Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.


THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

THE GUARDIAN OF THE REEF

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover


Ex Libris

First published in The Captain, London, June 1917

Reprinted in
The Australian Town and Country Journal,
Sydney, 10 October 1917 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2021
Version Date: 2021-10-11

Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

All content added by RGL is proprietary and protected by copyright.

Click here for more books by this author



BRUCE OTWAY pulled up his line quickly, unhooked the smooth black, ugly looking brute at the end of it, rapped its head hard against the gunwale of the boat and flung it overboard to join a long procession of its fellows which were bobbing away aft with the tide.

"I'm fed up, Mel," he announced. "That's the fourteenth catfish I've caught in the last twenty minutes. There's a perfect shoal of the vermin all round us. We may just as well chuck it."

Melville Wayne, busy putting a new snood on his line, looked up from his work.

"Suppose we shift, Bruce?" he suggested.

"Where to? Every place we've tried so far has been just as bad"

"What about running out to the reef?"

"It's a long way," said Bruce, doubtfully.

"There's plenty of time, and the breeze is just about right. We could make Barren Island in an hour."

Bruce looked first at the almost cloudless sky, then out across the sea which was blue as a sapphire.

"Right!" he said, briefly, and, coiling his line set to pulling up the anchor. Mel got up the sail, and the catboat, heeling over slightly, went slipping through the ripples with her nose pointed for a dim yellowish patch on the western horizon.

The wind was almost dead aft, and the yellow patch grew rapidly till it shaped as a long, low island, running parallel with the mainland. Barren Island it was called, and indeed was as bare as its name. Nothing grew upon it but a few tamarisk bushes, some clumps of greyish saw-palmetto, and a sort of creeper with leathery leaves and a pale pinkish bloom. On the landward side the water was almost calm, but on the outer the slow swells of the gulf broke in mellow thunder.

Mel, who was steering, held straight for the north end of the Island.

"We'll try for a channel bass, Bruce," he said. "There are some whoppers in the deep trough outside."

"Whoppers!" repeated Bruce. "I should rather think there were. Old Marwood told me he got a 40-pounder here last time he came. And there are barracoota and all sorts of brutes off the reef. We'll be lucky if we're not broke, Mel."

"I've got some stiff stuff here," replied Mel, getting out a coil of stout flax to which he attached a large hook with a steel-wire snood. This he baited with half a mullet, and put it over.

"Now for some fun," he said.

The words were hardly out of his mouth before there was a tug which nearly tore the line out of his hands.

"Hooked him!" he yelled, as he gave a jerk, "Get her round, Bruce. Get her round, or he'll break me."

With an oar Bruce tugged frantically till he got the boat's head round. Next moment she was driving along due south as though towed by a submarine.

"What the mischief is it?" gasped Mel, as he took half a turn round the cleat to ease his burning fingers.

"A ground shark, most like," Bruce answered. "Hang on, Mel. He can't stick this pace very long."

Bruce was no prophet. The fish, whatever it was, showed no sign of tiring. The crystal water foamed level with the prow as the catboat flashed onwards amid a dazzle of exquisite rainbows caused by the sun striking the spray.

The yellow beach of Barren Island swirled past like a cinema film, but the unseen monster never slacked.

Suddenly he turned to the right.

"He's making for the channel," said Mel. "That's luck—we'll stand a better show inside the lagoon."

"If he don't break us first," replied Bruce.

"Don't croak," retorted Mel, and just then the fish made a sudden dive.

"Look out! Clear your line. He'll have us under," roared Bruce.

Mel made a desperate effort to clear the line from the cleat, but the downward pressure made it impossible. He snatched up a knife, and just as the water was beginning to surge over the bows, slashed the line.

"Close call, Mel!" said Bruce, significantly. "Look!"

He pointed to a black triangular fin cutting the blue water some fifty yards away.

Mel shivered.

"A tiger shark!" he muttered. Then he straightened himself.

"That's our only thick line, Bruce, and it's no use using lighter stuff. We may as well chuck it and get back."

"Nothing else for it," replied Bruce, disconsolately, as he began to raise the sail again.


MEL, at the tiller, steered towards the wide and deep channel which ran between the southern end of Barren Island and a line of sandbanks beyond. These banks covered the coral of the Florida Reef which bounds that beautiful coast for many a long mile. They were bare, and beautifully clean and yellow, with here and there a jag of sharp coral sticking up.

Bruce glanced at them as the boat drew in close.

