18. The Fight on the 'Maiden Hand'
They had only one hope now--that the frogmen would make a quick survey of the wreck, then go away. The boys waited tensely, ears alert for any sound that would tell them the whereabouts of their enemy.
There was only the sound of their bubbles.
Rick pressed close to the opening and peered out. The water that could be seen from the entrance was clear. However, it was only a narrow sector. For all he knew, the frogmen might be right overhead.
He backed down into the cabin and pushed his camera into a corner. He could get it later. Right now he preferred to have both hands free. He wished for a spear gun, to double their armament. But the other guns were on the Water Witch. The wrecking bars were useless, too. It was almost impossible to strike a blow against the resistance of the water.
Something scraped outside, and both boys froze. There was no doubt that the frogmen were at the wreck. Why didn't they go away? They couldn't know about the entrance to the cabin--or could they?
The moments dragged by. There couldn't be much air left in their tanks. Rick risked holding his wrist close to the opening and saw that his watch showed one minute of diving time before shortness of breath would signal time to turn on their air reserve and surface.
Time was critical. If the frogmen didn't go away before their air ran out, they would have to surface, if they were allowed to by the enemy. With luck, Scotty could account for one. But that would leave two, both armed. By this time the first frogman would have blown the water from his mask and recovered his spear.
No, it would be dangerous for Scotty even to take time for a shot, unless he could fire without pausing. Their best bet was to make a run for it, depending on speed.
On land, he was sure he and Scotty could outrun the enemy, but in the water, speed depended on skill with the fins, and the power of leg strokes. He doubted that the frogmen were much faster than he and Scotty, but there was an excellent chance that their speed in the water was equal.
He conserved his air, spacing his breathing, taking only enough air to keep comfortable.
There was another scraping sound, and he knew the frogmen were still around. Were they actually searching the wreck? If so, they might find the entrance.
And then Rick suddenly discovered a new danger!
Their air bubbles had been floating to the top of the cabin, forming a pool under the ceiling. But they had stayed in the cabin so long that enough water had been displaced to bring the pool of exhausted air close to the entrance, which was only a few inches below roof level.
In a moment the air would spill out, and rising bubbles would warn the frogmen!
He gripped Scotty's shoulder and pointed to the silvery mass of exhausted air that curled perilously close to the entrance.
The other boy saw the danger at once. He wrote on his slate, "We go whn air duz," and held it in the light for Rick to see.
Rick nodded. He drew his belt knife.
There couldn't be many breaths left before the air spilled out. Nor could there be many before warning constriction forced them to turn on the reserves. At this depth the reserve wasn't very great.
He saw Scotty reach for his reserve lever and pull it down. A moment later he had to pull his own.
Something rang like a struck tank, almost directly overhead!
The lip of the bubble pool moved from the water motion caused by pulling their reserves. Rick watched it, scarcely breathing.
The air pool trembled. A tiny bubble broke loose and sped upward.
Rick squeezed Scotty's arm, then with a powerful thrust of his flippers he shot out into light, right into the stomach of a frogman!
He thrust with his knife, and a hand gripped his wrist and twisted. Scotty shot from the hole in the wreck and turned, fins flailing. His spear gun belched carbon dioxide, and the deadly spear ripped into the leg of one frogman.
Rick flailed arms and legs, trying to break free of the grip that held him. He saw the wounded frogman fire his spear at Scotty. The boy moved just in time, and the shaft shot between his arm and side.
Scotty let go of his useless gun and grappled with the frogman, reaching for his knife with one hand while he gripped the frogman's wrist with the other.
Rick knew their air was running out fast. He felt a knife glance from his tank and heard the ring of metal. He struggled for footing and turned in time to thrust a flippered foot into the stomach of the frogman behind him.
Next to him he caught a glimpse of Scotty and his opponent rolling in the water, and he saw the shimmer of metal as a knife flashed.
Arms locked around his throat. He reached backward over his head and his hands touched rubber. He gripped and pulled with all his strength and felt the man's face plate come free.
The frogman who had lost his mask suddenly threw off tanks and weight belt and sped for the surface.
The odds were even! Rick locked with his opponent and felt powerful arms drag him close. The man had more strength than he! He fought to break loose, and couldn't!
Then the mouthpiece was pulled away from Rick's lips in mid-breath, and he choked on sea water.
Without air--twenty fathoms down!
Frantically he fought, locking his air passage so his last lungful couldn't escape. He got a hand free and caught his opponent's hose where it joined the tank. He pulled with all his strength and felt it give. Bubbles rose in a cloud.
He would have sobbed if he could. It was the wrong hose! He had only torn loose the exhaust. He groped and found the intake hose, then, lifting his knee and thrusting for leverage, he pulled with all his strength. The hose gave! The grip on him loosened.
Rick was now desperate for air! He pulled the quick release on his weight belt and felt it drop away, then he kicked for the surface, frantic with fear for Scotty. Had he gotten free? Had he? His last view had been of his pal locked with the remaining frogman!
Bubbles streamed from his mouth as the compressed air in his lungs expanded under the decreasing pressure. He let himself exhale as he rose, fighting against panic and the impulse to lock the remaining air in his lungs. That would be fatal, he knew, and he willed himself to act properly. He kept his fins moving, knowing that, if he kept his head, he would make the surface.
He passed through the murky layer and saw the surface like a wrinkled silver sheet far overhead. Straining, he swam for it, letting out his breath as the pressure on his lungs demanded.
There was another boat hull in the water, almost over him! He angled away, to avoid coming up under it.
And suddenly there were forms around the boat. A cry tore from his lips and was swallowed in the water.
More frogmen! More enemies, when they were already defeated!