Zurita’s ill luck - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

The master of the vessel went below, to his cabin, to think things over. It’s enough to drive one mad! he thought, pouring tepid water from a jug over his head. A sea-monster speaking the purest Castellano! What was it? The Devil’s work? Hallutination? Can’t happen to whole crews though. No two men even see the same dream. But we all saw the thing. That’s a fact. So the “sea-devil” does exist after all-however impossible it may sound. Zurita poured more water over his head and leaned out of the port-hole for some fresh air.

“Sea-devil” or not, he thought on, calming a bit, the monster appears to possess intelligence and an excellent command of Spanish. You should be able to talk to it. Suppose-Yes, why not? Suppose I catch it and make it dive for pearls. Why, a creature like that would be worth a whole shipful of divers. I’d be simply minting money! Every diver must have his fourth of the catch but this thing here’d only cost me its keep. That’d mean thousands, millions of pesos rolling in.

Zurita glowed with his vision of wealth. Not that it was the first time he had had it. Time and again he had dreamt of finding new, still untapped, pearling grounds. The Persian Gulf, the western coast of Ceylon, the Red Sea and the coasts of Australia were far too distant for him and pretty well fished clean at that. Even the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California and the coast of Venezuela, where the best American pearls were found, were too remote for his ancient schooner. He’d need more divers too. And Zurita had no money for that. So he kept in home waters. But now it was different. Now he could make his pile-once he had the “sea-devil” in his hands.

He’d be the richest man in Argentina, perhaps in both Americas. Money would pave his way to power. His name would sweep the world… But he had to play his hand careful like-and first see to it that the crew didn’t talk.

Zurita went on deck and had the whole crew down to the cook called up.

“You all know,” he told them, “what happened to those who had been spreading rumours about the ‘sea-devil’. If you don’t they’re still in jail. Let me give you a word of warning. This is it: anyone of you caught speaking of having seen the ‘sea-devil’ will be clapped in jail to feed vermin. Got that? So keep it under your hats unless you want to get into trouble.”

Nobody’d believe them anyway, not a fairy-tale like that, Zurita thought, and, telling Baltasar to follow him, went below.

Baltasar listened to Zurita’s plan in silence.

“Sounds good,” he said after a moment’s thought. “The creature’s worth a hundred divers. A ‘devil’ at your beck and call-not bad, eh? But you’ve got to catch it first.”

“A sturdy net’ll take care of that,” said Zurita.

“He’ll rip a net open as easily as he ripped that shark’s belly.”

“We can order a wire net.”

“Who’s going to do the catching? Not our divers. There’s not one in the whole lot of ‘em won’t turn yellow at the mere name of it. They wouldn’t dream of giving a hand, not for all the riches in the world.”

“What about you, Baltasar?”

The Indian shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ve never hunted a ‘sea-devil’. I expect it’ll be no easy thing stalking him, seeing as youll want him alive.”

“You’re not afraid, are you, Baltasar? What do you make of this ‘sea-devil’ anyway?”

“What can I make of a jaguar that takes to the air or a shark that climbs the trees? A beast you don’t know is terrifying. But I like my game terrifying.”

“I’ll make it worth your while.” Zurita placed an assuring hand on Baltasar’s arm.

“The fewer people in on it, the better,” he went on elaborating his plan. “You speak to the Araucanians we have on board. They’ve got more guts between them than the rest. Pick half a dozen from them, no more. If ours hold back, look about for others on shore. The ‘devil’ seems to be keeping close inshore. Well try and locate his lair first. Then we’ll know where to shoot our net.”

They wasted no time. Zurita had a wire bag net that looked like a big barrel with the bottom open made to order. Inside it he spread ordinary nets, in a way calculated to enmesh the devil. The divers were paid off. Baltasar had only managed to enlist two Araucanians from the crew. Another three he had signed on in Buenos Aires.

It was decided to start the “devil” hunt in the bay where they had first seen it. The schooner dropped anchor a few miles off the bay so as not to arouse the ‘devil’s’ suspicions. While Zurita’s party occupied themselves with occasional fishing-to justify their hanging around-they took turns in watching the waters of the bay from the shelter of some rocks on the shore.

A second week was running out but there was still no sign of the “devil.”

Baltasar had struck up acquaintance with some Indians from a farming village nearby. He would sell them the daily catch at half-price and then stay behind for a chat, cleverly bringing up the subject of the “sea-devil”. Soon the old Indian knew that they had been right in choosing the spot. Indeed, many villagers had heard the horn and seen the footprints on the beach. They said that the heels looked quite human but the toes were much too long. Sometimes they would find an imprint of the devil’s back on the beach where he had lain.

The “devil” was not known to have done anybody any harm, so the villagers had long ceased to mind the traces he left behind. Besides, none of them had actually seen him.

