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The Forgotten Guns by Earle Tracy

 

Bascom and Captain Lazaré's boy Narcisse were diving near the croaker bank.

"Bet you I can stay under twice as long as you can," Bascom said, as he and Narcisse balanced on the edge of a row-boat. "One—two—three—jump!"

There was a sharp smack as both boys hit the water at the same instant, and then the ripples gurgled over them. The black head of Narcisse came up again very soon, and he puffed and blew. He was a big, thick-set, older boy than Bascom, but short-winded and inclined toward laziness. He had time to turn on his back and catch his breath at leisure before Bascom reappeared. "I was studyin' me 'bout goin' down aftah you," he drawled.

But Bascom did not answer until he had rested a minute with one hand on the gunwale of the boat. He was very white. "I—beat—you," he panted at last. "I—tole you—I would." His breath was coming back to him in big draughts that he could scarcely swallow.

"Yo' can beat me a-pullin' right now if yo' want to," Narcisse offered as they climbed into the boat.

Bascom was glad enough to take the oars. He was breathing again, and he would rather do anything than keep still. He wanted to shout and clap his hands and jump, but he did not wish to excite the curiosity of Narcisse. The hot afternoon sun poured generously over them and dried their bathing-suits into every-day clothes.

A sound of hammering came from one of the schooners at anchor near the landing. "I hear Captain Tony," Bascom said. "I reckon I'll get out here."

"I didn't guess yo'd pass by de little Mystery," Narcisse answered, with a good-natured grin. All Potosi was used to Bascom's devotion to the boat which he and Captain Tony had won by bringing it safely through the great Gulf storm the year before. Narcisse was no sooner out of sight, however, than Bascom forgot even the Mystery in the excitement it had been so hard to suppress.

"Cap'n Tony," he cried, fairly stammering with eagerness—"Cap'n Tony— I—I—found a buried cannon on the croaker bank!"

"W-w'at?" said Captain Tony, wondering.

"It's all crusted up with barnacles, but I know it's a cannon," Bascom insisted. "I felt all round it, and inside of it too."

Captain Tony lifted his cap a little and then drew it down over his eyes again incredulously. "I guess it can't be true," he said at last. "I have never hear me 'bout any cannon sunk in de bay, an' I know all de story of ole time."

Bascom was prancing up and down in a perfect fever of impatience. "It must have been ever so long ago, the pirates or the Spaniards," he said. "An' if there's a cannon there must ha' been a ship sunk there, an' if there was a ship there must be a treasure, an' we're not a-goin' to say nothin' to nobody, but we're a-goin' to fish it all up!"

Captain Tony put a hand on Bascom's shoulder to keep him from squirming. "Yo' boy," he said, with the warm-hearted indulgence he always felt for the young waif who had become his business partner, "I doan t'ink me dat if dere is a cannon dere it will run off—not dis evenin'; an' faw de treasure, it was without doubt mo' easy to remove. Mos' likely it run away good w'ile ago."

"Well, I'm goin' to look an' be sure," Bascom said. "We must get the cannon, anyways, and have her on the Mystery."

The Captain chuckled. "Us'es'll raise sail," he said, "an' jus' run out befo' de breeze dies down." They might more easily have rowed, but Tony and Bascom seldom went anywhere without the Mystery, except on land.

When Narcisse was rowing leisurely toward his father's point on the back bay, he saw the little Mystery put out from shore and presently cast anchor at the croaker bank, and he put two and two together clumsily.

"Might 'a' known Bascom wouldn' drown hisse'f like dat faw fun," he meditated. "He has suah foun' somet'ing." He rested on his oars and pondered quite a while. "If Bascom has foun' somet'ing, I doan' see why I didn' fin' it too. Maybe I did. My han' touched bottom, an' I recollec' I felt somet'ing me. Bascom think he sma't not to have tell, but I did not tell either, me;" and suddenly Narcisse set to rowing.

After Bascom dropped anchor on the croaker bank, Captain Tony poised himself and dived. Bascom waited for his reappearance, with hands clinched. Tony did not stay under as long as the boy had, but he was almost as excited as soon as he came up.

"I didn' fin' 'em at de firs'," he panted, "but dere are two at de leas'. I put my han' on dem. It mus' have been a great ship, but, I do not know 'boud her. It mus' be ver', ver' ole, de mos' ole of all."

"How can we get 'em up?" gasped Bascom.

"Ah," said the Captain, "dat will be de troub'. It will take a win'lass an' grapplin'-irons an' mo' men. It will be de question if it pay."

"Couldn't us'es do it by ourselves?" Bascom pleaded. His whole little self-dependent life had strengthened his tendency to look out for himself. The more there were to work for the treasure the more there would be to share it.

"No," said the Captain. "Tek a pile of men to raise dose cannon."

"Then," put in Bascom, eagerly—"then le's ask Captain Lazaré an' Narcisse to help. Me an' Narcisse was here together when I found 'em."

