Beneath the “Bulldog’s” Bilge

The brig lay in four fathoms of water on the edge of the Great Bahama
Bank. She had been a solid little vessel, built for the fruit trade,
and she was about two hundred tons register. Her master had tried to
sight the “Isaacs,” but owing to the darkness and the drift of the
Gulf Stream, he had miscalculated his distance in trying for the New
Providence channel. A “nigger-head,” a sharp, projecting point of
coral, had poked a hole about four feet in diameter through her bottom,
and she had gone down before they could run her into the shoal water on
the bank.

Down to the graveyard of good ships, Key West, the message was hurried,
and the wreckers of Florida Reef heard the news. A heavily built sloop
of thirty tons, manned by ten Spongers and Conchs, started up the
Florida channel and arrived upon the scene two days later.

The _Bulldog_ had settled evenly upon her keel, but as she was sharp,
she had listed until her masts were leaning well to starboard, dipping
her yardarms deep in the clear water. She was submerged as far up as
her topsail yards.

The captain of the wrecker was a Conch. His mate was a giant negro of
the Keys; young, powerful, and the best diver on the Florida Reef.
His chest measured forty-eight inches in circumference over his
lean pectoral muscles, and he often bent iron bars of one-half inch
to show the set of his vise-like grip. He was almost black, with a
sinister-looking leer upon his broad face, his eyes red and watery like
most of the divers of the Bank. He could remain under four fathoms for
at least three and a half minutes, and work with amazing force, and
continue this terrific strain for six hours on a stretch, with but
five minutes between dives. Half fish or alligator, and half human,
he looked as he lounged naked in the hot sunshine upon the sloop’s
forecastle, his skin hard and callous as leather from long exposure to
a tropic sun and salt water. He was ready for the work ahead, for it
had been rumoured that the _Bulldog_ had not less than fifty thousand
dollars in silver aboard her. She was known to have been chartered by
agents of the Venezuelan revolutionists, and to have arms and money
aboard in abundance for their relief.

The day was well advanced when the spars of the brig showed above the
sea. The sky was cloudless, and the little air there was stirring
scarcely rippled the ocean; the swell rolling with that long,
undulating sweep and peculiar slowness which characterizes calm weather
in the Gulf Stream.

Far away the “Isaacs” showed above the horizon, and just the slightest
glint of white told of the nearest cay miles away on the Great Bank.
To the westward it was a trifle more than sixty miles to Florida
Cape across the channel, with the deep ocean current sweeping to the
northward between. The steady set of the Stream brought the wreckers
rapidly nearer the brig in spite of the calm, and they let go their
first anchor about fifty fathoms due south, and veered the cable to let
the sloop drift slowly down upon the wreck. Then, lowering all canvas,
they got out their kedges and moored the sloop just over the port rail
of the _Bulldog_ which could be distinctly seen about ten feet below
the surface of the sea.

Three of the crew, all experienced divers, made ready while the mate
went slowly to the rail and gazed fixedly down into the clear water.
In calm weather the bottom on the Bank can be seen distinctly in
five fathoms, and often at much greater depth. The weather was ideal
now, and no one thought it necessary to use the “water-glass,” the
glass-bottomed bucket into which the diver usually sticks his head and
gazes into the depths before making his plunge.

“I reckon ye might as well make a try,” said the captain, coming to
the mate’s side. “Start here an’ let the drift o’ the current take ye
th’ whole length.” And as he spoke he hove a life-line overboard for
the men to grasp should the stream carry them too far. Coming to the
surface they would be tired and not want to swim back. A man stood by
to haul in and save the diver the exertion.

The mate raised his eyes. He looked over the smooth sea and tilted his
nose into the air, sniffing the gentle breeze.

“It might be a wery good day, Cap, but I sho’ smells shurk. I ain’t
much perticular about this smooth weather. It nearly always brings ’em
along ’bout dis time o’ year. De season am mighty nigh done on de Bank.
Yo’ knows dey is mighty peart when dey gits plentiful.”

