'The Downed Messerschmitt'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, pilots, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the highly secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—search Orkney Mainland for the missing pilot of a crashed Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
"What shall I say, Ricky?"
"Just repeat exactly what Squadron-Leader Lavington told us, earlier." Claire Mathews shrugged her shoulders, under her heavy flying-jacket. "Not much else we can do. There ain't no smooth soft way o'tellin' the tale."
"Jeez, alright; but you know Group-Captain Graham's gon'na have kittens." The blonde-haired woman shook her head despondently, as she sat at the radio on the table in their Nissen hut in Base J, Orkney Mainland. "He don't like outside forces buttin' into our work, where they ain't wanted."
"Well, if he really comes over all masterful he can have it out with Lavington in person." Claire's tone was icy cold and unforgiving. "They can trade insults over the radio, in whatever code they feel fits the occasion—or in clear, fer all I dam' care. Come on, get on with it."
"OK-OK, gim'me a chance; y'got'ta let the valves warm up, y'know." The radio expert gave her partner in romance a sneery glance. "Another minute or so, yet."
"God, modern science, what's it good for?"
"Patience, lady, patience."
Gabrielle Parker, petite, blonde, and sparky, wriggled her left shoulder and twiddled one of the multifarious switches and buttons on the face of the large metal box in front of her. After a few seconds she leaned forward, tapped a glass-fronted dial meaningfully, then lowered her gaze to a series of switches with so far unlit red lights just above them.
"We got'ta wait till the left-hand three turn red; then that dial-needle there, see, flickers across to Twenty-Five; this other dial-needle should come up to waver around the Fifteen mark; then this red light, on the right, should light up."
After a silence lasting thirty seconds, while the diabolical machine hummed quietly to itself, Claire could no longer hold her nerves together.
"What d'you mean—What?"
"I mean dam' What!, is what I mean." The tall black-haired New Zealander began to metaphorically foam at the mouth, leaning over the left shoulder of the woman she loved most in all the world. "When the Hell's it gon'na cough in'ta dam' life? I knew it was a mistake lettin' those dam' boffins modify its insides, a coupla weeks ago. Why'd ya let 'em do it, Gabs?"
The hard-pressed radio operator sat back on her wooden chair, turned her head to look up into the face looming above her, and growled like a hyena that had just watched a lion filching its supper eland.
"Me? Me? Why's it always me, when somethin' goes wrong?" Gabrielle returned to her esoteric, not to say shaman-like, fiddling with the recalcitrant radio. "Always muggins here; never the tall, beautiful Kiwi; oh, no. Wait a mo'; right, here we go—action. So, which code are we gon'na use for the occasion?"
Claire had pulled another rickety chair up and now sat close beside her mate. At this question she mused for a few seconds, then lifted an arrogant eyebrow.
"Does it matter?" Claire considered the problem, scratching her chin in the throes of deep thought; then gave up. "Oh, just use the Daily Code; should think that'll cover it. How long'll you need to code the message up?"
"Well, if we can work out, first, what the dam' message is gon'na be, that'll be a help."
"Very funny." Claire groaned inwardly, but buckled down to business. "Gim'me that pad an' pencil. Right. So, where t'begin?"
"The start shou—"
"Fool, gim'me room t'think, here."
There followed the longest pause of the afternoon, as the battle-hardened New Zealander crouched over her note-pad, chewing her pencil. Every few seconds another word or two defaced the white top-sheet; then, finally she sat back with a sigh of content, and waved the scrawled-over note at her partner in Life.
"That should do it. Code it just as it is; an' then we wait t'see how long it takes ol' Graham t'kick back at us."
Gabrielle took the proffered piece of literature, smoothed it out to peer intently at the writing, and began reading it aloud.
"God, your writing looks like a drunken spider. Right,—To Group-Captain Graham, Room 23, Somerset House, London. Begin message— Base J Commander, Squadron-Leader Lavington, requests Team Plover help in the detection and arrest of German pilot of crashed Messerschmitt Bf 109, now somewhere in northern Orkney Mainland. Not enough available military forces to otherwise complete operation; see Plan Cranefly,—What's that, Ricky?"
"Cranefly?—that's the defence plan for HMS Sturdy; that full-blown dam' battleship lying in the Flow as we speak. Apparently it takes almost the full quotient of the local Army, Navy, an' Air Force t'protect the dam' thing. Everybody—except us—is somewhere scattered along the shore an' hills; or out in all manner o'small boats, defending the netted passages or the outside Approaches. A right kerfuffle, darlin'."
"Oh, ah." Gabrielle nodded knowingly, though she didn't, and returned to the text in front of her. "—Team Plover are needed to sweep the north of Mainland, preferably using a Matador truck, equipped with Bren gun and a squad of infantry. Operation to commence at 1300 pip emma. Request immediate reply. Out. Well, that'll set Graham's hair on fire. Give it half an hour, doll, an' we'll probably hear him bellowing from here."
"Huh, wouldn't be surprised."
The Matador bounced over the un-surfaced road in its usual hard-suspensioned manner, that of a tank crushing sedans in its path. Claire crouched over the wide steering-wheel, while on her left Gabrielle mournfully studied a badly folded map.
"Yep, we're lost."
"How the hell can we be lost on bloody Mainland?" Claire was miffed beyond endurance, after two solid hours at the wheel of the giant truck. "Mainland ain't Eastern Asia, after all; we can't possibly be lost. Where's there t'be lost in?"
