Chapter XVII. A Cave and a Snake.
 

"Now we are in for it, Sam. They won't give us a second chance to escape."

A groan was the answer, coming from out of the darkness of the hold of the Peacock. Sam was too much stunned and bruised to reply to the words from his brother.

The two boys had been hustled on board of the schooner with scant ceremony, and now they found themselves bound and handcuffed, so that it was next to impossible for either of them to move. Hour after hour had passed, yet nobody had come near them.

"I reckon they are going to starve us to death for what we did," went on Tom, after a long pause.

"If only I had a drink of water," came at last from his younger brother. "My mouth is as dry as a chip, and I seem to have a regular fever."

"Make the best of it, Sam," returned Tom soothingly. "This state of things can't last forever. If they--Oh!"

The schooner had suddenly tacked in the strong wind, and the bowling over of the empty craft had caused Tom to take a long roll. He struck up against his brother, and the pair went sliding to the end of the hold, to hit a jug of water which had been left there in the darkness.

"Hurrah, some water!" cried Tom, as some of the fluid splashed over his hand. But, alas! how were they to get at what was left of the contents of the jug, with their hands tied behind them?

But time was no object, and at last they solved the problem. At first Tom backed up to the jug and held it, though clumsily, for Sam to drink, and then the youngest Rover did the same for his brother. The water was warm and somewhat stale, yet both could remember nothing which had ever tasted sweeter to them. They drank about half of what the jug contained, then set the rest carefully away for future use.

The Peacock was bowling along at a speed of seven or eight knots an hour, and the creaking of the blocks attested the fact that Captain Langless was making every effort to reach his destination as soon as possible.

Once the boys heard somebody at the forward hatchway, and presently the hatch was lifted for a few inches.

"Hope you are enjoying yourselves down there," came in the sarcastic tones of Dan Baxter. To this they made no answer, and the hatch was closed as quickly as it had been opened.

"The brute," muttered Tom. "I'd give a good deal to be able to punch his nose!"

"He evidently thinks himself on top to stay," came from Sam, who had propped himself up against an empty cask. "Oh, if only we knew what had become of Dick!" he went on.

"Dick must have escaped. I don't see how it could be otherwise."

"But if he did, why didn't he notify the authorities?"

"The Peacock must have given the river police the slip; that's the only answer I can make, Sam."

"But they could have telegraphed to different points."

"Well, I can't make it out, and we'll have to take what comes."

"Where do you suppose we are bound?"

"I haven't the least idea."

Hour after hour went by, and still nobody came to them. It did, indeed, look as if they were to be starved to death. But just as Sam was almost fainting for the want of food, the door to the cabin passageway was flung open, and Captain Langless appeared with a lantern, followed by Arnold Baxter, who carried a tray containing a plate of bread and two bowls of beef stew.

"Hungry, I'll wager," said the captain laconically. All the pleasantness he had previously exhibited had vanished.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves to let us starve so long," replied Tom, who never hesitated to speak his mind.

"Hi! don't talk that way, or you shall have nothing," cried Arnold Baxter. "We are masters, and you must understand it so."

The captain set down the lantern and released the right hand of each of the prisoners. Then the tray was set upon an upturned box, and they were told to eat what they wanted, the captain and Arnold Baxter sitting down to watch them.

There was no use to "stand upon then dignity," as Tom afterward expressed it, so they fell to without protest, and it must be confessed that the stew was just what their stomachs, in that weakened state, needed. It did not take long to get away with the larger portion of the bread and all of what the bowls contained.

"You can thank your stars that you got meal," said Arnold Baxter. "You don't deserve it."

"According to you, I suppose we don't deserve anything but abuse," replied Tom. "But, never mind, Arnold Baxter; remember the old saying, 'He laughs best who laughs last.'"

"I'm not here to listen to your back talk," growled Arnold Baxter. "Come, captain, let us be going," and he arose.

