'The Weekend Break Saga'

by Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— In 1948 Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and her lover Gabrielle Parker, both members of a secret British Security Dept also active in Canada, operate the Atalanta Haulage company in Saskatchewan, using trucks and a Noorduyn Norseman aircraft. They take a party into the forest, then lose them.

Disclaimer:— copyright ©2022 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—

"Three hundred and twenty dollars."

Gabrielle, Keeper of Accounts for Atalanta Haulage, frowned darkly at the large man on the other side of the desk in her office in Gatch's Point, Lake Seclusion, it lying some eight miles south-west of Lake Wapawekka and Lac la Ronge, she presently at that point in the discussion where numbers mattered.

"Let's see—take you and three others to Lake Desolation in the far north-west, two days from now; returning four days later to bring you all back; total cost, what you've just proposed?"

"Yep."

Gabrielle, mistress of how to make ten dollars go all the way to the last cent, mused some more.

"Three hundred and sixty-five. That'd do it, Mister Hopkins."

Frederick Hopkins shifted uncomfortably from side to side on the office's uncomfortable visitors' chair.

"That's steep, ma'am; that's steep." He leaving this statement to hang in the air, like a miasma.

A quiet minute passed quietly.

"So?" Gabrielle trying to elicit motion in the discourse, she having no intention of backsliding.

"Oh, maybe three-thirty'll do it."

"On the other hand it certainly won't." Gabrielle showing all her renowned steely backbone. "We got expenses, y'know; top of which's fuel. Y'any idea how much fuel costs these days? No, I'll tell you—a dam' lot's the answer. Three-six-five."

Hopkins, faced by the original Immovable Object, began to deflate visibly, for all his six foot two inch stature and wide muscular girth—though the loud blue and green check shirt didn't help in this.

"Three-forty?" His voice audibly trembling with the effort of speech.

Gabrielle remained intractable, as by nature bound.

"Mister Hopkins, there's planes that flies on fuel-oil; there's planes that flies on jet principals; there's planes that just glides; but there ain't no plane that flies anywhere, ever, for less than three-sixty-five. It's a Principal of Physical Dynamics, is all."

Hopkins, realising he had reached the nadir of his argument's cycle, almost whimpered.

"Three-fifty?"

"Done!"

Hopkins, taken by surprise, almost enacted the virtually impossible action of falling-off his chair from a sitting position.

"What?"

"I said, yeah—three-fifty, that'll do it." Gabrielle in her element. "Not so much as I think's due, but it ain't dry grits, neither. What's t'day—Thursday? OK, Saturday next, that's two days from now. You turn up here, with your three companions and sufficient luggage—not more'n fifty pounds weight, mind—an I'll be champin' at the bit with the Norseman t'take you-all on your holiday, OK?"

"Yeah—great—yeah, thanks."

"Atalanta Haulage always comes up trumps, Mister Hopkins, bye?"

"Yeah, er, thanks, bye."

—O—

"How's the Hudson lookin'?"

Claire, sitting by her lover at the office desk later that day, mused on the query; they having bought a Lockheed Hudson a month ago to extend their capability.

"Runnin' fine an' smooth; those Wright Cyclone radials are great, no trouble at all. She's allowin' us t'get our greedy mitts on more business no end, too. How about the ol' Norseman?"

"Just had a happy client in this mornin', before you arrived back from Beauval." Gabrielle smiling at the memory. "Played him the usual way, let him bargain me down from the stratosphere t'the total I actually felt fair; easy-peasy."

Claire shook her head, as she had done on numerous earlier occasions.

"Gab, how ya do it I don't know; why ya continues t'do it I don't know's, neither. Why can't ya just be up-front with clients an' ask for the real price?"

"An' take all the fun out'ta the negotiations?" Gabrielle's tone that of an innocent schoolgirl.

"Gab, you're a one of a kind, gal. Only glad you're my gal, too."

"Aw, shucks, if we weren't more or less in public I'd kiss you some handsome, no mistake."

Claire grinned, taking up this proposition with glee.

"Door's shut, nobody around; nobody'll care, either! So, how's about followin'-up on your promises, lady?"

