moment both lads broke into a loud exclamation of surprise.
Those approaching their place of concealment were Billy Barnes and Ben Stubbs.
It would be difficult to say which pair of adventurers were more astonished as they met on the beach.
"Shiver my timbers!" exclaimed Ben, "whar did you boys come from? Did you turn back?"
"Turn back?" echoed Frank, "no, we've been keeping right on."
"Wall," drawled Ben, "then what I was afeard of at first is true."
"What's that, Ben?"
"Why, that we are on an island."
"On an island!"
"Yes, a floating island."
For a moment they were all dumb with amazement. Then Ben went on:
"I've heard old sailors tell of such things off of this yer coast. These islands—as they are called—are nothing more or less than huge sections of forest torn from the banks of the Amazon when it is in flood and floated out ter sea on its current."
"But how can they keep afloat?" asked Harry.
"Why the tangled roots and tree limbs keep 'em up for a long time," rejoined Ben, "and then they sink."
"I hope our island isn't sinking," exclaimed Frank, anxiously looking about him.
"Not much fear of that; but it's moving, all right," replied the old sailor, "just fix your eyes on that cloud for a minute."
The boys did as directed, and, sure enough, the island, as they now knew it, was moving slowly along, doubtless urged by some current of the ocean.
"Suppose the ship never finds us," gasped Billy.
"Now, just put thoughts like that out of your head, youngster," exclaimed Ben sharply. "I've been in worse fixes than this and got out of them. What we had best do now is to gather up some of those big cocoanuts that's scattered about there and make waterholders out of them."
"But there's plenty of water flowing from the springs. We passed several of them," objected Harry.
"That's just the water that has soaked into the ground after the rain," said Ben. "It will soon dry up as the day goes on."
The adventurers at once set to work gathering up cocoanuts and with their knives scooping out their shells so as to form sort of pots out of them. These were filled with water at the nearest of the little springs and placed in the shade.
"Now to gather some more oysters and we'll have dinner," said Ben, when the boys had filled what he pronounced to be a sufficient number of the improvised pots.
The boys set to work at the task at once, stripping from the low hanging branches the oysters that clung to them. These were roasted in the same manner as the previous night and washed down with water and cocoanut milk.
"Well, we shan't starve for a while, anyhow," said Ben, as they concluded their meal. "If the worst comes to the worst I guess we can live on cocoanuts for a while."
After some talk about their situation and the prospects of their being rescued from it Ben announced that he was going to explore the interior of the island and see if he could find some tree up which it would be possible to swarm and attach a sort of signal or at any rate obtain an extended view of the sea.
The boys, who felt tired and dispirited, said that they would remain in the camp—if camp it could be called.
Ben had been gone perhaps half an hour, when they were aroused by a sudden shout. At the sound they all sprang to their feet from the restful postures they had assumed.
There was a note of terror in the cry.
"Help, boys, help!"
The sound rang through the forest and then died away, as if the shouter had been suddenly silenced.
"It's Ben," shouted Frank.
"What can have happened?" gasped Harry.
"He is in trouble of some kind," shouted Billy Barnes.
"Come on, boys," exclaimed Frank, drawing his revolver, "get your knives ready, we may need all the weapons we have."
They plunged into the forest in the direction from which they judged the cries had proceeded and after a few minutes pushing through the dense brush, which greatly hampered their progress, they heard a tremendous noise of breaking tree limbs and a violent threshing about as if some huge body was rushing through the woods.
"What can it be?" gasped Frank, his face pale at the sound of the struggle.
In almost the same breath his question was answered. Pushing aside some brush the boys saw before them a small glade or clearing.
In the midst of this stood Ben, his face transfixed with horror and brandishing a seaman's knife.
Facing him, and seemingly about to dart forward, was the largest serpent they had ever seen; the sunlight checkered its bright colored folds. Its red tongue darted wickedly in and out as it faced the brave seaman.
"Shoot, Frank. Shoot and kill it," implored Harry.
