Log Cabin Chronicles

In a Place of Dragons

From Steel Barbs, Wild Waters
An Outdoor Life Book

JERRY GIBBS

the old legends say a lake that does not render its dead is a lake in which monsters live. It was one of the nice little bits of lore Roy Angel and the rest of the charter boat captains used to entertain their customers when the fishing was slow. The local monster made good conversation. Tourists liked the idea of there being a sort of water dragon in the lake. The real dragon in these parts came in far more familiar form. just now he was bellied up to the long bar at the Mooring Saloon, the local watering hole in these parts. The place was crowded this warm spring night in the peak of fishing season, but the high-pitched nasal voice of Vernon Barth pierced the drone of conversation:

"Well, you boys fish today?" he demanded, aiming the question at the two boat captains to his left, knowing everyone within car-shot charter boat skipper or not would have been on the water during the past eight hours. He was a big man in height and bulk, and he flipped a beer bottle back, downing half its contents after dropping the question. Roy Angel, drinking nearby with a client, saw the large ring emerald flash on a sausage-fat finger, the hand densely matted with reddish-blond hair over sun-angered, freckled skin.

The captains grunted a reply, and you could tell they didn't want the conversation.

"So how'd you do?" Barth persisted. The girl with him leaned over, caught sight of Angel, and tore her glance away, her eyes moving nervously, taking in everything, her movements quick, ferretlike. She was slim, maybe too thin you could say, but exquisitely proportioned just the same, clad in a pale lilac T-shirt and old jeans that had reached the state where they would respond to a whisper of contour.

"The fishin' weren't too bad," the nearest skipper answered Barth."Luke here did a little better than me, I think."

"Lakers?" Barth said. He slid the empty across the bar, tapped it twice, and brought out a wad of bills with his right hand. Angel took satisfaction in having got the barman's attention before he could make Barth's refill, but it soured as he caught the glitter from the big man's other hand as it scattered money. The diamond on the left fist was even larger than the emerald.

"What are you drinkin', George," Angel asked his client.

"Oh, um, well a gin and tonic, would be wonderful," said the out-of-stater."Remember, I'm paying!"

"Nice of you. The usual Rusty," Angel told the bartender. Then added,"Better hurry; Vernon's thirsty!" He cocked his head toward Barth, and the bartender made an obscene gesture before turning away.

"Yeah, lakers. Couple salmon," the first captain told Barth.

"How many you take?" Barth asked the other skipper.

"Oh, hell, one shy of a limit on both," the captain named Luke answered.

"Not bad," Barth said. He tipped the new beer and it bubbled a little around his lips. He put the bottle noisily on the bar."Took a limit of lakers and salmon," he said. He winked." Couple more. Released of course." He curled an arm like a stuffed boa constrictor around the girl.

"Did good," said the first captain. Luke said nothing.

That was Barth. You couldn't take away the fact that he caught fish. But he let you know about it whether you fished just for yourself or were trying to make a living from it. You couldn't take away any of the other stuff he had, either, the lumber business he bought right after he'd slipped into town, then the theater building along with private dwellings, the feed and grain business, the big marina, and just about everything else of value in the area. Oh, and the girl, too. He'd slipped that one to Angel only about five months after moving here. Angel glanced down the bar at Candy. She still looked good, all right. Little Candy Blais. Five months of Barth flashing his rings and paper money, and she moved right in, twenty-five years younger than Vernon, and not caring. Angel turned away quickly, squeezing his glass close to the breaking point, blood pounding in his head. Then he looked up. He stared ahead into the mirror behind the bottles at the back of the bar, his own reflection finally registering the dark, straight, slicked-back hair, deeply set eyes, face tanned, lean and a little satanic with the nearly pointed ears. Sometimes they called him Old Devil Angel. He felt the rush of anger draining.

"Hey, Roy, didn't see you down there," Barth called, lying, shattering Angel's brooding, yelling over the growing noise in the barroom."You catch 'em good today?"

Angel shook his head."Nah," he said.

His client looked at him, amazed. "Why that's not so ... he began, protesting.

"Shhh," Angel interrupted theatrically. "We don't need the amateurs tailing us to our good spots.