So, nothing loath, Gabrielle did.

—O—

The Noorduyn Norseman seaplane sat by the jetty at Gatch's Point on Saturday morning awaiting its customers, fueled-up and engine running; Gabrielle ensconced in the pilot's seat awaiting her passengers, too. Claire meanwhile stood on the jetty doing the same thing; the difficulty being the appointment had been for ten o'clock while it was now just after eleven. Eventually Gabrielle stuck her head out the cockpit side-window.

"Where the hell are they? I'm gon'na switch-off in two more minutes—just wasting fuel here. Any sign of them?"

"No sign of anything moving so far," Claire looking up the main road. "other than Ann Bridges' mobile store."

"Lot'ta good that is." Gabrielle sounding completely p-ssed-off. "OK, that's it, switching-off. If nothing else we'll dam' well bill Hopkins for the fuel used so far."

Claire, knowing her heartmate wasn't joking, kept a diplomatic silence. With the cessation of the Norseman's engine the resulting silence sounded almost like a noise in itself, virtually having an impact on the ears of the aeronauts.

"Ricky?"

"Yeah, ducks?"

"Listening t'the engine this past twenty minutes, I think there might be a problem with one of the valves; there's something of a variation in the revolution-cycle."

This sort of thing impending on their business right at the source Claire paid serious attention to her partner's statement.

"Can ya place it, the dodgy valve?"

"Nah, have to get right into the parts mechanically for that."

"How bad's it? A danger t'the present flight, y'think?"

A pause ensued while Gabrielle pondered this possibility.

"No-no, I think we're OK so far. It's just a feeling, anyway; I can barely sense it, as it is."

"OK." Claire nodding assent. "The old solution—let it run till it breaks?"

"Har!"

The discussion was brought to an end a moment later when a coughing back-firing engine could be heard as a large station-wagon juddered down the road to the jetty.

"Gab, our clients have arrived, in what appears t'be a car on its last legs."

"Uurph, better power-up again, I suppose."

While the Norseman' engine broke into life once again Mister Hopkins struggled out of his car and walked along the jetty to meet Claire.

"Sorry we're late, dam' car broke down—still is, as a matter of fact. Hope we're OK?"

"Yeah, no worry, at least you made it. Everyone present? Got all the equipment you need?"

"Yes, thanks," Hopkins nodding as he turned to his car, waving a hand. "My companions're up for the jaunt, for real. Two girls and another man. That OK?"

"Sure, long as they're in good health an' happy t'go." Claire shrugging her shoulders. "Here they all come—want a hand loading your equipment?"

"That'd be a help, thanks."

"OK."

—O—

The Norseman was flying north-west at ten thousand feet, engine running smoothly; Gabrielle was comfortable, in full command of her surroundings, the passengers quiet in their seats in the passenger compartment. Through the open cockpit door she could talk with her customers as and when needed, though there had been little necessity for such during the last half hour of the flight. Their destination, Lake Desolation, sat high in the far north-west corner of the Province, deep in the wild forest and slew of other lakes in that area. Gabrielle shuffled round to glance back into the passenger compartment.

"We'll be arriving at Desolation in another twenty minutes; maybe you'd better start preparing?"

The passengers, at this statement, began to search around for all those pieces of equipment they had brought into the cabin with them—books, bags, satchels, odds and ends and suchlike.

During the flight Gabrielle had been studying her instruments rather more keenly than usual, her attention being on the cycle of the engine valves because of the slight variation in the nine valves' smooth running which had made itself felt once again. Just over a quarter of an hour later Gabrielle identified the body of water that was her destination coming up on the horizon.

"We're here, people," Gabrielle running an eye over her instrument panel again. "I'll start descending in another minute, just try and not leave anything of yours behind when we land. It'll be a b-gger when I take-off again and anyone of you've forgotten anything."

Ten minutes later she brought the Norseman, floating gently on its pontoons, to the edge of the Lake where a low pebbly shore beckoned. The front of the pontoons raking-up on the small beach the passengers were able to exit without getting their feet wet. Another half hour saw all their equipment, cases, bags, and tools safely ashore; Gabrielle running-up the engine to back away into the lake again. Another minute and she was up in the air, her passengers hopefully comfortably in possession of the corner of the wild forest where they were going to enjoy their long weekend, while Gabrielle headed back to base.