For two weeks the Jellyfish had kept near the bay, going on with the make-believe fishing. For two weeks Zurita, Baltasar and the hired Indians had scanned the bay, but still no “sea-devil” would show up. Zurita fretted and raged. He was as stingy as he was impatient. Every day cost money and that “devil” had kept them cooling their heels there many days now. Pedro was assailed by doubts. Suppose the creature was really a devil? Then no nets would catch him. Neither did superstitious Zurita particularly like the idea of meddling with one. Of course he could call a priest on board to bless the undertaking, but that would involve additional expense. And then, again, the creature might be some first-rate swimmer disguised as a “devit” to put fear into people for the sheer fun of it. There was the dolphin, of course. But that could have been tamed and trained like any other animal. Wouldn’t it be better to dro
p the whole thing, he wondered.

Zurita promised a reward to the first man to spot the “devil” and, tormented with doubts, decided to wait a few days longer.

To his immense joy the third week brought signs of the “devil’s” renewed activity.

One evening Baltasar tied up his boat, laden with that day’s catch to be sold in the morning, and went to a nearby farm to visit an Indian friend. On his return he found the boat empty. Baltasar was convinced that it was the “devil’s” handiwork though he couldn’t stop marvelling at the amount of fish the “devil” had put away.

Later that evening the Indian on duty reported having heard the sound of a horn coming from the south. Two days later, early in the morning, the youngest Araucanian finally spotted the “devil”. He came in from sea in the dolphin’s company, not riding it this time but swimming alongside, grasping with one hand a broad leather collar round the dolphin’s neck. In the bay the “devil” took the collar off the dolphin, patted it on the back, swam to the foot of a sheer cliff that jutted high on the shore and was seen no more.

On hearing the Indian’s report Zurita promised not to forget about the reward and said: “The ‘devil’ isn’t likely to stir from his den today. That gives us a chance to have a look at the sea-bed. Now, then, who’s willing?”

But that was a risk nobody was eager to take.

Then Baltasar stepped forward.

“I’m willing,” was all he said. Baltasar wasn’t one to go back on his word.

Leaving a watchman on board they went ashore and to the steep cliff.

Baltasar wound the end of diving cord round his middle, took a knife, seized a stone between his knees and went down.

The Araucanians waited in tense silence for his appearance, peering into the water, murky blue where the cliff cast a deep shadow. A slow minute went by. At last there was a tug at the cord. When Baltasar had been helped ashore it was some time before he could say, panting:
“There’s a narrow passage down there-leads into a cave-as dark as a shark’s belly. And no other place for the ‘devil’ to be gone to-just a sheer wall of rock all round.”

“Splendid! “ exclaimed Zurita. “The darker, the better. We only have to cast the net and wait for the blighter to walk in.”

Dusk was falling on the bay when the Indians lowered the wire net into the water across the mouth of the cave and secured the sturdy end ropes to rocks on shore. Then Baltasar tied a number of small bells to the ropes for early warning.

That done, Zurita, Baltasar and the five Araucanians settled down on the sand to await developments,

Nobody had been left on board the schooner this time. All hands were needed.

The night darkened swiftly. Presently the moon appeared and silvered the surface of the ocean. The hush of night enveloped the beach. The little party sat on in tense silence. Any minute now they might see that strange creature that had been striking terror into the fishermen and pearl-divers.

The night dragged on. People began drowsing.

All of a sudden the bells rang. The men sprang up, ran for the end ropes and heaved. The net felt heavy. The ropes tautened. Something seemed to be struggling in the net.

At last the net came up and the pale moonlight revealed in it the body of a half-man, half-beast writhing and struggling to get free. The enormous eyes and silvery scales glistened, moonlit. The “devil” made desperate attempts to free his right hand, caught in the wire meshes. Finally he succeeded, unsheathed the knife that hung on a narrow leather belt at his side and started hacking at the net.

“No, you don’t, not a wire net,” Baltasar muttered under his breath.

But to his surprise the “devil’s” knife was whetted to the task. As the divers heaved at the net for all they were worth to get it on shore the “devil” was deftly widening the gash he had already made.

“Heave-ho, my hearties,” Baltasar shouted urgently.

But at the very moment when their quarry seemed as good as in their hands the “devil” dropped through the gash into the water, sending up a cascade of sparkling spray, and was gone.

The men stopped heaving in desperation.

“That’s some knife-cutting wire as you’d cut a loaf of fresh bread,” Baltasar said admiringly. “The underwater blacksmiths must be a darned sight better’n ours.”

Staring into the water Zurita had the air of a man who had lost all his fortune at one stroke.

Then he raised his head, tugged at his bristly moustache and stamped his foot.

“But no, damn you, this isn’t the end! “ he exclaimed. “I won’t give up if I have to starve you in your bleeding cave. I’ll spare no money, I’ll hire divers, I’ll have nets and traps put everywhere but I’ll get you! “

Whatever Zurita was lacking in, it was certainly not purpose and courage. This he had got with the hot blood of Spanish conquistadors that ran in his veins. And then he thought the thing was worth a fight, all the more so considering the “devil” was not half as formidable as he had feared.

A creature that could be made to tap the riches of the world for him would repay itself many times over. Zurita was going to have it, be it even guarded by Neptune himself.