With a white, tense face the elder boy leveled his revolver. He pulled the trigger and, before the sharp report that followed had died away, the monstrous, snake was threshing its huge body about in agony.
But as they started to cheer the effect of the shot a cry of horror broke from the boys. In its struggles the monster had convulsed its folds till Frank, who was caught off his guard, was within their reach.
In a second he was wrapped in the giant reptile's grip without having time to utter even an outcry.
Powerless, with only their puny knives with which to give battle to the serpent, the boys stood petrified with terror. Even Ben, to whom his rescue and Frank's peril had been unfolded so swiftly that he was half-dazed, seemed unable to determine what to do.
But indecision only held for a moment. Then with a cry he jumped forward and picked up Frank's revolver, which the boy had dropped when the serpent seized him. With a prayer on his lips the old sailor fired.
Almost with the rapidity of a single bullet the whole contents of the automatic's magazine poured out and every missile took effect in the reptile's huge head. In its death agony it straightened out its folds and Frank's senseless body dropped from them, seemingly limp and lifeless.
The boys started to rush in, but Ben held them back with a warning hand.
"Hold on; it may not be dead yet," he warned.
But a brief inspection proved that the great snake had succumbed to Ben's fusillade and, this settled, they dragged Frank to a low bank, where the extent of his injuries could be ascertained.
"No bones broken," pronounced Ben, after a careful examination. It was not long before the boy opened his eyes and in a short time he declared he felt as well as ever.
The serpent on being measured with Frank's pocket rule proved to be a trifle over twenty feet long and of great girth.
"It's an anaconda," said Ben, "there are lots of 'em up along the Amazon and they are as deadly a snake as there is. I've heard tell they can crush a horse in their folds."
"I hope there are no more of them on the island," exclaimed Billy.
"We shall have to be careful," rejoined Ben, "there may be other dangerous creatures here, too. This island, as I should judge, must be all of six miles around and there's room for a lot of ugly critters in that space."
Leaving the dead body of the snake the adventurers made their way back to camp. The first thing that all wanted was a drink of water. They made for the place in which the drinking fluid had been left.
As soon as his eyes fell on the row of improvised water pots Frank gave an exclamation of dismay.
"Look here," he shouted, "there's some one on this island besides ourselves."
"What!" was the amazed chorus.
"There must be," went on the lad, "see here, there were twenty cocoanut shells of water when we went away, and now there are only fifteen."
"Five gone!" exclaimed Ben in an alarmed voice, "and the spring has already dried up."
"Hullo! What's that?" suddenly cried Billy, as something came crashing through the branches.
The next moment one of the missing shells was rolled with great violence into the middle of the group of adventurers. Before they had recovered from their astonishment a strange sharp scream filled the forest. There was a derisive note in its tones.
A strange fear filled the boys' hearts. Their faces paled.
"The island is haunted!" shouted Ben.
CAUGHT IN THE FLAMES.
"Nonsense," said Frank, sharply, although he had been considerably startled by the inexplicable occurrence himself, "you know there are no such things as ghosts, Ben."
"And if there were they wouldn't throw cocoanut shells at us," went on Harry.
"Wall," said Ben, stubbornly, "what else could it have been?"
"A wild man," suggested Billy; "perhaps a whole tribe of them."
This was not a pleasant suggestion. Frank had but a few cartridges left and the others had only their knives. These would be small protection against savages if any of the forest dwellers had really gone adrift on the floating island. It was not a cheerful party that sat down to another meal of oysters and fruit that evening. Moreover the water supply of the little party was almost exhausted and without water they faced a terrible death.
Because of the unknown dangers which, it was felt, surrounded them it was decided to set a watch that night and keep the fire burning through the dark hours. Harry and Ben were to share the first watch and Frank and Billy agreed to take the second one. Nothing had occurred when Ben, at midnight, aroused Frank and the young reporter and told them it was time to go on duty.
The boys had been on sentry duty for perhaps an hour with nothing but the lapping of the waves against the shore of the floating island to break the deep stillness, when suddenly both were startled by a strange and terrible cry that rang through the forest.
