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CHAPTER XXIII THE DRAGON’S LAST STROKE
The sun had barely raised above the horizon on the following day before the ranch echoed to the preparations for the treasure hunt. The boys had slept poorly, looking forward eagerly to the time when they should be in close contact with the long buried ship in the desert sands. With hurry and bustle and good-natured shouts they prepared to set out.

Now that their minds had been relieved of all anxiety concerning Sackett and his gang their spirits soared as only those of the young adventurous can. They had spent a jolly evening around the fireplace on the previous day, talking, planning and laughing over some of Captain Blow’s humorous stories. It was late before they sought their beds, and the professor had been compelled to curb some of their animal vigor.
220

Jim had stood at the foot of his bed, surrounded by Ned, Don and Terry. Captain Blow and Professor Scott were preparing for bed in another room at the time. There had been some pillow throwing and now Jim was acting a part.

“This is the way Terry kicked the gun out of the overseer’s hand,” he said. He was in his pajamas at the time and the other boys were also ready for bed. Jim loosed a vigorous kick in front of him, but his enthusiasm proved his undoing. The force caused him to lose his balance, and amidst the shouts of delight of his companions he thumped to the floor, knocking the wind out of himself.

“That was some kick!” exclaimed Don, laughing. “No wonder the poor overseer lost his gun! If the kick had that much force I bet the gun sailed clear into the ocean!”

“I protest,” put in Terry, solemnly. “I never cut such a wild figure as that! Your imagination is running away with you, Jimmie, my boy!”

“Somebody else had better start running away!” puffed Jim, in huge disgust. “Just wait until I get up!”
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Once up he bore down on the grinning Terry and bowled him onto the bed. Don reached for his foot, but received a hearty thrust in the stomach from the foot, which Jim declared he had tickled. Don then jumped on the wiggling chums and Ned stood laughing. But in a minute he too was drawn into hostilities. He attempted to pile pillows on the warring factions, who promptly turned upon him, and the four young men were soon engaged in a frantic tussle that overturned one bed and mussed them up royally.

Such was the scene that greeted the eyes of Captain Blow and Professor Scott as they hastily entered the room. The professor opened his mouth to protest, but the captain, his gray eyes snapping with mischief, whispered something to him. The professor smiled and nodded and they ran forward, the professor seizing the ankles of Terry, who happened to be on top of the pile, while Blow grasped his shoulders.

“Heave aloft!” bellowed the captain, and in concert they heaved.

To his astonishment Terry felt himself lifted bodily from the struggling mass and tossed through the air, to land with a bounce on the bed. Ned Scott followed and Jim followed him. Don, seeing what was in the wind, made a frantic scramble to get under the bed, but to the delight of the watching boys he was switched from under by the active captain and treated to a ride through the air. When he had finally landed with a thud on the bed the two older men promptly sat on him.
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“Now,” said the professor, with mock severity. “What is the meaning of all this?”

“Jim was illustrating something,” replied Terry, gravely. “And we helped him out!”

“By jumping tinder!” cried the captain. “I don’t know what in time you could have been illustrating! Showing your affection for each other, likely!”

“What ever it was,” said the professor. “I suggest that you stop it. We want to make an early start in the morning and you can save some of that energy for digging sand. From the noise we heard we thought that Sackett had returned and was trying to carry one or all of you off. Who upset the bed?”

“All of us,” said Don, truthfully.

“I don’t doubt it. Well, to bed now, and calm down a bit.”
223

Now, on the morning of the hunt, the boys impatiently ate their breakfast and placed blankets and provisions on the horses. There was no telling how long they would linger around the sunken galleon, and they wanted to be sure that it would not be necessary to cut the visit short because of a lack of provisions. It had been decided to take the mestizo along with them and leave only the cook at home. When all arrangements had been made they started briskly off.

The day was bright and somewhat cool and they made rapid progress, the boys in their eagerness keeping always ahead of their elders. The older men wisely held them in check, realizing that there was a long journey in front of them and not wishing to run the risk of tiring out before they got there. They halted once for a meal and then pushed on, not stopping for a nap in the afternoon, since it was not hot enough to do so, and just as evening drew on they topped a small hill and looked down on the valley in which Jim and Terry had so nearly lost their life.

