The first story in the Beyond the Rails series
| This was the first story in Beyond the Rails, the first book I published, and the first of three collections following the adventures of the Motor Airship Kestrel as her crew plied the skies of 1880s Kenya seeking to earn a living moving passengers and cargo between places not served by the railroad. There are three books, the first two being collections of six stories each, similar to this one, and the third being a full-size novel. It was a joy to write these, to get to know these fascinating characters and the exotic land they call home. I invite you to climb aboard their little ship and join them for their first adventure, and should you find them to be as entertaining as many readers have found them, the entire collection can be obtained for 99¢ each at https://www.amazon.com/Jack-Tyler/e/B07CL4LLNB/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_2?qid=1529254...
He had been told the climate was not fit for man nor beast, but he had assumed that to be an exaggeration, the man who had "been there" attempting to lord it over the man who hadn't. Now he realized, as he followed the three sailors dragging his baggage down the gangway to the steam launch, that Peter, the cocky young graduate student who had given him that information, had understated it if anything.
Mombasa, the gateway to the East African Colonies, was a sprawling jumble of buildings, from substantial earthenware or stone, to transient straw shacks. It was ancient, he knew, its origin lost in time, but certainly had been a great city of the Arabs, with trade routes to India, the Cape, and points beyond. Everyone who had come behind had added their own architecture to the mix, until today, in the late spring of 1882, it mostly resembled a pile of masonry, at least from out here in the anchorage. The unfamiliarity of the place was intimidating, but even more frightening than that was the certain knowledge that the heat was at its most moderate out here in the bay.
Nicholas Ellsworth winced inwardly as the grumbling sailors more or less threw his field laboratory, which they took to be an outsized steamer trunk, onto the stern of the launch, then stood around as if waiting for a tip. Ellsworth wasn't having it. His admonitions to handle the irreplaceable equipment with care had been met with curses, and, he was willing to swear, a conscious effort to be even rougher in its treatment. He stood back against the ship until the men passed him with threatening looks and climbed back to the deck of the side wheeler, then hopped lightly across onto the launch, last of the twenty-odd passengers disembarking here.
“All aboard! Don’t fall off!” the dark-skinned, but not fully African pilot called good naturedly, and blew the whistle as the sailor on the float tossed his line onto the launch. He eased the beamy boat forward until it was clear of the float, then applied power, the craft responding smartly to its propeller.
“We be in Mombasa, ten minutes,” one of the crewmen addressed the group of newcomers. “Man from Governor’s House meet you on pier, tell you all where to go.”
This brought a few snickers before a beefy, middle aged man in a white suit with matching whiskers spoke up.
“I am Prussian,” he announced, looking around like he expected a challenge. “Ze lackey from ze English Government vill be of no use to me vatsoever!”
“Oh, but he will,” the crewman said. “He tell you all you need to know.”
“Harrumph!” was the man’s only reply.
Ellsworth sat down on his trunk, wiping his brow and wishing he had thought to bring a wide-brimmed hat. The sporty little racing cap he wore provided no shade at all. No matter, that would be his first acquisition when he arrived in the town, along with a tropical suit.
The promised ten minutes passed quickly, and the launch made its way into a confusing jumble of luggers and dhows, floats and buoys, to tie up at a floating pier. Ellsworth supervised the unloading of his precious field lab, and they were shortly being addressed by an immaculate man in a spotless white suit who efficiently got their luggage loaded onto two buckboards, found the Prussian gentleman an escort to his nation’s consular office, and loaded the rest onto a passenger wagon drawn by two large, impeccably groomed draft horses.
“You don’t have the use of an autocar?” one of the three ladies in the group asked.
“We’ve heard of them,” the government greeter replied, tongue in cheek. “I’m afraid that East Africa is well off the beaten path. We’re lucky to obtain the basics here.”
“That isn’t what the prospectus said,” her male companion complained.
“I am sorry,” said the government man. “Are you here for an agricultural parcel?”
“Well, I’m truly sorry if the prospectus was misleading. I have no control over that. I can guarantee that we do have the land you were promised, and a railroad to get you there.”
“Well, I never did!”
This low key grousing went on throughout the ride to an imposing Colonial edifice in moss-covered white stucco imperiously describing itself as the Queen’s Royal Hotel of Mombasa. All were ushered in, including Ellsworth, still fussing over his outsized trunk and its handling.
“I say,” the government man said, approaching Ellsworth with a bemused expression, “didn’t you read the prospectus?”
“I received no prospectus,” Ellsworth replied. “What the devil are you people referring to?”
“Oh, dear. Aren’t you on the list to receive an acreage?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, dear,” the man repeated. “I’m afraid you aren’t supposed to be here, then.”
“Well, why did you bring me?”
“I just assumed that . . . Oh, dear. Let’s start over, shall we? I am Robert Lee Cooper, the Governor General’s secretary in charge of getting the settlers off on the right foot.”
“Quite. The Crown is giving away plots in the interior to those willing to farm them. The main cash crop is coffee. You know about that, at least?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh, dear. Well, who are you, then?”
“Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth, botanist. I’ve just graduated from Cambridge, and am here to catalog the flora.”
“Dear, dear, we seem to be at a bit of cross purposes, then. I’ll tell you what, I’ll set you up with a room for a few days. Not strictly cricket, but we aren’t getting so many takers that we don’t have room for a working scientist of the Crown. You’ll need to make your own arrangements as soon as possible, however.”
“Not to worry, Mr. Cooper, I plan to be headed up-country as soon as I can arrange transportation.”
“Very good, then. The obvious choice is the railroad up to Nairobi, but there are any manner of choices. If you spend the evening in the bar of this hotel, you’ll encounter any number of persons in the business of moving goods and people. You should be able to find a method that suits you.”
“I am obliged to you, Mr. Cooper. I shall be there as soon as I get settled.”
* * *
As good as his word, Ellsworth could be found two hours later perched on a stool in front of the hotel’s bar nursing a rum cocktail, a brand new wide-brimmed hat on the bar in front of him. The bar was semi-open to the street, being set back into a large alcove with only arches separating it from the town at large. As promised, the hawkers knew where to find the newcomers, and the area teemed with peddlers selling everything from maps to Solomon’s Mines to family members.
“Ready for another, sir?” the barman, a tall, slender man so black he seemed to absorb light asked, stopping in front of him.
“No, I’m fine.” Ellsworth was slightly dizzy, but retained the good sense to slow down. “Damnable thieves certainly know how to spot a new arrival!”
“How’s that, sir?”
“Just look at this hat! Do you have any idea what I was forced to pay for this? Why, back in London, it would have bought this suit I’m wearing!”
“I wouldn’t know about that, sir. Will you be in Mombasa long?”
“No longer than it takes me to find transportation. You couldn’t pay me enough to reside in this pest hole for a minute longer than necessary.”
“Where is it you’re trying to get to, sir?”
