Once in the night Walter was awakened by a loud splashing. With pistol in hand he stole to the water's edge. Many dark masses were slowly gliding to and fro on the surface of the stream. "Alligators," he exclaimed with a sigh of relief and returned to his blanket and sleep, from which he was only aroused again by the rising of the sun.
Walter's first thought on awakening was for his chum. Charley was tossing restlessly on his blanket, his face and hands flushed and hot with fever. All of Walter's attempts to rouse him met only with unintelligible words and phrases. The exertion of the previous day in his weak state, the opening of his wound afresh, and the unhealthy river water he had drank, had all combined to bring him to a dangerous condition.
Walter removed the bandages and looked at the wound. It was of an angry red and greatly swollen, and its changed appearance frightened him. "Charley," he called, shaking him gently, "don't you know me?"
Reason gleamed for a moment in the sufferer's eyes. "Sure, it's Walt," he muttered.
"Listen and do try to understand," begged Walter, earnestly. "We are safe, Charley. The convicts cannot get at us now. We can stay here and rest up as long as we want to and you can lay quiet and get well again. Now, I am going to light a fire and get you some broth and strong coffee, and, after you have taken them, I am going to heat some water and give that wound a good cleansing. Do you understand, old chap?"
"Yes," murmured the sufferer, wearily.
After putting his own blanket under Charley's head for a pillow and making the sick lad as comfortable as possible, Walter began his preparations for breakfast. Selecting a spot where the ground seemed soft and free from roots, he dug a hole about two feet deep to contain his fire. It required only a few minutes to make one large enough for his purpose, and his next step was to bring up the provisions and cooking utensils from the canoe.
It was only a short distance to where the little craft lay moored amongst the mangroves and a few steps carried Walter to the spot, but on the edge of the bank he paused with a cry of surprise and dismay.
The canoe lay bottom side up in the water.
With the strength of despair, Walter succeeded in righting the overturned craft and pulled it up on shore where he quickly tipped the water out of it.
One glance at the interior confirmed his worst fears, nothing remained inside but the paddle, which had been wedged under the seats; provisions, guns, and ammunition were all gone.
Walter sank down on the bank in despair and buried his face in his hands. He understood now, the meaning of the splash he had heard during the night. A curious alligator had upset the light craft with its nose or a flirt of its powerful tail.
For a long time Walter sat silent and still, pondering on their now desperate situation. One fact stood out clear in the mind of the sorely tried and unhappy boy; they must, without delay, leave the island, which only a few hours before had promised them a safe and comfortable refuge. Their only chance lay in finding their friends before he became helpless from lack of food. It needed no great medical knowledge to tell him that Charley was fast sinking into a critical condition. Without food or proper medicine, the injured lad was not likely to last long and every moment they tarried on the island lessened their chances, which were already very slight, of escaping with their lives.
When he had arrived at this conclusion, Walter arose and made his way back to his companion, who was lying as he had left him, tossing restlessly from side to side.
"I'm sorry, Charley, but you'll have to wait a little longer for your broth," he said, cheerfully. "I have decided we had better waste no more time here but hurry on and catch the captain; he has medicines that will soon fix you up and make you all right again."
His explanation was wasted so far as Charley was concerned, for the wounded lad was beginning to rave in the delirium of fever. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Walter abandoned the effort to rouse him to consciousness, and, leaving him as he lay, proceeded to make ready for their departure. He cut a pile of small myrtle boughs which he carried down to the canoe and spread out upon the bottom and upon these he stretched their blankets, making a soft and comfortable bed for his chum to lie upon. Now came his hardest task, the getting of the sick boy down to, and aboard of, the canoe. Fortunately the hearty meal and rest of the night before had so far restored his strength, that he was able, by half carrying and half dragging him, to get Charley, at last, upon the bed prepared for him. Then pausing only long enough to get his breath again, Walter took his old place in the stern and paddled out into the stream, where he headed once more for the south, and with long, steady strokes sent their little craft flying towards the unknown.
As they slid over the water, leaving the miles rapidly behind them, Walter kept a sharp watch on either bank for signs of the outlaws. That they were still hunting for him and his friends, he felt no doubt, but he cherished faint hopes that he had distanced them during the night. He consoled himself with the thought that even were they captured, death by a bullet would be far quicker and less painful than a slow, lingering death from fever and starvation.
All day the despairing lad paddled ahead, pausing only at noon for a brief space to rest his wearied arms and drink sparingly of the river water, which, black and foul as it was, reeked with fever.
Charley, on his bed in the bow, tossed and muttered incessantly. Every once in a while, Walter would crawl forward and sprinkle cold water on the lad's hot face; it was all he could do to relieve the sufferer, whose ravings fell heavily on his anxious heart.
As the afternoon wore away, Walter's strength began to fail; the mental strain, steady work, the blistering sun, and lack of food, were fast telling on him. The temptation to stop and rest and sleep grew almost irresistible, but he bravely fought off the weakness. Their only hope lay in pushing on and on until they found their friends or came out upon civilization. Whither the river led he knew not, but was in hopes that it might at last bring them out into a settled country. To stop now meant certain death.
As night settled down, his tired eyes caught the gleam of a fire on the shore not far ahead. A wild hope possessed him that it might prove to be the captain and his companions, but, warned by his previous experience, he approached the blaze cautiously.
Slowly he drifted in towards the fire, against which he could soon distinguish moving figures. At last, he approached near enough to recognize the forms against the bright firelight, and hope fled. It was another party of the outlaws, four in number, and, the disappointed lad swung the canoe around to the further shore and paddled safely past without being discovered.
The night passed slowly away, and through the long hours the lad in the canoe urged it steadily forward into the darkness. His tired, aching brain was now possessed of but one thought, to paddle on, and on, and on. His hands had cramped to the paddle handle, and the strokes were feeble as a child's, but the blade still rose and fell regularly, and the canoe still moved slowly ahead.
Daybreak found him in the same position, the paddle still slowly moving, and his bloodshot, staring eyes still fixed ahead.
The rising sun brought him staggering to his feet, a cry of hope on his lips.
Dead ahead, and more than a mile away, the river disappeared in a great forest of strange-looking trees. Amongst its shelter might be found food and friends, thought Walter, and the hope gave him fresh courage and strength.
Before sinking back into his seat he carefully surveyed the further shore. His gaze was arrested at a point about a mile behind the canoe. There for about a half mile, the shore lay comparatively clear of timber, very likely having been swept by fire at some time in the past. It was not the character of the shore, however, that arrested Walter's attention. His gaze was fixed upon four objects moving swiftly across the open space and headed towards him. It required no great reasoning to tell him that the four figures wore mounted outlaws and that they had sighted the canoe. It was to be a race between ponies and canoe, as to which should reach the forest first.
With the strength born of desperation, Walter forced the light canoe ahead. Behind him the riders spurred their ponies on at the top of their speed. Walter could see, by glancing over his shoulder from time to time, that the outlaws were steadily gaining, but the canoe was moving swiftly, also, and was rapidly drawing near to the strange forest, and Walter decided with a thrill of joy that the enemy would not arrive in time to cut him off from the shelter of the trees.
The outlaws were not slow to recognize this fact. Their rifles began to crack and the bullets to whistle around the canoe. Fortunately the motion of their mounts made their aim uncertain, and the bullets did but little damage, only one touching the canoe, and it passed harmlessly through the side far above the water line. Before the pursuers could draw near enough to make their fire certain, the canoe had passed in amongst the trees and the outlaws reined in their mounts swearing loudly.
As he neared it, Walter had watched the forest with growing amazement. The river seemed to end at its edge, but as he drew closer the reason for the anxiety of the outlaws to prevent his entering it was plain. No horse could travel through that dark, gloomy expanse. It was a floating forest. Great cypress and giant bays reared their mighty stems from the surface of black scummy water. Amongst their boughs bloomed brilliant orchids and from limb to limb stretched tangled masses of creeping vines and briers.
The trees with their huge spreading roots grew so closely together that it was with difficulty that Walter forced the canoe in and out between them. His exultation at his escape from their enemies had given way to a settled despair. From descriptions he had heard, he recognized this mighty floating forest as the fringe which surrounds that greatest of all mysterious, trackless swamps, the Everglades. Before him lay the mighty unknown, unexplored morass, reeking with fever, and infested with serpents; behind him waited sure death at the hands of the outlaws.
