'The Norseman's Saga'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— In 1948 Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and her lover Gabrielle Parker, bankrolled by a shady British Government Security Department, operate a haulage company in Saskatchewan, Canada, using trucks and a Noorduyn Norseman aircraft. One flight, with a disparate group of travellers, encounters difficulties.

Disclaimer:— copyright ©2021 to Phineas Redux. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.

—O—

"We got'ta buy a Dakota—we jus' got'ta."

"And the moolah is coming from where, dear?"

"You know."

Gabrielle paused, as she sat at their shared desk going over a variety of receipts and chits, to consider this erudite matter.

"Yes, London. Specifically our Overlords in Whitehall; who do they call themselves now?"

"Dido Exports Limited, as ya well know yourself; jus' don't say such out loud, in front of people—they'll be sure t'take it the wrong way."

"Spies, you mean? Well, they wouldn't be wrong, would they, lover?"

"It's an area wide open to question, dear; as we'll certainly attest at our trial if ya go mouthin' off too much amongst the wrong crowd."

But the subject had brought forth dark memories for the brunette member of the duo.

"Hoped we'd broken ties with the underworld—I mean British Secret Security,—when Captain Graham kicked us out of the SOE three years since?"

Claire, standing by the side of her lover, shook her head as knowing reality when it slapped her in the face.

"Never a chance of that, matey. Once a spy, always a dam' spy; which explains our presence here in the Commonwealth of Canada. At least London has had the decency t'bankroll our legitimate business here; that's something."

"Yeah, suppose. Though the Government in Ottawa isn't exactly overjoyed by our presence." Gabrielle hardly convinced. "So, what about this latest sortie with the Norseman? Full passenger list?"

Claire leaned over to rifle amongst the multitude of loose documents littering the desktop.

"Gim'me a sec; mmm, nearly; right, here's the list—let's see—Henry Challoner, Head of Chapman Industrial Company. Then Jane Barton, Challoner's secretary. Followed by Christine Wallace.—"

"Wealthy socialite, looking for adventure and to write about it later. Huumph!"

"Dollars in the pocket, babe, dollars in the pocket."

"Get on with it."

"Ha!, next, James Hollande, ahem, friend of Christine.—"

"Iirrph!"

Claire regarded her inamorata with a slanted smile then continued.

"After which we have Thomas Dunne, an electrician heading out for a short-term job. Who's next? Ah, yeah, David Greene, rookie reporter on the Gatch's Point Courier, headin' out to catch the local colour at the Lake."

"Best of luck to the innocent fool." Gabrielle breathing coldly on the youth's aspirations, like an old time Japanese Snow Ghost. "He don't know how dam' cold it gets out by the Lake, does he?"

"Lastly," Claire ignoring this query with royal disdain. "Eric Biddle, veteran reporter, working freelance with David as his assistant."

"Ah, that explains it." Gabrielle nodding knowingly. "Young Dave's being hauled into the wild against his will; we may have to rescue him from the clutches of his kidnapper before the jaunt's over, gal."

"Idiot! Anyway, that's the passenger list; wish me good luck, should be back tomorrow morning, after stayin' overnight with them."

"I'll cry myself to sleep in my lonely bed tonight, darling."

"Hrrpph!"

—O—

The Noorduyn Norseman floatplane sat by the jetty on Lake Seclusion in solitary splendour, there being no other plane in sight this early morning. Gatch's Point, a wide peninsula jutting out into the lake, having room enough for the jetty, associated offices, and the small community of the same name, encompassing some 1,200 citizens; Lake Seclusion lying some eight miles south-west of Lake Wapawekka and Lac la Ronge, making a lively trio with its two geographical neighbors.

As an aircraft the Norseman had qualities perfectly suited to the present environment; it was built like a tank, had a range of nearly 1,000 miles, room for 10 passengers, and was flown by the single pilot. A high-wing transport aircraft it was one of the best of its ilk in this year of 1948, allowing Claire and Gabrielle to operate a thriving business as they transported passengers all over the interior of the wide desolate country. Mostly they landed and took-off from lakes, but the aircraft's floats could swiftly and easily be changed to either skis or wheels at almost a moment's notice, so their area of operation embraced almost the whole country, fuel stops allowing.

By 9.30am on a cloudless Tuesday morning the plane was revving-up, the passengers were aboard, Gabrielle stood on the jetty waving goodbye to her lover, and Claire had the easy-flying aircraft in the air some three minutes later. She sat in solitary splendour in the small pilot's compartment, an arched opening allowing contact with the passenger compartment behind. On each flight she and Gabrielle liked to designate one of the passengers, those sitting nearest the cockpit, to be the mouthpiece between her and the other passengers when information about their flight needed to be shared; that passenger this morning being Christine Wallace. Within fifteen minutes the plane was flying at around 8,000 feet in a westerly direction; their distant destination, Lake Karanapchee, 300 miles off; it lying some ten miles north of Canoe Lake, more or less on the other side of the Province, with a great deal of barren uninhabited territory in between along with a substantial lack of roads hence the 3-weekly air-route.

Claire wasn't wearing a facemask, as in the old days in the RAF, just a headset with a cable going to the radio inlet on the dashboard; this allowing her to speak with Base as well as any of the passengers if she raised her voice over the engine.

"Norse One to Base, over?"

"Base here, loud and clear. How're things?"

"Easy as pie so far." Claire glancing over her instruments as she spoke. "Bit of a south-westerly breeze, but no problem. Should arrive in Karanapchee in, oh, just over three hours or so. What's the weather forecast?"

"That breeze, like you said, and a high overcast, possible light rain in the late afternoon." Gabrielle, at the office radio desk, looking out her window to the lake in front of the building. "Nothing to worry about, though."

"OK, over and out."

Claire gripped the joystick, levelling the plane slightly then turned to glance over her left shoulder.

"Miss Wallace?"

"Call me Chris, please. Yes?"

"Will ya pass on the news we'll be three hours till touchdown?" Claire shuffling in her seat to get comfortable. "Let 'em know that there's a cabinet at the back of the cabin with a coupl'a thermos' with coffee an' a bunch of mugs. Meb'be keep ya all warm for the flight."