“The back country, the wilderness. I’m a scientist. I study plants.”
“That can be a dangerous profession in Africa.”
“Hell, man, being alive is dangerous! I came down here to do a job, and by God, I mean to do it.”
“I quite understand, sir. If you’d like, I can keep an ear open for anyone who might be going into the interior. Mind you, I do not joke when I tell you of the danger.”
“And I do not joke when I tell you that I am not afraid.”
“You should be. There is much here you do not understand. Lion, leopard, rhino, crocodile. Snakes whose bite can kill a hundred men. Constrictors that can crush a horse. Then, of course, there are the Maasai.”
“Look, there is work to do, and there are ways to overcome all those difficulties you mention. If there weren’t, then all those coffee farmers I keep hearing about wouldn’t have much of a life here, now would they?”
“Who says they do?”
“The price of coffee in London. Look, I have an idea. Why don’t you work on finding me that transportation. And, boy, if there’s anyone honest in this Godforsaken town, that’s who I want to ride with.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The tall man moved off down the bar, and Ellsworth continued to fume, finishing his drink in one gulp, and using his hat to fan himself. He located a clock on the wall at the end of the bar. Seven-forty. The sun was completely down, and it was still, what, seventy-five degrees? Hotter than London on a summer day. This was really insufferable! He saw the barman moving back his way, and interrupted his task.
“I say, boy, do you serve food here?”
“Indeed we do, sir. We serve what you would call trail food. Steamed beetles, lizard tails, jerked ostrich. We have a fresh batch of crocodile eggs. The supplier only lost half his left foot to obtain them.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I want real food, like civilized people eat back in England.”
“I must apologize. I am having a little fun with you. It is very offensive to be called ‘boy.’ My family owns this hotel, as we have for three generations. There are many cattle raised in Kenya, and we offer any cut you can get in London.”
“Well, that’s more like it. Now, you do have refrigeration, do you not? I don’t want to get poisoned here.”
“Everything is very sanitary, sir. I serve no illness here.”
“That’s good. Something small, then, and well done. How about potatoes? And vegetables.”
“Sir, this is Africa. You throw a seed on the ground, tomorrow it will be a tree.”
“Good. Something ordinary, though, beets or peas. None of these local plants. And bring me another drink.”
“As the young bwana wishes,” the man said, and picked up his glass and moved away.
“You know, it may not seem like it, but Faraji really can be pushed too far,” a captivating feminine voice announced from just behind him. He turned to see a young white woman nearly his height, with blonde hair in loose curls, big blue eyes, and a small aristocratic nose, slide onto the stool next to him. She wore khaki trousers, a soft white shirt, and a foot-long knife at her belt. It irritated him to see that she was barely sweating at all.
“I was told to take a firm hand with these wogs, or they’ll run all over you. Say, who the devil are you, anyway?”
“Oh, you sent for me. And, this is Faraji’s country. You’re the wog here. Faraji says you’re looking for a ride up-country.”
“Indeed! You’re the provider? How soon can we leave? I’ve wasted enough time in this hell-hole already!”
“Patience,” she said, extending her hand for a shake.
“I assure you, my good woman, the need for haste is overriding!”
“Patience Hobbs. Most folks around here call me Patty. I’m the pilot of the Kestrel.”
“Oh, I say!” he said, finally accepting her handshake. “You must think me a complete fool.”
“Not yet. Things are sort of leaning that way, though.”
“I’m sorry. I’m under a lot of pressure. My professors have high hopes for me.”
“As do I. I have high hopes, for example, that you’ll eventually tell me your name.”
“Oh, dear Lord. I leave civilization, and civilization leaves me. I’m Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth.”
“Yes, freshly minted from Cambridge.”
“Are you a physician, Doctor?”
“No, no, I’m a botanist.”
“Plant doctor,” she stated.
“Plant student,” he corrected. “I’m here to catalog the flora.”
His meal came, small, as he had requested, and another drink.
“Can I buy you anything?” he finally asked, remembering his civility.
“No, thank you. I’m here for the business.”
“Ah, yes. You said you were the pilot of, what, Kinsman, Kingsman?”
“What is that, exactly? Some kind of river boat?”
“Used to be. Kestrel is an airship.”
“Precisely. Let me explain to you the situation. Down here at the coast is this big seaport, Mombasa. From here, a rail line extends into the interior as far as a village, no, a trading center, really, called Nairobi. The coffee plantations lie to the north and east of there. There is talk of extending the rail line on up to Lake Victoria, but there wasn’t any real urgency to the project until the rubies were discovered.”
“Yes. Red stones, very valuable. Pay attention. In any case, if you want to go any distance at all beyond the rails, you can ride horses or wagons through the wilderness, exposed to every danger out there, or you can fly. Fast, safe, and relatively comfortable. If you’re interested, finish your meal, and I’ll take you to meet the captain.”
“Is it far? I have irreplaceable equipment in my room.”
“Faraji!” she called to the barman.
“Kuangalia mambo yake!”
“What was all that?”
“I asked him to watch your stuff.”
“Him? Is that really safe?”
“Oh, yes. Faraji has accepted my request. He’ll disembowel anyone who tries to tamper with it.”
* * *
Patience steadied the young Doctor by grasping his elbow for the umpteenth time as they made their way out of the well-lit waterfront district toward the aerodrome on the eastern fringe of town. He wasn’t falling-down drunk, but he was well past being merely in his cups. More consistent support would have helped him, but she wasn’t about to give anyone the impression of being with this snobbish fop by actually taking his arm.
At least, not until he unexpectedly leaned away from her, took a few looping steps to the right, and caught himself by knocking over a pile of crates outside a goods house. She went to him then, steadied him on his feet, and did then take his arm, leading him down the street in fairly good order. This was as much for her own benefit as his; the patrols thinned out considerably in the dimmer districts beyond the never-sleeping waterfront, and a drunken man in fancy clothes was likely as not to attract alley pirates looking for an easy haul.
“I should give you a word of advice, Doctor,” she said as they walked. “Here in the tropics, what with the heat and humidity, alcohol has a much more profound effect on a body than you’re accustomed to in London town.”
“My name is Nicholas, you know. Most of the ladies call me Nick.”
“I’m sure they do, Doctor. Are you listening to me?”
“Of course. Have to watch the alcohol. Are you listening to me?”
“What’d I say, then?” he asked, stopping to look her in the face.
“Your name is Nicholas.”
“I heard you, Doctor. Now, we need to move along. There can be some rough trade around here.”
That seemed to bring him to focus, and she quickly got him moving again, keeping a reaction distance between them and the closed shop fronts that lined the road. It seemed to suffice, for despite her worries, she managed to get him to the final corner without incident, and they rounded the end of the warehouse to provide his first view of the aerodrome, and the two craft tethered there. He stopped so suddenly that she almost lost her balance.
