The morning sun was a grinning, red-toothed warrior, come to slay the night. Bloody and quick, it tore through the night-riding clouds sitting on the purplish, rolling sea and flung a silver-white spear across Melagi, abruptly turning the great volcano that dominated the island from gray shadow to the color of bright jade. The night-wet air convulsed in the sudden heat. Steam boiled from the winding jungle hollows like hot smoke, and the feathery leaves of orchids, sitting in the crooks of giant, sodden trees, shook as if in the hands of malevolent spirits. Through the tangled bush, beneath a cloud of squawking birds rising into the fetid sky, a Marine Corps captain determinedly worked his way skyward along the volcano’s eastern slope. Trickles of hot sweat carved paths down his face as he swept aside the sticky webs of giant spiders and pushed past vast green leaves, big enough to hide a man. Resolutely he climbed on, his hand on the butt of the forty-five pistol strapped to his waist. He came with an urgent message, and from his high perch on the slope of the ancient volcano, Josh Thurlow sensed something dire was headed his way.
“Another cup of coffee, Skipper?”
The offer came from Millie, cook and medic to Josh’s Coast Guard crew. The slim, gray-eyed young man held the pot over Josh’s mug and waited for his commander to give him the nod. In Millie’s other hand was a bottle of Mount Gay rum. “A little of this, too, sir?”
Josh nodded agreement on both accounts, which Millie, who happened to be a cousin, never doubted would come. He poured the coffee, added two glugs’ worth of rum, then went back to his stove, which was one half of an oil drum on welded scrap-iron legs, and his kitchen, which was a bamboo hut that sat beside the opening to a large cave. The cave, about as good a place to live as there was in the Solomon Islands since it was almost dry and almost cool, was known as Thurlow’s Cave, and Josh Thurlow took his ease outside it on a rock his boys called Look-it Rock. Far below was a bright green punch bowl valley, collapsed on one side and disgorging a river of grass that flowed inexorably down to an abandoned copra plantation by the sea. The plantation presently served as the headquarters for the 5th Marine Raiders, their hundreds of brown tents and dugouts dotting a muddy plain.
Josh heard singing, borne by the breeze of hot, moist air lifting from the Melagi plantation. The Raiders regularly cursed the Corps for putting their camp on the island they called “Me-soggy,” since it rained every day, producing a sticky brown mud that coated everything it touched. Still, if fortified by sufficient drink from their various illegal applejack distilleries, the Raiders could yet sing, though their favorite song was bitter and sad:
Bless ’em all, bless ’em all,
The long and the short and the tall,
There’ll be no promotion this side of the ocean,
So cheer up my lads, bless ’em all.
One by one, Josh’s boys came out of the cave to go down to the slit trench to do their morning business. As they passed their commander, they gave him their greetings: G’mornin’, Skipper, more rain today, I’m thinking, or Cap’n, easy breeze, ain’t it? Josh helloed his boys in turn, agreeing with their estimation of the weather and calling them by their names: Here was sweet-faced Ready O’Neal, the bosun; the gangly identical twins Once and Again Jackson; stubby, owl-faced Stobs Mallory, the radioman; and Fisheye Guthrie, the greasy-haired, fox-faced mechanic. Like Josh, his boys had all been born and raised on the island of Killakeet of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Escorting the boys as they accomplished their morning duty was Marvin, a small black-and-white terrier, also a native of the Outer Banks. Marvin was smart. That’s about all you needed to know about him except not to mess with him when he had a fresh bone.
The last boy out of the cave was Pogo. Pogo was neither a Killakeeter nor even an American but a bushman who’d appeared out of the jungle on Guadalcanal to attach himself to Josh when he and his boys were fighting alongside the Raiders. Pogo had chosen that morning to wear a hawk’s feather in his puff of black hair, a necklace of cowrie shells and glass beads about his neck, big wooden plugs in his earlobes, and, for no reason Josh could discern, the stub of a number two pencil through his nose. He also wore a flapping breechcloth the locals called a lap-lap. On this particular day, he had chosen a bright blue lap-lap with a 5th Marine Raiders patch, which was a grinning skull, stitched to its front. “My word, good morning, Mastah Josh,” Pogo offered as he trooped past, a grin on his round and mischievous face.
Megapode Dave, whom the boys had adopted since their arrival on Melagi, was a bird that looked as if it might be the offspring of a turkey and a vulture, though not as attractive as either. Dave, according to Pogo, was magic and could answer prayers if he was in the mood. Magic or not, he mostly slept. Now Dave waddled out of the cave on his big splined feet and laboriously climbed Look-it Rock, difficult since he was not designed to be a rock-climbing bird, and cuddled next to Josh for a post-sleep nap. Josh idly petted Dave’s hard, bony head and worried anew over his belief that something dire was coming toward him and was likely to arrive very soon. He wished for more rum.
