Chapter XXVI. The Pursuit
 

"What is it?" cried Cora, as she came up from the little dining cabin, where she and the other girls had been "doing" the dishes.

"A small steamer, Miss," answered the engineer of the Tartar. "I can't just make out what she is--sort of misty and hazy just now."

"She seems to be headed this way, too," spoke Bess, who had joined Cora on the little deck. "Oh, but doesn't the weather look queer?"

She turned a questioning and rather frightened gaze at her chum.

"I think we're in for a storm," Cora spoke.

"But we're too good sailors to mind that--aren't we?"

"I hope so," faltered Bess.

It was not so much a question of sea-sickness with the motor girls, as it was a fear of damage in a comparatively small craft. They had been on the water enough, and in stressful times, too, so that they suffered no qualms. But a storm at sea is ever a frightful sensation, to even the seasoned traveler.

"Why, that boat is headed right for us," observed Belle, who had also come out of the dining cabin. As for Inez, she frankly did not like the water except when the sky was blue and the sun shining, though she was far from being cowardly about it. So she remained below.

"Jack! Jack!" called Cora, for Walter and her brother had gone down to their stateroom to don "sea togs," as Jack called them--meaning thereby clothes that salt water would not damage.

"What is it, Sis?" he asked.

"There's another boat headed for us, perhaps she wants help?" Cora suggested.

"We'll give them all we can," Jack called, as he came hurrying up. Then, as he steadied himself at the rail, and looked off through the mist toward the on-coming boat, he uttered an exclamation.

"Why--that's the revenue cutter again!" he cried. "I'm sure of it! How about that, Joe?"

The engineer, who had left his machinery in charge of Slim Jim, for the time, cleared his eyes of the salty spray.

"I guess you're right," he agreed. "Couldn't make her out at first, but that's who she is. Guess she wants to ask us if we have any more information. Shall I heave to?"

"Better, I think," advised Cora, following Jack's questioning glance. For, be it known, Jack deferred more than usual to his sister on this cruise, since he had been under her direction, rather than she under his.

That it was the desire of the on-coming craft to have the Tartar slow up was evident a moment later. For, as the powerful motors revolved with less speed, a hail came over the heaving blue waters, that now had turned to a sickly green under the strange hue of the setting sun.

"On board the Tartar!" came the cry. Evidently the boat of our voyagers had not been forgotten.

"Ahoy!" shouted Jack, using a megaphone Cora handed him.

"Stand by!" was the next command. "We want to send"--there came an undistinguishable word--"aboard."

"They're going to send some one aboard!" cried Bess. "Oh, if it should be our folks--mother and father-your mother, Cora dear!"

A flush of excitement gathered on Cora's cheeks. Belle, too, felt that something was impending. Jack, and Walter exchanged glances.

The sea was running higher now, under the influence of an ever-increasing wind, and it was no easy matter to lower a small boat from the cutter--a small boat containing three men.

"It's just as it was before--when they came to us for news," exclaimed Bess. "I wonder if they bring us news, now."

"They certainly aren't bringing any of our people," said Cora with a sigh, for, though she had discounted the hope that Bess had expressed, yet she could not altogether free herself from it. It was evident that none save sailors were coming toward the Tartar.

And, when the small boat drew nearer, those aboard the gasoline craft saw that they were to receive the same Lieutenant Walling who had before paid them a visit.

"What is it, please?" asked Cora, leaning over the rail. She was unable to withhold her question longer.

"We have news for you!" exclaimed the lieutenant, the pause coming as he made an ineffectual grasp for the rail as his boat rose on the swell.

"News!" gasped Cora. Her heart was beating wildly now.

"Oh, we haven't rescued your people," Lieutenant Walling hastened to assure her, as this time he managed to grasp the rail of the motor boat, swinging himself over on the deck. The swells were so high that no accommodation ladder was needed. "That's all--you may go back, and say to Captain Decker that I will look after matters," he said to the sailors in the small boat.

One of them fended off from the side of the Tartar, while the other pulled on the oars. Soon they were on their way back, crossing the stretch of now sullenly heaving water between the two craft.

"I find myself, under the direction of my commanding officer, Captain Decker, obliged to ask for help," said Lieutenant Walling, with a smile.

"Help?" repeated Jack, who, with Walter, had joined the group of girls about the officer.

"Yes. We have had news that the Ramona has been seen in this vicinity, and we were after her. But there was an accident to our machinery, and we can't go on in the storm. The cutter was obliged to put back when we sighted you.