"Sounds good, Claire; I'll let everyone know, thanks."

"Got'ta keep the customers happy."

—O—

Back in Gatch's Point Gabrielle replaced her microphone on the desk and rose from her chair; the difficulty in being a two-women business here coming to the fore—she having to be mechanic, electrician, radio-operator, and general manager; all calling on her time and attention every minute of the working day. Apart from the Norseman monoplane she and Claire operated a road haulage business using three trucks; two medium sized and one large for the long haul routes. At the moment the large truck was somewhere near Regina in the extreme south of the province; the second medium sized truck was some two hundred miles north near Exception. The first medium truck presently being at rest in the large hangar cum garage where it awaited a new off-front tyre.

The spare, taken off the back of the truck by she and Claire two days before, had proved itself to be defunct—a tear showing it to be flat and useless. A replacement had been ordered and Gabrielle was eagerly awaiting its arrival sometime that morning, though putting it on the truck would need to await Claire's return.

Although not employing any other full-time staff, there was a young woman who had proved herself to be more than useful from time to time; a pilot with her own monoplane, she was around and about the small airfield laid close to the lakeside on the eastern side of the peninsula. Today, having nothing better to take up her time, she having private funds which allowed her to spend her time as she wished, she was sitting on a stool in the garage-hangar contemplating the wounded truck.

"Hi, Gabrielle, truck still in hospital, I see?"

"Afraid so, Helen, new tyre coming as we speak, though." Gabrielle sitting on a second stool by the woman's side. "Not up in the air today?"

"Don't like flying in the rain, under solid overcast." Helen Daillard pouting her lips in reply. "Got caught that way three years since—nearly crashed into the side of a bloody mountain, leaves and twigs in my undercart sort'a thing. Never again. Blue skies for me, lady, is my current mantra."

The hangar was large enough to house the three trucks, the Noorduyn Norseman, and a spare aircraft a Stinson gullwing Reliant capable of carrying four passengers along with the pilot. Right now it sat stationary at the rear of the hangar in solitary splendor.

"How'd the truck get punctured?" Helen always being of a searching turn of mind.

"Ragged tree stump hidden by snow at the side of the road." Gabrielle recounting the drama like a radio newscaster. "Truck took the road edge t'turn a sharp corner, ran over the sharp stump, tyre went Whuumph!"

"I see-I see."

Across at the right-hand side of the hangar, by the main door, a red light on a wall panel began blinking quickly.

"Oh-Oh, radio, back in the office." Gabrielle rising from her stool. "Better get to it, see ya later."

"Bye."

—O—

Back at the office Gabrielle sat at the radio desk, slipping the earphones over her short hair and adjusting the microphone on its stand on the desktop in front of her. Making sure the radio was set on the correct wavelength she grasped the free-standing microphone stem, leaning slightly forward as she spoke.

"Base to Norse One—Base to Norse One, come in, over."

"Norse One readin' ya loud an' clear." The reply sounding, as these radio conversations often did, as if it came from a thousand miles away instead of less than one hundred. "Gabs, we got a problem. Engine's intermittent cutting-out—think it may be a fuel pipe problem. I'm gon'na land in whatever dam' lake I can find. Should still be able to communicate by radio when grounded, over."

"Jeez! —er, Base to Norse One, think it's terminal, over?"

"Norse One t'Base, hope not." Claire's voice sounding weak and tinny. "If it's the fuel-line I should be able t'clear it—meb'be an hour or so, over."

"Base to Norse One, best of luck. Radio me when you're on the ground. Be safe, Ricky, over."

"Got'cha babe-it'll be easy, don't worry—speak with ya later, over an' out."

Gabrielle pushed the microphone aside, ripped the headphones off, throwing them on the desk before turning to the door of the office.

"Whee—Wheerr!"

Her sharp whistle cut through the cold air like a lightning strike; its high pitch bringing Helen to the hangar door gazing over to the office with a hand over her eyes, waving the other in the air.

"Helen!" Gabrielle shouting across the intervening distance. "Get over here, pronto!"

A minute later Helen herself sat at the radio desk, having been given the breaking news as she entered the office.

"So, OK," Gabrielle moving into professional mode. "This is an emergency, not a drill. You're on radio duty, I'm going over t'fire the Stinson up, just in case. I'll come over every ten minutes for updates—if something really dicey occurs, make whatever arrangements are necessary first before you call me, got that?"

"Yeah, I'm on it. If all Claire needs is t'clear a fuel-line it shouldn't amount t'much—back in the air in just over an hour, probably."

"Yeah, let's hope so. OK, I'm on my way; you'll hear the Reliant coughing itself awake in a few minutes."

"Right," Helen turning to the radio. "Better see if Claire's on top of the situation still."

—O—

The Norseman's 9 cylinder 600hp radial engine had a multitude of fuel lines in a complex, almost spaghetti-like, multi-cable binding. To isolate one as being clogged-up in flight was of course impossible; the only visible sign being the coughing engine—which was precisely what the plane's symptoms showed nearly an hour into the flight.

Claire had the plane flying nor'-west at around 130 miles an hour at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The sky was solidly overcast at a height of about 11,000 feet though only a light spattering of rain drops cloaked the windscreen. But what was suddenly all too evident was the engine suffering fuel starvation, coughing and sighing like a drowning man; Claire, however, on top of the situation in seconds, gazed out her side windows looking for a body of water large enough to land the plane on.

"Christine!"

"Yeah, wa'sup?"

"Come here, closer; stick your head in the cabin beside me."

"OK."

Somewhat mystified Christine pulled herself out of her seat and took the two steps to lean in to the small flight deck, she speaking in a low whisper as she did so.

"Something wrong?"

"Engine's crappin' out—fuel line, I think." Claire herself speaking low into Christine's ear. "I'm gon'na find a lake an' land t'fix it. Will ya tell the others, but quietly, no panic. It's just a sort'a routine difficulty, nuthin' t'worry themselves over—just an extra landing an' take-off, is all. Got that?"