Floodlights on towers lighted the two airships. The first was a two-envelope vessel whose gondola was barely more than a cargo platform with large propellers fore and aft, a stubby wing and vertical fins trailing behind. Nyumbu, read a hand-lettered board on the side rail. A crew wrestled crates off a cargo sling onto the deck, amid much cursing and blasphemy.
She led him past this bare-bones freight hauler to the second ship, moored to bollards away from the dock, a perfectly formed boat hull slung below a fat yet somehow gracefully tapered envelope, twin motors with two-bladed propellers on an obviously articulated frame hanging low at the rear. Kestrel, she proclaimed her name to be in faded black letters across the stern. Besides the mooring hawsers, the only means of access was a spindly rope ladder hanging from the rail.
“On the Kestrel!” Patience called up. Shortly, a ruddy face appeared at the railing.
“Hoy, Patty!” its owner called back. “I thought the Injuns got you!”
“Injuns don’t want me, David. Meat’s too chewy. I’ve gotten us a fare. Is the captain aboard?”
“Nah. He’s been buttin’ heads with that wholesaler all afternoon. Went out to get a drink.”
“Was he victorious?”
“Well, he didn’t kill the guy, so I’m guessin’ we’re square. Who’s this fare you got?”
“Doctor Nicholas Ellsworth. Say hello to David Smith, our deck hand.”
“Mr. Smith,” Ellsworth said with a tip of his new hat. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I say, a bit rough around the edges, isn’t he?”
“David’s an American, straight from the frontier. Dodge city, Wild Bill Hickok, cowboys and Indians, and all that. Rough as they come. We think he had to flee. No one believes for a moment that David Smith is his real name.”
“Why did you hire him, then?”
“He can do the work. People with airship skills don’t grow on trees, you know. Well, up you get.”
“Up the ladder.”
“Not at all. Go ahead.”
Ellsworth took hold of the side ropes, put his foot on the first wooden rung, lifted his weight, and promptly fell backward onto his rump. Patience stifled a snicker, and helped him up.
“Honestly, Doctor, you should have said you have no experience with rope ladders. Here, I’ll show you.”
She stepped to the side of it, took one rope in both hands, and with her legs on either side of it, scampered up like a forest monkey. Ellsworth watched in amazement until she reached the top, and Smith helped her over the rail. Her curly blonde head immediately reappeared, a mischievous smile on her pretty face.
“Take your time, Doctor. It can be tricky until you get the hang of it.”
He did indeed take his time, swinging precariously even though the ship was tethered less than twenty feet off the ground. He miraculously failed to fall, but was thoroughly exhausted by the time Smith and Hobbs manhandled him aboard.
“A commendable first effort, Doctor,” Patience said as he collected himself, straightening his tie and waistcoat, and garnering his first impressions of the ship.
He stood at the side of a clear cargo deck, obstructed only by a few pieces of what he assumed to be essential equipment. A raised pilot house was situated well forward, and various pipes and hoses ran fore and aft, up to the gas bag, and a couple over the side. He nodded to David, a wiry fellow of around thirty-five with a face like sun-cured leather, who nodded back without comment, and turned away to lean on the rail. Clanking noises drew his eye aft, where a strapping fellow, blonde like Patience, with a build like a circus strongman, held a wrench in position inside a gearbox, and banged the shank with a hammer.
“Gunther,” Patience called to him, leading Ellsworth that way, “meet our new passenger. This is Doctor Ellsworth.”
The big fellow looked up with a pleasant enough expression, and said, “It vill be good to have a doctor aboard, even if only briefly. Gunther Brown, ship’s engineer.”
“I say,” Ellsworth blurted out, “isn’t that a Prussian accent?”
“Und vell it should be, Doctor. I vas born in Berlin.”
“And your captain allows this?” he queried Patience. “England and Prussia are about two insults from open warfare.”
“Ve are a long vay from Europe here, Doctor,” Gunther answered. “Berlin und London have zeir issues, und ve have ours.”
“Gunther’s father was a clerk in the Berlin embassy,” Patience explained. “He obtained a special dispensation from the Crown to marry a German girl. Gunther’s politics are his own affair. It is his mechanical genius that is our primary interest.”
“I see. Well, good to meet you, then, Mr. Brown.”
“Ja,” Gunther said with a nod. “Und you.”
“Well, then,” Ellsworth asked, “what do we do until the captain returns?”
“I suppose I can I show you where your quarters will be if you take passage with us.”
“Better give him vun by ze keel. He’s going to be katzenjammers tomorrow.”
He and Patience both chuckled at that.
“What does katzenyum – katzenyan –”
“Katzenjammers,” Patience repeated.
“Exactly. What does that mean?”
“Hung over,” she replied, and took his arm to lead him forward toward the pilot house.
* * *
Ellsworth washed his face in the pull-down sink before making his unsteady way to the deck. He had a sickening moment on the stairs as the ship took a long roll to port, but he fought it down and pulled himself onto the main deck. What he saw there brought it back in spades.
He emerged on deck at the very bow of the gondola, directly in front of the pilot house. The deck had a pronounced slant to port as the Kestrel continued a sweeping left turn that had already been in progress for some time by the look of things. Turning his head to the left gave him a view through the railing of the rooftops of Mombasa at least three hundred feet below. His hands involuntarily clamped themselves onto the stairs’ brass rails as he sucked in a breath and held it.
Hearing voices, he fought down this wave as well, and managed to turn his head toward the stern without releasing his hand hold. Behind the open windows of the pilot house, Miss Patience Hobbs, Airship Pilot, smiled at him as she lifted one hand from the big wooden ships’ wheel to beckon him to join her and the man he vaguely remembered as the captain; Morten? Martin? He’d know in a minute.
Carefully transferring his hands, one by one, from the stair rails to the brass railing around the outside of the pilot house, he made his way to the door.
“We have to deliver these parts to the Stephenson homestead, so you may as well follow the rails up to Misong, and turn toward their place from there.”
“Aye, Captain,” Patience replied as he stepped inside. “We’ll have plenty of landmarks once we clear the forest. Good morning, Doctor. You rested well, I trust?”
“Except for this abominable pitching.”
“Actually, we’re rolling. We always do headed up-country this time of year. Trade winds take us on the starboard beam. The envelope is much more resistant to being pushed sidewise than the gondola, you see, so we swing like a pendulum underneath if there’s a good blow going. Sorry if it unsettled you. Takes some getting used to if you’re new to these things.”
“I just came round the horn on a side wheeler. I thought I was used to a moving deck.”
“Ah. Ships roll round the keel, you see. We swing beneath the gas bag. The motion’s just backward.”
“Well, it’s certainly ruined my breakfast. Good morning, Captain.”
“Doctor,” the captain replied, a slender man of medium height with neatly trimmed white hair and Vandyke beard.
“I’m terribly sorry, but your name seems to have slipped my mind. I know it's something like Morten, but things were a bit of a blur last night.”
