Wailing Octopus


9. Wreck of the 'Maiden Hand'

Tony Briotti examined the metallic object they had brought from the bottom, then took his knife and scraped at it. Under the covering of marine growth, red rust appeared. He looked at Hobart Zircon. "Recognize this, Hobart?"

"There's only one thing I can think of that fits the shape, Tony. Bar shot."

"My conclusion exactly." Tony weighed the thing in his hand. He grinned at the boys. "Adventure-prone, and lucky. Describe the place where you found it."

Rick did so, concluding, "The patch didn't look anything like a ship, though. If that's what you're thinking."

"After two centuries, the ship would no longer look like a ship. But this is unquestionably a bar shot for an ancient cannon. It was used to cut ship's rigging, and to knock down masts, and create other damage of that sort. It's likely that the pirates, or the Maiden Hand, would have carried bar shot."

"I think you have found the ship," Zircon told them, "and the question about earthquakes was a good one. There was a heavy quake in this region about a year ago. I had occasion to recall it a half hour ago when we found a slight fault at the southern tip of the island that had uncovered an Indian midden."

"And a fine one," Tony added. "You boys can dive for treasure if you want to. I've some work of my own to do."

"Incidentally," Scotty reminded Rick, "in the confusion below we forgot to send up a buoy. Hope we can find the place again."

"We can."

"What confusion?" Zircon asked.

Rick told him. "A freshly killed chicken was dropped near us. And it must have been bleeding when it hit the water, because we suddenly had a shark convention around us." He pointed to the boat tied at the pier, now far behind them because the Water Witch had been moving. "And we think that was the boat that dropped it."

"It was weighted," Scotty added.

The scientists looked at each other. Tony grunted. "It makes no sense, Hobart. Why would anyone weight a freshly killed chicken and throw it over the side?"

"No reason at all," the big scientist said, "unless he wanted to create mischief below."

"But just the act of dropping a chicken wouldn't ensure harm to divers below," Tony objected.

"That's why I said mischief. Inexperienced divers might panic under such circumstances and attract the sharks to themselves."

Rick hazarded a guess. "What if they just wanted to keep people from diving in the area?"

"That might be one way of doing it." Zircon said thoughtfully. "Are you suggesting that there are others after the Maiden Hand treasure?"

Scotty spoke up. "How could anyone else find out about the treasure?"

"It's possible that there are other references besides the logbook we found," Tony replied. "But it would be too farfetched to speculate that other treasure hunters had found the location and were diving right at this time."

"This might be related to what happened on St. Thomas," Rick ventured.

Zircon shook his massive head. "Extremely unlikely. Consider." He ticked off the points on his fingers. "Who knew we were coming to Clipper Cay? Ernst, Steve, and his Navy friend. We did not mention it to the people from whom we bought supplies, nor did we discuss it in the presence of others. We were not followed here. No, Rick, I think that we cannot blame this incident on the ones in St. Thomas."

"Then it was a dangerous practical joke," Tony concluded. "Unless there was some legitimate reason for throwing the chicken over that we don't know about."

Zircon steered the Water Witch through the reef entrance, and the Spindrifters tied up at the dock. Rick and Scotty inspected the compressor and then measured the amount of air in the tanks. They hooked the tanks up, refilled the gas tank of the compressor engine, and left the tanks to fill while they went to the cottage.

Rick and Zircon prepared dinner while Tony and Scotty refilled the gasoline lanterns that provided light, and generally straightened up the cottage.

Rick called, "Tony, tell us more about this Indian stuff you found."

Scotty added, "And what's a midden, anyway?"

Tony leaned on his broom. "A midden is a polite name for a refuse heap. Before the days of rubbish collection, people used to dump their trash in the yard. The Indians did, and thereby provided archaeologists with an important source of information. Apparently a tribe lived on this island, close to the southern tip. It's likely that they simply dumped their rubbish into the water. Well, the earthquake Hobart spoke of shifted the old coral formations at the southern tip slightly and lifted a few square yards out of the water."