"I'm on it—break it like it's a child's tea-party an' the jello's run out!"

"Har! Go to it, babe. Jeez, dam' engine!"

—O—

The great thing about this more or less northern region of Saskatchewan was that the far-stretching forests were interspersed with a multitude of lakes of varying sizes and shapes. For an ailing aircraft, equipped with floats, there were almost interminable spots on which to achieve emergency landings, if your luck held; meaning you actually landed without hitting any underwater obstruction before coming to a halt—likewise in taking-off again. For Claire's imminent drama this proved effective in that a long straggling lake appeared in front of her windscreen; long, apparently deep and hopefully free of obstructions, with clear pebbly beaches on all sides, showing that fallen tree-trunks or branches might well be put out of the picture.

"Christine?"

"Yeah?"

"How'd the passengers take the news?"

"Grumpy, but cool,—no worries."

"Well, that's good. OK. See that lake dead ahead? I'm gon'na put the ol' gal down there. Go back, strap in, an' wait for the safest smoothest landin' you've ever felt. Tell the others that too, will ya?"

"On it, lady; good luck."

"Iiimph!"

—O—

Although there were no trees immediately close to the banks of the lake the forest did stretch all round at a distance; Claire well-knowing if she and her passengers had to walk out they would need to travel at least a hundred miles in whatever direction was chosen. She had run the aircraft right up to the nearest shallow rocky beach, Christine had volunteered to jump into the freezing nearly knee-high water to drag the slip-rope ashore, tying it firmly round a well-placed boulder. With Claire's help they had both dragged the aircraft up to the edge of the beach allowing the passengers to exit via the float top without getting their feet wet. Having a small can of fuel in storage Claire had spent ten minutes lighting a small camp-fire for the comfort of her passengers, then turned to the business of bringing the aircraft engine back to life with Christine's help.

"Jee-sus, ain't never seen so many pipes before." Christine leaning into the open engine casing just behind the free radial valves. "Cauwf, the smell of oil an' gas's awful—an' everything's covered in oil; it's already sticking t'my fingers an' I haven't touched anything yet."

"That's a radial engine for ya." Claire declaiming this from her position of authority and past expertise. "Sprays oil everywhere; if your bowels weren't in order before, I can safely say you'll find out later t'day they will be."

"Oh Gawd!"

"Right, let's get to it. See that coil o'pipes just below your right hand?"

"Yeah."

"I want one of those—don't know exactly which yet. Unwrap that tape holdin' them together an' then pull the plug at the end of each out'ta that panel they all enter—got that?"

"Yeah; God, this's gon'na take hours." Christine rapidly finding out an aircraft mechanic's job was not a happy one. "God! My finger slipped an' something near took the tip off—I'm bleedin'."

"Not much, thankfully; you'll soon find ya get used t'that sort'a thing—go on, unscrew the bolt, here's the spanner; pull the plug out the panel, an' let's see if it's the choked one."

"How'd you do that?"

"Suckin' an' blowin', dear."

"Suc—;—you're joking?"

"No."

"Sh-t!"

—O—

Being at a loose end in the wilds of a northern Canadian forest brought with it certain difficulties, not to say dangers. Henry Challoner, standing warming his feet by the campfire, took up this topic by way of a wild shout towards the women working on the plane some twenty yards away.

"Hey, you! Miss Mathews; what's that over there, about two hundred yards further along the beach. A bear?"

"Oh, sh-t an' b-gg-ry!" Claire pulling herself upright to gaze across to the beach and its unhappy visitors. "Where? Oh, sh-t, it is."

"What do we do?" Christine sounding curiously calm—fear doing that to people sometimes.

"I got'ta solution." Claire having long ago brought up this very problem in past company discussions. "I'm stuck with reams of loose fuel pipes in my hands here; you go back in'ta the plane, on the left side of the cockpit you'll see a small door in the lower dashboard—inside's an automatic, bring an extra mag with ya. Go on, hurry."

Less than a minute later Christine returned, fully armed and looking every inch a soldier; she finishing clipping the magazine in place like an expert before pulling the slide back and releasing it ready for whatever came next.

"See y've done that a'fore."

"In the WAC's; y'never forget."

"Hmmph; well, that over there in the middlin' distance is a black bear, meb'be a grizzly; they're renowned fer bein' some unsocial all round so I expect it t'start comin' over t'investigate a likely free banquet in about thirty seconds. You really good with that gun?"

"Yip, sharpshooter—guarantee t'hit that mountainous thing at a hundred yards; which is gon'na be in about thirty seconds—it's on the move like ya said, towards us."

"Time's a'wastin'. Get on the beach, take careful aim, an' shoot till there's no shootin' left, then reload. I'll go get another coupl'a spares. Don't stop shootin' till you know your target's down fer keeps, lady."

"I got it. Hey, you guy! Move yersel' over some—I'm gon'na start shootin'."

Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang

As Claire darted along the top of the float Christine opened up with the first burst from her Colt .45; clouds of white smoke wafting away as the consequences of her broadside dispersed in the light breeze: the target ambling on towards the group of humans, it apparently taking no notice of the fusillade.

"Playin' it cool, eh?" Christine finding herself, with a smoking gun in her hand, far less nervous than she expected. "Let's see what another burst'll do?"

Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang

The magazine exhausted, she rapidly pressed the release catch dropping the empty mag on the pebbles at her feet, the new one inserted and pushed home within a second.

Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang

Stopping to take stock she let out a snarl as the bear, now within 75 or so yards, continued its advance; none of her shots seeming to have as yet taken effect.

"Claire! More ammo, make it dam' snappy!"

"Comin'." Claire staggering back along the float to jump across to the stony beach and her waiting accomplice. "Here."

Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang

"It's turning aside." Claire pointing this out though everyone could see for themselves.

Within twenty seconds more the bear had disappeared into the nearby forest, the pines hiding it instantly.

"Where's it gone?"

"Dun'no, Chris." Claire turning her head as she raked the edge of the trees for any sign of movement. "Better get everyone back to the plane for the present, we'll all be safer there. Jee-sus, what a dam' day."