One faint hope alone remained to him. If his strength held out, he might in time come upon a camp of the Seminoles, the only human beings in this unknown land.
Considering the small numbers of the Indians and the vastness of the swamp, it was a faint chance indeed that he or his companion would live to see any of the tribe, but, faint as it was, no other hope remained and Walter sent the canoe onward with feeble strokes.
Gradually the trees grew further and further apart until at last the canoe passed out from their shadows into a lake, surrounded by tall growing grass and reeds. Far as the eye could reach stretched the dismal swamp, broken here and there by lakes or creeks and now and then by an island of higher ground rising from the rotting mud.
Under the heat of the blazing sun there rose around the canoe thick vapors from the scum-covered water and rotting vegetation, bearing in their foul embrace a sickening, deadly stench.
The paddle strokes grew slower and slower, and gradually ceased, Walter's eyes slowly closed, and he sank down unconscious. His paddle fell from his nerveless hand and floated away on the stagnant water just as a dark, shapeless mass crept out of a bunch of reeds and struck the canoe with a gentle thud.
Darkness, black as night, floated over Walter's reeling brain; darkness, pierced by a thousand gleaming, twinkling lights, brilliant as stars, then came a void and nothingness. Slowly at last he felt himself struggling up out of the void, battling, fighting for consciousness, then came a delicious sort of languor. If this was dying, it was very pleasant. Forms seemed to be flitting before his half-opened eyelids and the hum of voices seemed to float in his ears. One voice irritated him greatly; it was faintly familiar in its loud joyousness. What was it saying?
"Golly, Massa Captain, bless de Lawd, he ain't dead."
Another voice responded, "No, thank God, he's goin' to live, Chris. Bear a hand and we'll get him into the wigwam."
There was a sensation of being home through the air, and Walter surrendered to the delicious languor,—and slept.
When he opened his eyes again an ebony face was bending over him and Chris' voice demanded, "Golly, don't you know me, Massa Walt?"
"It's Chris," Walter said, smiling feebly, and the little darky danced about in joy.
Walter raised his head with an effort and looked about him. He was lying on a bed of soft moss with a pillow of blankets under his head. He seemed to be surrounded by walls of bark which met in a point far above his head; opposite him lay another figure on a bed similar to his own.
"Where am I, and how did I get here?" he demanded confusedly, "the last I remember was being in the canoe a few minutes ago and everything getting dark before me."
"A few minutes ago," cried Chris, excitedly. "Why, it's dun been two days since Massa Captain come on you when he was paddlin' around the lake. You was layin' in the bottom of the canoe like you was dead."
"Two days," exclaimed Walter in astonishment; then, with a sudden note of dread in his voice, he cried, "Charley!"
"He's gettin' along pretty well," said the little darky cheerfully, "he's lyin' right across from you thar. Now you jus' keep still an' doan' talk no more," he commanded. "Massa Captain out fixing up some soup. Reckon he'll let you talk some more after you drink it."
The captain soon appeared with a gourd full of steaming liquid. He was overjoyed at finding Walter conscious, but firmly insisted that he should remain quiet, and he fed him liberally with the hot soup. Indeed, Walter felt little desire to talk; a few swallows of the warm liquid made him very drowsy, and he quickly sank into a deep sleep from which he awoke feeling much stronger and almost like his old self again.
To his great joy, he found Charley conscious, and without fever, although still very weak. He sat down on the edge of the invalid's bed and the two talked over the thrilling adventures through which they had passed.
They were interrupted by the entrance of the captain and Chris, the captain bearing an armful of yams and Chris a string of fresh fish. "We are layin' in a stock of provisions against the appetite I reckon you lads will have now you are gettin' better," explained the captain, cheerfully.
Walter caught the old sailor by the sleeve and held him tightly. "Now you have got to sit right down and tell us your story before I will let you go," he said. "First, Charley and I want to know where we are."
The captain filled his old black pipe, and got it to drawing good before he answered.
"You're on an island about two miles inside the Everglades, as near as I can calculate."
"Did you build this shelter since you have been here?" asked Charley eagerly.
A shade of sadness passed over the captain's open face. "No," he said slowly, "this island belonged to the chief an' this wigwam was where he lived, an' it was here we brought him to die."
"To die?" echoed both boys together.
"Aye, lads, he passed away the same day we reached here," said the captain, sadly. "He was a white man clean through, if his color was red. I got to know him powerful well on the trip here, an' he sure had all of a white man's feelings."
The boys remained silent in face of the captain's evident grief, and the old sailor, after a pause, continued. "We buried him under a big oak tree, with his gun and plenty of food by his side, just as he had directed, an' I reckon his spirit is up in his happy hunting-grounds now."
"And the young chief, his son, what has become of him?" Walter asked after a pause.
"Gone to gather his people together an' swoop down with them on the murderin' convicts. He found out from signs, that I couldn't make nothin' of, that his tribe had divided into two parties, one going towards a hunting-ground called Big Cypress, an' the other to another place where deer an' bear are thick. As soon as the chief was buried, he jumps into his dugout an' starts to round 'em up. If he gets back with them in time to catch them outlaws, may the Lord have mercy on their murderin' sin-stained souls, for the young chap will have 'em slowly tortured to death if he catches them."
"Tell us all about your trip," Walter urged, "how did we get separated, I wonder?"
"It puzzled me for a bit as to what had become of you, but the chief soon explained it by saying that you likely had taken another stream. Chris an' I was for turnin' back an' huntin' you, but the chief reasoned us out of it, by saying that you might have taken any one of a dozen forks and that there would be mighty little chance of our hitting on the right one, while we would be almost sure to run right into the convicts' hands again. But what influenced us most, was his explainin' that all streams thereabout ran into, or from, the Everglades, an' that all we had to do was to get here first and keep a sharp lookout along the cypress for you, and you'd soon show up. The chief had great confidence in your good sense, Charley, an' seemed to feel certain that you would reason that the only safe thing to do was to keep right on up the stream you had taken. 'Course, we never suspected that you had been shot."
"Well, I guess my successor in command did all I would have done and perhaps more," remarked Charley with a smile.
"It was just by luck that I happened to do the right thing," said Walter, modestly.
"You didn't appear like as though luck had helped you much when I found you, Walt," remarked the captain, dryly. "It sorter looked to me like only hard work an' an amazin' lot of pluck an' grit had brought you that far."
"Now don't you go trying to make a hero out of me," said Walter, hotly, "I won't have it. I only did what anyone would have done, and I made a whole lot of foolish blunders besides."
"Well, you can have it your own way, lad," agreed the captain, with a glance of affection at the embarrassed young hunter. "I reckon that's about all of our story worth tellin'," he concluded. "We made the best speed we could so as to get here before you. We caught sight of parties of the convicts searchin' for us now an' then, but the chief was more than a match for them an' they never caught sight of us. Since we got here, Chris and I have patrolled the rivers' mouths for sight of you every day, but we had begun to despair when we came upon your canoe day before yesterday. And now, that's all, my lads, except that I feel we had all ought to join in thankin' our Heavenly Father for deliverin' us from our enemies an' bringin' us together again."
With hearts full of gratitude, the young hunters sat with bowed heads while the kindly old sailor offered up a simple, fervent prayer of thanksgiving for the mercies they had received from the One who heeds even the sparrow's fall.
"Thar's one thing more to tell you, an' then I'm through," said the captain, breaking the thoughtful silence that had followed the prayer. "The chief seemed to set great store by you, Charley. I reckon it came from your savin' his life at the risk of your own. Anyway, he spoke right often of the 'young white chief', as he called you, an' once he said you should be honored with riches. Not an hour before he died, he gave me this an' charged me to give it to you."
Charley took with wonder the object the captain handed him. It was a piece of exquisitely dressed doe-skin about six inches square. On the smooth side was traced in a reddish sort of ink a kind of rude sketch of a lone palm tree, amongst the leaves of which a large bird was perched. Resting against the foot of the palm was an object that bore a faint resemblance to a paddle.
"It is sign language, but I cannot make out what it means," said Charley in perplexity. "I wonder why he wanted me to have it and what he wanted me to do with it."
"I've puzzled over it some myself," said the captain slowly, "an' I can't make anythin' out of it. From what the chief let fall from time to time, though, I gathered he wanted to make you a valuable present, an' I've been kinder thinkin' that picture tells what an' where it is."