"There's something not right, I'm sure of it. A valve's going wonky somewhere in the cycle, I'm sure. Oh, well!"

—O—

When she arrived back at Gatch's Point the outcome Claire had posited earlier had come to pass—the engine was now definitely running with at least one valve not hitting the cycle properly, a slight haze of brown smoke running back from the radial engine; Gabrielle heaving a sigh of relief when she safely landed the plane.

"That was a little dicey, gal."

Gabrielle, standing beside Claire, merely grunted as she removed her flying-helmet.

"Ha-ha, baby. Thanks for your support."

"Have t'get in'ta it's innards, see if we can fix it ourselves."

"Probably have t'phone Jenkins to bring his expertise to save the day." Gabrielle accepting the reality of Life.

Later in the afternoon Gabrielle did indeed find herself in the poky office telephoning the engineering company in Regina far south where Kevin Jenkins passed his working days.

"Yeah, broken valve; number four. A gasket's gone. Need to take the whole engine apart, I'm afraid. When can you come? No, that's far too far-off; we got clients waiting for us as close as this coming Wednesday. What? OK, Monday, but how long'll it take you to mend the engine? You can't say? May need replacements from Ottawa? God, there're people up in the north of the Province waiting to be picked-up in a few days, and nowhere to land a wheeled airplane. Can you make it as snappy as possible? Iirrph, great! OK, bye."

She twiddled a pencil on an open notepad for a few seconds as she absorbed the information just given to her, then the door opened and Claire stepped in with a parcel under her arm.

"Got those technical volumes on the Hudson at last, dear; just come in the Post. Say, ya ain't lookin' exactly chipper, what's the problem?"

"Norseman engine, gone down the drain; Jenkins says he can't be here till Monday and may need to send for replacements, anyway. Norseman may not be back in action for a week, maybe two or longer. So, what about those folks up at Desolation?"

Claire sat beside her partner, placing a comforting arm round her.

"Could phone Dickson, on la Ronge, ask him t'take his seaplane up t'rescue them on the day."

Gabrielle bucked-up considerably at this answer to her worries.

"Yeah, of course; why didn't I think of that. That'll fix it for sure. God, Ricky, where'd I be without you?"

Keeping a diplomatic silence Claire merely leaned over to apply the best aid possible in the circumstances—a long gentle kiss; which did indeed seem to supply all that was needed by way of medical or romantic attention.

—O—

"Yep, these Pratt and Whitney nine-cylinder Wasps are the thing, sure enough—trouble is, though, spares!"

Kevin Jenkins, mechanic extraordinary, the following Monday as advertised stood on the slipway to the lake easing his back after having given the Norseman's powerplant a serious going-over, he now being covered in oil as a result.

"What spares?" Claire, in dirty jeans and a not visibly cleaner grey shirt, hardly looking spruce herself. "What's wrong?"

Kevin was up for this technicality, such being the joy of his life.

"Number Four cylinder pushrod—broken. If Miss Parker here'd kept the plane in the air oh, another half hour the engine would have exploded. Near miss, ma'am."

"Sh-t and b-gg-ry!" Gabrielle's feelings hardly being soothed by the news.

"So what's the order of the day?" Claire still hoping for the best. "Fix it t'day, can ya?"

"Ha! No chance." Kevin pouring water on the ladies' hopes without shame. "Ain't a Pratt Wasp pushrod within five hundred miles; Ottawa's the place. Take, oh, a week if we're lucky. Then I'll need'ta return an' fix it in place—that'll be another full day's work in itself."

"We got clients waiting our arrival in the wild north this coming Wednesday." Gabrielle, dressed splendidly in clean jeans and a pale green silk shirt that shimmered in the sunlight, was hardly pleased. "What about them?"

Kevin was unmoved.

