Wailing Octopus


7. The Derelict

Rick and Scotty were up at dawn the next morning. They didn't bother with anything so prosaic as breakfast. Instead, they collected masks, snorkels, and flippers for a preliminary dip. They didn't use the lungs; those were to be saved for more important work than casual swimming.

For this first swim, each boy selected a spear gun. Scotty chose the same light spring gun he had used to save them from the shadow, while Rick took his favorite gun, a four-strand rubber-powered weapon that packed a terrific wallop. They belted on their knives and blew up their plastic floats. These were essential for resting, if necessary, and for bringing home their catch, if any. Once a fish was speared, it was important to get it out of the water as soon as possible, since blood would bring sharks or barracuda if any were in the neighborhood.

"Come on," Rick said impatiently. "Let's go."

"I'm coming." Scotty finished coiling up the light line he used to tether the float to his belt, and they stepped into the water. The temperature was just right. They ducked under, then put on their equipment. Scotty pulled a rubber glove over his injured hand. Pushing their floats ahead of them, faces down in the water, they started for the reef.

Rick watched the bottom carefully. It was clear sand, with no sign of life other than an occasional conch or other shellfish. This was to be expected, since marine life tended to collect around reefs, rocks, pilings, wrecks, and similar things. As they approached the reef, coral heads and outcroppings began to appear. And with them, fish.

Rick hooted for Scotty's attention, then lifted his head and let his mouthpiece fall free. "Let's go outside!" he called as Scotty looked up. The other boy nodded agreement. Both were anxious to examine the reef.

The surf was light. They crossed over the reef by towing their floats and timing their movements through the breakers. Once beyond the point where the waves broke, the water was fairly calm, with only light surges from the passing waves.

Rick looked down and saw the reef drop away under him. It shelved off perhaps twenty feet down, then beyond the shelf it fell away into the depths. He looked into the blueness with a stirring of excitement. To find the Maiden Hand, they would have to swim into that mysterious blue realm.

Scotty hooted. Rick looked, and followed the direction of his pointing arm. There, browsing around the shelf below, was a handsome red snapper, perhaps fifteen inches long. They had stopped in Miami and Rick had noticed that red-snapper prices were about the same as those for steak. There was no doubt that the fish was very good eating. He gestured to Scotty to go after it, then floated motionless, watching.

Scotty put the loader over the tip of his spear and pushed down, cocking the gun. Then, without a splash, he slid under the water. Rick watched as his fins propelled him slowly toward the snapper. Scotty was moving slowly, because this was the prime rule in underwater hunting. As he swam, he extended the spear gun, aiming over the short barrel. The snapper stopped browsing and his dorsal fin suddenly erected, a sign of alarm. But he didn't move because he was not yet sure the big invader was an enemy. Before he could make up his mind, Scotty fired.

The spear took the fish right behind the gills. He gave a quick spurt that brought the line humming from its spool. Scotty followed quickly, caught the shaft, then sped upward to where Rick waited.

"Good shot," Rick complimented him as Scotty caught his float. Together, they took the fish off the shaft and examined him with some pride. Their first catch off Clipper Cay was a good one. The snapper was pink and firm-fleshed. He would make good eating.

Rick put his face down in the water again while Scotty secured the catch to his float. As he did so he saw a target and hooted for attention. Scotty joined him and they looked down to where a barracuda hovered motionless.

The 'cuda was perhaps two and a half feet long, not big as such predators went, but big enough. Scotty motioned to Rick to get him. Obviously the fish had been attracted by the blood or the struggles of the snapper. Rick hoped that his big brothers wouldn't join him. This one was plenty big enough. While Scotty held both floats, Rick charged his gun, pulling back the strong rubbers a pair at a time. Then he checked his safety line, filled his lungs, and went under.

The barracuda hovered, waiting. Rick knew that his apparent disinterest could change to lightning flight. Few fish were so fast. He followed Scotty's example, moving slowly toward the quarry. He was a dozen feet down now, and in the lessened light the barracuda loomed large, a slim arrow of a fish, poised for flight.

The spear gun was extended, the spear point nearing firing range. Rick planned to shoot from about six feet. He doubted that he could get closer. Flippers propelling him gently, he closed. Now he could see the pointed jaws that contained razor-edged teeth. The fish was watching him, but without apparent fear.

The barracuda head was squarely in his sights. Rick squeezed the trigger.

