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A Sudden Race

FOOTSTEPS in rapid retreat, as Bert neared the clump of oleanders, indicated that someone was running away. The sound of the padding feet came to the ears of Harry, Dick, and the others. But when Bert sprinted to the gate and opened it he saw no one. Hasty glances up and down the street showed no trespassers.

“They got away mighty quick!” observed the red-haired lad as he came back to join the others.

“Who was it?” asked Harry.

“If I'd seen ‘em I'd have chased ‘em,” replied Bert, briefly. “Didn't get a peep!”

“Might have been a dog,” suggested Dick.

Bert looked at Harry questioningly, for the tall lad had been the first to detect the noise which might have indicated that someone had sneaked up close to the gate, evidently with the idea of hiding behind the oleanders to listen to the talk of treasure.

“It didn't sound like a dog,” Harry stated. “Too much noise for that, I should say.”

“Probably it was someone passing by in the street,” ventured Mr. Armitage. “We have a lot of shiftless, lazy characters around here, sort of half-breeds, who only work when they need food. They're always moving about. No harm in them, though.”

“Well, if they weren't up to any mischief, why did they run?” asked Bert.

No one could answer this. Probably the same thought was in the minds of all three chums—that those who had run away had been Sid and Nick—but the boys did not want to speak of this now. It might further disturb the aged Cuban.

“You were saying,” Harry reminded him, “that the other day you had heard—you didn't say what—when this interruption came.”

“Oh, yes, senor. I was telling you that I had the old chart left me by my father. It purports to give something of the location of the treasure wreck. But, as I said, I have searched there and found nothing. It is hard to set down the location of a wreck when you have to escape from it in a storm. But the other day I heard of a man in Matanzas, Cuba, a descendant of one who sailed with my father and the treasure. It is said he has a better chart, and I would like to find out from him if his map is like my father's.”

“Not a bad idea,” commented Mr. Armitage. “Though I say again, friend Palmara, that I do not believe you will ever find that treasure. Consider, if you please. It is many years ago since it sank, just where, no one knows, except, approximately, between Cuba and Florida, and that is a pretty big order in itself. Then, too, after these many years, even if the location of the wreck was known, it must have drifted far from its original resting place. Or, if not, it has been covered with sand and coral by now.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” said the senor, who seemed to have an abiding faith in the ultimate successful outcome of his search. “I must never give up trying to vindicate my father's honor. I do not care for the gold. Fortunately I have enough to live on, modestly, the remainder of my life. And, thanks to your kindness, I do not lack for a boat in which to make the search.”

“The Santa Clara isn't much of a boat,” commented Mr. Armitage. “If I had known you were going to keep on this search so persistently, friend Palmara, I would have tried to arrange for a better craft for you.”

“It is not necessary, senor. The Santa Clara suits me. I only hope to locate the wreck. Others must do the work of getting the gold. Yes, the boat you gave me answers very well.”

There was an exchange of looks between Harry and his two chums. Instantly there came to their minds a daring project. It flashed up into their eyes and then died away again as, mutually, they decided this was not the time to broach it.

“Well, I wish you luck,” went on Mr. Armitage, “but, honestly, I don't see how you can ever hope to find the wreck of the old Santa Clara and the gold she carried. My only advice to you, my friend, is to be careful. Do not take too many chances in our waters. You may be caught in a storm some day and wrecked.” “I am a good sailor,” said the old man with a slow smile.

“That's what he is, boys!” exclaimed Bert's uncle vigorously. “There's none better around Key West. He can give you many points on navigating these waters and the scores of islands which they call ‘cays,' or ‘keys,' in this section.”

“I ought to know these waters,” said the aged Cuban rather pathetically. “I have traversed them many years now in this search. But I have new hope,” he added. “Since I have heard of this man in Matanzas, who may have a better chart than mine, I am going to see him.”

“Good luck attend you, senor,” said Mr. Armitage, and it was like a parting blessing.

“Thank you, senor,” was the courteous rejoinder.