"Have t'wait their turn's all, ma'am." He shrugging dismissively in the manner of the late Louis XIV. "We're here, in Gatch's Point, Saskatchewan; the pushrods're in Ottawa, Ontario—near on fourteen hundred mile apart. Y'both sees the problem inherent therein, I expec's?"

Claire could indeed, as could her partner in Love and Life.

"G-d'd-m!"

"B-gg-ry!"

—O—

An hour later Claire and Gabrielle sat in their small disarranged office going over further plans for the imminent rescue of the as yet unknowing clients at Lake Desolation.

"Dam'med bad luck, Dickson at la Ronge phonin' an hour ago t'say he couldn't help—too much scheduled work." Claire sighing in something like despondency.

"What about the old Stinson Reliant, back in the hangar?" Gabrielle reaching for the last straw and grasping it.

"Wheels."

"What?"

"It's got a wheeled undercart—how'd ya land that on water, dear?"

"Oh!"

Time passed, like an Ice Age in no hurry.

"We got that spare set of pontoons for the Norseman." Gabrielle finally grasping at hardly visible straws. "We could jerry-build them t'fit the Reliant."

Claire, primarily against the idea if such it could be called, took a further moment to consider the ins and outs.

"We-ell!"

"A couple of trips would take care of our clients." Gabrielle sounding eager as she thought more about her cunning plan. "In fact, at a squeeze, we might be able t'take all four in one flight—minus most of their baggage, mind you."

"Yeah, there's that." Claire taking reality into account. "Though they probably won't go for it,—one trip, I mean. Likely settle for the two trips, with luggage included. But it's a plan, it's certainly a plan. You up t'helpin' me switch a wheeled undercart to pontoons?"

"We could dragoon Helen Daillard in'ta the thing?" Gabrielle coldly press-ganging an old friend into the plot. "Saw her swanning around her own plane an hour ago, pottering about doing nothing of much importance. We could start today, might have the Reliant ready by Wednesday, after all!"

Claire considered the matter for a few more seconds.

"OK, it's a plan, sort of, let's do it. Where'd ya say Helen was passin' the time o'day?"

o—O—o

The trouble with being ex-officers in the RAF, especially so soon after the end of the War, was the physical outcome often involved. Claire and Gabrielle, flying together, had latterly in their service been involved in an air-crash which had left both with serious injuries. Now more or less recovered there were, still, bounds to their physical capabilities; which meant the re-building of the Reliant's undercart, even with the willing assistance of Helen Daillard, took much longer than usual—it indeed being Wednesday itself before the aircraft sported its new look and was ready for the first rescue flight of the day.

After some further discussion it had been decided Claire and Gabrielle would remain in Gatch's Pont while 21 year old Helen piloted the renovated Reliant, she being considerably lighter of frame than either Gabrielle or especially Claire who's Amazonian build told against her in these circumstances; a lighter pilot allowing of more luggage on each flight for the clients.

Still rather worried about their work on the plane Claire and Gabrielle both heaved thankful sighs when Helen took the plane up off the lake's calm waters with no trouble at all.

"Thank Chr-st for that!"

"Yeah, if she lands an' takes-off from Desolation the same way all'l be well." Claire hoping for the best. "You on radio duty, lover?"

"Yeah, 'specially as all you managed to get on the airwaves last time you tried was Radio Luxembourg, in Europe!"

"Hoi! That ain't no way fair."

"Just saying's all, dear."

—O—

Three hours later bad news arrived. Claire was in the hangar taking another look at the sick Norseman when a young girl around ten years old came skipping in with a wide grin.

"Hi, Claire!"

"Hi yourself, Letty, what's up?"

"Gabrielle asked me t'tell you to come to the office soon's you could; said it's about Helen."

"Oh, sh—, er, bother!" Claire wondering if her oily hands would pass muster. "OK, thanks—don't fire up the Norse while I'm gone, will ya?"

"Ha-ha!"

In the office Gabrielle was hunched over the shortwave radio, earphones clamped to her head, a dark frown crossing her brow.

"What's up?"

"Helen's landed on Desolation, but no sign of our clients—they, apparent, ain't there no more. She's taken-off, circling the lake while she radio's us for orders."