“There is the wreck!” shouted Jim, pointing to the corner of the galleon which they had uncovered. “Looks as though no one had been near it, all right.”

No one had apparently been near the place, for there were no traces of footmarks in the sand other than those left by the two boys and the treacherous overseer. They rode down the incline and picketed the horses, hastening at once to the few feet of deck uncovered. The professor gazed at the uncovered rail in rapture.
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“By George, this is wonderful!” he exclaimed, his face glowing with the enthusiasm of the scholar. “Just think, after reading a story like that, to run across the very ship on which it happened! I hope we can uncover the whole ship!”

“Ned,” asked Don. “Where was that piece of wreckage found, the piece that first gave the idea of a sunken galleon?”

“About three miles north of here,” replied the engineer. “I guess I see what you are getting at. You think that the piece was washed out of the creek that used to be here, and was found, after it drifted down shore?”

“Yes,” nodded Don. “Don’t you think so?”

“I surely do,” assented Ned, stepping down onto the deck of the buried galleon. “Is this the hatchway?”

Terry lifted the hatch, which they had replaced when they had left the galleon with the Mexican. “Yes, and here is the flight of stairs. Did anyone bring a flashlight?”

“I have one,” said the professor, producing it from his saddle bag. “Let’s be very careful about going down those stairs.”
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It was now dark and the flashlight was needed. The professor flashed the beam of light down the stairs and went first, treading with infinite care, but the steps were apparently solid. The others, with the exception of the mestizo, who would not trust himself in a place which looked so much like a trap, followed the savant down into the hold of the ancient ship.

“There is the treasure chest,” said Jim, and the professor swung the beam of light on the mouldering chest. Don lifted the lid and the gold was revealed.

They fingered it and found that it consisted of coins of various degrees. The professor did not recognize any of them except some pieces of eight.

“Sorry I didn’t study up on ancient coins,” murmured the teacher. “However, I’m pretty sure that there is quite a fortune here.”

“No doubt there is a substantial treasure further down in the sand,” suggested Ned.

“Yes,” the professor agreed. “Cups and plate silver and perhaps other things. The sailors didn’t carry anything away with them, expecting to return and gather it all on some other occasion, I presume.” He turned his light from side to side. “The hold here was filled with water, and all above deck must have been burned. We won’t find much of anything until we get down under the sand.”
226

After some more looking around they went outside and made camp close to the wreck, the boys again hacking firewood from the remains of the galleon. They ate supper and then sat around the fire discussing plans and waiting for the morrow and daylight.

“It is going to be quite a job digging into that sand,” observed the captain. “In the first place, it’s mighty wet.”

“Yes,” said the professor. “I’m very much afraid it is too much of a job for us to attempt. It will take a whole crew to dig down into those ruins, and a regular excavating gang will be the ones to do it. However, we can look around and see what we can pick up ourselves, and then later see to it that the right sort of a company goes to work on the job.”

“We’ll have to make a legal claim to it, won’t we?” asked Jim.

Ned nodded. “That will have to be our first job. If we don’t anybody who comes along will be able to take it right out of our hands. It is much the same as discovering a gold mine, only in this case the gold is already refined and cast for us.”
227

“I can’t wait until morning!” said the impatient Terry.

“I’m glad you said that,” the professor spoke seriously. “I want you boys to promise me that you won’t go on the wreck at any time during the night or in the morning before we are all awake and ready to tackle it. We have had quite a bit of trouble so far and we want to avoid any more, certainly any that may turn out to be more serious than any we have had. I don’t believe that there are any ghosts or goblins on the thing that will hurt you, but we had better not do anything that we’ll regret.”

“I for one won’t,” Terry promised. “I remember what that dragon says in the old manuscript!”

The others promised, and after some further talk they all went to sleep and remained asleep until daylight. After a hasty breakfast they went to the wreck once more.

