The Ship that Come Back
In which Old Tortoise demonstrates that a true sailorman is never at sea in the desert
PUT NOT your faith in Arabs. If Beni Kedir had obeyed orders instead of going off to a cricket fight in the servants’ lines, Tom Macferson, otherwise Old Tortoise, would not have been caught napping by Squadron Leader Oatley on his first tour of inspection.
As it was, Old Tortoise was caught literally napping. When Oatley and his minions tramped into his little office adjoining the repair shops (his job was that of civilian storekeeper at the R.A.F. station at Tirnan on the IraqPersian border), he was snoring in a deck chair On his desk there was an empty tumbler with froth adhering to its sides; also a litter of other articles of less obvious import a knife, a bradawl, a chisel, bits of whittled wood, lengths of wire and a pot of glue.
Oatley glared at Old Tortoise. He was young, efficient, keen; this was his first important command. He wanted Tirnan to be kim-blim and ’’all Sir Garnet." and he found the big elderly storekeeper with the naval beard and tattooed hairy limbs indecently exposed by diminutive singlet and shorts, a blot on the landscape.
“What have we here?” he asked the adjutant. “A superannuated stoker sleeping it off?"
“He’s the civilian storekeeper, sir. An ex-naval man, I understand. He’s been here a long time.”
“Too long by the look of him," Oatley snapped. “Wake him up. someone.”
The orderly flight sergeant shook the ive shoulder.
"Hi. wake up. The C.O.’s here.” Then, remembering the sea stories of his youth : “Show a leg !”
"Cover a leg, you mean,” murmured the adjutant.
Old Tortoise yawned, rubbed his eyes and stared at the dapper, amused young officers standing round. Then he plunged to his feet.
“Beg pardon, sir. I’ve been here since five, gettin’ things shipshape for the inspection. Must have dropped off. When I catch that bleedin’ Arab ’’
“How long have you been a storekeeper here?” Oatley cut in.
"Twelve years, sir. Ever since the Crossman Expeditionary Force occupied Tirnan. Before that I’d a job with Iraq Oilfields.”
I lis voice was anxious. He felt in his bones that the new broom meant to sweep him out, and jobs weren’t easy for old sailors to obtain.
"I see.” Oatley was saying. “You wangled the job, and have stuck here ever since doing Sweet Fanny Adams and drawing a Government salary for doing it. The age limit for civilian storekeepers attached to the R.A.F. in Iraq is fifty. How old are you?”
"Forty-eight; I’ve two more years to go. An’ let me tell you this, sir” Old Tortoise’s temper was rising—“you may think I'm t(x> old for this job, but you won’t find a younger man to do it better. I know' the country from Basra to Mosul like the palm of my hand. I’ve picked up Arabic an’ I know how to handle Árabs. What’s more. I can stand the climate better than any young fellow out from home. Before you came there weren’t any complaints about—”
"Well, there are complaints now,” Oatley said coldly. "I want a younger, more up-to-date man as storekeeper. In my service we've no use for dugouts. You’d better go on pension if you're eligible. By the way, what's this trash?”
Old Tortoise flushed.
“It's a model of the first ship I ever sailed in. The Mary Jane of Bristol. A windjammer. One of the last of 'em— more's the pity.”
“A windjammer!" Oatley’s voice was incredulous and amused. "Well, I think that settles it. Sailing ships are obsolete, and I'm afraid you are too. I’m going to ask Bagdad headquarters to relieve you. And now I’ll have a look at the stores.”
The stores proved to lx perfectly correct, and the store huts as neat as a battleship’s deck. But that did not alter Oatley’s opinion of the storekeeper. To Oatley he seemed
as out of place in Tirnan as a sailing ship among armored cars and airplanes.
nPIIAT night Old Tortoise exceeded his usual allowance of beer. He felt he needed heartening. And he heartened himself so successfully that the spirit moved him to pay a call on the R.A.F. canteen.
With the preceding squadron he had been highly popular. The young aircraftsmen and mechanics had been delighted to buy him beer for the sake of hearing his yarns. They had ¡laid him the respect due to age and experience, and in return he had given them much useful information about the country.