"What? They got'ta be there! Where the dam' else would they be? The forest's all round 'em."

"Helen says, she landed; camp in situ, tents equipment an' all, but no people. Asks what next?"

Claire thought on her feet.

"Ask her if she's dam' sure the camp's deserted."

"OK—Peewit One to Reliant Seven, over. Helen, Claire asks you sure the camp's bare? Yeah, you are, OK, over. Well?"

"Well? What the dam's well mean?" Claire being rather more scathing than she meant.

"Cool it, dear, end of the world ain't yet."

"Sorry-sorry, my bad." Claire leaning over to kiss the top of her lover's head in apology. "What to do—what to do, that's the thing."

"We still got the Hudson."

"Dam', yeah." Claire seeing daylight at last. "OK, we power-up the Hudson an' join Helen at Desolation. Two planes should be able to cover enough land t'find our clients, whatever the hell they think they're up to. I'll drive."

"Thanks muchly; wait till I inform Helen why we'll be incommunicado for a short while."

—O—

The Hudson, because of its dual engines, took far less time than the Reliant or Norse to reach Lake Desolation in the far north of the Province, Claire and Gabrielle finding themselves circling the campsite within an hour and a half somewhere in mid-afternoon.

"Helen's circling the top end of the lake, where the river flows in." Gabrielle, in the pilot's seat, glancing forward through the windscreen. "There's the camp, in that clearing about a hundred yards into the trees—no sign of movement, though."

"Can't see any kind'a canoe anywhere; don't think anyone else's camping-out nearby." Claire gazing down through her side-window. "What's the drill for reporting lost clients in these circumstances?"

"Three days without contact." Gabrielle on top of this detail. "Then the Police send someone to corroborate the facts, then a preliminary search's carried out by a squad, and if they decide the clients' really are lost then a full-scale search begins."

"Jeez! How long's that kerfuffle take?" Claire not at all happy with this scenario.

"Oh, at least a full week, probably nearer two."

"By which time all they'll find is bleached bones!" Claire coming it the dramatic with just cause.

"So?"

"So? So? Wha'y'mean—So?"

Gabrielle, well used to the contrary nature of the woman she loved, sighed quietly—it was going to be one of those days, apparently.

"All I'm saying is, what's our plan. We wanting to find Mister Hopkins and associates in as good a condition as we left them, hopefully."

"Well, it ain't goin' t'be with the help of the Police, that's certain." Claire reluctant to give up her fit of the blue devils so easily. "What's needed is an in-depth search pattern covering the whole lake an' environs, making sure we don't miss a dam' inch."

Gabrielle could see the difficulty with this plan however.

"You and I, in the Hudson, which can't land on the lake; and Helen in the Reliant, which can—but there's only her? How long will that search take, do you think, lover-gal?"

Faced with the inevitable Claire gave in, though with ill-grace.

"Sh-t! OK-OK! Right, I'll radio Helen, tell her t'follow us back t'Gatch's Point. We all transfer t'the Reliant then return here; a group of three ought'a have a better chance of finding these dam' ingrates, always supposing they're still in the immediate area, and not decided t'haul ass and head by foot through the forest for British Columbia, for whatever reason."

Gabrielle's expression beneath her flying-helmet and facemask couldn't properly be seen, but her body language certainly gave the impression she thought her partner was losing it.

"Baby, you're losing it."

"No, I dam' well ain't!" Claire's rejoinder that of a girl who had eaten the last jam sandwich, not hers, at the children's party but was never going to admit to same. "Oh, sorry; maybe I am. Sh-t, this's is so dam' avoidable; what the hell d'those characters think they're doin', down there—wherever the dam' they are presently. All they had t'do was spend a few quiet days, shootin' deer, bear, fish; hell, pigeons an' rats fer all I care. But instead what d'they dam' well go an' do? Get themselves lost in the biggest forest in the world's all!"

Gabrielle, through long experience, knew how to handle the present delicate situation.

"Darling?"

"Yeah, what?"

"Helen?"

"Eh?"

"Helen."

Claire shifted in her uncomfortable seat to eye the Hudson's pilot through narrowed eyes.

