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CHAPTER XXXII.


THE CAVE OF PEARLS AT LAST.


Had I stopped suddenly in my rolling I must have been seriously injured, but nothing lay in my way, and on and on I went until the bottom of the vast lava incline was reached, and I found myself lying on a level bed several hundred yards in extent.

I was dazed and bewildered, and it was fully a minute before I felt like picking myself up. Then I shook myself to see if any bones were broken.

"Mark, where are you?" The cry came as if from the clouds, and looking up I saw Dan and Oliver standing where I had stood but a few minutes before.

"Look out!" I yelled, but my warning came too late. The lava tilted once more, and down they came, each clasped in the other's arms, and going over and over like a barrel. Somehow, I felt like laughing, yet the happening was a serious matter.

"Well, I'm blowed!" gasped Oliver, when he could speak. "Talk about snow sliding! This beats anything I ever saw before!"

"Are you hurt?" I asked.

"Scratched a little, that's all."

"How about you, Dan?"

"I feel rather sick at my stomach. But that doesn't matter. I'm glad to escape with my life. Now where have we come to?"

"We're down in a part of the volcano basin, that is all I can tell you."

"Any danger of breaking through and going to kingdom come?"

"That's to be found out later. We'll have to proceed with caution."

"I don't see any way by which we can reach that hill again," put in Oliver. "The whole side of the crater seems to be most tremendously steep."

We walked on slowly and cautiously, our feet crunching the lava with a sound that occasionally made our hearts leap with fear. Once I broke through up to my ankles, but I speedily leaped to a safer spot.

"It's pretty hot," said Oliver. He put his hand down to the lava, but quickly withdrew it. "Jingo, it burnt me!"

"We must be over an active portion of Kilauea," said Dan. "For my part, we can't get away too fast."

Night found us still in the crater basin, but at a spot that seemed to be comparatively safe. We were now utterly exhausted and glad enough to throw ourselves down to rest. All were hungry and thirsty, but nobody complained.

At the first sign of dawn we continued our journey. We were now mounting a gully running upward and away from the basin proper. We toiled along until a tiny stream was reached. The water was warm and tasted of sulphur, yet we drank eagerly, and also partook of some halfwild plantains we discovered in a hollow.

"I suppose we'll have to take a fresh start when we get out of this scrape," remarked Oliver, when, glancing across the gully, I saw something that caused me to cry out in wonder.

"The two-headed idol!"

"What!" came from my two chums simultaneously.

"There is the two-headed idol, covered with lava and dirt," I went on, and pointed with my hand. "Great Cæsar! look out!"

As I concluded I took to my heels, and so did my companions, for over to where I had pointed the lava had suddenly uplifted, and now from some unknown depth shot a column of fire and melted rocks a foot thick and twenty to thirty feet high. The lava started to flow toward us, but soon found another course down the gully.

"We are blocked!" cried Oliver, when he could speak. "We have found the entrance to the Cave of Pearls, but see how it is guarded. No wonder Joe Koloa didn't come here to get the treasure."

At Oliver's words we stared blankly at one another. Did he speak the truth and was our hunt to end then and there?

"There may be another entrance to the cave," suggested Dan.

"I doubt it, for see how high yonder mountain is. The cave must extend into the very heart of that pile of rocks—that is, if the cave is really there."

"Oh, it must be there," I said. "If not we——"

I stopped short, as Dan pulled both me and Oliver back. "Look," he said. "Get out of sight, just as quick as you can!"

A big rock was handy and behind this we crouched. Looking in the direction Dan pointed out, we beheld Caleb Merkin and Ramon Delverez approaching, with a wild-looking Kanaka between them.

"That must be Joe Koloa," said Oliver. "See, each has him tight by the arm."

"I'll wager Koloa doesn't want to go with them," I answered. "Listen."

"Let me go!" came from the Kanaka. "Take all de pearls, but let poor Joe go. De fire god will eat um up!"

"The fire got shan't touch you," came from Caleb Merkin.

"I won't go!" shrieked the native, and began to fight with all the strength at his command. Instantly Merkin and Delverez knocked him down.

"Don't let him git away, partner," howled Merkin. "Remember, if you stand by me in this deal, you're to have half of what's found."

"I am with you," came from Ramon Delverez. "But don't kill the man, or we'll never get into the cave."

The struggle continued, until finally Joe Koloa seemed to collapse. Then the pair of rascals hauled the frightened native to his feet.

"Now show us the entrance to the cave," commanded Caleb Merkin.

"And do so at once, or I will shoot you," added Delverez, and produced a pistol.

Trembling in every limb the Kanaka started forward again, taking a course to the left of the column of fire which had just spouted up. The trio passed out of sight behind a projecting rock, and we saw nothing more of them for the time being.

With cautious steps we followed until we came to the rock just mentioned. Here the air was filled with smoke, and the rock itself was so hot that one might almost have cooked a meal upon it.

"This is getting risky," whispered Oliver. "I'll tell you what, Merkin and Delverez have more nerve than I gave them credit for."

"Some men will risk anything for gold," returned Dan. "Look at ourselves, for instance," he added, almost to himself.

Those ahead had entered the cave through a slit in the lava beds. Here was a passageway not over three feet wide by twenty or thirty feet in height. Looking ahead, we saw that somebody had lighted a torch, the flame dancing over a ceiling far above us.

"Come on!" urged Oliver. "And mind you have your pistols ready," and again we proceeded, a step at a time, for the flooring was uneven and here and there were holes leading to almost bottomless pits.

Joe Koloa was still protesting that his fire god would consume them all and his captors still held him tightly by the arms. But the three were going on, and they did not come to a halt until at least a hundred yards of the great cavern was covered.

"The pearls!" The cry came from Caleb Merkin, and, looking, we saw him dart forward to where there was a slight rise in the cave flooring. Here was a rude, native earthenware bowl, filled almost to overflowing with pearls, big and little.

"The pearls!" repeated Delverez. "Give me my share of them! Remember, I am to have half," and he pulled Caleb Merkin backward, that he might get at the bowl. Now that the treasure had been found both of the rascals seemed to be crazed with joy.

I must confess that my own heart beat rapidly, and looking at Oliver I saw that he was trembling with suppressed excitement. Suddenly he left Dan and me, and leaping upon Delverez, hurled him with tremendous violence against the lava wall of the cave.

"This treasure is mine; you cannot have it!" he cried, and pushed Merkin back also. Then, before either could interfere, he grabbed up the bowl and began to retreat.

"Oliver, this way!" I shouted, when I saw that he was going in the wrong direction. But he did not hear me, and I ran after him, and so did Dan.

A shot rang out, fired by Ramon Delverez, and the bullet passed close to my head. "No make a noise!" I heard Koloa scream. "You break down the lava!" But Delverez did not heed him. He fired twice more, and Merkin also fired.

The shots echoed and re-echoed throughout the vast cavern, until it sounded as if a regiment of infantry were at work. Then of a sudden came a grinding, tearing, ripping crash that sounded like the crack of doom. I felt the cavern floor roll and rock, and, catching hold of Dan, both of us fell in a heap. What seemed like a dull explosion followed, and then for a few minutes I knew absolutely nothing.