Chapter IX. Val Jacinto
 

"Rather tame, isn't it, Tom?"

"Well, Ned, it isn't exactly like going up in an airship," and Tom Swift who was gazing over the rail down into the deep blue water of the Caribbean Sea, over which their vessel was then steaming, looked at his chum beside him.

"No, and your submarine voyage had it all over this one for excitement," went on Ned. "When I think of that----"

"Bless my sea legs!" interrupted Mr. Damon, overhearing the conversation. "Don't speak of that trip. My wife never forgave me for going on it. But I had a fine time," he added with a twinkle of his eyes.

"Yes, that was quite a trip," observed Tom, as his mind went back to it. "But this one isn't over yet remember. And I shouldn't be surprised if we had a little excitement very soon."

"What do you mean?" asked Ned.

Up to this time the voyage from New York down into the tropical seas had been anything but exciting. There were not many passengers besides themselves, and the weather had been fine.

At first, used as they were to the actions of unscrupulous rivals in trying to thwart their efforts, Tom and Ned had been on the alert for any signs of hidden enemies on board the steamer. But aside from a little curiosity when it became known that they were going to explore little-known portions of Honduras, the other passengers took hardly any interest in our travelers.

It was thought best to keep secret the fact that they were going to search for a wonderful idol of gold. Not even the mule and ox-cart drivers, whom they would hire to take them into the wilds of the interior would be told of the real object of the search. It would be given out that they were looking for interesting ruins of ancient cities, with a view to getting such antiquities as might be there.

"What do you mean?" asked Ned again, when Tom did not answer him immediately. "What's the excitement?"

"I think we're in for a storm," was the reply. "The barometer is falling and I see the crew going about making everything snug. So we may have a little trouble toward this end of our trip."

"Let it come!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "We're not afraid of trouble, Tom. Swift, are we?"

"No, to be sure we're not. And yet it looks as though the storm would be a bad one."

"Then I am going to see if my books and papers are ready, so I can get them together in a hurry in case we have to take to the life-boats," said Professor Bumper, coming on deck at that moment. "It won't do to lose them. If we didn't have the map we might not be able to find----"

"Ahem!" exclaimed Tom, with unnecessary emphasis it seemed. "I'll help you go over your papers, Professor," he added, and with a wink and a motion of his hand, he enjoined silence on his friend. Ned looked around for a reason for this, and observed a man, evidently of Spanish extraction, passing them as he paced up and down the deck.

"What's the matter?" asked the scientist in a whisper, as the man went on. "Do you know him? Is he a----?"

"I don't know anything about him," said Tom; "but it is best not to speak of our trip before strangers."

"You are right, Tom," said Professor Bumper. "I'll be more careful."

A storm was brewing, that was certain. A dull, sickly yellow began to obscure the sky, and the water, from a beautiful blue, turned a slate color and ran along the sides of the vessel with a hissing sound as though the sullen waves would ask nothing better than to suck the craft down into their depths. The wind, which had been freshening, now sang in louder tones as it hummed through the rigging and the funnel stays and bowled over the receiving conductors of the wireless.

Sharp commands from the ship's officers hastened the work of the crew in making things snug, and life lines were strung along deck for the safety of such of the passengers as might venture up when the blow began.

The storm was not long in coming. The howling of the wind grew louder, flecks of foam began to separate themselves from the crests of the waves, and the vessel pitched, rolled and tossed more violently. At first Tom and his friends thought they were in for no more than an ordinary blow, but as the storm progressed, and the passengers became aware of the anxiety on the part of the officers and crew, the alarm spread among them.

It really was a violent storm, approaching a hurricane in force, and at one time it seemed as though the craft, having been heeled far over under a staggering wave that swept her decks, would not come back to an even keel.

There was a panic among some of the passengers, and a few excited men behaved in a way that caused prompt action on the part of the first officer, who drove them back to the main cabin under threat of a revolver. For the men were determined to get to the lifeboats, and a small craft would not have had a minute to live in such seas as were running.

But the vessel proved herself sturdier than the timid ones had dared to hope, and she was soon running before the blast, going out of her course, it is true, but avoiding the danger among the many cays, or small islands, that dot the Caribbean Sea.

There was nothing to do but to let the storm blow itself out, which it did in two days. Then came a period of delightful weather. The cargo had shifted somewhat, which gave the steamer a rather undignified list.

This, as well as the loss of a deckhand overboard, was the effect of the hurricane, and though the end of the trip came amid sunshine and sweet-scented tropical breezes, many could not forget the dangers through which they had passed.

In due time Tom and his party found themselves safely housed in the small hotel at Puerto Cortes, their belongings stored in a convenient warehouse and themselves, rather weary by reason of the stress of weather, ready for the start into the interior wilds of Honduras.

"How are we going to make the trip?" asked Ned, as they sat at supper, the first night after their arrival, eating of several dishes, the red- pepper condiments of which caused frequent trips to the water pitcher.