“Are you feared?” asked the captain, looking at him scornfully.

“Well, I smell him plain, an’ dat’s a fact,” said the mate, “but here
goes.”

The giant mate fell slowly outboard, then putting his hands before him
he dropped straight down into the sea with hardly a splash. The captain
bent over the rail and watched him as he swam quickly down, his great
black form looking not unlike a turtle as it struck out vigorously with
both hands and feet. Down, down it went until the shimmering light
made it distorted and monstrous as the distance increased. Then it
disappeared under the bend of the _Bulldog’s_ bilge.

A second diver came to the side and looked out over the smooth swell.

There was nothing in sight as far as the eye could reach save the glint
of white on the distant cay to the eastward. The Gulf Stream was
undisturbed by even a ripple.

In a couple of minutes a loud snort astern told of the mate’s
reappearance. He seized the life-line and was quickly hauled alongside.
He climbed leisurely to the deck.

All hands were now assembled and waited for his report.

“Tight as a drum. There ain’t no way o’ gettin’ into her there,” said
the mate after two or three long breaths.

“Well, will you try the hatchway, then?” asked the captain.

“I ain’t perticular about workin’ down hatchways,” said the giant, with
a scowl.

“Nor me either,” said the man who had come to make the second trip.
“They said the stuff was aft under the cabin deck,” said a tall man
with aquiline features, known as Sam.

“Dynamite,” whispered another, “what’s the difference?”

“Plenty, if the underwriters come along and find her blown up. She
ain’t ours yet,” said the captain sourly.

“An’ who’s to tell?” asked the mate with a fierce menace. “Who’ll know
what knocked a hole in her? They’ll nebber float her. Bust her, says I.”

The captain looked about him. There was nothing in sight, save the
distant cay, ten miles or more to the eastward, which might harbour an
inquisitive person. And then the light-keeper himself was a wrecker.
He thought a moment while the mate stood looking at him, and then went
slowly down into the cabin and brought up a box of cartridges. Sam
immediately brought out some exploders and several fathoms of fuse.

In a moment a large package was wrapped up and lashed with spun-yarn.
It contained five half-pound cartridges and an exploder, with a fathom
of fuse. A piece of iron was made fast to the whole to keep it upon the
bottom, and then the mate called for a match. The fuse would burn for
at least two minutes under water before the exploder was reached, and
give time for the diver to get clear.

The captain scratched a light upon his trousers and held it to the
fuse. A spluttering fizzing followed. Then over the side went the mate
with the charge in his hand, and the men on the deck could see him
swimming furiously down through the clear depths, the dynamite held
before him and a thin spurt of bubbles trailing out from the end of the
burning fuse.

He had little enough time to spare after he disappeared under the curve
of the bilge. Coming to the surface he was quickly dragged aboard by
the life-line, and then all hands waited a moment, which seemed an
hour, for the shock.

A dull crash below followed by a peculiar ringing sound told of the
discharge. The water lifted a moment over the spot some twenty feet
astern, and then a storm of foam and bubbles surged to the surface.
The captain gazed apprehensively around the horizon again, and then
smiled.

“I reckon that busted her,” he said.

Over the side plunged the mate, followed by two more men, and as they
went a great, dark shadow rose slowly to the surface in the disturbed
water. It was the body of a giant shark.

The captain stood looking at it for a moment.

“The harpoon, quick,” he yelled.

A man sprang for the iron, but the monster rolled slowly over upon his
belly, and opened his jaws with spasmodic jerks. A great hole was torn
in his side, and his dorsal fin was missing. He gave a few quick slaps
with his tail, and then sank slowly down before the harpoon could be
thrown.

“He’s as dead as salt-fish,” said a sailor, “clean busted wide open.”

“He’s a tiger,” said the captain, “an’ they never hunt alone. I c’ud
see his stripes.”

A diver called from the end of the life-line and was hauled up. One
after another they came up, the mate last.

“What was the thing yo’ dropped overboard?” he asked with a grin. “I
seen him sinking an’ thought he ware alive.”

