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Authors: Alan Evans

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BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
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“Aye, aye, sir!”

Smith ran on and met Sergeant Burton. “All secure forrard, sir. And we’ve got all the officers, I think.”

“Keep searching. One of the officers nearly got
me
. Mr. Somers is sitting on him. What happened to yours?”

“Made fast, sir. And a mouthful o’ rope for him to chew on.”

“Add Somers’s man to your collection.”

Then the pinnace thumped alongside and moments later Wakely led his party aboard, swarming across the deck. The ship was theirs. Kennedy came over the side with his two assistants carrying the wares of his trade and they disappeared below.

Smith was not happy. That damned shot! He could not see or hear any sign of an alarm being raised, except — was there activity on
Kansas
? He could not be sure.

He made a rapid tour of the upper deck and returned to find the captive crew lined up below the bridge, officers and men, most of them still dazed from sleep, peering owlishly, shivering in the night air. Burton brought the bearded officer to join the others. He held his midriff, badly winded, and wheezed out: “I protest —”

Smith cut him short, savagely, “shut up or I’ll shoot you!”

Wakely, coming up then, flinched at Smith’s words then said, “There isn’t a safe in the Captain’s cabin, sir. Just a desk with three locked drawers.” It had been Wakely’s job to take the safe. “I broke them open and emptied them into a sack.”

“Very good.”

Rudkin, the picket-boat’s engineer, panted up from
Gerda’s
engine room. “She had steam up, sir. Could ha’ sailed in half-an-hour if she’d wanted.”

“Thank you. Carry on.”

Rudkin swung over the rail and down to the pinnace.

Smith turned to the silent master. “This ship sinks in ten minutes but you will be clear of her by then. Lower your boats.”

“This is a neutral vessel —”

“Or swim.” Smith offered the choice.

The master swallowed and bellowed an order at his crew. In German. They ran to lower the boats.

Smith glanced at his watch. They were on time, in spite of the enforced change of plan caused by the guard-boat. Just. He saw a rent in the left-hand side of his boiler-suit and used his torch to inspect it. The hole was surrounded by a powder-burn. As he switched off the torch he faced Somers. “Where did you spring from?”

The soot on Somers’s face was now striped by sweat-drawn channels. “Checking on the look-outs, sir.”

Posting the look-outs had been one of his duties. Smith said, “I mean before. When you came up from the deck like the demon king.”

“We’d run their boat right in under the stern. Some chap in the stern shouted but he couldn’t see us and went away. I shinned up a line that was hanging and came forrard and there I was.”

“Yes. And here I nearly wasn’t.”

“Sir.
Kansas
seems to be manning a boat.”

Smith stared across at
Kansas
. There was activity on her deck, tiny figures moving under the lights. But the rest of the pool was quiet, undisturbed.

Kennedy reappeared, breathing heavily, like all of them his soot-mask was lined and smeared now. “Five minutes, sir.”

“Right.” Smith turned on Somers. “Those two prisoners in the boat — return them to their friends.”

“I’ve done that, sir.”

“Then call in the look-outs.” Smith raised his voice: “Over the side, all of you. Five minutes.”

The ship’s crew were already in their boats and pulling away. The seamen and marines padded across the deck and went down. Burton swung one leg over the rail. Smith cast one final glance around the deserted deck, at the falls hanging loose from the davits so the ship looked untidy, abandoned. As she was. He hated to do this to any ship.

It was time to go.

He called to Beckett where he guarded the wireless office: “Give him the word, then it’s up to him!”

Beckett hammered on the door of the wireless office. “Abandon ship! Ship kaput!”

There was no answer, no reaction. Beckett hesitated and Smith shouted, “Come on! We can’t hang about all night!”

Beckett left his post and started towards him. He had taken only three strides when the door swung open behind him and a man loomed in the doorway pointing a blue gleaming, threatening finger that suddenly flamed and the shot cracked out.

Beckett cried out and fell forward, his face, slack-jowled in shock, turned up to Smith. The man put one foot outside the door, holding it open with his left hand, aiming the pistol with the other. Smith ran at him in black rage at the sudden attack, at himself for not, somehow, preventing it. He ran in, tugging his pistol from his belt. The man fired again, so close the flame seared the eyes but his aim was wild, panicked by Smith’s mad rush, and Smith was already throwing himself to the deck. He fell close enough almost to touch the man whose pistol waved above his head. Smith squeezed the trigger again and again and the hammer clicked on the empty chamber then fired three times. The other pistol that waved above him fired only once, the slug howling off the deck then the pistol fell, clattering. The man reeled back into the cabin. Smith crawled to the door and saw him sprawled, used his torch and saw the arms thrown wide, the eyes staring.

He turned and saw Burton bending over Beckett who was feeling gingerly with his right hand at his left side. Smith used his torch again and saw little blood. The minutes were ticking away. “We’ll look at it in the boat.”

Beckett went down on Burton’s back with his wrists lashed together around Burton’s neck so he could not fall if he fainted, but he clung on grimly. When the hands reached up eagerly from the pinnace to take him he grinned down at them, shakily.

Manton reported, “All present, sir.”

And Somers from the whaler: “All here, sir.”

Kennedy growled, “Less’n two minutes.”

“Full speed ahead,” Smith ordered.

The pinnace eased away from the side of the collier, towing the whaler again but Somers had the oars out and was working furiously. Smith saw outlined against the lights of the shore that
Gerda’s
boats were well clear then the pinnace swung around the bow of the ship and thrust out into the pool, heading for the deep-water channel. Wakely’s voice came from the bow as the pool opened out before them: “Boat fine on the port bow!”

Smith saw the lights and then made out the boat, a steam pinnace bigger than
Thunder’s
, and that it was altering course to intercept them. It was moving at speed, throwing up a big, white bow-wave. The intervening distance shrank rapidly until the hail came: “What boat is that?”

