Chapter XXV. The Treasure
 

Lopez staggered back a pace. His rifle fell from his grasp as he tottered backward and lay prostrate beside the spot where also lay the negro that had earlier suffered at his hands.

Wyckoff's desperate aim had been true. The knife had sped straight to its mark and buried its point in Lopez's brain. He was beyond all help. But Wyckoff still struggled frantically.

Tom had been busy meanwhile with the length of line brought from the boat. It had not been intended for such a purpose, but now the boys were glad they had brought it with them.

All with one consent dashed from their position and ran toward the unfortunate outlaw, now nearly frantic. As they approached he looked up at them. Seized with a fit of coughing, he fell partly forward. Then the boys knew from the blood that gushed from his mouth that Lopez's last bullet had found its mark.

Tom, undaunted, prepared to throw his lasso. As he did so Wyckoff again straightened in a mad effort to tear himself from the terrible sands. Then the boys witnessed a curious sight.

It seemed that the depression into which they looked formed a sort of bowl partly full, like a bowl of porridge, with Wyckoff struggling in it at the side nearest their position. As they looked, the contents of the bowl seemed to heave and boil, then turn over and over. Wyckoff started down more rapidly while the boiling sands at the other side seemed to rise.

Tom quickly flung his noose. His aim was distracted, no doubt, by the excitement through which he had just passed. Instead of encircling the unfortunate wretch below, he threw the noose beyond. It fell spread widely on the boiling sands. It was in such a position that Wyckoff could not reach it. He made a despairing effort to grasp the rope and then, as the sands about him were boiling and seething, he sank lower and lower. At last with a shriek he disappeared and the boys saw him no more.

Tom groaned. His effort to save the man who had done so much to bring disaster upon himself and his chums was now beyond his reach. Although Tom had been doing all that he possibly could to help Wyckoff, he still felt keenly the humiliation of his defeat.

Jack, who stood near, laid a consoling hand upon Tom's shoulder. His emotion was equal to that of his comrade. All were awed.

It was Carlos who brought them to attention again.

"Look there," he cried. "Look at that chest."

The boys stared in spellbound amazement at the curious sight.

Exactly in the center of the noose of rope lying now half buried in the boiling sands rose the end of a box or chest. It plainly showed evidence of age. A gasp of astonishment went around.

"Pull in on the line," urged Carlos. "There's your treasure."

Like one in a trance, Tom obediently pulled on the line. The noose tightened about the chest. Tom dragged with all his might but was unable to move the object. He glanced at the others. They seemed unable to move, but gazed with staring eyes at the sight.

"Tail on here, my hearties," cried Tom. "Give us a hand."

Almost instantly the others awoke to the situation and now every hand was grasping the line and all were pulling manfully.

Inch by inch they gained. The chest was dragged slowly through the boiling sands to the pitside, where it was necessary to raise it to firmer ground. The boys dared not go close to the edge for fear of starting the sand caving. Their backs were straining under the burden. Their hands were burning from their grasp on the line.

"Pull!" gasped Tom, throwing every ounce of his weight into the work. "Pull," he gasped again.

The games in which his comrades had indulged hardening their muscles were now becoming of benefit to them. The tugs-of-war were showing their practical value. No similar number of boys of equal weight could have exerted the power that this group did with their trained ability to pull all together and keep pulling all the time.

But even as they pulled and felt victory nearly within their grasp they realized that the sand was mightier than they. Their strength could last but a little while, whereas that of the quicksand was constant. The strain was telling on them. It seemed as if only a few more pounds on the rope would swing the balance in their favor. And that help was near.

Dashing from the clump of palmettos where he had remained, Rowdy came bounding over the intervening space. His fear was now gone and when he saw the boys at the pit he seemed to overcome his terror that had been so apparent at the time of the explosion.

To his canine mind the boys were playing a game that he liked. A tug of war was his pet diversion. Losing no time, Rowdy dashed for his favorite position at the end of the rope.

Seizing the line in his strong teeth he settled back on his haunches and pulled and growled in an ecstasy of glee. His aid was of no small measure. A great mass of active muscle, he lent much to the effort that was being applied to the line.

"Hurrah," cried Tom scarcely above a whisper. "It's coming. Just a little more now and we'll have it. Pull, boys, pull."

The lads needed no urging. Every one was doing his best. And they were rewarded by seeing the end of the chest appear above the rim of the pit. It slid over the mound of sand and settled on a firm spot. Rowdy capered and leaped among the boys who had flung themselves prostrate on the sand. His joy was unlimited.

