Chapter XX. The Boys Make a Discovery
 

The boys had landed at a spot that was particularly inviting in appearance, and they stopped for several minutes to take in the natural beauty surrounding them. There were tall and stately palms, backed up by other trees, trailing vines of great length, and numerous gorgeous flowers. A sweet scent filled the air, and from the woods in the center of the isle came the song of tropical birds.

"What a fine camping place!" murmured Sam. "A fellow could spend several weeks here and have lots of fun, bathing and boating, and hunting birds, and fishing," and his brothers agreed with him.

Yet the beauty of Treasure Isle was soon forgotten in their anxiety to locate the cave. They had a general idea that it was in the center of the horseshoe curve, and that center was quite a distance from where they had been brought ashore.

"The best we can do is to tramp along the water's edge," said Dick. "Then when we reach the center we can go inland."

"We haven't over an hour," replied his youngest brother. "By that time it will be too dark to do much more. And we'll have to find some suitable place to camp for the night."

"Oh, we can camp anywhere," cried Tom. "It's good enough--just for one night."

They began to trudge along the edge of the horseshoe curve, over smooth sand. But this did not last, and presently they came to a muddy flat and went down to their ankles. Dick was ahead and he cried to the others.

"Stop! It's not fit to walk here!"

"Why, it's like a bog!" declared Sam, after testing it.

"We'll have to go inland a distance," said Tom. "Come on," and he turned back and struck out for the palms and bushes beyond.

It was then that the Rover boys began to realize what was before them. Scarcely had they penetrated the interior for fifty yards when they found themselves in a perfect network of trailing vines. Then, after having pulled and cut their way through for fifty yards more, they came to a spot that was rocky and covered with a tangle of thorny bushes.

"Wow!" ejaculated Tom, after scratching his hand and his leg. "This is something prime, I must confess!"

"What I call hunting a treasure with a vengeance," added Dick, dryly.

"I move we go back," came from Sam. "We seem to be stuck in more ways than one."

"Perhaps it is better traveling just beyond," declared Dick. "I am not going to turn back just yet anyway."

He took the lead, breaking down the thorny bushes as best he could, and Sam and Tom followed closely in his footsteps. It was rather dark among the bushes and almost before the three knew it they had fallen headlong into a hollow.

"Well, I never!"

"This is coming down in a hurry!"

"Is this the treasure cave?"

Such were the exclamations of the three lads as they picked themselves up out of the dirt, which, fortunately for them, was soft and yielding. Nobody had been hurt, for which they were thankful.

The hollow was about fifty feet in diameter and half that depth in the center. On the opposite side were more bushes and rocks, and then a thicket of tall trees of a variety that was strange to them.

"This is what I call hard work," observed Tom, as they began to fight their way along again. "I don't know but what we would have done as well to have waited until morning."

"Don't croak, Tom," said Sam.

"Oh, I am not croaking, but this is no fun, let me tell you that."

All of the boys were panting from their exertions, and soon they had to call a halt to get their breath. It was now growing dark rapidly, for in the tropics there is little of what we know as twilight.

"We certainly can't do much more in this darkness," said Dick at last. "I must confess I thought walking in the direction of the cave would be an easy matter."

"Well, what's to do next?" questioned Sam, gazing around in perplexity.

This was no easy question to answer. As if by magic darkness had settled all around them, shutting out the sight of objects less than a hundred yards away. To go forward was all but impossible, and whether or not they could get back to where they had come from was a serious problem.

"If we can't get back we'll have to camp right here," said Dick.

But they did not want to stay in such a thicket and so they pushed on a little further, until they reached a slight rise of ground. Then Dick, who was in advance as before, uttered a cry of surprise:

"A trail! I wonder where it leads to?"

He was right, a well defined trail or footpath lay before them, running between the brushwood and palms and around the rocks. It did not look as if it had been used lately, but it was tolerably clear of any growth.

This was something the Rover boys had not counted on, for Bahama Bill had never spoken of any trail in his descriptions of the isle. They gazed at the path with curiosity. Tom was the first to speak.

