R505: the Flying Cloud

Episode 6: Cassowary Jenkins

A Cassowary

The first stage of their trek through the jungle proved easier than Everett had anticipated. The path Fleming had spotted from the air might have been overgrown with brush, festooned with vines, blocked here and there by fallen trees, but it was also smooth, wide, and unexpectedly passable, almost as if this route -- abandoned for ages -- had at one time been paved. MacKiernan was intrigued by this, and speculated at length about the possibility of lost cities and vanished civilizations. Everett, of a less romantic turn of mind, concluded it had something to do with the soil. The path did lay quite close to the river, where it was possible that floods had leached away some essential nutrient.

The river itself flowed broad, flat, and muddy between dark green walls of vegetation. It was an unattractive prospect for a swim. It became even less so after Fleming pointed out what looked like logs drifting with the current.

"Salt-water crocodiles," he warned. "Much more dangerous than the regular kind. In deep water, they grab your leg, pull you under, and wait for you to drown."

"What do they do if the water's shallow?" asked MacKiernan.

"They grab your leg, spin around 'till they've twisted it off, then wait for you to bleed to death."

"Yer jestin'," said the Irishman .

"Nope. It's fair dinkum."

"I think I prefer the deep water," said Iverson.

"No one's going in or near the river," ordered Everett. "If you need water, draw it from a stream."

"Aye," muttered Abercrombie, "then ye need only worry about leeches."

Toward noon the party halted to rest. While his men gathered sticks for a fire to brew tea, Everett made another entry in the ship's log.

June 23, 1926, 1200 hrs. Lat, 22 36' Long 168 57'. His Majesty's Airship Flying Lady, R-212, Captain Roland P. Everett cmdr. It's been two days since we landed the bow section of our ship on the southern coast of this nameless island in the New Caledonian chain. The nine survivors are holding up well. Airman Fleming made a reconnaissance flight yesterday on the Lilienthal glider he had the foresight to bring aboard with his personal belongings. Upon his return, he reported sighting a small German airship moored at a village on the northern shore. There is no reason to believe it has any connection with the vessel that attacked us, but its presence in this French colony seems highly suspicious. We are making our way across the island to investigate. I recommend Fleming for a commendation. The men's spirits remain high, and this jungle does not seem to contain too many surprises.

The trail narrowed as they left the coast behind, slowing their progress. In places, they had to hack their way through the undergrowth with their improvised machetes. Everett took his turn with the rest, setting aside his jacket and rolling up his sleeves to chop through recalcitrant vines. Jenkins followed, fussing over the damage the captain was doing to his wardrobe. At a pause in the march, he produced a small clothes-brush to make sure his commander's attire was in appropriate condition for a man of his station.

"If you'd turn around sir, so I can get the back."

"I'm not sure this is strictly necessary, Jenkins. We are trekking through the jungle."

"That may be so, sir, but this is no reason to lower our standards. We must set an example for the men."

By now, most of the men had stripped to the waist to deal with the heat. Everett couldn't help but wonder if their example was better. "I believe we can dispense with the cap," he said, as Jenkins was preparing to replace it.

"Excuse me, sir," the signalman replied, "but a large predatory bird seems to be plunging down the path to attack you."

Everett turned to see a strange creature, like a cross between an ostrich and a rooster, burst from the undergrowth. As Jenkins stepped forward to intercept it, the bird lashed out with its feet -- great claws tipped with needle-sharp spurs -- in a vicious swipe to disembowel him. The signalman tsked in annoyance, set aside the hat, swung his fist, and laid the creature flat with a blow to the skull.

"Well done, man," said Everett. "Where'd you learn to handle yourself like that?"

"I was fleet champion back at Liverpool."

"You're a man of many talents, Jenkins."

"I like to think so, sir. What manner of creature is this?"

"It looks like the thing Rashid shot us for lunch yesterday. I imagine Fleming would know, this is his part of the world. Fleming?"

"We didn't have anything like these back in Bondi Beach, but I believe it's called a cassowary. They're said to be quite dangerous."

'A `cassowary'?" Jenkins shook his head in disappointment. "Couldn't someone have come up with a more threatening name? I can hardly run around boasting about defeating a cassowary."

"Just be glad it wasn't a kookaburra."

They made camp that evening in a hanging valley, near the crest of the ridge. The setting was dramatic, with steep jungle-clad slopes surrounding a dark meadow of ferns. Here and there, moss-clad stones stood about the clearing, seemingly at random. When the men brushed away some of the covering vegetation, they found that the stones were covered with carvings.

"Do you think this could have been some manner of temple?" wondered Iverson.

"Aye," said Abercrombie. "They probably sacrificed their victims at the foot of these rocks and cast their still beatin' hearts into the flames before feastin' on their raw and bleedin' flesh."

"Ugh," said the lieutenant, turning green.

"I was only jestin', lad," said the Scotsman. "I'm sure they cooked the flesh first."

"Maybe 'twas some kind o' fertility cult," suggested MacKiernan.

"Gentlemen!" warned Everett. He waited for the banter to subside, then beckoned Iverson over to the rock he was examining. "Lieutenant, bring your light here and tell me what you make of this."

The young officer raised his electric lantern to discover a worn set of figures engraved in the face of the rock. "It looks like a procession bearing gifts for some form of ceremony, sir," he observed. "See here, where they open this box to hand what looks like a pair of cymbals to this musician?"

"That's what I thought as well," mused Everett. "Here the musician has clapped his instruments together and here they've all gathered under this enormous tree around what one assumes are bonfires. But I'm puzzled by these figures here. Could they be meant to represent costumes?"

"It's difficult to imagine what else they could be, sir," Iverson replied. "Surely no one could be so horribly disfigured. This fellow seems to have misplaced some of the joints in his legs, and this one looks like he has six or seven fingers."

Everett nodded thoughtfully. "So he does. Well, I don't suppose we'll ever learn the answer to this particular mystery. Let's turn in for the night."

Next week: An Island Maiden, at Last!...

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