I Battled An OCTOPUS For Treasure (Nov, 1939)
I Battled An OCTOPUS For Treasure
No legendary treasure was ever guarded by a more terrifying dragon than the one which the author encountered when he searched below the sea for silver bullion.
by Lieut. Harry E. Rieseberg
WHEN George Harding, an ex-diver, asked me to join him on a treasure salvage expedition I jumped at the opportunity.
I had been laid up in John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas, as a result of an accident, and upon my discharge I was eager to find any way to bolster my sadly depleted finances. Since I have long been a diver and treasure salvor, Harding’s offer was practically perfect.
The tale Harding told was one to whet the adventurous appetite of any man, much less one of my profession. He told me of a steel hulk, the liner Columbia of the one-time American Panama Mail Company, which was now lying in shallow waters off lower California with more than $100,000 in silver bars some place inside her.
She had gone down with almost a million dollars worth of silver in 1931, and salvage concerns had managed to retrieve some $700,000 of itâ€”but there was still well over $100,000 worth of silver that they had been unable to locate, and it was this that Harding intended to go after.
Our salvage ship the Carlota was a dainty, hundred-ton schooner, originally built for one of the Central American fruit traders. She carried, besides Harding and myself, a crew of eight Guatemalan natives. One of these eight was a huge 200-pound giant called Juan, who had been previously employed as a diver by one of the last salvage operations which had worked the Columbia. Juan had been located in an El Paso dive by Harding, who brought him along to show the exact location of the wreck and to be used as a diver in the attempt to recover the treasure.
Three days later, after outfitting with foodstuffs and other necessities for the passage, we cast anchor at nightfall, dodged out through Galveston bay and stood out to sea headed for the Panama Canal. For the next twenty-six days we had an exceptionally quiet voyage.
When we passed through the locks of the Canal and entered the Pacific it was asleep; but after another day a sudden wind sprang upon us with a roar. The waters were astir from Acalpulco to Point Lazaro, and we staggered onwards with whining tackle and stormsails set, till one evening we made our landfall and ran across the combersâ€”to the clever handling of the schooner by Juanâ€” into the stillness of a lagoon beyond where the wreck of the Columbia lay.
By dawn most of the crew were on deck having a look at the site. Juan was charting the area on his fingers, while Harding listened to his talk. The rest of the crew stood about gaping and showing the whites of their eyes. By and by we again got under way, with Juan at the wheel.
The set of the treacherous currents was strong, but the schooner crept slowly across the smooth water until Juan suddenly gave a shout. The kedge-anchor splashed over into the depths and the Carlota hove to, slowly circling by the head. I must give Juan much credit for that pilot work, for there close under our bows in but eight fathoms of water, looking like a solid shadow, lay the weird hulk of the Columbia. She had only a slight list to starboard, so that her funnel rose up like some barnacle-covered monument to the tenacity of the sea.
The first thing we had to do was to chart carefully and ascertain the set of the currents, and this was somewhat of a puzzle, but we soon got the hang of them. Then, by means of a warp, we slung our schooner squarely oyer the hulk. All this took some time, and it was noon before we were properly ready for operations.
Juan was to go down first. He pulled off his dirty trousers, looped a long-bladed, keen-edged knife to his wrist by a little plaited cord, settled a line around his armpits in case of accident, and quickly swung the guide-rope with its great stone weight, plumb over the schooner’s side.
He stood there a moment peering down into the water. Then he flashed over himself quickly, diving down. We looked down through the clear water and saw him alight before the open door of the steamer’s after-cabin, peering hesitatingly inside and steadying himself on the slimy foothold of the weeds and encrustations of the deck. The next moment he had passed quickly through, and from our sight.
The life-line passed slowly through our fingers; then it stopped. Suddenly we felt it alive again in our hands, and as we gazed beneath us. we saw Juan spring backwards out of the entrance through which he had disappeared. He was stabbing and slashing madly at some unseen enemy! While we continued to stare downwards arms with great saucer-like suckers, resembling giant leeches, reached dartingly out and laid hold of him. These he severed with his knife, leaving their distal ends still clinging tightly to him as he leaped frantically toward the surface.
