Authors: Louis L'Amour
To the memory of all those soldiers,
sailors, and pilots of fortune from whom
I learned so much during my knockabout days.
HERE HAVE BEEN, in every period of civilization, those men (and some women) who have lived on the outer fringes. They were frequent on our own frontiers as well as in Australia, the Pacific islands, Africa, Canada, Latin America, and wherever else men faced the unknown with the chance of wealth or fame for the survivors. The men of whom I write in the stories in this collection were such adventurers.
Back in my pre-World War II knockabout days, I got to know a lot of men like my heroes Turk Madden, Mike Thorne, and Steve Cowan. Some were exploring the jungle for gold, diamonds, or orchids. Others sought their fortune fishing for pearls, prospecting for oil, or flying planes for Chinese warlords. Many of them had a boss, but some were loners operating on a shoestring out in the great beyond.
My Turk Madden stories grew out of an unrealized dream I shared with one of the latter fortune seekers. I’d become friendly with a bush pilot who would land a seaplane on a wet handkerchief if the price was right. He had been flying prospectors and planters, among others, to various sites in the remote Amazon-Orinoco country. Over coffee in a cafe we developed the idea of starting an express-passenger operation in what is now called Indonesia.
From previous experience I knew there were people willing to pay premium prices for speedy transportation and delivery of express or freight to places where boats rarely called. There appeared to be enough small but valuable cargo around, in addition to passengers, to allow us to show a profit—at least on paper.
But before we did more than dream about it, my stories began selling to the action pulp magazines back home and I elected to give all my attention to my writing. But I never did drop this whole idea entirely for I created Turk Madden, who did tramp piloting for a living.
As men who spent a lot of time on the waterfront when not airborne, it was inevitable that Madden, Thorne, and Cowan would be drawn into the intrigue of World War II. For they trafficked information as well as people and cargo, and to those of us who have worked along the docks of the world, there is little information that can be kept secret for very long. If you’re interested and reasonably alert you usually know what cargo is being shipped where and often can figure out why.
Many of us working dockside or as seamen in the East Indies in the late thirties got our first hint of what Germany and Japan were planning for the world when groups of their citizens began showing up unexpectedly in some of the smaller outlying ports. Were they stockpiling supplies for future raiders? Were they checking harbors, coves, and river mouths that might be used by merchant raiders? But once men started unloading unusually large shipments of sensitive Japanese and German cargo, we suspected a more disturbing motivation for their presence.
The more resourceful intelligence agents, like my Steve Cowan character, often get their best information not through subterfuge but just by listening in the right places. I was able to write about pocket submarines in a story about the East Indies, which I’ll include in another collection, two years before the vessels first appeared at Pearl Harbor because early word had leaked out about them in the Pacific ports I visited. There are few secrets when men who do the work talk together, and I observed a lot of listeners as well as did a lot of listening myself back then.
I’m reminded of the time my small ship got the better of a large German freighter, which, typically, was discharging cargo but taking on very little. One of their seamen defected and came aboard our ship looking for a job. We were short-handed so we took him on. When they came looking for him we had him in the shaft alley, where they did not think to look. There was considerable discussion over him, and our captain was ashore several times talking to our consul, but when we sailed he was still aboard.
Preparing these stories for publication brought back a lot of old memories of other times. I almost wish I was back there on the waterfront again with the smell of the sea, tar, and spoiling fruit. I liked those off-the-end-of-the-world seaports like Gorontalo, Amurang, Hollandia, Port Moresby, and Broome as they used to be. I liked the people who inspired these stories just as they were, too. I wish some of them were still around to talk to and learn from. But I believe we will surely find their descendants mining on the moon and Mars, capturing asteroids, or finding the remnants of other lives at the outer limits of the solar system in the century to come.
NIGHT OVER THE SOLOMONS
This story concerns the discovery of a Japanese base on the island of Kolombangara in the Solomon during World War II. Shortly after my story was published the Navy discovered this Japanese base of which I had written. I am sure my story had nothing to do with its discovery and doubt if the magazine in which it was published had reached the South Pacific at the time.
My decision to locate a Japanese base on Kolombangara was not based upon any inside information but upon simple logic. We had troops fighting on Guadalcanal. If the Japanese wished to harass our supply lines, where would they locate their base?