"Oh," George said.

Barth belly-laughed down the bar, raised his glass.

"Almost no more secret places, Roy," he grinned. "Too damned many tourists boats out there."

That there were few secret places left, was true. Before the midday boat traffic had grown, you could keep an eye out for another fisherman getting too nosy about what you were doing, and move off if he started easing in. Now with all the new boaters out there partying, hoping for a look at old Rex, anybody could move in and check you out before you knew it.

Monster fish

Rex was the name of the monster. It was short for tyrannosaurus Rex, and all wrong, for if there could have been some holdover creature from the Cretaceous Period, it was not going to be a land-bound meat eater. No, it would have to feed on plankton and vegetation. But should it care to consume them, the huge lake offered smelt and alewives, schools of them that stretched for miles.

"No way to miss you, though, Vernon," Angel yelled down the bar, giving him his shark smile. Barth owned the largest boat around, and it was yellow, bad luck yellow.

Barth nodded, accepting the comment as a compliment even if he might have understood something more in it.

"You're pretty hard to miss yourself," Barth answered. That was true, too. Angel had the only black-hulled boat, but it was the tower that really set him apart, the kind of tower that was standard on offshore saltwater sportfishermen, not a boat fishing freshwater but then, the lake was nearly like a sea. The added height of the tower gave the same advantage here as it did in the ocean. He could see birds working a long way off, or concentrations of other boats. He could see down in the clear water, too, see color changes and sometimes bottom to help him run contours or currents that fish were using.

"You doin' good enough to make a bet?" Barth asked, knowing Angel was done with that, too, even though the captain had beaten Barth about as many times as he'd lost. The girl, Candy, turned away and stuck her glass out to Rusty for a refill.

"Hasn't been a future in it for either of us, yet," Angel said down the bar.

"I been thinkin'," Barth said. 'All these years people talking about it ... so many people claiming they've seen the thing lately . . :' Barth let it hang, bubbling beer into his mouth. Nobody said anything but you could see the two captains to his left and couples on Candy's side within earshot were all waiting.

Monster fish

"Why is it," Barth continued, "that nobody ever tried to catch old Rex?"

Somebody snorted. Mostly there were grins and glasses raised to drink. Angel shook his head.

"Vernon, a smart businessman like you-you surprise me. Somebody catch old Rex and who'd want to come back to see us?" He saw Candy looking directly at him with a funny expression. He turned back to his drink.

"That's just the thing," Barth said. "We put out the challenge. We put out a price a big one for anyone who gets him. You know what that kind of publicity would do? People coming up here to try? How about that business?"

"You know the state's got a law against molesting possible lake creatures?"

"But not against studying them for scientific reasons. So we can't put a price on his head, maybe we make a cash prize for real closeup pictures verified by a couple witnesses. We'll come up with something."

"Who puts up the money?"

"Maybe the town. Maybe the area C of C. Hell, I will!" He knocked down the rest of his beer and gazed at himself in the mirror behind the bar. "Besides," he said in a little quieter voice but still so everyone close could hear, "I can catch what folks are seeing. I think I can catch the real Rex photograph him and let him go if I have to, depending on what we find the law says!"

Now that he'd gone that far, those close by stopped talking. Then Angel had to speak.

"You're crazy Vernon," he said softly.

"You want to call me on it, Mister?"

"I wouldn't waste my time on that kind of spook chase."

"You don't believe all these people seen something?"

"I wouldn't know," Angel said.

"You so sure, how about we make the bet whatever we decide the prize money's gonna be for pictures or whatever in the tourist contest. This season if I don't catch a real, living creature that looks a lot like what folks are describing as Rex, then I eat the cost of the entire prize which I'm puttin' up in the first place. 'Course if my proof is most believable, then I win the contest anyway!"

"That, I'll take you on. Wait, how much prize money you talking about?"

"Well we ought to make it worthwhile to keep folks' interest perked and bring 'cm in. I guess about five grand sounds right!"

Angel swallowed hard, realizing it was too late to back out, and nodded. Barth laughed, slapped his big hand down.

