Wailing Octopus


1. Destination: Clipper Cay

The Sky Wagon droned through Caribbean skies, following a compass course that led to Charlotte Amalie, capital city of the Virgin Islands. With eager interest, the four people in the small plane watched the blue water below. In a few moments they should pass over the island that was their ultimate destination.

Rick Brant, in the pilot's seat, turned to the husky, black-haired boy next to him. "See anything yet?" he asked.

Don Scott had been surveying the far horizon through binoculars. He took them from his eyes and shook his head. "Nothing but water. You sure there is an island called Clipper Cay?"

Rick let the plane fly itself for a moment while he stretched luxuriously. He was a lean, long-legged boy with brown hair and eyes and a bone-deep tan. He grinned at his friend. "No faith. That's the trouble with you."

"No logic, that's the trouble with you," Scotty countered. "If there were such an island it would be called an island, not a cay. A cay is something that follows an O, as in okay."

The two scientists in the rear seat had been listening with amusement to the boys. Since the start of the expedition Scotty had professed doubt and misgiving, more for the sake of conversation than anything else, Rick was sure.

Dr. Anthony Briotti, archaeologist of the Spindrift staff, leaned forward. "At least pronounce it correctly, Scotty. 'Cay' is pronounced 'key.'"

"See?" Scotty exclaimed triumphantly. "The only place where they have islands called keys is in Florida. We're on a wild-goose chase, I tell you!"

Big Hobart Zircon, a nuclear physicist and long-time friend of the boys, tapped Scotty on the shoulder. "Since you're so certain of that, may I ask why you came?"

Scotty tried to look martyred. "Only because of the buddy system," he said solemnly. "The first rule of underwater safety--or above-water safety, for that matter--is that you have to swim with a buddy. You and Tony swim together, so I had to go along as a buddy for Rick. Somebody has to chase the mermaids away from him, and it might as well be me."

"That's nice of you," Rick said soberly. "There'll probably be a whole horde of mermaids guarding the treasure, not to mention half a dozen sea monsters."

Tony Briotti said, "There's one mermaid I wish were with us, and that's Barby. After all, she started this whole thing. Too bad she has to miss out."

Rick's pretty sister, Barbara Brant, had unwittingly launched the flight to the Virgin Islands by getting into an argument with Tony Briotti about the authenticity of the legend that pirates had once used Spindrift Island as a hangout. Tony had challenged the legend. After that, of course, proof had to be found.

Rick had recalled digging up the remains of a campfire in Pirate's Field during the installation of equipment for the moon rocket, the first great experiment that had put the Spindrift Island scientific group in business as a research foundation headed by Rick's father, Hartson Brant. It was during this experiment that Scotty had joined the staff after rescuing Rick from an unscrupulous gang. The two boys had been on a number of expeditions together since that time and were fast friends. Zircon was one of the original Spindrift group. Youthful Tony Briotti was one of the new staff members, but he had already earned the loyalty and friendship of the boys by his fine leadership of the expedition to the Philippines, as related in The Golden Skull.

Starting with the campfire site, Barby and the boys had excavated Pirate's Field under Tony's direction. They had unearthed positive evidence that pirates had landed there. The most vital evidence was the remains of a logbook, once the log of the bark Maiden Hand, sunk by the woman pirate Anne Bonney off the island of Clipper Cay in the Virgin Islands.

Scotty turned and looked at the two scientists. "I'm just kidding, of course. You couldn't have kept me from coming without tossing me into irons. But seriously, do you expect to find treasure, Tony?"

The archaeologist grinned. "Depends on what you mean by treasure. As I recall, one definition is 'something rare or precious.' Well, a chance to go skin diving in the Virgin Islands is certainly that--a rare and precious opportunity. At least I think so."

Hobart Zircon grunted, "And so do I."

"Amen," Rick echoed.

"You're evading the issue," Scotty accused. "You know perfectly well what I mean. Do you expect to find that golden statue mentioned in the logbook?"

"Expect? On a treasure hunt, one hopes; one doesn't expect," Zircon stated in his booming voice.

Rick smiled to himself. Probably no Spindrift expedition ever had started with such a flimsy excuse. According to the log of the Maiden Hand, the ship had gone down before the pirates could locate a golden statue of St. Francis, hidden by the bark's captain, Thomas Campion. According to Captain Campion, the statue had weighed "an hundred-weight." Certainly a hundred pounds of gold was worth going after, but there were a few considerations that made finding it rather unlikely.

