Doubloons/Chapter 5

 

CHAPTER V.

The situation was strained, but actual hostilities were not foreshadowed until two days later. Captain Kempton’s crew encountered a granite ledge five feet down which barred their progress in one direction. For this reason, they dug more and more toward the part of the beach where the minions of Professor Bodge were creating an immense hole. Unfortunately, he discovered an error in his calculations which caused him to shift operations considerably nearer the captain’s excavation. It was inevitable that, in a short time, the rivals would have shoveled themselves into such close proximity to each other that there must be a clash. The well-known law that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time was bound to apply to treasure seekers. Eminently respectable men at home, Captain Joseph Kempton and Professor James Hyssop Bodge had suffered a sea change. The quest for lawless loot had gone to their heads, and they had broken the bonds of decorous habit. In spirit, they were fast relapsing into buccaneers. If it came to the issue, Kempton would not cringe nor Bodge budge.

Poor Eudora was so thoroughly alarmed that she defied her father, who had forbidden her to become friendly with the enemy. Watching the opportunity, she overtook the professor’s wife, who had rambled some distance away from the camps. The worthy woman greeted Eudora like a long-lost daughter, kissed her on both cheeks, slipped an arm around her waist, and cried:

“I have been simply dying to have a talk with you, my dear child, but the suggestion annoyed my husband.”

“My plight exactly, Mrs. Bodge. It has made me feel forlorn and homesick to look at you from our camp. Perhaps they won’t miss us.”

“I say we walk to the other side of the island, where they can’t possibly see us,” replied the older woman, leading the way. “Tell me, do you enjoy this enterprise? I fancy not. You have appeared rather unhappy.”

“I abominate it,” fiercely exclaimed Eudora.

“And the florid young man who seems to be such an important member of your party? I had an idea at first that I had stumbled on a romance.”

“I detest him. He is at the bottom of all the trouble.”

Mrs. Bodge was pleased as she said:

“I’m so glad he hasn’t taken you in. I put him down as a bounder. A pretty kettle of fish, isn’t it? I was dragged into it, too. I had to come along to look after my husband. Between us, my dear, while we’re talking it out, it’s my money he is spending, and I wouldn’t care a rap for that if I thought it was a proper sort of vacation for him. But his nerves can’t stand excitement, and I’m sure he will go to pieces if I can’t coax him away from here, and he is on the edge of a private war with that stubborn father of yours. There’s no telling what they will do to each other. Gracious! I wish that wretched old pirate of a Peleg Peterson could be hanged over again. How in the world did the red-faced young man get you people into it?”

“He found a chart in an old, abandoned sailing ship, Mrs. Bodge,” sighed Eudora. “And it was all up with father.”

“My deluded husband came home with a chart, but he refused to tell me where and how he had discovered it,” vehemently confided his wife. “And it was all up with James. He teaches mathematics, but he has rested his mind for years by reading about gory pirates and bags of doubloons. Your chart is the only genuine article, I presume. So is ours.”

“I don’t know. It make no difference. Is there anything we can do to cure them?”

“Nothing short of an earthquake or finding the wretched treasure will pry James off this island.”

They were silent for a while, for the walking was rough and awkward, and they had to help each other cross bits of quaking bog and stretches of densely tangled brushwood. Coming at length to an open space and a slight rise, Eudora halted, stared, and rubbed her eyes. Nestled in the lee of a great bare rock by the shore was a little hut, gray, low-roofed, clinging close to the ground, scarcely distinguishable from its surroundings. A thin streamer of smoke curled upward from the chimney.

“But nobody lives on this island,” gasped Mrs. Bodge. “I’m sure I heard my husband say it was deserted.”

“They were all too busy and greedy to look around and make sure,” sensibly observed Eudora. “But it seems strange that nobody saw the smoke. Shall we investigate?”

“Most assuredly. I am very anxious to meet the owner of this island. It is our only hope of escape.”

