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Authors: Alan Evans

Thunder at Dawn (9 page)

BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
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Smith could barely hear the words. He hesitated, weighing this new factor against his instinctive judgment of the man, weighing the possible gains against the possible loss if they went on, and in that mental exercise not overlooking the fact that loss might be his life. Then he decided that basically the situation was unchanged. He said, “I told you I have to know where that collier is. I think you can fly it.”

Bradley sighed. “Look. Have you ever flown in one of these things?”

“Once. A chap in the Naval Air Service took me up for a spin. Strictly against the rules, of course, but Tubby didn’t worry much about that sort of thing.”

Bradley said, “Uh-uh. So you had a joy-ride with friend Tubby. Great. He sounds like a great guy. But the way the weather is today —”

Smith said, “He was. I saw him killed a couple of days later, trying to take off in bad weather. Total loss.”

Bradley turned his head slowly to look at Smith. “Weather like this?”

“Yes.”

“You’re hell-bent on this.” Bradley whispered it. “But you know the odds and you think it’s worth the gamble?”

Smith nodded. “You’re a gambler.”

Bradley said bitterly, “It takes one to know one, Admiral.” And: “‘Can’t do any harm.’ Ha!” He splashed back to the shore where Sarah Benson waited, lifting the long tail of his coat as he went and digging into a trousers pocket. He brought out a wash-leather bag and dropped it, chinking heavily, into her hand. She held it, feeling the weight of the silver inside. He said, “The Bradley fortune. Hold on to it for me. And get the hell out of here as soon as we’ve gone.”

He stared at her seriously a moment then turned and splashed back to the seaplane and climbed into the cockpit, kicking his waders off into the water. He pulled on his boots and took the paper Smith handed him and looked at the course Smith had pencilled on it. He heard a voice outside himself calling instructions to Smith on the swinging of the propeller and was aware that his hands and feet and eyes were going through the cockpit check, the old routine, the movements of a puppet that he watched perk to the strings. He noted that the wind would be right on the nose so he could take off straight over the breakers and into the wind and the breakers looked huge out there away from the shore. This would be bad enough but coming back would be a bloody sight worse. If they came back.

The cloud ceiling was a thousand feet at most and there would be better than two hours of daylight left, maybe three. The rain was flighting heavier on the wind and looking out across the bay he could see the squalls running in, the rain painted dirty grey. He could see the ships and the squat, old, gun-bristling bulk of
Thunder
and the smoke that wisped from her funnels confirmed the direction of the wind for him.

He closed his eyes and saw the sea blurring below then rushing up at him and felt the shock and then the agony as the flames burst around him and the sea took fire — and he opened his eyes as the engine fired, caught and raced. Smith scrambled around and up into the observer’s cockpit forward and Bradley hated him. If Smith had not come this would not have happened. He could have been telling himself still that sure, he could do it if he wanted to and if the chance was there.

He could have been alive.

Smith was mad.

Oh
.
Sarah!

*

He ran the engine up for several minutes, sitting there, staring out to sea across five thousand miles. The snarl of the engine drowned the sound of the wind and the surf. It would be clearly heard, unmistakable, in Malaguay and Richter would already be running. The seaplane tugged on the anchoring line, fretting to be away.

Smith dragged on his boots and turned to stare at Bradley. The pilot had pulled his goggles down over his eyes and the light reflected from them so Smith could see no expression in the eyes nor was there any on the face below the goggles. Smith turned away.

Bradley knew he could wait no longer. He lifted his hand and felt the jerk of release as Sarah Benson set the seaplane free. They raced out across the breakers and he held the stick back so the floats would not dig into the breakers and cartwheel them, and with these big waves that would be easy. It was a question of getting the speed and judging it right and if you were wrong it was —
bang
! But the speed built up, he eased forward and the tail lifted and now the floats were smacking across the tops of the breakers with great thuds and the spray was bursting, tossed on the slipstream. He pulled back and they lifted off. The ships fell away beneath the lifting nose that pointed at the sky and all the sky was his.