“It was a tiger,” said the captain solemnly, looking askance at the big
man.

“That settles it fer me,” said one diver, “they always go in pairs.”

“Me, too,” went the chorus from the rest.

The mate said nothing. He had seen something below that made his eyes
flash in spite of their salty rheum. The dynamite had done its work
well, and with more daring than the others he had penetrated the hull
far enough to catch a glimpse of the treasure. The explosion had
scattered bright silver coins about the entrance of the hole, and he
had seen what they had missed in the roiled water.

Here was a sore problem for the captain. He had the first chance at the
wreck without observers, and here the carcass of a huge tiger-shark had
upset everything. Within a few hours, the spars of other wreckers might
show above the horizon, and then farewell to treasure-hunting. He could
expect nothing but salvage at the most. If the owners decided to raise
her he could do nothing more than sell his claim upon her, and probably
lose most of that, for he was a poor man and dreaded the Admiralty
courts. It would be much better if he could get what money there was
in her, finding it in an abandoned hull. Having the whole of it in his
possession was much better than trying to get back from the owners his
share under the salvage law. Any delay for shark-hunting meant a heavy
loss. He looked askance at the big mate, but said nothing, knowing full
well that it lay with that black giant whether he would take the risk
of going below again or not.

“I knew I smelt him plain enough,” said the giant, sniffing the air
again, “dem big shurks is mighty rank.”

The shark which had met with the dynamite explosion was one of a pair
of the great “carcharodon” variety. They had come in on the edge of the
Bank at the beginning of the warm season, and one of them had slipped
up along the bottom to the wreck not a minute after the mate had placed
the charge. The package had attracted his attention, and it was while
nosing it the charge had exploded, tearing him almost to pieces. His
mate was but fifty fathoms away, and came slowly up to examine the
place where the crash occurred.

The female was about twenty feet in length. She was lean and muscular
from long cruising at sea, and her hide was as hard as the toughest
leather. Vertical stripes upon her sides, black upon the dark gray of
her body, gave her the name of “tiger.” Her jaws were a good eighteen
inches across, and her six rows of triangular teeth formed the most
perfect cutting machine for anything made of flesh. The long tapering
tail and huge fins told of enormous power, and her heavy frontal
development proclaimed her of that somewhat rare species of pelagic
monster which is very different in disposition to the thousands of
sharks that infest all tropical seas.

She came upon the body of her mate as he sank slowly down, shattered
and torn from the explosion. He lay motionless upon the clean coral
bottom, and as she nosed him she came to the grisly wounds and knew he
was dead. The feeling that the floating object above was responsible
for his end took possession of her instinctively. He, her mate, had
travelled with her for months and over thousands of miles of ocean.
There was an attachment similar to that in evidence among the higher
animals, and sullen fury at her loss grew against the thing above. It
was like the implacable hatred of the cobra snake for the slayer of his
mate, the snake who will follow the slayer’s trail for miles to wreak
vengeance. And as the monster’s fury was growing, the black diver was
preparing to make a plunge for the money within the brig’s bilge.

“Gimme a line,” said the black man. “If dere is another feller like de
one we busted down dere, yo’ kin pull me back ef he don’t git a good
hold o’ my laig. De water is mighty roiled yit, en I’d like to see a
bit o’ the bottom. ‘Pears to me I seen something movin’ astern dere.”

The captain passed a line, and he fastened it around his waist. The
rest of the crew stood looking on. Then taking a bag rolled tight in
one hand to open below and fill with the silver, he gazed anxiously
around the surrounding sea again.

“Here goes,” said the big mate, “but I reckon it’s de debble himself
dat’s waitin’ fer me, I feels it sho’.”

He went down with a straight plunge without any splash, and they
watched him until he disappeared under the bends.

