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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Mercer Boys on a Treasure Hunt » CHAPTER VIII THE SEARCH IS BEGUN
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“According to this thing,” said Terry, with a grin, “if we find that treasure the dragon will eat us!”

It was on the following day and the entire group was bent over the manuscript which had been written by the long dead priest. The book lay spread out on the library table before them, yellow and fragile, with corners which threatened to fall away to dust at their touch. Rotted cord held it together and had broken in so many places that the ancient book held together by a miracle.

They had read together the thrilling story of the flight from the English barks, of the wreck in the lonely creek, and the description of the treasure up to the point where the missing pages spoiled the worthwhileness of the manuscript.

“That galleon must have been pretty big,” Jim had said. “How big is an English bark?”

“A bark is a three-masted, square-rigged vessel. The mizzenmast is fore-and-aft rigged, if I remember my history correctly,” the professor replied. “There are still barks left in service, and you can see that they were of a fair size from the fact that they had three masts.”

The statement regarding the dragon had drawn Terry’s attention. It was a solemn statement to the effect that if anyone who was not a subject of His Sovereign Majesty the King of Spain attempted to lay hands on the treasure the guardian dragon would utterly destroy them.

“I wouldn’t pay much attention to that,” smiled the professor. “In the first place, the Spaniards stole it from the Indians, and it never did belong to His Sovereign Majesty. We won’t worry about the dragon until we have found the treasure.”

They had planned to start out on the following day in an effort to find the river up which the galleon had sailed. The professor declined to accompany them.

“You boys go ahead and do the hunting,” he said. “I’m a little too old to be riding around the country looking for gold. But when you find it I’ll help you dig it out.”

“Well, if we don’t find it, we’ll have a good camping trip, anyway,” said Ned, who knew that his father did not place much stock in his ideas regarding the treasure.

It had been agreed that no long trip was to be arranged just yet. Ned planned to explore the coast for several miles to the south at present, and if that failed to show any signs of a river or the wreck to make preparations for a trip of several days. They were to be gone overnight this time and that was all.

So on the following day they were ready to go. Each boy had a packet of provisions and his blanket strapped on the back of his saddle and a light automatic rifle in his hands. The boys had been taught to shoot with a fair degree of accuracy at Woodcrest School and so felt no fear of appearing backward in that respect in Ned Scott’s eyes. They all shook hands with the professor, who wished them luck, and then they rode away to the southward in the first step of their hunt for the Spanish treasure.

The day was warm and clear, and before they had been many hours on the open plain they felt the heat keenly. The sun beat down directly on the flat, dry soil, and dancing waves of heat soon showed above the ground, as far as the eye could see. Ned would have turned to the distant mountains except that their search lay along the sea coast and they would gain nothing by seeking the coolness of the higher lands.

“What mountains are those?” Don asked, pointing to the sweeping ranges.

“That central range which you see is the Sierra Gigantea,” explained Ned. “In some places it is three and four thousand feet above sea level. The high ranges are north and south, and on this southwestern side the rocks are granitic. There is plenty of sandstone on the other slope, and the range is full of volcanic dykes.”

“Looks mighty cool up there,” said Terry, mopping his forehead.

“It is. We have all kinds of weather in this country, from burning tropical heat and its characteristic vegetation to the icy cold of the peaks.”

In the afternoon they halted under a friendly group of trees and ate a light lunch, stretching out to talk afterward for a brief time. The afternoon was even hotter than the morning, and while they did not feel like sleeping they did enjoy the rest under the trees. They resumed their journey after three o’clock, keeping the calm blue waters of the Pacific in sight all the while.

Several creeks were found, but none of them were wide enough to have ever allowed the passage of a galleon, although they were forced to bear in mind the fact that the passage of centuries might have closed up small rivers or narrowed creeks. Sandstorms rapidly changed the topography of countries, they knew. They followed two large streams for several miles inland and then cut across country again to the sea.

When they stopped for their supper Ned said: “The fact is, we may be looking the wrong way. Perhaps we should have gone north instead of south. The directions in the manuscript were vague, much as though the priest himself did not know just where he was at the time. After all, this whole hunt is a matter of faith, and if we don’t ever find anything we’ll just put it all down as a good time and a summer vacation.”

“Of course,” rejoined Don, heartily. “But I feel as you do, that the treasure was never found again. But aren’t you neglecting one very good clue?”