“I don’t doubt they were, Doctor. I’m surprised you remember your own name. It’s Monroe, Clinton Monroe.”
“Monroe, of course,” Ellsworth said, extending his hand.
“As you have already found, imbibing alcohol in the tropics has a little different effect than it does up in the cooler latitudes,” Monroe said, shaking his passenger’s hand.
“Indeed. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Being hung over and riding this ship will complete the lesson, I'm thinking. You were less than clear on your destination last night, Doctor.”
“I’m not decided on exactly where I’m going yet,” Ellsworth replied. “Someplace with a wide variety of foliage, that I’m certain of.”
“There’s plenty of forest up-country,” Monroe told him. “Plenty of danger, as well. Leopard, boa, mamba, gorilla, spiders whose venom can start fires, and if all that isn’t enough to deter you, there are always the Maasai.”
“I’ve heard that before. What the deuce is the Maasai?”
“A native tribe. They live back in the interior, and have taken a real dislike to progress. Dislike to the point of raiding isolated plantations, killing travelers. White travelers, that is to say. Hardly pays to be a God-fearing Englishman anymore.”
“Kapitan,” Gunther’s voice came through a brass tube, “do you sink you could come to ze generator flat for a moment? I vant to show you somesing.”
“Coming, Gunther,” the captain shouted into the tube. “Excuse me for a moment.”
He stepped out and headed aft, threading his way around the cargo crates on the flat after deck.
“So why does he stay out here, one wonders,” Ellsworth muttered when he had left.
“The captain was a military commander,” Patience said unexpectedly. “I gather he led a division of frigates in some ‘dispute short of war,’ as the newspapers call them. He got decoyed out of position by one of his opposite numbers, and the Crown had to humble itself before a hostile government. He was disgraced and cashiered. Came out here and crawled into a bottle for two years before he composed himself, built this ship out of cast-off parts, and started freighting to all points beyond the rails.”
“I see. That may go some way toward explaining the fare he charged me.”
“Well, he found me inebriated, it touched a chord in him, and he decided to charge me enough to buy my own team and carriage.”
“That’s where you’d be mistaken, Doctor,” she said, giving the wheel a slow swing to starboard and letting it spin a couple of rotations. “The fare is what it is.”
“Two pounds, two? You’re in it, too, then?”
“Not at all,” she said, stopping the wheel with casual expertise and watching the compass settle on a new course. “You see, above this roof is a great bag of hydrogen. It will lift a specific weight, and not an ounce more.”
“What has that to do with taking advantage of a man in his cups?”
“Well, an ocean vessel is designed to carry a certain tonnage. If you overload it, it rides lower in the water, but if you distribute the weight carefully, and be careful to stay where it’s calm, you can move your cargo relatively safely, you see?”
“Same with a train. An engine is rated to pull a certain load, but if you’re willing to pay a price in engine wear and increased fuel consumption, you can overload the train and do what you need to accomplish. But with an airship, you take the total tonnage we can lift, subtract the weight of the vessel, our equipment and supplies, personal effects, the weight of our bodies, and what remains is the exact amount of weight that we can sell to make our living, and not an ounce more. It costs what it costs.”
“I see. So if the Queen’s Consort needed a ride—”
“He’d pay the same rate you did.”
“I give you my word on this, Doctor. He didn’t swindle you.”
“All right. I’ll take your word, then.”
“Good. Now, what’s this obsession you have about going out into the bush alone?”
“I’m a botanist. The way you study plants is to go where the plants are. I am given to understand that there are plants in this land that science has never seen.”
“Probably. So what? They’re just plants.”
“They aren’t just plants! Well, they are, but have you ever stopped to think about what a plant is?”
“I suppose you’re about to tell me.”
“Of course. Plants are chemical factories. Did you ever notice how some plants never seem to get bug infestations, others are resistant to frost, and so on?”
“Hmmm. Now you mention it.”
“All those immunities and abilities come from chemicals made by the plant. Most of our pharmacology is plant-based. One of the finest lubricating oils is extracted from a Japanese legume. These forests may contain thousands of plants with thousands of chemicals that science has never seen.”
“That’s very possible, Doctor. They also contain a good many ways to die that are well documented. Do you own a gun?”
“What sort? Because I didn’t see a case when Faraji’s boys brought your things aboard.”
“A Webley .455. It’s in my suitcase. One of the most powerful handguns made.”
“Yes. Have you ever seen a leopard, Doctor?”
“I mean a live one, up close. Picture a house cat as big as Gunther that hunts by ambush. You’ll have no idea it’s around until it lands on your back and digs in with inch-long claws and two-inch teeth. And then, if you are able to get your Webley out of the holster and bring it to bear, you shoot an animal like that with a pistol, you're going to make it exceedingly angry.”
“Believe me. And leopards aren’t your biggest problem in the bush, either. Add in snakes, venomous insects, the odd man-eating plant. Wouldn’t that be ironic? And the Maasai, mustn’t forget the Maasai. No, the only safe way for you to go into the bush is to have a dozen boys armed with rifles watching your back, and even that isn’t really safe. If you’re so bent on going into the bush alone, you should just get out your Webley and put a bullet in your head. That would save you a considerable amount of agony later.”
“This is the world we live in, Doctor. I’m just trying to save your life. We carry a lot of newcomers, fresh from the boat, up-country. The lucky ones see what they’ve gotten into, and we carry them back a fortnight later. You’re a nice boy, Doctor. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones.”
* * *
Twin pillars of smoke could be seen from the airship’s deck from leagues away. Alerted by his pilot at the first sign, Captain Monroe had been at the point of the bow for at least a half hour. Now, far ahead, down in the arid pan of the highland plateau, three columns of smoke could be seen rising high into the sky, two of them merging not far above the ground. Old Ewan Stephenson had been one of the earliest subjects to accept a land grant when the colony had been opened up to homestead, and it was a choice plot well to the southeast of the rail terminus at Nairobi. If the Maasai were raiding this far down toward the coast, it would constitute an unmitigated disaster.
“David,” he called to his deck hand.
“Better rig the fowler. Port bow, I think.”
Smith headed below to break out the lightweight brass smoothbore, essentially an oversized shotgun that could be attached to any of several anchor points around the railing; indeed, it couldn’t be fired otherwise.
Monroe lifted his binoculars to study the bases of the smoke columns, but still couldn’t make out any detail. Giving up, he lowered them and moved aft to the pilot house, where Ellsworth was trying without notable success to engage Hobbs in small talk.
“Patience, keep the smoke to port. I’ll want to circle around before we close, see if we can get a feel for what may be down there.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Doctor, are you armed?”
“Not at the moment, Captain.”
“But you own a weapon?”
“Yes, sir. A Webley .455 revolver.”
“We don't know what we’re going to find down there. You may want to load it. Have you any facility with a long gun?”
“I’m a pretty fair trap shooter. Not much with a rifle, I’m afraid.”
