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An Unexpected Meeting

STARTLED by the sudden collapse of the old man, the boys hardly knew what to do. For a few moments they feared that he had died, but a fluttering of the eyelids and tremors in the hands told that it was only a fainting spell. “We'll have to get him to a doctor, quick!” exclaimed red-haired Bert with his characteristic energy.

“Yes,” agreed Harry. “I'll start the motor. You take the wheel, Bert, as you had only just started on your trick when we bumped his boat. Dick, you stay near him.”

“All right,” answered Bert. “And you'd better speed up too, Harry. He needs a doctor quick, I'm thinking.”

“Probably. Well, we'll make the best time we can, but we can't go very fast towing his boat or we'll break the rope.”

“What'll I do if he goes off again?” asked Dick, for now the old man seemed much more revived.

“Just let him rest and take it easy,” advised Harry. “I think it's the shock more than anything else that ails him. He'll be all right after a rest.”

“But I wonder what he meant by the treasure hunt?” ventured Bert as he started for the cockpit to assume charge of the wheel.

Unexpectedly the old man answered him by saying, more vigorously than might have been expected:

“It is the treasure in gold which was lost off the Santa Clara many years ago, when that ship sank somewhere in these waters. I have been searching for it many years.”

“When the Santa Clara sank?” murmured Dick, questioningly.

“Why, your own boat is named———”

“I have called all the boats I used in searching for the treasure after the original ship of that name,” murmured the old man. “The original Santa Clara was a much larger boat than mine—than your rocket craft, even—and my father was on board when she was lost.”

“And was your father lost, also?” asked Harry.

“No, though it might have been better for him if he had been,” was the despondent answer. “He would not have had to live, a heart-broken refugee, nor would I have had to spend most of my life searching for the treasure his enemies said he hid for his own use. No!” cried the Spaniard with sudden energy. “The gold is at the bottom of the sea, and I shall yet find it and vindicate my father's name! I shall find the gold treasure, though it has baffled me for many years! I must keep on with the quest! I must———”

Either overcome by his physical weakness or the stress of his emotions, the old man sank back once more on the locker seat and closed his eyes.

“He's gone again!” exclaimed Dick.

“Only a faint,” suggested Harry. “He'll be all right. Just let him rest.”

The tall lad opened the mixing valve, allowing the chemicals to combine to generate the propelling gas. This gas flowed into the charging chamber and thence to the rocket tubes, where it was exploded by the electric spark. Opening the throttle slowly, to allow the boat to acquire speed gradually, Harry soon worked up the motor to about a quarter of its maximum.

Bert, at the wheel, swung the Hippocampus around until she was headed for Key West again.

“We're leaving in good season,” observed Harry as he looked out of a cabin window at the weather. “There's a storm brewing.”

“What would have happened to him if he had been caught out in it?” asked Dick in a low voice, for he could leave the old man now, as he seemed to be resting quietly.

“I guess he's been through more than one storm,”

Harry replied.

“I wonder who he is, and if there's anything in that strange story he hinted at?” went on the stout lad.

“We'll probably be able to find out from Bert's uncle,” Harry said. “If our new friend lives in Key West he must be known there. It is a strange tale, though.”

“Very strange if you ask me!” commented Dick.

The run back to Key West was made in good time, and as the rocket craft entered the harbor and made for the dock where Mr. Armitage kept some of his boats, the curious crowd gathered again.

“She comes back!” someone exclaimed.

“And safe!” added another.

“She couldn't do it I Nope, she couldn't—not without a propeller, and she ain't got one!” declared the persistent doubter.

The Hippocampus was made fast and the Santa Clara moored near her. Then the boys prepared to go ashore. They had thought that to get the old man, whose name they had not yet learned, to a doctor would be difficult. But he had revived sufficiently on the trip in to be able to walk up the gangplank from the float to the dock.

“Take good care of my boat and what is in it!” he requested.

“It will be safe with ours. My uncle docks his boats here,” Bert said.

“Your uncle, senor?” questioned the old man.

“Yes. Mr. Adrian Armitage.”

“Ah, yes, Senor Armitage. I am delighted to know his nephew.”

“These are my chums, Harry Donovan and Dick Westberry,” said Bert, making the introductions. Before the old man could announce his name, several persons in the crowd did it for him, evidently knowing him well, for the boys could hear murmurs of:

“Senor Palmara!”

“The old gold seeker!”

“The treasure hunter!”

And several in the crowd made motions and smiled in a manner to indicate that Senor Alvez Palmara, which proved to be the old man's name, was not altogether right in his head.

Ignoring this significant intimation, though as a matter of fact the boys had already designated Senor Palmara as “queer,” Harry asked him:

“Shall we get you a doctor here or do you want us to hire a taxi and take you to his office? We don't know any doctor but———”

“It is not necessary, senor,” was the courteous reply. “I am much better. I do not believe I shall need a doctor. It was just the sudden shock of fearing I was to be rammed and sent to the bottom, as was the gold treasure, that unnerved me for a time.

