Chapter XXIV. The Revenue Cutter
 

The story told by Ben Wrensch--for such proved to be the name of the lonely sailor-cannot be set down as he told it. In the first place, there was little of chronological order about it, and in the second place he was interrupted so often by Cora, or one of the others, asking questions, or he interrupted himself so frequently, that it would be but a disjointed narrative at best. So, I have seen fit to abridge it, and tell it in my own.

As a matter of fact, the questions Cora, her girl chums, or the boys asked, only tended to throw more light on the strange affair, whereas the interruptions of Ben himself were more dramatic. He was so afraid that it was all a dream that, he would awaken from it only to find himself alone again.

"But you are real, aren't you, now?" he would ask, pathetically.

"Of course," said Cora, with a gentle smile.

"And you won't go away and leave me, as the others did?" he begged, but he did not couple Slim Jim with one of those. In fact, he did not pay much attention to the negro, for which Jim, a rather superstitious chap, was very grateful.

"Certainly we won't leave you here," Jack said. "We'll take you wherever you want to go, Ben."

"That's good. Well, as I was saying--" and then he would resume his interrupted narrative.

So, instead of telling his "yarn" in that fashion, I have sought to save your time and interest by condensing it.

Up to the time of the hurricane, which caught the Ramona in rather a bad stretch of water, there was nothing that need be set down. The vessel bearing the mother of Jack and Cora, and the parents of the Robinson twins, had gone on her way, until the sudden bursting of the storm, with unusual tropical fury, had thrown the seas against and over the craft with smashing fury. Boats and parts of the railing and netting, had been carried away, and one or two sailors washed overboard.

Then had come the mutiny, if such it could he called--an uprising of some of the sailors, driven to almost insane anger because of the refusal of the captain to put into a port, the harbor of which could not he made in such a sea as was running, nor in the teeth of such furious wind. The only thing to do was to scud before the gale, with the engines and crew doing what they could.

There had been an incipient panic, and a rush for the boats quelled hardly in time, for some had been lowered, and swamped and others had gotten away.

There was an exchange of shots between the captain and some of the mutineers, and, as our friends knew, one sailor, at least, was wounded, though whether by the captain or by the mutineers was uncertain.

Ben Wrensch, who appeared of better character than the usual run of West Indian sailors, had his share in the mutiny--that is, he refused to take sides with the small part of the crew who berated the captain for something he could not do. He had sided with the small part of the crew who remained loyal.

"And what did they do to you?" asked Jack. For the man had come to a pause, after describing how many shouted that the ship was foundering.

"The rascals drove me and some of the other to a boat, and lowered us away," was the answer. "They said they didn't want us aboard. I guess they was afraid we'd give evidence against them, if we ever got the chance, and so I would."

"And did you land here?" asked Cora, indicating the lonely isle.

"Not at first, Miss. We tossed about in the boat and the sea got higher and the wind stronger. And how it did rain! It seemed to beat right through your skin. The rain helped to keep the seas down, but not much. It was fearful!"

He then went on to tell how, after laboring hard in the darkness of the night, the boat he was in (five other sailors being his companions) was swamped by a huge wave. He was tossed into the sea, and must have been rendered unconscious by a blow on the head, for he remembered nothing more until he found himself being washed back and forth on the beach by the waves, and at last had understanding and strength enough to crawl up beyond the reach of the water.

So he had come to Lonely Island. And there he had existed ever since.

Some few things--including the cap that had been of such value to our friends--had been washed ashore from the boat, or otherwise Ben might have starved at first, for he was too weak to hunt for food. Gradually he regained the power to help himself.

He found mussels clinging to the rocks, he gathered some turtles eggs, and was lucky enough to kill a bird with a stone. On such food he lived. For shelter he made himself a hut of bark and vines, and so the days passed in loneliness.

It had not taken him long to find that he was the only inhabitant of Lonely Island. He alone, of the company in the boat, had come ashore to be saved.

Of the time he spent on the island you would not be interested to hear. One day was like another, save as he had better or worse luck in providing food. His great anxiety was to be taken off and to this end he made a signal, but it was a small one, and it is doubtful it would ever have been seen.

Gradually his hardships, his exposure and the loneliness preyed on him until he was well-nigh insane. He became almost like an animal in his fight against nature.

