Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 14

The Vagrants

It seemed, in a way, the height of foolishness to park a truck full of explosive in a patch of waste ground between a boat builder's yard and a rocky hillock covered with abandoned machinery. There wasn't any obvious way of locking the load, and Sam could imagine curious and larcenous teen- aged boys loosening the tarps and crawling in to see what could be had. That first night, he slept in the cab as a precaution.

The next day, the Tso family came down to inspect the explosive. No one was around to see when they climbed up and opened one of the crates. Inside, there were the bags or cordite designed to fit into the breeches of eight inch guns and fire the shells. The general cut a small hole in one with his pocket knife and inspected the powder. He proclaimed,

"We've never used this kind of cordite, but there's no reason to doubt it."

Even Shih-ninh agreed that it would attract undue attention to explode one bag as a test. Yo-wen pointed out,

"People with our sorts of experience don't need to practice."

Sam and Shih-ninh then drove the truck to an abandoned railway engine house at the edge of the rail yard in which they had set up their headquarters. It was half falling down, one side ending in a cascade of bricks. At the moment, there was a down-and-out looking middle-aged man loading bricks into the front basket of a bicycle propped against a disused telephone pole. Sam greeted him in a friendly fashion, but the man gave him a hostile glare and said,

"These here are my bricks."

Sam didn't translate for Shih-ninh, who might have taken exception, and picked up a couple of bricks. The other man, who seemed to be a genuine German vagrant, said nothing, only turning his back. While Sam was handing bricks up to Shih- ninh, in the truck, the vagrant got on his bike and started off down the path. Unfortunately, he had loaded too many bricks into the basket attached to the handle bars, and lost control. There was a spectacular crash into the bushes with the bicycle and rider upended and bricks flying everywhere. Sam, remembering his own bicycle crashes, rushed up delightedly in the role of a connaisseur of the art.

The vagrant was lying on his back, kicking feebly like a damaged insect and cursing. It appeared that he was also half drunk. Sam's words of congratulation for his crash were possibly misinterpreted, but it hardly made any difference. Shih-ninh had jumped down from the truck to observe, and, together, they got the man back on his bike. They then placed only a reasonable number of bricks in his basket. The vagrant made it some distance out to the road, where he was observed to crash again, but Sam and Shih-ninh got back to work.

It took hours to get enough bricks and rubble to cover the crates of cordite without adding too much weight. Then, when they returned to their parking place, they found an old bus full of people.

At first, Sam thought that they might be gypsies. But some were blonde, and they were overheard to speak an ordinary German dialect. They were obviously living in the bus, probably moving from town to town one step ahead of the police, and they had evidently spotted that bit of waste land in much the way that Sam had. While they had some vagrant characteristics, they didn't seem much like the gentleman of their recent acquaintance who had such difficulty with his bicycle. However, Sam reflected, there would be as many varieties of vagrants as there were of, say, college professors.

On closer inspection, they counted a middle-aged man and woman, two boys who looked to be in their late teens, two young women, and two young children. There was an air of fecundity about them, and Sam wondered idly whether a loving couple banished the others from the bus when they had sex. He waved casually to them when he got down from the cab, and a couple of the women waved back. Sam said to Shih-ninh,

"I'm not sure if this is good or bad."

"Those boys are thieves. They'll be all over the truck the minute we leave."

"They may all be thieves. One of us will have to stay here all the time."

"Sooner or later, they'll get caught stealing, and the police will come here."

"No police of any country would want to arrest a bunch of women and children. Policemen want to keep things simple and avoid any kind of extra work or trouble. Having a jailhouse full of screaming kids is trouble."

"If they just arrest the men, the others will swarm over the town's refuse bins like locusts."

"The American police would beat up the men and run the whole lot out of town. They wouldn't worry about creating problems for some other town."

"But, Sam, wouldn't the police wonder who we were if they came for the vagrants?"