"Drinks for the bar," he roared.

And Angel suddenly realized that Barth had worked him into the bet he'd never have taken at first, but the worst of it only hit him now. The word would quickly go out that one of the top charter skippers and a resident recreational fisherman were in a high-stakes race to catch Rex. Which obviously would mean that the charter captain believed in the creature. Which in turn meant Barth had turned him into the ass of the fishing fleet. He gripped his glass, wanting to throw it in Barth's face. When he was able to speak it was in a whispery rasp.

"George," he said to his client, "I gotta go. Right now!" "Are you sure you don't want a refill?"

"No, thanks," Angel told him, standing, pushing away from the bar.

"Hey, you going already?" Barth yelled over. "Listen we'll get together and work out the details and all."

"Right," Angel said, not looking at him, turning away in disgust. He began pushing through the crowd, and suddenly the girl was sliding close to him on her way by. He was rocked by the old familiar scent she used, memories rushing back crazily. He started to speak, but she cut in on him.

"I got to talk with you, Roy," she said quickly. "I'll meet you!" Both the time and place were easy and safe. She turned away, slid through the crowd and was gone.

Alone in the night on his boat in its slip at the old dock, drinking a beer, Angel thought about sea monsters.

Monster fish

He considered the fact that every so many years, presumably extinct life forms were found in the oceans of the world. There was the coelacanth, thought gone for 80 million years since dinosaurs roamed the earth. The coelacanth, with its strange rear dorsal, ventral, and pectoral fins on stalk-like appendages, fins used to creep along the ?00-foot-deep rocky bottoms where it lived, pursued its prey, consumed it voraciously with needle teeth, spawned its young alive rather than dropping eggs. The first of those creatures taken in modern times came almost fifty years ago off the coast of South Africa, and more of them had followed. Some called coelacanth one of the greatest finds of the 20th century in the quest to learn of life's development on the planet.

Then there was the thing in the Tasman Sea. Commercial Japanese fishermen netted it, hauling the rank, rotted thing from the cool depths, and when they lifted it into the air, swinging the booms close, its decaying stench was so overpowering it was not brought aboard. The remains of the huge creature were unceremoniously dumped; but not before pictures were taken. Not before someone had braved the fetid odor and crept close to cut a specimen from the rotting hulk.

From all those things some believed it to be the remains of plesiosaurus, one of the long-necked, small-headed creatures with paddle-like limbs that swam the oceans during the age of dinosaurs. Even the news magazines had run stories about it.

Angel finished his beer. He checked his watch. And then the situation with Barth flooded back and the hatred rushed through him, finding momentary focus on the empty beer can, which he crushed as though it were paper. He flung it across the cockpit, stood with fists tight against his thighs. He forced himself to stop, then went below. In three more hours he would meet the girl.

The abandoned road cut along a field edge, burrowed into a stand of aspen, then reappeared in a small clearing that faced north, giving a long view of the lake by day. In the darkness a few lights glittered on island camps and along the western lake shore. Angel left his car, walked quietly in low grass toward the cellar hole where a farmhouse once stood. Three fieldstone foundation walls were still intact, banked by earth; the fourth was down. The opening yawned darker than surrounding land contours, like the entrance to some nether world. The girl slipped from the black opening, a floating specter heading directly toward him.

"Thanks for comin'," Candy murmured, moving to him, standing inches from him.

The scent of her perfume assailed him again. So easy now to reach out for her and slip back into the way it had been before.

"What's going on?" he asked her.

"That was it, Roy, the way he set you up like that. I ain't going to be part of that kind of thing no more."

"He's a real sweetheart!"

"You don't know half You don't know what he's doin' to people around here!"

"You know how to pick them."

She didn't say anything and he stood there, seeing her shoulders shaking slightly.

"I can't get out," she said finally. "He knows about me all that stuff from before."

"What the hell did you tell him?"

"Nothing! He knows!"

Angel started to say something, but she cut in.

"I'm going to make it bad for him, Roy. Startin' right now. You got any idea what he's planning on that bet he's got with you? What he's gonna catch?"

"Sure. Money. It's just a gimmick."

