The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 454: I Believe That's Our Freighter

A tug of war

Refloating the Viking Girl wasn't quite as straightforward as Aunt Prodigia had suggested. The sand on which the freighter had gone aground might have protected her hull from damage, but it had also silted in around her, holding her in place as firmly as if she'd been entrenched. It would have to be cleared away if they were ever get the vessel out to sea.

Like any sensible woman, Aunt Prodigia had brought along pumps, a water jet, and a three hundred horsepower suction dredge -- a body never knows when these things might come in handy. Clarice and Emily watched with delight as she ordered these brought up from the holds and swiung aboard the Stalking Herring's barge.

"Can we run the machinery?" asked Clarice, remembering happy days she and Emily had spent as children blasting channels through the estuaries of Darwin. "Oh do say we can!"

"Dinki di!" the matron assured them. "Give it a burl!"

"Bewdie!" said Clarice. Salvage was fun!

After her crew had warped the dredge into position, Aunt Prodigia piut them to work on the freighter itself. The carpenter drew on the tug's supply of timber to jury-rig a set of hold covers, which the sailmaker covered with canvas to keep out rain and seas. The engineer checked the rudder and overhauled the rudder fittings and auxiliary steering gear to make sure the vessel would be controllable once she was under tow. Divers inspected the hull, foot by foot, to find and stop any leaks while deckhands sweated a pair of salvage pumps aboard to pump the bilges dry.

For the next few days, the decks resounded to the sound of hammers, saws, donkey engines, pistons, and compressors. The work went swiftly, and soon the Viking Girl floated in a freshly-dug lagoon, held in place by kedge anchors. From this, a channel ran out to sea, marked by a set of bright pink floats decorated with floral patterns. Aunt Prodigia made her way through the vessel, inspecting her crew's efforts.

"You made a good fist of it!" she told them after she'd finished. "She'll be apples!"

"When will we try to pull her off?" asked Emily.

The matron rummaged through her handbag to extract a tide chart. "It's close to the neap, but this tub should be riding higher than when she grounded. We'll give it a go tomorrow morning. If we can't win her free then, we'll wait for the first spring tides of November."

"What about this weather?" asked Clarice, gesturing toward the clouds that had been building to the south.

Aunt Prodigia glanced at the overcast with disdain. "What weather?" she asked. "I don't reckon this'll come to much. I'll take the Herring offshore to ride it while you two ladies stay here to man the pumps."

Clarice and Emily chuckled at the misleading choice of verb. "Dinki di!" said Emily.

The squall arrived at nightfall in a flurry of rain. After they'd checked to make sure the anchors were holding, Clarice and Emily retired to the captain's cabin to brew up some tea. Pumps thrummed below deck in a soothing counterpoint to the sound of the storm. It might have seemed a cozy retreat were it not for some of the cabin's contents.

"I never knew you could make these out of chain mail," Emily remarked, holding up something she'd found in one of the drawers.

Clarice rubbed her chin. "Perhaps it's some Swedish tradition," she speculated.

Emily stifled a giggle. "We'll have to ask the captain if we meet her."

"Do you think we ever will?" Clarice asked.

Emily set down her discovery with a rustle of steel links. "She might show up to make a bid on some of this swag after we get this freighter back to Darwin," she said optimistically.

Clarice nodded. "Let's see how the tow goes tomorrow."

The two young women rose with the first light of dawn, dressed quickly, and rushed on deck to gaze into the gloom. High tide was still some time away, but they wanted to be ready when their aunt arrived. Soon they spotted a bluff two-stacked workboat to the west.

"There's the tug!" Emily announced. "They're early."

Clarice chuckled. "So are we! Let's hide in the deckhouse and surprise them."

The tug turned parallel to the beach and backed down to a stop. On her deck, the crew were manning one of the davits. As she watched them swing out a boat, Clarice felt a twinge of concern. "That doesn't look like the Stalking Herring," she observed. "Her bows are too tall, she's too long in the run, and she has too much sheer."

Emily nodded. "The deckhouse looks different too."

"And then there's that gun turret."

"Yes, that is something of a giveaway."

By now the strangers had manned the oars and begun pulling for the freighter. Morning sunlight gleamed on their neat blue jerseys and the barrels of several rifles. They were towing a messenger line, as if they meant to bring across a cable and rig up a pulley system to move cargo. Clarice noted this and scowled. "Who are these people?" she demanded.

"These must be salvage pirates, here to steal our equipment," marveled Emily.

"I didn't know there was such a thing."

"Neither did I," the blonde admitted. "What should we do?"

Clarice glanced over her shoulder toward the beach. If they swam for it, could they make it to shore before the boat arrived? This seemed unlikely. Using the pumps to wash a party of heavily armed pirates away seemed equally impractical. "We'll have to find a place to hide until they've taken what they want," she decided. "This will have to be some place they aren't likely to plunder, but where we can watch what's going on."

"That lets out the chain locker, steerage, bridge, staterooms, galley, and engine room -- pretty much every place on the ship," Emily observed.

Clarice thought this over, then brightened. "What about the lifeboats?" she suggested. "That always works in the radio dramas."

"Bonzer!" said Emily. "Grab some water, food, and a bucket."

"Why do we need a... Oh. Yes. Right."

It took the women but a moment to duck into the deckhouse, collect these necessities, and slip out to hide. They peered from beneath the boat cover as the strangers came aboard. These were quite obviously Asians, with neatly cropped hair and stern uncompromising features. They worked with swift efficiency, bringing across a hawser and rigging it to a towing bridle. Once this was in place, they cast off the anchor lines and the bosun waved a signal flag. The tug's engines surged, the line came tight, and the freighter began to move out to sea.

"I'll be stuffed!" Emily said in disbelief. "These drongos mean to nick whole ship!"

"Strewth," Clarice said glumly. "We might be stuck in this boat some time."

Emily glanced at her companion's expression and smiled. "Aren't you glad we brought that bucket?"

Next week: Surely You Don't Suggest It Was Our Fault...

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