* * *
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.
“Somebody’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 iss 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 goink 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 some 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 canopy. 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 haff to carry, like crew, and vat is left is vat ve can carry as cargo. Zat is vere ve make our money. Are you vorse giffink up two or sree hundred pounds of cargo space? Vat do you offer in re-turn?”
“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 smalller, 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 cooks it himself.”
“Ve can giff him a chance. I get ze knuckle scrapes und machinery burns effery day. It might be nice to haff 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.
The is the first story of the anthology. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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