The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 122: Darwin Oh-Five-Oh-Oh

Surfing the longboat

"Are you sure this is quite safe?" asked Jenkins.

Everett glanced at the signalman, wondering at the reason for his question. The three men might have been crowded into a small rubber raft, like characters from a children's nursery rhyme, on a rain-swept night somewhere in the Clarence Strait, but this hardly seemed like cause for concern.

"Of course," he replied. "Unless we're overturned by a wave, attacked by a shark, or get swept out to sea, nothing could possibly go wrong."

The signalman did not seem reassured by these alternatives. "What about navigation?" he asked.

"That shouldn't be a problem. Australia is comparatively large. If we keep heading south, we're bound to hit it eventually. Of course, it remains to be determined just where we'll make landfall. Davies, can you see any sign of the coast?"

"No," said the marine from the bow of their precarious craft. "But those sound like breakers."

Everett rested his oars and turned in his seat to listen. Somewhere ahead, a faint but ominous rumble could be heard over the hiss of rain. "I do believe you're right," he observed. "If you'd be so good as to take over the oars, I'll conn us in during a lull."

Switching places proved something of a challenge, but the two men managed it without disaster. By the time they'd finished, the craft was rising to the swells. The rumble was louder now, like the growl of some lurking beast. Everett listened for a moment, then called the stroke.

"Give weight. Easy all."

Slowly, cautiously, they felt their way toward shore. The waves grew steeper as they advanced. Soon the raft was surfing down each face in a welter of foam, making it difficult for Davies to manage the oars. "What if there are rocks ahead?" he asked worriedly.

"I see no reason for concern," said Everett. "We're far more likely to capsize and drown in the breakers."

The words were barely out of his mouth when the raft lifted to a particularly steep wave. Caught by surprise, Davies tumbled into the bilge. For one fateful moment, their craft seemed to hesitate. Then they were surging ahead, picking up speed as the wave rose to a crest.

"Davies," said Everett, "a bit of oarsmanship might be appropriate at this moment."

"I can't find the ruddy things!" cried the marine. "They must have gone overboard!"

"Never mind then. We're Englishmen. We'll make do."

After some experimentation, Everett discovered he could steer their craft by shifting his weight. Satisfied that they were in no immediate danger, he swerved right to stay ahead of the breaking crest and peered into the night. Was that a glimmer of sand to port? There was only one way to find out. Throwing caution to the wind, the captain executed a sharp cutback, a long sweeping bottom turn, and rode the raft through the whitewater to the beach.

"I must say," he observed as they stepped ashore, "that was strangely exhilarating."

"Perhaps," said Jenkins, "but I doubt it will catch on as a form of recreation."

"You may be right," said Everett. "What's the time?"

"Just past 0500, sir."

"That is somewhat later than I'd hoped. We'd best pack our vessel away and get moving if we hope to make it to town by a reasonable hour."

They deflated their raft, stored it in Jenkins' satchel, and set off along the beach. Everett had steered them somewhat east of their intended destination -- a navigational procedure known as the `Principle of Deliberate Error' -- so they knew that Darwin must lie some distance to the west, but they had no idea how far. After some time, they came to a wagon track. This led inland to a narrow dirt road that ran parallel to the shore.

Davies crouched to examine the ruts. "It looks like this route sees regular use," he observed. "Do you think it leads to town?"

"I imagine so," said Everett. "There aren't many other settlements in this part of the world. We shall put this theory to the test."

The road wound through the forest, swerving to avoid the occasional patch of marshy ground or stand of brush. Everett noted landmarks, building up a mental map of the terrain -- a habit he'd picked up during the Gallipoli campaign -- though he doubted they'd ever pass this way again. As the morning grew brighter, they began to pass signs of civilization: clearings fenced for pasture, a row of sheds, a buckboard parked by the road with its wheels blocked with a pair of stones. Beyond it stood a moss-covered sign that bore the legend `Darwin, 4 miles'.

"That looks promising," said Everett. "We should reach town in time for morning tea."

"What the devil are those?" asked Jenkins, pointing off to their right.

The captain followed his aide's gesture to see two massive shapes, each the size of a small cabin, looming next to the trees. The things were vaguely rhomboid in profile, fashioned from thick plates of steel. Segmented belts, also made of steel, ran around the edges of the longer sides. Armored cupolas protruded from their flanks -- it appeared these had once mounted guns, though these since had been removed. Low boxlike structures, like flattened pilot-houses, were mounted towards what might have been their prows.

"I do believe they're tanks," he said in amazement.

"Tanks?" asked Jenkins. "I am not familiar with this usage of the term."

"They were one of the more unlikely inventions of the War," Everett explained, "armored boxes, like small field fortifications, that were supposed to crawl across the battlefield on a pair of tractor treads. I believe there was some attempt to employ them at the Somme, but the War ended before any conclusions could be drawn regarding their effectiveness. For which we should be grateful."

The three men approached the vehicles to examine them. The words Waltzing Mathilda were painted on one, next to a sketch of a rustic-looking man with a bedroll slung across his back. The other bore the name Chekhov's Gun. Davies rapped it with his knuckles. This produced a dull clunk.

"Pity we didn't have a few of these when we attacked Krithia," he observed.

"Yes," said Everett, "that might have given the Turks pause."

"Whatever are they doing here in Australia?"

The captain shook his head. "I imagine someone made an unusually inspired clerical error over at the War Department."

By the time they reached Darwin, the rain had slackened to a drizzle. Even so, most of the residents seemed content to remain indoors, leaving the streets nearly empty. In civilian clothes, the three men had no trouble making their way to the harbor unnoticed. Everett led them south past the fish-packing plant to the offices of John Decker, the shipper he'd dealt with during their previous visit.

They found Decker slouched behind his desk, gazing out the window with an expression of boredom. "G'day!" he said as the door swung open. "How can I do... Strewth! It's Captain Everett and his mates!"

"Quite," said Everett. "But we don't wish this fact to become widely known."

The Aussie nodded in understanding. "No worries, mates, I'll keep mum. I reckon you're looking for the drum?"

"Yes," said Everett, who'd learned to listen to what people meant rather than what they said when dealing with Australia's novel interpretation of the English language. "We're trying to track down the leader of a conspiracy against the Empire. We have reason to believe the fellow has a base here in Darwin. He would be a gentleman, recently arrived from England, with somewhat reactionary political views. Circumstantial evidence suggests that he might have military or government experience. He is known to have had dealings with Russian communist agents. We believe he's also dealt with Police Chief Channel."

Decker nodded thoughtfully. "There's several Pommies in town as might fill the bill: Mister Fuller, Mister Becket, Mister Leese with his camels, and I suppose there's also Mister Andrews. Could be a slog getting the oil on all of 'em."

"Then we may wish to recruit some assistants," said Everett. "I believe I know whom to ask."

Next Week: More Gentlemen Than You Can Shake a Stick At...

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