Chapter XXIV. Defeated by Greed
 

Loaded with men, a boat was approaching from the westward. Standing in the bow were Wyckoff and Lopez, the two principals in the efforts to drive our friends from that neighborhood.

Although the moonlight rendered outlines indistinct to the extent that it was impossible to see the exact expressions on their faces, the boys could all determine from their tense attitudes that they were intensely wrought up by their mission there.

A warning hand was extended by Wyckoff toward the rowers. One of the negroes had been clumsy with his oar. The noise of the splash evidently grated on Wyckoff's nerves. His very attitude bespoke a nervous energy pent up and on the point of bursting forth.

By his side stood Lopez, his trusty rifle in hand. As they saw the weapon, the boys who had seen him use it in times past knew that his skill with the firearm was marvelous indeed. They knew it would fare ill with anyone upon whom he trained it.

"Wonder why they've brought their gang," cautiously whispered Harry into Jack's ear. "They've been mighty exclusive until now."

"Hush," cautioned Jack in a very low voice. "These others are simply negroes they have picked up somewhere to do the digging. These are not men who might thwart the Wyckoff and Lopez purpose."

"Better be careful about your talking," cautioned Harrison. "If all the story is true it will be necessary to dig the treasure in silence if it is to be recovered at all. Any noise breaks the spell if it occurs before the chest is fully out of its cache."

"We won't make any noise, you can be sure of that," declared Harry. "We've seen that man Lopez shoot. We know how he does it."

Evidently the men approaching the shore had been fully cautioned in regard to the necessity for quiet. The crew sprang out and dragged the craft high and dry on the sands, then removed the shovels.

"They mean business all right," declared Arnold in Harry's ear. "See how Lopez herds those field hands along with that rifle."

"He just poked one fellow in the back with it," answered Harry. "The lad just stumbled a little and Lopez jabbed him in the back. I'll bet that fellow's too scared to dig much."

"Look at the fellow," excitedly whispered Jack. "He's going right to the spot where we located the treasure. He's got the map in his head, all right. He knows just where to dig."

"Gee," shivered Tom, "I'm mighty glad this clump of palmettos here is between us and them. With the bright moonlight they'd see us a mile away. Wouldn't Lopez have a fit if he saw us?"

Luckily Lopez and Wyckoff were too much occupied with their own affairs to investigate the neighborhood for possible spectators. They immediately put the men shoveling sand at a great pace.

"I hope they don't dig it up all at once," declared Tom. "Look at the way they go at it," he cried. "See them spear their shovels into the ground without using their foot at all."

"Hark your loud noise," hoarsely whispered Jack in a warning tone. "You'll have the whole gang down on us if you're not careful."

"I forgot," explained the humbled Tom. "But that's a funny way to dig. Don't you think so, Mr. Harrison?"

"That's the way they dig down in this country of pure sand."

"Well, all I've got to say is that when I dig--"

What Tom said might have been interesting if it had been heard. But just at that instant a shot rang out from the group of workers. The boys stared in amazement horrified at the thought of what might have happened. In an instant their worst fears were confirmed.

Their startled eyes beheld the negroes dragging one of their number from the excavation under the watchful eye and threatening muzzle of Lopez's deadly rifle. One of the unfortunate negroes had thoughtlessly broken his resolve and had spoken. He had paid dearly for his mistake. Under the stern command of the rifle muzzle the others renewed their task, glancing apprehensively at the man behind the grim weapon whose messengers were all messengers of swift and certain death. They were visibly affected.

Instinctively the boys drew their automatics while Harrison possessed himself of his revolver and made ready to use it if necessary in self defense. No one could guess the result should Lopez discover their whereabouts. Their position was now seen to be a most dangerous one, for they lay but a few yards beyond the rim of the excavation in which the men were working. Lopez was opposite.

"If that man ever sees us here," whispered Harry, "we're gone."

"You're right, we're gone," declared Arnold. "That man don't think any more of shooting a man than he did of shooting that big snake. He's absolutely bloodless, I believe."

"Look at Wyckoff down in the excavation walking back and forth and around," Tom said pointing to the figure mentioned.

"He surely isn't going to let anything get past him," agreed Jack. "He walks round and round and round as the men dig."

"And they are digging at a rapid pace, too," Frank put in. "At that rate they ought to get the treasure before long."

"I'm a little afraid," Harrison dissented. "It looks bad."

"What looks bad? The two men may quarrel."

"There's always a possibility of that," agreed Harrison, "but I wasn't thinking of that. It looks to me that the sand will probably be softened by the rising tide. If so, they can't remain in the excavation to dig for the treasure at all. They must quit."

"If that happens, I can see some more dead niggers," Tom asserted. "That man Lopez seems to be itching to shoot someone. If he is foiled in his last desperate attempt to get that treasure, I can see trouble ahead for someone who is near him when it happens."

Wyckoff now came out of the hole to join Lopez on the rim of the crater made by the toiling negroes. Without saying a word he evidently asked Lopez for something to drink, for he made a motion as if drinking from a cup, Lopez without taking his eyes off the workers jerked his head in the direction of the boat.