“Well, we’ve a couple of shotguns down in the gun locker, if you care to avail yourself.”
“Perhaps I should. Where is it, exactly?”
“Just go down the ladder. It’s forward on the starboard side. Don’t forget your pistol.”
“No, of course not. Excuse me.” He took his leave.
“What does he want in here?” Monroe asked when he had gone.
“Oh, he’s trying to mend fences, as David would say.”
She sat on top of the engineering control console, as she often did, a spoke of the wheel locked between her crossed ankles. Monroe’s military background railed against that, but that life was behind him. This was the Kenyan frontier, and there wasn’t another pilot of Hobbs’ caliber south of Italy.
“Does he need to?”
“You saw him last evening, drunk as a lord, and insulting everyone and everything around him.”
“Not directly, although when I first approached him, I believe he may have taken me for a prostitute.”
“But he didn’t actually say that?”
“No. He’s just an ass in general. I think he knows I’ve figured it out, and he’s trying to correct his first impression.”
“Or obfuscate it.”
“There is that.”
Monroe stepped up to one of the brass speaking tubes and whistled into it.
“Gunther, can you hear me?”
“Ja, Kapitan,” the answer came after a moment.
“There are some fires at the Stephenson plantation. We don’t know what they’re about, so you may want to arm yourself before we get there.”
“Ja, Kapitan, it shall be done.”
Monroe moved to the port side of the pilot house and leaned back against the console, waiting, passing the time by alternating looks through the binoculars with watching Smith mount the one-pounder Grimbeauval gun on the railing.
The situation began to resolve itself as Hobbs brought the Kestrel in on an unerring curve, effortlessly keeping their small cannon precisely aligned with the nearest of the fires. As nearly as Monroe could tell, Stephenson was in the process of burning his crop, he and his field hands cutting down plants and carrying them to be thrown onto the bonfires.
“There’s been no battle here, at least,” he said to Hobbs, opening a locker and taking out a megaphone. “Bring us up close to the smoke, down to about fifty feet altitude, and hold your position. Stay out of it, though. We don’t know what he’s about, and I’d rather not be breathing that until we do.”
And so she did, easing the unwieldy gasbag up until the nose was barely twenty feet out of the column, and holding her steady enough in the fading breeze to balance a coin on its edge.
“Ewan, you old highwayman,” Monroe shouted toward the ground, “what the devil are you about now?”
“Clinton, ye old pirate! Are ye gonna come down here an’ help me, or just sit up there watchin’?”
“Patty,” Monroe called to the pilot house, “back us up a hundred feet and set her down.”
“Patty?” Stephenson, a stocky, florid-faced Scotsman with flame-red hair out of control from chin to crown called up. “Patty Hobbs?”
“She still shippin’ out wit’ you? What hold ye got on the lass?”
“The quality of my character!”
“Bah, that’ll be the day!”
The stream of mutual insults ceased while the aforementioned Hobbs, standing up and using her hands now, maneuvered Kestrel to a clear patch of level ground, and lowered her until the bottom of the motor frame was being tickled by the dry grass. As soon as she began revving the engines to hold her stationary, Smith pulled a handle that released the anchor from its compartment in the bow, tossed a rope ladder over the side, and started down, a sledge hammer slung like a rifle on his back.
“What’s he doing, Captain?” Ellsworth asked from the side of the pilot house, a double-barreled Ithaca tucked under his arm, sport shooter style.
“Ah, Doctor. The crisis never materialized, so you can secure the weapons.”
“That’s good news.”
“Yes. We've dropped our anchor. That's a four-pronged grapnel attached to the ship by a cable. Mr. Smith is going to evaluate the ground, and try to drive it into a suitable patch to keep us in place.”
“And that will hold the ship?”
“Usually. In any case, Patience will remain at the controls.”
“She doesn’t get fatigued in there?”
“Hardly. Prying her out of there while we’re airborne is like prying a starving dog off a pork chop. It’s a futile endeavor.”
“I see. Well, now what happens?”
“Now, I go down and talk with Stephenson, and then most likely, we deliver his machine parts. With no crisis in hand, you can go back to chatting up my pilot, but be careful. You’ll find her quite a handful if you make her angry.”
“Thank you, Captain. I’m certain that’s useful information.”
Warning delivered, Captain Monroe strapped his own bulky revolver to his hip and slipped easily down the rope ladder. Collecting Smith, as he slung the hammer over his shoulder, he approached Stephenson.
“This has to be the best-smelling fire in the district, Ewan, but you seem to be a bit confused. Aren’t you supposed to sell this stuff?”
“Ach, very funny, as usual, Clinton! Some o’ these plants ha’ got some kind o’ blight. I never seen nothin’ like it. Plants are goin’ down in rows. Only solution I see is to burn it out.”
“That's hard, Ewan.”
“Ach, you’re tellin’ me nothin’!”
“Say, I’m carrying a passenger. Young fellow, supposed to be a plant doctor. I could ask him to take a look.”
“Well, what the devil are ye’ waitin’ for, ye durn fool?”
“I know how you feel about people interfering with your business,” Monroe said, turning back toward the Kestrel.
“Helpin’ an’ interferin’ are two different things, ye dolt.”
“Hard to tell the difference with you sometimes. Patience,” he shouted up, “is Ellsworth with you?”
“He went below,” she called back.
“Well, send him down here. He needs to see this.”
“I’ll just warn you,” Monroe said, turning back, “this bloke can be a bit of a pill.”
“An’ how’s that?”
“He”s a bit . . . abrasive. I know Patience doesn’t think much of him, and that’s all the recommendation I need.”
“Bah, I see. Good with plants, though?”
“So he says. I guess we’ll find out together. Here he comes.”
Ellsworth cut a dapper figure in his white linen suit as he walked confidently up to them.
“What’s your pleasure, Captain?”
“Nicholas Ellsworth, Ewan Stephenson. Doctor Ellsworth is a botanist.”
“Pleased,” Ellsworth said, offering his hand.
“Bah. Ye seem awful young, boy. Ye any good?”
“Head of my class.”
“This ain’t a classroom, sonny.”
“Fair enough, sir. Why don’t you tell me about your problem, and we’ll see whether I can address it?”
“Direct, huh? I like that. I grow coffee here. My plants have got some kind o’ blight I never seen before. I’m tryin’ to isolate ’em, an’ burn it out.”
“Sounds a sensible strategy. Is there a sample I can see?”
“Sample? This whole field’s your sample. Carmichael! Bring some o’ those leaves over here.”
A sweating laborer came over with a bundle of branches, separated one out, and gave it to Stephenson. The tops of the leaves were the usual rich, waxy green, but when Stephenson turned it over, the bottoms were covered with a mat of gray powdery hairs.
“I say, that doesn’t look good,” Ellsworth said, taking the branch. “How does it develop?”