In Captain Campion's words: "That we did prevent the boucaniers from fynding the blessede statue was moste fortunate, yette the bark did go to her deathe in twentye fathomes, and so the statue is loste."

Rick and Scotty had become underwater enthusiasts on their return from the Philippines, and both had aqualung equipment that would take them to twenty fathoms without difficulty. However, working time at that depth was sharply limited by the capacity of their tanks. This was assuming that they were able to find the wreck of the Maiden Hand in the first place.

Still, there was enough of a chance to provide an excuse for a vacation expedition. The real purpose, so far as Rick was concerned, was to get in some superb swimming in clear water. He also intended getting plenty of underwater movies of the colorful reefs and fish. Scotty planned to do some underwater hunting.

Tony Briotti's interest grew out of his profession. The Virgin Islands had been pretty well worked over by archaeologists, and most of the early Indian middens and mounds explored. But on the west coast, archaeologists equipped with aqualungs had recently found primitive artifacts a half mile offshore, and Tony wanted to do a little underwater artifact hunting of his own.

Hobart Zircon was the only one without a specific objective. He had readily agreed to go along simply because he wanted a vacation. He had said, "Tell you what, I'll go along and do some surface fishing. Rick and Scotty can catch fish underwater and put them on my hook, then signal me to pull up. If the fish aren't heavy enough to ruin my rest, I'll haul them in."

Mr. and Mrs. Brant had already made plans to take a vacation in Canada, and Barby was registered at a summer girl's camp. Weiss, Winston, Gordon, and Shannon, the other staff scientists, were away on various projects. So the four "treasure hunters" had welcomed an excuse to go off on a venture of their own.

They would have a wonderful time, Rick thought, and who knew? They might even find the treasure!

Scotty had been looking through the binoculars again. He gave Rick a grin. "I take it all back," he said. "There's an island ahead."

The scientists leaned forward eagerly, and Rick strained to see. Sure enough, in a few moments they began to make out the island on the horizon ahead. Rick had enough confidence in his navigation to be certain that it was Clipper Cay.

The group had spent the night in Puerto Rico, then departed early in order to fly off the direct route for an advance look at Clipper Cay. Rick didn't intend to land. He would circle the island once or twice, then head again for Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas.

Scotty asked, "Where does the word 'cay' come from, anyway?"

Tony Briotti answered. "It's from the Spanish, Scotty. It means island, or islet. However, the Spanish got it from the Taino people, who were the Indians of the Antilles."

The island was close enough now so that they could discern its shape. Rick saw that it formed a rough crescent, running from north to south. It was about a mile long, perhaps a half mile wide at its greatest width, tapering to the horns of the crescent. He saw also that the color of the water changed gradually from the fathomless blue of the ocean to the green of shallow water.

Inwardly excited, he put the nose of the plane down and let the small craft pick up speed. Scotty grinned his pleasure, and Rick knew that his pal was just as excited in spite of his joking skepticism.

Rick leveled off at an altitude of four thousand feet and put the plane in a wide circle. Zircon leaned over Tony to look out the window, and Rick had to compensate in a hurry because the big scientist's weight threw the plane out of trim. Then Scotty, just as eager, leaned over to Rick's side and the trim had to be corrected again.

The island was a travel agent's wildest dream. The blue water gradually shifted to green, then lighter green, and finally the white of lovely beaches on both sides of the island. Lines of surf marked the position of reefs off both shores.

Somewhere along the western reef was the wreck of the Maiden Hand. Rick wondered if they would have diver's luck and locate the ancient bark, and at the same moment he was sure they would.

"Plenty of vegetation," Briotti remarked.

"Probably palms, perhaps some mangrove," Zircon agreed. "Take us down for a closer look, Rick."

Rick obliged by standing the Sky Wagon up on a wing and sliding down as quickly as safe flying allowed. He, too, wanted a closer look. He cast a glance at his gas gauge. There was enough fuel, with a margin of safety, unless he got too enthusiastic about lingering around the island.

He leveled off again at a thousand feet and flew up the east coast, between the outer reef and the beach. This was the Atlantic side of the island, and the surf on the reef was heavy.

"Cottages," Scotty called. "Look!"

They counted seven on the eastern side of the island, most of them near the middle. It was hard to see details among the palms, but they seemed small and unpainted, like fishermen's shacks. Rick reversed course and flew down the western side and they counted five more. One fairly pretentious beach house was near the northern tip of the island. In general, the houses on the western side seemed better kept, and slightly larger. A few houses had small docks. Off the southern tip of the island, on the western side, a boat was trolling. The occupants waved as Rick flew over.