"You've brought this treatment on yourselves," said the captain, with a shrewd look into the boys' faces. "I was of a mind to treat you kindly before. You know that."

"Come," insisted Arnold Baxter, and caught the captain by the arm. "Don't waste words on them. There will be time enough to talk when we reach the island." And then the two walked off, closing and locking the passageway door after them.

"The island?" repeated Sam. "Then they intend to take us to some lonely island, Tom!"

"I wouldn't be surprised. I've noticed by the shafts of light coming through the cracks overhead that we are sailing northward. We must be in Lake Huron by this time."

"One satisfaction, they left our right hands free," continued the youngest Rover. "And I must say that stew just touched the spot."

Again the hours drifted slowly by. The boys had really lost all track of time. They dozed off and did not awaken until some time later. Whether they had slept through a night or not they did not know.

Presently they heard the sails being lowered and an anchor go overboard. Then a boat put off from the Peacock, and for a while all became silent.

"We must be close to some landing," was Tom's comment. "Perhaps it's the island old Baxter mentioned."

Another half hour slipped by. Then the door to the cabin was opened, and both Baxters, Captain Langless, and the mate of the schooner appeared.

"Get up," ordered the captain, and when they arose he saw to it that their lower limbs were released, but that their hands were bound more tightly behind them than ever.

"We are going ashore," said Arnold Baxter, "Remember we want no treachery nor any attempt to run away. If you try either, somebody will get shot."

With this caution they were marched into the cabin and then on deck. At first the strong light blinded them, but soon they became accustomed to this, and made out a small bay just ahead, surrounded by cedar trees and various bushes. Back of the trees was a hill, and off to the southward a rocky elevation ending in a needle-like point. It was this elevation which gave to the island the name of Needle Point. By the Indians of days gone by the island was called Arrow Head.

A rowboat was in waiting beside the Peacock, and into this the prisoners were placed. The captain of the schooner and the Baxters also went along, and soon the rowboat had passed over the waters of the little bay and grounded on a bit of shelving beach.

"Now we'll go ashore," said Captain Langless, and glad enough for the change, Tom and Sam leaped upon the beach. The others followed, and tying up the boat, the master of the Peacock led the way through the trees and brush to the hill previously mentioned. Here there was a slight path, winding in and out among a series of rocks.

"Where are you going to take us?" said Tom.

"You'll find out soon enough," returned Arnold Baxter. "March."

"Supposing I refuse?"

"We'll knock you down and drag you along," put in Dan Baxter, anxious to say something.

"You had better come along quietly," said Captain Langless. "To kick will only make you worse off."

The march was resumed, and now they dove straight into the interior of the island, which was about a mile and a half long and half as wide. At some points the path was choked with weeds and trailing vines, and they progressed with difficulty.

It must be admitted that Tom and Sam were very uneasy. They had felt that the authorities might follow the Peacock, but how would anybody ever discover them in such a lonely place as this? But there was no help for it, and on they went until Captain Langless called a sudden halt.

They had gained a cliff running out from one end of the hill. The rocks arose in a sheer wall, thirty or more feet in height. At the base were a spring and a small pool of water. To the left of the spring was a cave-like opening, partly choked with brushwood.

"Here we are," said the captain. "Watch them."

He moved toward the opening and soon had a portion of the brushwood torn aside. Then he lit a lantern he had brought along and disappeared into the opening.

He had scarcely passed from view when he let out a yell of fright.

"A snake! Look out for him!"

The words just reached the ears of Sam and Tom when the reptile appeared. He was all of five feet long and as thick as a man's wrist.

"A snake!" screamed Dan Baxter, and took to his heels without waiting to see what the creature might do.

Arnold Baxter was less frightened, and snatching a pistol from his pocket, he took hasty aim and fired. But his aim was poor, and the bullet flew wide of its mark.

The snake was a dangerous one, and very much shot, and came straight for Tom and Sam. An instant later the savage reptile was coiling itself around the youngest Rover's left leg!