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The tropical sun was hot and brilliant. It made the open waters of the Caribbean Sea appear more blue than they actually were. It turned the golden, rounded dome of Azul Island into a flaming apparition. Yet its rays could not pierce the mist which hung like a gray veil about the base of this island of stone. Blue waters churned white going over the protective reef that lay a short distance out, then turned black as the waves gathered momentum and height to disappear behind the heavy shroud. They could be heard seconds later crashing against the walled barriers of Azul Island.
A lone boy guided the motor launch Sea Queen toward the perilous reef, his eyes never leaving the waters directly before him. He handled the wheel carefully, expertly. He watched the submerged coral slide past to either side of the hull. He seemed to know this particular area well. He piloted his launch in an ever alternating course, but one that took him always closer to the gray mist.
His name was Steve Duncan. He was no experienced mariner, for only recently had he been given the privilege and the responsibility of guiding the Sea Queen between the two islands of Antago and Azul, a distance of more than twenty miles. His home was in a small city in the United States, and he was on summer vacation from school. He wore a T-shirt and shorts. His body was deeply tanned from weeks spent beneath this hot, tropical sun, and the corners of his eyes were cracked with the white lines that come from squinting in the glaring sunlight for hours at a time. His black hair was cut short and uncovered.
He could have been any average and normal American boy . . . except for what he was about to do. In that respect, he did not conform to rule or type or standard.
He took the Sea Queen into the gray mist. If he heard the heavy thud of waves crashing hard against the wall of stone beyond, it did not seem to frighten him. He went in a direct line now. The engine throbbed noisily as though in protest to the mounting surge of the sea that would hurl it forward too fast. No longer could Steve see the dome-shaped top of Azul Island. He watched only for the precipitous wall that soon would rise a thousand and more feet above him.
Like the island itself, the approach foreboded danger. But Steve Duncan welcomed it, for it had kept all other people away. Now he began moving the wheel often again, and the propeller was reversed to steady the launch and hold it back from sweeping against the wall of stone that suddenly loomed ahead.
Steve had left the doors of the low sea hole open, and now he skillfully took the launch through it and into the narrow canal which cut the floor of a large chamber within Azul Island. He moored the launch to moss-covered piles that were centuries old, and for a second he thought of the men from the Spanish galleons who had sunk them so long ago. Then he crossed the sandy floor of the chamber and closed the sliding partitions above the sea entrance. There was less light and wind now, but the waters in the canal still flooded and ebbed with the waves that found their way through the opening at the base of the hole.
Hurriedly Steve left the chamber and went down the tunnel which would take him to where he wanted to be more than any other place in the world. As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light he ran faster, never once looking at the coral rock in brilliant shades of pink, green, gray and white that had always attracted his attention before. Nor did he give another thought to the Spanish Conquistadores who had brought their men, weapons and horses along this path in their final flight from the English and French. For it belonged to the far distant past, and Steve Duncan was interested only in the present and the great red stallion who awaited him.
He emerged from the tunnel and entered a long chasm, not bothering to glance up at the sky above the close, sheer walls on either side of him. He ran faster, breathing easily but becoming very excited. Soon he arrived at a small sliver of a valley, and crossed the stream that cut its center. Still he ran on till he came to a rock-strewn gorge. There he slowed down to a walk, for the trail was jagged and twisting. He went down the dry river bed, following the gorge until he came to a wide patch of marshland. Here he went a little faster but he didn't run. He hated this particular area with its high reeds, swamp ferns and the thick vapors whose stench of rotting vegetation had been made worse by the sweltering afternoon sun. He held his breath as long as possible between short gasps of the foul air, his eyes remaining fixed on the narrow green swath of solid ground before him. He saw Flame's oval-shaped hoofprints and it made this part of the trip a little easier to bear. Soon he'd be with his stallion. There was only a short distance to go now.
Finally his path led upward, taking him from the hollow that fostered and nurtured the marsh. He began running again, leaving the dense vapors far behind. He climbed higherand then, just beyond a field of wild cane, he saw Blue Valley! At the upper end a band of horses grazed. A few of them were drinking from a pool that was fed by a waterfall dropping a hundred feet or more down the precipitous wall.
Steve Duncan stopped then and whistled as loud as he could. In answer, a lone stallion emerged from the band . . . a tall chestnut horse whose mane and tail seemed to move like burning flame when he broke into a gallop. Steve ran to meet him.