"The sand has shifted a lot since I was last out," he said.

"It was that big blow last week," Mel answered. "Hulloa, there's a wreck I never saw before."

He pointed as he spoke to the ribs of a fair-sized craft which rose bare and desolate out of the sand.

Bruce stared with interest.

"I never saw it either, Mel. Let's have a look at it."

Mel nodded, and put the helm over a bit. Bruce dropped the peak of the big sail, and next moment the crisp sand crunched under the forefoot.

The two youngsters jumped out, pulled the boat up, and made her fast. Then they waded on to the firm, warm beach.

"Quite a big ship," said Bruce, as he walked up to the wreck. "Wonder what she was, I don't seem to have heard of any craft going ashore here."

"She's been here years," replied Mel, "and by the look of her timbers, she's been buried a long while. It was that storm shifted the sand away from her. Yes, I'd like to know what she was, but there's not much chance of finding out."

The wreck lay at the very edge of the water. It was clear that at high tide she must be submerged. Under her bows was a gentle slope but farther aft the gale had cut the sand away so that her stern lay over a hollow, a regular pit fully ten feet deep. Beyond the pit the sea deepened rapidly, falling away into the great trough which runs parallel with the reef, and down which pours the whole weight of that great salt river known as the Gulf Stream.

Bruce moved round to the bow, and was staring down into the crystal, shimmering depths, when a cry from Mel startled him.

"Bruce! I say, Bruce! Look here. I've found her name."

Bruce turned and hurried across to where his friend was standing.

"Here it is!" said Mel, eagerly. "Look, it's burned into one of her ribs—'Pluto, Portland, Me.'"

Bruce gave a sharp start.

"The Pluto!" he exclaimed incredulously.

Mel stared.

"What do you know about her?"

"Don't you remember, Mel? Don't you remember old Marwood's yarn? My dear chap, you were there when he told it."

"Marwood's story?" repeated Mel, thoughtfully. Then suddenly his dark eyes flashed.

"Not the ship that came out of Galveston just before the hurricane?"

"The very same," said Bruce, quietly.

"Then—then all the stuff must be still in her hold—buried down below us," Mel exclaimed eagerly. "What did he say—two hundred thousand dollar's worth?"

"That's what he said, Mel. It was silver for the mint at New Orleans."

The two boys stared at each other. Then Mel gave an odd laugh.

"The reward's still open, isn't it?"

"Yes, it's still open. Twenty per cent.—that's forty thousand dollars. I say, Mel, that licks pineapple-growing all to pot."

But Mel was not listening. He had snatched up a piece of broken timber, and was burrowing frantically in the sand.

"That's no use, Mel," said Bruce. "Even if the stuff is here, it's buried feet deep, and the sand's as hard as board. Besides, two hundred thousand dollars in silver weighs a lot. We shall want a proper boat, and help of some sort."

Mel looked blank.

"Where are we going to got it?"

"Clegg's sharpie is the only boat big enough."

"Great, Scott, Bruce, you don't want Clegg in on this game!" exclaimed Mel Wayne.

"Why not? There's no harm in him, is there?"

"Your memory's a bit short, Bruce," Mel answered, rather curtly. "Have you forgotten the row we had with him last year about his cattle?"

"Oh, you mean when that scrub cow of his ate our bananas, and I drove her out and she got caught on the barbed wire and had to be shot. Yes, he did make a bit of a fuss about it, but that's all blown over long ago."

"You think so?" said Mel, significantly. "I don't. Clegg has Cracker blood in him, and that sort hold a grudge like Indians. I don't want him monkeying with a job of this sort."

"But there's no one else," urged Bruce.

"We must have a good boat, and money will have to be spent here. We'll need a pump to clear water from the hole. Clegg is well off. My notion is to let him in on a third share. Make him sign an agreement before we start."

"Fat lot a fellow like that would think of an agreement! About as much as a German."

"Well, can you think of anyone else?" demanded Bruce, with some irritation.


MEL couldn't. They argued the matter all the way home, and the end of it was that Bruce had his way. He did not waste time. The very next morning he got into the boat and sailed three miles up the coast to Clegg's place on Corn Bay.

Clegg had twenty acres under pines, the biggest plantation on the coast. He ran his fruit in his own sharpie down to Key West, from which port it was shipped north.

Bruce found him driving his niggers under the glaring sun among the endless lines in grey-green, prickly leaved pineapple plants. He turned as he saw the boy coming and walked towards him.

