Chapter XXII. Prisoners in the Forest
 

Dick was the first to go on guard and during the initial hour of his vigil practically nothing came to disturb him. He heard the occasional cry of the nightbirds and the booming of the surf on the reefs and the shore of the isle, and saw numerous fireflies flit to and fro, and that was all.

"I don't believe they'll come back," he murmured to himself. "Like as not they are afraid to advance on the trail and also afraid to trust themselves to this jungle in the darkness."

Dick had found some wild fruit growing close at hand and he began to sample this. But it was bitter, and he feared to eat much, thinking it might make him sick. Then, to keep awake, for he felt sleepy because of his long tramp, he took out his knife and began to cut his initials on a stately palm growing beside the temporary camp.

Dick had just finished one letter and was starting the next when of a sudden he found himself caught from behind. His arms were pinned to his side, his pistol wrenched from his grasp, and a hand that was not overly clean was clapped over his mouth.

"Not a sound, Rover, if you know when you are well off!" said a voice into his ear.

Despite this warning the lad would have yelled to his brothers, but he found this impossible. He had been attacked by Merrick and Shelley, and Cuffer stood nearby, ready with a stick, to crack him over the head should he show fight. The attack had come in the dark, the gas lamp and the lantern, having been extinguished when the party from the Josephine drew close.

Merrick had prepared himself for his nefarious work, and in a twinkling he had Dick's hands bound behind him and had a gag placed in the youth's mouth. Then he had the lad bound fast to a nearby tree.

In the meantime Tom and Sam were sleeping soundly. The two brothers lay each with a hand close to the other, and with caution Merrick and his party tied the two hands together. Then they tied the lads' feet, so that they could not run.

"What's the meaning of this?" cried Tom, struggling to rise, as did Sam.

"It means you are prisoners!" cried Tad Sobber, who had had small part in the operations, but who was ready to do all the "crowing" possible.

"Prisoners!" gasped Sam. "Where is Dick?" he added.

"Also a prisoner," said Tad, with a chuckle. "You thought you had fooled us nicely, but I guess we have turned the tables on you."

"I suspected you Rovers," said Sid Merrick.

"Really!" answered Tom, sarcastically. "You acted it!"

"See here, don't you get funny, young man. Please remember you are in our power."

"And we'll do some shooting, if we have to," added Tad, bombastically.

"Tad, I guess I can do the talking for this crowd," said his uncle.

"You were afraid of the ghosts, Tad," said Sam. "You must have run about a mile!" And the youngest Rover grinned in spite of the predicament he was in.

"You shut up I." roared Tad Sobber, and exhibited some of the brutality that had made him so hated at Putnam Hall by raising his foot and kicking Sam in the side.

"Stop!" cried the youngest Rover, in pain. "What a brute you are!"

"Leave my brother alone!" came from Tom.

"A fine coward you are, to kick him when he is a prisoner! You wouldn't dare to try it if he was free."

"I wouldn't, eh? I want you to understand I'm not afraid of anybody," blustered Tad. "I am--"

"Tad, be quiet," cried his uncle. "I am fully capable of managing this affair. Don't kick him again."

"Yes, but look here, Uncle Sid, they--"

"I will take care of things," cried Sid Merrick, and so sharply that his nephew at once subsided. But on the sly he shook his fist at both Tom and Sam.

"Maybe we had better make sure that nobody else is around," suggested Shelley, who had been Merrick's best aide in the capture.

"All right, look around if you want to," was Merrick's reply. "I am pretty certain these boys are alone here--although more persons from the steam yacht may be ashore."

They looked around, but, of course, found nobody else. Then Dick, Tom and Sam were tied in a row to three trees which were handy. Merrick took possession of their single weapon.

"I don't want you to hurt yourselves with it," he said, grimly.

"Merrick, this is a high handed proceeding," said Dick, when the gag was removed from his mouth.

"No more so than was your statement of owning the isle," was the answer.

"What are you going to do with us?"

"Nothing."

"I must say I don't understand you."

"What should I do with you? I don't enjoy your company. I am here solely to get that treasure, as you must know. I am going after that and leave you where you are."

"Bound to these trees?"

"Certainly."

"Supposing we can't get loose?" remonstrated Tom. "We may starve to death!"

"That will be your lookout. But I reckon you'll get loose sooner or later, although we've bound you pretty tight."

"Can I have a drink before you go?" asked Sam, who was dry.

