The Silent Sea
DECEMBER 7, 1941
A GOLDEN BLUR LEAPT OVER THE SMALL BOAT'S GUNWALE just as the bows met the rocky beach. It hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, its tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When the retriever reached land, it shook itself so that drops flew like diamond chips in the crisp air, and then it looked back at the skiff. The dog barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach that took startled flight. Feeling its companions were coming much too slowly, the purebred tore off into a copse of nearby trees, her bark diminishing until it was swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour's row off the mainland.
Amelia, cried Jimmy Ronish, the youngest of the five brothers in the boat.
She'll be fine, Nick said, shipping his oars and taking the boat's painter line in his hand. He was the eldest of the Ronish boys.
He timed his leap perfectly, landing on the pebbled shore as a wave receded. Three long strides later he was above the tidal mark of flotsam and drying kelp, looping the rope around a sun- and salt-bleached limb of driftwood that was a crosshatch of carved initials. He hauled back on the line to firmly ground the fourteen-foot craft and tied it off.
Shake a leg, Nick Ronish admonished his younger siblings. Low tide's in five hours, and we've got a lot to do.
While the air was reasonably comfortable this late in the year, the north Pacific was icy cold, forcing them to unload their gear between the lapping waves. One of the heaviest pieces of equipment was a three-hundred-foot coil of hemp line that Ron and Don, the twins, had to shoulder together to get it up the beach. Jimmy was given charge of the rucksack containing their lunch, and as he was nine years old it was a burden to his slender frame.
The four older boys Nick at nineteen, Ron and Don a year younger, and Kevin just eleven months their junior could have passed for quintuplets, with their towheads of floppy blond hair and their pale blue eyes. They retained the buoyant energy of youth wrapped in bodies that were rapidly becoming those of men. On the other hand, Jimmy was small for his age, with darker hair and brown eyes. His brothers teased that he looked a lot like Mr. Green-field, the town's grocer, and while Jimmy wasn't exactly sure what that implied, he knew he didn't like it. He idolized his older brothers and hated anything that distinguished him from them.
Their family owned the small island off the coast and had for as far back as their grandfather could remember, and it was a place every generation of boys for the Ronishes hadn't produced a girl since 1862 spent adventurous summers exploring. Not only was it easy to pretend they were all Huck Finns marooned on the Mississippi or Tom Sawyers exploring the island's intricate cave systems, but Pine Island had an inherent sense of intrigue because of the pit.
Mothers had been forbidding their boys from playing near the pit since Abe Ronish, great-uncle of the current Ronish brood, had fallen to his death in 1887. The directive was as inevitably ignored as it was given.
The real lure of the place was that local legend told that a certain Pierre Devereaux, one of the most successful privateers to ever harass the Spanish Main, had buried part of his treasure on this far northern island to lighten his ship during the dogged pursuit by a squadron of frigates that had chased him around Cape Horn and up the length of the Americas. The legend was bolstered by the discovery of a small pyramid of cannon balls in one of the island's caves, and the fact that the top forty feet of the square pit was braced with rough-hewn log balks.
The cannonballs had long since been lost and were now considered a myth, but there was no denying the reality of the timberworks ringing the mysterious hole in the rocky earth.
My shoes got wet, Jimmy complained.
Nick swiftly rounded on his youngest brother and said, Damn it, Jimmy, I told you already if I heard one complaint outta you I'd make you stay with the boat.
I wasn't complaining, the boy said, trying to keep from sniveling. I was just saying is all. He shook a few drops from his wet foot to show it wasn't a problem. Nick shot him a stern look, his blue eyes glacial, and turned his attention back to the job at hand.
Pine Island was shaped like a Valentine's Day heart that rose out of the cold Pacific. The only beach lay where the two upper lobes come together. The rest of the islet was ringed with cliffs as insurmountable as castle walls or was protected by submerged rocks strung like beads that could tear out the bottom of even the sturdiest craft. Only a handful of animals called the island home, squirrels and mice, mostly, who had been marooned there during storms, and seabirds that used the tall pines to rest and search for prey amid the waves.
A single road bisected the island, having been laboriously hacked twenty years before by another generation of Ronish men, who had made an assault on the island using gasoline-powered pumps to drain the pit, only to see their efforts fail. No matter how many pumps they ran or how much water they sucked from the depths, the pit would continuously refill. An exhaustive search for the subterranean passage connecting the pit to the sea turned up nothing. There was talk of building a coffer dam around the mouth of the bay closest to the pit, the thinking being that there was no other logical choice for the conduit, but the men decided the effort was too much and gave up.
Now it was Nick and his brothers' turn, and he had deduced something his uncles and father had not. At the time Pierre Devereaux had excavated the pit to hide his treasure, the only pump available to him would have been his ship's hand-operated bilge pump. Because of its inefficiency, there was no way the pirates could have drained the pit with their equipment when three ten-horse pumps couldn't.
The answer to how the pit worked lay someplace else.
Nick knew from the stories his uncles told that they had made their assault during the height of summer, and when he consulted an old almanac, he saw the men had been working during a period of particularly high low tides. He knew that to be successful he and his brothers would have to try to reach the bottom at the same time of year Devereaux had dug the pit when the tides were at their very lowest and this year that fell at a little past two o'clock on December the seventh.
The older brothers had been planning their attempt at cracking the pit since early summer. By doing odd jobs for anyone who'd hire them, they'd scraped together money to buy equipment, notably a two-stroke gasoline-powered pump, the rope, and tin miner's helmets with battery-powered lights. They'd practiced with the rope and a laden bucket so their arms and shoulders could work tirelessly for hours. They'd even devised goggles that would let them see underwater if necessary.
Jimmy was only along because he had overheard them talking about it all and had threatened to tell their parents if he wasn't included.
There was a sudden commotion off to their right, an explosion of birds winging into the bright sky. Behind them, Amelia, their golden retriever, came bounding out of the tree line, barking wildly with her tail swinging like the devil's own metronome. She chased after one gull that flew close to the ground and then halted, dumbfounded, when the bird shot into the air. Her tongue lolled, and a string of saliva drizzled from her black gums.
Amelia! Come! Jimmy cried in his falsetto, and the dog dashed to his side, nearly bowling him over in her excitement.
Shrimp, take these, Nick said, handing Jimmy the mining helmets and their satchels of heavy lead batteries.
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