The mate had his eyes in use as he swam swiftly towards the hole made
by the explosion. He watched the shadows upon the coral bottom in the
dim light that penetrated the depths. The huge shadow of the brig cast
a gloom over the white rock, and at the depth of her keel objects were
hard to distinguish, except out beyond where the sunshine filtered
down. He knew the location of the hole, and headed straight for it
until the black and ragged mouth of the opening showed before him. He
had just reached for it when a form shut off the light behind him. At
the same instant the dread of something horrible flashed through his
brain. He turned instantly to see the giant mouth of a monstrous shark
close aboard, the teeth showing white against the dark edge of the
throat cavity.

There was but a moment to spare. He must get away in the fraction of a
second, and his quick mind, used to emergencies, seized upon the only
way possible.

The line about his waist was still slack, and he dove headlong into the
black mouth of the hole in the brig’s bilge. The opening was just large
enough to let him through, the splintered edges raking his back sorely
as he entered. Then he turned quickly, hoping to see the monster sweep
past.

The outline of the hole showed dimly, a ragged green spot set in inky
blackness. He was ready to make a dash outboard, and swam to hold
himself close to it, for the tendency was to rise into the black depths
of the submerged hull. Inside was total darkness, and the unknown,
submerged passages to some possible open hatchway beneath his own
vessel’s bottom were not to be thought of for safety. He could hold his
breath but for a very short time longer, and he was more than twenty
feet below the surface of the ocean. Even as he swam his foot struck
something solid above him. He watched the hole and had just about
decided that the monster had passed when the hole disappeared from view.

He knew he had not moved, for he could feel the stillness of the water
about him. With a growing feeling of horror he groped for the opening.

In the total darkness he thought he was losing the instinct of
direction. The danger of his position was so deadly that, in spite of
his iron nerves, a panic was taking possession of him. To be lost in
the hold of a sunken wreck appalled him for an instant. He must act
quickly and accurately if he would live. The precious moments were
passing, and his heart already was sending the blood with ringing
throbs through his head. He made a reach ahead, and as he did so the
greenish light of the hole in the bilge came again before him. He
struck out for it powerfully. Then it failed again, but as it did so
he made out the form that was closing it. The great head of the shark
was thrust into the opening, withdrawn again as though to try to get a
better position to force its way in, and then came total blackness.

The mate was failing fast. He had been under water more than two
minutes. He saw that it was certain death to force the entrance.
Outside waited the monster who would cut him to pieces before he could
reach the surface and help from his vessel. It was a horrible end.
The thought of a mangled form being devoured into the bowels of such
a creature decided him. Any death but that. He hesitated no longer,
but with maddening haste he swam upward into the blackness, groping,
struggling through doors and passages, wildly, aimlessly trying for a
blind chance that he might at last come through the hatchway into the
sea above.

He had cast off the line to his waist as soon as it came taut, and
instantly it flashed upon him that he had severed the last link between
himself and his men. On and on he struggled, the bright flashes of
light which now began to appear before his eyes, caused by the strain
and pressure, made him fight wildly forward, thinking that they came
from the light outside. He knew he was lost. The picture flitted before
him of the men hauling in the line. Then the silence of the deck in the
sunshine and the looks of his shipmates, the case of “lost man.” He
had seen it before when he was upon the deck, and now it was his turn
below. A bulkhead brought him to a sudden stop. He reached upward and
found the solid deck. It was no use. He gave one last gigantic stroke
forward along the obstruction and started to draw in his breath, which
meant the end. Then his head suddenly came out of the water into air,
and his pulses leaped again into action.

The pressure was not relieved upon his lungs, and it was some moments
before he recovered. Then his great strength came back to him and he
began to grope about in the blackness until his feet came in contact
with a step. He felt along this and found that it was evidently a
companionway leading to the deck above. He put forth his hands into
the space overhead and found a solid roof but a foot or less above the
surface of the water he was in. Then it dawned upon him that he was
beneath the coamings of the hatchway, and the air was that which had
been caught under the top as the brig had settled. She had only been
sunk about fifty-five hours, and the air had not found its way through
the tight cover overhead. It was compressed by the pressure of the
water above it. It was only about twelve feet to the surface from where
he now rested, and if he could get free he might yet get away safely.
The shark was probably below under the bilge, trying to get in the hole
and would not notice him if he came up through the hatchway. He could
make a dash for the surface, and call for a line before the monster
could locate him. The air within the small space was already getting
used up while he waited to recover. There were not more than half a
dozen cubic feet of it altogether, and he must work quickly if he would
be free.