Unhesitatingly, the robust woman preceded Eudora, and marched down to the weather-beaten dwelling which had been built of wreckage stranded from lost ships. Smartly she rapped on the door, and shuffling feet moved within. Timidity took hold of Eudora, but the professor’s wife grasped her hand, and a moment later they faced an elderly man, who threw up his hands in astonishment and burst into a fit of coughing so violent that Mrs. Bodge pounded him between the shoulders.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he sputtered. “I swallered my quid, ladies bein’ unexpected, teetotally so, you might say. Was you blown ashore or hung up on a reef? I’d ask you to walk in, but the sheebang is chuck-full of smoke from that dratted stove.”

“It is very pleasant outside,” said Mrs. Bodge, surveying the hermit’s costume, which consisted of sea boots, ragged overalls, and a shirt patched in many colors. His features were somewhat begrimed, but not in the least forbidding. He led them to a rude bench, explaining;

“I’ve been over to the mainland for a fortnight—had a few kegs o’ salted fish to sell and needed groceries—landed no more’n an hour ago, and ain’t had a chance to look around.”

“There are two parties on your island, Mr.—Mr.——” The professor’s wife hesitated, and he informed her:

“Elmer Stackpole, at your service, ma’am. Two parties on my island? I thought I saw masts in the bay, but my sight’s failin’. And what might they be doin’ of?”

“Seeking buried treasure,” answered Mrs. Bodge. “It was left here by a legendary pirate, Peleg Peterson, although I don’t take the slightest stock in it myself.”

“How interestin’, not to say curious,” drawled Mr. Stackpole, risking a fresh quid. “A pirate called Peterson? Never heard of him. He must ha’ flourished before my time. Diggin’ up his treasure! Well, well! I’ll be scuppered!”

“That expresses my emotions,” said his interviewer. “Now, Mr. Elmer Stackpole, I propose to talk business with you. I am the wife and this lovely young creature is the daughter of the misguided persons responsible for the invasion of your peaceful island. For their own good, they should be evicted at once. I assume you are the owner.”

“I guess so, ma’am. Nobody ever disputed my title. Drive ’em away? How many is there?”

“It is not a question of force. You have only to threaten them with the law and summon the authorities from the mainland.”

“But what harm are they?” he queried, unmoved. “It seems sort o’ sociable to me. And I was just thinkin’ about levyin’ a tax on ’em.”

“But I intend to make it worth your while. I will give you more money than you can extort from them.”

Mrs. Bodge spoke bravely, but her confusion was manifest. It occurred to her that the professor held all the available funds, and she could offer no more than a promise to pay, as good as gold, but difficult to negotiate with Elmer Stackpole.

“How much will you lay down in cash?” said he, and there was a covetous gleam in his faded blue eye.

“I shall have to send it to you. Will five hundred dollars be satisfactory?”

“A bird in the hand is my motto, ma’am. You’re a stranger to me, and wimmen is apt to be fickle about money matters. I’d love to oblige, but I like the notion of collectin’ ten dollars per day as rent from each of them parties of yourn for all rights and full permission to dig ’emselves clean through to Chiny.”

“You are heartless and mercenary, and I’m sure you haven’t washed your face in a week,” indignantly cried Mrs. Bodge, and they left the wretch to gloat over his windfall.

Eudora was quite downhearted, but her vigorous companion asserted that the darkest hour was just before dawn and that such a human being as this unkempt hermit justified woman’s suffrage. Somewhat fatigued, but comforting each other, they recrossed the island, and emerged near the populous beach. The camp of Professor Bodge was in violent commotion, and Eudora for the moment, feared that war had been declared in her absence, but the shouts were those of joy, not anger, and the sailors were brandishing their shovels in a kind of jubiliant dance.

The professor ran to meet his wife, and in his hand was a metal object which age had incrusted and overlaid with verdigris.

“A big brass buckle, Ellen!” he shouted, his voice unsteady. “The pirates used to wear them on their shoes and the knees of their baggy breeches. You’ve seen the pictures.”