The boys returned from their business, ate their breakfasts, and began to clean the cave. Millie brought Josh a pan of scrambled eggs and more coffee with the required dollops of Mount Gay. It was then that Josh decided to read again the letter he had kept in his shirt pocket for the past two days. The letter was from Miss Dosie Crossan of Killakeet Island, who was, until the arrival of the missive, Josh’s girlfriend. Now Josh wasn’t so sure.
Josh and Dosie had known one another since childhood, but she had gone away from Killakeet as a youngster, and, just a little later, so had he. It was coincidence, or fate, or a curse, that saw them return to their beloved island at about the same time, she to find herself, and he to fight the scourge of German U-boats that suddenly appeared off Killakeet’s shores. During that time of adventure and change, Josh and Dosie discovered they were in lust, then love. What might have come of that discovery was interrupted, because Josh was sent off to the far reaches of the Pacific by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. Now a year had passed, and maybe Josh hadn’t written as often as he should. Dosie, however, was a faithful writer, though it seemed to Josh now she had written one letter too many.
He had another sip of Millie’s fine coffee and began to read Dosie’s latest, and probably last. The first paragraph of her letter was the good one where Dosie told Josh the news of Killakeet, that his father, the lighthouse keeper, was doing well, as was his brother, who was now the assistant keeper. She also reported that she had placed some flowers on his mother’s grave, though for what purpose, other than respect, she didn’t say. He got no further with his reading because Dave suddenly erupted with a loud squawk and stuck his neck out straight as a finger. Josh followed the megapode’s trembling beak and saw a dot in the northern sky over the channel known famously as the Slot, a constriction of the sea that the Japanese Imperial Navy used like a highway.
The dot rapidly grew into an airplane, which, by its raspy muttering, Josh recognized as a twin-engined Japanese bomber known as a Betty. “Stobs!” he bellowed over his shoulder, and the fat-cheeked, flaxen-haired radioman came running, though he nearly tripped over his untied boots. “Call Henderson Field, tell them they got a Betty coming their way. Call the Raiders, too, and tell them to get in their dugouts.”
Stobs went off to comply, and Josh went back to Dosie’s letter. Bettys were common enough occurrences, but letters were comparatively rare. The next paragraph was the critical one, the one Josh needed to think about. In it, Dosie had written she wanted to be useful, that it was only by being useful that she could know who she was. She had therefore decided to become a nurse, as useful a profession as there might be, and was traveling over to Morehead City for her training. Furthermore, she had quit the Coast Guard Beach Patrol, except for weekends when she still rode her quarter horse named Genie up and down the Killakeet beaches with Rex Stewart, the old Hollywood stuntman, who, by the way, had a new gelding he’d named Jubal Early. She also reported that no U-boats had been spotted for months, but the people still talked about the night the Germans had come ashore and all that had transpired before and afterward.
And then she mentioned a certain young doctor at Morehead City who seemed to have made quite the impression.
He’s a handsome boy, was the way she’d written it, and so gosh-awful smart. I am lucky to be a student nurse under his hand. Josh read the sentence a second time and thought about the young, handsome doctor’s hands, surely with fine, long fingers, capable of plucking out an appendix or stroking a woman’s breast with the same tenderness and care. The heat in his face rose, so much so that his cheeks turned a bit rosy even through his deep, leathery tan.
Josh looked up just as the Betty let two bombs go over the Raider camp. He watched them fall until they splashed among some tents and exploded, throwing up big clods of mud and shreds of canvas. He saw no bodies fly through the air, so he supposed the Raiders had heeded Stobs’s call and repaired to their coconut-palm-roofed dugouts. The bomber then turned toward Guadalcanal, but it didn’t get far before it was surprised by two American P-40s. The big-nosed fighters pounced, guns blazing, and filled the unfortunate Betty full of holes, whereupon it broke apart, crashing into Iron Bottom Bay with one wing left to flutter down like an autumnal leaf. The P-40s did a couple of victory barrel rolls and Dave nearly twisted his neck into a knot trying to keep his eye on them. Dave surely loved airplanes, odd for a bird who couldn’t fly.
Ensign Eureka Phimble ambled out of the cave with a cup of Millie’s coffee and idly watched the Betty’s wing smash into the water and disappear beneath white ripples of salty foam. Then he smirked when he noticed that Josh was reading Dosie’s letter again. He and Josh had been together for nearly a decade, beginning their association on the Bering Sea Patrol. Phimble knew all the man’s foibles, including that he had always been a fool for women, even on the Bering Sea where there were virtually none. Phimble had been an ordinary seaman then, kept even lower because of his black skin, and Josh an officer, both of them assigned to the cutter Comanche commanded by Captain Phineas Falcon, the legendary Arctic brawler. Somehow, maybe because they were both from the Outer Banks, they had become the best of friends, though they often bickered like an old married couple.
Josh took note of Phimble taking note of him. “Dosie’s letter,” he said, shrugging. Then he added, though he instantly regretted it, “She’s fallen for another man.”
