Welcome to chapter 16 of Arena of Souls, my new, Doc Savage-style, pulp adventure. A new chapter every week! If you missed the previous chapters, you can start at the beginning here:
Arena of Souls
Chapter 16: The Reef
“We’ll drop anchor here for now.” Stone picked up the binoculars and focused on the fog-shrouded island. A solitary peak rose up above a halo of low-hanging clouds. Though the distance was not great, he could tell very little about the island. The mist that rose all around rendered visibility almost nil.
“Why so far away?” Trinity asked.
“Coral reefs. Shallow and razor sharp.”
“How can you tell they’re sharp?”
“Look over there.” He handed her the binoculars and pointed to a distant spot to the southeast.
It took her a few seconds to see what Stone had already spotted— a German u-boat, the center of its hull shredded, straddling one of the reefs that guarded the island.
“It’s facing backward, and only the center of the hull is damaged. It’s like someone picked it up and dropped it onto the reef.” Trinity lowered the binoculars and looked up at him. “How could that happen?”
“A freak wave, I suppose. No telling what the sea will do in these parts.” Stone tucked the binoculars into ther case and dropped the case into a backpack. “In any event, I’m not taking Thresher across the reefs. It would be suicide.”
“How are we going to get there? It’s too far to swim.”
“Maybe for you.” Stone winked. “Don’t worry. I have a plan.”
Thirty minutes later, they piled into a canvas raft equipped with an outboard motor. Each of them wore a Mae West— the brand new, inflatable life jackets that, when inflated, gave the wearer the appearance of being as well-endowed as the popular actress. Their provisions along with three Enfield M1917 rifles were secured in a second, smaller raft tied to the one in which they rode. Stone wore his Webley at his hip, and each of his companions was also equipped with a handgun. He didn’t know what they might face on the island and hoped they were sufficiently prepared. Had they carried much more, the rafts would have ridden too low in the water to clear the coral reefs.
He fired up the outboard motor and soon the craft was skimming across the surface of the water. The raft leapt up and splashed down as it crested each swell. Trinity threw back her head and laughed, letting the salt breeze blow back her hair. She always managed to find joy in simple things.
On the other side of the raft, Moses wore his usual, grave expression and Alex’s mouth was twisted in a sour grimace.
“Are you nervous or about to be sick?” Stone asked his friend.
“Both. I’ll feel better when we’re clear of these coral reefs.” As he spoke, Alex shot a glance at the reefs that loomed ever closer.
“Worst case, we have to swim for it. You do know how to swim, don’t you?”
“Sure. I can swim from one end of the swimming pool to the other. Think that will be enough?” Alex managed a smile.
“If not, you can hitch a ride on one of those sharks.” Stone gestured toward the island.
Trinity and Alex immediately scrambled to the front of the raft and scanned the water up ahead. Moses’ eyes grew wide and he mouthed, “Lord, save us.”
“I’m only joking. Sit back down. You’re blocking my view.”
“Joking, are you?” Trinity looked back over her shoulder. “Then what do you call those?” She and Alex broke apart. Now visible in the gap between them, three gray fins sliced through the relatively calm water behind the second ring of coral.
“I didn’t see those.” How had Stone missed them? His were the sharpest eyes of the bunch. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Those are just sand sharks,” he lied. “They won’t bother us.”
The tension drained out of Moses and Trinity, but Alex seemed to know the truth. He arched an eyebrow at Stone, but kept his silence.
“Are you sure we can clear those reefs?” Moses asked.
“As long as I choose the right time. As long as we ride a swell, we should be fine.”
“This had better work.” Trinity grabbed her life jacket with both hands and squeezed.
“We’re about to find out.” Stone gritted his teeth as he gunned the engine and took the raft up onto a high swell. He wasn’t worried for his own safety, but he was responsible for his friends and for Trinity. He reminded himself that each had come of her or his own volition. The thought was small comfort. Nothing changed the fact that they were here for him, searching for the legacy his grandfather had left him. Not for the first time, he vowed he’d do anything to keep them alive.
“Here it comes!” Trinity shouted.
The raft rose with the water, went airborne, and then splashed down hard.
Moses, his fingers clutching the rope that ran around the top of the raft, managed a grin. “One down.”
Stone slowed the raft and cut to port. The sharks still circled up ahead, beyond the next line of reefs, and he saw no harm in crossing a bit farther east. He kept his eyes locked on the coral reef, looking for a break, but he saw none. As they rode along, he realized the surf was pulling him ever closer to the island and the reefs. Time to pick a spot.