Shortly after this, Senor Palmara took his leave, saying he would see his American friends, including the three boys, soon again. When he was gone, Harry and his chums questioned Mr. Armitage further about the kindly but somewhat eccentric old man.

“All he told you was true,” affirmed Bert's uncle. “History confirms the story of the party of Cuban insurrectionists setting out for Key West with the cargo of gold to purchase arms. The old Santa Clara was lost and several of her crew perished. And I have no doubt there were plenty of rumors that the survivors, among whom was this man's father, were accused of making away with the gold for their own use.

“However that may be, it is certain that Palmara “has been seeking the sunken treasure for many years, as long as I have known him, and others tell me he had been on the quest for the gold before I came here. After I became acquainted with Senor Palmara I felt a great interest in him and very sorry for him. He had an old tub of a boat in which he went about dredging in the comparatively shallow waters here for traces of the wreck of his father's ship. More than once his grappling irons have fastened on some wreck and he has pulled up pieces of the rotted wood. Whether any of these belonged to the old Santa Clara, I can't say. But the old man keeps on searching.”

“And now he seems to have struck a new clue,” said Harry.

“You mean the Matanzas chart?” asked Dick. “Yes. I hope he finds out something from that.”

“I'm afraid it will only prove as illusive as the one he already has,” was Mr. Armitage's opinion. “Well, boys, that's the story of Senor Palmara. He's a kindly old gentleman, and if you can do him a favor any time be sure to.”

“We shall,” promised Bert.

Inquiring of his young guests how they liked their vacation in Key West so far, bidding them stay as long as they wished, and listening with interest to the recital of the first trial of the rocket craft, Mr. Armitage excused himself on the plea of business to look after, and the boys found themselves free to talk and plan as they pleased.

“Then you really didn't see anybody when you opened the gate?” asked Harry.

“No,” Bert answered.

“Have you any idea who might have been there, Red?” Dick wanted to know.

“Sure I have. And I guess you fellows think the same as I do, Shorty.”

“You mean Nick and Sid,” commented Harry. There really was no need to ask the question.

“Sure!” said Bert with a nod of his red head. “Those birds are up to some of their tricks again.”

“They're the limit!” declared Dick. “They followed us to Alaska, but that was because Barikov paid their way and wanted their help. I don't see who is back of them down here.”

“Probably nobody, so far,” said Harry.

“What do you mean—so far?” asked Bert. “Well, I mean if they could get on the track of this treasure it wouldn't be long before somebody would back them up, furnish them a boat for the search, and so on. But up to now I think they are only following a blind lead.”

“You mean you think they don't know anything about the treasure yet?” asked Dick.

“I wouldn't say that,” came from the tall lad. “Everybody around Key West knows that Senor Palmara is on a treasure quest and has been for a long while. That's no secret. A lot of people, in fact most of them, I guess, don't believe he'll ever find it. So unless Sid and Nick could persuade somebody, with money enough to back them, that they had a line on where the wreck might be found, they wouldn't get very far.”

“Then they must suspect that we are working to that end,” suggested Bert.

“Something like that,” affirmed Harry. “Here's how I size it up: When Bert's uncle invited us down here we had no more idea of a treasure hunt than we have of going to the moon. Key West just meant a new place for us to visit, and we didn't try to keep quiet the fact that we were going there.

“Sid and Nick could easily hear of our plan and, knowing that twice before we had some object in starting off together, like the time we went to Alaska and when we went to Egypt, they wanted to follow. They managed to trail us to Alaska, chiefly because that rascally Russian, Barikov, financed them. They couldn't reach the Sahara, but we had our own troubles there in spite of them. Now Key West isn't so hard to make, and those birds are here.”

“Those birds—those bad eggs you mean!” snapped Bert.

“Anything you like,” assented Harry. “The fact is they're here and they're probably trying to find out what our game is.”

“Then the best thing to do,” declared Dick, “is to pretend we haven't any game.”

“How?” asked Bert.