“A few spots on the bottom. They spread and link up. Once two of ’em make contact, it just takes over everything. Whole plants can look like spiders have covered them with webs.”
“Have you looked for that? There are plant mites that colonize the space inside the leaves.”
“Ain’t seen any bugs. Would they show outside?”
“No, but you'd see channels inside the leaf.”
“Ain’t seen nothin’ like that.”
“Hmmm. Could you hold this?”
Stephenson took the branch while Ellsworth fished in an inside pocket, bringing forth a small, round leather case. From it he removed a jeweler’s loupe, took back the branch, and studied it through the lens.
“This is a fungus,” he announced at length. “That’s bloody odd.”
“What is, Doctor?”
“This isn’t what I expected to find in the tropics. This looks like a temperate species. The first thing I’d recommend is to stop all this burning.”
“But, well, how am I supposed to kill it if I don't burn it?”
“Not by burning, that’s certain. Fungi spread by microscopic seeds called spores. Burning will certainly kill them, but they’re so light and tiny that many thousands are lifted by the heat of the fire without being killed. Once they’re up in the air, the wind can carry them for miles. Everywhere they land becomes a new outbreak”
“Sweet Jesus, man! Carmichael! Get these fires out! Not another leaf goes in!”
“What? We just got ’em goin’ good.”
“An’ thank the Almighty for that! Now, quit tongue-joustin’, and put ’em out. Move, man!”
Carmichael, the plantation’s foreman, quickly began assembling his workers to douse the fires as Stephenson turned back to Ellsworth.
“So, what do I do with ’em? Bury ’em?”
“Not until we know for certain what it is. Some fungi do very well underground. You bury those types, and they'll leech into the whole countryside. Could be the end of everything you've built here.”
“If you have enough vinegar, or chlorine, or salt, you can set up tubs with a solution, and soak every branch in it. That should kill it if you leave it in until the leaves are soaked through. Otherwise, pile them up away from your healthy plants, soak them with water, and cover them with wet tarpaulins. The main thing is to keep the spores from escaping.”
“So what, I keep these piles here forever?”
“Until I identify the fungus. Then we’ll know how to combat it. In the meantime, you just need to keep it away from everything else. It’s no different than a quarantine. Can I take some of these leaves with me?”
“Bah. Take ’em all, they’re no good to me!”
“Just a few will be fine. I’ll get word back to you, don’t worry.”
“We have the parts you ordered,” Monroe said as Ellsworth took his leaves back toward the ship. “Where would you like them?”
“Over by the barn’d be good. We’ll open the crate an’ parcel ’em out.”
“Sorry, David. Up-anchor. Tell Patience, as close to the barn as she can put it, and unload the tool crate.”
* * *
It was late afternoon, and Kestrel had Nairobi in sight when Ellsworth asked Captain Monroe to come below. He didn’t like to leave the deck with his ship on approach, but his faith in Hobbs was complete, so, given the situation at Stephenson’s plantation, he swallowed his irritation to pay his young passenger a visit.
“In here, Captain, please,” Ellsworth called him as he came down the ladder, and disappeared back into his cabin. Monroe followed him, to find microscope, test tubes, a few more pieces he didn’t recognize, and several scholarly tomes spread out on the bed and small writing desk. Ellsworth had been sitting on the only seat left, the pull-down sink.
“You know, you could have used the mess deck for this. You’d have had a lot more room for your equipment.”
“This worked all right. Easier to contain the samples in here. I don’t know what I’m dealing with here, or at least, I didn’t.”
“And you do now?”
“Well, yes and no.”
“You’d better explain that, Doctor.”
“I’ll try.” He pointed out an illustration in a book that looked like a mite or tick, magnified many times over. “This is Batrachochytrium. It’s a fairly rare fungus that has only been observed to date in the northern reaches of the United States, and on into Canada. Likes the cooler weather, you see.”
“So it doesn't belong here, then?”
“Absolutely not, but that isn’t the most unusual aspect of this.”
“I’m needed on deck, Doctor. I’m afraid I must ask you to come to the point.”
“Quite, Captain. Batrachochytrium is a parasite of frogs and other amphibians. It normally has no effect on plants of any kind at all. Not only that, but it is only active from forty up to about eighty degrees. Below forty, it goes into a state equivalent to hibernation, and above eighty it goes dormant. Just short of a hundred degrees, its nuclei break down, and it is killed by the temperature alone.”
“So, Stephenson can burn his plants, then?”
“Yes, I believe so. Every spore in the bonfire should reach at least a hundred degrees, but there’s this other thing.”
“Quite. Either a simple parasitic fungus has somehow acquired the ability to infect a species as far removed from its normal host as you are from a watermelon, and fly to the back side of the planet to take up residence in a clime that is completely unsuited to it in any way, or someone has found a way to modify this little killer to take on a new task.”
“Do you think that’s what’s happened?”
“It’s more likely than the plant doing this on its own. This constitutes a perfect weapon, you know.”
“You distribute this in the spring, as the new crop is coming in. It wipes out the crop, ruins the farmer, then the summer heat comes, and it dies out, leaving the land ready to be taken over by whoever has designs on it. Remember, too, we don’t know what all this might attack, just that it does attack coffee. Who are the local political players, Captain? Who might benefit from this?”
“Well, the big rival, of course, is the Prussians. They’re down the coast in Tanganyika. They used to own the coast of Kenya, but they traded it to the Crown for something we had that they wanted. They have towns in the Highlands as well, some not far from here.”
“They're an obvious candidate, then.”
“Yes, but the Governor General, Blumenthal, is a sensible fellow. Goes out of his way to avoid the sort of little incidents that can get out of hand.”
“Maybe, but the situation between London and Berlin is volatile right now. Who’s to say this Blumenthal has personal knowledge of every spy that Berlin might send here?”
“A valid point, Doctor.”
“Any other players in the region?”
“Up the coast is Somalia. Been Arab for centuries. They’ve had a free hand down here, and have never made a move on it, beyond building Mombasa, and they only stopped in there to trade. Recently, the Italians have been showing some interest, but they aren’t here in any numbers. Nothing more than a few surveyors.”
“And either of those powers might be dismayed to see the Crown turning this region into an economic engine. It would only take one man to distribute a bottle of this stuff. Who are these Maasai I’ve been warned about?”
“Native warriors, very belligerent, and with the ferocity to back it up. Without them, we’d be ten years ahead of where we are now. They have taken the best lands by force for centuries, and now we come with our technology, and take those lands from them. They strike back at times and places of their own choosing, and they take every opportunity to send a powerful message. And then there’s the rubies.”
“Ah, Miss Hobbs mentioned those. Are they a factor, then?”