Charley folded the piece of doe-skin and put it carefully away in an inner pocket. "I will try to find out what it means when my head is clearer," he said. "Just now, all I can think of is something to eat."
"And you shall have something to eat right off," said the captain, heartily, "it's about time for supper anyway. Hustle up, Chris, an' get them fish cleaned. I reckon it won't hurt the lad to have a bit of solid food, now, providin' it's well cooked."
The sun was just setting when the captain and Chris reappeared bearing gourds full of smoking fish, and sweet sugary yams, and ears of curious small kernelled Indian corn.
The boys made merry over the delicious meal, but a curious constraint seemed to rest upon the captain and Chris. Once Walter surprised them exchanging glances full of a strange, expectant uneasiness. The circumstance aroused his curiosity, but he refrained from asking any questions, deciding that the captain would explain the trouble in his own good time.
As the evening wore away, the change in the captain's manner became more and more marked. All his cheeriness of the day had departed, leaving him glum and silent. He took no part in the lively conversation going on between the boys, but sat apart answering their questions in monosyllables. His manner, Walter decided, was that of a man who faces some great impending evil.
With the coming of darkness the air was filled with the noises of the swamp; the croaking of multitudes of frogs, the hooting of owls, and the hoarse bellowing of many alligators.
Suddenly the boys sat up erect and stared at each other in amazement. "What is it?" Walter cried.
Clear and sweet above the noises of the night rang the tolling of a silver-toned bell.
"It's the bell of the spirits callin' us," said the captain gloomily, while Chris sat ashen-faced trying vainly to control his terror.
"Nonsense, there are no such things as spirits," cried Charley, hotly. "That tolling is made by a big bell, and a remarkably sweet-toned one, too."
"It's over a hundred miles to the nearest settlement," said the captain gloomily, "do you reckon you could hear the biggest bell made that far?"
"No," the lad admitted, "but that bell is not over two miles away. Some Indian has traded for a bell and tolls it for his own amusement."
The captain lowered his voice to a superstitious whisper. "It's a mystery to the Indians," he declared, "and they avoid the sound like it were an evil spirit. Even the chief could not tell me what it was, although all his life he had heard its tolling. He wasn't so much afraid of it as are the other Indians an' he built this wigwam here so as to be within sound of it." The captain's voice dropped still lower as he added impressively, "It tolled all the night after he died."
"Have you tried to follow up the sound and discover where it comes from?" demanded Charley, sharply.
"Not me," declared the captain, solemnly, "I ain't got any call to interfere with the doings of the dead. I tell you, lad, this is a land of mystery, an' a man's got no call to fool with what he can't understand."
Charley checked the angry reply rising to his lips. He bethought himself that the captain had spent his life in a calling that often makes the strongest minded superstitious, while Chris inherited a belief in ghosts and spirits from his race. Though he lapsed into silence, Charley resolved that as soon as he was able to get around, the mystery should be solved.
For about an hour the air rang with the sweet chiming notes, then they ceased as suddenly as they had begun and the boys dropped off to sleep to dream of this strange incident in this mysterious swamp.
Walter was astir early, apparently as well as he had ever been. Hastily dressing he lifted up the bark flap which covered the doorway and stepped out of the wigwam.
The captain was busy cooking breakfast over a rude fireplace of stones, a few feet away, while Chris on the bank by the water was industriously fishing.
The island upon which they were camped was only a couple of acres in extent but rose high above the water. It was barren of timber, except for a large live oak and one lonely palm which Walter noted with an increasing interest. Some attempt had been made to cultivate the loamy soil, and flourishing little patches of yams, sugar-cane, gourds, and Indian corn testified to its fertility.
"Well, Captain, it doesn't look as if we ran much risk of starving to death," remarked Walter, approaching the old sailor.
"No, thar ain't much danger of that, I allow," said the captain with a heartiness from which all depression of the night before had fled. "Over thar is the place you come in at, Walt," he continued, pointing to the distant fringe of cypress.
Walter looked long and earnestly in the direction indicated. "I can see a thin line of smoke above those tree-tops," he declared finally.
"Aye, I noticed it too," agreed the captain. "'Pears like them friends are going to hang at our heels until they get another chance at us. I wouldn't borrow any uneasiness if it weren't for that Injin bein' in the party. I warrant he's found out already that the Injins are all gone, an' is layin' his plans accordingly."
"Well, they can't get to us without boats," said Walter, hopefully.
"No, but they can make one if they are determined enough," observed the captain, gravely. "I sorter calculate to paddle up near enough to them to-day to learn what kind of mischief they are up to."
"I'll go with you," said Walter, eagerly.
"No, you ain't strong enough yet. Jes' keep quiet for a day or two, I reckon that will be a plenty to keep you busy. Wall, I guess this stew is done an' we might as well have breakfast."
The kettle with its contents was carried into the wigwam, and from a cake, made of pounded Indian corn, and the stew, our hunters made a hearty breakfast.
After the meal, a council of war was held. The captain outlined their situation in a few simple words. "We are fairly comfortable here at present, lads, but it's goin' to be a week or ten days before Young Tiger gets back with his people. We've got plenty of food to last a good while, but I reckon this swamp is about the most unhealthy place on earth an' we run a good big risk of being sick with fever before the Indians come. On the other hand, it's risky to try to get out of here any way but the one we came in. We'd be about sure to get lost in the swamp, an' there's no tellin' what might happen to us. We can't get out the way we come in as long as those fellows are standin' guard outside waitin' for us."
"I vote to stay where we are," said Walter, promptly. "We may be able to escape the fever if we take good care of ourselves."
Charley and Chris quickly agreed with Walter.
"I guess it's the wisest thing to do," admitted the captain, "although I will be mighty glad to get out of this creepy place. I tell you this ain't no place for white men, lads. But I've got to leave you now, boys. Make yourself as comfortable as you can, an' keep out of the sun during the heat of the day. I reckon I'll be back long before sundown."
Walter accompanied the captain down to the canoe and begged hard to go with him, but the old sailor was firm in his refusal and Walter watched him paddle out of sight with a dim foreboding of evil at his heart.
On his way back to the wigwam, Walter paused a moment on the island's highest elevation to take a more careful survey than he had yet done of the surrounding country. He discovered nothing new, however, save what was apparently a large island lying some two miles to the west of their own. It seemed to rise far above the surrounding swamp and was evidently very heavily timbered.
Passing on into the wigwam, he was greeted with an exultant cry from Charley.
"I've solved it," he shouted.
"Solved what?" demanded Walter in amazement.
"This," cried his chum excitedly, extending the square of doe-skin with its red ink tracings. "It's really absurdly simple," he continued. "According to the captain, the chief talked about leaving me riches of some sort. I took that circumstance for my key and tried to think what a race as poor as the chief and his people would consider as riches. The picture of that bird answered the question. Plumes are their only form of wealth, hence plumes must be the treasure of which he spoke."
"Reasoned like a detective," approved Walter, scarcely less excited than his chum.
"The rest was simple. The picture of the tree was to show where it was hidden and the object at its base is intended as a shovel to tell that I would have to dig for the treasure, but," and his face fell, "how are we to find that identical tree?"
"There's only one palm on the island," Walter assured him.
"Then all we have to do is to go there and dig and we'll find the treasure," Charley declared. "But we must wait for the captain, we must all be present when it is unearthed."
The morning slipped away quickly, the boys amusing themselves by exploring their little island, fishing from the bank, and loafing in the shade of the solitary palm, at whose base was supposed to lie the buried treasure.
Dinner time came and the meal was eaten without the captain, who had not returned. As the afternoon wore away without any sign of the old sailor, the boys began to feel a vague uneasiness which increased as the sun set and night began to fall. Walter, who alone knew the real object of the captain's trip, was greatly worried. Long after the others had retired to the wigwam for the night, he sat alone straining eye and ear for sight or sound that would herald the absent one's return. As the night wore away, anxiety deepened into certainty with the troubled lad. Something must have happened to the captain. Impatiently the lad waited for daylight, determined to set off at the first break of dawn in search of the missing one. Suddenly, the lad started up from the reclining position weariness had caused him to assume. Full and deep upon the still night air rang out the tolling of the mysterious bell. To the anxious watcher, its tones no longer rang full and sweet as upon the previous evening, but sounded slow and threatening, as if freighted with an ominous meaning.
