Chapter XVII. Off in the "Tartar"
 

"What's the matter?" asked Walter, quickly, as he saw Inez hurrying away. "She see alarmed about something."

"She is--or fancies she is," answered Cora. "It's about those papers which she hopes will free her father of that political charge which keeps him locked up--poor man."

"Did she lose them?"

"No, but as soon as she heard that Senor Ramo had left suddenly, she associated it with the taking of her documents, evidently."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Walter.

"That's what I say," added Cora. "But we mustn't make fun of Inez--she can't bear it."

"Of course not. Besides, I guess none of us feel very much like making fun," went on Walter.

"Our thanks to Senor Ramo will have to wait," said Jack, as he turned away from the hotel desk to rejoin his party. "And now let's get together, see what we have to take with us, and plan our cruise. I'll look up this man Hendos, who owns the Tartar, and see what arrangements I can make with him. Where's Inez?"

"Gone to her room," answered Cora. "I fancy we'd all better get ready for dinner. It's getting late."

They went up stairs, leaving the buzz of much talk behind them, for many of the hotel guests were speaking of the news concerning our friends.

As Cora was entering her apartment, Inez came out into the corridor in front of her room.

"Zey are gone, Senorita!" she gasped.

"Gone!"

"What?" asked Cora, half forgetting, in her own grief and anxiety, what the Spanish girl had gone to ascertain.

"My papairs--for my father! Oh, Senorita, what shall I do?"

"Gone?" echoed Cora. "Do you mean taken--stolen?"

"I fear so--yes. See, my room has been entered."

There was no doubt of it. A hasty glance showed Cora that, in the absence of Inez, her hotel room had been gone over quickly, but thoroughly. A small, empty valise, which Inez had trustingly hidden under the mattress of the bed lay on the floor, open. It had contained the papers which were so precious to her. Now they were gone--that was evident.

"Oh, Inez!" cried Cora, and in such a voice that Jack, who was just coming along with Walter, hurried up, inquiring:

"What is it? What's the matter?"

"Those papers Inez had, have been stolen!" cried Cora. "And Senor Ramo is missing--has fled--"

"Hold on!" exclaimed Jack, laying a cautioning finger on his sister's lips. "It won't do to make such rash statements, and draw such damaging conclusions--in such a loud voice, Sis," and he whispered the last words. "These walls are very thin, you know, and these Spanish gentlemen are very punctilious on points of honor. I don't want to be called on to fight a duel on your behalf."

"Oh, Jack, how can you! Such a poor joke!"

"Not a joke at all, I assure you. Now let's have the whole story--but in here," and Jack drew his sister and Inez into the room of the Spanish girl, Walter following. Bess and Belle had gone into their own apartments a little before, and had not heard, the talk.

"Just in time," murmured Jack, as he closed the door, having a glimpse of a servant coming along the corridor. "Now, what is it, Inez?" and, after a quick glance about the ransacked apartment, he gazed at the girl.

"My papairs--for my father--zey are gone!" With a tragic gesture she pointed to the opened valise.

"Was your room this way when you came in?" asked Walter, who rather imagined he was gifted with amateur detective abilities.

"Just like this--yes, Senor Jack."

"Never mind the senor. Just plain Jack will do. And where were the papers?"

"In the valise--in my bed. But they are gone."

There was no doubt of that--also no doubt of the fact that Senor Ramo--the man who was suspected by Inez of being in the plot to keep her father in the political prison--was likewise missing.

"Hum," mused Jack. "It may be merely a coincidence--or it may not."

"I should say it was not!" declared Walter, positively.

"And get into trouble saying it, Wally," remarked Jack. "No, the best thing to do in this case is to keep quiet about it."

"But my papairs!" cried Inez. "My father--in prison. I must get him out."

"Yes, and I think you can best do it by not letting it be known that you have discovered the theft," Jack said.

"I think that's silly," declared Cora. "Whoever took those papers can't help but know, that their loss would be discovered at once. The condition the room was left in would make that certain. I can't see what good it is to keep quiet about it."

"I'll explain," Jack went on. "The person who did the robbery of course knows he, or she, did it, and knows that we won't be long in finding it out. But the hotel people don't know it yet, nor the guests, and it's possible to keep it from them. They're the ones who will do the talking. Fortunately, the newspapers here aren't like those up home. There won't be any reporters after us, if we keep still."

"But what's the advantage of it?" asked Cora.

"To puzzle and alarm the thief," was Jack's answer. "No doubt he--for I'll assume for the sake of argument that it was a man--will be looking for a hue and cry. He'll expect it, and when it doesn't come, he'll begin to imagine all sort of things."

