Chapter XXII. The Secret of the Island Cave.
 

It is now time that we go back to the Rocket and see how Dick and those with him were faring.

At the announcement that a schooner looking like the Peacock was in sight he ran on deck with all speed, and caught up a glass belonging to the owner of the steam tug.

"It's the Peacock, sure," he cried.

"See anything o' that Captain Langless or them Baxters?" asked Luke Peterson.

"I see somebody, but we are too far off to make out their faces."

The order was passed to the engineer of the tug, and the speed of the craft was materially increased.

But before they could come up to the schooner she disappeared around a headland of the island.

"We must run out a bit," said Captain Parsons. "There is a nasty reef here, and if we aint careful we'll get aground."

"Where do you suppose the Peacock has gone?" asked Dick.

"Into one of the bays, most likely."

"Can we follow her?"

"Of coarse. The tug doesn't draw any more water than the schooner, if as much."

"Perhaps we had better see how the land lays before we approach too close," suggested Peterson. "They may be prepared to fight us off."

"That is true," said Dick. "Perhaps we can slip into another bay close by."

So it was arranged, and they sped on their way, passing the bay in which the Peacock lay.

Near the island was a quantity of driftwood, and they had just gotten out of sight of the bay when there was a sudden grinding and crashing sound on board of the tug, and the engineer shut off the steam power.

"A breakdown!" exclaimed the captain, and so it proved. The screw had become entangled in the limb of a tree, and sufficient damage had been done to render the screw useless.

This was indeed an unlooked-for accident, and Dick wondered what they had best do.

"We can't use the screw at all?" he asked of the engineer, after an examination.

"Not until I have had a chance to repair it."

"And how long will the repairs take?"

"Can't tell till I get at work. Maybe an hour or two, maybe half a day."

This was dismaying information, and Dick held a consultation with Larry Colby and Luke.

"I know what I'd do," said Larry. "I'd have the captain of the tug land me at some point above here, and then I'd watch the Peacock from behind some bushes on shore."

This was considered good advice, and Dick agreed to act upon it. He spoke to Parsons, and a small boat was put out, and Dick, Larry, and Peterson were rowed to land.

"Now what will you do with the tug?" asked the eldest Rover.

"We'll haul her in to a safe spot," answered Parsons. "I don't believe those repairs will take over a couple of hours. Then we'll be at your service again."

Once on land Dick led the way into the woods, moving in the direction of the bay where he had last seen the Peacock.

He was armed, and so were his companions, but they wished, if possible, to avoid all trouble.

They had landed at a spot where the rocks were numerous and the ground uncertain, and they had not proceeded far when Luke Peterson called a halt.

"We want to be careful here," he said. "This island is full of caves and pitfalls and, before you know it, you'll break a leg."

"It is certainly an ideal hiding place," returned Larry. "Hi, Dick! what's that?"

"What's what?"

"I thought I saw somebody in the brush yonder."

Dick shook his head.

"I saw nothing."

"Neither did I," put in the lumberman. "Who did it look like?"

"Perhaps I was mistaken and it was a bird flitting through the brush. Come on."

Larry plunged ahead and Dick followed.

Both had hardly taken a dozen steps when each gave a yell.

"What's up now?" cried Peterson, and came after them at a bound.

Then all tried to scramble back.

It was too late. They had struck a tiny water-course between the rocks. And now the very bottom of it seemed to drop out, and they sank down and down into almost utter darkness.

"We are lost!" spluttered Dick, but it is doubtful if either of his companions heard him.

For the minute after Dick was so dazed and bewildered that he said nothing more. He clutched at rocks, dirt, and tree roots, but all gave way at his touch.

At last he found himself flat on his back on a heap of dead leaves and moss. Partly across him lay Larry, while Peterson was several feet away. Around the three lay dirt and bushes and several good-sized stones. It was lucky the stones had not come down on top of them, otherwise one or another might have been killed.

"Gosh, what a tumble!" ejaculated Peterson, when he could speak. "I told ye to be careful. This island is like a reg'lar honeycomb fer holes."

"Oh, my foot!" gasped Larry, as he tried to get up.

"That was a tumble and no mistake," said Dick. "What's the matter with your foot, Larry?"

"I don't know, excepting I must have sprained my ankle," was the answer. "Oh!" And Larry gave a loud groan.

Forgetful of their situation, Dick and the lumberman bent over Larry and helped him to get off his shoe and sock. His ankle was beginning to swell and turn red, and he had sprained it beyond a doubt.

The water was coming into the opening from the little stream overhead, and Dick readily procured a hatful of the fluid and the ankle was bathed with this. After this it was bound up, and Larry said it felt somewhat better.

"But I can't walk very far on it," he continued, and then added, with a sorry smile, "I am laid up, just as the Rocket is!"

"The question is, now we are down at the bottom of this hole, how are we going to get out?" said Dick to Peterson.

"We'll have to get out some way," was the unsatisfactory response. "See, the water is coming in faster than ever."

The lumberman was right, the water had been running in a tiny stream not larger than a child's wrist; now it was pouring in steadily like a cataract. Soon the bottom of the hole had formed a pool several inches deep.

"Wait till it fills up and then swim out," suggested Larry.

"No, thanks," returned Dick. "We might be drowned by that operation."

The hole was irregular in shape, about ten feet in diameter and fully twenty feet deep. What had caused the sudden sinking was a mystery until it was solved by the water in the pool suddenly dropping away into another hole still deeper. Then of a sudden the trio went down again, this time at an angle, to find themselves in a good-sized cave, where all was dark and uncertain.

The tumble had wrenched Larry's ankle still more, and the youth could not suppress his groans of pain.

As soon as he was able Peterson leaped up, struck a match, and lit some brushwood which happened to be near and which the water had not yet touched.

By this light Larry's ankle was again attended to and bound up in a couple of handkerchiefs.

"If we keep on we'll get to the center of the earth," remarked Dick, as he gazed around curiously. "Where do you suppose we are now?"

"In one of the island caves," answered Peterson. "I told you the place was full of them. That's the reason the smugglers used to hold out here."

"Perhaps we'll come across some of their treasures."

At this Peterson shook his head. "Not likely. When the last of the smugglers was arrested the government detectives searched the island thoroughly and gathered in all to be found."

"I see. Well, how are we to get out, now we are down here?"

"We might climb back, Rover, the way we came, but that is dangerous on account of the water. I rather think we'll do better to look for the regular opening to the cave, if there is any."

The matter was talked over for several minutes, and it was decided that Dick and Peterson should investigate, while Larry remained by the fire, keeping it as bright as possible and resting his sore ankle.

At a short distance ahead the cave branched into two parts, and coming to the forks, Dick took the right while Peterson moved to the left. Dick carried a torch, which he held overhead, and likewise a pistol, in case any snake or wild animal should attack him.

The youth had not proceeded far before he came upon signs which showed that the cave at one time had been inhabited by human beings. First he espied a part of an old bag, then a weather-beaten sailor's cap, and soon after a rusty pistol, falling apart for the want of care.

"This must have been a smugglers' retreat sure," he murmured to himself. "My, if I should stumble across a box of gold!"

He hurried forward and presently reached a spot where the cave broadened out into a round chamber. Here there were a rude table and several benches, all ready to fall apart from decay.

With quick steps he approached the table, for he had seen something lying upon it--something which made him start and give a cry of wonder.

In the center of the table was a heap of silver dollars, and beside this was a land map, drawn by hand. On the map lay a rusty dagger and a human skull!