"Good morning, Mr. Otway," he said, with a sort of sour civility. "What kin I do for yew?"

"I've a bit of business I want to talk to you about," said Bruce, bluntly. "Something private."

A look that was half surprise, half suspicion, flashed in Clegg's deep-set greenish eyes. But it passed as quickly as it had come, and he led the way to the house, where he gave Bruce a chair on the verandah and produced coffee and cigarettes.

Bruce drank the coffee, but refused the cigarettes, which were made of black tobacco wrapped in corn silk and strong enough to upset an ostrich. Then he started on his story.

Clegg's interest grew as he listened. He forgot his cigarette, and his coffee cooled, untouched on the table.

When Brace had finished he nodded.

"Reckon I'll try it," he said. "Share and share, yew say. Is that so?"

"That's the notion," replied Bruce. "Each to take a third."

"But the find's ours," returned Bruce.

"Oh, I ain't kicking," said Clegg. "Guess we better get to work right away, before anyone else gets wise."

"The sooner the better," agreed Bruce.

"You be ready to start to-morrow at sun up?"

"Yes."

"Right you be. I'll be to your landing with the sharpie, and you meet me there. And don't say a word to nobody."

"We're not fools, Mr. Clegg," said Bruce, drily, and got up to take his leave.

There was a queer gleam in Clegg's greenish eyes, as he watched Bruce walk down to his boat.

"Not fools, eh?" he muttered under his thick black moustache. "Wal, ef you ain't, I'd like to see one."


BEFORE the red globe of the sun had topped the black line of the cypress swamps inland, Bruce and Mel were waiting at the landing, watching the sharpie, like a tall ghost, drift silently down before the faint dawn breeze.

"Smart's the word," said Clegg, as they jumped aboard. "Yew don't want anyone to see yew fellers coming aboard."

"Seeing there's not even a nigger within two miles, there's not much chance of that," replied Mel, with a touch of sarcasm. "How many hands have you got with you?"

"I ain't got but one. That's old Scipio, and he's deaf and dumb. Still, I reckon he can dig as well as the next."

"Four of us, only," said Mel, doubtfully. "I thought we were to have half a dozen of your men. There's likely to be a lot of sand to shift."

"I reckon four'll do the trick," replied Clegg. "Ez I said to your pardner, we don't want no more in this than we can help, and it's better for four to work two days than eight one. We kin camp the night on Barren Island."

"I think he's right, Mel," put in Bruce. And Mel, though he looked doubtful, said no more.


AN hour later the sharpie lay anchored in the channel between Barren Island and the reef, and her crew were hurrying ashore in the dinghy.

The morning mist had been burnt out, and the new-risen sun turned to gold the wide lagoon and the miles of heaving water stretching to the western horizon. Gulls swirled like white flakes along the yellow beaches, and a string of black and shiny porpoises travelled in a long line parallel with the reef, leaping from wave to wave with monotonous regularity. Apart from these, there was not one sign of life in all the vast expanse.

Clegg went across to the wreck, walked the whole length of it twice, then, picking a spot, rolled up his sleeves.

"This here's the place," he said, and drove his shovel into the sand. "Ef the stuff's any wheres, it's right under our feet."


WITHOUT a word the others followed his example, and for a long time nothing was heard but the hiss and rustle of the flung sand and the deep breathing of the diggers.

The heat grew breathless; one by one the diggers shed their garments until they were working in nothing but their under-vests and trousers.

Clegg worked as well as any. Mel Wayne, watching him out of the tail of his eye, noticed the great muscles writhe in the man's hairy chest and arms. But he saw, too, the queer glint in Clegg's greenish eyes, and realised that it was greed for the silver that lay beneath which drove him to the task.

The hole deepened and widened, but as they went lower water began to creep in, and they had to rig the pump, which they worked by turns. At midday they stopped for food but while three ate the fourth had to keep constantly at the pump.

"We shan't finish to-day," said Mel, thoughtfully.

"I guess not," replied Clegg. "This here's going to be all of a two-days' job."


AFTER an hour's rest they went at it again. About four in the afternoon Bruce's shovel struck something hard. At first he thought it was a rib of the ship, but presently he found it moved. He levered it up, and stooping, lifted it.

It was a bar of metal about a foot long, black as ink but strangely heavy.

"Here's the first of it," he said, and though his voice was quiet enough, it shook a little with suppressed emotion.