"Here's where." The navigator swept her left arm out the window. "Peat bog to our left; peat bog to our right; an' what was that we've just left in our rear? Sh-t yeah, a peat bog. We, darlin', are lost."
"Well, get us dam' found again, an' make it snappy. What're maps for, after all?"
"That's the whole point, dear." Gabrielle snarled in her turn. "If I had a reference point—a spot I could point to as bein' where we are—or some other spot in the landscape we could recognise, an' place on the bloody map, then I'd know where we are. But there isn't; an' I don't. That, y'see, is why I use the highly technical term 'we're lost'. See?"
It being well past the point where a mere barbed rejoinder would fit the bill Claire clamped her lips tight and gave her full attention to battling with the massive truck nominally under her command. Being seven feet wide, twenty-one long, and weighing in at a svelte seven tons unloaded, an AEC Matador was something to be reckoned with on the open road. On a narrow earth track in the middle of Orkney, it had no possible opponent; if you could only keep it from bogging down to the axles in the far too present peat bogs and general swampy land all around. The fact it took several turns of the wheel to make even the most gentle of turns, soon let any unfortunate driver know they weren't in for a cosy experience—and after two hours Claire was feeling all of this, and more.
"What about those idiots in the back?" The dark-haired driver frowned gloomily at the memory. "God, hope they ain't gon'na let rip with another Bren gun test, like they did out'ta the blue an hour ago. Nearly crapped myself."
"You heard Sergeant Barclay." Gabrielle took time out from searching her map for any place she recognised to sniff censoriously. "Very sorry, won't happen again, only a test. Anyway, didn't realise those things were so loud, or powerful—think it could take down a Panzer, easy."
"Hah, hardly; but I get ya, doll." The driver suddenly perked up, as she peered through the windscreen of her high eyrie. "Hey, is that a farm ahead? A shack o'some sort. Must have a name; that means we can find it on that bloody map. Yippee, saved."
The north-eastern coast of Orkney Mainland is wild, facing the narrow Eynhallow Sound, with the hills of Rousay opposite. Hereabouts there was only one main road, barely surfaced, with several tracks and lanes leading off to nearby crofts, or simply up into the hills of this district. The area was even less inhabited than most parts of Mainland which, allied with the barren hilly terrain, meant a fine hiding-place for outlaws, bandits, cattle-rustlers, reivers of all types, and missing enemy Messerschmitt pilots. To counter this obvious threat to the security of Scapa Flow Claire and Gabrielle had been allowed three private soldiers, accompanied by a young Sergeant, and a Bren gun. This latter fixed on the back of their Matador truck. And so the search had begun.
At the moment they were all standing, deciding their next move, on the broken rutted pot-holed partially tarmaced surface of the track, if such it could be called, connecting the coastal road with Dounby, on the other side of rolling hills covered in heather, peat bogs and the remnants of old lost crofts. The landscape all round, away from the track, was criss-crossed by deep channels in the peat caused by a mixture of old croft workings and peat-cuttings from the last century. The general lie of the surrounding hills was of stagnant treeless moorland stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction.
"Wha' d'ya mean, y'can't take the bloody Bren off the truck?" Claire was appalled at this revelation.
"It's bin fixed—screwed onto it's mount." Sergeant Barclay was adamant. He was young, a National Service conscript; but already knew the easy life meant following orders to their infinite logical conclusion without argument. "Captain Chanvers said it's a mobile gun, fixed permanent on the truck; an' that's the way I intend t'keep it. An', anyway, we ain't got the tools t'unscrew the dam' thing, or replace it."
"That's a great help." Gabrielle butted in here. "So if we go searchin' in these hills lookin' for you-know-who, we'll just have our hand-guns?"
"Seems like it." Sergeant Barclay brightened up, grinning broadly. "But my chaps here have their .303's with 'em. Could make a barrage like a ship's broadside, if necessary."
With this sigh Claire made her dis-satisfaction known to all and sundry. The unspoken threat all had at the back of their minds, but were purposely ignoring, was the chance the missing German pilot might take to sniping pot-shots from whichever hill or crag or hollow he'd chosen as his hidey-hole. Even though he was only armed with a hand-gun this action might well end in several casualties for the searchers.
"I think it'd be a mistake t'break our forces into several units." Gabrielle had thought this aspect through on their bumpy journey, and had come to a conclusion. "Just askin' for the Jerry t'take 'us out at his dam' leisure. Better we stay t'gether—maybe overawe him with force, when we finally find him, an' he'll surrender without a fight."
"I doubt that." Sergeant Barclay poured cold water on this theory without mercy. "First, he's dashed off in'ta the bloody undergrowth, with intent; secondly, that young boy who caught a glimpse of him in the distance, says he had a hand-gun; thirdly, by not sittin' down by his wrecked plane an' lettin' us take him in charge, but instead f-ckin'-off in'ta the wilderness, shows he's not physically hurt, an' means t'take a shot at escapin'. Though where the hell he thinks he's gon'na go beats me."
"Aiblins we should jist let him be." Private Kincaid, a callow Glaswegian, pursed his lips censoriously. "Let him, y'ken, sit up in these here hills; eat roots an' rabbits fer the duration; an' come oot when the show's finally ower."
