Chapter XXII. The Lonely Island
 

Walter, looking over Jack's shoulder, rubbed his eyes as though to clear them from a mist, and then, as he saw the faded gilt letters, he closed both eyes, opening them again quickly to make sure of a perfect vision.

"Jack!" he murmured. "Do I really see it?"

"I--I guess so," was the faltering answer.

"Cora, look here!"

The girls, who had drawn a little aside at the close approach of the negro, came up by twos, Cora and Belle walking together.

"What is it?" asked Jack's sister, thinking perhaps the man had made a second charity appeal to her brother, and that he wanted her advice on it.

"Look," said Jack simply, and he extended the cap.

As Walter had done, Cora was at first unable to believe the word she saw there.

"The--Ramona," she faltered.

"The steamer mother and father sailed on?" asked Belle, her face pale in the lamp-light.

"The same name, at any rate," remarked Walter, in a low voice. "And there would hardly be two alike in these waters."

"But what does it mean? Where did he get the cap?" asked Cora, her voice rising with her excitement. "Tell me, Jack!"

"He says it was flung to him by some sort of an insane sailor, I take it, on a lonely island."

"That's it, Missie," broke in the man, his tone sufficiently respectful. "Me and my mates, as I was tellin' the boss here," and he nodded at Jack, "started to fill our water casks, but we didn't stay to do it arter we saw this chap. Fair a wild man, I'd call 'im, Missie. That's what I would. Fair a wild man!"

"And he flung you this cap?"

"That's what he done, Missie. Chucked it right into the tea, Missie, jest like it didn't cost nothin', and it was a good cap once."

It was not now, whatever it had been, for it bore evidence of long sea immersion, and the band had been broken and cracked by the manner in which the negro fisherman had crammed it into his pocket.

"Jack!" exclaimed Cora, in a strangely agitated voice. "We must hear more of this story. It may be--it may be a clue!"

"That's what I'm thinking."

A little knot of idlers had gathered at seeing the negro talking to the group of white 'young people, and Walter and Jack, exchanging glances mutually decided that the rest of the affair might better be concluded in seclusion. Jack gave the negro a hasty but comprehensive glance.

"Shall we take him aboard, Cora?" he asked his sister. Jack was very willing to defer to Cora's opinion, for he had, more than once, found her judgment sound. And, in a great measure, this was her affair, since she had been invited first by the Robinsons, and Jack himself was only a sort accidental after-thought.

"I think it would he better to take him to the Tartar," Cora said. "We can question him there, and, if necessary, we can--"

She hesitated, and Jack asked:

"Well, what? Go on!"

"No, I want to think about it first," she made reply. "Wait until we girls hear his story."

"Will you come to our motor boat?" asked Jack of the sailor, who said he was known by the name of Slim Jim, which indeed, as far as his physical characteristics were concerned, fitted him perfectly. He was indeed slim, though of rather a pleasant cast of features.

"Sure, boss, I'll go," he answered. "Of course I might git a job by hangin' around here, but--"

"Oh, we'll pay you for your time--you won't lose anything." Jack interrupted. Indeed the man had, from the first, it seemed, accosted him with the idea of getting a little "spare-change" for, like most of the negro population of the Antilles, he was very poor.

"But what's it all about?" asked Bess, who had not heard all the talk, and who, in consequence, had not followed the significance of the encounter.

"Zey have found a man, who says a sailor on some island near here, wore a cap with ze name of your mozer's steamer," put in Inez, who, with the quickness of her race, had gathered those important facts.

"Oh!" gasped Bess.

"Don't build too much on it," interposed Jack.

"It may be only a sailor's yarn."

"It's all true, what I'm tellin' you, boss!" exclaimed the negro.

"Oh, I don't doubt your word," said Jack, quickly. "But let's get aboard the boat before we talk any further."

Aboard the Tartar, seated in her cozy cabin, the story of Slim Jim seemed to take on added significance. He told it, too, with a due regard for its importance--especially to him--in the matter of what money it might bring to him.

In brief, his "yarn" was about as I have indicated, in the brief talk with Jack. Jim and his mates had been on a protracted fishing trip, and had run short of water. One of the number knew of a lonely and uninhabited island near where they were then cruising--an island that contained a spring of good water.

They were headed for the place, but when they were about to land, they had been alarmed by the appearance of what at first was supposed to be some wild beast.

"He crawled on all fours, Missie," said Slim Jim, addressing Cora with such earnestness that she could not repress a shiver. "He crawled on all fours like some bloomin' beastie, begging your pardon, Missie. We was all fair scared, an' sheered orf."

"Then how did you get the cap?" asked Walter.

"He chucked the blessed cap to us, sir!" Jim appeared to have a different appellation for each member of the party. "Chucked it right into the water, sir. I picked it up."

"What else did he do?" asked Cora.

"He behaved somethin' queer, Missie. Runnin' up and down, not on four legs--meanin' his hands, Missie--and now on two. Fair nutty I'd call him."

"Poor fellow," murmured Bess.

"And is that all that happened?" demanded Walter.

"Well, about all, sir. I picked up the cap, and we rowed away. We thought we'd better go dry, sir, in the manner of speakin', instead of facin' that chap. He was fair crazy, sir."

"Did he look like a sailor?" Jack wanted to know.

"Well, no, boss, you couldn't rightly say so, boss. He took on somethin' terrible when we sheered off an' left 'im."

"And that's all?" inquired Belle, in a low voice.

"Yes--er--little lady," answered Slim Jim, finding a new title for fair Belle. "That's all, little lady, 'cept that I kept th' cap, not thinkin' much about it, until I heard you gentlemen inquirin' for news of the Ramona. I heard some one spell out that there name in these letters for me," and he indicated the name on the cap. "Then I spoke to you, boss."

"Yes, and I'm glad you did," said Jack.

"'Why?" began Cora. "Do you think--"

"I think it's barely possible that one of the sailors from the Ramona is marooned on that lonely island," interrupted Jack. "He may be the only one, or there may be more. We'll have to find out. Can you take us to this island?" he asked Slim Jim.

"The lonely island?"

"Yes."

"I rackon so, boss, if you was to hire me, in the manner of speakin'"

"Of course."

"Then I'll go."

"Off for the lonely, isle," murmured Coral softly. "I wonder what we'll find there?"