Clegg spun round, picked up the bar, and hacked at it with a knife. The scratch shone brilliant in the sunlight. "Silver all right," he said, in his deep voice, and Mel noticed his eyes light again with the same covetous gleam.

Bruce was dripping. Mel suggested that he had better take a turn at the pump, and he was glad of a change of labor. Scipio took his shovel, and the work went on.

One after another fresh bars came to light until by six o'clock they had found no fewer than 33.

Bruce called to Mel to take his place at the pump and as the other came up Bruce pointed to the far end of the reef.

"See that over there?" he whispered.

Mel looked. The sun was down, hut the light was still good. The reef ended in a spit of pale colored coral rock, and across this lay something which looked like a thick brown rope.

"An old ship's hawser," said Mel.

"How did it get there?"

"Washed up, I suppose."

"It wasn't there ten minutes ago," said Bruce. "And the sea's as calm as a pond."

"Nonsense, man! It must have been there, only you didn't notice it. Why—"

He broke off suddenly with a gasp.

"Great Scott! It's moving!" he muttered, hoarsely.

Moving it was. With a faint rustling sound, it drew back slowly and deliberately into the depths of the darkening sea.

The two boys looked at each other, and their faces were white under their tan.

"A devil-fish!" said Mel, in a very low voice.

Bruce nodded.

"The father of all of 'em, by the size of that tentacle," he answered, and as he spoke the last of the monstrous coil vanished silently in the deep water under the reef.

"Nice job if that thing comes aboard the sharpie in the middle of the night," he added, nervously.

"Don't worry," replied Mel. "We shall sleep on Barren Island."

Bruce looked at the fast-darkening sky.

"About time we got across if we're going."

"Just what I was thinking," replied Mel. "And, Bruce, keep your mouth shut about that thing. We don't want to scare the others."


FORTY-ONE bars was the result of the first day's work. That had meant twelve hours of solid digging, and by the time camp was pitched on Barren Island, the crew of the sharpie were so exhausted that it was about all they could manage to cook their supper and eat it. The last mouthful was hardly swallowed before Bruce dropped back in the soft sand, and began to snore gently.

Mel, older than his companion by a year, and though of lighter build, much the tougher of the two, rolled a blanket round him to keep off the night dew, and scooped a hollow for himself with his hands.

He glanced across at Clegg, whose corn-cob pipe glowed through the gloom. The latter seemed to know that Mel was looking at him.

"Guess you better get all the sleep you can, mister," he said, in his deep, rumbling voice. "We are all going to have our hands full to-morrow."

So saying, he lay back, pulling his blanket over him.

"Believe I ought to watch him," said Mel to himself. "Hanged if I trust the beggar. Still, he can't do much to-night. He's not likely to try to cut our throats till we've got the rest of that silver out."

He himself lay back, and, lulled by the sound of the little waves lapping on the beach, was very soon sound asleep.


THE next thing he knew, his eyes were wide open, and he was staring up at the sky. A late moon had risen, dimming the stars. Mel's first feeling was one of surprise that it was still night. Tired as he was, he ought surely to have slept till daylight. Yet now, in spite of his aching bones, he was wide awake.

Something must have roused him, but what he had no idea. He glanced round. Bruce was sleeping alongside. Everything else was quiet. He sat up, and looked towards the place where Clegg had been lying.

The hollow was empty.

Next moment he caught a faint creaking sound which came from the direction of the sea, and looking out, saw the dinghy in which they had landed lying alongside the sharpie.

Even then it was a moment or two before the truth burst upon him—that Clegg and the nigger were both gone, and that he and Bruce were marooned on the island.

"Bruce," he cried, shaking the other violently. "Bruce, wake up! Clegg's gone, and we're done in."

Almost as he spoke the sharpie's big mainsail began to rise, and he heard the creaking of the windlass as Scipio got up the anchor.

"I'm a fool, Bruce," said Mel, savagely. "I might have known it."

Poor Bruce had not a word to say, and in silence the two watched the sharpie moving slowly to another anchorage behind the reef, and a good half-mile from the nearest point of Barren Island. Then the dinghy put off again, and, with Scipio pulling and Clegg at the tiller, was beached on the reef near the wreck.

"He means to take the silver off and go ashore with it," said Mel, bitterly. "Then, when he's sure we are done in, he'll come back for the rest."

"The swine!" growled Bruce. "Oh, Mel, I ought to have had more sense."