“And you think one of them lost it when they were burying the treasure, James?” she commented. “Perhaps he had no wife to sew his buckles on.”

“Either that, or he was knocked on the head by Peleg Peterson,” dramatically suggested the professor. “Dead men tell no tales. His bones would have crumbled by this time.”

“This is very bad for your nerves, James. Your color is bad, and your hands are shaking. Why not lie down for the rest of the afternoon?”

“Never felt finer in my life,” cried he. “We are going to take turns digging by moonlight.”

“You will do no such thing. I shall have you to take care of. Not much! How did you happen to open that trench straight toward Captain Kempton’s hole in the sand? Why, you pushed it yards and yards farther while I was gone.”

“We discovered some fragments of old timber,” he rapidly exclaimed, “and so we drove ahead like fury. Spanish oak, you know, is what they built their treasure chests of. It lasts for hundreds of years under sand and water. Captain Kempton be hanged! What if we do get in his way? We have the chart. We are the heirs of Peleg Peterson, by Jove, and this brass buckle proves it.”

After supper, the obstinate shipmaster mustered his men for a conference. It was time to act. This unscrupulous fool of a Professor Bodge had gone too far. The sailors of the Challenge were hard-fisted lads from the Falmouth water front, as ready for a fight as a frolic, and they were loyal to the last hair on their heads. Their sunburned features expressed the liveliest elation as the captain explained his plans. This day’s work had made it evident that Professor Bodge had no more conscience than a pirate. He must be firmly dealt with. The sailors cheered, but Mr. William Marmaduke Mannice looked anxious, and suggested arbitration. The stratagems of peace were much more to his liking.

His cowardice annoyed the skipper, who told him to mind his own business, and went on to say that, without doubt, they would have discovered the brass buckle and the old timer for themselves. The professor had conducted his operations in such a way as to invade their territory as marked and bounded. And because he was used to bullying a lot of college boys in a class room, he thought he could do as he pleased on the beach. The captain had handled a mutiny or two in his time, and he guessed he could protect his interests against this shameless gang.

“A show of force will be enough,” said he. “We’ll throw up a bank of sand right away to-night, square across the beach from high-water mark to the bushes, like a line of breastworks. That will stop the professor from coming any farther our way. And to prevent his working at night, which he is liable to do from now on, a sentry will stand watch. While I mean to avoid bloodshed, the sight of a shotgun and a rifle and my old pistol that saw service aboard the Endymion may convince the pin-headed professor that he is on the wrong tack.”

“Put me down for sentry duty,” exclaimed one of the sailors. “It sounds like a lark.”

“You lads need your sleep, Tom. You have to dig all day. The cook will bear a hand for one. He has time to snooze between meals.”

The shrinking Mr. Mannice caught the captain’s eye, and he added;

“An easy job for you. Four hours on and four off. You’re too fat to do much with a shovel, and your hands are badly blistered.”

“Thank you, sir,” was the feeble reply. “You don’t honestly expect any rough-house, shooting and all that?”

“Not a bit of it. A display of firmness will be plenty.”

The moon serenely silvered the strip of beach when the willing sailors, refreshed by food and smoke, began to throw up the breastworks at the very brink of the professor’s excavation. They made a speedy job of it and were unmolested, the Bodge forces withdrawing for a conference. Captain Kempton gave the shotgun to his cook, and told him to hold the fort until midnight, when Mr. Mannice would relieve him.

Discipline held old Harvey Mattoon dumb, but he was now convinced that his commander had gone clean daft, and his leathery lineaments were sorrowful as he sat himself down on the rampart of sand, the gun between his knees. Presently he opened the breech and extracted the shells, pensively soliloquizing:

“This dummed play actin’ has gone far enough. Somebody’s liable to get hurt before they finish with it, but they don’t ketch me aidin’ and abettin’.”

