The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Four

Episode 157: Catching Up Is Hard To Do

Motor yacht and fishing boat

Lord Warfield was not in a good mood. The train journey from Mount Molloy had turned into a fiasco, with insufferable delays due to poor track maintenance. The director's carriage had been intolerable, with poorly fitted upholstery, mismatched crystal, and missing silverware, and their supplies of champagne and caviar had grown perilously low. His temper was not improved when his manservant, Bludge, returned from town with news.

"There's no sign of our quarry, milord," said the butler. "I've checked every lodging establishment in Cairns suitable for a gentleman of quality, but none of their recent guests match his description."

The baron's frown was menacing. "Did you check the Air Station as well?"

"Yes, milord. Their only visitors in residence were two young women. I imagine they're relatives of one of the officers. But there was some interesting news. It appears the Station's commander ordered a gunboat, the Thumper, out a few days ago."

The baron's expression eased slightly. "That would be Milbridge," he announced. "We would expect him to travel in style."

"Do we know the vessel's destination?" asked the baroness, avid for the chase.

"Our source could not provide this information, milady, but it appears they took a reef pilot aboard. This suggests that they're headed north, to Cooktown or possibly Port Moresby."

"We will follow them," said the baron. "Locate a suitable means of transport."

"I've already done so, milord. A businessman from Sydney arrived here yesterday aboard a fast motoryacht, the Make a Good Fist. I took the liberty of arranging purchase. The vessel is one hundred twenty seven feet long and one hundred fifteen tons burden, with twelve staterooms, a salon adequate to receive guests of stature, a dining hall furnished in contemporary style, and two Clark diesels of 450 horsepower each, capable of driving her 15 knots."

"The Fist," said Lady Warfield delightedly. "The name has a certain panache."

"So it does," agreed the baron. "Bludge, see that the vessel is fueled and ready, have our belongings taken aboard, and arrange with the Marine Board for a pilot."

Digby was saying goodbye to the horses when Michael returned. The road leading south from Mount Malloy to Cairns had been difficult -- blocked by several slides, washed out in places, with a long flooded stretch where it passed by Kuranda -- but the mounts had handled it well, and he'd be sorry to see them go. He gave them one last pat of affection, shook the ostler's hand, then watched as the man led the animals away, leaving the twins to talk in privacy.

"Did we get a good price?" asked Michael.

"Tolerable," said Digby. "It should see us through the next few days. Did you find any word of Milbridge?"

"No," said Michael, "but there was a curious development at the wharves yesterday. It seems that a businessman from Sydney sold his motor yacht to some unknown party who put to sea that very afternoon. And this was quite the vessel -- the size of a small naval auxiliary, with powerful engines, elaborate fittings, and first-class appointments. The buyer must have been someone of considerable means."

"Our quarry, do you think?"

"It's possible. We know that he arrived in Australia in a certain amount of style. We could expect him to continue."

"Then there's no way we'll catch him by land," said Digby. "We'd best get back to Vincenzo with the news."

The road to Port Douglas had been long, and the cattle truck, driven by an Australian of greater than usual height, had not been particularly swift, but Lord and Lady Milbridge had enjoyed the excursion. The track had led north from Mount Molloy, through a quaint little village at the foot of the mountains whose residents seemed preoccupied by something in one of their fields. From there, it wound east through the Dividing Range, past dramatic vistas, stands of exotic flora, and an ever-changing menagerie of marsupials. This was an engaging change from England, and the rustic quality of their conveyance was a continuing source of novelty. Their youngest crewman, Jean, had set up a table and chairs in back so the viscount and his lady could enjoy a cup of tea -- provided that they possessed catlike balance, lightning reflexes, and a casual attitude toward spills.

"This is rather charming," observed the viscount, snatching at the pot to keep it from flying overboard as the truck bounced over a particularly deep set of ruts.

"Yes," agreed the viscountess. "And that odor of... `manure', is it?... adds an element of piquancy to the journey."

Lord Milbridge ducked to avoid an overhanging branch, adjusted his collar, then turned to glance over his shoulder. "Delightful though it's been, I fear that it's coming to an end, my dear. We seem to be approaching the coast. Captain Spencer, would that be Port Douglas ahead?"

"I believe so," said the airman, with evident relief. Not as agile as the viscount, he and his fellow airmen had accumulated a fair number of bruises during the trip.

"Very good," said Milbridge. "We will disembark, recompense Mister Shorty for his troubles, then determine the best way to continue our journey."

Like many towns along the southern coast of the Cape York Peninsula, Port Douglas had experienced a brief boom late in the previous century, when gold had been discovered at the nearby Hodgkinson River. The boom had run its course, leaving the place to dwindle into obscurity, and the town's fate had been sealed when decision was made to terminate the railway line farther south, at Cairns. Now it was little more than a fishing village, with a modest harbor, a few small draggers, and some decaying hotels as reminders of its former grandeur.

"I've made inquiries and it's a pity we didn't arrive a bit earlier," said Spencer. "It appears that a Royal Navy gunboat, the Thumper, passed by two days ago on the way to Cooktown, and yesterday some businessman from Sydney paid a visit in a yacht named the Make a Good Fist."

"What a peculiar name," said Lady Milbridge.

"I believe it's a local colloquialism referring to the dignity of labor," observed the viscount. "Well, Mister Spencer, it would appear we've missed our chance to get a lift. Do these people have any vessels capable of making an offshore voyage?"

The captain shook his head. "The largest craft I could find was a shrimp boat, thirty-two feet long, eight tons burden, with a three horsepower petrol engine."

"That should serve," said Milbridge. "Is the owner is willing to sell?"

"Uh... yes," said Spencer, his expression a mixture of incredulity and apprehension.

"Excellent! We'll see to fuel, water, and provisions, make the necessary change to the name, and then we'll be off!"

Next week: Moresby Trouble Than We Anticipated...

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