With beating hearts they leaped to their feet and strained their ears to see if they could ascertain the origin of the uncanny cry, but they heard nothing more.
Hardly had they resumed their places by the fire, however, before the wild screams rang out again.
"It's some human being," cried Frank.
"They are being killed or something!" cried the affrighted Billy Barnes.
By this time Ben Stubbs and Harry had awakened and were sitting up with scared looks on their faces.
"Seems to come from near at hand," suggested Ben.
Suddenly the yell sounded quite close, and at the same instant it was echoed by the boys as a dozen or more dark forms dashed out of the dark shades of the forest and rushed toward them. Half unnerved with alarm at this sudden and inexplicable attack, Frank fired point-blank into the onrush, and two of the dark forms fell. Their comrades, with the same wild shrieks that had so alarmed the boys, instantly turned and fled, awakening the echoes of the woods with their terrifying clamor.
"A good thing I killed those two," cried Frank; "throw some wood on the fire, Ben, and we'll see who or what it is that I've shot."
In the bright blaze the adventurers bent over the two still forms that lay on the ground as they had fallen.
"Why, they're great apes!" exclaimed Frank in amazement; "what monsters!"
"Howling monkeys, that's what they call 'em," declared Ben, "I've heard of 'em. No wonder we were scared, though. Did you ever hear such cries?"
"I wonder why they attacked the camp?" asked Billy.
"I don't suppose it was an attack at all," said Frank, "most likely they smelled the food and thought they'd come and help themselves to some broiled oysters."
"I'll bet it was the monkeys that took our water and then threw the shells at us," cried Harry.
"I guess you are right, boy," said Ben; "them monkeys are terrors for mischief."
"I hope they don't take it into their heads to annoy us any more," said Harry.
"Not likely," declared Ben, "I guess the firing of the revolver and the sight of them two mates of theirs falling dead scared them out of two years' growth."
Ben's surmise was right. The adventurers passed the remainder of the night in peace.
As soon as day broke over a sea unmarred by a single ripple, there was an eager scrutiny of the horizon by all the castaways, but to their bitter disappointment not a sign of the Southern Cross, or any other vessel, could be descried.
"Looks like we'll have to spend some more time on 'Monkey Island'," said Ben with a shrug.
"We can't spend much more time," said Frank, grimly.
"Why not?" demanded Ben.
"What are we to do for water?"
Things did, indeed, look black. Breakfast was eaten in comparative silence, and after the meal was concluded, at Frank's suggestion, it was decided to explore the island for a spring that could be tapped for further water supply. The boys all admitted to themselves that the chance of finding one was remote, but they determined to try and locate one in any event. At any rate Frank felt it would keep their minds off their troubles to have something to do.
The best part of the morning was spent in the search and although they came across occasional driblets of water,—the remnants of springs started by the heavy rain that marked their first night on the island,—they found nothing that promised an available supply. At noon they sat down in the shade of a huge palm to rest and made a meal off the nuts that lay at its foot. The milk of these proved cool and refreshing and was drunk out of the shell after one end of it had been hacked off with Frank's hunting knife.
"Well, we might as well make a start back for our camp," suggested Frank, after some moments had passed in silence.
"Camp," repeated Harry, bitterly, "that's a fine camp. Why, there's nothing there but trees and sand and howling monkeys."
Nevertheless a start was made for the resting place of the previous night, the party trudging along the narrow beach in Indian file. All at once Ben, who was in the lead, stopped short.
"Look!" he exclaimed, pointing overhead.
The boys followed his finger and gave a shout of astonishment.
"Smoke!" cried Frank.
"Hurrah," cheered Harry, "it's the Southern Cross."
He waved his hat at the dark wreaths of vapor that were blowing across the island overhead.
The smoke scudded across the sky like small fleecy clouds, but it momentarily grew thicker and blacker.
"She's smoking up all right," laughed Billy Barnes, all his fears gone now that rescue seemed at hand.
Ben alone of the party seemed troubled.