"Wonder which house is ours?" Scotty asked.

They didn't know, of course. Arrangements for a beach house had been made for them by a friend of Zircon's, and not until they landed at Charlotte Amalie would they get the details. The same friend, Dr. Paul Ernst, had also arranged for a boat, to be used as a diving tender.

Rick was tempted to land in the smooth water off the western shore. The Sky Wagon had been equipped with pontoons for that very purpose. They had realized that no landing place would be available on the cay for a wheeled aircraft. But there was little to be gained by landing now when they didn't even know which house would be theirs.

Besides, there were supplies and equipment to be picked up and charts to be obtained, and the Sky Wagon needed to have the tank topped off, since they couldn't very well carry aviation gas to the island.

Reluctantly, Rick asked, "Anyone want to see anything else?"

"Not me," Hobart Zircon said flatly. "I want to get to Charlotte Amalie so we can get started back. That water looks clear enough to drink." "See any sign of wrecks on the bottom?" Tony inquired.

No one had. No one had looked. They were too interested in getting an over-all view of Clipper Cay.

Rick set his course for St. Thomas. Now that he thought about it, he was rather pleased with himself. The flight from Spindrift was the longest single trip he had ever taken in the Sky Wagon. The party had stopped for fuel as needed and had stayed overnight as darkness overtook them along the way. He had hit every destination on the nose, on time. And now the end of the trip was in sight without a single incident to mar its smoothness.

In a short time the mountains of St. Thomas rose out of the sea, and soon afterward Rick circled high above the colorful roofs of Charlotte Amalie. He switched on his radio and asked for seaplane landing instructions. The airfield directed him to the proper landing place, a beach and pier at the edge of the city. Then Scotty took over the mike and, while Rick started in for a landing, asked the airfield tower to phone Dr. Paul Ernst, Zircon's friend, and notify him of their arrival.

Apparently the tower operator phoned immediately, because as Rick taxied toward the dock, Zircon saw his friend waiting. Following the instructions of a dockman, Rick beached the Sky Wagon and cut the engine. Two husky Virgin Islanders hauled the ship higher onto the beach, and the Spindrifters climbed out.

Dr. Ernst was a small, bespectacled man with a shock of unruly white hair. He looked like a country doctor--which was reasonable enough, Rick thought, because that's just about what he was. Charlotte Amalie, with a population of about 11,500, could not be described as a big city.

The doctor greeted them all cordially, then immediately got down to business. "I'm sorry you are not remaining in Charlotte Amalie. However, Hobart, I have done as you requested. For tonight I have reservations for you at one of our oldest hotels, Alexander's Rest. Named for Alexander Hamilton, of course."

Rick remembered that the Revolutionary hero had been brought up in the Virgin Islands.

"The beach cottage is waiting at Clipper Cay. It is on the western side, the third from the southern tip of the island. You shall have my own boat. I think you will find it ideal for a diving tender. I call it the Water Witch. An attractive name, is it not? I have checked on your equipment. It is held at the warehouse in my name. The supplies you wished to buy here have been ordered and are waiting at Andersen's Supply House. I have told them you will be calling."

The group listened, delighted at the obvious efficiency with which Dr. Ernst had taken care of Zircon's requests.

By lunchtime they had picked up their equipment and supplies, Scotty had tested the twin diesel engines on the Water Witch and announced himself more than pleased, Rick had checked over the aqualungs and compressor that had come down with his camera and other equipment by freight, the supplies had been stowed, the Sky Wagon refueled, and nothing remained but to check in at the hotel. This, they had decided, could wait until after lunch.

While the scientists drove off in Dr. Ernst's car to pick up the doctor at his office, Rick and Scotty walked into town, headed for "The Danish Pastry" where the group was to meet for lunch.

Rick spoke his amazement. "Look at us," he marveled. "Ready to go. No trouble, no strain, no pain. Ever see an expedition get off to such a smooth start? We can't lose, Scotty. After a beginning like this we couldn't help finding the treasure."

Scotty grinned his agreement. "I didn't ask," he said, "but I wouldn't be surprised if the good Dr. Ernst hasn't done some advance diving and marked the statue's location with a buoy hung around its neck, just to make things easier for us!"

"Twenty fathoms," Rick said reflectively. "That's a lot of water. Besides, we don't know how accurate Captain Campion's guess was. We may be getting into water that's too deep for us."

Which, though unknowing, was one of the most prophetic remarks he had ever made.