Chapter XX. Anxious Nights
 

Dusk had begun to settle over the harbor of Christianstad, or Bassin, as the capital of St. Croix is locally known, when the anchor of the Tartar was dropped into the mud. The boat had threaded its way through a rather treacherous channel, caused by the then shallow parts of the basin, and had come to rest not far from shore.

"What's the program?" asked Walter, as the motor ceased its throbbing.

"We'll go ashore," said Jack, "and see what news we can learn. I'm not very hopeful, but we may pick up something."

"Back here to sleep?" Walter went on, questioningly.

"Oh, sure. We want to start early in the morning. And from now on, we'll have plenty of stopping places, for there are many small islands where survivors from the wreck might have landed."

"Is there anything to see here ashore?" asked Bess. "If there is, you might take us girls. We don't want to be left alone."

"Well, I suppose it could be done," Jack assented. "Only we'll have to do it in two trips, for the small boat won't hold us all. Too risky, and there might be sharks here, Bess," and he made a motion toward the waters of the harbor.

"Oh, how horrible!" she screamed.

A small rowboat was carried as part of the equipment of the Tartar, but, at best, it could hold only four. However, the boys and girls were saved the necessity of making two trips from the motor boat to shore, for a large launch, the pilot of which scented business, put out to them from the landing wharf, and soon bargained to land them, and bring them off again when they desired to come. Joe would stay aboard the Tartar.

The travelers found Christianstad to be a picturesque town, and in certain parts of it there were many old buildings. The Danish governor was "in residence" then, and affairs were rather more lively than usual.

"What's that queer smell?" asked Cora, as they were on their way to the best hotel in the place, for there they intended making their inquiries.

"Sugar factory," answered Jack. "It's about all the business done here--making sugar."

"How'd you know?" asked Belle.

"Oh, ask Little Willie whenever you want to know anything," laughed Jack. "Listen, my children!

"St. Croix is twenty-two miles long, and from one to six miles in width. It is inhabited by whites and blacks, the former sugar planters, and the latter un-planters--that is, they gather the sugar cane.

"St. Croix was discovered by Columbus in 1493, and at times the Dutch, British and Spanish owned it. In 1733 Denmark bought it, and has owned it since. The average temperature is--"

"That'll do you!" interrupted Walter. "We can read a guide book as well as you can. Come again, Jack."

"Well, I thought you'd be wanting to know something about it, so I primed myself," chuckled Jack.

Curious eyes regarded our friends as they reached the hotel. Walter and Jack left the girls in the parlor while they, themselves, went to make inquiries at the office. And more curious were the looks, when it became known that Jack and the others were seeking traces of those wrecked on the Ramona.

Curious looks, indeed, were about all the satisfaction that was had. For no news--not the most vague rumor--had come in regarding the ill-fated vessel. The wreck had not even been heard of, for news from the outside world sometimes filtered slowly to St. Croix.

"Well, that's our first failure," announced Jack, as, with Walter, he rejoined the girls. "We must expect that. If we found them at our first call, it would be too much like a story in a book. We have a long search ahead of us, I'm thinking."

"That's right," agreed Walter. "But, Jack, if this island is twenty-two miles long, might not the refugees have come ashore somewhere else than on this particular part of the coast?"

"Yes, I suppose so. But, if they did, they'd know enough to make their way to civilization by this time. It's over a week since the hurricane."

"I know. But suppose they couldn't make their way--if they were hurt, or something like that?"

"That's so," was the hesitating answer. "Well, we might make a circuit of the island to-morrow."

"Oh, let's do it--by all means!" exclaimed Cora, catching at any stray straw of hope. "We--we might find them--Jack!"

"All right, Sis!" he agreed.

"You look tired," she said to him, as they sat in a little refreshment room, for Walter had offered to "stand treat" to such as there was to be had.

"I am a bit tuckered out," confessed Jack, putting his hand to his head. "It was quite a strain getting things ready for the start. But, now we're at sea, I'm going to take a good rest--that is, as much as I can, under the circumstances."

"You mustn't overdo it," cautioned Cora. "Remember that we came down here for your health, but we didn't expect to have such a time of it. Poor little mother!" she sighed. "I wonder where she is to-night?"