"It could be awkward. But that may not happen for some time. In fact, these vagrants look a lot more pulled-together than the man on the bike. They may well leave before they get into trouble. People like that are good at reading the signs, and it's no fun to be beaten by the police."

Oddly, Shih-ninh seemed to have more respect than anyone else for Sam's worldly wisdom. He nodded and replied,

"Well, even if there weren't vagrants, we couldn't leave the truck unguarded."

"And the advantage is that the vagrants will keep busybodies away. No respectable German will come anywhere near them."

"We just need to convince them not to mess with us. We could pick fights with the man and boys and hurt them a little."

Sam and Shih-ninh practiced various Asian martial arts, and Sam knew that the other's idea of hurting someone a little might put him in the hospital. He instead suggested that they put on a judo and mixed arts demonstration of their own. The baked ground was harder than a mat, but their break-falls were good.

Mixing in some gung-fu blows with judo throws and the yells that went with them, they put on one of the demonstrations that so amused Yo-wen and her father, and had initially horrified Brenda. Ending with various strangle holds that they seemed to just barely escape, they noticed that the vagrants were all watching from a suitable distance. Getting up, Shih-ninh pointed at them and snarled, as if he were suggesting to Sam that they combine forces to rout the newcomers.

The vagrants all had blank faces, and Sam said to Shih- ninh,

"I think this is a little out of their experience, but I'm sure they're impressed."

"One of us will still have to stay here."

"I'll do the first stint. Take the bicycle and tell the others what's going on."

After Shih-ninh left, Sam still felt the need for exercise. Their demonstration had been long on dramatics, but lacked the intensity of a real judo match in which most attempted throws are blocked. He found, however, that he could run in circles of about a quarter mile around the area while still keeping watch on the truck.

It wasn't long before the man and two male teen-agers trudged off toward the town. Sam wasn't sure whether they sought occasional work, picked trash, or shop-lifted. It probably all depended on the circumstances.

After running for about an hour, Sam drank from the water bottle they kept in the cab. He then lay on the seat with his head propped up on some clothing. Leaving the door ajar, he could watch the vagrants without being very obvious about it.

Two of the women dragged a large can and basin out of the bus, set them on the ground, and began washing clothes. The first problem in such a life, he realized, was getting water, not only for drinking but washing. He himself had no idea, aside from buying bottled water, how to get it. His only thought was that, since they were near the harbor wharves, there might be a source of fresh water for the boats. But what would the fishermen think of vagrants traipsing on to the wharves with a variety of cans and bottles?

He was pondering this matter further when, to his surprise, Brenda rode up on a bicycle. She was dressed as a German woman would be for shopping, and, when she jumped up into the cab, she said,

"I've heard all about your foray to get explosives. Those must be the vagrants over there."

"Did Shih-ninh tell you about them?"

"In some detail. He even estimated the bust size for each of the young ladies. Did you help him form those estimates?"

"I don't talk with him about things like that."

"He must think you're too much of a gentleman. Anyhow, it looks as if we'll have to set up housekeeping here in the truck."

"You aren't actually proposing to sleep here, are you?"

"Only when it's your turn to stay here. Shih-ninh will have to manage by himself. At least unless he can seduce one of those women."

Sam was amazed but pleased as Brenda took stock of things. She then announced,

"This shelf behind the seat is wide enough for me to sleep. I'll get some padding and blankets for both of us."

Sam explained the problem of water, saying that the women opposite had apparently found some. Without a word, she got out of the cab and approached the women. He watched as she communicated with gestures and her fragments of German. She was soon back, saying,

"There's a gas station down the road with a water tap on the side. My guess is that one of them buys a little gas at a time while the rest fill up their water containers."

"What did they seem like?"

"Rather pleasant. Not what you'd expect. Of course, my communication is pretty basic. I didn't try Latin on them, but, for all I know, it might have worked."

"I suppose everyone goes to the bathroom in those bushes over there."

"Another alternative would be to go right behind the vehicle, and back it up a few feet every day."