“Fine day we have for our treasure hunting party,” remarked Don, as they went down the hatchway.

It was indeed a fine day, with a clear blue sky and a bright sun. Once down in the hold, however, all light and warmth was shut out, except for a single shaft that came in from the open hatchway.
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“Now,” said the professor, who was the leader. “We aren’t going to be able to do much with this proposition, but I suggest that we at least dig out this room. It wouldn’t be of any use to dig down into the main hold of the galleon, for it would take us months and it would be dangerous work. Before anything like that is done all sand would have to be cleared away from the sides of the ship.”

The room in which they stood, and which held the chest of gold, was about fourteen feet square. With small trench shovels brought from the ranch they went to work on the moist sand, digging it out and by a system of relays throwing it out on the deck. Don stood on a wide step where the sand was deposited by Ned, the professor and Jim, and shovelled it up to the hatch, where Terry and Blow threw it to one side. They worked on with a will, and although it soon became hard work no one complained.

It was soon found that the chest of gold had been upon a table at the time of the sinking of the galleon, for they had scarcely begun their work before they struck the top of the table. It was soon uncovered and proved to be a massive affair of black wood. It was about four feet high, and when they had cleared away the sand down to the bottom they found solid flooring.
229

From time to time they changed positions so as to give each one a chance to work inside the buried galleon and also to get a chance at the sunlight. The person who relayed the sand on the stairs had the hardest job, as he was compelled to stoop down, scoop the sand, straighten up and throw it out of the hatch. Don was not sorry to give up his post and get out on the deck, and later on to get down into the old hold.

When Don got downstairs the room had been almost completely excavated and some more treasure had been found. Several bars of solid silver had been uncovered in one corner and even the walls held relics, in the shape of several old muskets and knives, along with a rusted sword. There were two heavy chairs in the room also, which were both overturned, probably by the force of the shock when the galleon ran aground.

They stopped at dinner time to eat, all of them being profoundly grateful for the respite. The room in which they had been working was now almost empty and they decided to do a little more work and then take the gold and as much silver as they could carry and go back to the ranch, there to put in motion the necessary machinery to make the treasure theirs. Accordingly, as soon as the noon meal was finished, they went back to work.
230

“Better not do much more excavating,” warned Captain Blow. “That pile of wet sand on the deck is getting pretty heavy.”

They finished excavating that room, finding nothing more of importance and then held a parley. There was a door in one side of the room and they were in doubt as to whether to open it. The professor feared that something might happen if they did, but the others disagreed with him, so the door was finally chopped open.

It came out of its frame with a rush, disclosing nothing but a blank wall of sand. Some portion of the deck, as yet under sand, had evidently been ripped off or had burned off, and in that manner the ship had filled completely, much as a paper boat that a child buries in the sand. They picked at the wall of sand before them, but it was solid and they gave it up.

“I guess this will be as much as we’ll want to do,” the professor announced. “The rest of the job is for a regular crew of excavators, and moreover, must be undertaken scientifically. We’ll be satisfied to go back with what we have and lay claim to the rest of it in the right way.”
231

“Are you thinking of starting tonight?” asked Terry, looking at his watch. “It is five o’clock now!”

“Is it that late?” cried Captain Blow. “By thunder mighty! this day zipped right by!”

“Yes, it is that late,” retorted the professor, consulting his own watch. “We’ve been so busy and interested that we haven’t kept track of the time. No, we won’t start back tonight. We’ll stay in camp and start early in the morning!”

“All right, suppose we get back,” suggested the captain. “The bottom of my stomach is sunk lower than this fishing smack!”

They went up the stairs, Ned and Don stopping to examine one of the musty guns that was on the wall. The others stepped off of the deck and onto the sand, and seeing that the two boys were not with them, the professor called out: “Come on, boys, back to camp.”

“We’re coming!” Don replied, as he started up the stairs, with Ned a step or two back of him. Don had just thrust his head out of the hatchway when there came a warning shout from Terry.