A step sounded behind him and the overwrought lad sprang to his feet, every nerve a-tingle.
"Where are you, Walt?" called Charley's voice from out of the darkness.
"Here," answered Walter, with a sigh of relief.
"The captain not here yet?" asked his chum, fearfully, as he found his way to his side.
"No," said Walter sadly, "and I am sure something must have happened to him. I am off to search for him as soon as it's light enough to see."
"And I am going with you," Charley declared.
"You are not," said his chum, decidedly. "You are too weak for such a trip yet. You would only make my task harder. You have no business even to be out in this night air and dew. It may bring your fever back on you."
"I could not rest inside when I saw your bed and the captain's empty and heard the tolling in the air."
"What do you suppose it really is, Charley?" asked his chum, eagerly. "It cannot be produced by anything human. Remember the captain's saying that it had been tolling this way longer than the oldest Indian could remember back."
"It's a bell," declared his chum, a trifle uneasily. "Nothing else could produce those tones and that regular tolling."
"Charley," and Walter's voice lowered with the horror of the thought, "the captain said it tolled all night when the chief died, and now the captain himself is gone and the awful thing goes on as though it would never stop."
Charley, with an effort shook off the feeling of dread that was fast stealing over him.
"Nonsense," he said, cheerfully, "you are getting as bad as Chris and the captain. I repeat, it is a bell: listen how regularly it tolls."
As though in mockery at his words, the long, even reverberations changed to a quick, harsh, discordant clatter and suddenly ceased.
For awhile both boys sat silent, Walter striving to overcome the superstitious dread tugging at his heart, and Charley searching his active brain for some explanation of the mysterious sound, that would harmonize with common sense and reason.
At last Walter, by sheer will, regained his mental balance. "I am tired and nervous, or I would never imagine such foolish things," he said. "Of course it is as you say, produced by natural causes, and I will likely laugh at my fears as soon as we stumble on the key to the mystery. And now I am going to insist upon your going back inside, Charley. It won't do for us to have you down with the fever again. For our sakes, as well as your own, you must be very careful."
Reluctantly, Charley retired to the wigwam and Walter once more was left alone.
With the first hint of gray in the east, he began to prepare for his departure. What cooked food was on hand he stored in the bow of the canoe, and casting off the painter took his seat in the stern. Then he paused for one last look around before dipping his paddle.
Away in the distance a moving speck on the water caught his eye. For a few minutes he watched it in suspense, then gave a cheer of delight.
It was the captain's canoe.
As the speck drew nearer all doubt vanished, it was the captain's canoe with the old sailor himself in the stern paddling with slow, weary strokes.
Walter's cheer had brought forth his companions from the wigwam, and all now gathered on the bank to welcome the wanderer.
Slowly the canoe drew in to the shore, and Walter at last was able to catch the painter and haul the light craft's bow up on the sand. Its occupant sat still in the stern unable to move. His clothes were stained and tattered, his hands torn and bleeding from many scratches, and his pale, haggard face told of hardship and suffering.
"Don't look scairt, lads," he called out cheerily, "I ain't hurt none; jes' scratched up a bit, an' powerful tired. I reckon you'll have to give me a hand to get me out. I'm cramped that bad I can't move a leg."
Walter and Chris flew to the old sailor's help and between them assisted him out of the canoe and up into the wigwam. Then Chris quickly kindled a fire and soon presented the weary man with a gourd of steaming coffee and the cold food which Walter hastened to bring from the canoe.
The captain ate like one famished, while the boys stood around eager to hear his story.
"I'll spin my yarn as soon as I've rested a hit, lads," he said, as he finished the last morsel of food. "I'm clean spent, now, and want to stretch out for a while."
The boys helped him up and onto his bed, which he had no sooner touched than he was fast asleep.
It was noon before the old sailor awoke to find a hot dinner ready and the boys patiently waiting. He was surprised to find that his stiffness had nearly all disappeared, and, except for the cuts on hands and face, he was as well as ever again.
"My, this grub tastes good," he exclaimed, attacking the smoking fish and yams. "I didn't have a bite to eat all day yesterday. But I reckon I had better start at the beginning of my yarn. I reckon you boys are some curious how I happened to turn up again in such shape. Wall, after I left here I paddled on, till I came to that fringe of cypress right opposite where the smoke was curling up. When I got that far I got mighty careful, an' the way I coaxed that little craft in between them cypresses was so quiet that I didn't even wake up the water moccasins asleep on the roots. When I came near the outer edge of the cypress, I fastened the canoe to a root and crept forward on hands an' feet from one cypress tussock to another, sorter calculatin' that I'd make less noise that way than in the boat. At last, I got where I could glimpse out between the trees and get a view of the fire. There was the whole twelve of them rascals workin' away as hard as honest men. I watched them quite a while afore I caught on to what they was doing, an', when I found out, it didn't make me feel any easier. Lads, they was hollowing out the biggest dugout you ever seed. They had got a giant of a cypress chopped down, hewed it sharp at both ends and were burning it out inside with fire. While I was watchin', that varmint of an Injin, Charley, left the gang an' struck into the cypress an' passed by so close to where I was hid that I was sartin sure he'd see me, but he didn't. I lay still there for hours, afeard to move for fear I'd meet him comin' back. It was most sundown when he returned, and I stayed on quite a bit after that listenin' to the conversation. As I guessed, he had been out scouting an' had found out that we were on the island an' that his tribe was too far away to interfere with any plans he had in his head. Cute as he was, though, he hadn't learned that the old chief was dead and the young one gone for help. When I had learned all I could, I crawled back to the canoe and struck out for the island. It was being cramped up so long in one position in the cypress and in the canoe, that made me so stiff and sore."
"They surely can't be so reckless as to think of entering this swamp!" exclaimed Charley.
"'Tain't so very reckless, the way they look at it," observed the captain. "You see they think that the Indians are all far off an' ain't likely to come back for some weeks. When the redskins started on their hunt they left plenty of signs behind to tell where they had gone, and them signs are plainer than print to Injin Charley. Now, them fellows figures they can drop down on this island, kill off all hands but the chief, an' torture him 'till he gives up the plumes he's counted on havin', an' be off, an' safe out of reach afore the Seminoles return from their hunt. No, it ain't such a foolish sort of undertaking after all."
"How long will it take them to finish the canoe?" Walter inquired.
"I calculate it will take at least three days more," said the captain, reflectively. "You see, the cypress is green an' burns pretty slowly."
"Three days," mused Charley, "and it will be at least a week before help can come. We have got to count on meeting this danger by ourselves."
"I don't see nothin' to do but push on into the swamp," said the captain disconsolately. "They outnumber us three to one. An' this island ain't got no shelter for us to find cover behind."
"Let's not worry about it now," urged Walter cheerfully. "The captain says it will be three days at least before the canoe is finished so we have plenty of time. If we decide to leave the island, we can easily keep ahead of a clumsy dugout in our light canoes."
"I am of Walter's opinion," agreed Charley. "Something may turn up in the next two days, and, anyway, there are some things I want to investigate before I vote to leave this neighborhood. I can promise you one thing, captain, those fellows will never handle the plumes that belonged to the chief."
The captain listened in admiring astonishment as Charley recounted his solution of the chief's legacy. "We have been wild to dig for the treasure," Charley concluded, "but we would not touch a spadeful of earth until you could be with us to share in the excitement."
"Then you needn't wait another minute," cried the old sailor, who was nearly as excited as the boys. "Get your spade an' we'll start right in."
"We haven't got one," confessed Charley, suddenly crestfallen. "What a fool I was not to think of that."
"Golly, I reckon dis nigger goin' to fix up somethin' to dig with mighty quick," cried Chris, whose eyes were sparkling with anticipation.
Running down to the canoe, the little darkey was back in a moment with one of the paddles. "Reckon dis will do," he said, "got to be mighty careful not to break it, though."
Armed with the implement, which Chris' thoughtfulness had provided, they lost no time in making their way to the lone palm.
The next perplexing question was on which side of the tree to dig.
"It's as likely to be on one side as the other," Charley declared. "We might as well start in at random and dig a circle around the tree until we come to it."