"An interesting thought, but we'll have to drive the truck a little every day to make sure it stays in working order."

"Well, it's the bushes then. I expect we'll be meeting our neighbors there."

"Otherwise, we can simply buy everything we need, including ice."

"We might also find the German equivalent of a truck stop. Then we could spend less time in the bushes."

"I could get the carburettor thoroughly cleaned. They might even be able to suck the gunk out of the gas tank."

"Okay, Sam, everything can be worked out."

"Yes. I do wonder a little about Shih-ninh. He did speak of picking fights with the vagrants."

"Then his sister had better stay with him. She can sleep on the shelf once I get it fixed up."

"This is all going to seem quite confusing to the vagrants."

"People like that learn not to ask questions. Still less do they go near the police to report anything."

A little later, Brenda went to the bushes. On her way back, she talked with the women who were still washing, more extensively this time. She then reported to Sam,

"The older woman, the one I didn't see the first time, has fairly good English. She seems to trust me, and it turns out that they really aren't vagrants. Her husband is a retired engineer, and they have a home near Essen. She hinted strongly that they're doing this to keep the two boys from being drafted into the army."

"So they took the whole family, including grandchildren, on the road?"

"Yes. The children belong to one of the daughters, a young widow. They're making the best of things with a certain grim humor."

"People really go to lengths, don't they?"

"Yes. But it probably comes down to saving the lives of the boys. Any decent family would do something of the sort."

"Practically every German I've met is against war and doesn't want to have anything to do with the army or the Gestapo. How can they fight a war under those circumstances?"

"We meet a skewed sample, Sam. They have plenty of patriotic crazies."

Sam got a coded message early in August that Jack Morris had acquired a fifty foot ketch. Sam wondered what he might do for crew. Once underway, a single person could manage, but there was always the possibility of a gale, not to mention the problems of getting in and out of harbors and anchoring. Not only that, if Jack were to cruise off the coast for days on end, there would have to be someone to share watches. Moreover, the person recruited would have to be comfortable with the idea of taking off people who had just blown up a building.

Since there were only the most rudimentary communications with Jack by letter, Sam went to Hamburg to place a call. The tentative plan was to offer him Shih-ninh if he couldn't find anyone else.

It took most of a day to get through to Jack. He had hired a young man to help him take the ketch out for a couple of trial runs in the channel, and all had gone smoothly. But, of course, his assistant was an ordinary young Englishman who couldn't be used in the planned operation. With no helper in sight, he planned simply to sail by himself and anchor in the fairly shallow open waters of the Channel and North Sea whenever he needed to sleep.

It was, of course, a plan conceived in desperation, and Jack was so overjoyed to be getting Shih-ninh that he didn't ask any questions. Sam did tell him a little about Shih-ninh and arranged a meeting between them in the little port of Newhaven. They also planned some practice ocean meetings at a point five miles offshore from Rosbeck. In any case, Jack would remain near enough shore to see and hear any large explosion in the town and react accordingly.

Shih-ninh wasn't happy. He wanted to see the explosion from a closer vantage point, but he was promised an adventure of a different sort. And, of course, he came from a military family. He did take direct orders.

Shih-ninh's departure the next day meant that Sam and Brenda spent every night in the truck. That actually presented no great problem. The others took turns during the day, and it gave them plenty of time to clean up and re- organize in their apartments. Moreover, the vagrants, ever more friendly, were still there. Sam had presented himself as a student with no money who lived in a truck, and, even though that pretense was becoming ever less plausible, no questions were asked. The vagrants themselves seemed to have enough money to buy what they needed, and did nothing to attract the attention of the police. It was unwise for the boys to be seen around much, and, since they were usually engaged in pursuing their studies in the bus, the guarding of the truck could probably have been left to them. But, of course, there was no reason to take unnecessary chances.