Something burst inside him and the seaplane rocked and yawed under his hands until he brought it under control, the master once more. He reached forward and nudged Smith who had been peering over the side, seeing
Ariadne
slip beneath them, a pale speckle of white faces against the yellow timber of her decks. Then he caught the movement at the corner of his eye and turned to see Bradley laughing like a maniac. Smith laughed with him.

Bradley wheeled the seaplane in a gently-climbing, banking turn then levelled off and straightened out on course just below the cloud base, at a height of a little under one thousand feet. The course was west.

It was cold. Smith was glad of the leather coat and wished fervently that he had worn sea-boots with thick stockings. He moved his feet continually to try to keep them warm. These were sensations forced upon his attention by his protesting body. He acknowledged the protest but then ignored it, had no time for it. He had flown once before and so knew what to expect but was still fascinated by the panorama opening swiftly below him like the unrolling of a huge chart. The sea was a white cross-hatching on green, the coast-line ragged brown and a deeper green and fading behind them as their course took them out to sea. The cloud base kept them comparatively low but still visibility was a good fifteen to twenty miles in any direction. At sea level in this weather he would be lucky to have half of that visibility. And they were making four or five times
Thunder’s
best speed.

He was still afraid. He remembered the crash of the Naval Air Service seaplane only too well and not only because it had cost him a friend and he knew he had few friends. But Bradley had survived a crash like that and yet was flying again. He marvelled at the man’s courage.

Bradley flew straight and level on the course for a halfhour then banked gently to the left on the first leg of a series of zig-zags, each leg ten miles long, working up the line of the course. They searched like that for more than an hour and in all that time they saw only two ships. Bradley took the seaplane down in a shallow dive to investigate each of them, sweeping low overhead and circling close, just skimming the surface of the sea so they could read the name on bow and stem. Neither was the
Maria
. But when Bradley lifted the seaplane from the sea to slip bellowing over the bow of one of them he set a seaman running in blind panic. Bradley roared with laughter.

He finally reached forward and held out a note-book to Smith. Bradley had printed neatly: We’re making about seventy knots over the ground.
Maria
could not have passed this point. Light is going. Must turn back.

He took it back from Smith and watched the thin face, pale where it was not blue with cold, for a shadow of disappointment. He saw none. Smith nodded and put up his thumb.

Smith had found out what he wanted to know but he was not happy. He had gambled with Bradley’s life because he had to, because of
Wolf
and
Kondor
, and the game was not over yet. They had to get back and Bradley was flying for their lives while Smith, the cause of it all, was a useless passenger.

Bradley put the seaplane into the turn. The period of release and soaring elation had passed. The gut-tearing terror had not returned but neither was he uncaring. He was alert to danger and there were plenty of signs. The day was dying; the sun, wherever it was behind the masking cloud, dropping down into the sea. They had an hour of daylight at best and the cloud ceiling was lowering.

They were down to four hundred feet and cloud wisped around them when the coast loomed, darkening now, within two miles of them. Bradley turned and flew along it. It would not do to miss Malaguay because that was the only place on this coast where they might put down and it was now no better than ‘might’.

Visibility fell to barely a mile with the coast-line a black silhouette against the dirty grey of cloud. Rain was continuous now, thrumming on the fabric, sluicing over them in the open cockpits. Flying was a nightmare but Bradley was unruffled, totally absorbed, except for a nagging regret that he had not found the collier; he had failed Smith. And he owed Smith so much. He held the seaplane on its course, riding the weather, eyes straining against the gathering gloom, straining even more when his watch told him the headland of the bay should be coming up. It was dusk now and they were down to two hundred feet, the coast was right under them as creamy phosphorescence of breaking seas on a rocky shore and visibility was only hundreds of yards and closing in.