From my time at sea I had a few charts and I dug out the one of the Solomons. Kolobangara was the obvious solution. There was a place where an airfield could be built, a deep harbor where ships could bring supplies and lie unnoticed unless a plane flew directly over the harbor, which was well hidden. No doubt the Japanese had used the same logic in locating their base and the Navy discovering it.
My story however, offers an intersting coincidence. It offers two of them, in fact.
The lead character, an American named Mike Thorne, reaches shore from a torpedoed ship. My story was published in 1943. On January 31, that same year, Capt. Jefferson DeBlanc shot down three Japanese planes and was himself shot down, bailing out just above the water and injuring his back and legs. With the aid of his life jacket he swam to shore on Kolobangara.
On August 2nd of that same year a young man named Jack Kennedy, his PT boat sunk at sea, made it to shore with some shipmates on one of several islets off the coast of Kolombngara.
Sometimes the imagination precedes reality.
NIGHT OVER THE SOLOMONS
E WAS LYING face down under the mangroves about forty feet back from the sea on the southwest side of Kolombangara Island in the Solomons.
For two hours he had been lying without moving a muscle while two dozen Japanese soldiers worked nearby, preparing a machine-gun position.
Where he lay there were shadows, and scattered driftwood. He was concealed only by his lack of movement, although the outline of his body was blurred by broken timber and some odds and ends of rubbish, drifted ashore.
Now, the soldiers worked farther away. He believed they would soon move on. Then, and then only, would he dare to move. To be found, he knew, meant instant death.
He was dressed only in a ragged shirt, and the faded serge pants hastily donned in his escape from the sinking ship. The supply ship had been bombed and sunk in Blackett Strait, en route to Guadalcanal. If there were other survivors, he had seen none of them.
That he had lived while others died was due to one thing, and one thing only—he was, first and last, a fighting man, with the fighting man’s instinct for timed, decisive action.
He was not, he reflected, much of a soldier. He was too strongly an individualist for that. He liked doing things his own way, and his experience in China and elsewhere had proved it a good way.
He lay perfectly still. The sun was hot on his back, and beneath him the sand was hot. The shadow that had offered partial concealment had moved now, the sun shone directly down upon him. From his memory of the mangrove’s arch he believed he would lack the shadow no more than fifteen minutes. It might be too long.
Yet he dare not move. He was not in uniform, and could be killed as a spy. But the Japanese were not given to hair splitting on International Law. He was ashore on an island supposedly deserted, an island where the Japanese were apparently building a strong position.
Overhead, a plane suddenly moaned in a dive, then came out, and from the corner of his eye he saw it skim the ragged edge of the crater and vanish.
That Japanese was a flier. Say what one would about them, they could fly.
In his mind he studied the situation. Soon, he could move. When he moved he must know exactly where he was going and what he intended to do. There must be no hesitation.
Behind him lay the sea. It promised nothing. Before him, the jungle. He had no need to study the island, for he knew it like the back of his hand. He hadn’t visited Kolombangara for several years, but his memory was excellent.
Two rounded ridges lifted toward a square-topped crater. The crater itself was the end of an imposing ridge of volcanic rock, not far from Shoulder Hill. Both ridge and hill extended downward from one side of what had once been an enormous crater that had at some distant time been ripped asunder, exposing the entrails of the mountain.
Now, jungle growth had healed the surface of the wound, leaving the riven crater divided into two magnificent gullies whose walls lifted five thousand feet above the sea. Their lofty pinnacles lost themselves in the clouds, towering above a scene majestic in its savage splendor.
HOSE RUGGED SLOPES offered concealment. They might offer food. It was characteristic of Mike Thorne not to think of a weapon. He had his hands. When the time came he would take his weapon from the Japanese.
They would be concentrated near Bambari Harbor. Not large, but perfectly sheltered, it offered excellent concealment from all but close aerial reconnaissance. What supplies the Japanese would need must be landed there. That they were ready for trouble was obvious from their careful preparation of machine-gun and mortar positions at this spot. Here, if necessary, a landing could be effected.
Something big was in the wind. Obviously, this was intended as base for a sudden and terrific blow at the American flank. From here a mighty blow could be unleashed at the American forces on Guadalcanal and other Solomon positions. Somewhere on the island the Japanese had a secret landing field.
Suddenly, he tensed. Directly before him there was a stealthy movement in the jungle. A second later, ghostlike, he saw a Japanese soldier slide through the jungle. Even at the bare thirty feet that separated them, the man was all but invisible.