For a moment he thought he had missed, then the safety line ran out and the jerk almost pulled the gun from his hands. He was running out of breath, too. Quickly he planed for the surface, feeling the fury on the end of his line. He broke water, gulped air, then dove again. He pulled in the line until he saw the fish struggling. He had nearly missed. The harpoon had taken the barracuda near the tail, fortunately hitting the spine. Rick pulled him in, hand over hand, then gripped his spear by the extreme end. He had no desire to close with those slashing, dangerous jaws. Holding fast to the spear he shot to the surface again. Scotty was waiting, knife in hand. As Rick extended the spear toward him the keen knife flashed across the 'cuda's spine just behind the gills. Rick tossed his gun onto the float, then together they heaved the fish up beside it.

"Spindrift was never like this," Scotty said, grinning.

Rick gulped air and grinned back.

A hail from the shore reached them. They turned and saw Tony Briotti. He was waving a frying pan in a signal for breakfast. Suddenly Rick realized that he was famished.

"Let's go," he said. "We'll trade these for bacon and eggs."

It was nearly noon before they got into the water again. The first part of the morning was spent in fashioning sea sleds from the planks the boys had gathered. This was simple enough, but it took a little time. First the planks were cut to proper length, then two of them were nailed together. A bridle was arranged so that they could be towed, and spare weight belts and weights were used to counteract their bouyancy. They were very much like the aqua-planes commonly towed behind motorboats, but much cruder, and designed to go under rather than remain on the surface.

Two long ropes were arranged so that a sled could be towed on either side of the Water Witch. Once this was done, the boys rechecked their equipment, attached the regulators to the tanks, and carried them to the beach.

Zircon would pilot the boat, following the 120-foot mark on the chart. Tony would act as tender at the stern, while Rick and Scotty would ride the sleds. The first leg would take them through the reef channel, then south to the tip of the island, reverse course and north again, staying at the twenty-fathom mark. Zircon was sure that he would be able to follow the prescribed course by judging his distance from the reef.

When all was in readiness, they loaded their gear aboard the Water Witch, including the spare tanks. Only the runaway tank was missing, and Rick had determined that its wild flight had not weakened it. The valve and pressure gauge had been recovered after a considerable search, and the tank could be refilled with the others.

Zircon took the Water Witch through the reef, and the boys donned their equipment while Tony swung the ladder outboard. Rick checked his own straps, and then those of Scotty, while Scotty returned the favor. Then each checked the flow of air through his mouthpiece, and made sure the reserve rod was in the "up" position. This done, they entered the water. Tony tossed the boards over and made sure the lines were secured.

Rick and Scotty paddled the boards to the extreme length of the lines, then separated as much as the lines allowed. They were about thirty feet apart and a hundred feet behind the boat.

They waved their readiness to Tony, who relayed the go-ahead to Zircon. The boat started slowly.

Rick moved forward on his board, and the weighted board tilted down. It acted as a hydrofoil, its forward motion pulling it deeper into the water. Rick waited until he was only ten feet from the bottom, then shifted his weight back again. Obediently the board tilted upward and raced for the surface. Rick moved forward again just in time to keep from breaking through the surface. By adjusting his weight, he could keep the board level, or go up or down. It wasn't easy and he had to fight the board level almost constantly.

Bubbles rose from the regulator between his shoulder blades as he breathed rhythmically. The lung performed effortlessly, giving him as much air as he needed. He felt the pressure on his ears as he steered the board toward bottom, and there was an instant of pain before his ears adjusted.

The bottom was sandy. To his right he saw the wall of the reef, and once a startled snook shot out of his way. To his left he could see Scotty. Before he knew it the boat had throttled down, a signal that they were at the southern end of the reef. He tilted upward and surfaced.

Tony called, "How is it?"

"Great!" Rick called back. "But we'll need lots more line. It was shallow on the way down, but if we try to go any deeper the angle of the line will make the boards come up."

"You should try it," Scotty said. "Honestly, Tony, it's wonderful!"

"I'll try it a little later," Tony promised. "I'm giving you all the line we have, about three hundred feet each. If you can't make it, surface. We'll have to splice the two lines together and use just one board."

Zircon came to the stern and bellowed, "You forgot these!"

He tossed in two fishing floats and coils of line. Those were in case they found the wreck. Whoever spotted it was to drop off his board, secure the line to the wreck, and let the float rise to the surface. In that way, they would have a guide.

Each boy took one of the units and fastened it to his weight belt.

"We're off!" Zircon called. "Ready?"

The boys yelled that they were. Rick fitted his mouthpiece and checked the seal of his mask. Scotty did the same, then both tilted their boards and slid under.

On the northbound leg they had trouble keeping the boards down because of the tendency of the lead rope to pull the front of the boards up, but by crawling far forward, they managed.

They were deeper than they had ever gone before, but Rick felt no sensation of fright or strangeness. It was a green world, not dark but yet not bright. The light was subdued, filtered by the fathoms of water. The bottom was mostly clear sand, dotted now and then by patches of growth. There did not seem to be many fish, or perhaps their eyes were not adjusted to the subdued light. Scotty was close to the reef on the northbound leg, while Rick was about twenty feet farther out.

