Chapter XXIII. A Reply in the Dark
 

The young inventor looked out of the wireless shack. Down on the beach he saw the little band of castaways. They were gathered in a group about Mr. Jenks, who seemed to be talking earnestly to them. The two ladies were over near the small building that served as a kitchen.

"More food supplies needed, eh?" mused Tom. "Well, I don't know where any more is to come from. We've stripped the Whizzer bare." He glanced toward what remained of the airship. "I guess we'll have to go on short rations, until help comes," and, wondering what the group of men could be talking about, Tom resumed his clicking out of his wireless message.

He continued to send it into space for several minutes after ten o'clock, the hour at which he usually stopped for the morning, for he thought there might be a possible chance that the electrical impulses would be picked up by some vessel far out at sea, or by some station operator who could send help.

But there came no answering clicks to the "E. I." station--to Earthquake Island--and, after a little longer working of the key, Tom shut down the dynamo, and joined the group on the beach.

"I tell you it's our only chance," Mr. Jenks was saying. "I must get off this island, and that's the only way we can do it. I have large interests at stake. If we wait for a reply to this wireless message we may all be killed, though I appreciate that Mr. Swift is doing his best to aid us. But it is hopeless!"

"What do you think about it, Tom?" asked Mr. Damon, turning to the young inventor.

"Think about what?"

"Why Mr. Jenks has just proposed that we build a big raft, and launch it. He thinks we should leave the island."

"It might be a good idea," agreed the lad, as he thought of the scant food supply. "Of course, I can't say when a reply will be received to my calls for aid, and it is best to be prepared."

"Especially as the island may sink any minute," added Mr. Parker. "If it does, even a raft will be little good, as it may be swamped in the vortex. I think it would be a good plan to make one, then anchor it some distance out from the island. Then we can make a small raft, and paddle out to the big one in a hurry if need be."

"Yes, that's a good idea, too," conceded Tom.

"And we must stock it well with provisions," said Mr. Damon. "Put plenty of water and food aboard."

"We can't," spoke Tom, quietly.

"Why not?"

"Because we haven't plenty of provisions. That's what I came down to speak about," and the lad related what Mrs. Nestor had said.

"Then there is but one thing to do," declared Mr. Fenwick.

"What?" asked Captain Mentor.

"We must go on half rations, or quarter rations, if need be. That will make our supply last longer. And another thing--we must not let the women folks know. Just pretend that we're not hungry, but take only a quarter, or at most, not more than a half of what we have been in the habit of taking. There is plenty of water, thank goodness, and we may be able to live until help comes."

"Then shall we build the raft?" asked Mr. Hosbrook.

It was decided that this would be a good plan, and they started it that same day. Trees were felled, with axes and saws that had been aboard the Whizzer, and bound together, in rude fashion, with strong trailing vines from the forest. A smaller raft, as a sort of ferry, was also made.

This occupied them all that day, and part of the next. In the meanwhile, Tom continued to flash out his appeals for help, but no answers came. The men cut down their rations, and when the two ladies joked them on their lack of appetite, they said nothing. Tom was glad that Mrs. Nestor did not renew her request to him to get out the reserve food supply from what remained in the wreck of the airship. Perhaps Mr. Nestor had hinted to her the real situation.

The large raft was towed out into a quiet bay of the island, and anchored there by means of a heavy rock, attached to a rope. On board were put cans of water, vhich were lashed fast, but no food could be spared to stock the rude craft. All the castaways could depend on, was to take with them, in the event of the island beginning to sink, what rations they had left when the final shock should come.

This done, they could only wait, and weary was that waiting. Tom kept faithfully to his schedule, and his ear ached from the constant pressure of the telephone receiver. He heard message after message flash through space, and click on his instrument, but none of them was in answer to his. On his face there came a grim and hopeless look.

One afternoon, a week following the erection of the wireless station, Mate Fordam came upon a number of turtles. He caught some, by turning them over on their backs, and also located a number of nests of eggs under the warm sands.

"This will be something to eat," he said, joyfully, and indeed the turtles formed a welcome food supply. Some fish were caught, and some clams were cast up by the tide, all of which eked out the scanty food supply that remained. The two ladies suspected the truth now and they, too, cut down their allowance.

Tom, who had been sitting with the men in their sleeping shack, that evening, rose, as the hour of ten approached. It was time to send out the last message of the night, and then he would lie down on an improvised couch, with the telephone receiver clamped to his ear, to wait, in the silence of the darkness, for the message saying that help was on the way.

"Well, are you off?" asked Mr. Damon, kindly. "I wish some of us could relieve you, Tom."

"Oh, I don't mind it," answered the lad "Perhaps the message may come to-night."

Hardly had he spoken than there sounded the ominous rumble and shaking that presaged another earthquake. The shack rocked, and threatened to come down about their heads.

"We must be doomed!" cried Mr. Parker. "The island is about to sink! Make for the raft!"

"Wait and see how bad it is," counseled Mr. Hosbrook. "It may be only a slight shock."

