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CHAPTER XXX.


THE HOUSE OF EVERLASTING FIRE.


The attendant at the Half Way House was anxious to know what the trouble was, but we put him off, resolved to keep our affairs as much as possible to ourselves.

"It's impossible to know just who to trust," said Dan, when we had retired for the night. " Now we are close to where the treasure is supposed to be located we must be more guarded than ever."

Quarters at the wayside inn were at a premium, and all of us slept in one small room. Fortunately, however, the night was a cool one—we were now climbing steadily upward—and the crowding did not put us to a great deal of discomfort.

We continued our journey at daybreak, resolved to travel as many miles as possible before the sun should get too high. All were once more in good cheer, and Dan said his head felt as clear as a bell. "But no more drugs for me," he added, with a deep shudder. "If Delverez or that Lola comes near me I'll shoot him on the spot."

"If Delverez sees us he'll be astonished," I said. "That is, unless he has heard of the Viscount's return."

"The chances are he has heard of it, for it's being talked about everywhere," rejoined Oliver. "And he'll try to keep out of our way, too, you can be sure of that."

On and on we went, up a steady rise, through the jungle and then out upon a broad plain composed for the most part of half-decomposed lava beds. The brush had given way to cactus and prickly vines, and once again it grew hot.

"What is that?!" questioned Dan, as he brought his horse to a halt. "Smoke and fire, I declare!"

"We are in sight of the volcano!" I cried. "See, there is the Volcano House in the distance."

We were now six thousand feet above sea level, and in some spots the vast mountain appeared to meet the clouds, which rolled away to the south and west. "It's magnificent!" murmured Oliver. "I never saw anything like it!" Yet a still more magnificent sight was still in store for us—the sight of the vast volcano crater itself, choked up with lava and spouting fire in this direction and that. The basin is shaped like an immense half-round bowl, nine miles in circumference at the top, some places of bare rock and lava and others covered with a stunted growth of trees and brush. All was in a haze of smoke and vapor, so that to gaze from side to side of this gigantic caldron was impossible.

"And now where is that treasure?" muttered Dan, as he gazed at the scene. "Boys, do you suppose we will ever be able to locate it?"

Oliver looked doubtful. "Not unless we get Joe Koloa's aid," he replied. "To start in without the map and that description, or without a guide, would be worse than looking for a pin in a haystack."

"Well, there is one thing in our favor," I remarked. "Our time is our own. We can spend a year in the hunt, if we want to."

"That would be well enough, Mark, if we were sure that Merkin or the others wouldn't slip off with the treasure in the meantime!"

"Hullo, there, boys! So you have arrived at last!" came from a distance, and looking up we saw Dr. Barton coming toward us on foot. We were soon together, and the physician gave each of us a hearty handshake.

He insisted upon hearing our story, and feeling we could trust him, we told him everything, to which he listened in amazement.

"You were lucky to escape with your lives," was his comment. "Delverez ought certainly to be in jail, and Caleb Merkin, too. I cannot see that this Joe Koloa has done any wrong. That Lola is probably as bad as anybody in the crowd."

The doctor told us that both Mr. Palmer and Mr. Carson were at the Volcano House, and as we felt curious to meet these gentlemen again, we continued on our way. But when the hotel was gained we learned that the two capitalists had left, on a tour of discovery to last a week or more.

The Volcano House was crowded with people, and once established there we lost no time in making inquiries concerning our enemies and Koloa.

At first we could learn nothing, but on the following morning we ran across a native who had met Joe Koloa in Wailuku and who remembered him well.

"He was here with an American, a fellow with one arm," said the native, whose name, real or assumed, was Lincoln Susu. "Both go off by the upper road, around the mountain."

"When was this?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"They were alone?"

"Yes, they were alone; but they hadn't been gone five minutes before two other men, a Kanaka and a Spaniard, followed them."

"By ginger!" burst out Dan. "Boys, the trail is getting warm."

"Do you know the road around the crater?" I asked of Lincoln Susu.

"Oh, yes; me volcano guide—know all the trails and roads."

I at once consulted with my chums. "Perhaps it would be a good idea to hire this man to show us the way," I suggested. "He may be able to follow them better than we can. Certainly he ought to."

"I think Mark is right," said Dan. "We don't want to get lost, or anything like that. I've had enough of being lost," and he shook his head decidedly.

"But we don't want this native to suspect what we are after," said Oliver.

"We needn't do so. We can hire him by the hour, or by the day, and dismiss him at our pleasure," I returned.

It was decided to hire Susu, and Oliver lost no time in acquainting the Kanaka of that fact. His price was fifty cents an hour, or two dollars per day, and we took him by the day.

The journey that followed was one I am not likely to forget as long as I live. We started on foot, over the rocks and rough lava beds, picking our way among the cacti and prickly bushes, jumping innumerable hollows, and sometimes letting ourselves down one side of a gully and pulling ourselves up the other side.

The lava was like glass slag, dirty black in color, and it crunched under our feet like snow that is covered with frozen hail. In some places it stuck up in sponge-like forms, and coming to such a spot I broke a piece off, to have it stick into my fingers like so many needles.

"Jinks, but that is not pleasant!" I cried, and flung the lava away. My hand pained me for several hours afterward.

On and on we went, gradually climbing to a spot where the rim of the volcano crater raised itself several hundred feet above its surroundings. The view here was better than any we had yet had, and we halted for quarter of an hour to take in the sight.

"Dat is Hale-mau-mau—House of Everlasting Fire," said Lincoln Susu, as he pointed out a portion of the active volcano. The fire leaped and fell, with a groan and a hiss, sending the boiling lava on all sides. To one side of Hale-mau-mau was a towering rock, but the intense heat was slowly but surely eating it away, and some day, unless the volcano ceases operation, that mountain of stone will be completely devoured.

"Do you smell the sulphur?" remarked Oliver. "I do."

"Oh, yes; I can smell it," I laughed. "It's the infernal regions, and no mistake. Just look below us and you will see that everything—rocks, lava, and plants—is covered with gray ashes."

"It's enough to give a fellow the creeps," came from Dan. "If a fellow fell into one of those pits it would be the last of him. Do I imagine it, or is the rock under us hot?"

"Dat rock hot," smiled Susu. "But dis nodding. You go down, over dare, him werry hot; 'most burn shoes."

"No, excuse me, I'm not going down there," answered Dan. "There may be tourists foolish enough to walk in such places, but I'm not one of them."

"Two Americans go down dare las' year. One go too close to fire an' break t'rough lava. Him friend try to pull out. Try hard—crack! All gone!" and the guide threw up his arms.

"They never got out?" I questioned.

"No, neffer get out. Nobody can help him—try tree limb—rope—everyt'ing—no good. Men sink down—down—scream much burn, but dat all. Da soon burn up."

"It's horrible!" muttered Oliver. "Come, let us go on," and he led the way, with Lincoln Susu beside him. We wanted to keep out of danger—yet we were moving into it just as fast as we could!