—O—

"What d'ya mean, a bloody big bear?" Gabrielle, at the radio desk in Gatch's Point, nearly frothing at the mouth in anxiety. "When, where, who's dead?"

"Norse One to Base, can ya hear me, over?"

"What? Yeah—Oh! Over."

"Norse One to Base; yeah, a bear, no-one injured. Christine sprayed it at long range with three mags of forty-five; didn't seem t'have hit it with any one of her shots, though. Did make it take stock an' disappear in'ta the trees, though. Don't know if it's still lurkin' around; we're all back in the plane with the door firmly shut, over."

Gabrielle sat back, considering possibilities; then reached for the microphone stand again, her voice cold and hard.

"Base t'Norse One; shall I come an' get you all in the Reliant, along with the Bren, over?"

There was a long pause as the local static took this opportunity to show their paces over the empty airwaves; then Claire came back in answer.

"Yeah, do that, babe, both; an' bring a full ammo-box with ya, over."

"Base to Norse One, be with ya in less than an hour; light a smoky fire so's I can pin your position, OK? Over."

"Got ya, babe. Over an' out."

Gabrielle turned to Helen sitting beside her—

"Helen?"

"Yeah?"

"I'll warm up the Stinson—you break out the Bren, an' I'll give you a hand t'haul a magazine-box in'ta the plane. Right?"

"Right, ma'am; back in five."

"Good!"

—O—

A plus factor in being involved in secret national security within Canada, with Britain as overall paymaster, was easy access to all sorts of munitions—the Bren gun thereby being explained, although everyone and their Uncle had thought this rather going over the top—till now.

"Will a Bren stop a grizzly?" Helen musing on this interesting point as Gabrielle ran the Stinson out the hangar onto the concrete pad leading down to the water's edge; the wheels inside the floats keeping them off the ground till entering the water.

"Bound to—if you keep shooting long enough." Gabrielle's mind on other matters. "Let's get this crate in the water. We're fueled-up for the long haul; if we need t'take some of the passengers on to Karanapchee we got the fuel."

"If the Norseman's really crocked we'll need'ta do a double run, meb'be spend the night at Karanapchee?"

"Yeah, figured that as likely." Gabrielle nodding as the plane took to the water, bucking slightly as it felt the lake under its hull. "Well, here we go."

The good thing about a Reliant was the dual cockpit,—as opposed to the single-seat cockpit of the larger Norseman—allowing for a pilot and co-pilot or navigator, with seats for four passengers in the cabin behind; this being an example of the later, gull-wing, variant with a powerful nine cylinder Lycoming radial engine giving a 170mph cruising speed: Helen doing duty as navigator-cum-radio operator on this emergency flight.

"Bluebird to Norse One, over?"

"Norse One to Bluebird, hear ya loud an' clear; glad t'know you're in the air, over."

"We're on our way, everything's under control. What's the local wildlife up to at present, over?"

"No further sighting; think it's gone on safari somewhere else. Sincerely hope so, anyway, over."

"Ask Ricky if they're gon'na go back out t'the camp-site."

"Bluebird to Norse One, Gabrielle asks if you're goin' t'hit the campsite again, over?"

"Nah, we'll play it safe till you arrive; nothing like reinforcements in a situation like this, over."

"Tell her we'll be there in just under an hour."

"Bluebird to Norse One, ETA around one hour, repeat, one hour, over."

"Norse One to Bluebird, we'll be here, eager t'toss confetti an' coloured streamers. Did Gab remember t'bring the emergency rations, by-n'-by, over."

Gabrielle snorted at this inane question from her lover.

"Yeah," Helen taking it on herself to spread the Good News from Ghent. "Five thermos flasks of coffee an' tea; bottled water enough t'drown a whale; an' enough sandwiches, of various fillings, t'make Nero green with envy at one of his banquets, over."

"Sounds great; I'm salivatin' already—tell Gabs t'get a move on, will ya, over?"

"Bluebird to Norse One—will do, over an' out."

"Idiot. Her, not you, Helen."

"Ha!"

—O—

"See anything?"

"Nah—wait a mo'—yeah, over there, about two miles t'the nor-west, a plume of smoke."

"Aah—got it, right."

Gabrielle banked the Reliant to port, levelling up as she swung onto the new course.

"I see the lake now—big enough for us t'land on, thank God!"

"Yeah," Helen considering the alternative with a bleak expression. "Imagine havin' t'land on another lake miles away an' trekking through hostile forest t'reach the Norseman?"

"Doesn't apply, thank goodness." Gabrielle bringing the monoplane onto a descending run. "All we got'ta worry about here is stray grizzlies bitin' our butts as we step out the plane, is all."

"Hah!" Helen up for this eventuality too. "I got my forty-five automatic—the Bren's too bulky t'break-out this soon—still sittin' comfortably wrapped-up on the rear seat."

"Bully for it—OK, we're comin' in; I'll try'n run over directly beside Ricky's machine—hang on."

Five minutes later the Reliant had cut a white swathe of waves across the lake's surface, coming to a halt within twenty feet of the other float-plane. Another five minutes and the plane was tied by a long rope to a nearby boulder like its companion. As Gabrielle and Helen jumped ashore from the floats they were met by Claire and Christine, both armed with automatics themselves.

"Thought you'd have broken-out the Remington rifle by this stage, Ricky?"

"Tried, Gabs, but discovered I'd forgotten the bloody ammo."

"Ha! Typical."

"A gal can't do everything." Claire curling a disdainful lip at this supercilious repartee from her rescuer. "Bring the Bren?"

"Yip, an' a box of mags."

"Ho-ho!" Claire curling her other lip this time. "Ain't that jus' great of ya?"

"Don't see any bears, by the way—sure it's still hanging around somewhere?"

"I wouldn't know, dear." Claire coming it the haughty Madame as they crossed to the still lit campfire. "Which's why the passengers are still locked-up in the Norseman; better safe than eaten t'the bone, eh?"

"Yeah, reckon."