Indeed, as he spoke, the trembling of the island ceased, and there was silence. The two ladies, who had retired to their own private shack, ran out screaming, and Mr. Anderson and Mr. Nestor hastened over to be with their wives.

"I guess it's passed over," spoke Mr. Fenwick.

An instant later there came another tremor, but it was not like that of an earthquake shock. It was more like the rumble and vibration of an approaching train.

"Look!" cried Tom, pointing to the left. Their gaze went in that direction, and, under the light of a full moon they saw, sliding into the sea, a great portion of one of the rocky hills.

"A landslide!" cried Captain Mentor. "The island is slowly breaking up."

"It confirms my theory!" said Mr. Parker, almost in triumph.

"Forget your theory for a while, Parker, please," begged Mr. Hosbrook. "We're lucky to have left a place on which to stand! Oh, when will we be rescued?" he asked hopelessly.

The worst seemed to be over at least for the present, and, learning that the two ladies were quieted, Tom started up the hill to his wireless station. Mr. Damon and Mr. Fenwick went with him, to aid in starting the motor and dynamo. Then, after the message had been clicked out as usual Tom would begin his weary waiting.

They found that the earthquake shock had slightly disturbed the apparatus, and it took them half an hour to adjust it. As there had been a delay on account of the landslide, it was eleven o'clock before Tom began sending out any flashes, and he kept it up until midnight. But there came no replies, so he shut off the power, and prepared to get a little rest.

"It looks pretty hopeless; doesn't it?" said Mr. Fenwick, as he and Mr. Damon were on their way back to the sleeping shack.

"Yes, it does. Our signal hasn't been seen, no ships have passed this way, and our wireless appeal isn't answered. It does look hopeless but, do you know, I haven't given up yet."

"Why not?"

"Because I have faith in Tom Swift's luck!" declared the eccentric man. "If you had been with him as much as I have, up in the air, and under the water, and had seen the tight places he has gotten out of, you'd feel the same, too!"

"Perhaps, but here there doesn't seem to be anything to do. It all depends on some one else."

"That's all right. You leave it to Tom. He'll get an answer yet, you see if he doesn't."

It was an hour past midnight. Tom tossed uneasily on the hard bed in the wireless shack. The telephone receiver on his ear hurt him, and he could not sleep.

"I may as well sit up for a while," he told himself, and he arose. In the dimness of the shack he could see the outlines of the dynamo and the motor.

"Guess I'll start her up, and send out some calls," he murmured. "I might just happen to catch some ship operator who is up late. I'll try it."

The young inventor started the motor, and soon the dynamo was purring away. He tested the wireless apparatus. It shot out great long sparks, which snapped viciously through the air. Then, in the silence of the night, Tom clicked off his call for help for the castaways of Earthquake Island.

For half an hour he sent it away into space, none of the others in their shacks below him, awakening. Then Tom, having worked off his restless fit, was about to return to bed.

But what was this? What was that clicking in the telephone receiver at his ear? He listened. It was not a jumble of dots and dashes, conveying through space a message that meant nothing to him. No! It was his own call that was answered. The call of his station--"E. I."--Earthquake Island!

"Where are you? What's wanted?"

That was the message that was clicked to Tom from somewhere in the great void.

"I get your message 'E. I.' What's wanted? Do I hear you right? Repeat." Tom heard those questions in the silence of the night.

With trembling fingers Tom pressed his own key. Out into the darkness went his call for help.

"We are on Earthquake Island." He gave the longitude and latitude. "Come quickly or we will be engulfed in the sea! We are castaways from the yacht 'Resolute,' and the airship 'Whizzer.' Can you save us?"

Came then this query:

"What's that about airship?"

"Never mind airship," clicked Tom. "Send help quickly! Who are you?"

The answer flashed to him through space:

"Steamship 'Cambaranian' from Rio de Janeiro to New York. Just caught your message. Thought it a fake."

"No fake," Tom sent back. "Help us quickly! How soon can you come?"

There was a wait, and the wireless operator clicked to Tom that he had called the captain. Then came the report:

"We will be there within twenty-four hours. Keep in communication with us."

"You bet I Will," flashed back Tom, his heart beating joyously, and then he let out a great shout. "We are saved! We are saved! My wireless message is answered! A steamer is on her way to rescue us!"

He rushed from the shack, calling to the others.

"What's that?" demanded Mr. Hosbrook.

Tom briefly told of how the message had come to him in the night.

"Tell them to hurry," begged the rich yacht owner. "Say that I will give twenty thousand dollars reward if we are taken off!"

"And I'll do the same," cried Mr. Jenks. "I must get to the place where--" Then he seemed to recollect himself, and stopped suddenly. "Tell them to hurry," he begged Tom. The whole crowd of castaways, save the women, were gathered about the wireless shack.

"They'll need to hurry," spoke Mr. Parker, the gloomy scientist. "The island may sink before morning!"

Mr. Hosbrook and the others glared at him, but he seemed to take delight in his prediction.

Suddenly the wireless instruments hummed.

"Another message," whispered Tom. He listened.

"The 'Cambaranian' will rush here with all speed," he announced, and not a heart there on that lonely and desolate island but sent up a prayer of thankfulness.