Mel did not answer. He was too sick and savage. Their case was about as hopeless as could be. They had no food, and—worse—no water. They were five miles from land, and the Island was not visited once a year. The waters all around teemed with sharks—the fierce tiger sharks which will snap a man in half at a single bite. It was out of the question to swim, even so far as the reef.

Clegg landed. Scipio followed, pulling up the boat. The two went straight to the wreck, and each picked up a load of bars, and carried them back to the dinghy. Then they returned for a second load. In the moonlight the boys could watch their every movement.

The tide was rising. Clegg's boots splashed in the salt water as he filled his arms with a second load of the heavy black ingots. He lifted them clear of the water and passed them to Scipio who carried them to the boat. Then he went back once more.

His foot seemed to catch in something and he stumbled and fell on his knees, making a loud splash. He was up again in a moment, but now his foot seemed to be held in some way beneath the water. He grasped at one of the ribs of the wreck, and kicked vigorously.

Next moment he uttered a piercing yell.

"Scipio!" he roared. "Scipio!"

But the negro, who was deaf as well as dumb, paid no attention.

Clegg was now clinging frantically to the upright with one arm, and with the other hand, loosening a knife from his belt. His knife gleamed in the moonlight. The boys, watching breathlessly, saw him stoop and slash frantically. Next instant a long, brown, rope-like coil rose above the surface with a curious writhing motion.

Clegg left off cutting at the thing under the water, and brought his knife down with all his force on this fresh tentacle. Again and again he slashed it, but without avail.

"Ah-h-h!" gasped Bruce, and pointed with a shaking hand. Just outside the wreck the silvery surface was parted by a monstrous hulk. It was as large as a sugar hogshead, and gleamed pallid in the moonlight.

"Look, Mel! Look! It's the devil-fish!"

With a horrible deliberation the creature hove itself slowly upwards, and as it did so a third and then a fourth tentacle shot outwards and grasped Clegg around the body. Clegg had stopped his useless screaming. With one arm and one leg tightly twisted around the rib of the wreck, he fought desperately, cutting and hacking at the living ropes which bound him. But the arms, with their cup-like suckers, were tougher than sun-tanned rawhide, and the blade rapidly blunted, while every moment the monster itself drew nearer to its victim.

"I—I can't stand it," groaned Bruce, and suddenly flung himself down, burying his face in his arms. Mel, of sterner stuff, stood erect, watching the horror to its end.

He had not long to wait. The devil-fish, its bloated body half in, half out of the water, had anchored itself to some unseen coral crag below the surface, and was now using all its arm pulling strength to drag its prey into its reach.

Clegg had given up fighting. His knife had dropped. To Mel It seemed that his senses had left him, and that it was by mere instinct that he clung to the timber.

Suddenly there was a loud crack. The timber itself, the great rib, was bending. Another crack, and it went. The rope-like tentacles writhed rapidly, there was a swirl in the calm water. All in a flash, Clegg, timber and all, were drawn down.

Mel drew a long breath. He stooped, and touched Bruce on the shoulder.

"It's all over," he said, quietly.

In the horrible fascination of the scene even Mel had forgotten Scipio. Now they suddenly saw him coming back towards the wreck, moving in his slow, stupid way.

They saw him stop and stare round vaguely, evidently wondering what had become of his master. Bruce, forgetting for the moment that the man was deaf yelled his name, at the same time waving his arms frantically.

"He's seen me! He's seen me!" he cried.

"It's a bit of luck, but he has," said Mel, and began beckoning to the man to come across.

Scipio stared at the boys a moment or two, then turned and went slowly back towards the dinghy.

"Is he coming across?" asked Bruce, breathlessly.

Scipio got into the boat and began to pull. "He's going to the sharpie," cried Bruce, in horror. "He's got all the silver. He'll clear off with it."

Scipio pulled steadily across to the sharpie. The boys saw him flinging the heavy ingots aboard her. Apparently Bruce was right, and the man meant to abandon them. Bruce's throat was dry; even Mel, in spite of his outward calm, felt a horrible sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Scipio pitched the last bar aboard, turned and looked at the boys, then quite quietly seated himself on the thwart, picked up his oars, and began to pull across towards them.

Mel and Bruce exchanged glances.

"He shall have Clegg's share," said Mel, quietly.

"He could have mine for all I care," answered Bruce. "Mel, pineapple-growing is good enough for me after this."

Mel laughed softly.

"Well, old man," he said, "you way change your opinion when you've got a matter of nearly three thousand pounds in your pockets."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.