By this time we were hauling desperately, and the big native came up to the surface with a rush. Down below something big was moving, for wicked bubblings broke about Juan as we hauled him aboard the schooner. We laid his big brown body on the hot planks of the schooner’s deck, forced the salt water out of him, and poured a heavy “shot” of potent brandy down his throat. Then we poured fresh water on the suckers of the detached tentacles of the octopi, which will always make them release themselves even after death.
Presently Harding called me, saying, “Juan’s come around a bit, but there’s no mistake he’s had a run for his money. He says that there are a dozen or more of the loathsome creatures down there in that cabin, and that he was carving off the tentacles of a lot of small ones before the old boss-one chased him to the entrance opening. He wouldn’t go down there again for any amount of money, and there isn’t one of the others who will go down now after that experience. I can’t very well blame any of them; I wouldn’t go down myself. You can call me a fool, if you like, Lieutenant, for I shall lose plenty of money over this job, but I’ve got a wife and boy, and I cannot take any chances. That octopus has certainly put a spoke in my wheel, left me high and dry.”
“George, I don’t know but that I’m more of a fool than you seem to think yourself,” I answered.
“What do you mean, Lieutenant?” asked Harding in surprise.
“Just this, George,” I answered. “I mean to see this thing through one way or the other. I’m going down into that cabin to find out how things are, and I’ll have a cut at that treasure if it kills me!”
“Butâ€”” started Harding. “There’s no ‘buts’ to it, George, and it’s no use shaking your head; I’m dead set on it!” I said. “Now, you bring up the diving suit from below deck, and get it ship-shape while I have a little talk with Juan. And, George, get me that old German war-bayonet hanging over your bunk which you picked up somewhere in France; have it sharpened immediately, to a razor-edge. I mean business.”
I entered the fo’castle and found Juan lying on his back in his bunk, looking as yellow as a stale egg even through his brown skin. He was still so stunned and dazed from his experience that it took me nearly half an hour to get his story out of him.
The huge native Guatemalan related how, upon peering in at the entrance of the cabin, he had seen the strong-box which he believed held the remaining treasure of the ill fated Columbia, and which had been overlooked by the former divers, lying against the wall at the farther side, with a length of chain about it. He had entered, and was just about to slip his line over the chest when strange shadows became very much alive. Scores, it had seemed to him, of angry eyes flashed about him, and something moved, quickly, though there was no sound or light to see what it might be.
Then, suddenly, huge, horribly nauseating tentacles laid hold of his arms and wrapped about his waist. He severed one of them that had held his left arm, and quickly transferring his knife to the left hand, slashed through the one which was grasping tight to his right. He then hacked and slashed away at those which had fastened to his body, meanwhile gradually and slowly backing toward the opening entrance of the cabin. He remembered nothing more until he came to himself on the planks of the schooner’s deck, after being raised from out of that death trap.
Leaving Juan to rest after getting these details from him, I went back on deck, where I found Harding fumbling with the divingsuit.
As I approached he looked up at me and muttered, “You’re not going down, really?”
“You bet I am,” I said. “I mean to get some of that treasure if there’s any there. George, I need the money!”
“You cannot know what you are up against,” he burst but. “I was looking down there at that entrance and saw the big fellow clearlyâ€”his tentacles are at least ten or twelve feet in length, and that parrot-like beak of his is gruesome looking. I will swear his eyes were six or seven inches across!”
“You might have kept that information to yourself a little longer, George,” I answered. “Anyway, I’m not going to let him scare me, however big he may beâ€”one or the other of us is going to meet a little trouble.”
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon the diving-suit was finally in shape for use. I sat there on a coil of rope for awhile, with the suit’s helmet on my knees. Rising from my resting-place I let the men get me into the gear, and I will admit that I took a long look round me before they screwed me in. Then, as I felt a sudden sort of fear settling on me, I just shook hands with George, and they screwed the helmet on tight. I was ready.
I had two good men standing by to pump the air down to me, and soon the pump began to pant in my ears. With a heavy knife strapped round me where I could easily get at it in case of emergency, and the sharpened German war-bayonet in my right hand, I quickly went over the side of the schooner. Down, down, down I wentâ€”the water closed over my head with a roar as I went sliding deeper and deeper down the guide-rope. There was a sort of thick silence, through which the air-tubes sobbed and whispered, and then, in another moment, I felt beneath me the soft thick weeds of the Columbia’s deck.