"That's only half right. He's gonna catch something and show it. He told me. He's drunk as hell again tonight. He says there's sturgeon -- big stuff. And that's what folks are seein'. He found a place. He says they're lake sturgeon, and not coming in from sea but spanning there on ledges because there's no rivers they can go up any more."

"He tell you where?"

"He says he knows for sure!"

She explained the place to him, the ledges and the great drop, and he knew the place before she had gone very far.

Monster fish

"Long as I fished this lake I never saw any sturgeon," Angel said. "But I always thought that might be it, if they come up near the top ever and break surface swimming. Now this dude just comes in and finds them or thinks he has."

"He's been divin'," Candy said.

"What's he planning on?"

"Going to catch one. Said they'd take meat scraps or crawlers in a glob like your fist on a big hook if you laid the bait so it sits on the ledges where they work along suckin' up stuff. He said they're like vacuums with a mouth that comes out like a tube." She shuddered, then continued."Said if that didn't work he'd spear one."

"Either way it's illegal as hell!"

"What would he care? He'll take a picture or make me take a picture, and dump it back. All he has to do is say he caught it by accident. If he has to depend on pictures, he'll wait till he's brought in all the tourist bucks with the contest, then trot out those pictures and claim the money from you. He says them fish are up to maybe eight feet long!"

"That's no Rex, is it."

"He says when they swim along the surface they leave a long wake, and people think they're lots bigger."

"If you're not after monsters, those things are plenty big enough. Couple hundred pounds, maybe three hundred at that length."

"If he gets one and a picture, he could convince enough people and win that bet, Roy. You got a spare five grand?"

He laughed sharply.

"You could lose your boat; he could have it held!"

"Bet's not a legal contract," he said, knowing that the pressure from the publicly made bet would be almost as binding."You know when he's going to start fishing for those things?"

"I can let you know. I think in three or four days!"

"I guess I'll have to pay Barth a little visit when he's doing something like harassing an endangered species!"

"What are you going to do?"

He was silent a moment.

"Depends on how things go. I know what really ought to be done with him. How does any of this help you?"

"Anyway I can get at him," she said, "I will!"

She leaned slightly closer, tilting her head up toward him in the dark, then placed both hands palm forward on his chest for an instant before turning away.

"I'll let you know," she said, and then she was gone into the night.

The storm began toward dawn. The midmorning light was as weak as it had been at daybreak. Great ugly clouds the color of bruised flesh tore across a pewter sky. The lake surface was an endless expanse of rollers, running close, breaking and building again, and finally crashing into the sea walls protecting the city. The rain pounded the earth and hurt bare skin. It was a cold spring rain, made colder by the wind. Tourists huddled around the space heaters or small fireplaces in their rental cottages or came to town trying to find something to do.

At the pay phone outside police headquarters, reporter David Flynn was trying to talk to his editor on the large city daily on which he worked. He was a tall young man with bright red hair and pale complexion. He wore a yellow rain suit and low rubber boots.

"Yeah, it's a tourist promo," Flynn yelled into the phone. "No release out on it yet, but they're dropping-get this five grand on anybody comes up with good shots that prove the thing's real. Nobody says who judges the pix are good enough or prove anything. Yeah, a human interest piece. Lotta locals claim they've seen it. Oh yeah, the guy putting up the money claims he can catch the thing. Local fisherman's trying to beat him or something. It's raining like hell; can't do anything else. This doesn't count as vacation time, then, right?" He grinned, rainwater running from his pointed nose.

Flynn hung up, rubbed his hands together, blowing on them for warmth. The rain came hard again. He turned, headed back down the street to the diner where the coterie of regular coffee drinkers who had told him about Barth's promotional brainstorm were holding forth at a corner window table. Should be easy to get some names from them, he thought. Names of residents sure they had seen something. Check the local paper for old stories on the thing. Maybe wrap it all up before the sun starts shining again.

"Why'n hell can't you wait 'til it's done raining?" the girl complained. She carried a load of equipment across the open gas dock at the marina Vernon Barth owned.

"Got to get going, sweetie," he said. "Just dump everything in and get your butt in after it!"