But these newcomers, new' from England and without a service ribbon among the lot of them, didn’t seem to want any information. They made it clear to Old Tortoise they knew much more than he did; that he was a bore only fit for a war museum. The story of his having served in a windjammer had gone the rounds, and was the cause of much humor at his expense.
How many weeks had it taken to sail from England to France, they asked him? Could you get out and swim if you were in a hurry? Did they keep oars handy in case the wind dropped. How did it feel to get your whiskers caught in the rigging?
“Never went up the rigging,” growled Old Tortoise. “We had monkeys trained to do that.”
"Monkeys?” someone repeated.
“Yes. monkeys. Dressed in pretty little sky-blue uniforms. We used to fly ’em up in kites, with spanners tied to their tails. Thought they knew everything, those monkeys did. Cheeky lot of young—”
A big rigger gave him a push.
“Better get out. You’re a civilian and have no right in here. Go and rub some of the barnacles off in the sand.”
It was the word “civilian” that stung. From a young greaser who’d never seen a shot fired! Old Tortoise suddenly saw red.
Iraq, even more than India, is the land of explosive tempers. His still formidable fist shot out and the rigger went down. The man was up in a second, breathing beer and vengeance.
"Good mind to kncxk your head off for that, you daft old was-bird !”
"Was-bird, am I?” Old Tortoise roared. "I’ll show you who’s a was-bird. Take your tunic off !”
“You’re too old.”
Old Tortoise charged at him. Too old, indeed! He’d show these young smarties something.
Chairs and tables were pulled aside and a ring was formed. The rigger was grinning. He was a boxer of repute and in the pink of condition. If the civilian wanted a lesson, he’d come to the right shop.
In a flash he was inside the older man’s guard. Left, right, left. Three stinging blows that drew blood. Then a punch to the solar plexus that made Old Tortoise grunt. The rigger danced away, and then came weaving in.
Ouch! It was as if he’d run against the buffer of a locomotive. All Old Tortoise’s weight and pent-up fury' had been behind the blow. Had it landed an inch higher the light would have been over.
As it was, the rigger took the full count. While men shouted and Old Tortoise pawed above him like a war horse, he lay relaxed, his eyes on the ceiling. He was angry. He was going to give the old was-bird pepper.
The end of the round helped his recovery. With his head
sluiced and clear, he danced back to the attack. But having felt the weight of Old Tortoise’s arm, he was more cautious.
He proceeded to administer the pepper. He was a swordfish darting round a whale; a mongoose playing with a cobra. Crouching and weaving, he danced round the older man, planting blows where he wished.
Rivulets of blood streamed dowrn Old Tortoise’s face and torso. His chest heaved, there was a choking pain in his throat. Worst of all, he knew he was being made to look ridiculous.
Sheer pride kept him on his feet. For the honor of the Old Order, he must put up a show before these youngsters.
Through a mist of blood he glimpsed the bobbing target that was the rigger’s face. Now ! He loosed his broadside— a whizzing uppercut charged with such weight and fury it might have killed a man. But it missed by inches. The rigger had watched it every inch and had sidestepped with contemptuous ease.
As Old Tortoise floundered past, he fired his broadside. A devil’s tattoo of punches and jabs with vicious tw'isting knuckles that tore the skin. And then a kidney blow that would have had him disqualified in a proper bout.
Old Tortoise gasped, his guard dropped. The rigger swung at him as if he w'ere a punching ball. The old fellow rocked before the storm like a great, battered, waterlogged ship that refuses to sink. He wouldn’t go down. He had a feeling that if he went down he w'ould never rise again.
Battered, bleeding and indomitable, h rushed at his smiling adversary. His head was down, his huge arms
drove like pistons. This was his last effort. If it failed he could do no more.
Cool as a matador facing a charging bull, the younger man awaited him. He was smiling, collected, almost unmarked. And even as a matador steps between the plunging horns and drops his swordpoint as gracefully as a kiss on the fatal spot, so did he glide through Old Tortoise’s guard and deliver the knockout. A beautifully timed uppercut to the angle of the bearded jaw. And Old Tortoise went crashing down like a felled oak.
He woke up in his own bed. An aircraftsman offered him a drink.
