Chapter XVIII. The Shark
 

Looking at a map of the West Indies, the reader, if he or she will take that little trouble, will see that the many islands lay in a sort of curved hook, extending from Cuba, the largest, down to Tobago, one of the smallest, just off Trinidad. In fact, Trinidad is a little off-set of the end of the hook, and, for the purpose of this illustration, need not be considered.

The problem, then, that confronted the motor girls, and, no less, Jack and Walter, was to cruise in among these islands, in the hope of finding, on one of them, Mrs. Kimball, and Mr. and Mrs. Robinson, who, by great good fortune, might have been able to save themselves from the wreck of the Ramona.

Looking at the map again, which is the last time I shall trouble you to do so, the problem might not seem so hard, for there are not so many islands shown. The difficulty is that few maps show all of them, and even on the best of navigating maps there may be one or two that are not charted. The shipwrecked ones, providing they lived to get off on a life raft, or in a boat, might as likely have been driven to one of these little islands, as to a larger one.

"But we can cut out a lot of them," said Jack, when they were in the cozy cabin of the Tartar, and he and his sister, with the others, were bending over the charts.

"It's like this," Jack went on, pointing with a pencil to where Porto Rico was shown, in shape and proportion not unlike a building brick. "Our folks started for Guadeloupe--that's here," and he indicated the island which bears not a little resemblance to an hour-glass on the map. Guadeloupe, in fact, consists of two islands, separated by a narrow arm of the sea--Riviere Salee--which divides it by a channel of from one hundred to four hundred feet in width.

"Whether they arrived is of course open to question," said Jack. "I'm inclined to think they didn't, or we'd have heard from them. The storm came before the ship got anywhere near there. Now, then, I think we shall have to look for them somewhere between Porto Rico and Guadeloupe."

"Why not near St. Kitts?" asked Walter, covering with his finger the little island that is included in the discoveries of Columbus. "That's near where the two sailors were picked up," Walter went on.

"Yes--I think we ought to go there," agreed Jack. "But it's only one of many possible places where our folks may be. It's going to be a long cruise, I'm afraid."

"Where is Sea Horse Island?" asked Cora, as Inez flashed an appealing look at her.

"Here," replied Jack, indicating a rather lonesome spot in the watery waste, where no other islands showed. "It's about half way between Guadeloupe and Aves, or Bird Island. Speaking sailor fashion, its latitude is about sixteen degrees north of the equator, and the longitude about sixty-two degrees, fifty-one minutes west."

"Oh, don't!" begged Bess. "It reminds me of my school days. I never could tell the difference between latitude and longitude."

"Well, there's where Sea Horse Island is," went on Jack, "and if all had gone well, Mr. Robinson hoped to gather orchids there. Now--?" he hesitated.

"And do you think we'll touch near there, Jack?" asked his sister.

"I'm going to try."

"Oh, it is so good of you!" murmured Inez. "Perhaps we can save my father."

"At any rate, they ought to allow you to see him," put in Walter. "Political prisoners aren't supposed to be kept in solitary confinement. We'll have a try at him, anyhow; eh, Jack?"

"Sure. Well, that's our problem--to search among these islands, and I think we have the very boat to do it."

Indeed the Tartar was just what they could have desired. It was a powerful motor boat, and had been in commission only a short time. It could weather a fairly big sea, or a heavy blow. It had a powerful motor, many comforts, and even some luxuries, including a bathroom.

The engine was located forward, where there was a sleeping room for the engineer, who could steer from a small pilot house. Or the craft could also be guided from the after deck, which was open.

There was a large enclosed space, variously divided into cabins and staterooms. A kitchen provided for ample meals, the cooking being done by the exhausted and heated gases from the motor, which also warmed the boat on the few days when the weather was rainy and chilly. When the motor was not running, a gasoline stove could be used.

Adjoining the kitchen was the dining cabin, which had folding seats that could be used for berths when more than could be accommodated in the regular sleeping spaces were aboard.

There were two other cabins, fitted with folding berths, and the smaller of these was apportioned to Jack and Walter, while the girls took possession of the larger one. In addition, there were ample lockers and spaces for storing away food, and the other things they had brought with them. A considerable supply of gasoline had to be carried, but there were several islands where more could be purchased.

"Isn't it just the dearest boat!" murmured Belle, as she made a tour of it, and had peeped into the engine compartment.

"It is," agreed her sister. "Oh, Cora, wouldn't you just fairly love to run that splendid motor?"

"I would, if I didn't have to start it too often," replied Jack's sister, as she looked at the heavy flywheel, which was now moving about as noiselessly as a shaft of light. The propeller was not in clutch, however.

"It has a self-starter," Joe informed the girls. "It's the smoothest engine ever handled. No trouble at all."

"Better knock wood," suggested Jack.

"Eh? Knock wood?" asked the engineer, evidently puzzled.

"Oh, Jack means to do that to take away any bad luck that might follow your boast," laughed Cora.

"Oh, I see. But I carry a charm," and Joe showed a queer black pebble. "I always have it with me."

"One superstition isn't much worse than the other," said Bess, with a laugh. "Now let's get settled. Oh, Cora, did you bring any safety-pins? I meant to get a paper, but--"

"I have them," interrupted Belle. "I fancy we won't have much time to sew buttons on--or room to do it, either," she added, as she squeezed herself into a corner of the tiny stateroom.

Suitcases had been stowed away, the boys had gotten their possessions into what they called "ship-shape" order, and the Tartar was soon chugging her way over the blue waters of the bay.

The route was to be around the eastern end of the island, taking the narrow channel between Porto Rico and Vieques, and thus into the Caribbean. St. Croix was to be their first stop, though they did not hope for much news from that Danish possession.

"Why don't you boys do some fishing?" asked Cora, as she and the other girls came from their stateroom, where they had been putting their things to rights. "We won't have much but canned stuff to eat, if you don't," she went on, addressing Jack and Walter, who sat on the open after deck, under an awning that shaded them from the hot December sun.

"That's so, we might," assented Jack. "A nice tarpon now wouldn't go bad."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Walter. "We haven't the outfit for tarpon fishing. If we get some red snappers, we'll be doing well."

The boys had brought along a fishing outfit, one of the simple sort used in those waters, and as they baited their hooks, Jack said:

"Well, maybe I haven't the rod to catch a tarpon, but I can rig up a line and hook that will do the business, maybe."

Accordingly he picked out what Joe said was a regular shark hook, and, baiting it with a piece of canned meat, tossed it over the side, fastening the line to the rail.

Then Jack forgot about it, for Walter had a bite almost as soon as he cast in, and the two boys were soon pulling in red snappers abundantly enough to insure several meals.

"Why don't you try your hand line," suggested Cora, as she went to where it was tied to the rail. "May be you'll get-a bite, Jack."

As she spoke, she felt on the heavy string, and, an instant later, uttered a cry, for it was jerked from her hand with such force as to skin her knuckles, and at the same time she cried:

"Jack! Jack! You've hooked a big shark! Oh, what a monster!"