Chapter XV. A Search Proposed
 

"Cora, what's the matter? Has this man--?"

It was Jack who spoke, as he suddenly entered the rotunda of the hotel, with Walter, and saw his sister faintly recoiling from the shock of the news brought by Senor Ramo. Jack had a bit of fiery temper, and it had not lessened by his recent nervousness. Then, too, he seemed to have caught some of the Spanish impetuosity since coming to Porto Rico.

"Hush, Jack!" begged Belie. "It is bad news," and there was a trace of tears in her voice.

"Bad news?" chorused Jack and Walter together.

"Yes, Senor Kembull," again mispronounced the Spaniard, "I deeply regret to be the bearer of ill-tidings. I was just telling your sister, and her friends, that the Ramona has been wrecked."

"The Ramona--the steamer mother sailed on--wrecked?" cried Jack. "How did it happen--where?"

"As to where, I know not, but it happened, I assume, in the recent hurricane. Indeed, we barely escaped ourselves. I am just in from the Boldero. We picked up some refugees near St. Kitts. I did not hear their story in detail, but they said the Ramona had foundered with all on board!"

"Oh!" gasped Belle, as she sank against Cora. The latter, meanwhile, had somewhat recovered from the shock. Again she was the quick-thinking, emergency-acting Cora Kimball.

"We must find out exactly what happened," she said. "Belle, pull yourself together. Don't you dare faint--everyone is looking at you!"

Perhaps this information, as much as the bottle of ammonia smelling salts, which Cora thrust beneath the nose of her chum, brought Belle to a realization of what part she must play.

"I--I'm all right now," she faltered. "But, oh! It is so awful--terrible. Oh--dear!"

"Hope for the best," said Walter kindly, leading her to the ladies' parlor, which was screened, by a grill, from the public foyer. "Often, now a days, in shipwreck, nearly all are saved, even if the vessel does founder."

"Of a surety--yes!" Senor Ramo hastened to put in. "I am a stupid to blurt out my news so, but I did not think! I ask a thousand and one pardons."

"It doesn't matter," said Jack. "We had to know sometime. The sooner the better. We must get busy."

"Always busy--you Americans!" murmured the Spaniard. "If I can be of any service, Senor Kembull--"

"You can take us, to where those sailors are that were picked up by your vessel, if you will," interrupted Jack. "I'd like to hear their story, and find out exactly where the Ramona went down. That is, if it is true that she completely foundered."

"Why, if I may ask?"

"Because, this is only the beginning. There may be a chance of saving some--our folks--if, by any possibility they reached some of the smaller islands. I must see those sailors."

"They will most likely remain aboard the Boldero--the vessel on which I arrived," spoke Senor Ramo. "They lost everything but the clothes they wore. Doubtless you could see them on the steamer."

"Then I'm going with you!" cried Cora. "I can't wait, Jack!" she pleaded, as he looked a refusal at her. "I must go!"

"Oh, poor mamma and papa!" half sobbed Bess, for they were now in the seclusion of the ladies' parlor. "Oh, what will become of us?"

"You mustn't give way like this!" objected Jack. "Now, if ever, is the time to be brave. There is lots to be done!"

Jack was coming into his own again. The trip had worked wonders, but just this touch and spice of danger was needed to bring out his old energetic qualities.

"What can be done?" asked Cora.

"I don't know, yet. I'm going to find out. Maybe it isn't so bad as it sounds after all," replied Jack.

"It sounds bad enough," sighed Cora. "But, Jack, I am with you in this. I simply won't be left out."

"And no one wants to leave you out, Sis. Walter, just see if we can get a carriage, or a motor, to the marina. We'll take a boat from there out to the Boldero."

"I will give you a letter to the captain," said Senor Ramo. "He knows me well, and he will show you every courtesy."

"Surely," thought Cora, "this man cannot be a political plotter, who would put innocent men in prison. Inez must be mistaken about him. He is very kind."

Some little excitement was caused by the advent of the bad news to our party of friends, and it quickly spread through the hotel. A number of the guests, whose acquaintance the motorgirls had made, offered their services, but there was little they could do. What was most needed was information concerning the wreck.

Inez, who had made the getting of Cora's fan an excuse to go to her room, to escape Senor Ramo, heard the sad tidings, and came down. By this time the "fat suspect," as Jack had nicknamed him, had gone, having scribbled a note of introduction to the captain of the Boldero.

"Oh, what is it, Senoritas?" gasped Inez. "Is it zat you are in sorrow?"

"Yes," said Cora, sadly. "Great sorrow, Inez. We have had very bad news," and there were tears in her eyes.

"I sorrow with you," said the impulsive Spanish girl, as she put her arm about Cora. "I was in sorrow myself, and you aided me. Now I must do ze same for you. Command me."

"There is little that can be done until we learn more," Cora made answer. "The steamer has been wrecked."

"With Senor Robinson, and with the Senoras Kimball and Robinson?" gasped Inez.

"So we hear."

"Ah, zat is indeed of great sorrow. I weep for you. My own little troubles are a nothing. My father may be in prison, but what of zat--he is living--and your mother--"

She did not finish. Walter came in to announce that he had secured a large auto that would take them to the marina, whence they could get a boat to go out to the steamer.