“What is that?” asked Ned, quickly.

“You recall that peculiar piece of wreckage that was picked up by the steam trawler? Well, the funny thing was that no other piece of the galleon to which it was a part could be found anywhere nearby. Don’t you feel that it was washed out of a nearby creek and settled in the mud in the place where the fishing boat found it?”

“There was no creek anywhere near it,” Ned answered.

“Perhaps not, but it could have come from quite some distance. Are we near the place where the piece of wreckage was found?”

“It was found about fifty miles further up the coast,” Ned said.

“It is my opinion that somewhere near there the galleon ran up a river. Can we go there tomorrow?”

“Well,” said Ned, slowly. “I think if we visit that spot we had better plan to make a much longer stay of it. We ought to spend several days in the vicinity, perhaps a week. Suppose we spend the night here, go home in the morning and outfit for an intensive hunt.”

“That would be a good idea,” Jim thought.

“I think we should,” argued Don. “You plan to run over every inch of the coast north and south, don’t you? Then I think we might as well outfit ourselves for a hard and active campaign.”

The sun was now going down, turning the hills and distant mountains into things of rare beauty as the multitude of lights danced and gleamed along the crests of the mighty range. The boys cut enough wood to last them through the night, and sat around a glowing little fire, telling Ned of past adventures until they all were sleepy enough to go to bed.

“By golly,” said Terry, as he rolled himself up in his blanket. “In the daytime you roast around here and at night you need a blanket. Very unreliable climate, I must say. Jim, will you kindly dust the snow off me when you arise in the morning!”

They were up early in the morning and ate a hearty breakfast, enjoying the glory of another perfect day. Ned calculated that they would strike the ranch again about noontime, and soon they were in the saddle once more, striking north along the sea coast. They had gone along the hard sand at a brisk trot for some ten miles when Jim stopped and pointed to a group of buildings back against a sandy cliff.

“What is that place?” he asked.

“That is a group of tannery buildings,” explained Ned as they jogged on toward it. “Years ago, in the days of the sailing ships, when California and Lower California were first opened up, hides were collected inland and dragged to that cliff, where they were thrown down below, still in a raw state. Then, while the ships went on up the coast, a picked crew of sailors remained here, curing the hides and storing them until the ship returned and picked them up.”

“I remember reading about it in that fine old book, ‘Two Years Before the Mast,’” said Don. “I’m glad of the chance to see one of the tanneries.”

When they arrived at the mouldering tannery they dismounted and went inside, examining with interest this last relic of an ancient business. The buildings were made of rough logs, hauled for many miles to the coast, and some scraps of ancient hides still clung to the storage racks. The vats were still there, stained with many colors, and a heavy smell was still noticeable indoors. Outside they found the framework of the stretching racks.

“That certainly is interesting,” commented Jim. “You must tell your father, Ned. Perhaps he’ll want to come and look at the place.”

“We’ll tell him,” the young engineer nodded, as they resumed their journey.

Ned’s calculations were correct, for it was just noontime when they arrived at his ranch. They rode down the incline toward the house, which looked deserted. Ned whistled but there was no response.

“Maybe dad is still in bed,” he laughed, as he swung from his horse.

But when they went into the house the professor was not to be found. Nor was the cook around. Ned hurried to the barns and looked for Yappi, but in vain. As he hurried back to the house Don called to him.

“It’s all right, Ned,” Don said. “There is a note from him on the table. He has gone out looking for plant specimens.”

Ned hastened into the room, relief on his brown face, and took up the note. It was a simple message, worded as Don had explained, but as Ned read it his brow darkened.

“Look here,” he said, crisply. “Do you know what dad’s first name is?”

“I don’t,” answered Don, and Jim shook his head. Don pointed to the note. “I see he signed it ‘Duress Scott.’ I never heard of that name before.”

“It isn’t a name,” was the startling answer. “Dad signed it that way to let us know that he signed it under duress, under compulsion! The cook and the overseer are both gone, evidently carried off by the same gang who captured dad!”

“I’ll bet everything I’ve got that it is Sackett again!” groaned Jim. “What are we to do?”

“Just as soon as we can tie up a little grub and fill up with plenty of ammunition we’ll start to run those fellows down,” said Ned, grimly. “I think it is high time that somebody put an end to Mr. Sackett and Company, and we’re going to do it!”

“That’s the talk!” cried Terry. “War to the knife! Where is my gun?”


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