The others had no better plan to suggest, and Walter, seizing the paddle, began to throw the dirt away. Luckily the soil was not packed hard, for even, loose as it was, progress was very slow with the rude implement he was wielding. At the end of an hour, he was content to surrender the paddle to the captain, who, when tired, turned it over to Chris.
It was slow work and the sun was getting low in the west when the circle around the palm was at last completed, and the diggers stood looking at each other with disappointment written on their faces.
"We must go deeper," Charley declared, "I am certain that this is the right spot, and the chief would have had no interest in deceiving or misleading us."
"We have gone down two feet already," said Walter, in a discouraged voice, as he started wielding the paddle again. "I guess there is something wrong with our calculation, Charley." He stopped suddenly and looked up with a comical look of surprise and anticipation.
"I struck something," he announced breathlessly, "something kind of soft and yielding."
"Go on," Charley shouted in his excitement, and Walter bent to his task again.
The removal of a few more shovelfuls of earth exposed to view a large, dark, hairy object. Stooping, Walter with difficulty lifted it out of the hole.
All clustered close around it in their eagerness.
What had looked at first glance like a large, dead animal, proved to be a deer-hide stretched on framework, the hairy side out. A few slashes of Charley's hunting-knife laid open this rude leather box and revealed to their eager gaze a smaller similar box inside. Charley lifted it out and cut away the top.
By the now dim light, they could only see the tapering shapes of hundreds of long plumes carefully packed inside.
"There must be all of fifty pounds of them," said Walter, in an awe-struck voice, "why, they'll make us rich men."
"Give me a hand to carry them up to the wigwam," said Charley. "Run ahead, Chris, and stir up the fire so we can see what we have got."
The excited captain swung the box upon his shoulder and strode forward hard upon Chris' heels. He laid his burden down close to the fire and all crowded around.
One look and a loud murmur of disappointment broke from every lip.
What the dim twilight had hid, the firelight revealed in all its disheartening truth. What had been once a beautiful heap of valuable plumes, now lay an ugly mass of mildew and mould.
For a moment no one spoke, so keen was their disappointment. At last, Charley summoned up a feeble smile.
"Well, we are no worse off than we were before," he remarked with a voice that he endeavored to render cheerful.
"That's the way to take a disappointment, lad," said the captain, heartily. "A pound of meat is worth more to us now than a hundred pounds of plumes, anyway. Now, Chris, quit your grieving an' see if you can't rustle up some supper. I reckon we'll all feel better after a warm bite."
"What shall I do with them, Charley?" asked Walter, who had remained kneeling by the ruined treasure.
"Throw them away, they are valueless," exclaimed his chum somewhat testily, for his disappointment was almost more than he could bear cheerfully.
Walter lifted the leather box and disappeared in the darkness toward the water. He did not throw it into the stream, however, but after a moment's hesitation on the bank, descended to his canoe and, shoving his burden far up under the stern deck, retraced his steps to the fire.
In spite of their attempts at cheerfulness, the gloom of their disappointment hung heavy upon them, and it was rather a silent group that gathered in the wigwam after supper. Chris and the captain soon sought their beds and ere long their loud, regular breathing told that they had found solace for the disappointment of the day. The two boys felt too excited to sleep and sat long talking over their still perilous situation.
Suddenly, as on the other two nights, began the now familiar tolling of the mysterious bell.
The captain stirred uneasily in his sleep and Chris opened his eyes drowsily but soon fell off to sleep again.
"Come outside, Walt, where we can talk without the chance of being overheard," Charley whispered.
The two lads stole softly out of the wigwam and down to the water's edge where they sat down on the grassy bank.
"Now listen closely," Charley commanded.
The two boys remained quiet for several minutes listening to the bell's deep toned tolling. At last Walter remarked, "It don't sound as though it was very far away from us, not over two miles, I should say."
"Good," exclaimed Charley with satisfaction, "I was about to ask you what you thought the distance was. Two miles is about what I had estimated. We can't say very exactly, for sound is likely to travel far in this still air. But let us make a liberal allowance for the stillness. I think we are safe in saying that the sound comes from a point not more than four miles distant from this island. Now, the next question is, from what direction does it come?"
"It's hard to tell exactly, the sound seems to fill the air so, but I should say that it came from the westward," said Walter after another moment of careful listening.
"We agree again," declared Charley, "it is not likely that we are both mistaken. Now that we have settled the distance and the direction from which the sound comes, what do you say to starting out in the morning and trying to solve the mystery?"
"The captain will not let us go," Walter objected.
"For this once, I do not intend to consult him," Charley said. "We will get off before he is awake. We can leave a note saying that we will be back before dark."
"Good," exclaimed his chum, "even if we accomplish nothing else, we may find an island that can be defended better than this one."
So it was settled and the boys crept back to bed eager for the coming of the morrow.
The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten a little when the boys got up and dressed, collected what cold food they could find, and, leaving a note where the captain could not fail to find it, stole down to the canoe and quietly embarked.
Charley's shoulder was still too sore to permit of his using the paddle so he made himself comfortable in the bow while Walter in the stern wielded the blade.
The canoe was headed around to the westward, as near as they could determine, for the point from whence had come the tolling of the bell. "I noticed what looked like a large island, from our camp, about two miles off and in the direction we are headed," observed Walter as they glided swiftly away.
"I noticed it too," Charley answered, "and I do not think we can do better than start our search there, if it proves to be an island. We will be there in an hour at this rate. I wish I could spell you, Walt, but it don't seem right for you to be doing all the work."
"Nonsense, I am enjoying it," his chum protested, "everything about this swamp is so novel and strange. See those cute little turtles on every log, and those curious looking smoke-birds, and did you ever see anything more beautiful than those trees with their hanging moss and with every bough full of orchids of every color of the rainbow?" Walter ceased his paddling for several minutes and the canoe drifted slowly on while the two boys gazed with delight at the novel beauty that surrounded them. The dark, stagnant water through which they drifted was nearly hidden from view by great white and gold water-lilies and the butterfly flowers of water hyacinths, the trees on either side stood like beautiful gray ghosts under their festoons of Spanish moss through which flashed the blazing hues of flowering orchids. Brilliant-hued paroquets and other birds flitted amongst the tree-tops, while to finish the delicious languor of the scene the air hung heavy with the subtle, drowsy scent of wild jasmine.
"It is the great swamp in its happiest mood," observed Charley, "but even here under all this beauty are hidden countless serpents and crawling things, while everywhere under this fair appearance lurks fever and disease."
Walter resumed his paddle with a sigh of regret and sent the canoe flying around a point and away from the scene of beauty. Here the stream widened out to about half a mile in width and increased in breadth as they advanced. Half a mile ahead lay the island they were seeking, its banks rising high above the great lagoon in which it lay. It was about four hundred acres in extent and its shores were covered with a dense tropical growth. Between it and the canoe was another tiny island about two hundred yards distant from its big sister. Between the boys and the smaller island floated a score of dark masses like the roots of trees.
"Alligators," declared Walter as they drew nearer to the floating objects.
"I am not so sure about that," said Charley, who was watching the objects with closest attention. "Sheer off, Walt, and give them as wide a berth as possible."
He watched with anxiety as two or three of the strange creatures, as though impelled by curiosity, swam lazily out towards the canoe. "Give way, Walt," he cried, "paddle as fast as you can."
Under Walter's vigorous strokes the canoe shot past the lazily swimming creatures whose curiosity did not appear to be great enough to induce them to increase their exertions.
When they were left behind Charley heaved a sigh of relief. "They are crocodiles," he explained, seeing his chum's look of surprise. "Alligators are harmless, generally speaking, but if one of those fellows should upset you, you'd be chewed up into mince meat in a jiffy. But here's island number one. I guess we do not care about landing there now, do we? The bigger one looks far more promising, let's try it first."
Walter gave ready assent, and they passed by the little island with only a casual glance.
In a few minutes more they had left it behind and had drawn close to its bigger sister. Choosing a place at which the timber seemed thinnest they ran the canoe up on shore and fastened it securely.
With guns in hand they scrambled up the high bank and stood for a moment surveying the surroundings. From that elevation, they could see quite clearly for a couple of miles in each direction. Save for the little island they had passed they could see no other solid land within the range of their vision.