"So, what's the plan?" Claire was approaching the buffers of her temper, holding herself in check through sheer force of personality alone. "We got'ta do somethin', an' soon. Here we are; there're the bloody hills; we got'ta start somewhere, so here's as good as any place. I vote we lock up the bloody Matador; then head off, t'gether, up that track over there in'ta the hills. Any objections?"
Sergeant Barclay scratched his chin; glanced at his small detachment; took a narrow-eyed glance at the rolling gloomy hills all round, reflecting a sad mixture of green and cold brown to the inquisitive eye; and came to a decision.
"Right men, grab yer rifles, make sure you all have spare clips, an' fer God's sake don't shoot at any-bloody-thing unless I say's so. Got that?"
"Whit aboot yon Bren, sarge?"
"You're so bloody worried about it, you stay here an' guard the dam' thing, Kincaid."
"An', fer God's sake, don't shoot unless you're shot at. Got that?"
"Ay, sarge." Kincaid looked annoyed at this reprimand. "Lee' the body be, wi'oot he opens up—but then spray the countryside wi' lead, like rain on Glesga Green. I got it."
"Jeesus." Sergeant Barclay began to wonder, not for the first time, why on earth he'd joined a Scottish regiment. "Right ladies, let's go, at your pleasure. Which way's best, d'ya think?"
The surrounding landscape was entirely made up of endless peat bog. The hills were high, but with easy slopes which gave them, from a distance, the aspect of providing gentle walks for the rambler. Nothing could be more wrong. For a start the ground was indeed merely bog, lightly covered in heather and tufty ankle-grabbing grass of a sickly light brown shade. For miles around there was nary a single tree, of any type or height, to be seen. Such a rolling open terrain might have been expected to provide no sort of cover for a refugee making an escape; but this too was a false analogy. The old cuttings, formed by generations of now disappeared crofters, and a general attempt over the years to produce peat for people's fires on a grand scale, had left strange long deep gullies and shallow meandering dells in the otherwise flat ground. At a distance of two hundred yards from road or track a single person could guarantee to become invisible to any pursuer. Claire and Gabrielle, not to mention the soldiers to whom the Orkney landscape was a dangerous cruel and scary new experience, were just discovering this aspect of their surroundings.
"Christ! I've never seen such a bloody barren wasteland." Gabrielle paused to take a three hundred and sixty degree round inspection of the landscape. "Rising slopes, peat bogs, and tufts of grass so solid they trip your every step; this is Hell, right enough."
"Dam' right, ma'am, if I may say so." Sergeant Barclay had been having a strenuous time over the past half hour, since leaving the Matador down on the secondary road; which was still in view a mile or so away across the sloping boggy hillside. "I've been up to my shins three times already in this bloody black mud; an' this is still supposed t'be the track we're walkin' on."
"How on earth can this Jerry imagine he'll make any kind'a headway in terrain like this?" Gabrielle took up the content of a problem which had worried her from the start of the expedition. "I mean, look at it all. Bloody bog every-bloody-where; an' we can see for miles, almost, in every direction. D'you see a young escaping German pilot, in full kit, anywhere in the offing, anyone?"
The silence which followed this question gave all the answer needed. The soldiers, as well as the women, had been keeping a close eye open during their ascent of the rolling hill they were attempting to scale. And indeed, all that was visible wherever they looked was never-ending bog and grass, nothing else.
"Haven't seen so much as a bird scuttering about anywhere since we started." Private Garstone wiped his brow, then settled his cap more firmly at a rakish angle on his head. "I've got the strangest feelin', sarge, we're the only people aroun' here, fer bloody miles an' miles. A wild goose chase, an' no mistake."
"Hmmph, well, we've got our orders; an' I mean t'follow them out." Sergeant Barclay raised his chin determinedly, and took a deep breath of the cold air. "Right, let's get goin' again. This track, fer what it's worth, seems t'be headin' right up t'the summit o'this dam' hill. Maybe we'll have a wider view from there."
The view from the summit, on reaching this hypothetical geographical position, turned out to be more of the same. A vista of rolling, grass-covered ground sloping up and down as far as the eye could see. No single object or landmark standing out by itself to give the eye an idea of distance or place—simply nothing in every direction.
"This is a lost cause." Sergeant Barclay admitted defeat with a stoic resilience which would have made a Spartan proud. "There's nothing but bloody bog and unmanageable ground everywhere. We could fartle about for hours over this sort'a terrain, an' never make half a bloody mile advance. Flying-Officer Mathews, any ideas? You're nominally in charge of this platoon, after all."
Claire paused for a moment, taken off-guard by the unusual title; she not being used to her formal mode of being addressed.
"—er, let's see." She fell back on that well-tried method of gaining time, scratching her chin and looking thoughtful. "Well, I agree; stumbling around in this wasteland o'bog an' broken ground ain't gon'na get us anywhere.—"
"Yeah," Gabrielle put her tuppence-worth into the conversation, with a grim scowl. "He could be lyin' doggo within fifty yards of us right now. Or half a mile away; or a couple of miles yonder, in any bloody direction. It'd take a full battalion t'scour this area—an' even then the Jerry'd still have a good chance of escapin'."
"You're right." Claire paused while she took further note of the lie of the land, but it had not changed in any way since last she'd gazed over to the horizon—not too far away, because of the rolling nature of the terrain. "This is hopeless, Sergeant Barclay. We got'ta think of another way of gettin' on Jerry's trail an' winklin' the b-st-rd out. Any ideas?"