"Don't give 'em a drop, Uncle Sid!" cried Tad. "They don't deserve it."

"Oh, they can have a drink," said Sid Merrick. "I'd give a drink even to a dog," he added, and passed around some water the boys had in a bottle.

Less than fifteen minutes later the three Rover boys found themselves alone in the forest. The Merrick party had lit their acetylene gas lamp and the lantern and struck out once more along the trail which they supposed would take them to the treasure cave. The boys heard them for a short distance, and then all became dark and silent around them.

"Well, now we are in a pickle and no mistake," remarked Sam, with a long sigh.

"That ghost business proved a boomerang," was Tom's comment. "It's a pity we didn't dig out for the shore, signal to the steam yacht, and tell father and the others about what was going on."

"There is no use crying over spilt milk," said Dick. "The first thing to do is to get free."

"Yes, and that's real easy," sniffed Tom. "I am bound up like a bale of hay to be shipped to the South Pole!"

"And the cord on my wrists is cutting right into the flesh," said Sam.

"If we were the heroes of a dime novel we'd shoo these ropes away in a jiffy," went on Tom, with a grin his brothers could not see. "But being plain, everyday American boys I'm afraid we'll have to stay tied up until somebody comes to cut us loose."

"Oh, for a faithful dog!" sighed Sam. "I saw a moving picture once in which a dog came and untied a girl who was fastened to a tree. I'd give as much as five dollars for that dog right now."

"Make it six and a half, Sam, and I'll go half," answered Tom.

"Well, this is no joke," declared Dick, almost severely. "We must get free somehow--or they'll get that treasure and be off with it before father and the others have a chance to land. We've got to do something."

They all agreed they "had to do something," but what that something was to be was not clear. They worked over their bonds until their wrists were cut and bleeding and then gave the task up. It was so dark they could see each other but dimly, and the darkness and quietness made them anything but lighthearted.

"Supposing some wild beast comes to chew us up," said Sam, presently, after a silence that was positively painful.

"We know there are no big beasts on these islands," answered Dick. "Don't worry yourself unnecessarily, Sam. We've got troubles enough as it is."

"The only beasts here are human beasts," said Tom, "and their names are Merrick, Sobber, Cuffer and Shelley," and he said this so dryly his brothers had to laugh.

Slowly the night wore away, each hour dragging more than that which preceded it. Two or three times the boys tried again to liberate themselves, but fared no better than before, indeed, Dick fared worse, for he came close to spraining his left wrist. The pain for a while was intense and it was all he could do to keep from crying out.

"I'd like to know what time it is," said Sam, when the first streak of dawn began to show among the trees.

"And I'd like to know if Merrick has found the treasure cave," added Dick.

"It will soon be morning," came from Tom, and he was right. The rising sun did not penetrate to where they stood, but it tipped the tops of the trees with gold and made it light enough for them to see each other quite plainly.

The boys were glad that day had come at last, for being prisoners in the light was not half as bad as in the dark. Each looked at the others rather curiously.

"Well, we are still here," said Tom laconically.

"Yes, and liable to stay here," added Sam.

"I wonder if father is getting ready to land," said Dick. "I suppose if he does he will come ashore where we did."

"Yes, but that is a good distance from here," was Sam's comment.

"Wonder if it would do us any good to yell?" said Tom.

"And bring Merrick and his gang down on us," said his younger brother. "No, thank you."

"I don't believe they are around," said Dick. "I am going to try my lungs." And he began to yell with all the power of his vocal organs. Then Tom and Sam joined in, and they kept this up, off and on, for fully an hour.

"I am not only dry but hungry," said Tom. "Wish I had that lunch we brought along."

"Tad Sobber sneaked that away," said Dick. "If ever there was a fellow with a heart of stone he's the chap. Why, Dan Baxter in his worst days wasn't as bad as this young rascal."

Another hour went by and then Dick uttered an exclamation:

"Listen!"

"What did you hear?" asked his brothers.

"I thought I heard somebody calling!"

They strained their ears and from a great distance heard a cry, but what it was they could not make out.

"Let's call back," said Dick.

"It may do us harm," interposed Sam.

"We'll take the chance," said Tom, and started a loud cry, in which all joined. They waited patiently for an answer to come back. But for several minutes there was absolute silence. Then, to their surprise, a pistol shot sounded out.

"Hullo!" ejaculated Dick. "Something is up, I wonder what it is?"