“Hurry up!” he yelled. “The sand is sliding!”
232

The wet sand which they had piled up during the day suddenly slid down the hill with gathering force. Don sprang forward quickly, but was too late. The sand hit the deck of the galleon, there was a dull report and a sucking sensation, and then the whole room which they had excavated caved in. The deck, rotting and weakened, gave way under the descending weight of the wet and dry sand, and went through with a roar. Don and Ned disappeared from sight, buried alive in the wreck of the galleon!

The party on the shore stared dumbly for one minute, appalled by the horror of the tragedy, and then Captain Blow leaped forward.

“Come on and dig!” he cried. “If we don’t dig like fury they’ll smother to death!”

As the others followed him the intrepid captain leaped down on the heap of sand where the boys had last been seen and began to dig frantically. The sand was loose and he sank down in it, but he dug without heeding his own peril, and the others helped him. Don’s hand speedily worked loose from the sand and they caught hold of it.

“Work right around his arm,” cried the captain. “Be careful not to hit his head with your shovels.”
233

The scene was one of wildest confusion. By digging with furious energy they got Don’s head free and only just in time. He was purple and fairly clawed for air. They attempted to drag him loose, but failed. He pushed the sand from his mouth and spoke urgently.

“Get Ned!” he gasped. “He’s down around my knees, somewhere!”

The professor’s face was white and he silently kneeled beside Don’s head and dug with all his strength. Terry and Jim held the slippery sand back as the two men shovelled it away, and in a few seconds, which seemed like hours to them, one of Ned’s shoulders was uncovered. Dropping their shovels the men wormed their hands beneath his armpit and tore him loose from the sand.

“Here, water, senor,” said Yappi, appearing beside them with a canteen.

Ned was blue and unconscious, and they were forced to dig the sand from his nose and mouth before he could catch his breath. When he had become conscious he drank some water, and Don followed his example. They both were free to breathe but were still buried and sinking, for the sand was sifting down into the room below.

“This fight has only just begun,” said the captain, grimly. “We’ve got to get them out of here as fast as we can.”
234

Then began a spirited battle between the men and the sand, the human beings putting every ounce of strength into the battle to keep their companions from being engulfed again and the sand exerting its power to entomb them once more, with a persistence that was perfectly amazing. The muscles of the friends ached, for they were tired from the events of the day, but they knew it was a race of life and death. They dug ceaselessly, throwing sand as far away as possible, baffled and maddened by the steady stream of the soil that returned to the charge.

It grew steadily darker and at last the captain, who had assumed charge of the rescue operations spoke briefly to the professor. “Tell your man to light a big fire,” he commanded.

When this was done they labored on, and after an hour had gone by they were down as far as the boys’ waists. They were working in a hollow that had been made even more of a hole than normally by the collapse of the deck, and so the sand proved to be a persistent foe. As fast as they threw it up it slid back, and there was no way to keep it up.
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“Now,” said the captain, briskly. “Tell your man to back the horses down here, throw out a hawser, grapple onto those lads, and tow ’em out!”

When this had been put into the kind of language that Yappi could understand he quickly ran the horses into position, threw out a rope, and it was passed under Don’s armpits. Yappi sprang into the saddle gave the horse the pressure of his heels, his hand steady to check him at moment’s notice.

The rope tightened, and the boys pushed Don’s body, with the result that he was hauled out of the treacherous hole. Nothing was said at the time, and Don made all haste to scramble to safety, shaken by his experience. It was now an easier task to get at Ned, for the freeing of Don had left a bigger hole, and they tied him up securely. This time the horse strained, the boy gritted his teeth as the rope cut into his body, and the others pushed with a will. With a final rush he came up and out of the hole.

“Hurrah!” shouted the captain, dropping his shovel. “The battle is won, mates! By tunket, let’s get out of here.”
236

They made haste to leave the place and then had a happy reunion. The professor’s lips moved as he pressed Ned to him and Jim’s eyes were not steady when he hugged Don. Terry addressed the remains of the wreck, while the mestizo patted the head of the horse.

“Pretty smart, you old mud scow!” the red-headed boy said. “That was the dragon’s last stroke, and he nearly made good on it.”


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