Beyond the Rails, story one by Jack Tyler

* * *

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 American deck hand.

“Cap’n?”

“Better rig the fowler. Port bow, I think.”

“Aye, sir.”

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.”

“Including you?”

“Not directly, although when I first approached him, I believe he may have thought I was 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.”

“Aye, sir.”

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?”

“That’s right.”

“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 Hobbs 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, who 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’ fer, 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.”

“Aye, sir.”

“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 of 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. “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 everythin’. 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 jewelers’ 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.”

“What, then?”

“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.”

“Aye, sir.”

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