Fascinated by something he was stalking, the Japanese was crouched, staring ahead. He moved again, and vanished.
Mike scowled. What was this?
Something in the manner of the man told Thorne the soldier was closing in for a kill. His intended victim, being an enemy of the Japanese must be a friend of Thorne.
The American hesitated. To lie still was to remain safe. To interfere was to risk his own freedom or even his life.
Thorne moved. He left the ground in a swift, deadly rush that brought him to the edge of the jungle. Sliding into the dense cover, every sense alert, Mike’s big hands opened, then closed. They were all he had, his only weapon.
Stealthily, he advanced. The Japanese had paused and was lifting his rifle. Then, surprisingly, the fellow lowered his gun and Mike, closing in, saw his teeth bare in an ugly grimace. Wetting his lips the Japanese moved forward.
In that instant, Mike saw the girl. She was not twenty feet from the Japanese, facing the opposite direction. She had paused, listening.
Catlike, the Japanese whirled, stabbing at Mike’s throat with the bayonet.
Instantly, Thorne slapped the blade aside with an open hand and moving in, dropped the other over his opponent, at the same time hooking a heel to trip him. With a quick push, he spilled him and snatched the rifle away.
A shot rang out, and Mike wheeled to see two Japanese coming toward him on the jump. Dropping to one knee, Thorne fired, once, twice. Both men spilled to the ground.
PRINGING UP, MIKE was just in time to meet the barehanded rush of the soldier he had disarmed. But as he jerked the bayonet up, it hung on a liana, and before he could free it, the Japanese had leaped upon him. Thorne staggered back, losing his grip on the rifle, and clawing desperately to get the man’s hands free from his throat.
Fighting like madmen, they hit the ground hard. His opponent tried to knee him, but Mike rolled away, driving a powerful right to the man’s midsection. The Japanese tried to squirm out, but Thorne was fighting savagely. He leaped up and rushed his enemy, smashing him against the bole of a huge tree with stunning impact.
The man’s grip broke, and he fell away. Mike struck out viciously and the soldier crumpled.
“Quick! This way!” Glancing up, Thorne saw the girl beckoning, and out of the tail of his eye he glimpsed a rush of movement across the space where lately he had waited his chance.
Wheeling, he ran after the girl. Vaulting a fallen tree, he plunged into the brush. The girl ran swiftly, picking her ground with the skill of long familiarity.
Suddenly, she stopped. Holding up her hand for stillness, she began to worm swiftly through the jungle. Mike followed. This way, with their momentary start, they might elude the Japanese. The girl was working her way along the ridge, when Mike recalled the cavern.
“This way!” he whispered hoarsely. “Up!”
The girl hesitated, then followed. Mike Thorne took a path that led steadily upward, at times almost closing in around them. Behind, the sounds of pursuit increased, then suddenly died away. The Japanese were cautious now, but they were coming on.
Ruthless and determined, they would be relentless in pursuit. It had ceased to be a matter of hiding away until he could escape. By interfering he had sacrificed all possibility of that. Now it was a matter of a fight to the death.
Once, halting beneath a towering crag, he glanced at the girl. For the first time he realized how lovely she was. Despite the jungle, the desperation of their climb and the heat, she was beautiful.
He was suddenly conscious of his own appearance, the torn uniform and scuffed boots—his open shirt stained with perspiration and his hair, naturally curly now a black tangle over his dark, sun-browned face.
“What will we do now?” she asked. “I know Ishimaru. He’ll never stop until we are both killed.”
Thorne shrugged. “We can’t run for long,” he said. “We’ve got to fight.”
“But we can’t,” the girl protested. “There are only two of us, and we are unarmed!”
Mike Thorne smiled grimly. “So what? No matter how small one’s force there is always a place where attack can be effective. There’s only one method of war in the last analysis. Only one winning method. Attack always. If you have a squad, and the enemy a regiment, you look for a spot where a squad can attack. Maybe there’s a patrol you can knock off, maybe there’s a sudden raid you can make.
“Hit hard and keep moving. It does the job every time. That’s what we’ll do. We’ve got to keep them so busy protecting themselves they can’t take time to look for us properly.
“See, kid? They’ve got a secret base here. They are getting set for an attack on Guadalcanal. An attack now, from here, could do a terrific amount of damage. So they don’t dare let anything happen here. We’ll see that plenty happens.”