He went to the front porch and brought back a curved piece of material, encrusted with coral. "This used to be a pottery bowl, probably Taino in origin. I'll probably find many like it."

It didn't look like much of a find to Rick, but he knew that Tony's trained eyes could see many things that he couldn't. "You'll dive with us, though, won't you?" he asked.

"Of course. But you and Scotty are the real enthusiasts, and the diving I do will use up air that you properly should be using. I'll go down with you in the morning, because I want a look at the wreck. But after that I think Hobart and I can amuse ourselves on the midden while you and Scotty hunt treasure. Of course we'll be ready to help if you need us."

A few minutes before six, Rick turned on his portable all-wave radio to the channel Steve had given him, but the air was silent. He waited for ten minutes, then snapped it off again. Apparently Steve had no message for them.

Dinner consisted of fresh snapper and barracuda steaks served with coconut sauce for which Zircon had learned the recipe during his tours of the Pacific. It was delicious, and Rick wondered about the fussiness of people who refuse to eat barracuda simply because the fish is a noted predator. However, he knew that people are served barracuda every day under less offensive names.

After dinner they sat over coffee on the porch and watched the sun sink beyond the reef. It was like a Pacific sunset--colorful and somehow soothing.

The boys walked to the pier, checked their tanks, and found them fully charged. Then, at Scotty's suggestion, they locked tanks and compressor in the cabin of the Water Witch. Fresh-water rinses for the remainder of their equipment followed, and they carried the equipment into the house.

Zircon was already engrossed in a book, while Tony was engaged in scraping the pottery shard he had found. The boys watched him for a few minutes, then Scotty suggested, "How about a walk?"

"Okay." There was an idea stirring in the back of Rick's head. As they walked down to the beach he said, "We ought to take a look at the folks who own that boat."

And Scotty said in the same breath, "Let's visit the fancy frogmen."

They grinned at each other, amused at how much alike their thought processes were.

"We'd better approach from the back," Scotty suggested.

Rick agreed. "Suppose we cross to the eastern shore, then walk up until we're in sight of the house. It's close to the northern tip, anyway."

It was almost fully dark now, and no lights appeared in the houses south of them. As they watched, lights showed far up the beach where the fancy frogmen lived. But there were no other lights anywhere on the island.

"Just two houses occupied," Rick said.

"We'll probably have more neighbors during the week end," Scotty answered. "The people in the house south of us must have left, but they may be back. Come on."

They made their way through the palm grove, watching fruit bats whirl against the darkening sky. There was a slight breeze, just enough to make the palms whisper. It reminded Rick of Hawaii.

The eastern shore was rough. The reef was much closer here, and long swells that had come all the way across the Atlantic sounded like subdued thunder as they broke. It was dark now, and only the white of the breaking water could be seen.

They walked up the eastern shore until the lights of the frogmen's house were directly opposite, then turned toward it, moving with caution.

"Take it easy," Rick whispered. "They may be outside."

As they drew closer they could see that the lights were in the front rooms of the house. The back was dark, except for light that came through open inner doors.

"Wait." Scotty whispered. "I'll see if they're out front."

Rick sat down to wait as Scotty vanished. Few could equal his pal when it came to moving silently and invisibly.

In a surprisingly short time Scotty reappeared. "No one out front," he reported. "They're all in the living room."

Rick rose, and together they walked swiftly and silently to the rear of the house. The door of the room in which the diving gear was stowed opened into the living room. Perhaps they could see in there.

A card game was in progress by the light of a kerosene lamp. Rick studied the face of a heavy-set, dark-haired man who sat facing him. The man wore a T shirt that displayed the heavy muscles of arms and chest. His face was square-jawed and powerful, the eyes set deep under bushy eyebrows. His hair was short and curly, sprinkled with gray. He looked like one used to command. Rick's quick imagination pictured him on the quarterdeck of a slaver, ruling his cutthroat crew with iron fists.