He was on the verge of madness when he saw the boat load of fishermen approaching for water, and it was his queer actions that drove them off. In his despair he threw his cap at them, the most fortunate thing he could have done.

"And now you come to me!" he said, simply.

"Yes, we're here," admitted Jack. "But can you give us any more news of the Ramona? That is what we want to know. Which way was she headed when you were forced to leave her? Have you any idea where she is now?"

"She was headed southeast," was the answer.

"And how long would you say she could keep afloat?" Walter wanted to know.

"She ought to be afloat now!" was the startling reply.

"Now!" cried Jack. "What do you mean?"

"Why, she was in no danger of sinking," Ben went on, and Cora and the girls felt new hope springing up in their hearts.

"Are you sure of this?" demanded Jack.

"Very sure; yes. I was below just before I was forced into the small boat, and there wasn't a plate sprung. The engines were in good order and if the mutineers hadn't raised a hue and cry, everything would have been all right. But they wanted their way, for their own ends, I fancy."

"Meaning what?" asked Jack.

"That they were glad of any excuse to seize the ship. I overheard some of their plans. They would have done it, storm or no storm. There was a plot to take the Ramona, put off all who would be in the way, take her to some port, change her name and engage her in what amounted to piracy."

"The plotters were going to do this?" cried Walter, aghast.

"Yes, and the storm only egged them on. It was their opportunity."

"Then the Ramona may be afloat now?" demanded Cora.

"She very likely is, Miss, I should say. A little damaged perhaps, but not more than could be."

"And what of the passengers?" asked Bess.

"Well, they're either aboard her, as prisoners, or have thrown their lot in with the mutineers, or--"

He did not go on.

"Well?" asked Jack, grimly.

"Or they were put adrift, as I was," went on Ben.

"But you did not see that happen?" asked Cora, for the story was nearing its end now.

"No, Miss, I didn't see that. When I was put overboard, all the passengers--and there weren't many of them--were still aboard."

"Did you see any of them?" asked Bess.

"Oh, yes, Miss. All of 'em, I fancy."

"My father and mother--"

Ben described, as well as he could, the various characteristics and appearances of the Ramona's passengers, and Mrs. Kimball and Mr. and Mrs. Robinson were easily recognized.

"Then we must still keep on searching for them," decided Jack, at the conclusion of the narrative. "We'll just have to keep on!"

"It looks so," admitted Cora.

"Oh, we mustn't think of giving up!" cried Bess. "I know my father. He just wouldn't give in to those horrid mutineers, and he wouldn't throw in his fortunes with them, either. I can't explain it, but, somehow I feel more hopeful than at any time yet, that they are all right--Papa and Mamma, and your mother, too, Cora."

"I am glad you think so, dear. I haven't given up either. But let's get away from here, Jack."

"That's what I say!" murmured Belle, with a little nervous shiver. This place gives me such a creepy feeling."

"You might well say so, Miss," put in Ben. "That is, if you had to stay here all along, as I did, with nothing but them parrot birds screeching at you all day long. It was awful!"

There was no use in staying longer on Lonely Island, and Ben Wrensch was only too glad to be taken from it. At first the motor girls talked of taking him with them, on the remainder of the cruise, but, as Jack pointed out, there was no need of this.

He could give no further information as to the location of the Ramona, providing the steamer still was afloat. And he would only be an added, and comparatively useless, passenger. He was not exactly the sort of personage one would desire in the rather cramped quarters of the Tartar, though he was kind and obliging. He would be better off ashore, for the time being, where he could get medical treatment.

So the big motor boat swept out of the blue lagoon, and headed for St. Kitts, for it was planned to leave Ben, and once more take up the search.

They had not been under way more than an hour, however, before Jack, who was steering, uttered a cry.

"There's a boat cording toward us!" he said. "She seems to be a small launch."

"Yes, and she's signaling to us!" added Walter. "She wants to speak with us!"

Joe came up from the motor room, and looked long and earnestly at the approaching craft.

"That's an English revenue cutter," he said, "and she's in a hurry, too."

"I wonder what she can want with us," mused Jack, as he ordered a signal to be run up on the small mast, indicating that they would speak to the approaching craft.