“Bad luck, old-timer. You must have been nuts to take him on. A chap of your age! It’s time you chucked fighting.”
“You’re right,” Old Tortoise muttered with watering eyes. “I’m finished; I realize that now. Better pack up and climb on the shelf. My day’s donesame as hers.”
His eyes went to a photograph of his first love, framed
and hanging above his bed. The Mary June of Bristol. A noble ship, now obsolete and forgotten save by the men w ho’d known her in her days of greatness.
CQUADRON LEADER OATLEY had delayed sending ^ that report to Bagdad headquarters. The fact was he had more important things to worry about than elderly civilian storekeepers.
There was plenty to worry about. The district around Timan from the Zab Valley to the Luristan Highlands was bubbling with sedition, avarice and religious hatred.
Oil was the prime cause of trouble; it usually is in the Middle East. You can’t bury a few hundred-odd miles of iron pipe under a few feet of sand trodden by the feet of the most? predatory race in the world, and expect the stuff to flow through without hindrance. Not even when you post pickets of Kurdish gendarmery at the pumping stations and keep patrols of Assyrian cavalry riding in between.
In fact, the presence of Kurdish gendarmery and the Assyrian cavalry was an added temptation to the Arabs. They carried rifles, and Arabs, whether they be "Mud” Arabs from the Tigris, or nomad Arabs from Elhassa, or pastoral Arabs from Iraq Ajmi, covet rifles almost as much as they covet camels. And they had learned -or it would be more correct to say they had never forgotten that the three great principles of warfare are speed, silence and surprise.
Without airplanes and armored cars, it would have required a couple of brigades to maintain an uninterrupted
flow of oil through the Timan district. And even with those modem fighting machines, it wasn’t too easy. The internalcombustion engine is a wonderful invention, but it doesn’t function at its best in a temperature of 120 degrees, when the air is full of grit, spare parts almost impossible to obtain, and sand flies, heat stroke, “Tigris Tummy” and sundry fevers are decimating the unseasoned mechanics.
His armored car section gave Oatley a lot of trouble. They would look very gallant and gay in the early morning, thundering in echelon across the level desert with their grinning machine guns and their grinning crews, and so formidable you felt you were taking an unfair advantage of old Johnny Arab who had only horses and camels, but before the day was over you very often had cause to think differently. The covering plane would come back and report that someone had broken a back axle, that someone else was bogged in a drift, that the Arabs were round them like crows round a dying sheep, and that the crews couldn’t leave the turrets to do the repairs by reason of the snipers.
On those occasions you ceased to lx* sorry for Johnny Arab, and wondered if mechanized transjxjrt was really all it was cracked up to lx*.
And the same applied to the planes. A harku of Arab horsemen look as harmless as a line of ants from the air, a defenseless target which it is hardly sporting to machinegun, but it seems very different viewed from ground level after a forced landing. You’re the sitting bird then, and if you can’t take off in time you’re for it; “it” probably being mutilation and slow torture, for the Arabs who roam the Timan plains are as cruel as Touaregs and have a special hatred of aviators.
Squadron Leader Oatley had very soon learned the ways of the Arabs. A plane had had a forced landing, and the pilot and observer had been captured by the desert wolves. Their mutilated, decapitated bodies had been found at dawn by a sickened sentry within twenty yards of the Tirnan wire, having been deposited there during the night as a warning of what the next aviator who was caught alive might expect.
He remembered the appearance of those bodies one late afternoon a week later, when the starboard engine of the Cartwright light bomber, from which he had been leaving cards on the Arab village of Zem-Zem, cut out when he was on his homeward course. The accompanying plant'nad had to return earlier with incipient engine trouble and he was alone.
Apparently his observer, Flying Officer Peters by name,
Continued on page 46
The Ship That Came Bach
Continued from page 13
had had the same thought, for his reply from the rear cockpit when Oatley told him they were coming down was, “Thank the lord there are no Budoos about !”
Oatley wasn’t so certain. Although the flat burned pancake toward which they were descending was apparently empty of any form of life, he knew it would be as easy to land unobserved in London as in the desert.