Charley noted the fact with satisfaction. "The solution of our mystery must lie on one of these two islands," he declared, "and the chances are in favor of this one, so here goes to discover it," and he plunged into the timber with Walter close at his heels. He had taken no more than twenty steps when he stopped with an exclamation of surprise and astonishment, his way was barred by a great wall of stone that towered several feet above his head. It had once been a fortification of considerable strength, but growing trees had made breaches in it here and there, their thrusting, up-growing trunks tumbling its blocks to the ground, where they lay hidden by covering vines.
"Whew," whistled Walter as he readied his chumps side, "who could have built this? It could hardly have been done by the Seminoles."
"No," said Charley, who was examining the strange wall carefully, "this stone is all limestone, which is found only along the coast or at a great depth. It has been brought here from a considerable distance. Indians may have done the work, but they never did it willingly. If they did it at all, it was as slaves. But we have no time for idle speculation. Let's walk along it and see how far it extends."
But after forcing their way along the wall for almost a quarter of a mile, at the expense of a good deal of exertion, they gave up the task.
"I believe it extends clear around the island," Walter declared, "we can't spare any more time to follow it up; it's noon already. Let's see what is inside."
Charley offered no objection, and the two boys climbed through a gap in the wall and reached the great enclosure.
At first glance, they could see but little difference between the dense growth amongst which they stood and that outside the wall, but a closer examination showed that, while the timber was very thick, it was of smaller size than that which they had left behind.
"This was a clearing at one time, years and years ago," Charley said, "see, there is an ironwood stump there that still shows the signs of an axe. It takes generations and generations for one of those stumps to rot."
"Look, Charley," cried his chum who had pushed a little ahead, "just see this."
A couple of strides brought Charley to his side, "A road," he cried in amazement.
Straight as an arrow, it extended before them into the depth of the forest. So well and carefully had its smooth surface been laid that even the assaults of time and the forest had been unable to dislodge the great blocks of stone of which it was composed. Vines and creepers had grown over its surface and the forest trees had met in solid mass above it, but still it lay intact, a triumph of road building, as solid and strong as when built.
With a feeling of awe, the boys moved forward over its hard surface. They had to stoop continually to avoid branches and the tangled vines and briers had often to be cut away, but their progress was easier and far more rapid than it would have been through the forest itself.
They had proceeded perhaps a quarter of a mile when the road ended suddenly at the base of another wall. A break in the wall told of an ancient gateway but the gate itself was gone, probably rotted into dust by the passage of time.
The boys pushed through the gap and stopped short with a cry of wonder. Before them lay an inclosure of perhaps two acres, and in its center stood a half dozen buildings of stone, all in a fair state of preservation. Near the building closest to the boys, a sparkling little spring gushed forth and flowed away down a gentle incline towards a corner of the wall.
"Someone must be living here," Walter cried, "see, there are no trees or vines growing here."
But Charley stooped and scratched away the dead leaves blown in from the trees of the forest. "As I suspected," he said, after a moment's inspection, "this enclosure is paved like the road. My, what workmen those fellows that did this job must have been for their work to continue so perfect down to this day! I tell you this thing makes me feel creepy, Walt."
"And me too," agreed his chum. "Instead of solving a mystery, we have discovered a greater one."
But the young hunters were not the kind of boys to remain long under a superstitious dread, and they were soon approaching the buildings before them.
The first building was the largest of the group. It was constructed entirely of stone and had been little hurt by the passage of time. Its doors and windows had, of course, rotted away, but otherwise it appeared uninjured. Passing through the arched doorway the boys found themselves in a large apartment divided into two by a stone partition. Small holes here and there in the walls left little doubt as to the character of the building.
"It was their strong house or fort," Charley declared, as he gazed around. "Here was where they used to gather when danger threatened. The other buildings are no doubt dwelling-houses where they lived in time of peace. You take one side and I will take the other and we will search this one over carefully."
But although the boys searched closely they could discover nothing to tell them who had been the builders of this little city in the swamp.
By the time they had completed their search of the larger building, it was nearly noon and they sat down in the shade in the great arched doorway and ate the lunch they had brought with them.
"What do you make of it, Charley?" Walter inquired, as he munched away at his fish and yams.
"The roads, walls, and these buildings were undoubtedly built by the Spaniards," said his chum, decidedly. "I have seen lots of their work in St. Augustine, and the West Indian islands, and there is no mistaking its character. They are the greatest road-builders since the Romans."
"But history contains no mention of such a place as this," Walter objected.
"Yet here it is, history or no history," Charley replied. "Perhaps all the voyages of gentlemen adventurers following Columbus were not known to the historians of the time. Perhaps this place may have been built by a detachment of De Soto's expedition. We must bear in mind that Florida was long the favorite land amongst the Spaniards. From the small number of buildings, I should say that this place was very likely built by a comparatively small party, using, no doubt, the Indians for slaves."
"And the slaves at last destroyed their masters," Walter suggested.
"I am not so sure about that," replied his chum. "I expected to find bones in the fort but we discovered none. Perhaps the builders abandoned this place even after going to so much trouble to fortify it."
"Maybe we can find something to throw light upon it in the other buildings," Walter remarked. "While you are finishing your dinner, I am going to see where that spring goes to."
Walter followed the little rivulet to where it disappeared in a small gully under a corner of the wall. Climbing the stones the lad dropped down lightly on the other side.
Charley finished his lunch, washed his hands at the spring, and resuming his seat in the doorway, leaned back upon one of the great pillars to wait for his chum. The air was soft and warm and the noises of the swamp stole to the tired lad's ears with a gentle lulling sound. His eyes slowly closed and his head dropped forward upon his breast and he slept.
Quickly the hours slipped away and the sun was getting low in the west, when Charley awoke. One glance at the declining sun brought him to his feet, anxiety and dread in his heart. What could have become of Walter? It took the thoroughly alarmed lad but a moment to reach the wall where his chum had disappeared. He swarmed up it like a monkey and dropped down on the other side. But no solid ground met his descending feet. Instead, he crashed through leafy boughs and landed in a tangled mass of vines. In the second before the vines gave way under his weight, Charley succeeded in grasping a limb and swinging himself in to the trunk of the tree where he found a safe resting-place between two branches. Below him yawned a gigantic pit, its edge hidden from view by the clustering trees.
"Walter," he called anxiously, "are you down there?"
"Yes," growled his chum's voice, "and I have been here for hours. You're a nice companion for a man when he gets in trouble."
"I fell asleep," confessed Charley, sheepishly.
"Well, don't sleep any longer," said his chum sharply. "Help me out of this, quick. It is awful down here."
"All right, be patient a minute and I will have you out," Charley answered as he climbed nimbly up his tree and reached the edge of the pit. A moment's search and he found what he wanted, a long, stout grape vine strong as a rope. He cut off a piece some forty feet in length, fastened one end to the tree, and dropped the other down into the pit. "You'll have to pull yourself out, Walt," he called.
With the help of the grape vine and the aid of foot holds on the trees growing up from the sides of the pit, Walter succeeded in scrambling out. His face was pale and there was a look of horror in his eyes.
"I believe I would have died if I had been compelled to stay down there all night," he declared in a voice that trembled.
"What is there down there?" asked Charley regarding his chum curiously.
"The demon work of the fiends who built this wall," said Walter fiercely, "It's their old stone quarry. They didn't bring rock from the coast, they just dug down till they found the kind they wanted. And Charley, all around the sides, chained to the solid rock, are the skeletons of the workers."
"I am right about the Spaniards building this place then," Charley observed. "That's the way that most Christian nation always used to treat its captives."
"Let's go," his chum urged, "I guess my nerve is shaken from being down there with those skeletons so long. The sun is getting low, anyway. We will not have time to more than get back home before dark."
"You're right, we must go, but I wish we had time to go through the balance of those buildings," said Charley, regretfully.
The two boys soon regained the canoe and paddled safely past the floating crocodiles.
"We haven't solved the mystery, after all," remarked Walter, as he urged the canoe forward.
"No, but we have done far better," declared Charley, enthusiastically, "we have found a place where we will have ample protection in case we are attacked by the outlaws. I am in favor of moving our camp there to-morrow morning."
"Of course that is the wisest plan," Walter agreed, "but since my experience in that pit I have a dread of the place."
"That will wear off in time. Hallo, there's our island and there's the captain and Chris on the bank waiting for us."
