15. How Sings the Gay Sardine?
Rick and Scotty held a hurried consultation, mouth to ear.
"We'll have to get him," Scotty whispered urgently. He held up his spear gun. "I've only got one shot in this."
Rick's instinctive reaction was the same. They had to rescue Tony! But they also had a job to do.
"Wait," he cautioned. "They probably don't know we're here. Tony wouldn't give us away. If they find out, we'll lose the pictures, and we may make it worse for Tony. Let's stay right here and watch."
Scotty subsided. They floated motionless, eyes on the boat, peering to penetrate the mist. The rain had let up somewhat, but the air was far from clear.
Rick would have given the treasure they sought to be able to hear what was being said on the boat. The three frogmen were all facing Tony, and the conversation seemed to be pretty animated. Then, as he watched, the boat pulled up anchor. It moved north.
"They're taking him to their house," Scotty gasped.
The boys swam frantically for shore, recklessly crossing the reef without regard to the danger of cutting themselves on the sharp coral. They reached the beach and shed tanks and equipment under the palms, then raced for the frogmen's house.
They could see the lights of the boat as it rounded the northern tip of the island, and, lying among the palms, they watched it tie up at the pier. Tony and the three frogmen got off and walked down the pier. Rick strained to see, and could not find any sign that Tony was covered by a gun. But that wouldn't be necessary, anyway, since he was outnumbered three to one.
The four marched up to the front door of the frogmen's house and stopped. The boys were prone under a palm less than twenty feet away. One of the frogmen said, "Let me get a jacket. I'm getting chilled. Then we'll walk you home."
There was something very odd here! Rick nudged Scotty and they backed slowly away. When they were sure they could not be seen, they stood up and ran on silent bare feet through the palm grove, circling to approach their own cottage from the rear.
Rick nudged Scotty to back away
At the back door they paused. "Now what?" Rick said helplessly. "They're bringing him home. Why?"
"I wondered about that while we were running. I think they're bringing him home to check up on us. He must have sold them some kind of yarn."
"Steve's tail will recognize us!" "Not if we're in bed," Scotty answered quickly. "We'll pretend to be asleep. Come on."
"Just a minute." Rick hurried to the shed and got two short hand spears. He handed one to Scotty. "Here. Have a bedfellow."
A few minutes later they heard footsteps and voices on the front porch. The door opened. A strange voice said, "Your friends don't seem to be here." The voice hardened. "I thought you said they were?"
"They're probably in bed," Tony replied mildly. "We go to bed right after dark because there's nothing to do."
"Except stick your nose in other people's business," a harsh voice snapped.
Tony replied tartly, "I've already apologized for letting my curiosity get the better of me."
"I'd like to see the bedrooms," a third voice said. Rick thought it belonged to the man they had taken off Steve's tail.
He lay motionless as a form blocked out the lamp-light from the living room. In a moment the voice said, "They're asleep, all right. They must sleep soundly."
"Young men do." Tony sounded relieved.
Rick grinned to himself. The archaeologist couldn't have known they were in bed, but his stall had worked.
"All right. We'll be going. But keep in mind that the most stupid thing anyone can do is to dive alone, even by day. At night it's worse than stupid. It's sheer insanity. Also, we'll thank you and your party to keep away from us and not gum up our recordings with your flipper noises and bubble sounds."
"We will," Tony said. "Good night."
The front door closed. Scotty rose, slid open the window, and went out. Tony scraped a chair in the living room. Rick stayed where he was, in case the frogmen had lingered outside. In a few moments he heard the back door open and close, and he tensed, but it was Scotty's voice that spoke.
"They're gone. I just wanted to make sure."
The three gathered in the living room, and Tony chuckled. "If I associate with you two for much longer, I'll get to be the world's champion dissembler."
"What happened?" Rick demanded.
"Simple and unlucky. The two frogmen surfaced practically under me. My own fault, because I had moved much closer to the boat. I think one of them almost fired a spear at me, but the other stopped him. They invited me to go aboard, and I didn't think it wise to refuse the invitation."
"I imagine not," Rick commented grimly. "Then what?"
"Naturally, they demanded to know what I was doing. I admitted to overpowering curiosity that got the better of my manners. They wanted to know who I was and why I was on the island. I told them the truth, of course, at least partly. I identified all of us. Then I'm afraid I told a slight untruth. I said we had found reference to the Maiden Hand
in an old manuscript, and were diving in hopes of finding cannon and other old things which we planned to sell for museum pieces to pay for our vacation. I believe they accepted my story."
"It's a good story," Scotty approved. "Just enough truth to make it ring true."
"They've been watching us," Tony went on. "They asked why the plane had gone, and why it had come back with only the pilot. I told them Professor Zircon had cut himself and gotten a coral infection, and that the doctor at Charlotte Amalie felt that he should stay there for treatment."
"I guess they haven't recognized Scotty and me as the two who stopped Steve's tail."
"Seems not," Tony agreed. "Well, I admitted that I was still curious about their activities, since night diving is not common. So they told me a story."
The boys waited breathlessly.
"These gentlemen thirst for scientific knowledge," Tony said with a grin. "They claim an interest in ichthyology, but they know less about fish than any cat does. Their story is that they have developed an underwater recording device with which to make recordings of fish noises. Since they have some evidence that certain fish make their noises only at night, it is obviously necessary to make recordings at night. So they dive, leave their equipment, and pick it up the next morning. Our diving too close to their gadget creates false sounds, especially our bubbles. Therefore we are requested politely but firmly to stay away."
Rick laughed. "Quite a story," he said.
"I pointed out the obvious," Tony went on, "that it was strange they should choose a stormy night. Their answer was that storms upset fish, and they thought it possible that some sounds might be obtained only under storm conditions."
"Very interesting," Rick remarked. "It's a good story, and if we didn't know Steve was after at least one of those men, we'd probably believe it!"
"Fish noises!" Scotty exclaimed. "If they knew we'd been snooping around before, they'd probably claim that the octopus really did wail, and that they were only recording him. Your gag about screaming squid and burbling barracuda would appeal to them, Tony."
The archaeologist chuckled. "Anyway, we got out of that one pretty well. I had a little trouble banging my tank. Didn't want to do it overtly, of course. Finally I managed to get in position while we were swimming to the boat, and I banged my tank against one of theirs. But how did you know what to do?"
Rick explained briefly, then he broke into a smile again. "These guys are smart," he declared. "I like that fish-recording story."
"It's appealing," Tony admitted. "I'm almost tempted to pay them another call tomorrow to ask if they have captured for posterity the hunting cry of the wild sea trout, or the love song of the gay sardine."
"But you won't," Scotty said practically. "You certainly came out of that mess with a whole skin, Tony."
Rick laughed. "He's adventure-prone. And lucky. How do you beat a combination like that?"