Arabs or not, he had to come down, and it threatened to be a tricky business. Sand is deceptive stuff to land on, especially when you’ve only one engine to assist you. If your wheels strike a drift they sink as they would in mud, and you’ve turned a somersault before you can say “Jack Robinson.”
Which was precisely what happened on this occasion. The accident was in no way due to any lack of skill on Oatley’s part. He’d dropped the Cartwright as neatly as was humanly possible, and what turned her over was an unexpected soft patch it would have been impossible to distinguish from above.
It felt as if the earth suddenly reared up and fell on the bomber. Then Oatley woke to the realization that he was upside down in the cockpit, held there by the safety belt round his waist. Oil was dripping on his face, and there was a reek of petrol and hot metal that made his heart flutter.
“Peters!” he yelled. “Are you all right?”
Someone groaned. With the fear of being roasted alive in his heart, he felt for the slip-catch that secured the belt. It opened and he fell head first into the plexi-glass cupola that was normally the covering of the cockpit.
XTOTHING incites activity as does fear.
He had remembered there were still bombs in the racks. In a kneeling posture, hardly able to see for oil and fumes, he groped for the handle of the nearest door.
It was jammed. Like an agonized wasp, he wriggled himself about and tried the sliding panel on the other side. The thought of bombs and fire gave him superhuman strength. Somehow he wrenched back the panel, wriggled through, and rolled through a tangle of broken struts until he fetched up against the hot cowling of the port engine.
He scrambled clear with singed uniform and blistered hands and knees. Now to get Peters clear. When he had opened the door of the rear cockpit, he saw him huddled and insensible under a heap of ammunition boxes. The Vickers gun had been bent back from its mounting and was wedging his head against the dashboard.
There was a lot of blood in the rear cockpit, and for a moment Oatley fancied his observer was dead. Somehow he got him clear and dragged him on hands and knees across the sand. And he did not dare to stop until they were on the farther side of a dune, eighty yards from the wrecked plane and its load of potential death.
Peters had been neither killed nor mortally injured, but he had been badly cut about the head and face and was unconscious. Oatley straightened up and looked about him. Night was coming on fast, and the strong gale that always accompanies sunset in Iraq was blowing clouds of dust across the plain.
He considered their position. Not toocheery. Although he judged they were not more than ten miles from Tirnan, it was odds against their being found that night. He had not fiown a direct course from Zem-Zem and there would be a vast area to be searched.
In about half an hour they’d have missed him and be sending up scouts. He’d light flares, send up Verey lights and hope for the best. And if no Arabs . .
No Arabs ! As the thought went through his mind he saw a dozen cloaked horsemen
cantering in his direction. They were shouting, brandishing rifles. Nomad bandits from Elhassa by the look of them.
He watched them gallop up to the plane with the foolhardiness given by ignorance. Flat on his face beside Peters, he examined the loading of his revolver. Now the Arabs had dismounted and were looting the plane like wolves dissecting a carcass. Lord, if only a bomb would go off and blow the whole pack to smithereens!
No such lucky chance occurred. He felt Peters for a revolver, and found it had dropped from the holster. He had only his own and five rounds, to the dozen rifles of the Bedouins.
Now they were circling round, looking for the Roumis they knew must be somewhere near. And then an outburst of hyenalike cries announced the airmen had been seen.
There could be no mistaking their hostile intentions. They scattered swiftly to surround the dune. There was a stealthy advance of shrouded figures through the blowing sand.
Five rounds! Allowing one for Peters and one for himself and one for a possible misfire, he could fire two at the brutes. Prone on the ground, Oatley rested the barrel of the revolver on his left wrist and waited. An Arab, running silently as a shadow, showed in the haze. Oatley squeezed the trigger. The Arab, struck in the chest by the heavy bullet, spun round, and fell without a sound.
Four rounds left. One for Peters, one for himself, one for a possible misfire. He could afford another shot. He fired again and saw another Arab fall.
The others had taken no notice of the deaths of their comrades. Nor did they attempt to fire their rifles. Why waste valuable ammunition on Roumis who could not escape. Besides, they hoped for -sport.
