Episode 142: Are They Still Following Us?
The bosun slid the last stick of dynamite into place, straightened his
back, and smiled.
"Ya, that will be doing the job! Now give me the detonators."
Hiding his qualms, MacKiernan handed over the clump of blasting caps.
Dangling wires made it look like a bouquet for some unusually destructive
bride. The Swede untangled them one by one, then used his thumb to jam them
into the ends of charges at the top of the 55-gallon drum. When he was
finished, he fitted the lid, whistling as he tapped it into place with a
mallet. MacKiernan glanced around for cover, then shrugged. Dynamite was
basically a mixture of nitroglycerine and sawdust. It tended to
become unstable as it aged, and the drum held 200 lbs of it. Five identical
drums stood nearby -- more than enough to blow the stern of the
Viking Girl II to smithereens. The catastrophe, if it came, would
On the other side of the afterdeck, a team of deckhands were busy with hand
tools and a welding torch, building a rack to hold the improvised depth
charges. They seemed unreasonably enthusiastic, exchanging jests, slugging
each other on the shoulder, and tapping out impromptu tunes with their
hammers. MacKiernan couldn’t tell whether they looked forward to action
or just liked explosions. How have these people managed to survive so
long? he wondered.
Abercrombie seemed to share his apprehension. "What will you use to set off
the charge?" he asked the bosun.
"We like to use the hydrostatic pistols," the Swede said cheerfully. "But
those all gone now, so we use mechanical triggers instead. We tie cord to
rail, tie other end to trigger. When we push bomb off stern, it sinks, cord
pulls tight, sets off detonators. Bomb goes off! Boom!" He gave the drum
a friendly slap. "No more submarine!"
And no more Viking Girl II, thought MacKiernan, appalled by the
number of things that could go wrong with this remarkably incautious scheme.
He glanced at Abercrombie, but the Scotsman shook his head.
"Noo," said Abercrombie. "I'll nae wager on this one. We’d both be making
the same bet. I think I’ll be gaun forward now."
He excused himself and made his way toward the bow... at a somewhat
brisker pace than normal. MacKiernan waited a polite interval, then
followed. As he passed the wheelhouse, he noticed Helga standing on the
bridge wing. She was wearing an ordinary pea jacket and cap -- a departure
from her usual garb -- and had set aside her battle axe for the moment.
Noticing his attention, she smiled and beckoned him to join her.
"What you think?" she asked when he reached the top of the ladder.
MacKiernan paused to consider his reply. He had any number of questions,
ranging from why she just happened to have half a ton of high explosives
aboard to how she expected to survive their use, but he wasn't quite sure
how to phrase them diplomatically.
"This should give us a good fighting chance against Fuller and his boyos,"
he said. "I very much doubt they'll expect us to have depth charges."
She must have noticed his expression, for she grinned. "You worry bombs
blow up too soon, send us all to Valhalla?"
Yes! he thought, but it seemed ungracious to admit this. "It is
difficult not to feel some concern," he said.
Her face turned unexpectedly serious. "Helga worry too. But there are
times when you have to be taking the risk. Of course, sometime you fail."
She laughed. "That how Helga end up in the Pacific!"
MacKiernan glanced at the woman expecting a story, but none came. "It
must be quite a bit different from Sweden," he observed.
The woman nodded, as if to herself. "Ya, things very different here," she
said quietly. "Things happen you never expect. Then you can’t go back to
way they were before."
Before he could reply, the bosun came bounding up the ladder. "Everything
ready!" he announced.
"Ha!" cried Helga. "Submarine show up now, they get big surprise!"
MacKiernan shook his head inwardly. Let’s hope they’re the only
Evening found him standing at the rail watching the stars come out. Beneath
him, the Viking Girl II rose and fell to a following sea. Somewhere
aft, a lifeboat creaked in its davits, but otherwise the vessel was quiet.
On this heading, with the breeze from her quarter, the sound of her machinery
was little more than a comforting thrum.
Sleep well, Marcia, and heaven keep you, he thought, remembering
another ship and another ocean. Here in the tropics,
nine years later, it was difficult to imagine war.
The tap of footsteps interrupted his reverie. He turned and saw Miss
Perkins, as he’d somehow known he would. The moon, almost full, cast a soft
light over her features. The breeze brushed strands of hair across her
"What brings you out this evening, Mister MacKiernan?" she asked brightly.
"Training, I guess," he replied. "Ever since I joined the service, I’ve
been on deck each evening to take a sight." He gestured as if raising a
"Old habits are hard to break," she said with a chuckle.
He chuckled as well, heartened by her smile. "I suppose they are. But now
we're passengers, and it's someone else's job."
"So it is," she said. "This must be an unusual experience for you."
"It is that," he admitted wryly.
She sighed and gazed into the night. "It’s nice to be here without a care,
isn't it? When you’re on a ship, you’re safe from the world. Nothing can
reach you until the voyage is over. Sometimes I wish it could last
He gave her a wondering look. This was not a sentiment he’d expected.
"Even if it could, we'd have to go back eventually," he observed. "We have
"I suppose you’re right," she said wistfully.
Not for the first time, MacKiernan wondered what those duties were.
Who do you report to, back in Cairns, he wondered,
and what tales will you be telling? But this didn't seem like a
time for such questions, even if he could hope for an answer, so he asked
"Miss Perkins? In all these weeks we've been traveling together, you've
never told me your first name."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "I suppose I haven’t. I never realized.
"Alice? Just like in those books by Lewis Caroll?"
"Yes!" she replied, suddenly enthusiastic. "I used to love those stories
as a child! My parents would read them to me before..." her voice trailed
off. He glanced at her and realized she was weeping. Without thinking,
he reached out his arm to comfort her.
"I didn't mean to bring back memories," he told her. "I'm terribly sorry."
She shivered for a moment, then leaned closer. "Thank you, Fergus," she
said in a very small voice.
He felt her body shift. Some instinct made him look down to see her face
rising toward his, eyes closed, mouth parted for a kiss. As their arms went
around each other he realized, with sense of inevitability, that they’d been
headed this way for a long time.
Next week: Points to Ponder in Pago Pago...
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