The Captain knit his brows and looked up the bay. "I guess dat a good idea," he said. "Lazaré prett' sharp, but dey won't be much chance faw anyt'ing but straight wo'k. I see dey's a-raisin' sail on de Alphonsine."

"I'll row across an' speak to him when he passes," said Bascom.

But there was no need; Lazaré's schooner headed toward them from the first. As it came slowly about and anchored close to theirs Captain Tony gave Bascom a swift, inquiring glance, but Bascom shook his head. Then he shouted cheerfully,

"Ho there!"

"It strange dat yo' are jus' wheah we come," Lazaré said. "Did Bascom fin' it too?"

"Find what?" said Bascom, on his guard.

"At de bottom, w'en yo' was divin'," continued Lazaré, coolly. "Narcisse he fin' somesing, an' I t'ought me I bettah jus' to come an' see w'at to do 'boud it."

"Narcisse didn't find nothin'," Bascom exclaimed, hotly. "He didn't stay under a second. If he thinks he found anythin', what color was it, an' how did it feel? Was it dead? An' where did it come from?"

"I didn' want to drown myse'f like yo'," Narcisse answered. "I was faw gettin' home and tellin'."

"No you wa'n't," cried Bascom, fuming. "You know you wa'n't a-studyin' about nothin'. You didn't look like you'd ever seed anythin' in your life."

"De way is," said Lazaré, "dat de one was jus' as big a fool as de odder. Dey both come 'long pertendin', instead of talkin' it ovah like men an' agreein' to share it. Have yo' been down yet, Tony, to see w'at yo' t'ink?"

"Yes," said Tony; "I been down. Us'es was sayin', Bascom an' me, dat maybe yo'-all like to go in wid us raisin' dose cannon." Bascom pulled his sleeve, but he went right on. "Dere may be a little money in sellin' 'em faw a show, an' den Bascom he say he want one on de Mystery."

Bascom looked relieved, and Narcisse disgusted, but there was nothing to gather from Captain Lazaré's face.

"Dat was w'at I t'ought," he said. "Dere ain't nosing goin' on, an' anysing we can make is dat much ahead."

It was in this spirit that work was begun the next day. Not a word was said about the possibility of treasure, yet everyone knew that they were treasure-hunting. In these haunts of the old pirates children were brought up on legends of buried gold. But Bascom became perfectly absorbed in the guns. They could not be accounted for. No one in all the country remembered seeing or hearing of the wreck of a war-vessel in the bay. Nothing like that had happened during the war; the bay was too shallow for any modern ships. Its shoals were what had made it so attractive to the pirates, but the fate of all the pirate boats was known, and none had ever been lost there, nor had they ever sunk a victim inside the islands. Everything pointed to the old discoverers, the Spaniards and the Frenchmen. Bascom, who had taken small interest in the history of that or any other region, began to cram his mind eagerly with everything in the shape of legend or record or theory until the early days of the coast were at his fingers' ends.

The bay was thick with boats to watch the raising of the first gun. It had taken a long time to get the grappling-irons fastened. There was not a suit of diving armor to be had, and the men were obliged to go down again and again before they could pry the gun far enough out of its hard bed of shells to be grasped. When at last they felt it yielding to the windlass there was a big cheer, and then a breathless pause. The gun came on deck coated with shells and almost choked with barnacles and rust. Bascom flung himself atop of it and began to scrape. The others crowded over him. But there were no distinguishing marks. What he could disclose of the gun's surface showed it to be of some alloy similar to bronze. It was simply formed, and though not like any modern gun, neither Bascom with his new knowledge, nor anyone else who saw it, could find anything by which to guess its age. Of all the queer things that from time to time had made their appearance in Pontomoc Bay it was the most mysterious.

"You should sell it to some big museum," said a New Orleans man who had come aboard from his row-boat.

"They'll have to pay us'es our price before they gets it," Bascom said; "things don't come so cheap that have been laid by and saved so keerful for hundreds and hundreds of years."

"They are mo' of them down there," began Captain Lazaré, whose gray hair was wet and clinging to his hard old head from diving to superintend. "Le's not be a-wastin' time, boys."

"I would bring up everything there is in the way of wreckage," added the gentleman; "it may help to identify the guns."

But nothing that was ever said or found threw any light. The fragments of worm-eaten timber which they brought up seemed to have been rudely hewn, and riveted with wooden pegs for bolts. It was old, old, old—and there the story ended.

On the day that they were raising the sixth gun, the last they ever found, Bascom and Narcisse went down as usual. Bascom had been under longer, and was just about to rise when the hook under the lifted end of the cannon was repelled by something hard. He dug down, and his hand felt what was unmistakably the corner of a chest. Narcisse caught sight of the motion and put his hand in too, then he sprang up, pushing Bascom down with his foot while he rose.