"I'd like to know," said Jack, softly, and again his hand went to his head with a puzzled sort of gesture.

"Does it ache?" asked Cora, solicitously.

"No, not exactly," answered Jack slowly, uncertainly.

They finished their little refreshment, being, about the only stranger-guests at the hotel, and then went out to view what they could of the town by lamp-light. Some of the shops displayed wares that, under other circumstances, would have been attractive to the girls, but now they did not feel like purchasing. They were under too much of a strain.

"Well, no news is good news," quoted Walter.

Alas! how often has that been said as a last resort to buoy up a sinking hope. No one else spoke, as they made their way to the dock where the little ferry boat awaited them.

"What's the matter, Jack?" asked Walter, as he sat beside his chum on the return trip.

"Matter! What do you mean?"

"You're so quiet."

"He doesn't feel well," put In Cora.

"Oh, I'm all right!" insisted Jack, with brotherly brusqueness. "Let me alone!"

"Well, this place seems nice and cozy," commented Belle, as they reached the Tartar, and stepped into the cabin, which Joe had illuminated from the incandescents, operated by a storage battery when the motor was not whirling the magneto.

"Yes, it is almost like home," said Bess, softly.

Jack and Walter looked carefully to the anchor rope, for though the harbor was a safe one, there were muddy flats in places, and while there was no wind at present to drag them, it might spring up in the night.

"Might as well turn in, I guess," suggested Jack, with a weary yawn.

"Why--yes--old man--if you--feel that way about it!" mocked Walter, pretending to gape.

"Oh, cut it out!" and Jack's voice was almost snarling. Cora looked at him in some surprise, and, catching Walter's eye, made him a signal not to take any notice.

Walter nodded in acquiescence, and the incident passed.

As an anchor light was hoisted, and as there was no need for any particular caution, no watch was kept, every one retiring by eleven o'clock. Often, when the young people had been on outings together, Cora and her girl friends had had a "giggling-spell" after retiring to their rooms. But now none of them felt like making fun. It was rather a solemn little party aboard the Tartar.

The hope and plan of the young travelers to leave early in the morning, and make a circuit of the island, for a possible sight of the refugees, was not destined to be carried out. For somewhere around two o'clock, when bodily functions are said to be at their lowest ebb, Walter heard Jack calling to him.

"I say, old man, I wish, you would come here. Something's the matter with me," came in a hoarse whisper.

"Eh? What's that? Something the matter?" murmured Walter, sleepily.

"Yes, I feel pretty rocky,", was Jack's answer. "Would you mind getting me a little of that nerve stuff the doctor put up for me? It might quiet me so I could go to sleep."

"Great Scott, man! Haven't you been asleep yet?"

"No," was Jack's miserable answer. "I've just been lying here on my back, staring up at the darkness, and now I'm seeing things."

"Seeing things!" faltered Walter.

"Yes, blue centipedes and red sharks. It's like the time I keeled over at college, you know."

"Ugh!" half grunted Walter, with no very cheerful heart, for the prospect before him, if Jack were to be ill. Jack was far from well, when the lights were turned aglow, and Cora came in to see him. It seemed to be a return of his old malady, brought on by an excess of work and worry.

There was little sleep for any of them the rest of the night, for Cora insisted upon sitting up to look after Jack, and Walter made himself up a bunk in the dining compartment, being ready on call.

Toward morning Cora's brother sank into an uneasy slumber under the influence of a sedative, but he awoke at seven o'clock and seemed feverish.

"We must have a doctor from the island," decided Cora, as she saw her brother's condition. "We can't take any chances."

The Danish physician who came out in the boat heartened them up a little by saying it was merely a relapse, and that Jack would be much better after a few days' rest.

"Just stay here with him, or anchor a little farther out," was his suggestion. "The sea breezes will be the best medicine for him. I can't give him any better. Just let him rest until he gets back his nerve."

This advice they followed. But there were anxious nights, and for three of them Walter and Cora divided the task of sitting up with Jack. Joe generously offered to do his share, as did Bess, Belle and Inez, but Cora would not let them relieve her.

So they lingered off the coast of St. Croix until the fever left Jack, departing from his weakened body, but making his mind at rest. Then he began to mend.