He brought the raft about and aimed for a high swell. He set his jaw and concentrated as the raft climbed the hill of water. Up ahead, the jagged reef glistened above the waterline like a sea monster’s fangs. Stones heart lurched. They were going too fast! At this speed, they’d hit the water before they cleared the reef. He let off the engine and felt the craft slow. Alex and Moses both noted the change in the engine’s pitch and looked back with twin frowns. Stone gave a quick shake of his head. They could interpret that any way they liked.
He realized he was holding his breath as the raft swept forward and then down with a splash. He exhaled with relief.
“That was close.”
The ragged sound of tearing fabric, followed by a hard tug on the back of the raft, rendered him mute.
“The raft with our supplies didn’t make it across.” Moses sprang to Stone’s side and began hauling on the rope that held the damaged craft. Stone turned to lend a hand. The load grew heavier as the small raft began to sink. When it was within arm’s reach, Moses grabbed hold of the bundled load and heaved.
Just then, the water level dropped as another swell swept toward them. With a cry of alarm, Moses pitched forward and went headfirst into water.
“Moses!” Stone snatched at the air where his friend had been an instant before, but he was too late. The swell of water lifted the raft and carried it away from the spot where their friend had disappeared. “Alex, take the helm,” Stone barked. “I’m going in.”
“He’s got his life jacket,” Alex said. “Just turn around and go back for him.”
“I don’t see him,” Trinity said. “What if his jacket was damaged?”
Stone didn’t wait around to debate the issue. His life jacket would only slow him down and prevent him from diving if need me. He stripped off his life jacket, clamped his teeth around the strap to keep it close in case he needed it later, dropped his pistol on the bottom of the raft, kicked off his shoes, and dove into water. Cool twilight enveloped him for a split second, and then he broke the surface and began to swim against the strong current with powerful strokes. He heard the roar of the engine behind him as Alex brought the raft about. Where was Moses?
He reached the spot where he thought Moses had fallen, and looked around. Nothing floated on the surface. Apparently, they’d secured their provisions well. The water below him was almost opaque. He could see only a few feet below the surface. He’d have to do a blind search. Releasing his life jacket, he inhaled and exhaled several times in quick succession, then took a deep breath, released it, and dove.
He opened his eyes against the stinging salt water, but he could see little more than dull green water and the faint glow of the sun up above. He descended rapidly and hit the sandy bottom in a few seconds. It couldn’t be more than twelve feet deep here. Why hadn’t Moses surfaced? Was he tangled in the rope?
Stone felt around for his friend or the sunken raft, but found neither. His lungs began to burn, and he headed back to the surface. He broke the water to hear Trinity cry out.
“We saw him! He came up for a second and then went back down right over there.” She pointed in the direction of the coral reef.
Stone struck out for the spot she indicated, churning through the water with all his might. Up ahead, he saw the top of Moses’ dark head bob to the surface and then submerge. Stone dove, grasping with both hands until he caught hold of Moses’ arm. He slipped one hand under Moses’ arm and swam for the surface. His efforts, added to those of his friends, slowly carried them to the surface.
As the light up above grew stronger, he felt Moses’s efforts begin to wane. He was tiring out. Stone kicked harder and the continued to rise, inch by excruciating inch. Would they make it?
And then his lungs were filling with sweet air. Two sets of hands reached out and hauled Moses onto the raft. As Alex and Trinity pulled the solidly-built man out of the water, Stone saw that Moses still wore his life jacket, and that it was still inflated. Why had he not been able to remain above water?
“Crazy son of a…” Alex muttered.
Stone saw the reason immediately. Moses clutched a backback in one hand and a sack of provisions in the other. He’d been unwilling to let them go, even if it cost him his life.
“Couldn’t…” Moses panted “lose it… all.”
“Crazy and brave,” Stone said, gripping the side of the raft while he treaded water. “Maybe I should search the bottom and see if I can’t bring up any more of our things.
“I doubt you’ll find the raft,” Alex said as he rolled Moses onto his back. “The current’s strong, as you no doubt noticed. He could have drifted a long way from where he recovered the bags.”
“True. We’re going to be short on provisions and rifles. At least…”
Trinity’s shriek cut him off in mid-sentence, and Stone whirled about to see a gray fin cutting through the water only feet from where he swam.