"I expect we will get a good lecture," grinned Walter, "I guess we deserve it, too."
But the captain was so delighted over their safe return, that he let both off with a light scolding.
Over the supper, the boys related the story of their discoveries amid exclamations from the captain and Chris.
The captain readily agreed to their proposal to move camp to the larger island. "The young chief showed me how to fix signs that would tell him which way we had gone in case we left the island before he returned," the captain observed.
This removed the only possible objection to the plan, and early next morning the hunters prepared to shift camp.
The little patch of yams was dug up, yielding several bushels of the sugary tubers, the remaining ears of Indian corn were plucked from the stalks, and a large quantity of dry gourds gathered, these, together with the little that remained of their stock of provisions, were conveyed to the canoes and our hunters were ready to depart. Before leaving, the captain arranged the signs agreed upon with the young chief. These were very simple, consisting merely of twigs partly broken off and laid to point in the direction they had gone.
"I reckon he'll see those," observed the captain, "The worst of it is, though, that Injin Charley ain't likely to overlook them either."
"That can't be helped," said Charley, "and once we are in our new home, we will stand some show of being able to defy them. I only wish we had the two rifles that were lost when the canoe upset. I wouldn't fear the outlaws at all then."
"I wish we had more provisions," Walter added. "Chris used the last of the coffee this morning, and there is not much of anything else left."
"It ain't no use wishing, lads," declared the captain, "we had ought to be thankful for what we have. The Lord will provide. Jes' think of the trials an' dangers He has brought us through already."
A thoughtful silence, that continued until they reached the island, followed the old sailor's gentle reproof.
Although they had been partly prepared by the boys' account of their discoveries, the captain and Chris were astonished at the sight of the great wall, the road, and the group of stone buildings. It was plain, too, that there was a good deal of superstitious dread mingled with their wonder.
Charley was quick to note this in their faces and gave them no time to brood upon their fears. "We have got a lot of work to do," he declared, as they deposited the loads they had brought up from the canoes. "I think, we will get along better if we divide it up and go at it with some system. Now, the captain and I will bring up the balance of the things, and the canoes,—it will not do to leave them where the outlaws can find them if they pay us a visit. While we are doing that, Walt, you pick out one of the buildings for us to occupy—the fort is too big, we would be lost in it; and you, Chris, light up a fire and get us something to eat."
The two addressed, accepted Charley's suggestions, cheerfully, and he and the captain departed to carry out their own task. When they returned laden with the balance of the canoe's cargo, Walter was standing idly by the fire watching Chris prepare the dinner.
"What, through already?" demanded Charley in surprise.
"No, just resting," smiled his chum. But the moment the captain's back was turned, his face became grave, and he gave a warning shake of his head in Chris' and the captain's direction.
Charley was quick to catch its significance. "I am afraid that carrying is too much for my shoulder," he said, quietly, "Chris, you give the captain a hand with the canoes, and I will look after the dinner."
No sooner had the two disappeared, than Charley turned to his chum. "What's the trouble?" he demanded eagerly.
"Come and see," said Walter soberly.
He led the way quickly to the first building and entered the open doorway, followed closely by Charley. At the threshold, Charley paused in horror. The room in which he looked was about twenty by fourteen feet in size. In the center a great slab of stone rested on four large blocks of the same material. It had evidently once done duty as a table for at one side of it was a bench of stone, and upon the bench sat, or rather lolled, four white, ghastly, grinning skeletons. Death had evidently come to the sitters like a bolt from the sky. One rested, leaning forward, with the bony claws clinching the table, while yet another held a pewter mug as if about to raise it to his grinning jaws. They had evidently been feasting when the grim visitor came, for before them on the table sat a great stone jug and dishes of crockery stained and discolored with age.
"You acted wisely, Walt," declared Charley, recovering his composure. "If Chris and the captain had caught sight of them, we would never have been able to keep them on the island. We will have to work quickly and get them out of sight before they return."
With deep repugnance the boys immediately began the grewsome task of removing the bodies.
"We have no time to bury them now," said Walter, "let's lower them into the pit; they will not be seen there, and we can bury them at the first opportunity."
The lads did not linger any over their task, but quickly bore their ghastly burdens to the wall. With the aid of grape vines, the whitened bones were hoisted to the top of the wall and lowered into the pit.
They had only time to get back to the fire and pretend to be busy with the dinner when the captain and Chris appeared bearing the first canoe.
"Now for the other buildings," said Charley, sharply, as the two again disappeared, "we have got to work lively if we are to finish before they return."
From building to building the lads swiftly passed. In all but one they found ghastly occupants, some stretched out in the posture of sleep, some sitting at table like the first seen, but all showing that death had come suddenly and unexpectedly.
The boys worked with the utmost swiftness, expecting every moment to see the captain and Chris appear, but, luckily, those two, wearied by their hard work, had paused to rest before returning with their load.
"Thirty-one," counted Walter as he lowered the last grinning skeleton into the pit. "There seems a kind of stern justice in their present position, Charley," he continued. "Now, they are resting side by side with those whom they tortured and enslaved while living."
"They paid terribly for their cruelty," said his chum, fingering the flint arrow-heads he had found by the skeletons. "The whole story is as plain as print. The thirty men whose bones we have just disposed of, enslaved and tortured members of what was at that time a great race, working them as slaves in building these walls, and in that terrible quarry. I confess to a feeling of admiration for them, in spite of their cruelty. They must have been great warriors, though so few in numbers, to hold at bay one of the bravest of the Indian tribes."
"I wonder why they remained in this awful swamp," said Walter, musingly.
"Case of necessity, perhaps," Charley replied, thoughtfully. "They had probably lost many men by the time they reached this island, and had concluded that to continue on meant utter annihilation, while here they, with their superior arms and suits of mail, could stand off the enemy. So they decided to remain and make the best of it. With the labor of the Indians they captured from time to time they proceeded to fortify the island and make it more secure."
Walter gazed at his chum admiringly. "You talk as though you saw it all in front of your eyes," he declared.
Charley did not heed the interruption. "Years went by," he continued, musingly, like one in a dream, "years in which they grew more and more confident of their own power, and learned to despise their red foes. But the Seminoles were only waiting with the patience of their race. Mark the cunning of the savage. There comes a day and night of feasting and rejoicing in the Spaniards' religious calendar. Work and worry is laid aside and they gather in their homes to feast and rejoice. Night comes and as the sun sets the sentries cast a look around. Nothing is in sight. There is nothing to fear. They join the merry-makers, and care and their suits of mail are laid aside, and merriment prevails. The Indians' hour has come. Over the walls swarm a red horde, creeping towards the unsuspecting feasters. One long war-whoop, a shower of arrows, cries of agony, and all is over."
Charley stopped. "I've been talking like a five cent novel," he said, sheepishly.
"I'll bet that is just the way it really happened," his chum declared. "That explains why the fort was empty."
"Perhaps," Charley said, "but here comes Chris and the captain, and we'll have to change the subject."
"I 'spect you-alls don't pay no 'tention 'tall to dis dinner," grumbled Chris. "De fire's all out, mighty nigh."
"We are not good cooks like you, Chris," said Charley soothingly, and the vain little darky grinned at the compliment.
"Golly, I reckon dat's so," he declared pompously, "you chillens sho' don't know nothin' 'bout cookin'. Spect you-alls mighty near starve to death if it warn't for dis nigger. You chillens jes' get out, an' I'll finish gettin' de dinner."
The boys, relieved of the cooking, turned their attention to other tasks. They carried the two canoes into the empty fort and placed them bottom up in one corner. The other goods they piled up in the shade of a tree.
Charley then disappeared but soon came back with a large kettle he had noticed when removing the skeletons. "It's copper," he said, exhibiting it proudly, "with a little cleaning it will be as good as when it was made. We need it for boiling water, for we have got to clean house this afternoon."
While he carried the copper to the spring and scrubbed lustily away with sand to remove the green verdigris with which it was thickly coated, Walter attempted the manufacture of a mop. Selecting a straight piece of the root of a scrub palmetto, which grew in abundance around the wall, he trimmed it with his knife into the desired shape and size. Laying the piece, thus prepared, upon a large stone, he pounded one side of it lustily with a piece of rock. A few minutes sufficed to pound out the pith and leave the harsh fiber exposed.