Phimble tamped down his smirk. “If that was true,” he said, “I’d have heard about it from my Talky. I got a letter from her the same day you got one from Dosie, as you might recall. Nary a word except Dosie’s going to be a nurse.”
“She says that, too. But she’s still got herself a new fella.”
“She wrote that?”
“Not in so many words.”
“Dosie knows lots of words,” Phimble answered, with a smile meant to soothe. “She’s the kind who’d use them, too, if she had something to say. I think you must be wrong in your assessment.”
Before Josh could reply, a Marine Raider by the name of Captain Lester Clooney abruptly appeared out of the bush. Mosquitoes were in a cloud around him, his helmet was askew, and his shirt was soaked with sweat from the exertion of climbing the volcano, and probably a low-grade fever. While Josh and Phimble stared at him, the Raider officer waved the mosquitoes out of his face (a motion known as the Solomons Islands salute), wiped his sweaty brow with a scrap of an old gray towel that was draped around his neck, set his helmet aright, took several long breaths, then looked Josh square in the eye. “Commander Josh Thurlow,” he intoned, “you are to report to the office of Colonel Montague Burr of the 5th United States Marine Corps Raiders Battalion. Colonel Burr told me to tell you it had better be toot sweet, too, which is French, I think, for you’d best get your butt moving.”
Josh now knew the source of his foreboding. Anything to do with Montague Burr was surely dire. Josh eyed the pistol strapped to the captain’s waist, and further eyed the hand that was wrapped around its grip. “You aim to use that Huk-killer on me if I don’t comply, Lester?”
“The Monkey said if you didn’t come, I had permission to shoot you,” Clooney replied, using the familiar nickname for the Raider commander.
Josh looked at the pistol held by the malarial marine. “I don’t answer to Colonel Montague Burr,” he replied in his stubborn manner, “and you can tell him I said so.”
After a moment of reflection, Clooney took his hand off his pistol. “Commander, please accept my apologies,” he said. “This place does strange things to a man’s head. I completely regret my overly aggressive posture. Good morning, Eureka. Good morning, Dave. I’m sorry I didn’t greet you until now. I was required first to accomplish my official duty.”
Megapode Dave didn’t care if he’d been greeted or not, since he had gone back to sleep, worn out from watching air combat. Phimble, however, replied, “Good morning, Captain Clooney. You did an excellent job with your duty, I swan.” Phimble, following the Outer Banks tradition, added his estimation of the weather. “Don’t look like it’ll rain again for another hour. You want some of Millie’s coffee?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Clooney answered. “As for the rain, I guess it’ll rain when it rains, which will be about ten times every day, as you well know. In between, the sun will shine and the steam will rise and the mosquitoes will bite and the mud on Me-soggy will get ever deeper.”
Josh folded Dosie’s letter, his mind made up on what to do about it. “All right, Lester,” he said. “I have one thing to do, and then you and I, we’ll go see the Monkey.”
Clooney took the mug of coffee brought out by Millie, who had been listening from the cave. “Thank you, Millie. As for you, Josh, you can go see the Monkey by yourself. Otherwise, he’s liable to send me with you.”
“Send me where?”
“Wherever it is, I don’t want to go. I think Colonel Burr’s after you because he’s got something bad and terrible that he can’t trust a stupid jarhead like me to do.”
“Then why don’t you hide out here for a while, Lester?” Josh suggested, with surprising tenderness, and went inside the cave, where he sat down at the rude table the boys had built from scrap lumber, took up a thoroughly chewed pencil, and wrote on a blank sheet of paper:
I guess you’ve found somebody what’s good enough for you at last. I never much thought I was, anyway. I hope you and your doctor will be happy. Not much else is happening around here. Eureka and all the boys are fine and I am, too. Say hello to Rex and tell him I’d sure like to get old Thunder and ride the beach with him and his new horse.
Good luck, fair winds, and following seas.
P.S. Thank you for putting flowers on Mama’s grave.
Josh put the note in an envelope, sealed it, wrote Dosie’s Killakeet address on it, then called for Stobs. “Put this in the bag going out with my reports,” he said, and felt satisfied and sad, both at the same time. Then he strapped on his pistol and the razor-sharp Aleut ax he’d carried since his service on the Bering Sea and went over to the crate used for storage of this or that and retrieved a half-full bottle of Mount Gay rum, the last in the inventory. He walked outside and tipped the bottle into Captain Clooney’s mug, a generous two glugs. “Have a bit of this, Lester. It’ll soften your day.”
“It’s too early,” Clooney protested, though he tossed it back instantly, then whistled out a breath. “Are you going or not?”
“I’m going,” Josh replied. And so he handed the rum bottle to Phimble and went on down the volcano to see the Monkey who, just as Clooney predicted, would ask Josh to accomplish a terrible thing even a marine wouldn’t do.
Copyright © 2005 by Homer Hickam