The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 154: Another Fine Day on the Atherton Tableland

Top hat, kepi, and bush hat

Lord Milbridge set aside the machete, brushed some twigs from his sleeve, and paused to inspect his jacket. Satisfied, he turned to address his men. "Well," he announced cheerfully, "that was a brisk bit of exercise. I'm sure it will have a salutary effect on our systems. Where are we now, Captain Spencer?"

They'd spent several hours hacking their way through the undergrowth. Behind them, a dense jungle of eucalyptus, blanket bush, and ferns stretched up into the hills. Somewhere back there lay the wreckage of their control car. Now they'd reached the edge of a broad cultivated valley. A small settlement, recognizable as a mining town by the piles of ore, stood a short distance to the north.

The captain consulted his charts. Like most members of the party, these had suffered from the wet. Only the viscount and his lady seemed unaffected -- people of their standing were too well-bred to be inconvenienced by the weather.

"I couldn't be certain of our reckoning during the final stages of the chase, but I believe we've reached the Atherton Tableland. If I'm correct, that should be the town of Mount Molloy. According to the Almanac, Queensland Rail maintains a narrow gauge line from here to Cairns. I imagine we can charter a boat there to continue our journey."

"Very good," said the viscount. "Have the men pitch the tent so we can see to our preparations."

"Preparations, milord?" asked Spencer.

"Of course. We must change to appropriate attire. We'll wish to maintain an incognito."

Rain drummed down on the roof, poured from the eaves, and dripped from leaks in the ceiling. Llewellyn mopped the drops from his ledger and frowned. No one had warned him about Queensland's wet season back in his native Wales.

"It's pissing down rain out there," he observed to no one in particular. "Does it ever stop?"

"No, mate, not this season," said Mannock, the head dispatcher. "But no worries. Could be worse. We could be down in the mines."

"At least we'd be dry."

"'Til the pumps broke and the works got flooded."

The Welshman was pondering his reply when the door swung open to admit a well-dressed couple followed by several bedraggled-looking servants. The gentleman rapped on Mannock's desk with his cane.

"Is this the rail office?" he asked in a distinct public-school accent.

"No," muttered Llewellyn, "that's a piece of furniture."

"What was that?" snapped the visitor.

"Yes, sir," interjected Mannock before matters could get out of hand. He gave Llewellyn a glare, then turned back to face his guest. "The line runs from here to Biboohra, then on to Cairns. But you should know, sir, that..."

"Excellent. We will require a special carriage."

"A special carriage?" asked Mannock.

"Of course," said the visitor, in the tone one might use to explain things to a particularly slow child. "You must have provisions for owners, major shareholders, and gentlemen of quality. You can hardly expect us to ride first class like a group of common ruffians."

"Well, yes, but..."

"None of your lip, my good man! See to it immediately!"

Mannock looked at Llewellyn and made a face. The Welshman pushed back his chair, shrugged on his rain gear, and sallied out into the downpour. He returned a few minutes later, soaking wet.

"I spoke with Cowley and made arrangements to use the director's car. They're hooking it up now. It should be ready by the time the train leaves."

"And that would be?" snapped the gentleman.

"In about thirty minutes. But there's one thing..."

"You're worried about your payment?" said their visitor, with obvious contempt for the concerns of the working classes. He gestured to one of his men. "Hanson, see to the matter."

"Glad t'see the last o' those wankers," said Mannock after the train had left.

"I wonder what that was all about," said Llewellyn.

"Better not to know. We don' need the hassles."

"They did seem dead-set on getting to Cairns."

"Struth!" laughed Mannock. "And won't they be chuffed when..."

Before the dispatcher could finish his sentence, two young men burst in from the storm. Like the previous party, they were soaked to the skin, but their dress was somewhat more informal -- sturdy-looking field clothes that might almost have been uniforms. It was obvious from their demeanor that the two were in a hurry.

"When is the train to Cairns?" asked one.

"Y'just missed it, mates," said Mannock. "Pulled out a minute ago."

"Did any of the passengers seem in any way out of the ordinary?"

The Aussie puzzled over this alien bit of grammar. "Not as I reckon. 'Cept for that last bloke. Acted the lord high muck, he did."

"Lord high muck?" asked the stranger.

"A member of the gentry," explained Llewellyn.

"That must be them, Digby!" exclaimed the other visitor. "And they're ahead of us! We'll need to pick up the pace if we're to have any chance of overtaking them. Is there some place in town where we can purchase horses?"

"Well, you could try Baker's Saddlery, up the street," suggested Mannock, "but I think you should know that..."

"No time for that now! Here's a shilling for your troubles, and thanks!"

By the time they reached town, the rain had begun to ease. The streets -- such as they were -- still ran with mud, but patches of blue were visible in the sky to the east, and it was possible to imagine what it might be like to be dry. Most of the buildings were shuttered against the weather, with no signs to indicate their ownership or purpose, but one stood right next to the tracks, with a small marshaling yard nearby. Through the windows, the party could see two men dressed as dispatchers bent over a pair of ledgers.

"I believe this is the train station, Edmund," said Lady Milbridge.

"I believe you're correct, my dear," the viscount replied. "Captain Spencer, shall we enter and make our inquiries?"

The captain nodded, eager to get out of the rain. Like the others, he'd changed into the bush clothes they'd brought from the wreck. These might not have been a convincing disguise as delivered from Savile Row, but the long muddy walk to town had done much to conceal the quality of the tailoring.

The clerks looked up as Milbridge and his party entered. "G'day mate, 'ow ya goin'?" said the one who seemed to be in charge. He seemed strangely unsurprised to receive visitors.

There were two types of peers: those who enjoyed using their station to put others down and those who enjoyed disguising their station to put others at ease. Lord Milbridge had always been one of the latter. "We're visitors from England," he said politely. "I don't wish to trouble you with the details of our travels, but we were wondering if we might be able to purchase tickets for the train to Cairns."

The dispatchers exchanged glances. Lord Milbridge found it quite impossible to fathom their expressions. "Cairns?" said the second. Like his companion, he seemed strangely unsurprised.

"Quite," said Milbridge. "I trust I didn't mispronounce the name." In the local dialect, this sounded something like `cans'.

"I suppose you could, sir, but the line's been out the past three days. There was a landslide near Speewah. No word when it will be cleared. The road's blocked too."

The viscount nodded gratefully. "Thank you, gentlemen. I imagine you've saved us quite a bit of trouble! Is there any other way we could possibly reach the coast?"

The first dispatcher thought this over. "I reckon Shorty could run you up to Port Douglas in his ute."

"That should serve," said Lord Milbridge. "If you could introduce us to this Mister Shorty, we would be much obliged."

Next week: Your Mission, Should I Decide You Accept It...

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