Episode 322: Meanwhile, Back in the Outback
Fleming reined in his horse, then reached for the pommel to steady himself.
Two days of riding might have made him somewhat more successful at staying
in the saddle, but they'd also given him considerable respect for the
consequences of failure. Once he was satisfied he wasn't going to fall, he
risked a glance over his shoulder. There was still no sign of the
strangely-accented bushrangers. Either they'd lost the trail or they'd
decided not to pursue their erstwhile captives. This was fortunate, for a
chase would almost certainly have resulted with him getting ejected from
"Is there any sign of those hoons?" asked Abigail.
"I reckon we've left them behind," said Fleming. "D'you have any idea where
The girl studied their surroundings -- either to appraise the vegetation,
geology, and terrain or because this was the sort of thing ranchers'
daughters did -- then gestured toward the railroad tracks to their right.
"That line runs north," she observed confidently. "If we keep following it,
we should reach the coast."
Fleming was less certain of this. Nothing they'd found seemed to make
sense. The people who'd built a very substantial fence in the middle of
nowhere might have built a rail line to nowhere as well.
"That fencing we found was supposed to be part of the Rabbit-Proof Fence?"
he said. "Do you know anything about that thingie?" To Sydneysiders like
him, it was little more a name.
Abigail brightened at the opportunity to lecture. "There are three fences,
built by a succession of private contractors between 1901 and 1907. The
first one crosses Western Australia from Wallal Downs in the north to
Jerdacuttup in the south. The second runs from middle of first one south
to Bremer Bay. Third runs from second one west to Kalbarri. The Number 1
Fence is the longest unbroken stretch of fencing in the entire world."
Fleming thought this over. He might not know much about vermin control, but
as an airman, he did know something about geography. "I gather each new
fence was built a bit farther to the west."
"Then they must have been intended to stop rabbits from spreading west."
"I suppose so," said Abigail. Her knowledge, voluminous though it was, did
not seem to extend to the direction of rabbit migrations.
"Then why would anyone build a fourth fence here, hundreds of miles east of
"Perhaps they... hmm..."
Before she could say more, they were distracted by the sound of a steam
engine. They looked south to see a locomotive approaching with a string of
boxcars. Fleming couldn't imagine what they anyone could possibly have
found to loaded them with in this desolation.
"Should we hail them?" asked Abigail. "They could save us a ride to the
"That might not a good idea," said Fleming. "We have no idea who's
aboard. Let's find a place to hide."
The terrain offered plenty of cover, and soon the two were watching from a
draw as the train rattled past to the east. Fleming studied it carefully,
but he knew little about rolling stock. "Can you tell what kind of train it
is?" he asked his companion.
"It's a Class NF 2-6-0, built by Beyer Peacock & Co, like the ones the North
Australia Railroad runs on its line to Darwin," Abigail announced. "What's
it doing here?"
"I don't have the slightest idea," said Fleming. "Perhaps they're hauling
more posts for that crook fence."
"Do you think they could have anything to do with those bushrangers?"
"They must be connected in some way," said Fleming. "This can't all just be
No more trains appeared that day, but as evening approached, there was
another interruption to their march.
"I say," remarked Abigail, "that looks rather like an airship."
Fleming looked where the girl was pointing to see the distinctive outlines
of a Wollesley Class patrol ship passing to the west.
"I believe you're right," he said in amazement. "They're heading south.
Whatever could they be up to?"
"Can you make out her number?"
Fleming squinted, but the setting sun hid any details he might have used to
identify the vessel.
"No," he replied, "but those Wollesleys are too small for commercial
service and I can't imagine what a naval vessel would be up to so far from
the coast. Perhaps she belongs to whoever built that rail line and fence."
"Should we signal them?"
"I think not," Fleming decided. "It might not be wise to reveal ourselves
until we know what is going on."
Lord and Lady Beechly studied the sign at the air station. Beneath what
they assumed was some heraldry for Australia's Northern Territory, elegant
letters welcomed them to Darwin. A group of tourists -- American
missionaries by the look of them -- were glaring at the name with
expression of annoyance. Lord Beechly glanced at them and shook his head.
There was no accounting for the behavior of these Colonials.
"I gather that town was named after the naturalist," said his wife. "Did he
ever visit this part of Australia?"
"Not to my knowledge," Lord Beechly replied. "I believe his ship called at
Sydney, Tasmania, and King George's Island. Those would be on the other
side of the continent."
His wife was too well-bred to shrug. "I can hardly blame them. This place
does look rather dull. But we're here, so I suppose we should have a look at
It was obvious, from the condition of the road from the air station, that
much of the local traffic was still horse-drawn. The Beechlys threaded
their way past clumps of ordure, cast horseshoes, and the occasional
pothole. Behind them, Hinks followed with that peculiar expression of
indifference butlers learned earlyt during training.
A brief stroll brought them to town -- a curious mix of European
architecture, island-type shops, and houses that would not have looked out
of place in some Hollywood western. They hadn't gone far before they were
accosted by three well-dressed men armed with truncheons.
"Excuse us," said the leader, "but we're looking for an item we believe you
are carrying. If you'd be good enough to surrender it, we'll take it and
be on our way."
Lord Beechly sighed in exasperation. "This would be the Silver Key, I
"You have it?" the man said excitedly.
"No," said Lord Beechly, "but my wife and I have noticed a pattern.
Miscreants threaten us, demanding this melodramatically-named
artifact. We assure them it is not in our possession. They express
disbelief. We instruct Hinks to give them a thrashing. They are rarely
satisfied with the result."
The three would-be attackers glanced at the Beechly's butler. "In this
case, I believe the outcome will be different," said the leader, "since
your man is quite obviously unarmed and we are carrying weapons." He
gestured with his club for emphasis.
Hinks shrugged off his jacket, cracked his knuckles, and smiled at the
trio. "Shall we find out?"
Next week: It Wasn't A Very Difficult Investigation...
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