"Let's get at it, boys," cried Tom. "Bring me an axe and I'll knock it open. I'm the original safe cracker."

"What if we put it into the boat and take it aboard the Fortuna before we meddle with it," suggested Jack. "We can't get anything more out of the pit tonight and I feel like getting away from this place. It seems as if I can feel the ghosts of all the departed Spanish and Indians and others who passed away at this spot during the last seven hundred years. I move we go back."

"Second the motion. It's carried," cried Tom. "Back we go."

The boys lost no time in securing their own skiff and felt no compunction against using the boat brought by Wyckoff and Lopez.

Into the larger of these the chest was loaded. The boys of the Fortuna went along as personal bodyguard with Rowdy to share the honors. Harrison and Carlos with Doright took the smaller boat. In a short time they were again on the west side of the bay and had the lights aboard the Fortuna glowing.

"I guess, Mr. Harrison, we've been rather fortunate after all," began Jack. "It has seemed sometimes as if we were not going to get out of some of our troubles, but they all manage to end somehow. How can we get rid of that libel?"

"I think I can fix that for you," replied Harrison. "I haven't served the papers yet, you know, so if you get the money to the shipyard people early in the morning, I'll hold off a while."

"Thank you," heartily responded the lad. "When we get this cover pried off, we'll hand you a bucket or so of gold for the bill."

As the lads were prying off the cover of the wonderful chest a hail came from the wharf.

"Launch, Ahoy."

"Now what?" petulantly cried Harry. "Always some interruption."

"I think I know that voice," cried Jack. "Ahoy there, Dad."

"Hello, Jack. Have you got anything to eat?"

A hearty laugh followed the question. Jack's father, for it was indeed he, knew the appetites of the Fortuna's crew.

"Sure we have," cried the delighted Jack. "When did you arrive?"

"Just now," declared his father. "Mr. Geyer and I came down to see if you needed any help and have just walked down from the railroad. Your 'bus line," he added with a wink, "is not running."

"Oh, I'm so glad you got here," Jack replied.

"Are we in time?" queried Mr. Stanley.

"No, not in time to be of help when we needed you most," Jack answered; "but Rowdy took your place. Now we're just getting ready to count the money. Want to help?"

"What?" questioned Mr. Stanley. "Surely there was nothing to that story about the buried treasure. Geyer," to his companion, "look at what these boys have unearthed. Isn't that astounding?"

Introductions all round were followed by a hearty lunch of fish, sweet potatoes, canned fruit, corn pone and coffee prepared by Doright, who had been at once assigned to the task upon the return of the treasure hunters.

Upon opening the chest it was found to contain a quantity of gold and other coins, as well as a number of jewels in settings. Mr. Geyer, the attorney, who was versed in those matters, informed the boys that the coins were of great value because of their age and excellent condition. Collectors, he said, would be glad to pay far in excess of their original face or intrinsic value.

The gems were beyond his ability to estimate, although he felt sure they would return a handsome sum.

"How much do you think we ought to get out of it?" Jack asked.

"Well, after I get my share for outfitting the venture," replied Mr. Geyer, "I think there ought to be as much as fifty or sixty thousand dollars--perhaps more."

"Hurrah!" shouted Tom. "That's pretty near ten thousand apiece. That's quite a bit of money."

"You mean fifteen thousand apiece," corrected Charley.

"I mean what I said--ten thousand," declared Tom. "If this crew of pirates lets you and Frank get away without sharing the spoils, I'll never sail with them again; so there!"

"Nor I," declared Jack.

"Nor I," stoutly agreed Harry.

"Nor I," chimed in Arnold. "Rowdy isn't saying a word."

So, laughing and at times half crying, the boys talked over the matter while they did ample justice to the meal Doright had prepared. Jack's father and Mr. Geyer offered to take charge of the recovered treasure, and with Mr. Harrison for a guard they felt safe in taking it to a place of security after daylight.

With the treasure off their minds, and with the outlaws who had attempted their lives out of the way, the boys tumbled into their bunks on the Fortuna and slept the clock around. Their nerves had been at high tension for some days and they welcomed the opportunity to rest and recuperate from the strain.

Carlos was helped to a good position with a lumber company in which Mr. Stanley was interested, while the boys voted to buy Doright a cabin and piece of land whenever he was ready to settle down.

There followed a couple of weeks of uninterrupted pleasure fishing and exploring the islands in the Gulf of Mexico. At length the boys started on their way north by way of the Mississippi River, where the Fortuna and its crew met various interesting adventures.

What happened is told in the succeeding volume of this series, entitled: "Boy Scouts on the Big River; or, the Pilot's Revenge."