From the door of his tent, Professor Bodge spied the dejected figure of the sentinel, and his anger was intense. This was positively the last straw. His emotions may seem preposterous, but family feuds have begun over so trifling a matter as a boundary fence or a stray pig. In a great flurry, he exclaimed to his wife:

“Look yonder, Ellen! An armed man posted to prevent us from working at night. And they will attempt to get into the hole where we found the brass buckle. This Captain Kempton is absolutely lawless.”

“Let the armed man amuse himself by looking at the moon, and please go to sleep, James,” she wearily advised him. “The captain will soon tire of it if you pay no attention.”

“I shall sit up and play at this sentry game, too,” he declared. "Does he think he can bluff me out of my boots, when I am on the very point of finding the treasure? This is not a woman’s affair, Ellen.”

“I wish to Heaven it were, James. The captain’s daughter and I would dispose of it in a jiffy.”

He snorted, dived under his cot, and appeared in the moonlight with a rifle, which he clutched in gingerly fashion.

“Tut, tut, Ellen! Don’t try to hold me back. You will tear my shirt. The weapon isn’t loaded. I merely wish to display it.”

At a loping trot, he made for the bank of sand, intending to take a position near and apposite to the hostile watcher. Harvey Mattoon uttered a dismal cry and scrambled to his feet. He was too steadfast an old salt to retreat without an order from the quarter-deck, but the empty shotgun wabbled in his hands and his wits were at a loss. At this critical instant. Professor Bodge stumbled over a shovel and sprawled headlong. His spectacles flew one way, and the rifle left his hands to fall upon a wheelbarrow. There was a flash, a startling report, and Harvey Mattoon dropped from sight, his hands clasping his right leg.

“I didn’t shoot him,” wildly yelled Professor Bodge. “I tell you I didn’t! The rifle wasn’t loaded.”

“They, never are, James. That is how so many accidents occur,” replied his common-sense wife, as she dragged him to his feet. “Come with me and find out if you have killed him. Oh, if you had only listened to me!”

Wan and speechless, he followed her. The stricken sea cook sat gazing at a patch of blood on his duck trousers, below the knee. Deftly Mrs. Bodge ripped a slit with her husband’s pocketknife, disclosed the wound, and stanched it with her handkerchief.

“Clean through the calf. Nothing serious,” was her verdict. “Stay with him, James, while I run back to the tent for the antiseptic and bandages.”

In both camps there was a great stir by now; and the captain’s crew, who had been sleeping like the dead, came buzzing out like hornets. The row was on, they assured each other, and they picked up whatever weapons were handiest. To the aid of the professor rushed his own gallant men, but he waved them back and hurriedly explained the situation. They were to keep cool while he held a parley with Captain Kempton. It was a deplorable accident, and further bloodshed must be avoided at any cost short of dishonor.

“Winged my cook, did you?” roared the shipmaster, as he advanced to the front.

“It is the unhappiest moment of my life,” faltered Professor Bodge, expecting to be exterminated in his tracks. “I had no idea of potting the poor old duffer, I give you my word.”

“And I wouldn’t believe you under oath. Where did he drill you, Harvey? Hurt bad?”

“Mrs. Bodge says I’ll live, sir. I suppose he’s sorry he didn’t blow my head off.”

“Carry him to camp, boys, as soon as the lady has finished tying him up. Thank you ma’am. You have a kind heart. It’s a great pity you are spliced to this murderous bookworm.”

“I am prepared to offer an apology and pecuniary damages to the victim,” interposed the professor. “And I advise you to keep cool, Captain Kempton, or I shall be unable to restrain my men.”

“A flag of truce? I’m willing. We have to consider the women, for if my lads once jump in they’ll wipe your camp clean off the map.”

A growl from the group behind Professor Bodge implied that this was open to argument. He pacified his followers, and was about to address the captain when Mrs. Bodge stepped between them and laid down the law:

“You are to postpone all this until morning. We two women have received no consideration whatever. My patience is exhausted. If you wish to put these ridiculous sentries on guard, it will do no more harm, so long as you give them no guns. They can stand and makes faces at each other. James, go to bed! Captain Kempton, put your pistol away and march yourself into camp!”