"Helen? What about her? She's up at the far en—oh, yeah, Helen! Right, I'm on it—I am."

As her irritable companion engaged with the absent Reliant pilot by radio Gabrielle turned the nose of the Hudson for home; she fully aware it certainly was going to be one of those days.

—O—

The landing-strip at Gatch's Point could hardly be called a regular airstrip it being bare earth from end to end and not altogether level either. Therefore what might in the circumstances have been readily predicated by an unusually pessimistic pilot landing there actually came to pass when Gabrielle brought the Hudson down, nose aiming along the strip's centre-line, though such was not marked; one of the undercarriage wheels sustained a mechanical problem making the aircraft slew sideways halfway along the runway. Gabrielle, expert pilot as she was, handled the emergency capably, bringing the plane to a halt while still on the strip but only just, smoke rising from the port tyre. Gabrielle switching the engines off the two women clambered out the stricken airplane to assess the damage.

"F-ck! Hydraulic cylinder's bust, that's a job for the experts—Hudson's out of action for a fortnight at least." Gabrielle standing-up from her close examination of the undercarriage. "Just as well we have the Reliant—look, Helen's bringing it in now."

"Hope t'Chr-st she lands safely." Claire regarding the incoming seaplane with more than ordinary interest. "Can't afford to lose it too."

But all was well, the plane cut a slew of white water across the calm surface of the lake before coming to a halt twenty yards off-shore; a few bursts of the engine bringing it right alongside the jetty where Claire grabbed the thrown mooring-rope to tie the plane safely at rest. A moment later Helen had joined the other women, a frown crossing her brow as she removed her flying-helmet.

"Saw your landing, Gab; something went wrong—the plane damaged at all?"

"Port wheel hydraulics' bust, she's out of commission for the foreseeable future."

"Sh-t!" Helen realising at once the change in their circumstances. "Well, that leaves the Reliant, eh?"

"Yep." Claire nodding agreement. "Looks like we'll have to re-arrange our plans a little. I think the best plan'll be if you take the Reliant yourself back to Desolation. Don't land, but fly over the area, see if you can spot any sign of those b-gg-rs anywhere. Keep in contact with Gab and I here by radio."

"If I don't see anything worthwhile?"

Claire glanced at Gabrielle, who took up the burden of the situation.

"Stay there." She making plans as she spoke. "Land and stay at the camp; wait for us to arrive. Ricky?"

"Yeah?"

"We can phone Dickson, at la Ronge; tell him we're commandeering his plane, get him t'fly down here then we can take it over. Might be able to join Helen back at Desolation later this evening if all works out right."

Claire nodded with some assurance.

"Good idea, Dickson does owe us after all, after that little drama we leant a hand with at Five Lakes six month ago. Yeah, he'll come across with his plane easy enough. So, Helen, we re-fuel the Reliant, stow some stores aboard an' you can hit the road back t'Desolation fast's you like."

"Thanks, lookin' forward to it, I'm sure." Helen making a face at the quick turn-around. "Sure neither of you want t'come along?"

"Yeah, we'll need t'stay here to make further plans." Claire clear on this point. "We'll keep in contact by radio, so you'll know when we're airborne on our way to join you. OK?"

"Yep, let's get to it, then."