URNING, HE LED the way up a steep mountain path. They were leaving the heavier jungle behind and worming a precarious way through a maze of gigantic boulders, enormous volcanic crags, and beds of lava. It was a strange, unbelievable world, a world of rocks that looked like frozen flame.
Suddenly they were in a gray fog layer, and Mike stopped, glancing back. They were in the low clouds now, over four thousand feet above the sea.
The girl came up to him. He glanced at her curiously.
“What in the world are you doing in these islands?” he demanded. “At a time like this?”
She smoothed her hair and looked at him.
“My father was here. He persisted in staying on, regardless of everything. But he told me that if the Japanese did come to the Solomons, he would leave Tulagi and come here. There was a place we both knew where he could hide. And he didn’t believe they would bother with Kolombangara.”
“That’s just the trouble,” Mike said grimly. “Nobody thinks they will. That still doesn’t tell me how you got here.”
“I flew. I’ve had my own plane for several years. I learned to fly in California, and after I returned here, it was easy for me to fly back and forth, to cruise among the islands. I was in Perth when the Japanese came, and they wouldn’t let me come back after Daddy.
“Then, three days ago, I finally succeeded. I took off and landed here at Bambari Harbor, and when I went ashore, the Japanese were waiting for me. I got away, but they have the plane.”
They moved on, working their way among the crags, still heading onward and upward. They left no trail on the lava, and the jumble of broken rock and blasted trees concealed them.
Once, on the very crest of the ancient crater, where the lip hung over the dizzy spaces below, they came upon a tangle of huge trees, dead and dried by sun and wind, great skeletonlike fingers of trees, the bones and wreckage of a forest. They were worn out and panting heavily when they reached the other side.
Then Mike Thorne saw what he was looking for, a curious white streak on the face of a great, leaning boulder. He walked toward it, skirted the boulder, and, without a word, squeezed into a narrow crack behind it. Following him, the girl saw him turn sharply to the left, in the passage, then to the right, then suddenly they stood in a small open place, green with soft grass. Beyond, the black entrance to a cave opened, and, from a crevice in the rock near the cave mouth, a trickle of water fell into a basin about as big as a washtub.
“You knew this was here?” she asked, staring about wonderingly. “But the water, where does it come from?”
“Seepage. It seeps down from a sort of natural reservoir on top of that peak. Rain collects there in a rock basin and seeps down here. There is always water.”
“They would never find us here.” She looked at him. “But what now? What will we do?”
“Sleep. We’ll need rest. Tonight, I’m going back down the mountain.”
“It would take hours!” she protested, glancing at the lowering sun.
“Not the way I’m going!” His voice was grim. “I’m going down the inside of the crater.”
EMORY OF HER one glimpse of that yawning chasm gripped her. The idea of anyone suspended over that awful space was a horror.
“But you can’t! There’s no way—”
“Yes, there is.” He smiled at her. “I saw it once. I’ve often wondered if it could be done. Tonight, by moonlight, I’ll find out.” He smiled, and his teeth flashed white. “Say, what is your name, anyway? Mine’s Mike Thorne.”
She laughed. “I’m Jerry Brandon.”
Hours later, she awakened suddenly. There was a stealthy movement in the cave, and then she saw Mike Thorne standing in the entrance. He bent over and drank at the spring, then straightened, tightening his belt. She moved swiftly beside him.
“Be careful,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry,” he replied softly. He pressed her hand gently. “So long.”
He moved off. One moment he was there beside her, then he was gone. Remembering that almost bottomless chasm, she shuddered.
Mike Thorne moved swiftly. He had no plan. He knew too little about the enemy dispositions to plan. He must make his reconnaissance and attack at one time.
When he reached the lip of the crater, he hesitated, drawing a deep breath. He knew the place. In the past, he had speculated on whether or not a strong, agile man could make it down to five thousand feet from that point.
Taking firm grasp on a rock, he lowered himself over the rim. For an instant his feet dangled in space. Carefully, he felt for the ledge he remembered. He found it, tested it briefly with his weight, then relaxed his grip and felt for a new hand hold on the edge itself.
Slowly, painstakingly, he worked his way down, the six-inch ledge of rock, feeling with feet and hands for each new hold.
On the way up the mountain he had thought much. Areas for possible landing fields were few. Kolombangara was rough, and the best spot, if not the only spot, was on the floor of the crater itself. There was a chance that when he reached bottom he’d find himself at the edge of their field.