The others were not visible through the door. The boys moved silently to the side of the house and drew back so they could look through the living-room window. The second man was visible now. He was young, perhaps in his twenties, and he had an unruly shock of blond hair. Once he might have been good-looking, but a scar crossed a nose that had been badly broken.

The third man sat with his back to them. Rick touched Scotty's sleeve and they went around the house via the back. The view was blocked by an open door.

Scotty put his lips close to Rick's ear. "The front."

Rick led the way, moving carefully because light spilled out of the front windows and the open front door. They reached a vantage point and looked in. The third man was clearly visible. The boys reached for each other at the same moment.

The third man was Steve's shadow!

Morning found the Water Witch anchored on the reef close to the place where the boys had found the bar shot. There was no sign of activity at the fancy frogmen's house, and the boat was tied up as it had been the previous evening. Apparently they were late sleepers.

The Spindrifters tossed coins to see who would make the first dive, and the lot fell to Rick and Tony. They donned their equipment, then Rick picked up a spear gun while Tony selected a wrecking bar from his equipment.

It took ten minutes of their precious fifteen to find the wreck again. This time, Rick took the precaution of tying a float to a projection and unwinding line while the float rose to the surface.

Tony started at one end of the mass of marine growth and inserted his wrecking bar. Rick joined him in heaving, and a cloud of dust and fish eggs rose to envelop them. It took a moment or two for the water to clear enough so they could see, then Tony hooted his triumph. The pull had exposed rotted timbers. This had to be a ship! But was it the Maiden Hand?

Rick wondered if they would ever be sure. Yet, he felt that it was, even though he realized that the feeling grew as much out of optimism and hope as anything else. Still, it was unlikely that another ship would be wrecked at this same depth.

Tony wrote on his slate, "Mor undr sand thn can see, likely."

Rick nodded. The shifting sands had undoubtedly covered, exposed, and recovered the wreck dozens of times in the years it had lain here. He looked at his watch, then reluctantly gave Tony the signal to surface. Their time was up.

On the Water Witch, Tony said, "It's a ship all right. And since its on the western reef at twenty fathoms, I'd say that it's very likely the one we want."

"Wonder how Captain Campion pegged the depth so accurately?" Scotty inquired.

Zircon had a possible answer. "Let's assume the pirates knew he was carrying the golden statue. It would have been logical for them to sound, just to see if there was any possibility of recovering the treasure from the wreck. Since they kept Campion for ransom, he would have heard the depth mentioned."

It seemed reasonable, and it was as good an answer as any, since there was no hope of knowing whether it was right or wrong.

"How do we find the statue?" Rick asked.

Tony handed him the wrecking bar with a grin. "Take the wreck apart a piece at a time. And if you still haven't found it, start digging."

The boys sighed. Rick recalled reading somewhere that treasure hunting was synonymous with ditch digging. Now he knew what the author meant.

Scotty and Zircon prepared to dive, shifting the regulators to fresh tanks. While they checked equipment, Rick rummaged through the boat's locker and found a length of heavy line. An empty water jug with a screw cap was attached to it, and he handed the end of the line to Scotty to take down with him.

"The fishing float and line isn't heavy enough. Let's add this, just in case."

Scotty took it and went over the side. He carried his spear gun while Zircon took the wrecking bar. Rick watched as they vanished from sight, leaving only the continuing track of bubbles.

Ashore, a man came out of the fancy frogmen's house and walked down to the beach. He shaded his eyes and stared at the Water Witch. Rick pointed him out to Tony.

"This business stumps me," the archaeologist admitted. "Are you certain about the identity of the man who was trailing Ames?"

"We're dead sure."

"Then is there any possible way he could have known about our presence on the island?"

"Not unless he recognized the Water Witch."

"That must be it. The question is, what do we do about it?"

"Nothing, I guess. Except to be on our guard."

