Beyond the Rails, story one by Jack Tyler

* * *

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.”

“Doctor?”

“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?”

“The Kestrel.”

“What is that, exactly? Some kind of river boat?”

“Used to be. Kestrel is an airship.”

“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.”

“Rubies?”

“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.

“Yes, Missy.”

“Kuangalia mambo yake!”

“Hakuna matata.”

“Asante.”

“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.”

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