"I'm not so sure that that's steamer smoke," he said slowly.
"Why, what else can it be?" demanded Frank.
"I don't know,"—sniff,—"but it seems to me,"—sniff,—"that's a whole lot of smoke for a steamer to be making, and"—sniff—"I don't like the looks of it."
"What else could make such smoke?" demanded Harry.
For reply Ben asked what seemed a strange question.
"Did you put the fire out when we left the camp?"
In an instant they all perceived without his speaking a word, what the sailor feared.
The island was on fire!
A few minutes later the smell of the burning trees and the crash as they fell, while the flames leaped through the brushwood beneath them, was clearly borne to them.
They were marooned on a floating island, and the island was in flames.
The dense smoke of the fire had by this time blotted out the sky and all they could see above them was a thick canopy of smoke. It rose in a huge pillar blotting out the sky and poisoning the air.
"What are we to do?" gasped Billy.
"I don't see what we can do," was Frank's reply, "our escape is cut off. We shall burn to death."
Indeed it seemed as if the boys were doomed to death in the flames. With incredible rapidity the fire, undoubtedly started by their carelessness in not extinguishing their camp fire, came leaping and roaring through the forest.
Suddenly out of the woods directly in front of them leaped a lithe spotted form, and without glancing to right or left, the creature shot into the sea. It swam quite a distance and then sank.
"A jaguar," exclaimed Ben; "a good thing it was too scared to attack us."
"Yes, I haven't got a cartridge left," said Frank, gazing ruefully at his empty revolver.
"I don't think that would do us much good if you had; we might as well die by a jaguar's teeth and claws as by being burned to death," said Harry.
The boys were now witnesses of a strange scene. Driven by the heat of the fire scores of terrified animals passed them. There were small agoutis or wild pigs, monkeys, birds of various kinds,—including huge macaws and numerous snakes. The creatures paid not the least attention to the boys, but, crazed with fear, made for the sea. The birds alone soared off and doubtless the stronger winged of them reached land.
"If we only had the Golden Eagle here," sighed Frank.
"Hurrah," suddenly shouted Ben, capering about, "hurrah, I've got a plan."
For a minute or two the boys regarded him as one might an insane person, but as he went on to explain his plan they grasped at it as a last resort. Two large tree trunks lay near to where they stood. They had fallen apparently in some tropical storm, so that their bulk rested on some smaller trees. It was as if they were on rollers.
"We will lash those together with some withes and make a raft," exclaimed Ben.
"How are you going to get them into the water?" asked Billy.
"By the natural rollers that are underneath them," replied the sailor; "come, we have no time to lose if we are to escape."
Indeed they had not. The fire was now so close that they could feel its ardent breath. Sparks were falling about them in red-hot showers and already some of the brush in their vicinity was beginning to smoke. Soon it would burst into flame and then they were doomed.
Feverishly they worked and soon had the two trunks lashed together firmly with long "lianas" or creepers of tough fibre that grew in great profusion everywhere. The work of getting the trunks into the water was, thanks to the natural rollers, not so hard as might have been anticipated. Ben and Frank managed the placing of the rollers, which were carried in front of the logs as fast as its hinder end cleared some of them. In this manner their "raft," if such it could be called, was soon afloat.
It seemed a terribly insecure contrivance with which to risk a voyage, but they had no choice. The whole island, except the spot in which they had worked, was now one raging furnace, and had their situation not been so critical, the party would have been compelled to admire the wild magnificence of the spectacle. Great red tongues of flame shot up through the blanket of dark smoke, dying it crimson. Occasionally there would be a dull crash as some huge forest monarch fell prostrate, or the dying scream of some creature overtaken by the flames rang out.
"Quick, onto the raft," shouted Frank as the clumsy craft floated at last.
It did not take the adventurers long to follow his directions. The heat from the fire was now intense and they lost no time in putting the two branches they had cut to use as paddles into action. It was hard work but they found to their delight that their raft moved when they dug into the water with their clumsy means of propulsion.
