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Authors: J. Clayton Rogers

At the Midway (80 page)

BOOK: At the Midway
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On the aft wing of the bridge, Singleton glimpsed the first lieutenant out the side of his eye and rushed up to him.  "This is a great day in history, Cap
-
-
Lieutenant."

"It'll be a long day, that's certain."  The officer glanced up at the overcast sky.  "If it weren't for the weather, I'd tow it to Hawaii on the barge."

"Too much risk.  Believe me, you don't want to lose this.  Not this."

From across the water there came a series of cracks.

"Gunfire!" the startled doctor yelled.  "What are they shooting at?"

"Calm down.  It's only the funeral."

 

The riflemen on Eastern Island were not only firing volleys over the graves of marines.  All of the
Florida's
dead seamen had also been interned on land.  No one wanted the sailors buried at sea, now that they knew what the sea could dish up.

"There's the Top Cut," said Lieber, looking up from the barge.

"There's Anderson.  And all the others."

"It was a bad time."  Lieber scratched his new beard.  It had been weeks since he'd last had an opportunity to shave.  Now that the beard was in, he discovered he rather liked it and declined the loan of a razor from one of the chiefs.  "Victory is the price."

"I think I know what you mean," Hart sighed.  "And I think we lost."  He peered back at the tug.  "You think there's too much slack in those cables?"

The plan was simple.  Two sets of pulleys were strung between the outcrop of coral where the beast lay and the
Iroquois
.  The barge was anchored aft of the tug, directly under the pulley guys.

Large floats
-
-
built by the same carpenters who'd made the floats for the torpedoes
-
-
were arranged to either side of the corpse.  It would be pulled off the outcrop and semi
-
floated across fifty yards of water.

"I don't like it.  She'll be mostly underwater."

A prediction proven correct as soon as it was pulled into the water.  Only a few segments of ribcage showed above the surface.  To Lieber, it was as if the creature was slipping into its element.  That, in a new and even more ghastly guise, it would rise up to smite them all.

More shots from the atoll.  The German half expected to see Ziolkowski on the rifle range again, giving hell to his trainees.  But it was just another funereal volley.

"How many more times are they going to do that?" he snapped irritably.

The floats around the creature were bound in pairs. Each pair was held together by large swatches of canvas waterproofed with gutta percha.  The float
-
pairs formed a series of slings under the body.  Presumably, this would alleviate much of the strain on the pulley system.  But the
Iroquois
jerked violently as her hawsers took the weight.  The sea tug had two anchors down, but it was the lines stretching out to the
Florida
that kept her from reeling inland and smashing into the barge.  As it was, every few cycles the tug thudded into the fenders.  Hart and Lieber had to grab hold of whatever was at hand to keep from falling.  They were not always successful.  Both of them were coated by the coal dust powdering the width and length of the barge.

"This is bad," Lieber moaned.

"Stop fretting, Fritz.  Look…."  Hart pointed towards the outcrop.  The men there were waving for them to continue.  The lines were still secure at their end.

"Hart?"

"Yes?"

"Did you know my name is Heinrich Lieber?"

"No."  Leaning against the barge wall, he squinted aft.  "Look at that.  You think one of the floats is coming loose?"

They clambered over the side into a small boat and rowed out.  Sure enough, the stout canvas had been partly torn out of its clamps.  Peering into the water, Lieber said, "It's one of the flippers, I think.  It's hanging down
-
-
"

The twelve
-
and eight
-
inch guns of the
Florida
boomed.  The men in the rowboat darted their heads up in horror.

"It's come back."

"Or there's another one."

The shells exploded out to sea, westward.  When the spray cleared they saw a disturbance in the water.  Coming closer.

"We have to get back!"

"Wait!"  Lieber leaned over onto the float and reached down for the loose flap of canvas.  If he could only get it up to the clamp....

"Are you crazy, Fritz?" Hart shouted.  He had to keep hold of the other end of the float so that Lieber would not fall in.

There was so much weight on the canvas it was like trying to budge steel.  Lieber stretched further to improve his grip.  The stern swung out and Hart lost his handhold.  The next instant, Lieber was splashing in the water, muttering Teutonic invective against non
-
German saints and godheads.

"Grab a
-
hold!" Hart yelled frantically, holding out an oar.  "Hurry!  It's getting closer!"

"Isn't it going after the ship?"

"No!"

Good swimmer though he was, Lieber was now a thoroughly frightened man.  His coordination vanished when he heard a new sound, just under the racket of the donkey engines.  Deep and vibrating.  The ocean was boiling with life.  He took hold of the oar and Hart pulled him up to the gunwhale.  Then Hart shifted to the other side of the boat to act as counterbalance.

His hands clamped tightly next to the oarlock, Lieber had just started to lift himself out of the water when he heard splashing directly behind him.  Something banged against his legs.

"No, God no!"

Launched by sheer terror, he propelled himself athwartships, clear into Hart's chest.  By throwing him to the bottom of the boat, Hart just managed to keep them from capsizing.

There was a loud thudding against the planks.  Moaning, Leiber craned his head from his peculiar position, expecting any instant the giant head of death to appear over the gunwhale.

"Hart...."

"Take an oar, Fritz.  We have to get out of here."

"What is it?"

"Not the serpent.  Almost as bad."

Lieber pushed up onto his knees and gasped.  Sharks.  All around them.  At least a hundred deadly hammerheads.  The veteran shark
-
killer was appalled.  They had not come in with the slow, circular approach they usually employed when investigating a potential victim.  They had charged in, drawn by the blood oozing from the noisome mass under the dead creature's ribcage.