Since it now looked as if they would escape by rowboat, it was necessary to practice. Brenda did wonder if anyone had ever escaped from anything by rowboat, but Sam was able to reassure her,

"When Poland was still part of Russia, some Polish revolutionists, led by the young Pilsudski, planned to rob a bank in Kiev, and then escape by rowboat into the nearby Pripet marches."

"How'd it go?"

"One member of the party developed serious girl friend problems, and the raid had to be cancelled."

"That sounds rather like us. I hope you don't develop serious girl friend problems."

"I think I've finally found a problem-free girl friend. Do you think you can watch the truck while I take Yo-wen and the general out to practice rowing?"

"Sure. If the police arrive to search the truck, the jig is up anyway. Short of that, I now have enough German to scream and curse at any tramp who might wander by and drive him off."

"Yes, I dare say."

There were two rowing seats, each easily wide enough to accomodate a person at each oar. Sam, of course, was used to rowing the boat alone, taking both oars on the after seat. He thus seated the Tsos on the foreward seat. Since he would be facing aft, he wouldn't be able to observe their activities. That, he thought was probably just as well.

Yo-wen was strong and athletic, but, as far as Sam knew, had never been near a rowboat. The general had always been active, and daily performed a kind of vigorous T'ai chi Sam hadn't seen elsewhere. But, again, it was hard to predict what would happen.

As they emerged from the canal into the harbor, Sam heard some loud and irregular oar splashes behind him, together with some grunts and curses. But plenty of energy was being generated, and they went faster than Sam could on his own. Half way out of the harbor, he briefly stopped rowing to see what would happen. They kept moving, but on an irregular course. Then there were some furious words in Chinese, too fast for him to catch, but it sounded as if there were mutual recriminations. Sam then started rowing again. His friends could supply a lot of power and speed, but he'd have to row the whole time to keep the boat straight and avoid dissension in the crew.

They ended up rowing some three hours, not at all bad for a first time. Yo-wen and her father didn't tire quickly, and even ignored the blisters they had developed from the oars. With gloves and a little more efficiency in their strokes, they should be able to row most of the night.

When they got back to the truck, the bus was gone and Brenda was baby-sitting for the semi-vagrant children. The others had driven off, fearing a visit from the police. Sam was rather alarmed, but Brenda said,

"Some officious person went up to the older boy in town yesterday, and asked him why he wasn't in the army."

Yo-wen asked,

"Was there anything to connect him with this place?"

"No. Anyway, he gave his standard answer that he's a Swiss tourist. But we thought it might be well to play safe and keep him out of sight today. They're taking a little excursion, and will be back just after dark."

Yo-wen and her father took the bicycles and headed back to the town to soothe their tired muscles in warm baths. Brenda asked,

"Will I also have to learn to row?"

"Not really. I take one pair of oars, and that leaves only two rowing positions. But it might not hurt in case of emergency. We need to get some gloves first. I row without them, but my hands are used to it."

"Yo-wen has blisters all over her hands. They'll take some time to heal."

"Well, we can't take action until Annaliese and Otto are off next week, and it'll probably be another week before Jack gets his boat into position."

"I hope it won't be too long, Sam. The suspense is beginning to get to me."

"Me, too. Yo-wen and her father don't seem much affected. I suppose they've always been between battles."

"How can people go on like that for years on end?"

"I think it's deadening in a certain way. They don't think about certain things."

"There is something missing in both of them. I sensed it right off."

"They're certainly different from other people."

"Was Yo-wen already like that when you first knew her?"

"At seventeen, she was so wild that it was hard to tell. But she's more organized and determined now. There was a whimsical streak that seems to have disappeared."

"She doesn't seem at all whimsical now. But she can solve problems."

"Yes. I'm happy to do what she and her father recommend. I'd be a lot more worried without them."

"It's funny, Sam. You're quite fearless when it comes to action, but you're afraid to make decisions."

"That's why I surround myself with people like yourself, who can make them."

Bill Todd -- DANDERTON: A Novel of the Thirties and Forties
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page