Chapter XXIV. A Missing Landmark
 

The searchlight was watched with interest for fully quarter of an hour. It was, of course, visible only now and then, but from the shafts of light seen, those on the steam yacht were certain somebody was moving from the north side of the isle to the location of the treasure cave.

"We ought to head them off, if possible," declared Anderson Rover. "Should that be Merrick's crowd and they meet my sons there will surely be trouble!"

"Let us go ashore without delay!" said Songbird, who was sorry he had not accompanied the Rover boys.

"That's what I say!" added Fred. "We can take plenty of lights."

"I vos not von pit sleepy," declared Hans. "I go kvick, of you said so, Mr. Rofer."

"If yo' go, don't forgit Aleck!" pleaded the colored man.

"You shall go, Aleck," answered Mr. Rover, who knew he could depend upon the colored man in any emergency.

"I hope you find Dick, and Tom and Sam," said Dora. "It was foolish for them to go off alone."

"And don't let Merrick hurt anybody," pleaded Nellie.

It was quickly decided that the party to go ashore should be composed of Mr. Rover, Bahama Bill, Aleck, and the three boys. Nearly everybody went armed, and the party carried with them a small electric searchlight, run by a "pocket" battery, and two oil lanterns. They also took with them some provisions, and a pick, a shovel and a crowbar, for Bahama Bill said there might be some digging to do to get at the treasure.

Had it not been for the small searchlight it would have been next to impossible to find the opening through the reef during the night. But the light was all that was needed, and they came through with little more than a shower of spray touching them. Bahama Bill and Mr. Rover rowed the boat and soon brought the craft to a point where they disembarked without difficulty.

"The boys did not land here," said Anderson Rover, after a look along the sandy shore for footprints. "But they must have come in somewhere around here."

"Let's call for them," suggested Songbird, and this was done, but no reply came back.

"They have started on the hunt for the cave, just as I supposed they would," said Mr. Rover.

"Den let us git aftah dem directly," said Aleck. "I feels like I could tramp all night widout half tryin'!"

Tying up the rowboat, and shouldering their tools and provisions, they set off along the shore of Horseshoe Bay, just as the three Rover boys had done. Bahama Bill led the way, with Mr. Rover beside him, carrying the electric light, which gave out fully as much light as did the acetylene gas lamp carried by Merrick.

"Here are some footprints!" cried Mr. Rover, after a short distance had been covered.

"Dem was made by our boys!" cried Aleck, after a minute examination. "I know dem shoes, fo' I has shined 'em many de time!"

"If they walked in that direction they took the wrong course," was Bahama Bill's comment. "Like as not they got turned around among the trees an' in the dark."

"We must locate the party with that strong light we saw from the yacht," said Mr. Rover. "Perhaps in doing that we'll come up to my sons."

Once on shore, the old tar said he remembered the locality well, and he did not hesitate in pushing forward, across the path taken by the three Rover boys, and then to a trail which the Rovers had missed. They had to climb a small hill, and here it was that Bahama Bill showed the first signs of perplexity.

"Queer!" he muttered, coming to a halt and gazing around. "Mighty queer!"

"What is queer?" questioned Anderson Rover.

"This looks changed to me. When I was here afore there was a rock yonder, an' the crowd placed a mark on it fer a guide as I told ye. Ain't no rock there now!" And he scratched his head as if he was afraid he was not seeing aright.

"When you were here was a good many years ago," said Songbird. "The rock may have tumbled down the hill. Let us look around."

This advice was followed, and after a long hunt a rock was found in a hollow. It had a peculiar mark cut upon it.

"That's it!" cried Bahama Bill, in delight. "I knew it must be around here somewhere--but what made that big rock tumble down?"

"Maybe somepody pushed him ofer," said Hans.

"Four men couldn't budge that rock," declared Fred.

"I believe an earthquake must have done it," came from Anderson Rover, and suddenly his face grew grave. "I trust no earthquake has disturbed the treasure cave," he added.

They pushed on, but scarcely had they covered a quarter of a mile when Bahama Bill called another halt. And well he might, for the trail they had been following came to an abrupt end in front of a pit several rods in diameter and twenty to thirty feet deep. The bottom of the pit was choked up with rocks, dead trees and brushwood.

"What now?" asked Mr. Rover, and his tone betrayed his uneasiness.

"This wasn't here afore," said the old tar, briefly. He was so "stumped" he could scarcely speak.

"You are sure?"

"Dead certain."

"Then this isle has undoubtedly been visited by an earthquake within the last few years."

"Thet's it, Mr. Rover."

"Maybe the trail can be picked up on the other side of the hole," came from Fred. "Let us walk around."

He and some of the others started to do so, but soon came to a place where walking became uncertain and dangerous. Song bird went into one hole up to his waist and poor Hans disappeared entirely.

"Hellup! hellup!" roared the German boy. "Bull me owid, somepody!"

Aleck was close at hand, and reaching down into the hole he got hold of Hans' hand. It was a hard pull, but presently Anderson Rover took hold, too, and between him and the colored man they got the German youth to the surface. Hans' face and clothing were covered with dust and dirt and he was scratched in several places,

"I dink I was goin' t'rough to Chiny!" he said. "You pet my life I vos careful after dis vere I valk, yah!"

"The earthquake seems to have left this part of the isle full of pits and holes," said Mr. Rover. "I hope my boys have managed to steer clear of the dangerous places."

They soon found they had to turn back, and now Bahama Bill frankly declared that he was "all at sea," as he put it.

"Every landmark I knew has been swept away," he said. "All I can say is, the cave is in that direction," and he pointed with his hand. "But it may be buried out o' sight now," he added, dismally.

There was nothing to do but to retrace their steps, and this they did as far as they were able.

They had covered about half the distance when they saw a shaft of light shoot around the treetops near them.

"There is that strange light!" cried Songbird.

"Let us find out what it is!" added Fred.

They tried to follow the light and in doing this became hopelessly lost in the jungle. Then one of the boys struck one of the oil lanterns on a rock and smashed it, thus doing away with that much of the illumination they carried.

"We must be careful," said Anderson Rover. "We are making no progress so far as the treasure is concerned. We had better try to find our way back to the shore, and try to find my sons." And this was agreed to by all.

But it was no easy matter to get back to the shore, and an hour later found them in a tangle of undergrowth. Aleck was ahead, accompanied by Fred and Songbird.

"Hark! I heah something!" cried the colored man, presently.

"Somebody is calling!" cried Songbird.

"Maybe it's Dick and the others!" added Fred.

They called in return and then they fired off a pistol. There was a brief silence and then came the call once more.

"Come on, dis way!" yelled Aleck, and plunged through the underbrush with the boys following.

He continued to call and at last made out the voices of Dick, Tom and Sam quite plainly.

"I'se found de boys!" cried the colored man in delight. "I'se found de boys!" And he plunged on again until he gained the clearing where the three lads were tied to the trees. With his pocketknife he cut their bonds.

"Good for you, Aleck!" cried Dick. "I am more than glad to see you!"

"And so am I," added Sam and Tom in a breath.

Then the others came up, and the Rover boys had to tell their story, to which the members of the second party listened with the keenest of interest.