The five people stood motionless on the uneven ground, up to their knees in some kind of thick ankle-grabbing heather. As far as could be seen in every direction nothing but unlimited acres of the same caught the eye. The whole landscape was featureless, barren, and uninhabited; even, apparently, by any form of wildlife, including birds.
"Ain't seen so much as a bloody sparrer in the last hour, sarge, never mind a bloody Jerry." Private Henderson, an Englishman from Hampshire entirely out of his comfort zone up here in the Northern Islands, made a disparaging noise between parted lips. "We could easy get lost ourselves, y'know. Any kind'a accident could happen, out here. Then they'd have'ta send half the available troops in Orkney t'find us—far too late, no doubt. Only our water-logged corpses to be dragged t'dry land an' taken t'Kirkwall fer the usual obsequies."
Sergeant Barclay observed, in turn, the mournful soldier for an appreciable few seconds before sighing heavily and deigning to reply.
"How many times have I told you to do something about your tendency t'bring happiness and joy to all around?" Barclay, having been a Sergeant for all of fourteen months, was a past master at sarcasm. "With remarks like that I don't know how we'll all be able to last, fallin' about with laughter as we'll be. Henderson, do shut up."
"We got'ta place ourselves in the Jerry's shoes."
"We have'ta think like he'll be thinkin' right now." Gabrielle had been cogitating during this pointless discussion, and had come to a conclusion once again. "What would you or I do, Ricky? Where'd we go? What'd we try t'accomplish; out here in this wilderness, wearin' a Jerry uniform an' with no supplies but a hand-gun? An' havin' no idea at all of the real nature or lie of the land?"
Claire caught on instantly.
"I'd head for the nearest shelter; a bothy, or cowshed, or even croft." She nodded enthusiastically. "Get under cover, out of the open ground. Lie low, in a building somewhere; unoccupied or not."
"That'd probably mean hostages." Barclay took up the thread of the idea. "He'll be wantin' food, water, shelter; an' some definite chance of makin' his way further off—probably to some coastal village or croft where a boat or ship may be available. Where'd you say his plane hit the deck, precisely?"
Gabrielle had this information readily to hand, she having studied all the information available about the renegade before the start of the present operation.
"His Messerschmitt took a lump out'ta the landscape near Vinquin Hill; but he himself floated gently to earth near Nidgarth, then made a beeline for the hills, close t'Lowrie's Water. That lies somewhere over there, about half a mile away out'ta sight over the moor an' bloody bog. That's why we're here, as it were, right now."
"Well, the last thing we're gon'na be able t'do—with available forces—is find so much as a Tiger tank hidin' under a rosebush; I think we're all agreed on that." Sergeant Barclay nodded wisely, as if satisfied with the logical thinking of a bunch of raw recruits—an old ploy in saving face. "So, your idea sounds viable, Flying-Officer Mathews. Where's the nearest habitation, then? I don't care if it's one of those cold single-room bothies, a croft, or the Allardyce Hotel itself."
Tarness had a strong settled ancient name; but, in fact, described simply one amongst those endless and uncounted single crofts scattered all over Orkney, like May-blossom in, er, May. Not that there was much of that ever to be seen on offer in the cold climes of Orkney at any time of the year.
From where the small group of soldiers and aircrew lay in the tussocky grass, on the top of a piece of rising ground some quarter of a mile to the north of the building, everything looked completely deserted.
"Ain't nobody about, far as I can see, sarge." Private Garstone glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the platoon. "Not so much as a bloody dog on offer."
"Which is somewhat suspicious in itself." Claire mused on this, a dark frown lining her forehead. "You know these dam' farmers, or crofters, an' their bloody dogs—I've had'ta pull my gun on more'n one o'the dam' animals before now. But like ya said, Garstone, nothin' doin' down there. I'm worried."
"Be funny if we hit on his hidey-hole straight off, like this." Sergeant Barclay was never one for taking it for granted his number had come up in the lottery of life. "All the same, yeah, it does merit a look-see. What d'ya think, Flying-Officer Mathews?"
"I think we should all go together." Claire looked from the Sergeant to his two men. "No point in splitting our forces at this juncture. If one goes an' he catches 'em, it'll just be a better quality hostage fer him; can't have that."
The croft itself conformed to the ancient local tradition as far as architecture and substance went. Constructed on the one-level bungalow principle, its walls were made of unsmoothed boulders dragged in from the surrounding ground, mortared loosely together. The roof was made of thick flat granite slates, with heavy stones at intervals across it, to stop the roof blowing off in a strong gale. Apart from two low broken-down dry-stane dykes meandering away from the croft and ending meaninglessly a few hundred yards across the uneven peaty ground, there were no fences. Some sort of a track, looking as if a wheeled vehicle had never used it, ran from the far side of the building towards the coast to the east; though it, in fact, simply disappeared in the extended folds of the rolling hills all round. Of human, or animal, presence there was no evidence whatever.
"Look funny if we saunter up an' the dam' place's really empty." Private Henderson made this pithy remark with some disdain, as they all struggled to their feet and began the descent of the slope leading to their destination. "Looks it t'me, sarge."
"Look dam' funny if you saunter up t'the door, then get your silly head blown off by a German Mauser, Henderson." Barclay was nothing if not practical. "An' we can't have that, can we? It'd leave me shockingly short-handed, y'see. Come on, you."
