Bill Todd -- A Man of Three Names
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 Chapter 14

The End of the HEIKE HEIDLER

Rebecca, in a wheel chair, turned out to be more dangerous than before. Elsie, the nurse's aide whom she had bullied into total submission, was a small woman who could nevertheless push the chair at an alarming rate of speed. Elsie was capable of even greater speed, at least over a short distance, when Rebecca reached back and pinched her arm painfully in a demand for increased performance. A man with a bagel in his hand, walking at a comfortable speed, would be quickly overtaken. Dr. Narrison and Paul Hamilton were, in fact, being overtaken when Paul said,

"If only there were a little hill. Elsie wouldn't be able to push her up the grade."

"It's as flat as the ocean here. This is what it feels like when you're being overtaken by a faster more powerful ship. If there's no fog, there's nothing you can do."

"We could run."

"I have a better idea."

Turning to meet Rebecca and Elsie, Dr. Narrison held up his hand for them to stop and said,

"The left wheel's coming off."

Bending to inspect it as Rebecca sputtered and the less mobile Ursula bellowed in the distance, he said to Elsie with his old captain's voice,

"Wheel her slowly back and have the maintenance man change that wheel."

After they had resumed their walk, Paul asked quietly,

"There wasn't anything wrong with the wheel, was there?"

"There is now. I squeezed two spokes together and bent them."

"Gee, doc, you really can think fast. I bet that helped when you had that raiding ship."

"Now and then, it was important to make decisions quickly."

"How did it end, anyhow?"

"The HEIKE HEIDLER blew up."

"Blew up?"

After settling the captured seamen ashore and leaving the Kerguelen Islands, they proceeded north-northeast in the direction of Sumatra. Again steaming at a moderate speed to conserve coal and steering to avoid the ships that they saw on the horizons, it took weeks to reach the vicinity of land. More often than ever, Leif and Manfred had conversations in English on the wing of the bridge. There was fresh news of German defeats, and the the matter of exiting gracefully and painlessly from the war became incresingly urgent.

The discussions seldom reached any definite conclusions, but the two men did agree that it would be well to be in a neutral environment, that of the Dutch East Indies. They should then be able to manage in some way. Unfortunately, as they steamed slowly northward, with a noticeably moderating climate each day, there were signs that the crew was becoming increasingly restless.

Leif couldn't imagine that there would be an actual mutiny, but there were direct questions as to their destination and goals from the former petty officers of a sort not usually put to a captain. Leif replied that they were heading for a neutral port in Sumatra to pick up supplies and news of the war. He and Manfred both thought that, if they actually did so, there would be some desertions. Moreover, remembering the ship sunk in the Plate, that could constitute a problem.

The southern part of the Indian Ocean coast of Sumatra rises steeply to a mountain range, and it was clearly visible from the bridge one morning. Leaving the inhabited Enngano Island well off to port, they made for the coast at a point half-way between the villages of Krui and Radjabatsa. Krui, examined with binoculars in the intense tropical sun, seemed to be a mere collection of huts. Nowhere to be seen was the neutral port promised to the crew, but Leif, speaking German to Manfred within the hearing of the helmsman, said that he intended to follow the coast-line until they came to a port. He was sure that this intention would reach the rest of the crew when the helmsman went off duty in a half-hour's time.

Letting the ship drift frequently to take soundings, they came within a half mile of the blue-green mountains and dropped anchor. Backing the ship gently as the chain rumbled and paid out through the hawse-hole, Leif waited until the anchor caught to ring off the engines. With the ship swinging peacefully at her tether, and a large Argentine flag rippling at her stern, there was just enough breeze to make life bearable under the large canvas awnings that were soon rigged. Leif then gave the order to muster all hands on deck.

As the men assembled, Leif assessed them. Some were glad to be anchored in neutral waters, and hence safe from English cruisers. Others were exasperated, afraid that the war was being won in Europe while they marked time many thousands of miles away. Yet others wanted to be at sea, taking ships and accumulating petty booty. Finally, they were all lined up in their ranks, every man on the ship except for Manfred. He, as often, was below fooling with some of his electrical gadgetry.

Leif announced, carefully speaking his best German, that they needed news of the war in order to know what to do next. With that end in mind, he and the first lieutenant would go ashore in order to find natives who spoke one of the many languages they could understand. With luck, they might even find a newspaper in a remote village.

There were no cheers at this announcement, but the crew was used to the idea that only he and Manfred could pass themselves off as something other than Germans. Leif then announced that the second lieutenant would be in command during his absence, which might amount to a day or more. They would keep look-outs, but there was no need to man the guns and torpedoes in the intense heat below decks. That last announcement brought something of a collective sigh of relief.

In the low sea that was running there was still too much surf to make a landing easy. Leif and Manfred scrambled on to the steep shore, getting wet in the process, and the rowers were instructed to return to the ship and await their signal.

As Dr. Narrison explained it to Paul,

"There were no signs of habitation where we landed, no trails along the wooded mountainside or anything. So we climbed, carrying our water with us. We had gone up about five hundred feet when we stopped to rest in a small shaded clearing that looked over the sea. We were extremely thirsty, and, as there was a little stream nearby, we didn't have to worry about exhausting our water.

I happened to be looking at the ship when there was a tremendous flash of light. Of course, the sunlight was terribly bright anyway, but this light was of a different color. Then, the bridge structure rose right up, perhaps a hundred feet in the air. It looked for an instant as if it were resting on the cloud of smoke beneath it. I might have taken it for one of those mirages which are so common in the southern ocean, except that the sound then reached us. It went on rending and roaring, like a hundred thunderclaps all at once, for several seconds."

Paul looked both horrified and fascinated, and Dr. Narrison continued,

"Since the wind was light, it took some little time for the great volume of dark gray smoke to clear away. When it did, there was nothing left except waves spreading out in concentric circles, as if a great boulder had been dropped into the ocean."

"I can hardly imagine that."

Paul spoke literally, as if he were trying to produce an image in front of his eyes, and Dr. Narrison explained,

"It had to be a magazine explosion. A surface raider had to carry a tremendous amount of ammunition and many torpedoes. More than a cruiser."

"What could have caused it?"

"We never found out. An electric motor near the magazines might have overheated and started a fire. Or anything. Anyhow, there were no survivors to question."

"No survivors at all?"

"No. We looked closely, but we couldn't see anyone swimming or clinging to wreckage."

Leif and Manfred had, in fact, looked extremely carefully. They even came part-way back down so that they could see more clearly. It was surprising that there weren't men standing on deck who might have been blown clear. But even they might have been killed by the pressure of the blast. After a couple of hours, a northerly breeze picked up and began to blow the considerable amount of floating debris off-shore. They could still see no life, and, after another hour, they re-traced their steps back up the mountain.

Bill Todd -- A Man of Three Names
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