“By devoting most of our time to perfecting our rocket boat,” was the answer. “There's plenty to do on her, isn't there, Harry?”

“Sure I We want to get the reversing tubes working better, and I think we can make some adjustments to the mixing valve so we'll get more speed out of the Hippocampus.”

“Then let's do that!” suggested Dick. “Work on our boat. That may throw Nick and Sid off the trail. Meanwhile Mr. Palmara can be getting that other chart he speaks of. Then he'll be ready for us.”

“Say, what's this?” cried Bert with shining eyes. “Do you mean we're going to help look for that sunken treasure wreck?”

“Why not?” asked Dick, calmly. “Isn't that your idea, Beanpole?”

“It certainly is, Shorty!”

“Well, what do you know about that!” exclaimed Bert. “I was just going to spring that myself. I was itching to do it all the while Uncle Ade was talking, but I thought we'd better discuss it among ourselves first. Oh, boy! A regular treasure hunt!”

“In our own boat!” murmured Dick.

“It may be more of a wild albatross chase than the Ancient Mariner had,” commented Harry, “but I'm strong for it!”

“Sure!” echoed his chums, and they shook hands on it.

“We'll tell my uncle after we get our boat working better,” decided Bert, “and can get a look at the old man's chart. Hot diggity dog! This is going to be some vacation!”

“The best yet!” added Dick.

“It promises well,” said Harry, endeavoring to maintain a calm, judicial air, which was soon knocked out of him by hearty claps on the back on the part of his chums.

For the next week the boys worked hard making minor but necessary improvements in their rocket boat. They found the craft to be more speedy than they had hoped, and they were sure they could go cruising in the Hippocampus for two weeks at a time. The craft was a comfortable one large enough to venture as far as Cuba, and the sleeping bunks were adequate. A pantry and galley insured bountiful, if not elaborate, meals, and the boys were supremely happy.

They had neither seen nor heard anything of Senor Palmara since the talk at the house of Mr. Armitage, but they knew they would have no difficulty in locating the aged Cuban. And they could easily guess that he would welcome their offer of assistance in locating the treasure wreck.

“Well,” remarked Dick one morning when they had gone to the dock to look at their now almost finished boat, “what do you fellows say to a good long run?”

“What do you mean by a long run?” asked Bert. “I mean to cruise for a couple of days. Perhaps land on some cay and camp there. It will be a good test of the rocket boat.”

“Not a bad idea,” Harry agreed. “Let's figure it out.”

This they did, with the result that next day they started with the sanction of Bert's uncle, who knew the boys could be trusted. They had been licensed to run their boat around Florida waters, and they knew enough about navigation to be safe, especially since this was the summer season when storms were the exception rather than the rule.

Accordingly, with light hearts and a well-filled pantry, the three young adventurers started off one morning. They did not exactly “set sail,” for they didn't have that kind of a boat. But they “rocketed” away, much to the amazement of that ever-consistent doubter on the dock who, seeing no propeller on the Hippocampus, declared:

“She can't go! She jest natchally can't navigate!”

But she did and at a speed which sent up boiling white water all about her. The rocket motor, readjusted, proved fast and powerful, and the reversing gear worked perfectly.

There were in Key West harbor many elaborate and fancy motorboats, some in the speed class. One of these, in charge of a certain well-known “sporting man,” went out about the same time as did the boys' craft. The two were close together when Don Mantella, the skipper of a trim and magnificent brass and mahogany craft, La Senora, called over to the rather dingy boat of our heroes:

“That is some peculiar ship you have there!” “She may be peculiar, but she can go!” answered Bert.

“Ah! So you say, but I shall run circles around you, like this!”

He opened his throttle, and with a leap La Senora bounded ahead, almost out of the water.

“Don't let him beat us, Harry!” begged Bert. “Race him!”

“I'm going to,” was the quiet answer. “Mind your wheel, Dick!” for the stout lad was steering.

“Leave it to me!” Dick answered. And in a moment the race was on.

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