For long moments there was only the sensation of rushing through the water, the distant throb of the engines, and the sound of their own bubbles. Then, ahead, Rick saw a mass of growth and tilted his board upward just in time to clear it.

Scotty hooted once, then again. Rick turned in time to see his pal's board leap ahead, free of Scotty's weight. Sudden fear gripped him. Had Scotty been caught? Instantly he released his own board and saw it scoot for the surface. He reversed his course and swam rapidly back.

The obstruction he had cleared was dead ahead. And there were fish! So many that they seemed like a swarm of flies around it. The biggest was not more than five inches long. Then he saw Scotty. His friend was fastening the float line to a projection!

Rick's heart leaped. What he thought was a rock formation on the sea floor was the wreck of a ship! Scotty had recognized it and dropped off. The Maiden Hand? He hooted and Scotty looked up. The other boy shook his head.

It wasn't the Maiden Hand, then. But how did Scotty know? In a moment, when he joined the other boy, he saw the curling edges of steel plate. This was a steel ship, then, and not a very large one at that. He estimated its length as not more than a hundred feet. Still, it was a wreck--their first. There, at twenty fathoms, he and Scotty shook hands solemnly while the tiny fish swam around them like curious gnats.

Scotty finished tying his line and unwound it from the wooden spool. The float rose upward and vanished far overhead. They heard the throb of the returning boat, and Rick hooted twice, the signal to surface. Scotty nodded, and they went up, slowly, careful to breathe naturally and not to overtake their small bubbles, as doctrine dictated. In a moment Rick saw the hull of the boat, propellers barely turning, and knew that Zircon was holding position overhead.

They broke water off the side of the Water Witch, and Rick waited until Scotty hailed the scientists. "We found a wreck, but it's a steel ship."

"Come aboard!" Tony called, and helped them up the ladder when they complied. The tanks were cumbersome when out of the water.

"It's a fish paradise!" Rick said excitedly. "I'm going to get my camera working and take some pictures. You've got to go down and look, both of you."

"How did you spot it?" Zircon asked.

"Scotty did. I thought it was a rock formation and went over it, but Scotty dropped off."

"I saw curled plate," Scotty answered. "I knew it wasn't the Maiden Hand, with steel sides, but I didn't think we'd want to pass up a wreck."

"You were so right," Rick agreed, grinning.

A check of their tanks with the gauge showed that only about five minutes diving time remained at the twenty-fathom depth, so the regulators were transferred to spare tanks. Tony and Zircon, already in trunks, donned diving gear and followed Scotty's line to the bottom. The boys waited impatiently, Scotty taking the helm to hold the boat in place.

Ten minutes later the scientists surfaced, and Rick helped them aboard. Tony removed his mask and grinned. "It's as wonderful as you said it was."

"What kind of ship was it?" Rick asked.

Tony had been a destroyer skipper during the war and he knew ships.

"Probably an interisland cargo carrier of some kind. At any rate, it appears to be a small cargo ship. It's so overgrown with marine growth that the shape is cluttered. It might have been a small tanker."

"We can explore it from stem to stern," Rick suggested excitedly.

Scotty joined them and commented, "But not right now. We'll have to go ashore and charge the tanks. There may be time for one more dive this afternoon if we hurry."

"Besides," Hobart Zircon said with a smile, "I'm hungry. As you say, Rick, diving certainly develops the appetite!"

They docked, and Tony and Zircon went off to see about preparing sandwiches. The boys decided that rather than carry the tanks back and forth from the pier to the shed, it would be more sensible to bring their small, portable gas-driven compressor to the pier.

Scotty went after it while Rick tied the tanks to the afterrail of the Water Witch, in position for filling.

A yell from Scotty stopped him. He looked up and saw his friend beckon, and ran down the pier to the house. The scientists joined him and Scotty at the shed where the compressor had been stored.

"We've been sabotaged again," Scotty told them flatly. "There's oil in the compressor!"

"Are you certain?" Zircon pressed close to examine the machine.

"Yes. I stumbled over my own feet and tipped the compressor on its side. And oil ran out through the air fitting. Look!" Scotty held up his hand, and it was smeared with glistening oil.

A cold shiver traced its way down Rick's spine. Oil in a compressor was blown into fine particles, too small to be seen. If they got into an air tank they would be breathed in, leaving a thin coating on a diver's lungs. The result was a condition almost exactly like pneumonia, called "lipoid pneumonia." Their special filter, designed by Zircon, probably would have taken all the oil particles out of the air before it got into the tanks, but that didn't alter the fact that faced them. Someone had deliberately put oil in the compressor. Someone just didn't want them around!