Ten minutes later under the expert tutelage of Helen, who knew all things about these things, the Bren gun was unwrapped under the guard of Helen herself, she looking mean and ready for whatever wild animal had the temerity to show itself; the weapon top-loaded with a magazine from one of the ammo boxes, said 30-round mag sticking awkwardly vertically in the air. The passengers, however, now again relieved to be back out on the beach in the fresh air and warmth of the campfire.

"What's the plan, if I may ask?" Henry Challoner attempting to take the high moral ground in the unusual circumstances. "Here we are, uncounted miles from civilisation, surrounded by trees, cold lakes, and a variety of very wild wildlife, none of which appeals to me."

Claire, from vast earlier experience, knew exactly how to handle such disruptive elements in the ranks.

"It's just past midday," She giving her unhappy customer the Medusa glance. "First priority, everyone gathers round the fire an' we stoke up on coffee an' sandwiches like starvin' castaways. Second priority, Gabs here takes four of you on to Karanapchee in the Reliant—then returns an', if the Norseman's still defunct, takes the rest of ya on too. She can return t'keep me company overnight here, till another mechanic's plane arrives t'sort out the Norseman in the mornin'. Everyone happy with that plan? Good, let's get t'eatin' an' drinkin',—I know I'm famished."

—O—

Soon the campfire was the scene of hilarity and happy chatter; though Helen had taken on sentry duties, with her personal armament, ready to fire a lethal salvo at whatever representative of wild nature might take it into it's head to visit the camp site.

"Nice ham sandwich." Henry Challoner giving praise where due. "And English mustard too, just right. Now, if we only had a bottle of champers everything'd be just dandy."

"My cheese sanny's great, as well." James Hollande, sitting beside his girlfriend Christine, munching away like a starving Trojan. "Who made 'em?"

"Helen, as it happens." Gabrielle giving full honors to the lady chef. "Fresh this morning, though made under pressure. I'll relieve her in half an hour, let her get a bite herself. You gon'na carry on with the fuel pipes in the Norseman, Ricky?"

"Yeah, think ya found the clogged one, if it's only one." Claire nodding as she finished her beef sandwich, washing it down with a tin mug of coffee. "Christine, I believe, found it, actually—"

"Only 'cause I nearly choked on thick fuel, sucking the pipe." Christine drowning the memory in another swallow from her tea-mug. "Fuel tastes ghastly when you don't stop suckin' quick enough. Anyway, another hour t'piece the engine jigsaw back together an' we'll be back in the air, hopefully."

Thomas Dunne, the electrician, was already putting on his gloves prior to lending a helping hand in the re-building of the fuel pipes; he having volunteered off his own bat.

"I'm ready when you are, ma'am. Y'still taking a second flight in the Reliant for those who want? Not waitin' fer the Norse t'be back in action?"

"Time's a'wastin, Mr Dunne." Claire on top of this detail. "If we wait, an' there's some further hold-up, we may not get anyone out'ta here before night falls—an' I ain't taking-of from here in the dark. Nah, the Reliant leaves in half an hour—so, who's up for it? Can only take three passengers, y'know; what with needing the last seat for luggage. You, Mr Challoner?"

"If Jane's happy to accompany me, sure."

"Miss Barton?"

The secretary, twenty-fivish, medium height, with a clear intense gaze, nodded her agreement.

"If you can take me, I'll come along, certainly."

Claire turned to the others sitting round the fire.

"Well, let's see, two more? Hmm, how about you, Mr Hollande?"

James placed his mug and plate on the pebbles by his side, looking across at Christine.

"Only if Chris comes with me; otherwise I stay here for the duration along with her."

"Jim, you're a fool, get on the bloody plane." Christine exerting her authority.

"No way, dear; not without you, that's all."

Claire sat forward, anxious to clear the air before a full scale argument got under way.

"Well, that means you, Mr Dunne, welcome aboard Flight Reliant. Mr Greene an' Mr Biddle are together, so they can wait for the second flight. When Gabrielle returns, we can split the remainder between the Reliant an' the Norseman for the last flights t'Karanapchee?"

"It's a plan, let's get to it—before Bruno returns lookin' for his supper." Gabrielle getting down to business like the entrepreneur she was in reality.

"God, a harridan every minute of the day!" Claire muttering this low, but not low enough her inamorata didn't hear.

"Lady, you're on thin ice—just watch it, is all, baby."

"Oo-er!"

—O—

"How's the flight log doin'?" Gabrielle glancing over at her co-pilot Helen.

"We've been flying for forty-five minutes." Helen consulting the notebook on her lap. "Another hour an' fifteen minutes till Karanapchee. Weather's good—calm but overcast."

"The Reliant's runnin' smooth—though I shouldn't say so out loud." Gabrielle grinning as she read the dashboard dials in front of her. "Everything at optimum levels. The passengers happy, still?"

Helen turned in her seat to glance through the open archway to the passenger compartment.

"Hi, Mr Challoner, everything comfortable? Everyone doin' OK?"

From the rear of the plane Gabrielle heard the deep tones of her passenger replying to this query.

"Yeah, thanks, nuthin' doin' back here. If I'd had sense enough t'bring a pack o'cards we all could'a been in the throes of a poker game by now."

"There's always next time." Helen chuckling as she turned round again. "Just over an hour an' we'll be touchin' down in Karanapchee, so y'can look forward to that."

A few minutes later another point of order came up.

"How long'll it take t'turn round, at Karanapchee?"

Claire considered this question from all angles before answering.

"Say, oh, about an hour and a half, maybe two."

Helen deliberated over this on her own account before replying.

"That'll take us well into the late afternoon; we go back to the Norseman, by the time it and we take-off again we'll be hittin' Karanapchee in the dark for sure. You able to land on a lake in the dark? Gabrielle too, for that matter? It's a simple time thing, y'see."

There was a long pause while Claire went over the timeline under consideration.

"Gabrielle and I, sure—we've had long experience in these things. Anyway, I'll make sure the lakeside lights are on by the time we get there in the dark. We'll land OK, don't worry."