"I foun' a chest!" he gasped, coming up. "I foun' the treasure!"

"Wheah? How big?" cried Lazaré, and they crowded round the boy. But some one noticed the blank water and raised another cry,

"Where's Bascom?"

Captain Tony drew one deep breath, thrust his hands above his head, and sprang into the water. Narcisse stood still a moment, big eyes big with horror, then he followed overboard.

THE CAPTAIN REAPPEARED AND LIFTED BASCOM'S HEAD ABOVE
WATER. THE CAPTAIN REAPPEARED AND LIFTED BASCOM'S HEAD ABOVE WATER.

It seemed a breathless age before the Captain reappeared and lifted Bascom's limp head above water. A dozen hands pulled them on deck and fell to work on Bascom.

"He'll come out," prayed the Captain through his teeth; "he got to come out. My boy—Bascom—"

Narcisse climbed up the schooner's side, but no one noticed him, and he hung in torture outside the group surrounding Bascom.

"He'd run his arm under de end of de cannon and de grapplin'-hook," Captain Tony was saying, "an' dey had settle back onto him, an' he had not the strength lef' to pull out. I doan' understan' how it could have settle on him like dat; but he will come out. He got to come out."

Narcisse, hearing all this, sneaked away into the cabin. He had had no wish to hurt Bascom even when he pushed him down; it was just the temptation to be ahead for once.

At last there was a step down the ladder. Captain Tony came and sank onto the bench opposite. He did not see Narcisse; he was talking to himself, and his voice trembled. "My little pa'dnah," he said; "he was so wil' 'boud dat treasure—an' proud 'boud dem ole cannon. T'ink of dat little chap weatherin' de big sto'm wid me. He was the stuff—"

Narcisse reached over and clutched timidly at the Captain's leg. "Ain't dere—no chance—lef'?" he begged.

Tony started, and gazed at the boy and tried to speak, but his voice broke into a sob. He reached over and patted Narcisse. "He—he comin' out," he said. "He be all right. I couldn' get long widout him."

Narcisse shrank back again, the better part of him ashamed to receive Tony's kindness. A moment later he crept past and went on deck. A few of the men still hovered around Bascom, who lay on the deck, very white, very sick, very washed-looking, but open-eyed and breathing. Most of them, however, were busy again, at the windlass, and were just hauling up the last gun. It had to be lifted before the treasure could be gotten out, but no time was given to it after it was landed on the deck. Only Bascom, who, in spite of his weakness, wanted to be where he could watch the raising of the treasure, was brought and pillowed on it, an old tarpaulin being folded over to keep him from feeling the shells.

The chest had been so deeply bedded under the gun that it was the hardest of all to raise; but at last it began to come, and Bascom struggled up from his gun to watch it swing, dripping, to the deck. It was wooden, oblong in shape, and very heavy; the edges were worn off and crumbling.

"If it hadn' been covered so deep it wouldn' have keep so well as it has," said Captain Lazaré, waving the other men back, but trying not to look eager or excited.

Captain Tony bent over it with him. "I doan' see the fastenin'," he said. "I guess we cut into him. It will be ver' easy at dis end." And he began chipping where the wood was most decayed.

It was the only thing to do, and yet, as the men stood with gaping mouths waiting for the lid to yield, Bascom felt a new ache at his heart to see the uncouth relic damaged. A great chunk of it gave way, and every one bent forward. Still there was nothing to be seen but wood. Lazaré caught the axe from Tony's hand and gave the thing a mighty blow that sent a dull rent through it. He pried it apart with the blade and laid it open. He had split in two a block of solid wood.

"It—it was one of the old gun-carriages!" cried Bascom, and sank back upon his austere pillow.

Captain Tony lifted his cap a little, and then pulled it down over his eyes again. Stooping, he measured the two sections of wood. Then, turning to Lazaré, he asked, "Is it a fair divide?"

Lazaré covered his feelings with a comical shrug, but Narcisse and both the crews looked whipped with disappointment, and eyed the innocent old block resentfully. Bascom motioned to have it brought alongside his gun.

"I don't see," he said, afterward, "what better an old party like that could have done, comin' from so far, than to bring his comforts with him instead of presents for folks he didn't know."

Bascom never told what Narcisse had done to him under water, and the gun that had had a share in it was used to keeping its own counsel. It and its comrades were left in his care, and when he saw that they would be awkward ballast on the Mystery, they were piled together on Tony's beach to wait a purchaser. The faith which Bascom had had in them staid with him, although public interest in them died out, and they were forgotten again. But Bascom was always working with them, and polishing them, and talking to them when he had the time.

"It's queer how you all staid there so quiet, and waited hundreds an' hundreds an' hundreds of years—just for me," he said to them. "I wisht I could only find out where you come from, and what you're calculatin' for me to do. You didn't come for nothin', I make sure of that."

But the guns with all their sleeping possibilities of voice lay still.