Chapter XXI. A Strange Tale
 

"Well, Sis, I don't see what's to keep us here any longer. We might as well get under way again."

"Do you really feel equal to it, Jack?"

"Surely," and the heir of the Kimball family rose from the deck chair and stretched himself. The paleness of his cheeks for the past week was beginning to give way again to the faint glow of health.

"Sorry to get myself knocked out in that fashion," apologized Jack.

"You couldn't help it, old man," said Walter, sympathetically. "The rest has done you good, anyhow."

"Yes, I guess I needed it," confessed Jack. "All my nerves seemed to be on the raw edge." There was no need for him to admit this, since it had been very evident since reaching St. Croix. The Danish physician had given good advice, and now Jack was even better than when he received the news of the foundering of the Ramona.

The balmy sea breezes, the lack of necessity for any hard work, the ministrations of Cora, and, occasionally, the other girls, set Jack in a fair way to recovery. Inez Ralcanto made many dainty Spanish dishes for the invalid, from the stock of provisions aboard the Tartar, and with what she could get from the island. Nothing gave her more delight than to know that Jack had gone to the bottom of each receptacle in which she served her concoctions.

"It is so good to see you smile again, Senor Jack," she said to him, as she looked at him, on deck.

"And it's good to smile again, Inez," he said to her.

"You'd better look out, Bess," warned Walter. "First thing you know, she'll cut you out."

"Silly!" was all the answer Bess vouchsafed. But there was a tell-tale blush on her cheeks.

The anchor of the Tartar was hoisted, and once more she sailed away, this time on the cruise about St. Croix. That it would result in any news of the lost ones being obtained no one really believed, but they felt that no chance, not even the slightest, should be overlooked.

So they motored around the Danish island, stopping aft little bays or inlets where it seemed likely a raft or boat from a shipwrecked vessel might most likely put in. They found no traces, however, and what few natives they were able to converse with had heard of no refugees coming ashore.

"Where next?" asked Walter, when they Had completed the circuit of St. Croix, and come to anchor once more off Christianstad, to lay aboard some supplies.

"St. Kitts," decided Jack, who was again able to take his part in the councils. "At least we'll head for there, and stop at any little two-by-four islands we pick up on the way. Isn't that your opinion, Cora?"

"Yes, Jack. Anything to find those for whom we are looking. Oh, I wonder if we shall ever find them?"

"Of course!" said Jack quickly, but, even as he spoke, he wondered if he were not deceiving himself. For when all was said and done, it seemed such a remote hope--and might be so long deferred, as, not only to make the heart sick, but to stop it's beating altogether. It was such a very slender thread that the beads of hope were strung on--it was so easy to snap. And yet they hoped on!

From St. Croix to St. Kitts is about one hundred and twenty miles, measured on the most accurate charts, and while it could have easily been made in a day's sail by the Tartar, it was decided not to try for any time limit, but to cruise back and forth in a rather zig-zag fashion.

"For that's the only way we'll have of picking up any small islands that might possibly be uncharted," explained Jack. "Most of the coral reefs here are noted on the maps, but there's a bare chance that we might strike an unknown one, or an island, that would serve as a haven of refuge for shipwrecked ones."

His friends agreed with him, and Joe said it was probably the best plan that could be adopted.

So they were once more under way.

It was near St. Kitts that the two sailors from the Ramona had been picked up, to tell their story of the stressful hurricane and mutiny. And, other things being equal, as Jack put it, it was near St. Kitts that some news might be expected to be had of those for whom the search was being made.

As the capital, Basseterre, was a town of more than ten thousand population, it might reasonably be expected that some news of the foundering of the Ramona would be received there. It was in that vicinity, as was evident from the rescue of the two sailors, that the ship had been torn by the wind and waves.

A week was occupied in making the journey to St. Kitts from St. Croix, a week of cruising back and forth, and of stopping at many mere dots of islands. Some of these were seen at once to be not worth searching, since their entire extent could almost be seen at a single glance. They were merely collections of coral rocks, submerged at high water. Others were larger, and these were visited in the small boat which the Tartar carried with her.

It was on some of these trips, over comparatively shallow water, that the beauties and mysteries of the ocean bottom were made plain to our friends.