They took what cover they could behind the waist-high dyke some twenty yards short of the croft. The top was a broken uneven line, the crest layer of stones having long fallen back into the field from which they had been laboriously dragged some hundred, if not more, years ago. This debris now making a rocky foundation for the hunters to kneel on behind their temporary cover.
"Like ya said earlier, Sergeant, I'm nominally in charge of this outfit; so I'm gon'na go an' knock up the lodger—if he's there." Claire raised her eyebrows in an expression well-known to Gabrielle, crouching by her side. "That's final."
"Well, if you're gon'na pull rank, there ain't nothing I can do, I suppose." Barclay looked less than pleased, but gave in like a gentleman. "All the same, if shootin' commences we're all stormin' in like Buck Rogers, firin' at everythin' that moves—at least, in a Jerry uniform, anyway. The real tenants'll just have t'look out fer themselves. After all, this is war."
"Great." Gabrielle shook her head gloomily, then put a hand out to help her partner clamber over the loose stones of the wall. "Watch y'self, Ricky; this wall's about a thousand years old, I think. An' be bloody careful. I'll be about thirty yards behind you—an' I'll shoot anyone, without warnin', who even looks like they're threatenin' you. Warnin's, in these present circumstances, bein' for wimps an' losers. Go canny, gal."
Heading at a crouch, with two rifles and two pistol barrels pointing over the top of the dyke covering her every move, Claire made as much speed as the broken boulder-strewn ground allowed. The long side of the croft facing her was the rear of the building; the front entrance, which would be in the centre of the façade on the other side, invisible at the moment. There were three windows breaking the rubble-built wall; two equally spaced on her left, and a single square aperture on the right side. There was no rear door, and a single chimney stood up from the left-hand gable -end as she made her way closer. Still there was no sign of life.
Like the majority of such crofts on Orkney Mainland there was no attempt to whitewash the exterior of the building; the raw stone boulders being left to their own devices. This allowed the buildings, after a few years, to blend seamlessly with the landscape, as if they had been naturally formed along with the crags and cliffs. The roof slates, too, had retained their natural pale grey, where they weren't covered in dark patches of moss. No smoke rose from the chimney, and no dog growled inside. Claire became more watchful as she neared the croft's wall, edging round the side of the left gable with extreme caution, her .45 Colt automatic in her right hand, cocked and ready.
As she kept in a low crouch she saw two windows pass above her as she neared the front door. Reaching it she came to a halt, pondering her next move; the unpainted ancient wooden door being slightly open a few inches. As she examined this intriguing situation a crunch of pebbles behind her heralded the approach of her partner.
"So, how's it lookin'?"
"Shush, Gabs. The door's open." Claire put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to hold her in check a moment. "Somethin' ain't right."
Sergeant Barclay, making remarkably little noise, now joined them; Webley Service .45 in his hand.
"Any sign o'life?" His whisper hardly disturbed the air as he put his mouth close to Claire's ear.
"Too little." Claire kept her own voice low. "Door open, no sign o'activity, no sign of a dog. There should be a dog. Christ, there's just got'ta be a dam' dog; no crofter in Orkney doesn't have a dam' dog. Ain't that right, Gab?"
"Dam' right, Ricky." Gabrielle gave her support to this widely acknowledged aspect of life in the islands. "Dam' dogs everywhere, Sergeant; no crofter lives without one. There should be at least one barking at our throats, right now."
The three crouched by the side of the door, engrossed in the many possibilities of their position. Then came a low cry from behind them.
"Hey. Hey. Sarge."
Looking round, Private Garstone could be seen with his head just breaking the line of the croft's gable-end. The barrel of his .303 rifle sticking out over his left shoulder as he held the stock in the crook of his arm.
With everyone's eyes on him he silently pointed away from the croft to the far side of the un-surfaced track which one supposed gave access eventually with a better lane or road beyond the all-encompassing hills. Claire and Gabrielle, as well as Sergeant Barclay were primarily at a loss to understand the soldier's intent; but finally they realised he was directing their attention to a point thirty or forty yards down the track, on its far side where another remnant of dry-stane dyke formed some sort of perimeter along the track-side. It was Gabrielle who finally caught on to Garstone's meaning.
"I get it." She grabbed Claire's shoulder and pointed her left arm out, close to her heartmate's cheek. "See, over there? On the grassy verge by the broken-down wall. There's a bundle, or somethin', lyin' there. Is it black, or white, or both? Can't quite make it out. Why's Garstone so excited?"
"It's the dog."
"What? What, Ricky?"
"The dog we've all been worryin' over not bein' here." Claire tightened her lips in a cold snarl. "A collie, black an' white. That's it lyin' over there; probably dead."
Claire turned back to Garstone and made a sign that they understood his message; then the three crouched closer together.
"If the dog's dead, that can only mean the Jerry's been here; or is still here." Claire made this diagnosis in a low growl, lips parted in a sneer. "I ain't got great hopes for whatever's inside this croft now. Back me up, Gab. You too, Sergeant. If there's any kind'a rough-house when I go in, follow and blast whoever y'see brandishin' a weapon. Right, easy does it. I'm gon'na give the ba-st-rd a warnin' first. Show him we're not Nazis, at least."
She took a few more crouching steps towards the door then, nearly touching the frame, raised her gun in the air and called out in a loud firm voice.
