The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 334: Fancy Meeting You Here

The wreck of t Aunt Prodigia's dragger

Fleming and Abigail followed the rail line north, traveling in the morning and evening to avoid the midday heat. The terrain was a succession of stony hills and dry creekbeds that would have made an ordinary desert seem fertile by comparison, but they had plenty of supplies, and childhood on a cattle station had taught Abigail how to find water in the Outback. Two days of riding found them approaching the fringe of jungle that lined this stretch of coast. As it drew close, they abandoned the tracks and steered a course to the northwest. They had no idea who they might find at the end the line, and wanted any encounter to occur under their own terms.

That night they camped beneath the trees, sufficiently far from the shore to avoid the attention of any estuarine crocodiles. Fleming was unwilling to risk a fire, but in this warm climate, one was scarcely necessary. Around them, the jungle echoed to the calls of creatures he was quite unable to identify. After they'd spread out their bedrolls, Abigail smiled, leaned close, and rested a hand on his chest.

"What are our plans now?" she asked.

Fleming toyed with one plan, then discarded it. She'd be certain to spoil the mood with some lecture about animal husbandry. "We'll take a gander at that railhead, taking care we don't get pinched," he told her. "Then we'll shoot through to Broome."

"You think there's something crook about this operation?"

"Bob's your uncle," said Fleming. "I don't have a clue what these blokes are up to, but if we get word to the Captain, maybe he can suss it out."

The next day dawned humid and still. The sea breeze had faded and the surf seemed to have lost enthusiasm during the night. Fleming and Abigail made sure their horses were securely tethered, then set off eastward, in the direction they supposed the railhead to be. Their surroundings might have been different from the suburb of Sydney and the stretch of Outback where they'd spent their respective childhoods, but like all Australians, they made up in self-confidence what they might have lacked in specific wilderness skills.

For the next several hours they threaded their way through a maze of swamps and shallow estuaries. They were working their way along one of the latter when they came upon the remains of a fishing boat. Judging from its condition, the wreck was fairly recent. Its planking was blackened and shattered as if by some explosion.

"What happened here?" wondered Abigail.

Fleming picked up the remains of a name board painted with the word `Sylph', studied it for a moment, then tossed it aside. "It looks this boat was hit with a bomb," he observed. "Someone must not like fishermen."

"Do you reckon it was the airship we spotted?" asked the girl.

"It's difficult to imagine who else it could have been," said Fleming. "I reckon they'll be mates of the blokes who built the rail line or they'd have gone after that train we saw. Let's hope they haven't spotted us."

At that moment, a voice sounded behind them.

"Begorrah! What are you doing here?"

After considering different options, MacKiernan decided to leave the R-67 at Broome. The vessel might have made travel easier, but it would be difficult to sneak up on someone with a 700' long airship. Instead, he hired a pearl fisherman to take them up the coast in his skiff. The man's boat was unlikely to attract attention and its shallow draft would facilitate any landing operation. To his surprise, Captain Sanders insisted on accompanying them. "They hardly need me to oversee mooring watches," he observed, "so I might as well put my time to some constructive use."

The voyage was without incident. As they neared the supposed location of the rail line, MacKiernan took his party ashore to camp for the night. The next morning, the trio set off into the brush with the Irishman in the lead. Their surroundings might have been somewhat different from County Antrim, but members of the Royal Navy Airship Service were expected to make do. Aunt Prodigia followed, bulling her way through the undergrowth as if daring it to get in her way. The vegetation seemed to know better than to contest her passage. Captain Sanders brought up the rear. The skipper seemed to be enjoying the outing too much to mind the havoc it wrought on his uniform.

"Those sound like voices ahead," said Aunt Prodigia.

"Who could they possibly be?" wondered Captain Sanders.

"I don't know," said the matron, "but anyone out in this jungle must be up to no good."

MacKiernan forbore to point out the obvious contradiction in this observation. "Let us not leap to any conclusions," he said politely. "Captain Sanders, if you'd be kind enough to cover me with my service revolver, I shall investigate."

It took some time for the two parties to exchange stories. When this was finished, MacKiernan paused to think matters over. This railhead," he asked Fleming, "do you know where it is?"

"We followed it most of the way to the coast," said the airman. "It can't be very far from here."

"We'll have a look at the place."

A short time later, they were crouching in the bushes, gazing across a channel at a surprisingly substantial assortment of buildings. Through his binoculars, MacKiernan could make out a wharf, several warehouses, a barracks, a generator building, and a small radio mast. Beyond this, a party of workers was loading drums of what might have been diesel fuel into a string of boxcars. He handed the instrument to Fleming.

"Do you recognize any of those fellows?"

Fleming studied the strangers, then frowned. "They look a lot like the chappies Abby and me ran into to the south. I wonder of they could have been patrolling the line."

The Irishman nodded. "This suggests there's something at the other end worth looking at. I believe we should investigate."

Beside him, Captain Sanders frowned. "Do you really feel it's appropriate for the Royal Navy to intrude upon what could be an entirely legitimate commercial operation?"

MacKiernan glanced back in the direction of the wreck they'd left behind. "Most legitimate commercial operations are not in the habit of dropping bombs on fishing boats."

"Quite," Sanders admitted. "I withdraw my objection."

"How will we cross the desert without that patrol spotting us?" asked Fleming.

MacKiernan studied the train and the radio tower. "I have an idea," he replied.

Next week: Dig We Must...

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