It was a colossal feeding frenzy, the freakish
-
looking hammerheads snapping at flesh, bone and cable.  In their madness, they pounded the boat again and again, unintentionally, with no knowledge of the men, the fresh meat, inside.  But if the boat tipped over the two of them would be thoughtlessly and instantly torn to shreds, like just about everything else in sight.

The boat was too small to sit side by side and neither man was willing to perch himself on the seat and take both oars in hand.  So they kneeled at the bottom and paddled canoe
-
style away from the scene.  Once away from the turbulence, they paused to catch their breath.

"Here comes the cavalry."  Hart nodded towards the
Florida
.  A boatload of rifle
-
toting marines was racing in their direction."

"No," Lieber shook his head.  "We've lost the serpent."

"No, we can--"

"They can shoot a dozen, two dozen, and that'll only make it worse.  The more blood you stir up, the madder they become."

"I've never seen sharks crazier," Hart commented.  He was staring at a hammerhead half out of the water, its jaws clamped on one of the pulley cables.  More destructive, though, were the sharks coming from below, slashing through the canvas slings to get at the meat.  First one set of floats broke loose, then another.  The pulley cables were taking on more and more weight.

"They'll have to cut bait."

A series of thunderous cracks bore this out.  The
Iroquois
was slamming repeatedly into the barge.  The hawsers reaching out from the
Florida
could slow but not stop the backslide.  If this kept up, they would snap.  Hart spotted frantic movement on the decks of the sea tug.

"There she goes…."

The pulley lines slapped into the water.  There was a loud hiss as noxious gases of decomposition escaped from the dead creature's gut.  Then the corpse disappeared completely underwater.

The men in the rowboat caught a whiff of the invisible cloud and covered their faces. "So this is 'Rotting in Hell!'"

The marines came up.  A few shots were fired, but only in anger.  There was nothing else they could do.

"Now what're we going to tell the folks back home?" one of them yelled in dismay.

Hart tossed up his hands.

 

Beck found Garrett in the night galley, sipping coffee and nursing his bandaged nose.

"The Fust Luff wants to see you in the captain's wardroom, Mr. Garrett."

"What's he doing up so late?"  Garrett pushed his mug away, but did not stand.  "Son of a bitch, just leave me alone."

"He said right now, sir."

"Do something useful.  Jump off the bridge."  He paused, then grinned up at the midshipman.  "That was one mean nigger, I mean to tell you.  He did this--"  He indicated his nose.  "--with a
jab
.  Something you couldn't do in an hour of trying."

"No, I was just trying to kill you, sir."

Garrett began to laugh, but was stopped abruptly by the pain it caused him.  "I guess you're supposed to escort me.  Then let's do it.  I know it's past your bedtime."

As they entered officers' country, they heard someone singing drunkenly down one of the corridors.

"That would be Dr. Singleton," said Beck.  "He took it hard when the sharks stole his prize."

"The big one that got away.  I'll drink to that."

Garrett knocked on the wardroom door.

"Enter."

"Good luck, Mr. Garrett," Beck smirked before returning down the passageway.

Garrett went in and closed the door behind him.  He cast his eyes around the large room where Oates had held court so many times.  Up until now, he'd been the
Florida's
only skipper.

"We're alone.  Come over here."

A globe lantern cast a cold light on the first lieutenant, who seemed to have all the ship's logs and reports spread out on the desk before him.

"You look like a clown."

"They say we look a lot alike, sir."

"Shut up, Ensign.  You sound like a clown, too."

Garrett shut up.

"I'll make this brief.  The late commander didn't like you very much.  I suppose you know that.  What you don't know is that he reserved a special deck log just on you."  He tapped a folder at the edge of the desk.  Garrett felt his heart pinch.  "I believe he had in mind a Court of Inquiry."

"Yes, sir?"

"I said shut up.  Now, let's see...."  He began running his finger down the line of entries in the open logbook before him.  "Last year... December... Number One Turret....  Ah, here it is.  'Failure to arm weapon in the face of a possible enemy attack.'  You said something about loose powder.  That doesn't seem to have bothered Oates until he caught you fishing while we were in the Observation Ward.  Then he decided to hold the powder incident against you.  Petty, wouldn't you say?  This is where it begins....  All right."  Reaching to the top of the page, he ripped it out in one swift movement.  Garrett jumped in shocked surprise.  He had just witnessed a court-martial offense.  The acting executive officer compounded the offense when he murmured, "I think we can find something a little better to replace
that
."

"Ah...."

"You were about to say something, Ensign Garrett?  Don't."  He slipped the page from the log into the folder, then handed the folder to Garrett.  "Don't thank me.  Just burn it.  I know I can count on your discretion."

"Sir," Garrett blurted, "I'm sorry, but--you can't be doing this as a kindness to me."

"Of course not.  I'm doing it for the good of the Navy.  You understand?  We go home with a poppycock story about sea monsters, Congress will never let us live it down.  And what do you think will happen to our careers?  No.  From this point on we start over.  I want a clean slate. Or as clean a slate as I can get.  And I'll need the cooperation of my ship's company to get it.  That's all.  Carry on."

At the door, Garrett ventured a glance back.  The first lieutenant was hunched thoughtfully over the bridge log, as though contemplating what pages to tear out next.

BOOK: At the Midway
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