"Hey. Hey, you inside there. We know you're in there, Jerry. Come out with your hands in the air an' no gun. If I have'ta come in after ya I ain't responsible for the outcome. Y'hear me, Jerry?"
A desolate silence reigned over the croft and its surroundings after this order had echoed off the stone side of the building. Everyone paused; nervous as cats and edgy with tension. The silence continued; no sound of movement or talking came from the interior. No floorboard creaked, or boot scraped on stone flagstones. Nothing.
"Anybody in there?" Claire now rose to her full height, set her feet apart, and prepared to storm the croft. "This is your last warning, Jerry; I'm comin' in; don't shoot, or you'll be the loser. Put your gun down and hands in the air; I've got an itchy trigger-finger."
The eerie, now more than scary, silence settled back on the local environment as if there were no living human presence, apart from the hunters, anywhere within miles. Claire glanced back at Gabrielle and Sergeant Barclay; gave a quick nod to show she was ready; then darted forward and disappeared through the door into the dark interior.
More silence; no gunshots; no sound of people moving about; no talking, as between Claire and whoever else might be supposed to be within the old croft. Nothing. Then, after a couple of heart-stopping moments, a shadow re-appeared at the door and Claire came out, putting her automatic back in its holster at her hip. Her expression was sombre.
"He ain't there; but he's left a sign he was here."
Gabrielle and Sergeant Barclay rose to their feet and carefully peered in the now wide open door. Seeing only darkness they cautiously entered and waited a moment for their eyes to become accustomed to the low light. Then they saw what Claire had found.
Huddled on the far side of what appeared to be the only room in the long building was a shape lying face down, wearing an old grey-brown tweed jacket and trousers. One arm was flung out on his left, while legs and dirty ancient boots lay nearly under a battered deal table. An old shotgun lay close to his right side, as if dropped from his hand. On his left side a dark stain spread in a long thin puddle across the flagstones which made up the floor. There was no movement from the body, whose partially bald head with long grey hair, showed it to be an old man—obviously the owner of the croft.
"He's dead." Claire's voice was cold and hard. "I checked him carefully. Two shots in the chest. Must'a been killed almost instantly. I think he went for his shotgun when Jerry came in—didn't make it."
Gabrielle had crouched by the side of the murdered man, giving the body a careful examination in her own right. She had taken a nursing course in the early years of her military career at the beginning of the war, so knew what she was doing.
"Yep, that's what happened, I think." Gabrielle rose, making sure her hands weren't blood-stained, and stepped back a pace or two. "Two pistol bullets in the chest, fired from close range—you can see the powder burns on his jacket. Taken by surprise, probably, an' tried t'defend himself automatically. Jerry couldn't have given the poor man a chance. The body's still warm as well; this couldn't have happened more'n an hour ago, tops."
"Sergeant Barclay." Claire had come to a decision. "From now on it's a killin' war. No more warnin's, or soft-shoe messin' around. We got'ta make sure this maniac doesn't get the chance for a repeat performance at another croft somewhere. We got'ta track the b-st-rd, an' shoot t'kill when we find him. Agreed?"
"Yes, I'll tell my men." Barclay stood at the door and stared out across the wide landscape stretching away in gentle slopes. "Where is he now; that's the dam' question."
As if in answer to this very query a shot rang out in the distance; the slopes of the nearby hills making it difficult to pinpoint its exact direction. Hot on the heels of the first came the sharp crack of a rifle, followed at once by two more rifle shots. There was a short pause, then another couple of pistol shots rang round the hills.
"Where'n Hell are they com—"
Barclay had hardly started to form his query when the answer was made plain to all around. After the last of the pistol shots the sudden boom of continuous fire blasted out, throbbing in an extended burst from a heavy machine-gun. It stopped for a second, then roared forth again. Drowning whatever return fire from the lone pistol might be taking place. Then all was silent again.
"Jeesus, that's Kincaid with the bloody Bren." Barclay started running down the track, gripping his pistol tightly. "Jerry must'a tripped right over him. Come on, we got'ta get back t'the truck, pronto."
Although more than a mile away from their truck, and Kincaid with his Bren gun, the group made swift time and it was barely quarter of an hour later when they reached the road again to see the dark heavy Matador sitting waiting for them. The canvas top of the rear was pulled back, exposing the Bren on its low rig, while the shape of Kincaid could be seen crouching behind it. He saw the returning group instantly and raised an arm in greeting; then waved over to their left as they stumbled down the last of the heathery ground to the road.
"Bloody Jerry was ower there, amangst the heather by yon rock outcrop, sarge." Kincaid made his report in a steely cold tone when they all arrived at the mighty wheels of his steed. "Dam' me if the chiel did'na try'n blast me frae long range wi' his pistol. I soon set his idea's t'rights. Bonny thing, this Bren, sarge. Think I might try'n take ane back t'Glesga at the end o'the war."
"You'll do no such dam' thing, Kincaid. The sight of you waltzin' along Jamaica St. with that thing on your back'd scare everyone as far's George Square." Barclay was clear on this topic, as he swung himself up onto the flat-bed of the enormous truck, closely followed by Claire and Gabrielle. "So, what's been happenin' in our absence—tell Uncle all."
