Episode 340: Waiting For The Train
MacKiernan frowned in annoyance. They'd managed to sneak into the railway
depot, avoid any watchmen, and make their way to the wireless shack without
being detected. No one had noticed as they transmitted their message.
Everything had been going swimmingly until the intruder had stumbled upon
"What shall we do with the fellow?" whispered Sanders.
MacKiernan studied their captive. They'd bound the man while he lay
unconscious. Now he was fidgeting as if he had important information to
communicate. MacKiernan considered removing his gag to learn what this
might be, but it could hardly be worth the risk that he might call for help.
"We'll leave him here," he decided. "If we're fortunate, no one will find
him until morning. Now let's disable this equipment."
The vandalism took but a moment. While Fleming and Sanders broke
connections and ripped out wires, Abigail plucked vacuum tubes from their
sockets and dropped them into her handbag, looking for all the world like
a girl gathering flowers. MacKiernan rummaged though cabinets until he
found a set of cable cutters, which he slung over his shoulder.
"I believe we're done here," he whispered. "Shall we depart?"
No one accosted the foursome as they crept past silent barracks, darkened
warehouses, and a parked train. At last they reached the edge of the depot.
Ahead of them, the rail line vanished into the night. MacKiernan was
wondering how best to follow it when Sanders tapped his shoulder and
pointed out a handcar resting on a siding nearby.
"Would that serve?" asked the skipper.
"Admirably," said MacKiernan. "If you would find the brake while the rest
of us take our places."
Operating the machine on a narrow gauge rail line required somewhat more
attention to balance than MacKiernan had anticipated, but they managed to
get the handcar underway without capsizing, and soon they were rolling
toward the south. The terrain around them was invisible in the darkness.
The only sign of progress was the faint rumble of wheels. From time to
time, a shadow would loom to the side as they passed a telegraph pole.
MacKiernan called a halt at one and sent Fleming up to cut away a length
"What shall we do now?" asked Sanders after this task was finished. The
skipper seemed thrilled to be on this expedition, as well he might.
Adventures of this sort were rare in commercial airship service.
"We want to prevent the fellows behind us from sending a warning to
whoever's at the other end of these tracks," said MacKiernan. "The break
we made here should stop them for the moment, but we'll want to cut the
line in several more places to make it more difficult to repair. Then
we'll find a place to wait for the Flying Cloud to arrive in
answer to our message."
"When should we expect them, sir?" asked Fleming.
"I imagine they'll be here sometime tomorrow," MacKiernan replied. "I sent
the Captain the location of the railhead and informed him we'd be waiting
in the brush. I had to transmit in clear, because Jenkins wasn't here to
handle the codes, but I doubt it would make sense to anyone else."
For the rest of the night, they pressed onwards, pausing from time to time
to cut away another section of cable. With every passing mile, the hills
drew apart and the land grew flatter -- to the extent that the word `flat'
could be applied to landscape anywhere in this part of Australia -- until
they were rolling across a night-black plain beneath a sea of stars. The
Magellenic clouds glimmered like faint brushstrokes of mist. Ahead, the
Southern Cross loomed above the horizon. Fleming and Abigail seemed
comfortable in these surroundings, for they were both native Australians,
but MacKiernan could never quite escape the impression that this was another
world, its sky filled with alien constellations. It was difficult to
imagine a place less like Ireland.
As dawn was brightening the eastern sky, he called a halt. By now, the
three airmen were all drooping with fatigue, and even Abigail seemed less
chipper than usual. Wheels squeaked beneath them as the handcar rolled to
"I believe we've put a spoke in our adversaries' wheel," he observed.
"There's no way they can transmit a message to their compatriots, and it
could take them days to send a courier on horseback or foot. All we need
to do now is wait for the Captain."
"What about our horses?" asked Abigail. "Fleming and I had to leave them at
the coast, and they'll only have forage for a few days."
"That should give us plenty of time to retrieve them after this business is
done," MacKiernan assured her. He wasn't certain what they'd do with the
animals -- somehow, he couldn't imagine bringing them aboard by Transporter
and stabling them in the cargo hold -- but they could cross this particular
bridge when they came to it. Now it was time to get some well-deserved sleep.
He paused for a moment. He had a nagging feeling that he'd overlooked
something, but he couldn't imagine what this might be. At last he dismissed
the matter as unimportant. "Fleming will take the first watch," he
announced. "I'll take the second and Sanders will take the third. Wake us
when you see the Flying Cloud."
MacKiernan awoke to find Fleming shaking his shoulder. "Sir!" the airman
said urgently, "look to the north!"
The Irishman blinked his eyes and gazed in the direction Fleming had
indicated. In the distance, a plume of smoke was approaching through the
hills. He leapt to his feet, all traces of sleep gone.
"An diabhal!" he swore, "I'd forgotten they had a train."
"What shall we do, sir?" Fleming asked him.
MacKiernan searched the desolation around them for a place to hide, then
dismissed this as hopeless. There was no way they could conceal themselves
from a skilled tracker in the time they had available. "We'll have to
outrun them," he told the Aussie. "Wake the others."
Minutes later, they were pumping the handcar down the track with all the
speed they could manage. At first it seemed their flight might be
successful. Their pursuers could have no way of knowing their quarry was
still on the tracks ahead of them -- they might just have come to repair
the telegraph line. But the train showed no sign of stopping, and with
every passing minute, it was closing the distance.
"I'm not entirely sure this is working," Sanders gasped after several
"Keep at it," MacKiernan gasped back. "Perhaps we'll spot a suitable
piece of cover. Miss Abigail, do you see anything that might serve?"
The girl glanced around, then paused as something caught her attention.
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Look at that!" she exclaimed.
Next week: It Was A Useful Alias...
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