"Hurrah!" shouted Billy as they began to glide slowly over the waves, "we are saved from the floating island."
"Yes, but for how long," exclaimed Frank; "we have no provisions and no water. How long can we live without them?"
"We must hope to be picked up," said Harry.
"That is our only hope," rejoined Frank, "if we are not—-"
There was no need for him to finish the sentence, even had he been able to, for while he was still speaking a startling thing happened.
The raft was about twenty feet from the shore, but despite the distance a dusky form that had rushed out of the wood with a wild howl, shot through the air and landed fairly upon it.
With its menacing eyes of green, like balls of angry flame, dull yellow hide, catlike form, and twitching tail, the boys had no difficulty in recognizing it for what it was.
A giant panther.
There was no possibility of escape. As the creature growled menacingly the boys realized that they were practically without means of protection against this new enemy.
As the panther, too, realized its position, it drew back on its haunches and, lashing its tail wickedly, prepared to spring.
A QUEER ACCIDENT.
It was no time for words. Almost before any of them realized just what had happened, the savage creature that had taken refuge from the flames on their frail craft, launched its yellow body at them in a great leap. But the brute miscalculated its spring this time.
With a howl of dismay it shot beyond its mark and fell into the sea.
"Quick, boys, get your knives ready," shouted Ben, "we've got a fighting chance now."
Hastily the boys, though they felt skeptical as to the effectiveness of these small weapons against such a formidable enemy, got out their hunting knives. But they were not destined to use them.
The howl of dismay which the panther had uttered as it found itself plunged into the water was quickly changed to a shrill scream of terror from its huge throat. At the same instant a number of triangular fins dashed through the water toward it.
"Sharks!" shouted Harry.
Attracted by the number of animals that had taken to the water to escape the fire the creatures had gathered in great numbers about the island and were devouring the fugitives right and left. Fully a dozen of the monsters rushed at the panther which, formidable as it was on land, was, like most of the cat tribe, at a great disadvantage in the water.
It could make no resistance but a few feeble snaps to the avalanche of sharks that rushed at it, and a few seconds after the onslaught the water was crimsoned with the blood of the panther and the boys were safe from that peril. But the sharks now offered almost as great a danger as had the land monster.
Made furious by the taste of so much food they cruised alongside the rickety raft gazing with their little eyes at its occupants till shudders ran through them. The boys tried to scare them away by flourishing the branches used as oars, but this, while it scared them at first, soon lost its effect on the sea-tigers, who seemed determined to keep alongside the raft, evidently hoping that sooner or later they would get a meal.
All the afternoon the boys took turns paddling with their branches and by this means, and impelled also by one of the ocean currents that abound in this latitude, the smoking island gradually drew further and further away. But the sharks still cruised alongside and now and again one bolder than the others would turn partly on his back and nose up against the raft, showing his cruel, saw-like teeth and monstrous mouth as he did so.
"I don't wonder they call them sea-tigers," said Frank, "more terrible looking monsters I never saw."
The tropic night soon closed and darkness shut down with great rapidity. Far off the boys could see the red glare cast by the flaming island.
"That's queer," exclaimed Frank suddenly. He had been regarding the island intensely for some time.
"What's queer?" demanded Billy.
"Why, do you see that long wavering ray of light shooting up near the island," he cried, pointing in that direction, "what can it be?"
The others looked and to their amazement, as soon as Ben's eyes fell on the strange ray of white light, the old sailor began dancing a sort of jig to the imminent danger of his tumbling in among the sharks.
"Hurray! hurray!" he shouted, "douse my topsails and keel-haul my main-jibboom, if that ain't the best sight I've seen for a long time."
"Have you gone crazy?" asked Harry.
"Not much, my boy," shouted the old tar, "that queer light—as you call it—yonder is a ship's searchlight. The Southern Cross like as not."
"She must have seen the smoke from the burning island and sailed in that direction," exclaimed Frank.
"How can we attract their attention?" cried Billy.