"I only hope those sailors haven't disappeared," murmured Jack. "Now then, are you girls ready?"

"Yes," answered Belle. She, as well as Cora and Bess, had somewhat recovered their composure, after the first sudden shock. Hope had sprung up again, though they were presently to learn on what a slender thread that hope hung. Jack had regained some of his former commanding manner in the emergency.

Inez went with her new friends to the docks. She seemed to have forgotten her own grief in ministering to the girls, and much of her former timid and shrinking manner had disappeared.

They found a large and powerful motor boat that would take them out to the ship, and, indeed, a staunch craft was needed, since there was still a heavy swell on, from the recent storm.

"Are there many boats like this in San Juan?" asked Jack of the man at the wheel, who spoke very good English.

"Not many. There's only one as good, and that's much larger. She's the Tartar--and she's a beauty!"

"For charter?"

"Well, maybe. The same man owns her as owns this one, but only large parties engage her."

"Fast and seaworthy?"

"None better."

"That's good," Jack said.

"What are you thinking of?" asked his sister.

"Tell you later," he announced briefly.

"Oh, if it wasn't for the terrible news, how lovely this trip would be!" exclaimed Bess.

They were gliding over the deep, blue waters of the bay, and the golden setting sun now shone aslant the harbor, pouring its beams over the tops of the distant mountains, and through the palm branches. A promise of fair weather followed on the wings of the storm.

Whatever Senor Ramo might, or might not be, he certainly procured a welcome for our friends at the Boldero. Or, rather, the note Jack presented to the captain did.

"Ah, yes, you desire news of the shipwrecked sailors. Well, they are still here on board. One of them is hurt, but the other can talk. But they speak no English--I had better translate for you."

"First tell us what you know yourself, Captain," begged Cora.

"I know little, except what I have heard, of the foundering of the Ramona," was the answer.

"Then you think she did go down?" asked Bess.

"I fear so--the sailors we picked up so affirm. All I can tell you is that, a day or so ago, as we were staggering along through the stress of the storm, the lookout sighted a small boat. No signs of life aboard were seen, but we stopped and picked it up. In the craft, which was one of the lifeboats from the Ramona, were two sailors, nearly dead from exposure, and one from hurts received."

"How was he hurt?"' asked Jack.

"He was shot, Senor."

"Shot!"

"Yes, it appears there was mutiny aboard the Ramona, as well as the horrors of the storm and shipwreck."

"Mutiny!" murmured Cora, a look of horror in her eyes. "Poor, poor mother!"

"You had better hear the story directly from the sailors," suggested Captain Ponchero. "I will summon the unwounded one. You will find that more satisfactory."

He came, a sorry and unfortunate specimen of a Spanish sailor. There followed a rapid talk, in the Castilian tongue, between him and the captain, and the latter then said:

"His story is this. They ran into the storm soon after leaving San Juan, and could not find, or, rather, did not dare to try, for the nearest harbor, as the seas were running too high to make it safe to go through the narrow entrance. They had to keep on, and this caused discontent among some of the crew.

"There was an uprising--a mutiny, and some of them tried to leave in the boats. The brave captain would not let them, but he was overpowered, and the mutineers, in the face of certain danger, turned the ship to put back to a harbor which the captain had passed because of the danger of trying to enter it in the storm."

"But how did the sailor get shot?" asked Jack.

"He worked against the mutineers--he and his comrade here," the captain answered. "Then those who had revolted, and seized the ship, ordered into small boats all who would not throw in their lot with them. So these two, with only a little food and water, were put adrift in the storm. It was almost certain death, but the boat lived through it, and we saved them."

"But what of the ship--the passengers?" asked Cora.

"The ship most certainly foundered," declared the captain. "The next morning bits of wreckage were found by these two survivors."

"Then all are lost?" half-sobbed Belle.

"I fear so, Senorita," was the answer of the captain, "unless some few reached islands in small boats."

"Is there a chance of that?" asked Jack.

"A slight chance, yes, Senor."

"Then it's a chance I'm going to take!" cried Jack.

"What do you mean?" asked his sister, wonderingly.

"I mean that we can go in search!" Jack went on, eagerly. "It's worth trying, isn't it, Walter?"

"I should say so--yes, by all means! But what sort of a craft can we get to cruise in?"

"I just heard of one!" said Jack, eagerly. "The Tartar. She's a big motor boat, and will be just the thing for us. I'm going to see about it right away. Who's with me for a cruise in the Tartar?"

"I am!" came from Cora.

"We're not going to be left behind," said Bess.

"Count on me, of course," spoke Walter, quietly.

"And, Senor Jack--may--may I go?" faltered Inez.

"Of course!"

"Senor--Senor Jack," she spoke in a tremulous whisper. "If you are successful--if you find ze lost ones, and we are near Sea Horse Island, would you leave me zere--wiz my father?"

"Leave you there?" cried Jack. "We'll bring your father away from there, if we get the chance! Now come on! We have lots to do!"