To baulk them of that “sport” was Oatley’s intention. He turned and put the muzzle of his revolver against Peters’ head. And then he saw that Peters’ eyes were open. Open and fixed on his face in a wondering stare.
it was impossible to fire. His trigger finger felt paralyzed. If only Peters would shut his eyes. If only he were unconscious —or capable of understanding why he was being shot.
He smiled and whispered some question. Oatley set his teeth. It would be worse than murder to let the Arabs get him alive.
“Got to do it . . . Good-by, old chap ...”
Another split fraction of a second and he would have fired. But on the instant his finger was tensing round the trigger, a yelling Arab leaped upon him. Instinctively his hand jerked up. The revolver roared — point-blank into the wolfish visage.
Before he could fire again the other Arabs were upon him. He was pressed into the sand by a weight of sinewy forms. He heard them chattering gloatingly as they tied his wrists and ankles.
THE ARABS believed in business first and pleasure later. Instead of dealing with their captives there and then, they decided to take them to an oasis a few miles distant.
Arrived at the oasis, they tied them to a palm tree and set about making their preparations for the night. A fire was lighted, a live goat was dragged kicking from a sack and hal'tailed.
From where he was tied, Oatley could see their gestures and hear their laughter as they squatted round the fire. Beside him, Peters had lapsed again into unconsciousness.
Oatley strained his ears for the sound of an engine. That was the one slender hope left. That an armored car might by some
miraculous chance happen in that direction.
If it did come it would mean death, since the Arabs would hear it as soon as himself. But it would be a quick death. Bullets wouldn’t be wasted on them; they’d be hal'lalled as the goat had been.
There was no sound of an armored car. Nothing save the voices of the Arabs, the rustle of the wind in the palm trees, the whisper of driven sand. The clouds of sand formed strange shapes blowing past his aching eyes. Giants, witches, camels, flocks of sheep . . . Desert phantoms dancing across the moonlit plain . . .
Now there was a spectral dhow with a billowing lateen sail, sailing as no dhow ever sailed before. A voice summoned him back to reality. An Arab was coming toward him. He had a curved knife in his hand; its point glowed white-hot.
The end of his kafiya (headdress) was wrapped round his mouth ; his eyes gleamed evilly under the hooded skullcap as lie squatted before the white men.
His gestures made his meaning plain. Blindness, mutilation and the lingering agony of impalement.
They cut Peters away from the tree and laid him on the sand. Sick with horror, Oatley saw them bending over his friend. Oh, for the beat of an engine and the blaze of searchlights! But there was nothing except the song of the wind and sand, and a dhow with a great press of canvas racing the desert spectres.
No; it was a yacht. He was going mad. A yacht that glided noiselessly as a shadow to the edge of the oasis. He saw the black shadow of her sails, the crouched figure of the helmsman. The yacht had stopped
now. and the helmsman was lifting something to his shoulder.
B-r-r-r-r-r. No mistaking the harsh chatter of a Lewis gun. B-r-r-r-r-r-r. Screams. falling figures, stampeding horses. Death was holding carnival under the palms. B-r-r-r-r-r-r. And then a voice that had drawn its might from tussles with wind and sea:
“Into ’em with the steel, boys!”
Old Tortoise’s only regret was that he hadn't a cutlass. But a bayonet proved quite good enough.
YES. SIR, I knew of this oasis and I thought they'd take you here.” he told Oatley a little later. “Those young knowalls at Timan wouldn’t listen to a civilian, so I sneaked out on my own in the Mary Jane of Bristol. The wind was in the right quarter and I set my course by the stars.
“You ought to try sand-yachting, sir. Last squadron was here, they had a regatta every Saturday afternoon. A sand yacht is easy to make if you know how. Wheels off a lorry, a canvas and steel chassis and a steel rod for mast. They left one behind because it was all busted up. When the lads made fun o’ my old ship, the Mary Jane of Bristol, I just thought I'd fix up this land ship to show ’em an old sailor knows things they never dreamed of. Gave it the same name, too. She’ll do forty knots in a fair breeze. And now, sir—”
Old Tortoise raised a Verey pistol and fired three rockets.
“To call the armored cars. Nasty, stinking, clumsy old rattle-boxes! They’re obsolete, sir, that’s what they are. Obsolete!”