"Easy enough," said Ben, pulling off his shirt, "this is a good shirt, but I'd rather have my life than a whole trunk full of shirts. Now for some matches and we'll make a night signal."
The matches were soon produced and the old sailor set fire to the garment. It flared up brightly and made a fine illumination, but as the flare died out there was nothing about the movement of the searchlight to indicate that the signal had been seen.
"We must try again," said Ben.
It was Harry's turn to sacrifice a shirt this time, and he lost no time in ripping it off. As Frank prepared to light it, however, an unfortunate—or even disastrous—accident occurred.
The waterproof box of matches slipped from his fingers in his excitement, and before any of them could recover it, it was overboard. The rush of a great body through the water at the same instant told them that one of the watchful sharks had swallowed it.
"I wish they'd burn his insides out," cried Billy.
"Everybody search their pockets for a match," commanded Frank. A prolonged scrutiny resulted in yielding just one match. It came from Ben's pocket.
Frank lit it with great care. For one terrible moment, as they all hung breathless over it, it seemed as if it was going out. It finally caught, however, and flared up bravely.
"Now the shirt," cried Frank.
It was thrust into his hands and he waved the blazing garment above his head till the flames streaked out in the night.
This time a cheer went up from the castaways on the raft.
Their signal had been seen.
At least so it appeared, for the searchlight, which had been sweeping about near the island, suddenly shot its long finger of light in their direction. As the vessel bearing it neared them a bright glow enveloped the figures on the raft, who were alternately hugging each other and shaking hands over the prospect of their speedy deliverance.
A few minutes later all doubt was dissolved. The approaching vessel was the Southern Cross, and the adventurers were soon answering to excited hails from her bridge. To lower a boat and get them on board once more did not take long, and it was not till late that night that, the story of their perils having been told and retold at least twenty times, they managed to get to their old bunks.
Never had the mattresses seemed so soft or the sheets so comfortable as they did to the tired boys. Their heads had hardly touched the pillows before they were off in dreamland—a region in which, on that night at least, fires, panthers and sharks raged in inextricable confusion.
Before they retired they heard from the lips of Captain Hazzard the puzzle their disappearance from the ship had proved. The Southern Cross, it appeared, on the day following her collision with the floating island, had cruised in the vicinity in the hope of finding some trace of the castaways. Her search was kept up until hope had been about abandoned. The sight of the glare of the blazing island had, however, determined her commander to ascertain its cause, with the result that while her searchlight was centered on the strange phenomenon the boys' tiny fire signal had been seen by a lookout in the crow's nest and the ship at once headed for the little point of light.
For his part the commander was much interested in hearing of the floating island. It cleared up what had been a great mystery, namely, the nature of the obstruction they had struck, and proved interesting from a scientific point of view. Captain Hazzard told the boys that these great tracts of land were, as Ben had said, not uncommon off the mouth of the Amazon, but that it was rarely one ever got so far out to sea.
Two weeks later, after an uneventful voyage through tropic waters, during which the boys had had the interesting experience of crossing the equator, and had been initiated by being ducked in a huge canvas pool full of salt water placed on the fore deck, the Southern Cross steamed into the harbor of Monte Video, where she was to meet her consort, the Brutus, which vessel was to tow her down into the polar regions.
A few interesting days were spent in Monte Video and the boys sent many letters home and Captain Hazzard forwarded his log books and data as obtained up to date. Professor Sandburr spent his time among the natives collecting memoranda about their habits while the boys roamed at their leisure about the city. They saw a bull fight, a spectacle that speedily disgusted them, and witnessed the driving into the stock-yards of a huge herd of cattle rounded up by wild and savage-looking gauchos on wiry ponies.
One day, while they were walking through a back street leading to some handsome buildings, they heard terrible cries coming from a small hut in unmistakably American tones.
"Come on, let's see what is the matter?" shouted Frank.
Followed by Billy and Harry, the lad ran toward the mud hut from which the cries had issued. As they neared it a terrible-looking figure dashed out. Its white duck suit was streaming with red and the same color was daubed all over its face and head.