“Absolutely. Quality stones started turning up in the marketplace in Mombasa a few months back. Naturally, the Crown would rather that word had been suppressed, but by the time they could intervene, the damage was done. They’re coming from the hills above Lake Victoria, which we share with the Prussians in Tanganyika, and as you might expect, word is bringing in speculators from all over the world. It’s also the impetus behind this sudden push to extend the railroad up to the Lake. There have already been some miniature naval battles fought between prospectors on the Lake, the Prussians want to redraw the border, and the Maasai’s attitude is, it’s our land, and they’re our stones. You can’t name anybody who wouldn’t benefit from chaos. Present company excepted, of course.”
“Do you jest with me, Captain? Do you believe that one of, what, a half-dozen airships in the region wouldn’t be an asset beyond price in any regional conflict?”
“Point taken. So, Doctor, what are we to do with this knowledge?”
“You may do as you wish, Captain. I’m going to disembark in Nairobi. I’m going to write a detailed report of this incident, and dispatch it by rail to the governor’s residence in Mombasa. He, too, can do as he wishes.”
“I’m going to hire a rig, follow the rails out to the end, and do the job I came here to do.”
“Catalog new plants?”
“And the Maasai don't frighten you?”
“I’ll be near the rails, Captain, the harbinger of Civilization, with technological aid close to hand.”
“It’s hardly safe there, Doctor. The Maasai go where the victims are.”
“The frontiers are always opened by brave souls who are willing to take risks. I’m not just a bookworm, Captain. I know how to fight, and I know how to use my sidearm. The Lord protects the brave.”
“You’d better hope so. I have to get back on deck. I’ll make one more attempt to change your mind over drinks tonight.”
“You’ll not succeed. One more thing, Captain. Next time you see Stephenson, tell him it’s safe to burn those plants. Just make sure to keep the fire hot.”
“That I will.”
* * *
Kestrel, having dropped off the impetuous young doctor in the untamed boom town of Nairobi, continued northwest along the unfinished rail line, and then beyond it to Kisumu, the even wilder boom town that had thought it was going to be a fishing village until rubies began to come out of the hills above. Supplies delivered, the crew took a much-needed break, enjoying the market and the excellent fish dishes caught fresh from Lake Victoria as they awaited the overdue arrival of her scheduled passengers; travel was a precarious prospect this far out from the rail head. She took on coal for her Cheadle and Gatley generator, the eighth wonder of the engineering world. Another whole day passed before their passengers arrived, defeated missionaries, an old priest and two nuns, and they finally headed back to complete her hundredth or thousandth round trip; no one could remember which.
They hadn’t yet reached the rail head, and Hobbs was steering by her phenomenal memory for landmarks on the barren landscape, when they passed over a group of Maasai following a quarry, their rust-colored robes discarded for stealth, creeping along a gully between two patches of forest.
“Wonder what they’re after,” Smith said idly to the captain, who had come forward at the airman’s report of activity.
“Game, let’s hope.”
“We gonna spook ’em?”
“Difficult to spook a Maasai, David. Anyway, they’ve got their business, we’ve got ours. Keep an eye out, though, in case they're after something besides an antelope.”
“Patience,” he said as he moved back to the pilot house door, “come left twenty degrees, and slow way down. Hold it for five minutes, then resume course.”
“Aye, sir. What’s the occasion?”
“Maasai hunting party. We’re going to slow down and see what they’re up to. Are you armed?”
She patted the top of her calf-high boot where it lay under her trouser leg.
“Good. Probably nothing, but stay alert.”
Monroe nodded his approval, and went below, emerging moments later with his own pistol on his hip, and another pistol belt, which he handed to Smith.
“Well, they’re after something.”
“I don’t know how these fuzzies catch anything. Apaches would have ’em for lunch.”
“A lot of good subjects would argue that with you, if they weren’t already dead.”
“I guess. These guys just don’t seem to have a knack for sneakin’, that’s all.”
“Maybe they’re so tough they don’t need—”
“Captain! Oh, Captain!” the younger of the two nuns called breathlessly as she walked carefully across the swaying deck toward them. “We have just passed over a man down there. His clothing appears torn, and he seems to be running from something!”
“Patty!” Monroe shouted. “Mark your position and come about! There’s somebody down there! Call Gunther!”
“Yes, Captain,” she called back, and set about doing everything he had called for at once. The young nun gave a squeak of surprise and grabbed the nearest support as Kestrel’s deck listed suddenly to port as Hobbs poured on all the left rudder she could take in the stiff afternoon breeze.
“Where was he, Sister?”
“Oh, it all looks so much the same. He was wherever we just passed over.”
“He’ll be to the left, then,” Monroe said. “We should be circling round him.”
Brown appeared beside them, a bolt-action rifle in his hand.
“Vas iss los?” he asked, reverting to his first language in his excitement.
“Someone’s down there. Maasai are after him.”
“No vun should be out here.”
“You’re preaching to the choir on— Oh, my God!”
“Our recent passenger.”
“Ellsvorth? You told him not to come out here, didn’t you?”
“Repeatedly. Apparently, he isn’t as bright as we were led to believe.”
“You don’t know zat he is down zere.”
“No, but I’d bet the ship on it.”
Patience brought the ship completely around and put the nose into the wind, adjusting the motor rpm to hold her motionless two hundred feet above the canopy. Everyone searched frantically for the unknown fugitive, eyes quickly blurring against the swaying sea of green. There didn't seem to be much hope of finding one lost man on the forest floor, but suddenly two shots rang out.
“Where was that, left?”
“Right, I sought.”
“Shit!” Monroe swore, drawing an astonished look from the young Sister. Drawing his pistol, he fired two shots over the rail. They were immediately answered by another, then another.
“I’ll say, shit!” Smith said, pointing off to port. “The Maasai heard that, and they’re hot-footin’ it over here!”
The old priest’s head emerged from the accommodation ladder right behind them.
“I say, what’s all the shooting?”
“Just a little problem with the natives. You ought to see to your Sister, there,” Monroe said, indicating the younger nun crouched among the cargo boxes. “David, if you see any Maasai, don’t be shy about shooting at them.”
“Murdering your brethren, Captain?” the priest admonished.
“This lot isn’t ready for church yet, Father. Patty, bring her down to a hundred feet, and ease her forward.”
“The Lord views murder in a dim light, Captain.”
“An eye for an eye, Father. We’re just getting our eye first, that’s all. Gunther, drop the anchor.”
“Ve are going to anchor, Kapitan?”
“No, Gunther, just drop it. On the ground!” he shouted from the bow. “Look for our anchor coming through the trees. Grab it and hold on! We’re going to lift you out of there! Sing out when you have it!”
“I don’t see it!” came a shout from the ground.
“Swing the bow, Patty. Give him some motion to look for.”
Slowly, the bow swung to the right in a majestic arc, then back left, then right again, pulling the trailing anchor in its sweeps.
“Too bad these things don’t respond a little more quickly,” Monroe muttered.
“Zat vould be convenient.”
Smith stiffened, then aimed, and fired three careful shots, bracing his pistol on the rail.
“The Lord knows who orders that man’s hand, Captain!”