"Mmmph!"

—O—

The campsite was less frequented with the loss of almost half the original tenants. Gabrielle, Mr Dunne, and Christine were hunched over the engine of the Norseman fiddling with a multitude of loose rubber fuel lines, the stink of raw petrol hanging over everything, when a commotion occurred some way along the beach where Eric Biddle, having owned up to having been a soldier in his distant past, had been given command of the Bren gun.

"Hey, Miss Parker, the bear's bloody back!"

Gabrielle was head down amongst the engine parts, trying to fit a recalcitrant fuel pipe back into its socket.

"What? What? Someone call me?"

"Mr Biddle." Thomas coming to her rescue. "Says the bloody bear's back."

"Oh, sh-t!"

Gabrielle straightened so quickly she hit her head on the open cowling.

"G-d'd-m!"

Turning on the float to gaze along the beach she rubbed her forehead with a dirty oily glove, only increasing the mess already there.

"Where? Sh-t! Yeah, he's right. Looks like it's contemplating a late supper."

As she gazed along the pebbly strand Eric took matters into his own hands, opening up with a quick burst from the Bren; it's results apparently missing the moving target by scores of yards, some bullets kicking up fountains in the nearby lake.

Brrm-Brrm-Brrm

"Sh-t! Missed by miles." Gabrielle shaking her head in disgust. "If that's the level of Mr Biddle's aim the dam' bear's got nuthin' t'worry about."

Brrm-Brrm-Brrm

This second burst, emptying the magazine, was at least closer to the bear, kicking up a group of pebbly fountains on the ground to the left of the target, but still far too far away to be of any significant worth.

"Missed again!" Gabrielle spitting into the water in disgust. "Oh, look! It's goin' back into the trees. Hope t'hell it's had enough now. Mr Dunne, stay here; Chris, with me—better go over an' give Eric some back-up. Tell the others t'fall back on the plane as we go by, will you?"

"On it, Gabrielle."

On reaching Eric they found him on his knees attending to reloading the Bren with a fresh mag.

"Jes' reloading; why's I stopped firing." He glanced over to where the bear had disappeared into the trees. "Seems t'have gone, but bear's is doubtful characters, might be up to anything in those trees, we not knowin'."

Gabrielle was of the same mind.

"Yeah, I'm with you there. Here, lem'me grab the mag-box—you take the gun an' we'll all fall back on the plane. Sooner we're all inside with the door firmly shut the better. No more hitting the beach till Ricky comes back—OK?"

"Wise move, Miss Parker." Eric seemingly having had enough of the Bren to do him for the rest of the year.

"Sounds good to me." Christine grabbing the other rope handle of the ammo-box. "Any of those cheese sanny's left, d'ya know? I liked them—Cheddar, y'see."

"Hiirph! Well, if that's all you're worried about?" Gabrielle expression saying all that need be said about the strange mental workings of some.

—O—

The landing site at the Reliant's destination, Lake Karanapchee itself, had good points and bad; the former outnumbering the latter, thank goodness. Firstly, it spread itself widely across the landscape, offering an extensive landing-area; second, a small community had grown up alongside the low western shore—the eastern being rather precipitous, clothed in thick fir forest. As to negatives, there was only one spot where floatplanes could run up to shore, about half a mile distant from the eponymous hamlet, they otherwise having to anchor off-shore and rely on dinghys to go to and fro. There was also always the ever-present worry of half-sunken wood debris floating below the surface ready to tear the floats off a plane at the least opportunity, but that was true of almost every other lake in the country.

When the Reliant had landed safely and run up to its buoy a hundred yards from shore a small dinghy from the flight office shack, rowed by a single middle-aged employee in dark red dungarees, came out to take care of the pilot and passengers. Once they were all safely contained in the main room of the long low building Claire set to work on the details, dragging the office manager to one side for the purpose.

"Jake, we got'ta problem, way back across the forest."

Jake Granger, long-time manager of the Lake Karanapchee end of the business, raised his thick eyebrows but showed no other sign of surprise at this revelation.

"Again, eh? Ya gets yerself in some mighty peculiar sity-atin's, y'know. What's it this time?"

So Claire told him.

"Ah! That's a business, an' no mistake. Sure about the bear?"

"Jake, when one is attacked by a black bear in the wilderness one realises what's happening with startling speed an' clarity."

"Hah! This fuel-line problem, think Gabrielle'll fix it on her own an' come dancin' along in twenty minutes?"

"Meb'be; meb'be not. If ya can release a coupl'a new fuel pipes from Stores, that'll come in handy."

"You're goin' back?"

"Yeah, got'ta rescue the remaining passengers, not fergettin' Gabs too, o'course."

"Oh well, leave these passengers with me—I'll get 'em all on their way no trouble." Jake grinning encouragingly over at the expectant men and women so named. "Gim'me a coupl'a minutes for the pipes. A Bren gun, y'say? Where'd ya—"

"Don't ask."

"Oh-ah! Ah, I get ya, sure enough. Five minutes for the pipes, OK?"

"Go to it, Jake."

—O—

The good thing about a Noorduyn Norseman was the extensive room for passengers inside; the negative aspect rearing its head, however, with the fact there was no interior heating and so, debarred from the comforting warmth of the campfire, the passengers soon began to notice the lack of such within the confines of the plane's cabin.

"Gettin' dam' cold." James Hollande backing this claim up by shivering dramatically, hunching his suited shoulders.

"Can't be helped." Gabrielle on top of this criticism immediately. "Got'ta stay in the plane, 'cause of the bear; can't open the engine up 'cause of the busted fuel pipe—ergo, no heating; not that there'd a'been any anyway."

This stoic outlook caught Christine's attention as soon as the female pilot had uttered it.

"Any chance we'll all just freeze t'death, out here?"

"None whatever, Miss." Gabrielle showing away like a good 'un with her positive hostess manner. "We're huddled together, which'll provide some heat; then there's flasks of tea an' coffee still in the luggage-space at the back of the cabin—we always fly with a large store of provisions an' drinks just in case of a situation like this. And Ricky'll be back within a coupl'a more hours, just mid-afternoon. Nah, we ain't got anything much t'worry about, overall."