Twin sets of bubbles rose, some distance from the boat, showing that both lungs were working well twenty fathoms down. Since the bubbles did not ascend vertically, they did not show the location of the two on the bottom. Rick studied them, working on an idea.

The chicken had dropped pretty close to them. But since their floats were tied to the reef, and their bubbles were carried off a vertical path by the light currents, neither could have been used to pinpoint their whereabouts--unless whoever dropped the chicken had an excellent knowledge of the currents in this particular place;

He carried the thought further. The shadow had gotten upset because he and Scotty had gone swimming in an area where something was hidden. At least, that was a reasonable assumption, based on the events at St. Thomas. The fancy diving gear in the house, the attempt to warn them off, and the presence of Steve's erstwhile shadow on Clipper Cay could then be added up.

Right here, in this particular area, another mysterious something was hidden! Something that the fancy frogmen dived often to see, use, collect, or whatever they did with it. That would account for their familiarity with the currents!

He started to tell Tony, then reconsidered. It was a pretty good hypothesis, he thought, but not supported by ironclad evidence. If he told the scientists, they might forbid any more diving in the area. And he was determined to get that treasure--more for his sister Barby than for himself. If he failed to get it there would be no living with Barby, since she would always maintain she could have found it if they had only allowed her to go on their old expedition.

Zircon and Scotty broke water and Rick helped them aboard.

"It's a ship, and a sailing ship at that," Zircon boomed. "We identified what was almost certainly a compass binnacle, probably brass, but there wasn't time to get it free and bring it up. Scotty found what is probably the muzzle of a cannon, buried in the sand."

"There's so much growth over everything that it's hard to tell what's what," Scotty added. "But it certainly looked like a cannon muzzle."

"From what we saw, I suspect that the portion above the sand is the stern, probably the stern super-structure. If the timbers haven't completely rotted away, ripping off the top should expose the stern cabins."

"That seems reasonable," Tony agreed. "At any rate, it's a good basis for operation. Rick, if you'll look in my kit, you will find a larger bar you can borrow. You'll both need tools if you're going to take the ship apart."

"Anyway, that's enough diving for the morning," Zircon said. "Let's up anchor and go."

While the others got the boat underway, Rick started the compressor in the cockpit and connected up the tanks they had used. He almost wished he and Scotty had been extravagant and had ordered triple tank blocks to give them maximum time under water. Still, the singles were convenient, and diving was a sport it wasn't wise to overdo. By the time they were through with lunch and had rested awhile, the tanks would be fully charged again.

As they tied up, Zircon said, "Tony and I will work at his midden this afternoon. You two take the boat. We won't need it. I'll walk over and take a look every once in a while, and if we see our friends from the cottage near you, we'll come running."

The boys helped Tony prepare a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches, then all hands retired to the front porch to eat.

Up the beach, there were signs of activity around the frogmen's boat. As they ate and watched, the boat moved away from the pier and approached the reef, where it anchored. Rick went to get the binoculars and focused them on the scene.

Two frogmen, complete with suits, went over the side right where their buoys floated!

"They're diving at the wreck!" he exclaimed.

Zircon took the glasses and watched, then handed them to Tony.

The archaeologist muttered, "Surely they can't be interested in the treasure. It would be simply too much coincidence for them even to know about it."

"Maybe they're just looking to see what interested us," Scotty offered, and his explanation seemed the most plausible.

The group watched until the frogmen surfaced and the boat went back to its pier.

"Scotty has it," Zircon agreed. "From what we've seen, I'd say they simply followed our buoy lines down to see what we had been doing."

"If that's the extent of their interest, I don't see how we could object," Tony said. "Or even if they tried for the treasure we'd have no grounds for objecting. The ship is anyone's property after all these years."

Rick said flatly, "We won't do any objecting, but we'll do plenty of watching. We're going to get that treasure if it's there, whether the fancy frogmen like it or not!"