He finished pumping gas, jammed the pump hose into the attendant's hands. "Here, let me sign that ticket so your boss won't think you're stealing," he joked. The gas dock was also owned by the marina.

Candy Blais ducked into the cabin out of the rain, looking for a towel. She caught herself from falling as Barth gunned the engine, cut the wheel hard, and headed up the lake into the storm.

They were alone in the driving rain. Neither shore was visible in the gray curtain that surrounded them, and Barth kept well out in the long narrow lake, using his compass to steer, squinting ahead for looming hazards. His navigation skills and sense of place were good. When he slowed the boat and began creeping toward shore, the spot he wanted was perhaps 250 yards distant. He stayed close enough to shore to see it in the rain and pale gray light. The wind had dropped but the rain still fell.

"C'mon out here and steer sweetheart," he yelled suddenly. The girl obeyed, pulling her rain jacket closed.

"Just run this distance from shore," he ordered. "I got the speed set!"

He went to the ice chest and took out bulging packages wrapped in waxed butcher's paper. He ducked under the protective overhead, removed a clutter of odd-looking terminal tackle from a locker. He separated sections of newspaper from a short stack of them in the locker, then turned for the packages. He opened them over the rigging table's sink. The girl looked over and was almost sick.

"My God, Vernon!"

"Pig guts, chicken guts, cow guts," he said. "Got to feed old Rex!"

He wrapped double handfuls of the entrails in sections of newspaper, closed the paper, forming little sacks, and wrapped wire around the sack necks. The wire of the sack was attached to a three-way swivel which was also connected to a free-swinging, heavy saltwater pyramid sinker.

"Steer right more," he told her, squinting at some shore mark known only to himself. "Now kick her into neutral."

He clipped a snap at the end of a heavy braided line to the swivel's free eye, waited for the boat to slow, then began lowering the rig. "We're right on," he said. The moment the little bag of animal offal touched the shallow ledge, he jerked hard on the handline, causing the free-swinging sinker to work on the now saturated newspaper. He jerked several more times, knocking the paper sack against the ledge, then quickly brought in the line. The torn newspaper was empty of its repulsive contents.

Monster fish

"There you go," he told her. "Leave a little snack down there for old Rex. Leave a lot of little snacks. All along the shallow ledge. Then we run the next deeper shelves," He grabbed another newspaper sack and motioned her ahead.

"Those sturgeons are gonna have some feast," he said over his shoulder. "Just cruise the shelves with those big old tube mouths extended like a section of empty intestine, suckin' up those nice juicy guts." He smiled imagining the girl's disgust.

"Just what are you going to do?" Candy said.

"Well, catch one, sweetie. I understand it's not permissible to kill one of the things, so we'll just catch one and get his portrait before we put him back!"

"Suppose they don't bite?"

"Oh, that's no problem. No, not at all. In that case I just go down and make a call on them, and tickle one of them with this." He went into the cabin and emerged with an underwater spear gun.

She glanced at it, then quickly turned ahead.

"I got a special release head on this shaft," he showed her. 'And two T-barbs. See how they curve back when they open? Once that point is in, the shaft breaks free, see. And there's just no way that head will pull out. just nothing that can get away."

He reached into the cabin, grabbed a vodka bottle from the bulkhead rack, and drank deeply. He looked at the failing day, the rain now stopped, the lake calming.

"Tomorrow we make the contest announcement. Weather's gonna be just swell. We'll do it just after the lake festival kickoff. Maybe get hizzoner up there." He drank again, wiped his lips, grinning. "Gonna make a lot of excitement with that prize announcement. Word'Il be out in the city papers by the next day, latest. It's going to be the best season they ever saw here."

"You spear one of those sturgeon things, he's dead, isn't he?"

"Now we wouldn't have to worry about something like that if we never brought him back to dock. But you know 'bout illegal yourself, pretty well, don't you?" She sfiffened when he moved behind her. He smiled, walked back into the cabin with the gun and vodka bottle. "Why don't you kick that throttle into neutral and come on inside a little," he called to her. She did what he asked. The following morning, Barth added more of the entrail chum. The next day he was on the water before dawn. In the darkness he reached the area of the ledges and the great drop off He did not chum. With the girl again behind the wheel, Barth tended his heavy saltwater rods and matching conventional reels. It was tackle never seen, never really needed on the lake, even with the size salmon that were regularly caught, and with the new genetically altered fish that were growing even larger than the first salmon introduced.

