Chapter XIX. Cruising Days
 

There was a sudden rush to see the tiger of the deep, of which Cora had had a glimpse. Walter, who was at the wheel, cried to Joe to steer while he, too, ran to the rail.

"I don't see him," said Bess, as she peered down into the deep, blue water.

"You'll see him in a minute," was Cora's opinion. "He had just taken the hook, I think, and he didn't like it. He'll come into view pretty soon."

Hardly had she spoken, than, while the others were looking at the line, which was now unreeling from a spool on which it was wound, the shark came suddenly to the surface, its big triangular fin appearing first.

"There it is!" cried Cora. "See it, Bess!"

"Oh, the monster! I don't want to look at the horrible thing!" screamed Bess, as she covered her eyes with her hands.

The shark swam close to the motor boat, and then with a threshing of the water, and by wild leaps and bounds, sought to free himself from the sharp hook. But it had gone in too deep.

"No, you don't, old chap," cried Jack, as he took hold of the slack of the line.

He regretted it the next instant, for the shark darted away with a speed that made the tough string cut deep into Jack's palm.

"Oh!" he murmured, as he sprang back from the rail.

"Better be careful!" warned Joe. "They're mighty strong."

"Oh, cut him loose!" urged Cora. "Do, Walter! We don't want him aboard here."

"He'd be quite a curiosity," observed Jack's chum, as he helped Cora's brother tie a rag around his cut and bleeding hand. "We could sell the fins to the Chinese for soup, and you might have a fan made from the tail."

"No, thank you! It's too horrible!" and Cora could not repress a shudder as the big fish, once more, made a leap partly out of the water, showing its immense size.

"Whew!" whistled Walter, for this was the first good view he had had of the sea-tiger. "We never can get him aboard, Jack. Better do as Cora says, and let him go."

"Oh, I didn't intend to have him as a pet," was the rueful answer of Jack. "I just wanted to see if I could catch one. I'm satisfied to let him go," and he looked down at his bandaged hand.

"Too bad to lose all that good line," mused Walter, "but we probably won't want to do any more shark-fishing, so I'll cut it."

"I've seen enough of sharks," murmured Belle, who, with Inez, had taken one glance, and then retreated to the cabin.

"These aren't regular man-eating sharks," affirmed Jack, after Walter, with a blow from a heavy knife, had severed the line, letting the shark swim away with the hook.

"Ah, but zey are, Senor!" exclaimed the Spanish girl. "You should hear the stories the natives tell of them."

"But I saw a bigger one not far from the harbor," insisted Jack, "and it seemed almost tame."

"They are, near harbors," explained Cora. "One of the ladies at the hotel explained about that. The harbor sharks live on what they get near shore, stuff thrown overboard from boats, and they grow very large and lazy. But, farther out to sea, they don't get so much to eat, and they'll take a hook and bait almost as soon as it's thrown into the water. The men sometimes go shark-fishing for sport."

"It might be sport, under the right circumstances," said Jack, with a rueful laugh. "Next time I'll know better, than to, handle a shark line without gloves."

"So shall I," agreed Cora, as she looked at her skinned knuckles.

They had made a good catch of food fishes and the boys now proceeded to get these ready for their first meal aboard, the girls agreeing to cook them, and to set the table.

The meal was rather a merry one, in spite of the grief that hung over the party--a grief occasioned by the fear of what might have befallen Mrs. Kimball, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Robinson.

And yet, with all their sorrow, there was that never-failing ray of hope. Without it, the days would have been dismal indeed.

Joe ran the boat while the others were eating, and presently he called into the dining compartment.

"Cape San Juan!" was his announcement.

"Have we sighted it?" asked Jack, referring to the north easternmost point of Porto Rico.

"Just ahead of us," replied Joe, who was a skillful navigator of the West Indian waters. "You said you were going to change the course there."

"Oh, yes. We'll round the cape and go south, I think," went on Jack. "A little more of that red snapper, Cora. Whoever cooked it knew how to do it," and he looked at Ben, while the others laughed.

"What's the joke?" Jack demanded, as he ate on, seemingly unperturbed, though his cut hand made it rather awkward to handle his knife and fork.

"Honor to whom honor is due," quoted Cora.

"It was Inez who cooked the fish. It's in Spanish style."

"Good!" exclaimed Jack, as he flashed another look at Bess, with whom he seemed to have some understanding. "Whatever style it is, I'm for it. I don't care whether it has gores down the side, and plaits up the middle, with frills around the ruffles, or whatever you call them--it's good."

The others laughed, while Inez looked very much puzzled at Jack's juggling of dressmaking terms.

"Is it zat I have put too much paprika on ze fith?" asked the Spanish girl.

"No, Jack is just trying to be funny," explained Cora. "He thinks it's great--don't you, Jack?"

"What, to be funny?"

"No, to eat the fish," said Walter.

There was more laughter. Little enough cause for it, perhaps, and yet there seemed to come a sudden relaxation of the strain under which they had all been laboring the last few days, and even a slight excuse for merriment was welcomed.

So the meal went on, and a good one it was. The motor girls, from having gone on many outings, and from having done much camping, were able to cook to satisfy even the sea-ravenous appetites of two young men, although Jack was not exactly "up to the mark."

Then, too, the novelty of shifting for themselves, after being used to the rather indolent luxury of a tropical hotel, made a welcome change to them. Joe had his meal after the others had finished, as it was necessary for some one to stay at the wheel, for the Tartar was slipping along through the blue water at a good rate of speed.

Cape San Juan was rounded, and then the prow of the powerful motor boat was turned south, to navigate the often perilous passage between Porto Rico and Vieques.

"Do you think we'll find any news at St. Croix?" asked Cora, of Jack, in a low voice, when, after the meal, they found themselves for the moment by themselves.

"Hard to say, Sis," he answered. "I'm always living in hope, you know."

"Yes, I suppose we must hope, Jack. And yet, when I think of all they may be suffering--starving, perhaps, on some uninhabited island, it--it makes me shiver," and Cora glanced apprehensively across the stretch of blue water as though she might, at any moment, sight the lonely isle that served as a refuge for her mother, and for Mr. and Mrs. Robinson.

"Don't think about it," advised the practical Jack. "There are just as many chances that the folks have been picked up, and taken to some good island, as that they're on some bad one."

By the course they had laid, it was rather more than a hundred miles from San Juan harbor to St. Croix, the Danish island, and as they were going to make a careful search, and husband their supply of gasoline as much as possible, they had set their average speed at ten miles an hour.

"That will bring us to St. Croix early this evening," said Jack, for they had started in the morning. "We'll stay there all night, for I don't much fancy motoring after dark in unknown waters."

"Neither do I," said Cora.

"And then there are the sharks!" murmured Belle.

"I won't let them get you!" said Walter, it such soothing tones as one might use to a child. "The bad sharks sha'n't get little Belle," and he pretended to slip an arm about her.

"Stop it!" commanded the blonde twin, with a deep blush as she fairly squirmed out of reach.