"Naethin' fer hours after ye all went aff." Kincaid had the details to hand, speaking with a forceful determination. "Final, I steppit doon, tae relieve mysel at the side o'the truck, y'ken; when whit came alang but a bloody bullet hittin' the side of the truck, no three bloody inches frae ma heed, dammit. Weel, I cottoned on instanter, sarge, an' made a bonny leap on'ta the truck like that Russki ballet dancer, Nijinsky. Another shot frae the dam' Nazi swine gave me his position jist fine, an' I let fly with ma weapon. Gods, sarge, but a Bren's a fine thing. Ye should'a seen the way the ground jist ripped up in shreds where'ere I aimed the bonny charmer."
"Yes, yes; but did you hit the b-st-rd?"
"Fancy I did jist that, sarge," Kincaid nodded happily. "Wi' my second burst I tore his exact hidey-hole t'shreds all roon him. I thought I saw his body sort'a jump fer a second; then he wis gone agin. But I'm pretty sure he wis hit, at least ance."
"Where was he, Kincaid? Point out his position from here." Claire was alert, short-breathed in her excitement.
"Ower there, ma'am, by that line o'crags—see."
A minute later saw the whole platoon standing by the jagged line of granite rocks forming a line some thirty yards long, just peering waist-high above the heather. By one stone Gabrielle quickly found bloodstains and several used brass cartridges.
"You hit the swine sure enough, Kincaid; well done." Gabrielle grinned at the soldier, who blushed in return. "This means he's definitely wounded. Shouldn't think he can get far now, after bein' blasted by a Bren, do you, Ricky?"
"Depends how many hits he took, I suppose." The tall dark New Zealander nodded. "But even if it's only the one, that'll still slow him down badly; if he survives fer any length of time, that is."
"We can't take the chance of his meeting some innocent crofter, or whoever." Barclay growled in cold anger. "We'll need to follow in his tracks, an' see if we can't catch up with the brute. He went that way, d'ya think?"
"Yep." Gabrielle nodded her approval, as they all stood on the road taking stock of the terrain. "He's headin' down this road we're on now, aimin' for the main coast road, I'm sure. I fancy he's taken his gloves off now; leavin' him no choice, by his warped way o'thinkin', but to show his iron fist; he's determined to make it to the coast at all costs—probably to try'n hijack a boat somewhere. He's obviously lost all grip on reality. Do you think we can catch up with him, Sergeant Barclay?"
"In this Matador, Miss Parker, we've every chance." Barclay gestured for the soldiers to climb up on the truck's rear bed by the still warm Bren; while he, Claire, and Gabrielle made their way to the capacious driving cab. "He'll stick as close as he can to this road from now on. He's in a bad way, an' probably knows he must make the coast as quickly as possible. You drivin', Miss Parker? Right; let's go, an' keep your eyes peeled."
They were within sight of the junction of the hill track with the main coast road when their cards came up trumps. A small private saloon car, a Morris, was stopped by the edge of the not wide road, it's driving door flung open, and standing by the car's side were two men. One was the well-known figure of Dr. MacLauchlan, resident on the island for more than twenty years. The other figure was without doubt their prey. He was taller than the doctor, with a mop of unruly flaxen hair. He seemed to have lost his cap along the way, showing his features in sharp relief. He had a long thin-jawed face, pale with an expression of cold menace. With his right hand he was holding a pistol to the head of his hostage, watching the approach of the huge truck as it bore down on him from the hills.
Whatever plans he had to halt the soldiers and parley with them for the safety of the Doctor were immediately set aside by Claire's forceful next command.
"Don't stop." She put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder to enforce her words. "That's what he wants. Don't give him a chance; drive on an' try t'run him down. I know the Doctor's in the line o'fire, but it's necessity. Try'n scrape the bloody Nazi flat against the side o'the car; the Doctor should manage to jump clear, I hope. Go."
As Gabrielle put her foot down on the accelerator Sergeant Barclay turned round and called back through the rear window of the driving cab to the soldiers on the back of the truck.
"Kincaid, here's your chance t'finish the job." Barclay spoke with feeling and certainty. "You other two use your rifles; you should get a good shot at the b-st-rd, too. Kincaid, we're goin' right through the car ahead; hopefully the Doctor'll escape OK. You rip the Jerry t'pieces with the Bren the first chance y'get a clear shot—got that?"
"Dam' straight, sarge; thanks."
Everything now seemed to happen in slow-motion. The giant heavy Matador, all seven tons of it, sped swiftly across the loose surface of the track flinging sprays of loose gravel in all directions, heading straight for the immobile saloon. The German pilot, his features now showing him to be hardly more than a boy, seemed mesmerised for a few seconds as the mighty Leviathan bore inexorably down on him; then he sprang to life. Seeing his carefully laid plan had come to nothing, he callously pushed the Doctor onto the verge out of his way, then raised his pistol and opened fire on the rapidly nearing truck.
Gabrielle, seeing out of the corner of her eye the Doctor pull himself to his feet and scramble across the wide grassy verge out of harm's way, took a firmer grip on the wide driving-wheel and crouched low peering at her target through the windscreen; lips open in an animal snarl of retribution.
Suddenly the windscreen evaporated in flying splinters as two shots came through. There was a ripping noise as the bullets hit the back of the wooden cab, then they were on top of their prey. There was a horrible grinding noise as the side of the Matador, towering over the small car, ripped the whole left side off the vehicle; then they were past, and the inmates of the driving-cab heard the raucous growl of the Bren as Kincaid gleefully opened up.
