Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#33



 

A Menace to Shipping

(Part 2)

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


THE FACES OF THE CREW arrayed about the deck were portraits of despair.  Carruthers couldn't blame them.  A third time the Glooskap's thumping engines were carrying her into that hellish zone where lurked a sea monster.  With the pumps at full, the tramp steamer was still taking on water, listing badly, and, all knew, she could not survive another attack.  Their only hope lay in the slim black, three-foot barrel mounted on the bow.

It was the swivel-gun salvaged from the three-centuries old wreck of the Tortuga Galley.  Still crusted with barnacles and slime, black from its long sleep under the waves, it was yet a serviceable piece of armament -- or at least, Carruthers prayed so.

When the captain had first suggested the idea, the others thought he had lost his mind.  Slowly though they had come to see that, however unlikely, there was just a chance it might work.  After all, a cannon had no moving parts, so maybe even after three centuries it could still reasonably function.

For shot, they used four inch nails.  For gunpowder, enough was gathered from Carruthers's packets of .44 calibre bullets to allow them to fire the swivel-gun once -- but only once.  Just the same, the captain reflected grimly, once was all they would need.  If that first shot didn't scare off the sea monster, they wouldn't have a second chance...no matter what.

Now, as they forged steadily into the fog, a crewman named Land stood just behind the swivel-gun, lighter in hand.  Carruthers was just behind him.  The dancing flame cast a yellow glow over the seaman's pale, sweat-beaded features.  His eyes shone, reflecting the flame, urgently searching the whirling fog and darkness ahead.

This is it, Carruthers thought.  Either we make it through or we go down.  Then he had a terrible thought.  What if this same thing had happened to the Halifax.  What if some earlier ship, perhaps, had been destroyed by the sea monster and the Halifax, responding to the distress call, was attacked and wrecked by the beast.  Now, the creature will destroy us as well and maybe another ship will come along and see our debris...and the creature attack...and on and on...

Carruthers shivered at the thought -- then determinedly forced an inner calm.  He would not give in to panic, not this time.  He was no longer a young boy driven to blind panic by a giant octopus.  He was the captain of this ship and he meant to rescue those survivors, to save them come Hell or high...

A frantic scream woke him violently from his thoughts.  It jerked him straight, eyes shooting toward the bow.

In an explosion of white, the sea monster rose from the depths.

 Its scream was a shrill challenge that split the night.  Its tentacles reared up in undulating columns, hideous and deadly, covered with ghastly rows of suckers.  They surrounded its massive head, its eyes staring between them as if through the bars of a cage.

Seeing that nightmare vision, Carruthers felt his blood chill, his palms grow clammy, his heart leap to his mouth.

 But he didn't freeze.  Not this time.

"Fire!" he shouted.

But, just then, a vagrant breeze blew out the lighter.  The sailor tried to light it again, but the lighter was damp.  It sparked but wouldn't catch.  Carruthers saw there was no longer time.  They were going to hit the creature.

"Hard to port!" he cried, and instantly the Glooskap responded, veering desperately to avoid the terrible obstacle in its path.  But the sea monster reached out with its slithering tentacles, reached out and latched onto the bow.  At the same moment, Land finally managed to get the lighter working.  He thrust the flame to the touch-hole on the gun.

Carruthers was standing just behind him.  He was so close to one of the tentacles, he could have touched it with his hand.  For a moment, his eyes fastened on the monster's great bulbous head, a knoll-like island wreathed with crashing sea.  The huge eyes stared back at him.  They seemed to look at him and him alone.  And then, suddenly, the captain's own eyes flared with shock.

With an inarticulate cry, he knocked the sailor aside and swung the swivel-gun -- even as it fired with a deafening boom.  Flame and smoke blasted from the narrow barrel, but the aim had been disturbed and the fired nails ripped a grisly chunk from the nearest tentacle.

But that was enough.  In an instant, shocked by the pain, the sea monster reared back, pulling away, drawing off its tentacles.  For just a moment, its shrill scream overwhelmed all other sounds, then, in a fantastic torrent that leaped to meet the midnight sky, it vanished beneath the sea.  The waters cascaded down in its wake, then slowly settled, even as the battered and listing Glooskap continued on her course.

For a split second, Carruthers stared back into the darkness, wondering if he had done the right thing.  Knowing what he had seen but not entirely understanding what it could mean.

Then -- a cry:

"Iceberg!  Dead ahead!"

He whirled in shock, just in time to witness a new nightmare -- a vast and terrible blue-white mountain magically forming out of the fog.  He reacted instinctively.

"Hard to port!  Iceberg ahead!"

It was close, so very close.  For a horrible heart-stopping moment, the colossal iceberg seemed to literally surge toward them, filling their vision.  It towered against the darkness, Cyclopean, dazzling in the ship's lights.  The Glooskap struck it glancingly, sharp icy claws raking along her already battered hull.  Men screamed in horror, but not the captain.  Even as they passed, then left the iceberg behind, Carruthers found himself momentarily amazed -- struck dumb by what he saw on a jutting shelf of ice attached to the berg.

Seals -- six solitary seals floundering about on the iceberg.  Six seals whose cries even now sounded remarkably like men crying for help in the fog...

***
An hour later, Captain Carruthers stood with Bristol on the deck near the fantail.  They both stared off into the distant night, moonlight frosting the ship's wake, the fog long since left behind.  The damage caused by the iceberg had been slight; the damage wrought by the sea monster, more substantial.  They would put into Lunenberg for repairs.

"It wasn't the sea monster that destroyed the Halifax."  Bristol's voice came out of a long brooding silence.  It was part question, part observation.

Carruthers nodded without looking over.  "In the fog, they must have run full into the berg shattering the ship to pieces.  The voices we heard were just seals.  There were no survivors."

"And the sea monster?"  Bristol seemed almost fearful, afraid of what the answer might be.

After another moment of silence, Carruthers said: "We would have hit that berg too...if not for that creature.  First it tried to keep us away, turning us back twice.  The third time, the swivel-gun scared it off, but not before it diverted us just enough that we missed the berg anyway."

Bristol was dubious.  "You make it sound like that creature...saved our lives."

Finally the captain looked at him, his eyes filled with guilt.  "Not us," he said softly.  "Me.  You see, just as the swivel-gun fired, I noticed strange criss-cross marks all over the creature's hide.  I realized suddenly that they were scars, very old scars left from a net in which the creature had once been entangled long ago...until it was freed by a small boy.  You see, what I had never realized until that moment was that the giant eight-foot octopus I rescued," he swallowed and looked out over the rolling waves, "...was just a baby..."

The End.

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A Menace to Shipping is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)