The rods were in their gunwale holders, and Barth baited some of the large hooks with pieces of what he had used to chum as the sun heaved up all glowing red and tomato fat. Other rods were rigged with wads of fresh night crawlers pierced through the middles and run up around the hook bend to the eye one after the other until the hook was packed with the writhing creatures. The offering looked like a miniature Medusa. Candy glanced once at the living mass, then quickly turned away.

With the sun low, and Barth now at the wheel, they worked the shallower inshore ledges. There was no wind yet. They inched ahead, stopping from time to time to let the baits sit on a ledge awhile before kicking back into gear. Barth changed the entrail baits every half hour, throwing the water-soaked discards into a plastic pail he kept handy and well covered. The crawlers lasted longer.

At eleven that morning the sun was so hot that it could have been July in Georgia. They had worked all but the deepest ledge before the great dropoff, and now Barth went to his liquor cabinet. He built a tall vodka with tonic, offering the girl one.

They had eaten sandwiches, Barth keeping his glass filled, draining it steadily, then refilling it. She watched him become sloppier in his movements and speech. The ruddiness of his face was intense now, though it could have partly been from heat. They were halfway along the deepest ledge, the boat in neutral, baits on or near the unseen shelf. The lake was oily flat, and although the sun burned unmercifully upon them, a haze was building in the air, taking the sharpness from objects, turning the water gray. Sky over the distant city was smokey, as though industrial stacks billowed their poison into the air, but it was not a factory town.

Barth motioned the girl to move them ahead once more. Exhaust fumes curling up along the transom bent away as the boat rumbled ahead. And then line from one of the stem rods began going out. Barth lumbered for the rod. He slipped off the reel click, thumbed the spool lightly, then pulled the rod from its holder.

"Damn, maybe hung," he muttered. "Hey, stop till I see," he snapped at the girl. She shifted back into neutral.

Barth waited. Nothing happened. He flipped the reel into gear, started to tighten up to free the hook he believed fouled on the ledge when the line went taut and the rod tip bent down. He fumbled again for the lever and snapped the reel back into freespool. The line started out again, slowly, then a little faster, going down.

"God, something big," he breathed.

The girl stood rigidly, back to the wheel, waiting.

The line halted briefly, then started going down again. Barth engaged the reel and struck three times, the heavy mono shooting from the reel in short spurts, slipping the drag. The drag was set heavily, heavier than an experienced blue-water fisherman would have set it, but its only effect was to start whatever was at the end of the line swimming faster.

The big saltwater rod bent and stayed that way. Barth wore no gimballed butt belt, no ocean angler's fighting harness which would have seemed ludicrous here. He jammed the rod below his great belly, feeling the cross cuts of the metal butt end working on his flesh. With the lack of control, something close to fear passed through him like a running shadow. Then he bellowed at the girl.

Monster fish

"For God's sake, get those other lines in!"

Candy uncoiled toward the nearest rod, ripping it from the holder, cranking frantically. The bait came up, dancing on the surface, and she swung it in, letting the foul offering drop to the burning deck. She brought each bait in quickly, each clot of bait slapping wetly on the hot deck. She was nauseated by the stench of the rotting entrails. She opened the airtight pail cover, grabbed the leaders and tossed the baited hooks into the pail.

Struggling to keep his footing, Barth was pulled to the starboard comer of the cockpit. Line still ran from the large capacity reel. His already flushed face was now an angry red, his breathing loud. He tried to move the rod to a new spot against his body, cutting a line below his stomach with the metal butt.

"Turn us on him!" he called to the girl. "Back toward him!"

