Read CHAPTER I - The Head-hunter of The Golden Skull , free online book, by John Blaine, on ReadCentral.com.

It was hot in the cabin of the freighter Asiatic Dream. The heaviness of the tropical heat outside the ship penetrated through the steel and flaking paint of the deck to turn the cabin into an oven.

Rick Brant and Don Scott, stripped to their shorts, were oblivious of the heat. They sat hunched over a three-dimensional chessboard, studying the complex moves of their newest hobby. Now and then they glared at each other, or paused to wipe the sweat from their faces or arms, but otherwise they concentrated on the three-layer board and the chessmen. The rivalry was intense, and had been ever since Hartson Brant, Rick’s distinguished scientist father, had introduced them to the game back home on Spindrift Island.

Watching them was Dr. Anthony Briotti. Clad in tropical tan shorts and nothing else, he looked like a college athlete. Little about him suggested that he was an archaeologist with an international reputation.

Presently he rose and left the cabin, heading for the deck. He didn’t bother to say where he was going; he knew the boys wouldn’t even notice. On deck, Briotti leaned against the rail and peered ahead to where the rocky fortress of Corregidor loomed at the mouth of Manila Bay. His pulse beat faster at the sight of the famous island. He knew its outline. He had commanded a destroyer during World War II. Even though the faint light of a new moon showed only vague outlines, he recognized the old Spanish prison rock below the overhang of Corregidor, and he remembered that his guns had blasted at the Japanese from that very point.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow move fleetingly. He turned but saw nothing. Then, because he was busy with his memories, he turned back to the dim, haunting view of Corregidor and thought no more about it.

Below, Rick Brant moved his king diagonally across the three-dimensional chessboard and said triumphantly, “Checkmate!”

Scotty rose, drew back one muscular leg as though to kick the set into the air, then grinned. “Had to let you win. Bad for morale to lose all the time. Next time I’ll teach you how to lose.”

Rick snorted. “You let me win like a mother bear would let me walk off with her cubs. It’s my remarkable intellect that won that game, and nothing else.”

“Won by your wits, eh?” Scotty mopped his wet face. “And you only half armed!”

Rick shied a chessman at him. “Wait until we teach this game to Chahda.”

Scotty chuckled. “He’ll probably beat us both at once, then we’ll find out he learned how to play from the latest edition of The World Almanac.”

Chahda, their Hindu friend, had learned about America by memorizing an old copy of the Almanac, and he quoted from it at every opportunity. Since their first meeting in Bombay during the adventure of The Lost City, the Indian boy had been with them on several expeditions. Now he was to meet them in Manila to help them in their search for one of ancient history’s most fabulous treasures.

Rick, a tall, slim boy, with light-brown hair and brown eyes, led the way up the ladder to the deck. Scotty, bigger and slightly darker in coloring, followed close behind. They walked toward the bow, searching for Briotti, their eyes not yet accustomed to the darkness.

Rick called, “Tony?”

“Here by the rail,” the archaeologist answered.

The boys moved toward him, but someone or something moved faster. A shadowy form sped past them, and Rick’s quick eyes caught the flash of light on steel. He yelled, “Watch it!”

Tony moved, and a steel blade clanged off the ship’s rail. Rick and Scotty leaped forward, grasping for the shadow. The steel blade lifted again. Scotty grabbed a wrist and twisted. The blade clattered to the deck. Rick got his arms around a sweaty waist and squeezed, bracing his feet to lift the man off the deck. Then an elbow caught him in the Adam’s apple and flooded his eyes with tears of pain. He loosened his grip involuntarily and felt the man squirm free. Scotty yelled, “Get him!”

Tony Briotti swung a roundhouse right that missed and sent him sprawling off balance. Then the assailant was on the rail, poised. Scotty lunged for his ankle as the man dived cleanly out and away from the ship into the dark water. The three rushed to the rail, watching for the swimmer.

“Man overboard!” Tony’s voice lifted in a shout that brought the crew running.

For a few moments there was confusion as the officers and crew tried to find out what had happened, and then the searchlight on the bridge was manned and its white beam cut the water.

There was no swimmer. But off toward Bataan Peninsula the light reflected from the patched sail of a banca, an outrigger canoe, sailing toward shore with a bone in its teeth.

A few moments later the three Spindrifters stood in the captain’s office, staring at a Filipino bolo, a long, slightly curving machete with a square tip. Tony hefted it and shuddered. “If you hadn’t yelled well, this thing landed right where my head had been a second before.”

“If I hadn’t said anything,” Rick replied, “it wouldn’t have been anywhere near your neck. I put the finger on you by calling your name.”

Scotty snapped his fingers. “Of course! The guy must have been hiding, until he heard us call. Then, when you answered, he knew you were the one he was after, and he went for you.”

Tony stared, incredulous. “But why? I can’t imagine why a mountain Igorot would board the ship for the express purpose of killing me!”

It was Rick’s turn to stare. “How did you know he was an Igorot?”

“Either an Igorot or an Ifugao,” Tony replied. “I caught a glimpse of his head structure as he jumped onto the rail. Besides, the haircut is distinctive. It looks as though a bowl had been put on the head and all hair removed that it didn’t cover.”

Rick knew that an Igorot was a primitive native of the Philippine Mountain Province. All of them had received a series of lectures on Philippine ethnology from Tony before leaving home. The Igorots bore roughly the same relationship to the regular Filipino as American Indians do to the white American. Ifugao natives were much like the Igorots, but with a slightly more advanced culture. They, too, lived in Mountain Province, the objective of the Spindrift expedition.

The trip had grown out of an earlier expedition to Kwangara Island in the western Pacific. Dr. Anthony Briotti had helped translate the tablets found in the sunken temple of Alta Yuan, and had discovered the connection between the early people of the Philippines of whom the Igorots and Ifugaos were the descendants and the white dragon worshipers of Alta Yuan.

One plaque from the sunken temple had described the Ifugao rice terraces of Mountain Province in unmistakable detail, and also had described a skull of gold which was said to have magic properties.

Tony Briotti had been so enthusiastic about locating this fabulous skull, and proving the connection between Alta Yuan and the Philippines, that Hartson Brant, head of the Spindrift Foundation, had made arrangements for the small expedition. None of the other Spindrift scientists could be spared, so Tony Briotti had only Rick and Scotty as assistants. Chahda was to join them in Manila. The boys thought that was help aplenty. No other helpers were needed.

“I don’t believe it,” Tony stated. “It is simply beyond possibility that an Igorot could have boarded this ship with the express intention of killing me. More likely, he boarded the ship to steal, thought he was discovered, and headed for the rail where his banca was tied. I was in the way. That’s all.”

“No one saw the banca approach,” the ship’s captain said, “but of course it could have. We’ve been traveling at only a few knots, and the banca could have approached from the stern, thrown a line over the rail, and tied up. Dangerous, but a clever native could do it. They’re like cats. Make fine sailors.” He added, “Never heard of it being done before, but there’s no reason to think it was an attempt at murder. Thieves in the Orient are willing to take long chances.”

Rick stared through the port at the lights of Manila. He was very thoughtful. Let Tony try to brush the incident aside. He knew better. He knew it in his bones. There was trouble ahead for the Spindrifters.

He caught Scotty’s worried frown, and he knew that his pal’s thoughts were the same.