"Shall we follow it?" he asked.

"Might as well," answered Sam. "It's better than scratching yourself and tearing your clothing in those thorn bushes."

The boys took to the trail and passed along for a distance of quarter of a mile or more. It wound in and out around the rocks and trees and had evidently been made by some natives bringing out wild fruits and the like from the forest.

"It doesn't seem to be leading us to anywhere," was Dick's comment. "I don't know whether to go on or not."

Nevertheless, they kept on, until they came to a sharp turn around a series of rocks. As they, moved ahead they suddenly saw a glare of light cross the rocks and then disappear.

"What was that?" asked Sam, somewhat startled.

"A light," answered Dick.

"I know. But where did it come from?"

"It was like the flash of a bicycle gas lamp," said Tom.

"There are no bicycles on this trail," said Dick.

"I know that, too, Dick. But it was like that kind of a lamp."

Just then the flash of light reappeared, and now they saw it came from a point on the trail ahead of them. They listened intently and heard somebody approaching.

"Several men are coming!" whispered Dick.

"Not from our yacht?" said Tom.

"I don't think so."

"Can they be from the Josephine?" asked Sam.

"That remains to be seen."

"If they are from the Josephine what shall we do?"

"I think the best thing we can do is to keep out of sight and watch them."

"But they may locate the cave and take the treasure away," said Tom.

"We have got to run that risk unless we want to fight them."

"Oh, if only we could get our crowd here to help us!" murmured Sam.

"We may be mistaken and they may be strangers to us. Come, let us hide."

Losing no time, the three Rover boys stepped into the bushes beside the trail. As they did so the other party came closer, and the lads saw that they carried not only an acetylene gas lamp, but also a ship's lantern and several other things. The party was made up of Sid Merrick, Tad Sobber, Cuffer and Shelley.

"It's mighty rough walking here," they heard Tad Sobber complain. "I've got a thorn right through my shoe. Wait till I pull it out, will you?" And he came to a halt not over ten yards from where the Rover boys were hidden.

"You didn't have to come, Tad," said his uncle, somewhat harshly. "I told you to suit yourself."

"Oh, I want to see that treasure cave as well as you do," answered Sobber.

"I'd like to know if this is the right trail or not," came from Shelley. "You ought to have brought that Spaniard along, to make sure."

"Doranez is no good!" growled Sid Merrick who was by no means in the best of humor. "He likes his bottle too well. If he would only keep sober it would be different."

"Why don't you take his liquor from him?" asked Cuffer. "I'd do it quick enough if I was running this thing."

"He says he won't tell us a thing more if we cut off his grog. He is getting mighty ugly."

"Maybe he wants to sell out to those Rovers," suggested Shelley.

"He wouldn't dare to do that--I know too much about him," answered Sid Merrick. "No, it's because he wants too big a share of the treasure."

"Do you suppose the fellows on the steam yacht have landed here yet?" asked Tad, as he prepared to go on.

"I don't know. They are laying to outside of the reef. I reckon they don't know anything of the landing on the other side of the island," answered his uncle. "Come on, we haven't any time to waste if we want to head them off. I didn't dream they'd get here so quickly."

"I guess that fellow Wingate was no good," came from Cuffer. "He didn't delay the steam yacht in the least."

"Maybe he got caught at his funny work," suggested Shelley, hitting the nail directly on the head, as the reader already knows.

Casting the light of the acetylene gas lamp ahead of them, the party from the Josephine moved on, directly past the spot where the Rovers were in hiding. The boys hardly dared to breathe for fear of discovery. They stood stock still until the others were all but out of sight.

"This is interesting," murmured Tom. "They must have landed on the other side of the island."

"Yes, and Merrick hired that Walt Wingate to play us foul!" cried Sam. "What shall we do next, Dick?" he continued anxiously. "They act as if they expect to get that treasure to night!"

"I don't know what to do exactly," answered Dick. "But one thing is certain--we must follow them up and prevent their getting hold of that treasure if we possibly can!"