"Glad t'hear it." Eric Biddle, now sporting his heavy woolen overcoat, nodded sagely. "We could be some time, sure; bears' is creatures some sharp in the huntin' line—could stay hidden for hours, before pouncin' quick an' unsuspected. I wouldn't suggest anyone goes out t'the campsite anytime in the next three hours, at least."

"Sh-t!" James growling unhappily at this advice. "How're you feelin', Chris?"

"Dam' cold, but bearin' up." The brunette smiling calmly. "I rather like this—what I mean is, it's an adventure—I can write it up in my next book."

"Hiirph!" From Gabrielle, who was more concerned with the immediate problems surrounding her. "At least I can still work on the dam' engine. Mr Hollande, you up t'lendin' a hand? I know you got a thick overcoat among your cabin luggage; better put it on, an' a pair of gloves, too."

"Sure, I'm up for it." James grinning widely at the prospect of doing something physical. "Not that I'm anything of a mechanic, but I can at least pass the spanners an' pliers."

"That's something." Gabrielle agreeing with rather less enthusiasm.

Outside the cold air took hold like an ice monster hugging Gabrielle and James as they carefully made their way along the edge of the starboard float to the engine cowling.

"Jeez, ain't warm, is it?"

"Just the afternoon coming on." Gabrielle grabbing the cowling and pulling it up. "Being the heart of Canada y'can't expect anything else. Look, see the fuel pipe socket on the board here?"

"Yeah, that the one that was blocked?"

"Yip, I've cleared it now, but the pipe end's ragged and the nut locking it on the socket's been sheared." Gabrielle bringing her helper up to date. "So we can't replace it—got'ta wait for Claire t'return with a fresh pipe an' nut."

"Is there anything else we can do, apart from that, then; while we wait here?"

Gabrielle had her head down, in amongst the heart of the engine; now she pulled back to glance at her apprentice.

"There's a few things I'd love t'get into; but this ain't the time or place. Some of the valves need re-timing; the oil pressure's a little off; the cables to the rudder are a trifle loose, that sort of thing. But it'd all take far too much time, especially out here."

"We OK for fuel, by the way?"

"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle happy on this score at least. "No worries there; all we have to do is wait for Ricky to bring fresh fuel pipes and nuts—that'll be enough to get us back in the air. Come on, let's get back to the cabin; I'll slide along behind you. Watch your left shoe on the edge of the float; it's curved so you might slide sideways, and I don't want to have to drag you out the briny."

"Ha, OK."

—O—

Percy Masterman was the head mechanic at the Lake Karanapchee office; within his wide scope lay all the jewels of the Indies, mechanically speaking—especially relating to aero engines. Enquired of as to the availability of fuel pipes for a Norseman, along with related items, he grunted, sniffed loudly, pursed his lips doubtfully, then wandered off in the direction of the Stores as if himself doubtful of success—ten minutes later he returned carrying all that Claire could hope for.

"Yeah, that's it—Norseman fuel line an' nuts, excellent."

"No problem, they were in the stores." Percy being a person of few words and those all focused on the job in hand. "Got a pile of forms here as a result, y'll need'ta countersign—only take, oh, quarter an hour."

"Sh-t!"

Twenty minutes later Claire stood on the edge of the shore, Jake Granger beside her.

"My writin' hand feels like it's goin' ta' cramp." Claire growling dismally. "Are all those forms really necessary?"

"All the individual items come from different suppliers, and in these days paperwork's the whole deal in business." Jake nodding confidently. "Catalogues, records, statistics, accounts—all matter's towards profit and loss."

"Yeah, well, I ain't a business-woman." Claire putting forward her position. "There must be offices ful'la paper records, with no room for any workers. At least I think so. Anyway, I've got the fuel line an' nuts stashed in the cabin, better be on my way—thanks."

"Glad t'help." Jake putting out a strong gloved hand "Anyway, see ya later, in about another four hours, when ya come back with the Stinson. Good Luck."

"Thanks. Don't forget t'have the landin' lights on when we return."

"I got it."

—O—

Although the afternoon was advancing the light was still fresh and clear, with a high thin grey overcast. There was no sign of impending snow or other bad weather and the Stinson floated gently at its moorings on the unnamed lake; of the bear there was still no sign.

"Anyone wan'na go out an' search for bear spoor?"

A deafening silence greeted Gabrielle's question in the now warm cabin.

"Thought not." She shuffled round in her pilot's seat, looking at her passengers in their own seats in the main cabin. "Only joking. We're snug as we are, so staying in the cabin here's the best bet till Ricky returns. Like someone said earlier, that dam' bear could be out there waitin' its chance—and I for one ain't going to give it that satisfaction."

"Not even when we have a Bren?" Christine sounding rather more like an Amazon warrior than was really helpful.

"Especially not with the Bren." Gabrielle sure of her ground. "We've already proven no-one's particularly accurate with the thing; it's problematical t'load as well as fire; an' could break-down at any moment—which'd be dam' uncomfortable for the joker firing it, when the bear attacks unscathed, as a result. Nah, nix the Bren; I ain't a hero, an' neither are any of you—especially seeing as you're all official passengers of Atalanta Haulage Limited."

Christine pursed her lips, somewhat judgmentally, obviously thinking she was being debarred from an exciting adventure that would look well in her forthcoming book.

"Oh, well, next time hopefully."

"Next time our flight'll be straight-forward, with no incidental problems like this one." Gabrielle giving the official standpoint on the topic. "So don't worry over that. Hey, anyone hear that?"

Everyone straightened in their seats, listening intently.

"Yeah, an engine—Miss Mathews coming back?" James first to make the logical conclusion.

"Can't be anyone else." Gabrielle swiveling round to gaze out across the lake through the forward windscreen. "Yeah, there she is, to port about ten o'clock high."

Within a few seconds the small dark spot in the sky, backed by the steel grey of the overcast, manifested itself as a large floatplane heading in their direction. Another few seconds and the incoming plane nosed down, aiming for the lake's surface. Seconds later it skimmed across the water's surface to come to a halt near the disabled Stinson, leaving a white wake behind it.