"I suggested to Captain Decker that possibly you could give us the very help we needed. You have an object in finding the Ramona, not the same object as ourselves, but stronger, if anything," and the lieutenant looked at Cora. She nodded her head in assent.

"So it occurred to me," Lieutenant Walling went on, "that I might continue the chase in the Tartar. It is doubtful if our cutter could manage to navigate in the storm we seem about to have, so we should have been obliged to put back in any case, even if we had not had the accident. But you can stand a pretty good blow,"' he said, referring to the Tartar.

"She's a good little boat, all right," said Jack, who knew something of motor craft.

"So I perceive. And now, if you will allow me to use it on behalf of the government, we will try to catch the Ramona."

"Is there really a chance of doing that?" asked Cora, in her eagerness laying her hand on the sleeve of the young officer.

"There really is," was his answer. "She has been sighted by a fishing schooner--we had word from the captain of it. And the Ramona seems to be crippled. She was going slowly. We ought to catch her soon--if this storm holds off long enough."

"Oh, isn't it exciting, Cora!" whispered Bess. "Almost like the time when you saved the papers in the red oar at Denny Shane's cabin!"

"Only I hope there are no physical encounters," spoke Cora, with a shudder, as she recalled the strenuous days spent on Crystal Bay.

"I fancy you need not be alarmed," the lieutenant said. "From what we can learn, the mutineers and smugglers are rather sick of their bargain. There have been dissentions and part of the crew is ready to give up. But the others are afraid of the punishment that will be meted out."

"Will it be heavy?" asked Belle. "Heavy enough," was the significant answer. "It is a high crime to mutiny on the ocean, especially in time of storm and trouble."

"Then you have a good chance of catching them?" asked Jack.

"We think so--yes."

"'But isn't this a rather--er--small force to capture a large steamer, in possession of desperate men?" Walter wanted to know.

"It isn't as risky as you might think," answered Lieutenant Walling, with a smile. "As I said, the smugglers are now divided. One-half is already to turn on the other half. Once they are commanded to surrender, in the name of the government, I fancy they'll be only too glad to"

"And what of the passengers--our folks?" asked Cora.

"Well, they are still aboard, as far as can he learned," was the revenue officer's reply. "If we have luck, you may be with them before another day passes. But we need luck," and as he said this, he glanced around the horizon, as if to judge how much the elements might figure in the odds against him.

Truly they seemed likely to make the chances anything but easy. The wind was constantly increasing in force, and from a low moan had changed to a threatening whine and growl. The seas were running high and the swells were breaking into foam. As yet the Tartar rode easily, being now under way again, but though she might stand even heavier waves than those now rolling after her, it would not be very comfortable for those aboard.

"Will you take command?" asked Jack in answer to a look from his sister. "We'll turn this boat over to you, though we're United States subjects and you're--"

"British--you needn't be afraid to say it," frankly laughed the lieutenant. "But I fancy we can strike up a, friendly alliance. No, I don't wish to take command. This is merely asking you for an accommodation on your part. You are after the Ramona, as I understand it, and so am I. I merely ask to be allowed to go along and help you find her. Once I get aboard I shall put under arrest all the mutineers. And you will be with your people."

"Oh, if we ever are again!"

"Which way was she headed when you last had information?" asked Walter.

"Southeast," was the reply, "and she isn't far ahead of us now. By crowding on speed we can overtake her by morning."

"Hear that, Joe?" cried Jack. "Do your best now!"

"Aye, aye, sir!" was the reply.

"Have you gasoline for a long run?" asked the lieutenant.

"Yes," Jack answered. "We filled the tanks at St. Kitts. But won't you come below, and we'll arrange for your comfort."

"And do let me make you a cup of tea!" begged Cora. "I know you Englishmen are so fond of it--"

"Well, we get rather out of the habitat sea," was the reply, "but I should be glad of some--if it isn't too much trouble."

Through the gathering dusk, the advent of which was hastened by the coming storm, the Tartar heaved her way over the tumbling waters. Night came, and still the storm did not break. The lieutenant proved a good seaman, and, under his direction the motor boat kept on through the hours of darkness. The motor girls did not rest much, nor did Walter or Jack.

As morning came, the storm broke in all its fury--being little short, in violence, of a West Indian hurricane. On through the mist, through the smother of foam, over the big greenish-blue waves scudded the Tartar, the lieutenant, in oilskins, standing in the bows, peering ahead for a sight of the steamer.

And, at noon, following a fierce burst of wind, he give a cry.

"What is it?" asked Jack, struggling toward.

"Ship ahead! I think it is the Ramona!" was the answer.