Candy ran to the helm, backing as Barth ordered, moving in the direction the line sliced through the surface. They closed quickly, Barth yelling again to stop before they overran the line. For a moment there was the illusion that whatever was hooked had stopped running, and Barth pumped quickly, gaining yardage, glints sparking from the big diamond on his rod hand as it rose and dropped with his pumping movements in the sun. But it was only the slack gained by the backing boat, and Barth's elation died. The line's movement stopped, then reversed direction, peeling effortlessly from the reel. "Can't put more drag on," he said, voice dry, his breath short. "What do you want me to do?" Candy yelled at him. She was at the wheel again, hands moving nervously, flitting from the wheel to the controls to the back of the helmsman's chair. "How the hell should I know!" Barth roared. He looked incredulously at the amount of line gone from the reel. "I can't believe this ... just follow if it starts out again." But it did not. It continued to sound. Barth held on. Finally, he saw it was lost, tightened the drag dangerously, but it made no difference other than increasing the pain from the rod butt jammed against his abdomen. The line did not break. It went nearly straight down off the stem, holding Barth up against the transom, knees jammed there, chaffing, blood pounding in his head in the burning sun.

When the line ran out, the knot held and the rod started down toward the surface. Almost pulled over, Barth reared back with his entire bulk, bending the stiff rod further, reaching up with both hands, up the rod blank. The sound of the breaking line was like a rifle shot. Barth stumbled back, lost balance, and fell heavily to the simmering deck. Candy saw the ugly bleeding cuts below his stomach when his T-shirt pulled away. She started toward him, but he waved her back, rising on his knees, gaining his feet. Panting, sweat pouring from him, he stood bent over, hands on knees, breathing hard for a moment, then straightened, his face contorted by anger. He staggered to the holder that held his half-finished drink, grabbed and downed it. She watched him, saying nothing.

Still breathing hard, he began swearing, then looked at the near shore, lining up marks.

"We hardly moved from the ledge," he said. "It didn't take us any distance -- just down!"

He turned, stumbled on the rod, groped in a side storage compartment and brought out a marker buoy. He pushed past the girl, took the wheel and headed the boat in the direction he knew the ledge to be. Freeing the lead sinker from the buoy he hurled the marker out.

"Stow that rod," he ordered, his voice hoarse. He went into the cabin. She put up the rod, and when she turned he was dragging his diving equipment from the cabin. He threw mask and fins to the deck, dropped the lead belt, gentled the tank and regulator in the shade beneath the overhead.

"You're not going down there," she started.

"Maybe more of them now," he stopped her. "Suckin' up all that good stuff I left for them."

She shuddered. "If that's what it was!"

He looked at her quickly, went to the cabin and came back with his neoprene suit and the harpoon gun.

"I got to put this on fast and get in or die of heat stroke," he said. "Gotta wear it or I'll freeze below fifty feet."

"You been drinking, Vernon, you can't dive!"

"Shut the hell up." He looked at her with his yellow eyes and she was afraid of him.

She held the tankup as he slipped the weight belt beneath it, spit dryly into his faceplate and leaned backward over the side, crashing to the water. He cleared the mouthpiece, air hissing through the regulator cleanly, slipped the mask over his eyes. He continued to stare at her, reaching up for the gun. He kicked over and descended about thirty feet from the marker buoy.

She turned, frightened, looking around the lake in the building haze, sky darkening to the west, the sun a flat, burning disk overhead. She thought to stop the engine, then worried about being able to start it again if the wind should come as it usually did in the afternoon. She grabbed her head with both hands, staring fixedly at the bubbles coming up like jellyfish where Barth breathed below.

"Oh damn, damn," she said. She looked out at the lake again, and this time to the north, far on the horizon, she saw the dark shape of what seemed to be an approaching boat.

The trail of Barth's expelled air moved to the right, bubbles starting up small, expanding as they reached closer to the surface. They came in bursts from each spent breath.

Candy stood in the pounding sun in the exposed cockpit. She stepped onto the fish box, and now clearly saw the quickly growing form of the approaching boat. It's hull was dark and above its bridge the skeletal frame of the tower was visible. She cupped her hands around her eyes, shielding them, the beginnings of a smile curling the comers of her lips.

