We had no more than settled down to enjoying the sensation of bounding so sweetly over the long gentle rollers than the soft thunder of the engines faltered and changed tempo. At the same time our speed fell off. We looked at one another significantly.
"Oh, oh," said Tim, with rising and falling intonation. "The aeroplane engines in these things are temperamental."
A moment later Shack thrust his way against the wind around the comer of the cabin. "Bearing's heating up," he said cryptically. "It's no good. There's nothing we can do about it out here. We'll have to go back and get the other boat." He looked disappointed and angry. We were forty minutes out. If we raced back we might still get away forty minutes ahead of the MTB's, but it would be a race to beat them across to Vis.
"Awfully sorry," he said. "I'll tell Jack to open her up. We'll still get you across on schedule."
We were headed back for Bari now with the engines roaring again. I walked aft with Shack and listened to him tell the engineer to keep his engines revving to the absolute limit of safety. Soon the familiar silhouette of the harbor began to rise before us and a few minutes later we were flying
through the opening in the boom, headed straight for the root of our pier.
Jack had seen us come in and by the time we reached our berth his engines were running and two members of his crew were standing by to cast off. Jack himself was standing on the forward deck, ready to assist in bringing us in, wearing a broad and mischievous grin. It disappeared suddenly when we were close alongside and Shack stepped across to his deck. For a moment I thought Shack was going to hit him.
"Goddamn you, Jack," he said with the low intensity of a man controlling his anger with difficulty. "If you ever curse my boat again I'll shoot you: don't forget it!"
"Sorry, Shack," Jack answered. "I meant nothing by it."
Shack stared at him intently for a moment, then the look of malevolence left his features as he regained control of himself. He slapped Jack on the shoulder. "Righto ... get going," he said pleasantly. "You'll have to push it to beat the Navy across. If they have to stand by and wait for us over there we'll never hear the end of it."
"Will do," Jack answered simply. Our gear had already been shifted across. Shack stepped ashore. Jack shouted: "Cast off. . . . Okay, let her go ..." A wave of his hand sent power coursing down the shafts to port and starboard propellers and we moved gently out into the basin. A few minutes later we were out through the boom again and as soon as we were clear the drone of the engines shifted to a higher key and the launch rose in the water, gathering speed like a hydroplane about to take off.
"What was that all about, back there?" I asked Jack as soon as he had given the helmsman his course and come up on deck.
"Shack's a bit superstitious, I guess," Jack said guiltily.
"Just as you were leaving I said to him: 'When your engines conk I'll be standing by to take over.'. . . I guess it was a rotten sort of a joke."
We succeeded in beating the MTB's to Vis. Just before eleven o'clock we reached the mouth of the harbor and gave the lookout near the darkened light-house a signal with the Aldis lamp that had been agreed upon at our last conference with Radic and Nikic, Wednesday evening. A single shot rang out, indicating that we were recognized and could proceed; and ten minutes later the big launch came gently to rest against the sea-wall. A crowd was waiting for us there full of admiration for our boat, which appeared big and formidable in the darkness. Steve and I jumped down at once and hurried to Headquarters to advise that three more big launches would be in at any moment and request that the lighthouse battery be so notified. We also told Nikic that there would be four boats to camouflage that night and asked that he provide the men required for this work. My first thought was for Jack's boat. That was my responsibility. I had picked out a good place to hide a craft of that size on my previous visit and asked that men be assigned to go aboard and take him there at once. Also, that a launch be sent out with them to bring Jack back to headquarters. As soon as this was done I hurried back to the sea-wall to tell Jack how matters stood and ask him to lay up until we should return from the coast, probably in a day or two. He would have liked to take us on to the mainland, but I was unwilling to let him risk his boat. Six Partisans armed with axes for cutting pine boughs pushed their way through the crowd and climbed aboard. I waved good-bye to Jack who shouted, "Good luck— I wish I were going with you," as he and his boat moved off in the night.
When I turned back Tim and Steve were standing beside me. Nikic was with them. "Here they come now," Steve said. The drone of many big motors suddenly drowned the soft purr from Jack's retreating boat and presently we could discern the bulky shadows of the three MTB's moving slowly in line-astern formation. This time, as they came up and moored in characteristic manner, one alongside of the other, each tying' up to the one before it, the group in the roadway was really impressed. This was fighting strength! These were nautical wild-cats that could sink a battleship. They look exactly what they are—fast, heavily armed and expendable, a truly romantic assortment of attributes.
These ships, I learned later, were originally known as "Welmans" instead of MTB's, a name that is still often used in the British navy, after their inventor, the first officer who ever thought of building them as a weapon of assault, the officer who commanded the first of them and proved its worth by sinking ships of the line in the enemy's fleet—Welman! The very officer who now stepped ashore and allowed me to introduce him to the local Partisan leaders. The Commander was still a fighting man in spite of his greying locks. He was still looking for an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of his savage little boats from the open bridge of one of them in battle.
Steve and Tim and I went with the Commander to Headquarters. The captains of the three boats accompanied us and were introduced to their new friends. Choruses of Zdravos rained upon us as we passed, and when the introductions had all been completed at headquarters we drank the ceremonial glass of rakjia together. Steve arranged for the three boats to be camouflaged and hidden, then I felt our part was done and inquired carefully about Bog s Nama. She had come in on schedule at 0200 hours, been unloaded punctually at 0400 hours and safely berthed and hidden by 0500 hours!
"Good enough?" Nikic said.
I clapped him on the back as he laughed at me and suggested to Steve that we start for the coast. He agreed, saying we should go first to Starigrad, some twenty miles away in the bottom of a fjord on the adjacent island of Hvar.