“I am much better now, and if you will be so kind as to call for me a taxi I shall go to my own home. And there I should be pleased to receive you any time when you wish to come,” he added with a new dignity. “It is a poor home but you shall be made welcome.”

“We'll be glad to come,” answered Harry.

“Sure!” echoed Bert and Dick, who were more interested in the strange, half-told story of the sunken gold than they admitted even to themselves. The dock hangers-on might think Senor Palmara “queer,” but there was an air of refinement about him that told the boys he was a Spanish gentleman. And his tale certainly sounded strange—that is, the little he had let fall.

There were cabs not far from the waterfront, and the Spaniard was soon put into one and sent on his way. The boys assured him that his boat, and its strange cargo of ropes and grappling hooks, would be safe near their own craft.

“I do not usually keep the Santa Clara at this dock,” said Senor Palmara. “I thank you for your care, and I hope to see you soon.”

Bert and his chums, well satisfied with their first trial voyage in the rocket craft, went on toward the home of Mr. Armitage where they were guests. They had found Key West a most pleasant place. This somewhat strange and rather tropical city is located on a coral island about five miles long and about a mile in width. Situated on the West Indian trade routes, the population formed a curious mixture of races, as the boys soon discovered.

“It certainly is queer to think of this being part of the United States,” remarked Dick, as he and his chums walked up from the waterfront and noted the jasmine, almond, and oleander trees in blossom. “It's like the tropics.”

“Sure is!” agreed Harry. “The only thing I don't like here is the drinking water.”

“Cistern water is sort of flat even with ice,” agreed Bert. “But it's all they can get here,” which was true enough. For, being on a small island, there are no lakes, streams, or springs on Key West, so the inhabitants need to save all the rainwater that falls.

“Well, it's better than nothing,” stated Dick. “If we were shipwrecked we'd be glad of it.”

“Sure!” echoed Harry.

Naturally the boys fell to talking of their trial trip and the meeting with Senor Palmara, as they went on to the Armitage home.

“I knew the rocket boat would work out all right,” stated Harry. “The only thing I'm not satisfied with are the reverse tubes.”

“I think we'll have to put in a couple more,” agreed Bert. “We haven't got power enough there now.”

“That's what I think,” added Dick. “We almost smashed the Santa Clara today on account of not being able to reverse faster.”

As you can guess, in a boat propelled by chemical gases ejected from tubes at the stern, there would be no way of backing up by the power from those same tubes. Others had had to be installed in the bow, but the boys had found out they needed more power there.

“Wouldn't it be great if we could help the old man find the sunken treasure!” exclaimed Dick as they neared Bert's uncle's home.

“Do you think there is a treasure?” Bert asked, and there was doubt in his voice.

“I don't know what to think,” Harry stated. “He seemed earnest enough. But then many an old man has queer notions.”

“That's what I say,” agreed Dick.

“I'll ask my uncle when he gets back,” promised Bert. “He ought to know Senor Palmara if he's lived here any length of time, and it would seem he has. The men on the dock recognized him.”

The boys talked of little else at supper but the fun they hoped to have in the rocket boat and the chances of there really being a sunken treasure in the waters about Key West. The largest part of their vacation was still before them.

“Almost anything can happen!” exclaimed Dick, enthusiastically.

And many things did.

The next few days were such busy ones for the boys, since it was necessary to install two more reversing tubes, that they did not get a chance to call on Senor Palmara. They noted that his small motorboat had been taken away from where it was moored near the Hippocampus and learned, on inquiring at the dock office, that the old Spaniard himself had come to claim it.

“Then he must be all right,” reasoned Bert.

“I hope so,” murmured Harry.

The boys were coming up from the dock one afternoon, following some hard hours of work on their boat, when, as they turned a corner, they almost collided with two other young men who were sauntering along.

“Oh, look who's here!” sneered one of the twain.

“Who, Nick?” asked the other.

“Our rocket friends!” was the answer. “I thought we'd find ‘em!”

Harry and his chums had no need to look at the faces to know whom they had thus unexpectedly encountered.

“Sid Brower!” muttered Bert, vindictively. “The egg!”

“Two eggs!” echoed Dick. “Here's Nick Tyler.”

“Come on!” urged Harry to his chums. “We don't want to get into a fight now. Let ‘em go!”

“Oh, I don't want anything to do with those doses of castor oil,” Bert said, loudly enough for the two sneering youths to hear.

Just then Nick turned and, pulling his companion by the coat sleeve, pointed to a figure across the street and said:

“Come on, let's go razz the old geezer!”

“Oh, the gold seeker!” said Sid. “Sure, we'll have some fun with him. He takes himself so seriously. He's a riot!”

The twain started toward the figure of an old man. In a moment Harry and his chums recognized him as Senor Palmara.

“Here, you guys!” exclaimed Bert, taking a sudden resolution, “Let him alone!”

“Who's talking?” demanded Sid, insolently. “I am!” snapped Bert. “Do you want to make anything of that?”

“I sure do!” sneered Sid, and with clenched fists he advanced toward the red-haired youth.

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