When she looked back at the water, fear tore through her. She could no longer see the bubbles. She scanned the surface, began to panic, then fifteen feet from the boat she saw them. The exhaust of compressed air came as a cloud, not the regulated stream of bubbles, but a sudden burst of wide, silver disks of suddenly released air billowing up to the slick surface, breaking it audibly.

She glanced up quickly, seeing the running boat heeled slightly over, then straightening, skimming fast across the lake in total silence, the sound of its engine not yet reaching her, coming on as though in a dream.

Eight feet off the side of the boat Barth blew through the surface like a breaching whale, shocking her. His left arm thrust high, hand gripping the spear gun. The line tied to it went straight down, and he jerked at the gun, trying to thrust it to her, his diamond ring sparkling on its finger. His eyes fixed on hers in pure horror.

There was a droning sound in her head now as she jumped from the box, a growing drone that did not register as the sound of the approaching boat's engine.

Barth twisted his body, trying to kick closer, trying to reach her outstretched hand to give her the gun, coming up against the taut line like a tethered dog, jerking futilely at the line, the girl's hand just out of reach. Then she saw the line was wrapped around one of his legs. Suddenly he looked down, kicking again, trying to free himself. As though lifted from below, he reared vertically to waist height from the water, eyes rolling in terror, a high-pitched bubbling scream wavering past his mouthpiece, the wail of the mortally stricken. And then he was gone. "Vernon!" she screamed, her voice echoing his. Then hysterically, "Vernon, Vernon, no, oh, God, no, no, not yet!" Then her voice drowned in the thunder of the engine of the black-hulled boat that was upon her.

After working the length of the deepest ledge, the divers came aboard.

"Spook city," the older diver reported. His young partner nodded. "Maybe you can get some of the other guys who're certified to check out the rest of the area."

"What's the matter?" asked the senior trooper.

"Hard to explain," the diver said.

"Those damned eels!" the young diver exploded.

"I don't know what the hell kind of eels you get in a lake," said the older man. "By God they're huge; six, eight feet long, some of 'em. A few are big around as a man's thigh, I'd guess!"

The two troopers looked at one another.

"They're laying back up in those caves just under the ledge," the younger diver said. "Couple of them swam past, but mostly they're layin' with their heads and part of their bodies waving out of the caves."

"Yeah, there's a whole bunch of cavern mouths along there. A helluva current coming out of them," the older man reported. "But it's more than that. Funny feeling. Maybe it's the drop. You can see the slope, steep as hell, just going out of sight, and the light angling down. Hard to explain. No sign of him or the girlfriend. Maybe they'll float after awhile!"

Captain Roy Angel was working on his boat at the old docks when Flynn, the reporter, found him and went aboard.

"They still going to keep that contest going for anybody who gets pictures of your lake monster?" Flynn asked.

"You'll have to ask the mayor," Angel told him.

"What's your theory what happened to Barth?" Flynn asked directly.

"Hard to say," Angel told him. "He drank too much."

"And the girl?"

Angel shrugged.

"I understand you and he had a bet about catching this lake creature."

"That's right."

"What made him think he could catch the thing? What made you?"

"I didn't," Angel said. "He must have!"

"Maybe he did. I understand he was a diver!"

Angel nodded. "He was a diver!"

"How about the girl?"

"Diver? Not that I knew."

"Could he have found something underwater he thought was the thing, and maybe was trying to photograph it and drowned?"

"Who knows? Doesn't explain the girl, does it?" Angel said. "Now that's about all I can tell you. Got to get a few things fixed here. Got a party to take out tomorrow!"

"Okay," Flynn said, standing. "Looks like I've got a different kind of story!"

He saw that Angel was staring at him.

"It was going to be a fun story about the contest, about your creature," Flynn said. Then he climbed from the boat, went down the catwalk, and just before reaching the lot where his car was parked, he glanced back. Angel was standing in the cockpit, half turned, as if he were talking to someone in the cabin.


Jerry Gibbs has been Fishing Editor of Outdoor Life since 1973. Widely published and widely fished, he lives on a high hill near Lake Memphremagog, on the Vermont/Quebec border. Steel Barbs, Wild Waters was published by Sedgewood Press, 750 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. Joseph Fornelli did the illustrations.


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