Chapter XXIII. The Lonely Sailor
 

Once more the Tartar was off on her strange cruise. This time she carried an added passenger, or, rather a second member of the crew, for Slim Jim bunked with Joe, and was made assistant engineer, since the negro proved to know something of gasoline motors.

After hearing the story told by the colored fisherman, and confirming it by inquiries in St. Kitts, Jack, Cora and the others decided that there was but one thing to do. That was to head at once for the lonely island where the sailor, probably maddened by his loneliness and hardship, was marooned.

As to the location of the island, Slim Jim could give a fair idea as to where it rose sullenly from the sea, a mass of coral rock, with a little vegetation. The truth of this was also established by cautious inquiries before the Tartar tripped her anchor.

Lonely Island, as they called it, was about a day's run from St. Kitts in fair weather, and now, though the weather had taken a little turn, as though indicating another storm, it was fair enough to warrant the try.

More gasoline was put aboard, with additional stores, for Slim Jim, in spite of his attenuation, was a hearty eater. Then they were on their way.

Aside from a slight excitement caused when Walter hooked a big fish, and was nearly taken overboard by it--being in fact pulled back just in time by Bess, little of moment occurred on the trip to Lonely Island.

Toward evening, after a day's hard pushing of the Tartar, Slim Jim, who had taken his position in the bows, called out:

"There she lies, boss!"

"Lonely Island?" asked Jack.

"That's her."

"Since you've been there, where had we better anchor?" asked Joe, with a due regard for the craft he was piloting.

"Around on the other side is a good bay, with deep enough water and good holding ground," said the negro. "If it comes on to blow, an' it looks as if it might, we'll ride easy there."

Accordingly, they passed by the place where the negro fishermen had been frightened away with their empty water casks, and made for the other side of the island. Recalling the story of the queer and probably crazed man, Jack and the others, including Slim Jim, gazed eagerly for a sight of him. But the island seemed deserted and lonely.

"What if he shouldn't be there?" whispered Belle to Cora.

"Don't suggest it, my dear. It's the best chance we've yet had of finding them, and it mustn't fail--it simply mustn't!"

It was very quiet in the little bay where they dropped anchor, though a flock of birds, with harsh cries, flew from the palm trees at the sound of the "mud hook" splashing into the water.

"Now for the sailor!" exclaimed Walter.

"Hush! He'll hear you," cautioned Belle.

"Well, we want him to, don't we?" and he smiled at her.

Eagerly they gazed toward shore, but there was no sign of a human being around there. Lonely indeed was the little island in the midst of that blue sea, over which the setting sun cast golden shadows.

"Are you going ashore?" asked Walter of Jack, in a low voice. Somehow it seemed necessary to speak in hushed tones in that silent place.

"Indeed we're not--until morning!" put in Cora. "And don't you boys dare go and leave us alone," and she grasped her brother's arm in a determined clasp.

"I guess it will be better to wait until morning," agreed Jack.

Supper--or dinner, as you prefer--was served aboard, and then the searchers sat about and talked of the strange turn of events, while Jim and Joe, in the motor compartment, tinkered with the engine, which had not been running as smoothly, of late, as could be desired.

"I hope it doesn't go back on us," remarked Jack, half dubiously.

"Don't suggest such a thing," exclaimed his sister.

They agreed to go ashore in the morning, and search for the marooned sailor supposed to be on Lonely Island. The night passed quietly, though there were strange noises from the direction of the island. Jack, and the others aboard the Tartar, which swung at anchor in the little coral encircled lagoon, said they were the noises of birds in the palm trees. But Slim Jim shook his head.

"That crazy sailor makes queer noises," he said.

"If he's there," suggested Walter.

In the morning they found him, after a short search. It was not at all difficult, for they came upon the unfortunate man in a clump of trees, under which he was huddled, eating something in almost animal fashion.

With Jack and Walter in the lead, the girls behind them, and Joe and Jim in the rear, they had set off on their man-hunt. They had not gone far from the shore before an agitation in the bushes just ahead of them attracted the attention of the two boys.

"Did you see something?" asked Walter.

"Something--yes," admitted Jack. "A bird, I think."

"But I didn't hear the flutter of wings."

"I don't know as to that. Anyhow, there are birds enough here. Come on."

They glanced back to where Bess had stopped to look at a beautiful orchid, in shape itself not unlike some bird of most brilliant plumage.

"Oh, if father could only see that!" she sighed. "It is too beautiful to pick."

Cora and her chums closed up to the boys, and then, as they made their way down a little grassy hill, into a sort of glade, Cora uttered a sudden and startled cry.

"Look!" she gasped, clutching Jack's arm in such a grip that he winced.

"Where?" he asked.

"Right under those trees."

And there they saw him--the lonely sailor, crouched down, eating something as--yes, as a dog might eat it! So far had he fallen back to the original scale--if ever there was one.

Some one of the party trod on a stick, that broke with a loud snap-almost like a rifle shot in that stillness. The lone sailor looked up, startled, as a dog might, when disturbed at gnawing a bone. Then he remained as still and quiet as some stone.

"That's him," said the negro sailor, and though he meant to speak softly, his voice seemed fairly to boom out. At the sound of it, the hermit was galvanized into life. He dropped what he had been eating, and slowly rose from his crouching attitude. Then he turned slowly, so as to face the group of intruders on his island fastness. He seemed to fear they would vanish, if he moved too suddenly--vanish as the figment of some dream.

"Poor fellow," murmured Cora. "Speak to him, Jack. Say something."

"I'm afraid of' frightening him more. Wait until he wakes up a bit."

"He does act like some one just disturbed from a sleep," spoke Walter. "Maybe you girls--"

"Oh, we're not afraid," put in Bess, quickly.

Not with all this protection, and she looked from the boys to the two sturdy men.

Now the lonely sailor was moving more quickly. He straightened up, more like the likeness and image of man as he was created, and took a step forward. Finding, evidently, that this did not dissipate the images, he passed his hand in front of his face, as though brushing away unseen cobwebs. Then he fairly ran toward the group.

"Look out!" warned Joe. But there was nothing to fear. When yet a little distance off, the man fell on his knees, and, holding up his hands, in an attitude of supplication cried out in a hoarse voice:

"Don't say you're not real. Oh, dear God, don't let 'em say that! Don't let 'em be visions of a dream! Don't, dear God!"

"Oh, speak to him, Jack!" begged Cora. "He thinks it's a vision. Tell him we are real--that we've come to take him away--to find out about our own dear ones--speak to him!"

There was no need. Her own clear voice had carried to the lonely sailor, and had told him what he wanted to know.

"They speak! I hear them! They are real. And now, dear God, don't let them go away!" he pleaded.

"We're not going away!" Jack called. "At least not until we help you--if we can. Come over here and tell us all about it. Are you from the Ramona?"

"The Ramona, yes. But if--if you're from her--if you've come to take me back to her, I'm not going! I'd rather die first. I won't go back! I won't be a pirate! You sha'n't make me! I'll stay here and die first."