"I see!" cried Walter. "He'll believe we are on his trail, have a clue and--"

"Exactly!" interrupted Jack. "You're a regular 'deteckertiff,' Wally. That's my game, to puzzle the thief, make him think all sort of things, and so worry him by our very quietness, that he may betray himself."

"Well, maybe that's the best plan," agreed Cora, rather doubtfully.

"But how shall I get my papairs back?" asked Inez, falteringly. "Ze papairs are needed to get my poor father from prison."

"Maybe not," said Jack, hopefully. "Anyhow, there are copies to be had, aren't there?"

"Yes, but zese were ze originals. I need zem!"

"And we'll get them back for you, if we can," broke in Jack. "We may be able to work without them, if we have a chance to get to Sea Horse Island on our cruise. I think our first duty is to try to find the missing ones."

"Oh, of course, yes, Senor!" cried Inez, quickly. "I should not intrude my poor troubles on you."

"Oh, that's all right," said Jack, good-naturedly. "We have a pretty big contract on our hands, and one trouble more or less isn't going to make much difference. Now don't forget--every body mum on this robbery. We'll puzzle the thief!"

"Do you think it, was Ramo?" asked Cora.

"I don't know. If he had any object in getting those papers we gave him the very chance he needed by all being away from the hotel," answered Jack. "And, if it wasn't he, it was some one else who has an object in keeping Mr. Ralcanto in jail. He'd have the same chance as Ramo had to get the documents. So the person we must look for is some one who really needed the papers. But, above all, we'll have to be cautious in making inquiries."

"Yes," agreed Cora. "Could you find out when Ramo left, and if he was near this section of the hotel?"

"I'll try," agreed Jack. "Now you girls begin to sort out the things you want to take along on the cruise. Cora, speak to Bess and Belle about it."

"Why, aren't we going to take all our baggage?"

"What! Fill the Tartar up with trunks full of fancy dresses, when we'll need every inch of room? I guess not! We'll all get down to light marching equipment. Just take what you can put in a suit-case. That's what Wally and I are going to do."

"Oh, but boys are so different; aren't they, Inez?"

"It matters not to me. A few things are all I have."

The Spanish girl looked helplessly and almost hopelessly at the opened valise. And then, as Jack and Walter went out to and what they could learn by cautious questions, the two girls "tidied up" the room, and went to tell Bess and Belle the news.

Jack and Walter could learn but little. Senor Ramo had departed suddenly, alleging a business call as an excuse for leaving the island on a steamer that sailed soon after the arrival of the one he had come in on. That was about all that could be safely learned.

Little else could be done, now, toward making plans for the rescue of the father of Inez. When Mr. Robinson was located, he might have something to suggest, but now all energies must be bent on the rescue work.

The news soon spread through the hotel that the "amazing Americans" were about to undertake a most desperate venture--that of cruising about in the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, in search of their relatives who might have been able to save themselves from the wrecked ship. After a first glance at the map, and a consideration of the situation, Jack had voted for the inside, or Caribbean route, as being less likely to offer danger from storms.

Satisfactory arrangements for chartering the Tartar were made, and the engineer, Joe Alcandor, was engaged to look after the machinery, which, on the Tartar, was not a little complicated.

"With him along we can be more at ease," said Cora.

"Yes, we won't always have to be worrying that one of the cylinders is missing, or that a new spark plug is needed," added Bess.

"Oh, I do hope we can soon start!" sighed Belle. "This suspense is terrible!"

Indeed, it was not easy for any of them, but perhaps Walter and Jack found it less irksome, for they were very busy preparing for the cruise.

Plans were made to leave some of their baggage at the hotel in San Juan, and the rest would be taken with them. A goodly supply of provisions and stores were put aboard, and a complete account of the events leading up to the cruise, including the story of the missing Ralcanto papers, was written out and forwarded to Mr. Robinson's lawyers in New York.

"That's in case of accident to us," said Jack.

"Oh, don't speak of accidents!" cried Cora.

The last arrangements were completed. Jack made final and guarded inquiries, concerning Ramo, but learned nothing. Then, one fine, sunny morning in December, the little party of motor girls and their friends, who had so often made motor boat trips on the lakes or streams of their own country, set off in the Tartar for a cruise on waters blue.

"All aboard!" cried Jack, with an assumption of gaiety he did not feel.

"Oh, I wonder what lies before us?" murmured Cora.

"Courage, Senorita! Perhaps--happiness," said Inez, softly.