He sensed the loom of the headland before he saw it and was already pulling back on the control column as the black mass rushed at them out of the rain-filled dark. The engine roared under power as he set it climbing, the seaplane seeming to stand on its tail but still the mass towered above the spinning circle of the propeller, a pinnacle. He knew they could not crest it and threw the seaplane into a banking turn that dragged them away and around the pinnacle, so close that Smith could see the thrusting rocks and the wiry scrub that grew among them and a goat that rose from them and hurled itself, terrified, down the hill. The seaplane scaled past the pinnacle standing on one wing-tip, the pinnacle slipping away beneath the floats and more rocks below reaching for that dragging wing-tip. Then they had cleared the headland, were flying level and Bradley took them down through the cloud in a shallow dive.

They burst out of it; a thinning of the murk then it was ripped into flying ribbons and they thrust through them as if they were a curtain. Visibility was instant but only comparatively good. It was still good enough to show them the water very close under them and even as Bradley eased back the stick and levelled off he had to bank again to avoid
Thunders
bulk that was suddenly ahead of them in a strung necklace of lights blinking at them out of the dusk. They skimmed past down her starboard side and Smith saw Garrick clearly, standing on the wing of the bridge and looking
down
at them. They also passed through the smoke that trailed from
Thunder’s
funnels on the wind and Bradley saw the direction of that wind and swore.

It had swung through a quarter-circle and now it blew at an angle across the breakers. The shore came up as he climbed to gain height for the turn and he saw a little group of figures outside the box of the hangar and he thought: Welcoming committee. Richter would be there, and the mechanics. If they were unarmed he would be lucky to get off the beach alive, while if they were armed —

He made the turn, swept out around the curve of the bay and came in again from the sea. Smith turned his head for a second and Bradley glared grimly and mouthed against the bellow of the engine: “Hang on!” He saw Smith’s nod of comprehension, then he was taking her down, intent on landing out in the bay, carefully clear of the wrecking shore and the waiting Richter.

He took her down gently until he could see clear water below and ahead. This was not a hatching of lines on a crinkled surface far below but the surface of the bay, close under them, waves snapping like teeth. He held her off for a second, steadying her against the wildly quartering wind, picking his place and time. Then he eased her down so the floats kissed gently and the spray flew. They were almost down, the floats flicking through the snapping teeth and Smith started to exhale, ready to shout congratulations, because although he was no flyer he could recognise a near impossible feat superlatively accomplished. Then the wind gusted and blew them over, one wing slammed into water suddenly as substantial as concrete and the seaplane twisted and dived forward on its nose.

There was a ripping of fabric and the twanging of parting wire stays. Smith had crashed his head against the cockpit coaming. Through the whirling, blood-tinged kaleidoscope he was aware that the seaplane was tipping further nose down into the vertical and only the seat belt saved him. Saved him? The seaplane was sinking, jerking from side to side as the sea shook it but settling all the time. The belt would take him down with it. His vision cleared as realisation came and he clawed at the belt. He could see the waves breaking and sucking on the fragile hull and that Bradley was out, standing with one foot on what remained of the upper wingstrut above water. One hand lifted Smith off the cockpit coaming and the other tugged at the belt with practised fingers. The belt slipped away and Smith fell out of the cockpit as the seaplane rolled, sea-thrust, over on to its back. He fell on Bradley and they went down into the watery darkness together, the seaplane slamming down over them like a trap-door.

*

The fuselage forced Smith under but he kicked and turned, Bradley beside him but Bradley was not kicking, he lay sluggish and drifted. Smith grabbed him, kicked again as his lungs clamoured for air, clawed at the fuselage and dragged the pair of them to the surface. He managed to get his head out, paddling with his feet, fingertips of one hand clamped on the fuselage and the other around Bradley so the pilot’s face was lifted back, just clear of the water. The sea slapped over them and Smith coughed and spat it out, coughed and spat again. He could hear Bradley coughing but he still lay inert, a rapidly increasing weight as his clothes took on water, as were Smith’s. The weight was dragging him down. He clawed his way, inching desperately, further up the fuselage but it did no good. The seaplane was sinking. The sea washed the blood from Bradley’s face but it oozed again from a cut on the head. Smith thought it would be all up to Garrick. God help him. The dark was closing in.

BOOK: Thunder at Dawn
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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