THE MYSTERIOUS FORCES OF NATURE

It was Grant. Hobbling along as fast as his crippled limbs could carry
him, he threw himself into his brother’s arms, and for a moment they
forgot all else in the emotion of their greeting. Then Mori came in for
his well-earned share.

The amount of handshaking and incoherent expressions that followed was
wonderful. Mutual explanations were demanded and given with hearty good
will. The lame youth told briefly his experiences on board the junk,
then he added:

“After we left that dreadful tunnel running from the castle I almost
gave up hope. I felt instinctively that you were underground when that
first earthquake shock came, and I was awfully worried.”

“We escaped, as you can see,” said Nattie, with a happy grin.

“If not you are pretty lively ghosts,” said Grant, in the same vein;
then he continued: “That brute Ralph hurried us along the mountain for a
while. Then we stopped at a village and compelled some of the poor
natives to accompany us. I tell you, Ralph Black must be crazy. None
but a lunatic would hope to escape from the law for such an outrage.
Fancy him thinking he could take me to a cave in the mountain and keep
off the lawful forces of the country.”

“It is past belief,” remarked Mori. “But tell us, how did you manage to
escape?”

“I am coming to that. But hadn’t we better leave this neighborhood?
Ralph and Patrick are liable to follow me at any moment.”

“Where is Willis Round?” quickly asked Nattie, noting the omission of
the bookkeeper’s name.

Grant smiled.

“We needn’t fear anything from him,” he said.

“Is he dead?”

“No; he helped me to escape.”

“What!”

“It is a fact. Wait; I’ll tell you. After we arrived in the vicinity of
the caves–which are dreadful places, by the way–Round slipped up to me
and began to talk about matters in general. Before he had said many
words I saw his object. He was trying to ‘hedge,’ as they call it in
racing parlance.”

“To crawl out of the scrape, eh?”

“Yes; I led him on, and he presently asked me point-blank if I would
promise to save him from punishment if he should help me to escape. I
replied that I would do what I could for him, but I would promise
nothing. He was content with that, and after a while he succeeded in
cutting the thongs binding my hands.

“Shortly after, while we were hurrying through a dense copse I slipped
behind and ran as fast as I could on the back trail. It was a risky
piece of business, as Ralph had threatened to shoot me if I made another
attempt to escape.”

“And the villain would do it, too,” said Nattie.

“I believe he would. The boy is crazy–clean stark crazy. None but a
lunatic would do as he has done.”

“They must see their mistake now,” remarked Mori, grimly.

“They do. Willis Round is nearly frightened to death. Patrick still
remains obstinate and advises a general slaughter of all, but I think he
is weakening. The natives they took from the village deserted on account
of the threatening eruption of the volcano.”

All three glanced up to the summit of Bandai-San. The smoke and flame
had increased in volume. It was a terrifying sight and instinctively the
little party moved toward the head of the ravine.

They had walked only a short distance when a tremor shook the earth,
sending a mass of dirt and rocks tumbling down the side of the valley.
Then, in the twinkling of an eye, a thick cloud of ashes was showered
upon them.

Now thoroughly frightened, the boys set out at a run, Nattie and Mori
assisting the crippled youth, one on each side. Suddenly a dull shock,
like the explosion of a mine, almost knocked them prostrate, and
directly in front they saw the earth fly from a conical hole in the side
of the ravine with the impetus of a hundred-ton gun.

When the dust and _débris_ settled, they beheld a small crater, probably
fifteen feet in width, occupying a spot a dozen yards above the dry bed
of the stream. It was only a small affair as craters go, but the
mysterious operation of the natural volcanic forces sent a thrill
through the lads, and they scrambled to their feet with but one intent,
and that was to leave the place as quickly as possible.

“Come!” hoarsely exclaimed Mori, turning a face pallid with dread to his
companions. “We haven’t a moment to lose. If an eruption should occur
and the lava flow down this side of the mountain nothing could save us
from a horrible death.”

“Is it as bad as that?” gasped Nattie, glancing fearfully toward the
volcano.

The answer came not in words. Suddenly, and with terrific force a
thunderous report rent the air. Darkness darker than midnight fell upon
the scene as if a pall had descended upon them from the heavens. A
blinding shower of hot ashes and sand rained in torrents, then–then
while the three lads groveled with their faces in the dust the earth
rocked and rocked, and rocked again.




Presently–was it a moment or an eternity?–a strange hissing noise
became apparent. Multiply the escaping steam from an overcharged boiler
ten thousand times and you would only have a faint idea of the terrible
noise that filled the air to the exclusion of all other sounds.

For the space of many seconds the earth continued to undulate like the
surface of the sea. Explosion after explosion came in rapid succession,
each seeming greater than its predecessor, until at last one came that
shook the earth to its foundations.

To the three lads prone in the little ravine it was as if the end of the
world had come. They lost all thought of time or place. They remained
bowed down before the majestic forces of nature, incapable of moving, or
speaking, or even thinking.

In time the dread convulsions ceased. Ill with a nausea like that of the
sea, Grant and Nattie and Mori finally scrambled to their feet and
attempted to run. It was a futile effort. Their trembling limbs refused
to carry them, and they sank back once more.

Let not the reader think it cowardice. No more brave and sturdy youths
than Nattie and Mori could be found in all Japan. And Grant–if feeble
in frame and prone to disease physically, his soul was absolutely
fearless in the common happenings of life.

Only those who have experienced the awful feeling incidental to one of
those terrible convulsions of nature called earthquakes can testify as
to its effect on the human mind. It is the most mysterious, and the most
dreadful force known to man. The writer speaks from experience, having
narrowly escaped with his life from one encountered while on a journey
through a Central American republic.

It came without warning, and in its duration of not more than eight
seconds–think of it!–leveled hundreds of houses and claimed a score of
human lives. Its immediate effect was as if the earth was slipping away
and one’s grasp lost on all things mundane.