"We can go in two ways, and perhaps we shall find it to our advantage to use both means," said Professor Bumper. "To get to this city of Kurzon," he proceeded in a low voice, so that none of the others in the dining-room would hear them, "we will have to go either by mule back or boat to a point near Copan. As near as I can tell by the ancient maps, Kurzon is in the Copan valley.

"Now the Chamelecon river seems to run to within a short distance of there, but there is no telling how far up it may be navigable. If we can go by boat it will be much more comfortable. Travel by mules and ox-carts is slow and sure, but the roads are very bad, as I have heard from friends who have made explorations in Honduras.

"And, as I said, we may have to use both land and water travel to get us where we want to go. We can proceed as far as possible up the river, and then take to the mules."

"What about arranging for boats and animals?" asked Tom. "I should think----"

He suddenly ceased talking and reached for the water, taking several large swallows.

"Whew!" he exclaimed, when he could catch his breath. "That was a hot one."

"What did you do?" asked Ned.

"Bit into a nest of red pepper. Guess I'll have to tell that cook to scatter his hits. He's bunching 'em too much in my direction," and Tom wiped the tears from his eyes.

"To answer your question," said Professor Bumper, "I will say that I have made partial arrangements for men and animals, and boats if it is found feasible to use them. I've been in correspondence with one of the merchants here, and he promised to make arrangements for us."

"When do we leave?" asked Mr. Damon.

"As soon as possible. I am not going to risk anything by delay," and it was evident the professor referred to his young rival whose arrival might be expected almost any time.

As the party was about to leave the table, they were approached by a tall, dignified Spaniard who bowed low, rather exaggeratedly low, Ned thought, and addressed them in fairly good English.

"Your pardons, Senors," he began, "but if it will please you to avail yourself of the humble services of myself, I shall have great pleasure in guiding you into the interior. I have at my command both mules and boats."

"How do you know we are going into the interior?" asked Tom, a bit sharply, for he did not like the assurance of the man.

"Pardon, Senor. I saw that you are from the States. And those from the States do not come to Honduras except for two reasons. To travel and make explorations or to start trade, and professors do not usually engage in trade," and he bowed to Professor Bumper.

"I saw your name on the register," he proceeded, "and it was not difficult to guess your mission," and he flashed a smile on the party, his white teeth showing brilliantly beneath his small, black moustache.

"I make it my business to outfit traveling parties, either for business, pleasure or scientific matters. I am, at your service, Val Jacinto," and he introduced himself with another low bow.

For a moment Tom and his friends hardly knew how to accept this offer. It might be, as the man had said, that he was a professional tour conductor, like those who have charge of Egyptian donkey-boys and guides. Or might he not be a spy?

This occurred to Tom no less than to Professor Bumper. They looked at one another while Val Jacinto bowed again and murmured:

"At your service!"

"Can you provide means for taking us to the Copan valley?" asked the professor. "You are right in one respect. I am a scientist and I purpose doing some exploring near Copan. Can you get us there?"

"Most expensively--I mean, most expeditionlessly," said Val Jacinto eagerly. "Pardon my unhappy English. I forget at times. The charges will be most moderate. I can send you by boat as far as the river travel is good, and then have mules and ox-carts in waiting."

"How far is it?" asked Tom.

"A hundred miles as the vulture flies, Senor, but much farther by river and road. We shall be a week going."

"A hundred miles in a week!" groaned Ned. "Say, Tom, if you had your aeroplane we'd be there in an hour."

"Yes, but we haven't it. However, we're in no great rush."

"But we must not lose time," said Professor Bumper. "I shall consider your offer," he added to Val Jacinto.

"Very good, Senor. I am sure you will be pleased with the humble service I may offer you, and my charges will be small. Adios," and he bowed himself away.

"What do you think of him?" asked Ned, as they went up to their rooms in the hotel, or rather one large room, containing several beds.

"He's a pretty slick article," said Mr. Damon. "Bless my check-book! but he spotted us at once, in spite of our secrecy."

"I guess these guide purveyors are trained for that sort of thing," observed the scientist. "I know my friends have often spoken of having had the same experience. However, I shall ask my friend, who is in business here, about this Val Jacinto, and if I find him all right we may engage him "

Inquiries next morning brought the information, from the head of a rubber exporting firm with whom the professor was acquainted, that the Spaniard was regularly engaged in transporting parties into the interior, and was considered efficient, careful and as honest as pos- sible, considering the men he engaged as workers.

"So we have decided to engage you," Professor Bumper informed Val Jacinto the afternoon following the meeting.

"I am more than pleased, Senor. I shall take you into the wilds of Honduras. At your service!" and he bowed low.

"Humph! I don't just like the way our friend Val says that," observed Tom to Ned a little later. "I'd have been better pleased if he had said he'd guide us into the wilds and out again."

If Tom could have seen the crafty smile on the face of the Spaniard as the man left the hotel, the young inventor might have felt even less confidence in the guide.