Kansas’s
pinnace. Smith answered: “
Thunder!”

The American pinnace swung neatly on her heel to come around and foam alongside a dozen feet away. A boyish figure stood at her wheel, white face turned towards Smith, as were all the other faces in her. “
What
boat is that?” As if he doubted the evidence of his eyes.

Smith repeated cheerfully, “
Thunder
/”

For long seconds the two pinnaces ran side by side as the Americans peered fascinated at the bizarre parties in the opposite pinnace and whaler. Then the explosions came, muffled, dull thumps, seeming more physical vibrations than sounds. Smith saw the collier heave and then settle. Kennedy had blown the bottom out of her. Smoke and steam suddenly roared from her funnel and she began to list. Smith said, “Very effective, Mr. Kennedy.”

Kennedy did not answer and sat stone-faced.

A voice on
Kansa
s’
s
pinnace cried, “
Jee
-
sus!
” And another: “What the
hell
?” She spun away and headed for
Gerda
. She was the last vessel they saw.

In the channel they met the flowing tide and the crew of the whaler spat on their hands and bent to their oars in earnest. With their efforts and the pinnace punching along at her best speed they passed the signalling station at Punta Negro before the dawn. Running without lights as they were it was unlikely that they would have been seen from the station but before they reached Stillwater Cove the mist swirled and curled thick and dirty yellow over the channel. They pushed through it, the look-out in the bow fanning at it mechanically as if he could cut a path for them. Now they used the compass.

The mist held them cocooned in a muffled, closed world for a half-hour, then the yellow turned pink shot with golden light as if they moved inside the silence of some church and the sun came at them through stained glass. Then they ran out of the mist and were clear of the estuary, on the open sea in the dawn’s light, and
Thunder
patrolled, cruising slowly across their course, a mile ahead. There was a ragged cheer and the men looked at each other, exhausted but exhilarated, grinning uncertainly at first but then broadly. In the light of day with their streaked faces and their hair matted and spiked where they thrust away the balaclavas now, they looked very odd. Even funny.

Someone said to Beckett, “There’s the old cow standing in for us.”
Thunder
had seen them.

Beckett had lain in a daze or a doze, he was not sure which. Now he stirred and sat up to stare at the ship. He looked back at Smith. “You should ha’ seen the old man run at that feller. Run right
at
him! And the bastard firing away like mad. But he never faltered, and you should ha’ seen the look on his face.” He would not forget it. “What daft bugger said he was windy?”

Thunder
rounded to and the pinnace ran alongside. Smith stared back at the estuary and saw the mist already shredded to almost nothing, the sun sucking it up greedily, the wind rolling it away. He could see the signalling station and no doubt they were watching
Thunder
and wondering. They would know by now of the sinking of the
Gerda
. He could see no sign of pursuit in the estuary but it was too early for the authorities to have assessed the situation, much less to react. But they would.

He turned and said to Manton, “By God, Mid, I’m famished.” He was honestly surprised at the discovery. As he climbed aboard he knew he was very hungry and very tired and that before he ate or slept he had work to do. Garrick looked relieved to see him, but not overjoyed. Smith grinned wearily at him, and at Aitkyne behind him. “A course for Malaguay, pilot, and revolutions for fifteen knots.” And: “Pass the word to Miss Benson. I would be grateful if she could spare me a few minutes.”

*

He found cheerful words of congratulation for the crews of pinnace and whaler as the boats were swung in. He received Albrecht’s report that the bullet that hit Beckett had entered his back on the extreme left side, run along the ribs and out. He would be sore and his ribs bruised for some days and Albrecht was keeping him in the sick-bay for twenty-four hours. Then the messenger returned and said Miss Benson was ready to see him and Smith walked aft and below.

Garrick watched him go then shot a haggard glance at Aitkyne, who said, “He’s got his nerve. That’s one rumour nailed for a lie. By God, he’s got his nerve.” He shook his head over it. Smith had sunk a neutral ship in a neutral port. The enormity of the offence left them silent. It was unthinkable, except to Smith. He had done it.

*

It tempered the exuberance of the crew as they welcomed back the boarding-party but still there was a lot of backslapping and Gibb came in for his share. He had been the last to board the
Gerda
and he had seen neither shooting nor fighting. Still, he had been one of them and he blushed under the smeared soot.

Rattray took no part in this. A night spent in back-breaking labour under the cursing driving of a Stoker Petty Officer had left him exhausted and filthy. He had boasted of what he would do when he boarded
Gerda
and then Smith had humiliated him and taken that green squirt Gibb in his place. He had heard Smith tell Gibb that he had done well, as he told all of them.

Rattray would get even with both of them. He was not sure yet how he would get at high and mighty bloody Smith but he would start with Gibb.

*

Sarah had not needed to be wakened; she woke long before dawn. The previous night she had watched the boats leave. Now as Smith entered and she saw the strained, blood-shot eyes in the dirty face, the hair sweat-stuck flat to his head, she asked only the one question and that was almost a statement: “You sank the
Gerda
?”

“Yes.”

She sat up in the Captain’s bed, wrapped in a silk dressing gown lent by Aitkyne. It was too large and loose but her case had held no night-clothes.

He had expected her question and she expected his. “What can you tell me of Malaguay?” Another collier lay there.

They were polite to each other, business-like. There was a working truce to tide them over till their ways should part and that would be soon. Sarah shrugged and the robe slipped to reveal a glimpse of white shoulder and a lift of breast. She adjusted the robe absently. “Natural harbour between two headlands with a muddy river at the head of it and wharves on either bank of the river. But that’s not what you want from me; you’ve charts and sailing directions.

BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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