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CHAPTER X. A STARTLING DISCOVERY.
No one doubted for a moment that the forms scrambling over the crater’s side were really the Polar natives.

Frank picked up his rifle and cried:

“Come on, boys. Let’s have a look at those chaps.”

“Shall we go armed?” asked Randall.

“Of course. Men who have the nerve to confine white visitors in underground vaults to die of starvation are certainly men to be strongly dealt with.”

So Randall and Barney followed Frank up the mountain.

Pomp and the sailor remained to guard the Scorcher.

Up the crater ran the pursuers.

Yet they advanced cautiously, for they had no means of knowing what manner of weapons the fugitives had.

But before the summit was reached Frank received a surprise. He saw four men huddled behind a bowlder.

A voice in unmistakable English cried:

“For Heaven’s sake, mates, don’t blame us—we’re under orders!”

“Jack Mains, mate of the Pearl!” gasped Frank. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“I swear, sir, it is not our fault. Captain’s orders!” declared the Pearl’s mate, as he and his companions came forth.

“Your captain’s orders?” exclaimed Frank. “Where is he?”

“I—can’t say, sir. He went down into that valley. Maybe the water—you can guess.”

The astonishment of all was great.

“And do you mean to tell me,” exclaimed Frank, “that your captain—that Isaac Ward actually followed us hither?”

“I do, sir,” replied Mains, tremblingly.

“Where is the ship?”

“Deserted, sir. For all I know, back in the ice-pack, and not a soul on board.”

“But,” exclaimed Frank, in sheer amazement, “what on earth impelled you all to leave the ship?”

“Gold, sir.”

“Gold?”

“Yes, sir; Captain Ward thought you were down here after a great treasure, sir, and wanted to claim a share.”

This was a revelation to Frank, and the others, too.

For a moment he was speechless.

“Well,” he said, finally, “that is the worst fool’s trick I ever heard of. You say he left the ship to the mercy of the ice?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And he went down into the valley?”

“Yes, sir; all went down there except me and my three friends here; we stayed back.”

“My soul!” exclaimed Frank. “They have not returned. Then the flood overtook them. This is the plain result of avarice.”

For a time all were silent. The four sailors looked wretched enough.

“We are nigh dead from starvation,” Mains said, finally.

“Then come with me,” said Frank, moving down the mountain side. “This is a terrible affair!”

“God bless you, sir,” cried one of the sailors. “We will die for you—only take us back to America.”

“Humph!” exclaimed Frank. “It looks mighty doubtful now whether any of us get back or not.”

Back to the Scorcher they went, and Pomp gave the surviving sailors food and drink.

Then the folly of Captain Ward’s move was dilated upon. The result was a disappointment to Frank.

“I had intended remaining here for the waters to fall,” he said, “but now all depends upon our reaching the Pearl before the ice-pack breaks up. If we do not reach the ship in that time, we may give ourselves up for lost.”

“And go to swell the number of explorers who have invaded this accursed land never to return!” declared Randall.

There was certainly need of dispatch if the party was to reach the ship before the pack should break.

It was a long, arduous trip back through the fiord. It would require much time to make the trip.

Frank would have started at once, but he felt in duty bound to first learn the fate of the captain and his men for a certainty. There was a faint possibility, of course, that they had made their escape.

So a party was made up and sent along the mountain side. Frank and Barney and Randall were the members of the party.

Before he returned Frank was determined to accomplish one thing, and this was to gain the summit of the southern mountain wall and take a look at the country beyond.

They were well armed, for there was no telling what perils they might encounter on the way. They struck out along the southern verge of the crater.

Soon they were out of sight of the Scorcher among the huge bowlders. Frank led the way.

But they had little idea of the character of the region through which they were now compelled to travel.

It was fearfully rough and in places almost inaccessible.

They climbed along the mountain wall for hours and yet the southern end of the valley looked an interminable distance away. Finally they sank down from sheer exhaustion.

There was nothing for it but to camp on the spot, and this was done. In a little pocket among the crags a sheltered spot was found.

They had brought some provisions with them and were enabled to make a good meal. Then they stretched themselves out upon the ground and slept.

How long they slept they knew not, but when they awoke it was to find a peculiar state of affairs. A heavy mist hung over the mountains and rain was falling slowly.

It was evident that the storm was at hand, and for a moment Frank was nonplussed. He knew the peril of their situation at once.

The difficulty was to proceed on their journey in the dense fog.

It would be almost impossible to tell where they were going. It was impossible to get accurate bearings.

It would be just as difficult to find their way back to the Scorcher. Here was a predicament.

What was to be done?

There seemed no other way than to remain where they were until after the storm should pass. How long this would be it was impossible to guess.

Now, to Frank, this was especially irritating, for he knew that time was valuable. He was exceedingly impatient.

And yet he was at a loss to know how to remedy the difficulty. There seemed no way but to wait until the storm had passed.

It shut down now blacker than ever. Soon the mist lifted a trifle and the rain fell harder.

Hours passed and they seemed like months. At length Frank could stand it no longer.

“That settles it,” he cried. “We cannot do worse than stay here. Let us make an effort to return.”

“And give up the expedition?” asked Randall.

“Yes; we are obliged to do that. If we can return in safety to the Scorcher that will be all I will ask.”

“I’m with you, Frank,” agreed the geologist. “I think we’ve done our best, and we had better return to the ship. Perhaps we can venture a trip of exploration hither at some other time.”

“It will have to be so,” declared Frank.

“Be me sowl, I’m afther thinkin’ we’ll lose our way in this mist,” said Barney, apprehensively.

“Oh, I think not,” said Randall. “What if we fired signal guns? Perhaps those on board the Scorcher will hear us.”

This suggestion seemed not a bad one. So, as they wandered on through the mist, Randall fired his rifle at intervals.

It was not long ere an answer came. It was a faint shot, and far in the distance.

But it was enough.

It indicated the fact that the Scorcher was not beyond hearing. Frank tried to locate the searchlight’s glare.

The sound of firing seemed to come from a point higher up the mountain side, and the adventurers accordingly kept on in that direction.

At intervals Randall fired his gun, and the answer came. But one fact impressed the trio curiously.

This was that the firing sounded more and more distant, though they were going as the sound guided them directly toward it.

The meaning of this was not easy to understand.

Fainter and fainter grew the answering shots. Then Randall halted.

“We are certainly going in the wrong direction!” he declared. “Pretty quick we won’t be able to hear those shots at all.”

“You are right,” agreed Frank. “It must be that the mist transfers the sound to different points of the compass.”

“Begorra, we kin go no furder dis way, anyhow!” cried Barney, who was a little in advance.

“How is that?” asked Frank.

“Shure, sor, there’s a steep place here, and a big hole. Will yez have a look at it?”

Frank and Randall ran forward. At their feet yawned a deep abyss.

It was the crater.

They had climbed the cone to the very summit. There was little wonder that the sounds of firing had grown so faint.


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