He now groped for the fastenings of the hatchway, hoping to seize
them and force the slide back. The covering was of peculiar pattern,
high-domed above the coamings, and it was for this reason that the air
had failed to find its way through the front of the opening. He felt
for the lock and finally found that the hasp was on the outside. He was
locked below.

He had been away from the sloop for more than five minutes now, and
the men aboard had hauled in the line. It came fast enough, and some
leaned over the rail watching until the end came into view. Then they
knew, or fancied they knew, the story.

“Gone, by God,” came the exclamation from the captain–“he was
right–they always travel in couples–” Then he stood there with the
rest, all gazing steadfastly down into the clear water of the Gulf
Stream that now went past crystal-like and undisturbed. The dim forms
of the coral showed below, but nothing like the shape of either man
or shark was visible. The disturbed water from the blast had all gone
to the northward with the current, and they wondered. If there were a
monster lurking in the depths, he must be well under the brig’s bilge
in the deep shadow. The line told the story the eye failed to reach. It
was not new, the story of a lost diver on the Bahama Bank.

They hung over the side and spoke seldom: when they did, it was in a
low tone. There was nothing to do, for no one had the hardihood to
make the plunge to find out what had happened. They must wait for the
wrecking crew. Diving was not to be thought of again for hours.

Meanwhile the mate was below in the dome of the hatchway.

Finding that the slide was fastened on the outside, he put forth all
his giant strength to force it. Planting his feet upon the after end,
he managed to keep his mouth out of the water and get a grip upon the
hatch-carline. Then he strained away to burst the lock.

In the little bubble of compressed air the exertion caused him to pant
for breath. He must hurry. The wood creaked dully. A jet of water
spurted in his face. The slide was giving way, letting in the ocean
from the outside, and in another moment the remaining space of air
would be gone. With one tremendous shove he tore the carline loose.
Then he clutched frantically at the splintering wood, and as the water
closed over him he wrenched the slide loose and drove himself blindly
through the opening. The next instant he shot upward, and in a moment
he saw the light above. He came to the surface under the sloop’s port
quarter, bursting into the sunshine with a loud splash.

The captain heard the noise and hurried over to look. The mate’s black
head was just a fathom below him, and he quickly dropped him a line.
Then willing hands reached over and he was dragged on deck. He had been
below nearly a quarter of an hour.

Staggering like a drunken man the great mate lounged forward, his
bloodshot eyes distended, and his breath coming in loud rasping gasps,
a little thin trickle of blood running from his nose and mingling with
the salt water pouring down his face. Men seized him and tried to hold
him up, but he plunged headlong upon the deck and lay still.

It was nearly half an hour later before he opened his eyes and looked
about him. All hands were around him, some rubbing his huge limbs and
others standing looking on, waiting to do what the captain might
direct. Then he came slowly to and rose unsteadily to his feet. There
was a feeling of relief and the men talked. The captain asked questions
and plied his mate with whiskey.

The giant black stood gazing out to sea, trying to realize what had
happened, and while he looked he saw a thin trail of smoke rising upon
the southern horizon. He pointed to it without saying anything, and all
hands saw it and stopped in their work to stare.

“It’s the wreckin’ tug from Key West,” said the captain. “No more
divin’ to-day. Jest our bloomin’ luck. Nothin’ to hinder us from doin’
a bit o’ bizness. No danged shurks nor nothin’ to stop a man, an’ here
we lose our chance.”

“I reckon it’s all right, cap’n,” said the big mate, speaking for the
first time. “I done quit divin’ fer this season, ennyways. ‘N’ when I
says I smells shurk, I means _shurk_. ‘N’ the fust man what begs me toe
go under ag’in when I says that, I gwine toe break his haid.”