Pulling the mighty truck to a halt Gabrielle, and Barclay and Claire, turned to look back. The car had been shoved right off the road, now lying at an angle on the grass verge, the wheels on its right side in the air. Doctor MacLauchlan stood on the other side of the road, running a hand through his thick thatch of white hair with an air of disbelief on his face. Of the German pilot there was no sign.
"Jeesus, has the bloody b-st-rd got away again?" Claire snarled in fury at this unexpected end result. "How in Hell ain't he mincemeat against the bloody car?"
A couple of hundred yards further on, where the hill track from Dounby joined the coast road, a series of houses and crofts lined each side of the major road at wide intervals, nearly making up a small community in their own right. Now, from the nearest of these houses came a sustained outburst of firing, mainly from shotguns by the sound of them. Claire and Gabrielle, and their soldier companions, swung round to look in this direction, like a group of lions eyeing their supper antelopes. The noise of multiple shotguns burst out once more, in another sustained broadside; then everything fell quiet again.
"Sergeant Barclay. I think we better get along down there, post haste; an' find out what the Hell's goin' on." Claire raised her eyebrow at Barclay enquiringly. "Wonder if they got him?"
Less than five minutes later the band of hunters stood on the tarmac-surfaced road looking in silence at the mortal remains of their so long wished-for prey. The local crofters in this area, like many all across Orkney and the rest of Britain, had long ago formed units of the Home Guard. Trained, equipped, and organised in the same way as the Regular Army, these made a formidable defence group, taking over certain work which helped to free the Army for more necessary war work. They were issued with rifles and Bren guns in their own right, along with all sorts of other equipment. Their professional training meant these local crofters were themselves dauntingly expert at their new duties. At this particular spot, on this particular day, the local unit of the Home Guard, put on action stations for the capture of the German pilot, had met their finest moment. Out of the blue the German, staggering with his wound and clearly in a state of shock but still brandishing and firing his pistol, had come out of the hilly heather-clad track onto the road right into the face of a full detachment of the Home Guard. They had been listening for the last half hour to the shooting echoing down from the Dounby track, and now were ready with their armaments—mainly privately owned shotguns. Faced with the now suicidal German pilot, firing at every moving object he saw, they all opened up on the distant target together. The result was a mess, and didn't take longer than twenty seconds to run its course. Now the arriving soldiers had joined the successful Home Guard members, to view the end result.
Claire, Gabrielle, Sergeant Barclay, and the rest of their group stood on the road looking at the object lying on the tarmac near the grass verge. There was blood everywhere, running in great swathes like oil from a car's broken engine. The dull material of the German pilot's uniform was darkened with blood, too. While where his head should have been was merely a raw wound across his shoulders—his head having been obliterated by multiple hits from several shotguns at once; the local crofters being expert shots all round. The German pilot was definitely now an extinct member of his unloved species.
"Jeesus, what a mess." Gabrielle was the first to break the silence.
"Yep, but he had it comin'." Claire snorted in disgust. "Only himself t'blame."
"Well, that's the end of that." Sergeant Barclay shrugged and turned to the various members of the Home Guard standing round viewing the outcome of their efforts. "Well done, lads. You never did a better thing than stoppin' this dam' Kraut. Good shootin'."
"What d'ya mean, Group-Captain Graham ain't happy?" Claire was incensed. "What the hell does he know about the dam' operation, anyway? Was he dam' here, or what?"
"Easy, darlin'." Gabrielle, sitting by her side, soothed her angry partner in Life. The women were cosily ensconced, the following evening, in their private home-from-home, a Nissen hut on Camp J Orkney Mainland, on the cold edge of Scapa Flow. "He's only tryin' t'save face, that's all. He's got'ta blow hard, to make out to the local Army an' RAF authorities he ain't takin' our bein' pressed in'ta service as hunters lightly. He isn't aiming any ire in our direction. Here, have another chocolate biscuit, an' I'll put a dash more rum in your cocoa. Everything'll have blown over by the mornin'."
"Don't take it personally, dear." Gabrielle was a past mistress at soothing her irked partner. "Actually, from the preliminary reports I've read, everyone's ecstatically happy—couldn't have worked out better, apparently. German pilot crashes on the Mainland; goes off his Nazi rocker—an easy maneouvre, I imagine; then starts takin' out innocent bystanders with ruthless madness. We come along, as directed by superior beings from the War Office, an' all ends happily. Result, I'm thinkin'."
Claire sat on the edge of their combined beds to the rear of the curved-roof hut, glowering moodily all the same. She wasn't happy that the latest message from Group-Captain Graham's SOE eyrie in Somerset House, London, had been so full of sarcastic adjectives, only nominally aimed at other ears than the two women's.
"It was a ghastly, horrible mess; an' I don't want anythin' like it t'ever happen again."
Claire made this declaration of intent between gritted teeth; while her better, calmer half thrust a mug of hot super-charged cocoa into her hand. The first sip caught the glowering woman's attention, as Gabrielle had intended; the second sip accompanied a small expression of dawning content; while the third sip made all well again.
"There, that's better." Gabrielle slipped closer to her loved partner, putting an arm round her shoulders. "We'll finish this quite remarkably perfect cocoa, even if I say so myself; then we'll go to bed. You wan'na join me in bed, Ricky? Only askin'."
Claire, now fully recovered, made it abundantly clear on her part the petite blonde wouldn't need to ask twice.
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will arrive shortly.