By the time the two lads had completed their respective tasks, Chris announced that dinner was ready and all fell to with appetites sharpened by the morning's work.
As soon as dinner was finished, the copper kettle was filled with water and placed upon the fire. By the time the water had come to a boil, the party was sufficiently rested to attack the house cleaning.
The building nearest the fort was selected as their future abode, and never did mansion receive a more thorough scouring. Walter plied the brush, while the captain dashed the water about, and Chris wiped the floor dry with armfuls of Spanish moss. Charley, on account of his still lame shoulder, was excused from this labor.
Leaving his companions thus busily employed, Charley took his way to the building that had aroused his curiosity in the morning, the one in which they had found no skeletons.
This building was a trifle larger than its fellows and differed very little from them in external appearance, except that from its roof projected a little tower. It was the inside, however, which had excited our young hunter's curiosity. At one end was a kind of raised platform and the space between it and the entrance was filled with benches of stone. Charley reverently removed his hat ad he entered, for he had guessed the character of the place during his morning visit. It was a chapel that the hardy adventurers of long ago had erected for the worship of their Maker.
Upon the stone altar stood several vessels, likely of gold or other precious metal for they were apparently untouched by the ravages of time. Charley gave them hardly a glance but passed on to the end of the building until he stood beneath the tiny tower.
One glance upwards, and he uttered an exclamation of satisfaction. Directly above his head in the little tower hung a large ship's bell. A part of the mystery of the tolling was solved, but the most puzzling part remained.
Charley sat down on one of the stone benches and fell into a deep study. There was the bell but where was the mysterious ringer? The bell rope had long ago rotted away. The walls had once been plastered and were still too smooth to offer a foothold to the most expert climber. How then to account for the regular nightly tolling? The mystery had in reality deepened instead of lightened.
When Charley at last left the building, he was still puzzled in mind and had decided to say nothing about his discovery to his companions. Chris and the captain would be sure to view the matter in its most supernatural light.
On his return, he found the house scrubbed sweet and clean and the workers taking a rest after their labors. Feeling that he had not performed his just share of the work of the day, Charley took upon himself the carrying in and arranging of their possessions. With these unpacked and arranged, the room looked less bare and much more cozy and home-like.
But Charley viewed their scanty possessions with a trace of dissatisfaction. Two rifles, two shotguns, a half of their ammunition, and a half of their scanty stock of provisions had been lost when the canoe upset. Of their original outfit, the two boys retained only their pistols and ammunition and the tattered clothes they were wearing. The captain and Chris still had their four guns but their clothing was as rent and tattered as the two boys'. Of the provisions there only remained a little sugar, a few pounds of flour, and a small strip of bacon.
"I tell you what it is," said Charley, as he joined his companion outside, "we have got to do some tall hustling the next two days. We have got to lay in a stock of food sufficient to last us for at least a week, and we have got to make some kind of windows and doors for that building, besides, which, we have got to manufacture some kind of clothing for ourselves—mine are almost dropping from me."
"My, what a list of impossibilities!" groaned Walter. "Frankly, I do not feel as though I could do another stroke of work to-day."
"No, we are all too tired for further effort to-day," Charley agreed, "but we must get an early start in the morning. We will get some boughs for beds, have supper, and knock off for the day."
"I know just the stuff we want for beds," Walter declared, "there are lots of the bushes growing just outside the wall."
The bush Walter referred to, proved to be a species of myrtle with small leafy boughs of a delicious, spicy fragrance. It grew so abundantly, that in a few minutes the boys had gathered a large quantity, which they carried back to the building and spread in four great heaps on the floor. Upon these their blankets were spread, and the room took on a cozy, homelike appearance.
Supper was cooked over the camp-fire outside and by the time it was eaten, night had begun to fall. The little party at once repaired to their room. They know that the night air of the great swamp was peculiarly unhealthy. Already they had exposed themselves far too much to its baneful influence.
They stretched out on their soft, fragrant couches and talked cheerily over the events of the day and their present situation. Not since they had left the camp on the point, had the boys felt so bright and hopeful. They were well housed, none were sick, they were all together once more, and even the threatened danger from the convicts did not cause them great uneasiness. They felt confident of their ability now to keep the outlaws at bay until help arrived.
But their content was not to last long, for soon, harsh, and menacing in its nearness, rang out the tolling of the bell.
The captain, brave as the bravest in most any kind of danger, turned a sickly white and sunk to his knees in prayer, while Chris, trembling in every limb, buried his face in the blanket to shut out the awful sounds.
"Come, Walt," whispered Charley, and the two boys stole out into the darkness of the night. A few steps brought them to the chapel, and pistols in hand they circled around it in opposite directions, but their eager eyes caught no sight of moving forms.
"It must be on the inside," declared Charley, as they met near the door. "Let's go in and see."
It took all their courage to venture into that dim, mysterious interior, but the boys never hesitated, but stepped boldly in. Back and forth they paced the grim interior, searching every nook and corner, and found nothing. Not even a sound fell on their strained hearing, save only the strong, steady tolling above their heads.
Charley stood under the little tower and gazed longingly up into its darkness where the bell, under some mysterious power, swayed steadily to and fro.
"I wish I could get up there, I'd tie the thing down," he declared. "If this keeps up, we will have our hands full to keep Chris and the captain on the island."
"Come away, Charley," said Walter, nervously, "this thing is getting positively uncanny. I declare I am beginning to feel a sympathy for Chris' terrors."
The two lads retraced their steps to the hut where they found the captain, in spite of his superstitious fears, preparing to sally out in search of them.
For long the two boys sat trying to argue the captain and Chris out of their superstitious fears. They might as well have tried to argue against fate itself.
"Aye, lads," the captain would say in reply to their logic, "I know spirits seem against reason to shore-staying folks, but sailors know better. Now there was Tom Bowling who took to hearing bells during his watch on deck, an' not two days later, poor old Tom was missing."
"Went crazy and jumped over-board," muttered Charley, but the captain shook his head with the air of a man who had no doubt as to the nature of his friend's fate.
It was not long after the bell ceased tolling that the last of the little party fell into a troubled sleep.
At dawn Charley arose, feeling unrefreshed after his broken rest, lit the camp-fire, started breakfast, and then awakened the others.
"We had better divide the duties for the day," he said, as they dispatched their light breakfast. "The two things most pressing, are to secure more food and make our windows and door bullet-proof. I suggest that we divide into two parties for the day, one to hunt, and the other to keep camp and work on our building. Suppose we call for volunteers for each party."
"I stay an' do de cookin', an' maybe catch some fish for supper," said Chris, promptly.
"I reckon I had better stay with Chris," decided the captain, who had in a measure recovered from his scare of the night. "You lads are nimbler an' better shots, an' consequently, likely to have better luck in the hunting."
This arrangement delighted Charley and Walter who were eager to explore the island. Pistols were oiled, cleaned and carefully examined. Their own guns being at the bottom of the river, the boys had to borrow arms of Chris and the captain.
Walter took Chris' light shotgun while Charley shouldered the heavy rifle belonging to the captain. Thus equipped they were prepared for either small or big game.
Leaving the clearing, the boys plunged into the forest and headed for the interior of the island. Their progress was at first very slow, the forest being almost as tangled and thickly grown as that which they had encountered near the water. As they advanced, however, the trees gradually grew fewer and further apart until, after a half hour's slow traveling, they emerged from the forest into a kind of prairie country, consisting of stretches of flat grassy land broken by clumps of timber.
"This is just the place for game," declared Charley, "this grass seems to be a kind of wild rice, there had ought to be birds here without number."
As he spoke there was a whirl of wings, Walter's shotgun spoke twice, and a brace of plump partridges struck the ground with a thud.
The report of the firearm woke the prairie into life. Hundreds of birds rose from amongst the tall grass. For the next few minutes, Walter was busy with his gun, while Charley with his heavy rifle could only stand idle watching.
"Never mind, my turn will come," he declared. "That little popgun you have will not be any good against big game."
When the frightened birds had at last passed beyond range, the boys gathered up those that had fallen victims; four partridges, three doves, and a full dozen of black and red rice-birds.
"Good," approved Charley, as he surveyed the feathered heap. "Those are all fine eating and will provide us with a couple of dandy meals. The only fault I have to find is that they use up too much ammunition. If we use it up at this rate, we will have none when the outlaws come."