Off I went, making my way along the long sweep of the bulwarks to the cabin, a school of small fish scurrying before me like a flight of birds. A small octopus went darting by in front of me, shooting itself along with its powerful suction pump at incredible speed. My heart seemed to swell up, and the blood was boiling in my ears as I cautiously crept closer and closer to the entrance. My eyes soon became accustomed to the murky light, and leaning forward at the opening, I saw the small strong box which Juan had described, and which supposedly contained the treasure which we had sought. To the right and left lay solid shadows.
My plan was to creep forward, with as little stir as possible, and quietly get my line settled about the box before the lurking creatures might realize my presence. Then, if the big fellow, or any of the others showed fight, I should have to meet the conditions as they arose. This I hoped to take care of with the old war-bayonet.
I had a line with a running knot all ready, and with the aid of a long bamboo pole, which had been weighed and passed down to me, I cautiously stuck my nose through the open cabin entrance and settled it gently over the strongbox. Then, I cautiously worked the line down the sides of the box, and pulled it taut. In making the pull on the line I put my feet against the lintel for leverage, but the woodwork was slimy and my foot slippedâ€”and I slithered inside the cabin’s entrance! Quickly I scrambled up again to my feet. Then my flesh began to creep, to tingle, for some huge, dim shape crowded out the light.
Fierce eyes burned in circles round me and repulsive, slimy tentacles shot out and just missed their grasping hold as I jumped back in an agony of desperate fear. For a brief moment, quick as I was, one hideous tentacle laid hold of my bare hand, and I felt the powerful suckers stick like giant leeches. Desperately I commenced to stab at everything within reach with the war-bayonet. I jabbed it full into the face of one creature and saw it fall apart. Then I got a glimpse of the huge monsterâ€”the discs on its tentacles were as large as saucers each with a power of, perhaps, some nineteen pounds; and the creature’s eyesâ€”if any painter should wish to picture the Devil, he would become famous if he could reproduce these most sinister, terrible eyes which were so awful to look upon in that gloomy murk.
Suddenly, I commenced to gasp for breath. Then a million little sparksâ€”like miniature starsâ€” burst in front of my eyes. I realized at once that my air-line was foul somewhere.
I was a gonner sure this time! I knew no more .. .
When I recovered consciousness I was lying on my back on the planks of the schooner’s deck, with the good blue sky above me and the warm sunlight still about, yet it was late now. Opening my eyes and looking about, I suddenly realized where I was and thought of the treasure. I jerked out at Harding, “Have you got it, George?”
“Lie still and rest,” he said in answer to my question. He was white to the ears. “That was a close call for you, old chap.”
“Never mind about me,” I told him. “I’m all right, but the treasure is what I’m interested in now. Start raising the line, and that strongbox will come with it. There’s no strength in the rotting cabin roofâ€”it’ll come through as sweetly as a cork out of a bottle.”
Harding wouldn’t listen to me at first, but after a time and much persistence on my part, he gave the order to the men to pull on the line. They hauled it in and when they saw the strong-box emerge from the opening of the cabin, it hesitated, then stuck. They then warped the schooner close, rove the line through a block at the yardarm, and laid on once more with all their strength.
The line tightened, and with a rush up came the strong-box through the roof of the cabin. In another few minutes it was lying on a pack of spare canvas on deck.
Harding turned to me. “I guess we’ll clear out now, Lieutenant.” Then he added, “You can tell us all about it after we get under way.”
Within a short time the Carlota was drawing across the water toward the gaps in the surf that marked the channel. Juan had to handle her tenderly, for the Pacific leaped at us with volleys of foam and thunder; the schooner’s bows bent down to the catheads, drew up again and again, ducked; then she sprang like a fawn out into the open seaâ€”northward bound.
Ten days later we entered the Golden Gate of San Francisco.
Harding did the straight thing by me; for, upon opening the strong-box, instead of the remaining $100,000 which it was supposed to still be in the Columbia’s hulk, our prized strong-box contained but $5,000 in silver coin and some few gold pieces. My share of the reward amounted to $2,000 after expenses and other shares were taken out and accounted for.
However, one of these days I intend to go back and have another try at the treasure of the Columbiaâ€”a treasure that is guarded by a giant dragon no less formidable than those of myth and legend.