"Now what?" asked Frank in wonderment. "Is he thirsty?"

"I don't think so," replied Arnold. "I believe he's going after something to stimulate the shovelers. They look as if they were getting a little winded. See them slacken down."

Wyckoff returned shortly carrying a jug. This he passed down to the men in the pit. Eagerly they reached for the jug, draining great draughts of its contents as they paused briefly.

With renewed vigor the work was again taken up.

"If this keeps up," declared Arnold fretfully, "those fellows will have all the coin in a minute and not leave any for us."

"Keep your temper," Jack cautioned. "Something may happen--"

The lad was interrupted by a blinding flash, followed by a roar as if one of the old Spanish cannons had exploded beside them.

A shower of sand fell over the boys concealed behind the clump of palmettos. Instinctively they all drew closer their fellows.

The ground shook beneath them while all around it seemed to be raining sand. As they looked at the spot again they could make out but two figures standing. Wyckoff and Lopez were on opposite sides of the pit. The negroes were nowhere to be seen.

Wyckoff's face was cut and bleeding while Lopez seemed to have had his clothing bodily torn from the upper part of his body.

"What do you know about that?" queried Jack. "What was it?"

"An earthquake," suggested Charley, "or a volcano."

"Volcano nothing," stoutly corrected Arnold. "That was the dynamite that Wyckoff planted on the Fortuna in Pascagoula and Jack stumbled over it and brought it here and we planted it a moment ago."

"I shouldn't wonder if you're right," agreed Harrison. "It must be that one of the negroes struck it just right with his shovel."

"But where are the negroes?" asked Frank.

"I can't see a one. How many were there in the first place?"

"Six," answered Tom. "I counted 'em. One was put out of the way by the villain Lopez. That left five in the pit."

"I wonder where they are now," speculated Harry. "They have gone out of sight anyhow. Maybe they're all killed."

"If they are, I wonder just how much we'll be at fault," Jack mused soberly. "I think we should have warned them that we had put the dynamite there," he added thoughtfully.

His words had a depressing effect upon the whole party. They felt keenly the possible responsibility for the death of the five men who had been striving to earn an honest dollar by hard work. Seeing the effect his expression was having upon his comrades, Jack endeavored to correct it, but the boys were all very sober.

Rowdy, who had been trying to make himself very small indeed, now emerged from his hiding place again to join the watchers.

"I wonder if the explosion has enlarged the hole any," Tom ventured. "If it has it may make the work lots easier for us."

"You speak as if we were going to be next on the program," Arnold laughed quietly. "Don't be too sure. Things may slip."

"Well," disputed Arnold, "suppose that Wyckoff doesn't do as Lopez wants him to do, what then? What's to hinder Lopez shooting Wyckoff and getting the treasure chest himself? Tell me that."

"How does that let us in?" queried Frank.

"Well, if they are down and out, don't we get busy?"

"I suppose so, but I believe this treasure has had enough blood spilled over it now. I'm getting rather scared about it."

"Look there," cried Jack in a tone that was almost audible to the two men at the pit. "It looks as if Wyckoff were going to dig. He's a plucky chap all right. We must give him credit for that."

Wyckoff had searched the vicinity and found a shovel. This he was now preparing to put to use. He was in the pit in another moment and began throwing the sand out. Then he paused!

"That sand's wet," declared Arnold, who had observed closely.

"Tide's away up and probably has seeped through the little sand intervening," declared Harrison. "I expected it."

"Why, look at him," hoarsely urged Frank. "He seems to be floundering about. Can it be he's in trouble?"

"It would look that way," declared Tom. "I wonder why Lopez don't come to his rescue instead of standing there with his rifle."

"He isn't in any danger," declared Arnold. "He's just wading around in the soft sand that was loosened by the explosion."

"Don't you believe it," urged Tom rising to his feet. "I believe the man's in serious trouble. It looks like quicksand."

"If Lopez would let us, I'd be in favor of helping him."

"I'll tell you what I'll do," volunteered Tom. "I'll make a running noose in this line I brought along. You boys cover Lopez with your guns and I'll go as close as I can and lasso Wyckoff. We can all get hold of the line then and maybe we'll be able to pull him out. It wouldn't be right to leave him there to go down."

At that moment Wyckoff seemed to realize his danger. He was, indeed, caught in the treacherous quicksand. No doubt the sand had been loosened by the explosion to such an extent that although quiet heretofore, it was now "quick," and was working to draw into its depths any object unfortunate enough to be in its grasp.

Like a thing of life the sand sucked and pulled at Wyckoff's feet. He felt himself being drawn into the terrible danger.

"Help. Help," he cried, flinging his arms toward the firmer ground. "Pete, give me a hand! I'm going down."

For answer Lopez flung his rifle up. A spurt of flame was his answer. Horrified, the boys expected to see Wyckoff drop. To their amazement Lopez had missed. Then they saw Wyckoff throw his knife straight at Lopez. It struck the man in the forehead.