Joe, the engineer, made for them a "water glass," by the simple process of knocking the bottom out of a pail, and putting in puttied glass, instead. This, when put into the water, glass side somewhat below the surface, enabled one to see with startling clearness the bottom of the ocean, in depths from seventy-five to one hundred feet.

Most wonderful was the sight.

"Why, it looks like a forest, or a wonderful green-house down there," said Cora, after her first view.

"Those are the coral and the sponges," explained Joe. Our friends were surprised to see that coral, instead of being stiff and hard, as it had seemed to them when they handled specimens of it on land, was, under the water, as graceful and waving as the leaves of palm trees in a gentle wind. The ocean currents waved and undulated, it, until it seemed alive.

Branch coral they saw, like miniature trees, and great "fans," some nearly ten feet across. Then there were great rocks of the coral-living rocks, formed of millions and millions of the bodies of the polyps, insects who build up such marvelous formations.

Sponges there were, too, though not in great enough abundance to warrant the sponge-gathering fleets coming to this section.

Through the water glass, our friends could see fish swimming around under the water, darting here and there between the waving coral and under the growing sponges.

It was all very wonderful and beautiful, but it is doubtful if any of the young people really appreciated it as they might have done, had their hearts been lighter. Inez did not care to look at the sea sights, for she said she had seen them too often as a, child in the islands.

In spite of her anxiety concerning her father und his possible fate, she did not obtrude her desires on her friends. She seldom spoke of the hope she had of going to Sea Horse Island, either to help rescue her father, or to learn some news of him, so that others might set him free.

"But we'll go there, just the same!" Jack had said. "And if we can get him out of prison, we will. There must be some sort of authority there to appeal to."

"You are very lucky, Senor Jack," whispered Inez, with a grateful look.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Jack, who did not like praise.

They reached St. Kitts, or St. Christopher, as it is often called, from the immortal Columbus who found it in 1493, when he did so much to bring unknown lands to notice.

"Now we'll see what sort of luck we'll have," spoke Walter.

They anchored off Basseterre, and, going ashore, had little difficulty in confirming the story of the two shipwrecked sailors being picked up. That much as current news, since another vessel than the Boldero had been near, when the latter's captain stopped for the two unfortunates.

That was all that really was learned, save that some fishing boats, later, had seen pieces of wreckage.

Diligent inquiry in Old Road, and Sandy Point, the two other principal towns, failed to gain further information, and our friends were considering continuing their cruise, when, most unexpectedly, they heard a curious tale that set them, eventually, on the right course.

They were coming down to the dock, one evening to take a boat out to their own craft, when an aged colored man, who spoke fairly good English, accosted them. At first Jack took him for a beggar, and gruffly ordered him away, but the fellow insisted.

"I've got news for you, boss," he said, with a curious British cockney accent. "You lookin' for shipwrecked parties, ain't you?"

"Yes," said Jack, a bit shortly. But that was common news.

"Well, there's an island about fifty miles from here," the black went on, "and there's somethin' bloomin' stringe about it;" for so he pronounced "strange."

"Strange--what do you mean?" asked Walter.

"Just what I says, boss, stringe. If you was to say it'd be worth arf a crown now--"

"Oh, I haven't time to bother with curiosities!" exclaimed Jack, impatiently.

"Let us hear his story, Jack," insisted Cora. "What is it?" she asked, giving him a coin, though not as much as he had asked for.

"'Thank ye kindly, Miss. It's this way," said, the colored Englishman. "I works on a fishin' boat, and a few days ago, comin' back, we sighted this island. We needed water, and we went ashore to get it, but--well, we comes away without it."

"Why was that?" asked Walter, curiously.

"Because, boss, there's a strange creature on that island, that's what there is," said the negro. "He scared all of us stiff. He was all in rage and titters, and when he found we was sheering off, without coming ashore, he went wild, and flung his cap at us. It floated off shore, and I picked it up, bein' on that side of the boat."

"But how does this concern us?" asked Jack, rousing a little.

"I could show you that cap, boss," the Negro went on. "I've got it here. It's dark, but maybe you can make out the letters on it. I can't read very good."

Jack held the cap up in the gleam of a light on the water-front. His startled eyes saw a cap, such as sailors wear, while in faded gilt letters on the band was the name: "RAMONA."