Chapter XXIX
 

"No, lad, the risk is too great. Ye'd be in worse plight than before, if they caught ye, and with a score of the ruffians searching the island over, ye'd run too long a chance. Better be satisfied with what's here, and stay where we can at least defend ourselves."

Amos Swan was speaking. On the deal table before him, a heap of great goldpieces gleamed in the firelight while seated around the board were his two sons and Bob.

It was Tom who answered. "True enough, father," he said, "and yet this gold is ours. We own the island by the Governor's grant. If we sit idle the pirates will surely find the treasure and make off with it. But if we go up there at night, as Jeremy suggests, the risk we run will be smaller, and every time we make the trip we'll add a thousand guineas to that pile there. Think of it, father."

The elder man frowned thoughtfully. "Well," he said at length, "if you go with them, Tom, and you go carefully, at night, we'll chance it, once at least. Not tonight, though. It's late now and you all need sleep. I'll take the first watch."

At about ten o'clock of the evening following, Jeremy, Bob and Tom stole out and up the hill in the darkness. They were well-armed but carried no lantern, the boys being confident of their ability to find the cleft in the ledge without a light. A half hour's walking brought them near the spot, and Jeremy, who had almost an Indian's memory for the "lay of the ground," soon led the way to the edge of the chasm. Dim starlight shone through the gap in the trees above the ledge, but there was only darkness below in the pit. One by one they felt their way down and at last all three stood on the damp earth at the bottom. "Here's the barrel--just as we left it. They haven't been here yet!" Jeremy whispered.

Working as quickly and as quietly as he could, Bob reached into the opening in the keg and pulled out the gold, piece by piece, while the others, taking the coins from his fingers, filled their pockets, and the leather pouches they had brought.

It was breathlessly exciting work, for all three were aware of the danger that they ran. When finally they crawled forth, laden like sumpter-mules, the perspiration was thick on Jeremy's forehead. Knowing the character of Pharaoh Daggs so well, he realized, better probably than either of his companions, what fate they might expect if they were discovered. So far, apparently, the pirates had not thought of setting a night guard on the ridge. If they continued to neglect this precaution and failed to find the treasure themselves, three more trips would----

His calculations were interrupted by the sudden snapping of a twig. He stopped, instantly on the alert. Behind him Tom and Bob had also paused. Neither of them had caused the sound. It had seemed to come from the thick bush down hill to the right. For an endlessly long half-minute the three held their breath, listening. Then once more something crackled, farther away this time, and in a more southwesterly direction.

Man or animal, whatever it was that made the sounds, was moving rapidly away from them.

Jeremy hunched the straps of his heavy pouch higher up on his shoulder and led on again, faster than before, and hurrying forward in Indian file, they reached the cabin without further adventure.

All through the next day they stood watch and watch at the shack, ready for the attack which they expected to develop sooner or later. But still it appeared that the pirates preferred to keep out of sight. The boys had told Amos Swan of the noises they had heard the previous night and he had listened with a grave countenance. It could hardly have been other than one of the pirates, he thought, for he was quite certain that except for a few rabbits, there were no wild animals upon the island. "Still," he said, "if you were moving quietly, there's small reason to believe the man knew you were near. If he did know and made such a noise as that, he must have been a mighty poor woodsman!"

The boys, anxious that nothing should prevent another trip to the treasure-keg, accepted this logic without demur.

The following night Amos Swan decided to go with the boys himself, leaving Tom on guard at the cabin. As before, they armed themselves with guns, pistols and hunting-knives and ascended the hillside in the inky dark. There were no stars in sight and a faint breeze that came and went among the trees foreboded rain. This prospect of impending bad weather made itself felt in the spirits of the three treasure-hunters. Jeremy, accustomed as he was to the woods, drew a breath of apprehension and looked scowlingly aloft as he heard the dismal wind in the hemlock tops. Ugh! He shook himself nervously and plunged forward along the hillcrest. A few moments later they were gathered about the barrel at the bottom of the cleft.

It was even darker than they had found it on their previous visit. Jeremy and his father had to grope in the pitchy blackness for the coins that Bob held out to them. Their pockets were about half-full when there came a whispered exclamation from the Delaware boy.

"There's some sort of box in here, buried in the gold!" he said. "It's too big to pull out through the hole. Where's your dirk, Jeremy?"

The latter knelt astride the keg, and working in the dark, began to enlarge the opening with the blade of his hunting-knife. After a few minutes he thrust his hand in and felt the box. It was apparently of wood, covered with leather and studded over with scores of nails. Its top was only seven or eight inches wide by less than a foot long, however, and in thickness it seemed scarcely a hand's breadth.

Big cold drops of rain were beginning to fall as Jeremy resumed his cutting. He made the opening longer as well as wider, and at last was able by hard tugging to get the box through. He thrust it into his pouch and they recommenced the filling of their pockets with goldpieces.

Before a dozen coins had been removed a sudden red glare on the walls of the chasm caused the three to leap to their feet. At the same instant the rain increased to a downpour, and they looked up to see a pine-knot torch in the opening above them splutter and go out. The wet darkness came down blacker than before.

But in that second of illumination they had seen framed in the torchlit cleft a pair of gleaming light eyes and a cruelly snarling mouth set in a face made horrible by the livid scar that ran from chin to eyebrow across its broken nose.

Jeremy clutched at Bob and his father. "This way!" he gasped through the hissing rain, and plunged along the black chasm toward the southern end, where it debouched upon the hillside. They clambered over some boulders and emerged in the undergrowth, a score of yards from the point where the barrel had been found.

"Come on," whispered Jeremy hoarsely, and started eastward along the slope. Burdened as they were, they ran through the woods at desperate speed, the noise of their going drowned by the descending flood.

In the haste of flight it was impossible to keep together. When Jeremy had put close to half a mile between himself and the chasm, he paused panting and listened for the others, but apparently they were not near. He decided to cut across the ridge, and started up the hill, when he heard a crash in the brush just above him. "Father?" he called under his breath. To his dismay he was answered by a startled oath, and the next moment he saw a tall figure coming at him swinging a cutlass. The pirate was a bare ten feet away. Jeremy aimed his pistol and pulled the trigger, but only a dull click responded. The priming was wet.

At that instant the cutlass passed his head with an ugly sound and Jeremy, desperate, flung his pistol straight at the pirate's face. As it left his hand he heard it strike. Then as the man went down with a groan, he doubled in his tracks like a hare, and ran back, heading up across the hill.

It was not till he was over the ridge and well down the slope toward home that he dropped to a walk. His breath was coming in gasps that hurt him like a knife between his ribs, and his legs were so weak he could hardly depend on them. He had run nearly two miles, up hill and down, in heavy clothes drenched with rain, and carrying a dozen pounds of gold besides the flintlock fowling-piece which he still clutched in his left hand. Somewhere behind him he had dropped the box, found amid the treasure, but he was far too tired to look for it. More dead than alive he crawled, at last, up to the door of the cabin and staggered in when Tom opened to his knock.

While he gasped out his story, the older brother looked more closely to the barring of the window-shutters and put fresh powder in the priming-pans of the guns.

Ten minutes after Jeremy, his father appeared, wet to the skin and with a grim look around his bearded jaws. He, too, was spent with running, but he would have gone out again at once when he heard that Bob was still missing if the boys had not dissuaded him. Jeremy was sure that if Bob had escaped he would soon reach the cabin, for he had the lay of the island well in mind now.

And so, while Tom kept watch, they lay down with their clothes on before the fire.