"She's back." Gabrielle making clear the obvious.

—O—

Rebuilding the Norseman's engine after half an hour's work by Claire and Gabrielle, balancing on the curved float and leaning over the engine, was proving somewhat more difficult than expected.

"Losing that dam' wrench in the lake was a dam' set-back—these pliers aren't gon'na tighten the nut strongly enough."

"Wasn't me that dropped the thing." Gabrielle making clear her innocence in the matter.

"Doesn't matter." Claire callously brushing-off her own personal guilt in the loss. "Just sayin' we can tighten the nut, eventually; but it'll only last long enough t'get us t'Karanapchee."

"That's all we want, anyway." Gabrielle continuing on her own moral course. "Look, if you could go back to the cabin and climb out on the port float you could use your pair of pliers from the opposite side. We both trying it from this same side ain't working."

"Huurph!"

But, faced with no other reliable suggestion, Claire took her heartmate's advice, sliding back along the float to grab the cabin door handle.

"Gim'me a minute."

Two minutes later Claire was on the opposite float, leaning far over the engine to make her arm reach the finicky fuel line socket nut.

"I got it—you tighten your pliers from your side, lover. Come on, tighter than that!"

"I'm trying—it ain't easy." Gabrielle sniffing in disgust as she did her best in difficult circumstances.

"Hey!"

Gabrielle straightened up, gazing back at the cabin where James' head now stuck out the open door window.

"What?"

"The bear's back." James making clear his worry. "Fifty yards along the shore, beyond the plane's nose. It's taking to the water; think it's gon'na swim to us."

"Oh, sh-t an' buggery!" Gabrielle on the ball instantly. "Jimmy, tell Eric t'get the dam' Bren and bring it out on this float here. We're at an angle; he can shoot from here and miss us, or at least me. You up for mag feeder?"

The next minute encircled a state of confusion twice confounded, Gabrielle moving a little further forward towards the inoperative propeller while Eric and James manhandled the Bren gun into position about halfway along the float; its top being curved not helping anything or anyone.

"Right, ready." Eric ready for action. "Where's the dam' bear?"

"About thirty yards out, slightly to your left—" Gabrielle looking from her companions to the distant attacker whilst hanging onto the engine cowling for dear life.

"Hurry up, Eric; the dam' thing'll be on us in ten seconds." Claire's voice, from the opposite side of the plane, echoing the real anxiety she felt.

"OK-OK, I'm on it. God, haven't had such a shitty time since Iwo Jima." Eric covering his own problems as he crouched on the float, Bren butt against the side of his ribs. "God, this's gon'na hurt. Ready with fresh mags, Jim?"

"Much as I'll ever be, without fallin' in the dam' lake—just try'n fire in short bursts, OK? Longer, an' it'll certain sure stick." James all too ready to express his own problems. "Can ya sort'a slide round towards me a little more? Yeah, that'll do. OK,—fire at will!"

"F-ck Will, fire at the bloody bear!" Gabrielle losing a trifle of her sanity as the incident reached its peak of danger. "It'll be climbing on board t'shake hands in about ten seconds."

Brrm-Brrm-Brrm-Brrm

There was a pause as Eric ceased firing in order to establish what effect his initial burst had taken.

"See anything?" He swiveling his head from side to side as he gazed out over the water. "Anyone see anything? Where's the dam' bear?"

Another pause ensued as everyone who was capable or in a position so to do tried to rake the lake's surface searching for any evidence of the attacker.

"Nuthin', don't see a dam' thing." James allowing his failure in the enterprise.

"Saw the spray from the bullets—thought they was well over t'the left of the bear's head." Claire's voice coming from the far side of the plane like the plaintive cry of an Ancient water nymph. "Can't see any sign of it now."

"Think you got it, Eric?" Gabrielle following the only course that seemed logical.

"Can't say—meb'be, meb'be not." He hedging his bets like a professional. "There's sure no sign of it now. Shall I spray the lake again, just t'be sure?"

The third pause had barely gotten its bearings before it was thrown into the long grass by Claire's confident tones from the plane's far side.

"Can't do any harm—go to it, laddie!"

Brrm-Brrm-Brrm-Brt!

At the end of this second burst of fire, after the lake surface had resumed its calm after being ripped up like a road being strafed, everyone gazed fixedly over the lake searching for any source of life.

"Nuthin'." Eric more or less repeating his earlier observation before grabbing the vertical Bren mag and shaking it loose. "Mag's empty—gim'me a new one, Jim."

"Didn't see it come out'ta the water, anytime." Christine calling from the cabin where she had a grandstand view.

"I didn't see it, either." Gabrielle admitting her failure in this respect. "Ricky? See anything?"

"Nah, nuthin'." Claire, invisible but still audible, giving her debriefing on the subject. "Could'a gotten out'ta the lake when we weren't lookin', I suppose. Meb'be."

Having gazed over the disturbed surface of the water one last time Gabrielle made an executive decision.

"It's gone—at least for the present. Anyway, Ricky'n I've replaced the fuel line and nut; so we're gettin' out'ta here. Eric, nix the Bren. Everyone, buckle up, we're leavin'."

—O—

Ten minutes later,—the bear having distained, if still alive to do so, a farewell appearance,—the two floatplanes took-off; the Stinson Reliant first with Gabrielle at the controls, closely followed by the Noorduyn Norseman, ably piloted by Claire with the remaining passengers all glad to see the back of the unnamed lake and its local wildlife.

"If I never see that dam' lake ever again, it'll be too soon!" James making his opinion public without restraint.

"God, I got some great material for my next book!" Christine taking the positive attitude.

"Jee-sus! Reminded me too bloody much of Iwo Jima, all over again!" Eric having another flashback.

"God! Hope the dam' fuel line holds." Gabrielle politically thinking this to herself. "I just know Ricky an' I didn't ratchet that dam' nut tight enough—I just know it!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Atalanta Haulage' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—