“So do my crewmen, thank you, Father. Does anyone see him?”
“I have it!” came the shout from below the canopy.
“Patty, he’s on! Straight up until I tell you to stop!”
“Straight up, aye, Captain.”
There was an interminable wait while she released the hydrochloric acid onto the bed of briquettes to increase the production of hydrogen flowing to the envelope. She knew every trick, and employed them all, angling the rear-mounted propellers up to cause the nose to pitch sharply upward. It seemed to take forever, but eventually they started to rise, Monroe watching the anchor cable as Smith and Brown fired harassing shots at the Maasai to keep them at bay. When the anchor finally broke through the trees, standing on the flukes was Ellsworth, jacket gone, shirt torn, disheveled, terrified, everything Monroe had told him he would be. He would rub it in later.
“All right, Patience, he’s clear of the trees. Let’s move a couple a miles off and set him down.”
“Hold on, Doctor. We have to get you away from the Maasai before we put you down.”
“I’ll be very grateful for that, I assure you!”
A round of laughter was shared by everyone save Ellsworth. He managed to hold onto the cable while standing on the anchor’s hooks until Hobbs set him down as gently as a baby being laid in a cradle, then held steady while he climbed the ladder.
“Captain Monroe,” Ellsworth greeted his benefactor as Gunther assisted him none too gently over the rail, “I can truly say that I have never been more pleased to see anyone in my life!”
“Doctor Ellsworth. Did you learn anything from your grand adventure?”
“Oh, I suppose that there is a better than outside possibility that you might know what you’re talking about.”
“That’s a start, I suppose,” Monroe said.
“How did you manage to get out here so quickly?” Hobbs asked.
“Oh, I caught a ride with a work crew. After that, I just walked out into the bush. Made camp, walked further today, and then I ran into those fellows. I got away, thanks to you, but all of my best equipment was in my backpack.”
“Luck has favored you with a lesson you’ve survived, Doctor. That isn’t often the case out here. Mombasa, Miss Hobbs, and don’t spare the horses!”
“David, do you suppose you might be able to find a shirt for our old friend?”
“Aye, I probably have an old paint rag that’ll fit ’im.”
“Wait, Captain,” Ellsworth said. “I need to retrieve my gear.”
“Where is it?”
“At my camp.”
“What, back in the forest?”
“I don't think so, young man. Those Maasai weren’t happy when they started after you. Their mood isn’t going to be any better now that we’ve robbed them of their quarry.”
“But everything I own is down there! My clothes, much of my field lab. My money. I’ve even lost my new hat.”
“I’m not going to put my crew and passengers in harm’s way over some clothes and bottles that can be replaced.”
“But Captain, the equipment I left in Nairobi is garbage. All my most modern instruments are down there.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor. The answer is no.”
“No, you look! You are alive by the grace of God, unimaginable good fortune, and a few circus tricks. Don’t push your luck. You’ve already had more than any man is entitled to today. Just call this the most valuable lesson you’ll ever learn, and go back to England. You seem more suited to life there.”
“You don't understand. Everything I own is in that camp. I don’t have a shilling to buy a meal, or a bullet to shoot myself in the head with, let alone passage back to England. I’m ruined. I’m destitute.”
“We know people here. We can find you some work to earn passage, don’t worry.”
“But I don’t want passage. I have a mission to perform here.”
“Apparently, that is no longer the case.”
Ellsworth turned and looked out over the railing, not even feeling the rising elevator sensation that sickened so many airship travelers, as he watched his dream pass by with the accelerating savannah. Suddenly, he turned back to face Monroe.
“I could work for you.”
“I could be on your crew. I could grab some samples wherever we land, and I could do work for you.”
“Now, wait just a minute.”
“What for? Didn’t we just solve a dangerous riddle together? I can be very useful in the right situation.”
“Well, yes, but that situation was most unusual. We don’t encounter things like that every day. What can you do to lift your weight?”
“Lift my weight?”
“He means zat ve can lift a finite amount. Subtract everysing ve have to carry, like crew, and vat is left is vat ve can carry as cargo. Zat is vere ve make our money. Are you vorth giffing up two or sree hundred pounds of cargo space? Vat do you offer in return?”
“Yeah,” Smith added. “Are you a real doctor, or do you just mess with plants?”
“Well, many plants have medicinal value, especially for minor cuts and burns, just the sort of injuries you’re likely to get here.”
“Yeah, but you do surgery?”
“Do you need surgery?”
“Well, not now. Maybe someday.”
“Can you cook, Doctor?” Hobbs asked from her station in the pilot house.
“Can I cook?”
“I asked you first. None of these louts know how to turn on the range, and I for one am tired of eating beans out of a tin for every meal.”
“Well, living in a dormitory for six years, I’ve had to learn a few dishes, at least. I can whip you up something now and again.”
“Prove that statement, and you’ll have my vote.”
“Good idea,” Monroe said amid the laughter, “we’ll vote. If we take on another crewman, everyone’s take is going to be smaller, and there’s no avoiding it, so I’ll ask you. David, do you want to add the doctor to our crew?”
“Nah. He ain’t a real doctor. We don’t need another mouth to feed, even if he does cook the food himself.”
“Ve can give him a chance. I get ze knuckle scrapes und machinery burns every day. It might be nice to have some treatment for zose.”
“Do you start cooking tonight, Doctor, or will you be going back to England?”
“You want a meal tonight, I’ll cook tonight.”
“All right then, Captain. Yes.”
“Up to me, then, is it?” Monroe looked him up and down. “All right, we’ll take a chance. You make a couple of runs with us, maybe you can find some way to fit in besides cooking. Find some plants we can sell, maybe. If your herbal skills are all you say, we can put it about that we’ve a healer aboard. That might generate a little income. It could work out. It’s entirely up to you, but I don’t want any more drunkenness if you’re on my crew, understood?”
Monroe nodded, and turned to go below, the matter settled as far as he was concerned.
Monroe turned back and lifted his chin.
“What would you have done if Miss Hobbs had said no?”
“Then you’d be off.” He turned and went down the ladder.
Ellsworth turned and walked to the pilot house door.
“Thank you,” he said to her.
“You heard the captain. This isn’t permanent. It’s just a trial.”
“Nonetheless, if you hadn’t spoken up for me . . . Well, I owe you.”
“Yes, you do, and if you knew me, you’d know that I will collect.”
“I won’t mind paying.”
“We’ll see. I’m not heartless, Doctor. It’s a terrible thing to be thrown down on your luck in a strange place, and you’d be pressed to find a place stranger than this.”
“You seem to do all right.”
“Yes, but I’m tough. You’ll have to make do with being smart. You’d better get busy, Doctor. You promised me a meal, and it had better be a good one.”
Ellsworth stepped back out on deck, unbuttoning the shredded remains of his shirt, looking around at his new home, and wondering what in God’s name he had gotten himself into.