As it was already past midnight I thought we might save time by making this part of the journey in one of the MTB's. The Commander fell in with the suggestion at once and assigned one of his officers to take us across. Ten minutes later we were thundering out of the harbor with our bows in the air flanked by a silvery sheet of spray on either side.
"I like this form of travel," Tim said. "It gives you a sense of getting somewhere."
The water between the islands was choppy, as usual, and little hard rain-squalls hacked at us from time to time. One had to hang on to whatever there was to hang on to with everything but his teeth to avoid being beaten to a pulp by bulkheads and stanchions. . . .
Soon after two o'clock we arrived at Starigrad. We were told there was a ship waiting there to take us on to the coast, still thirty-five miles away, so I thanked the skipper of the MTB and watched him rumble away in the darkness, making a noise exactly like a big multi-motored plane.
We found our Vis friend, Radicic, at Headquarters, another stuffy little front room in a building overlooking the harbor. He received us warmly, but there was a troubled expression on his face. Steve's face clouded, too, after they had talked together for a moment. Then Radicic handed him a message in an envelope.
It was obvious that something important was happening to Steve. He opened the envelope with nervous hands and as he read the contents of the message his brows puckered and the color drained slowly from his face. In the cold white light of the gasoline lantern he looked like a man who had just read his death-warrant. Radicic talked to him in a subdued, intense way as Tim and I clinked glasses with the Partisans and drank our rakjia. Some of the Partisans spoke English and we kept up a lively conversation to drown the conference between Steve and Radicic until they broke it up and joined us for a round of the fiery little drinks. It was half-past three by the time we set out afoot through driving rain to find our ship and proceed to the coast.
The "ship" proved to be a tiny launch some twenty-five feet long which the Partisans had baptized The Chetnik. I learned later that it bore this name for two reasons, the first of which was that it had been captured from the Chetniks— or perhaps that was the second reason—and the other was that they had very little confidence in it and thoroughly disliked it into the bargain. I learned, too, that their judgment was quite sound in this matter. The Chetnik performed satisfactorily for us on this occasion, but a week later we were lost at sea in her and escaped being pounded to death on the rocks only after a night-long battle in big seas and finally in the breakers.
As we left Starigrad we were grateful for the bad weather. Ahead of us there lay a difficult course through water patrolled by heavily, armed German boats. All of us, including the mechanic and the pilot, were armed with sub-machine guns, but against the German boats with their heavy-caliber mounted machine guns we might as well be armed with peashooters. Our only chance was to go through unseen.
Again ^nd again during the next five hours we came within a hair's breadth of foundering in the rough water. The pilot explained that in normal times, when the sea was quiet, The Chetnik could safely cruise right over the mine-fields, but with the water as choppy as it was that night he feared we might crash into one of the infernal devices unless he kept to the channels. Having thus explained, he followed an erratic course, now clinging to the northern shore of the expanse between the islands, now crossing two or three miles of open water to hug the shoreline on the southern side; but the weather was too much for him and twice we were carried into the areas he was trying to avoid. Each time he nudged Tim and me, grinning, and, pointing straight down through the bottom of the miserable launch: "Mines," he would say, laconically. He would then steer with his knee on the wheel in order to have his two arms free to make a great circle, indicating how big they were, and his expressive face would register appropriate dismay. Tim and I tried to sleep, but there was no suitable place to lie down. We were drenched to the skin, and, besides, it was much too rough. Even in this foul weather we were challenged from every headland by Partisan sentries who fired one shot to ask for recognition signals. These we gave them with a flashlight, using that night's code, then passed on unmolested. But when morning came it found
us still at sea.
None of us liked this at all. We knew the pin-point on the coast where we expected to meet Colonel Ilic was a tiny village just four miles from an important Ustasha garrison. It was dangerous enough to approach it under cover of darkness. Now we were condemned to cross three miles of open water after leaving the comparative shelter of the channel
between the islands in full view of the enemy positions, but there was no shelter on the tip of the islands and no other reasonable course was open to us.
"We'll just have to pray for rain, good, thick, heavy rain," said Steve. He had been very silent throughout the trip from Starigrad, obviously thinking of the message in his pocket, and I had judged the time and place inopportune to question him about it.
Perhaps he prayed. The pilot and the mechanic looked as though they were praying. I doubt if Tim prayed. I searched about in my musette bag and found an extra clip for the Marlin and thrust it in the pocket of my coat.
There was a faint mist on the open reach of water as we came out from between the islands a minute or two after eight o'clock—and no rain. The pilot, grim-faced, laid a course straight for the shore. Tim, resourceful as usual, opened a can of bully-beef and sliced up a loaf of black bread Steve had brought with him from Headquarters. He made open sandwiches with steady hands and passed one to each of us, then found a bottle of Vis wine and opened it. The pilot, an old man—too old to be a Partisan—watched him overtly. He accepted his food with shining eyes and held the feast before him admiringly before biting into it, then he took a gulp of wine from the bottle Tim passed him.
"What a wonderful breakfast!" he said, almost reverently. "It is the finest breakfast I have had since Christmas—not last Christmas but the one before."
"Goddamn it," said Tim aside to me, turning his face away. "These people tear your heart out."
There were rifles cracking up the coast as the stupendous mountain range that rises almost sheer out of the sea loomed suddenly immense and beautiful before us. We were close now. The Ustasha knew, of course, that the Partisans were on the coast where we were landing. It seemed improbable that they would consider it worth a serious batde to come after a prize as trivial as we must have looked to them. They probably assumed that no one of any importance would be fool enough to venture across that open water in the daylight. . . .
Friends rushed down to the water's edge to catch our coiling rope and help us in.
We stepped ashore, this time with the mainland of Jugoslavia underfoot! I thought again of Audrey.