—O—

"Hallo! Yeah Jimmy, it's Claire here—how're ya doin'? That bad, eh? Things goin' well at la Ronge? OK-OK! Yeah, I do have ulterior motives as it happens; why so dam'med suspicious? Oh, 'cos you know me down t'my bootlaces? Dam' ingrate. What? Oh, nuthin'; so, busy are ya? I mean, right now. Oh, you are, run off your feet? Dear me! Well, t'get down t'brass tacks, the thing is, y'see— What's that—get t'the point? I'm doin' it, Jimmy, gim'me a chance! Where was I—what, nowhere useful! Jimmy, be nice. OK, yeah, I know time costs money, an' you're run off your dam' feet. What it boils down to is—I wan'na requisition your Cessna as of now, this very minute. Jimmy, Jimmy—get a grip, boy, I hate t'hear grown men cry. Yeah, it's wholly necessary, no other course beckoning—it's your Cessna or bust, is all. What? Say that again, I didn't hear, the line crackled, or was it you? What, you were gon'na take a fishin' party up t'a lake in the north-west in ten minutes? Well, don't! Lucky I caught ya first, ain't it then? Jimmy, are ya cryin' again, thought I told ya t'stop that? Yeah, Duty calls, it's imperative, there's no other course open t'me, an' your Cessna's the only appropriate plane in a circumference of, oh, three hundred miles as we speak. So, it's got'ta be? Yeah, honey, it's got'ta be—like the Fall of the Roman Empire, yeah. What? What? Oh, you know how Nero felt now—well, bully for you; when can ya get the crate over here? Within two hours would be useful. Jimmy, don't mess with me, you're cryin' again, aren't you?"

—O—

The commandeered aircraft, a Cessna T-50 Bobcat twin-engined floatplane, was capable of carrying pilot, navigator, and three passengers so was perfect for the two womens' purposes. James Dickson, he indeed owing them a favor, actually having had no hesitation though based on Lake la Ronge in bringing the plane across to Lake Seclusion at the womens' call. So, just past two in the afternoon, Claire and Gabrielle were airborne once again, this time Claire piloting.

"Bloody thing handles like a dam' brick!"

"Yeah, I noticed; didn't want to say, though—thinking it was you, darling!"

Claire snorted through her face-mask.

"Women can go off women, y'know."

"Har! Shall I call Helen on the radio, see what she's up to?"

"Yeah, maybe things are goin' our way at last an' she's found our errant customers."

"Fat chance!" Gabrielle holding a wholly opposite view. "Cessna Gold to Reliant Seven, over. You there Helen, over?"

The airwaves crackled, as they were wont to at this hour of a late afternoon, but nothing significant could be heard except for those faint disjointed whisperings, sounding like the wailings of lost souls in Purgatory, of other people's conversations across the ether.

"Nuthin'; the Ionosphere's playing-up again."

"Dam' the Ionosphere—ain't it got better things t'do?" Claire taking no prisoners, scientific or ethereal. "Keep at it, we got'ta make contact with her."

"Cessna Gold to Reliant Seven, ca—"

"Reliant Seven to Cessna Gold, who the hell're you, over?"

"Helen, that you? I mean, Cessna Gold to Reliant Seven, this's Gab and Ricky, over."

"In a Cessna? Where'd that come from, over?"

"Never mind,—how're you doing? Any sign of you know who, over?"

"Yeah, as it happens, I can see them now; been in radio contact too, they having walkie-talkies, over."

"I'll be dam'med!""

"What's that, Gab?"

"Helen's found them, been talking with them, over walkie-talkies'; everything in the garden now being lovely, I takes it."

"Dam' me!"

"Just what I said." Gabrielle hardly able to believe her ears still. "Cessna Gold to Reliant Seven, tell all, Helen—what the hell, over!"

"Reliant Seven to Cessna Gold, seems two of them went for a hike an' got lost—the others went in search an', 'cause of the walkie-talkie situation, were able to spot them eventually; but by that time they'd missed our appointment, they having ended up some distance from base-camp. Said they saw you at one point but couldn't contact you via their walkie-talkies', over."

Claire shook her head when this news was relayed by her lover.

"Pigs' breakfast, from start to finish! Ask her where they are right now."

Nothing loath, Gabrielle clicked the switch on her microphone once more.

"Cessna Gold to Reliant Seven, Where are they, Helen, over?"

"Reliant Seven to Cessna Gold, at the camp, snug as bugs, no injuries just low on stores; asks can ya bring bacon, eggs, an' coffee just as soon's you find convenient, over."

"Damnation!" Claire shaken to her roots. "The nerve, they get lost in a wild forest, we have to commandeer every dam' plane within three hundred mile, take all day searchin' for 'em, an' all the time they're busy havin' a party? G-d'd-m nerve!"

"Oh, dear!"

"Good mind t'turn back an' leave the stupid idiots where they are." Claire fuming like a Minotaur with a headache. "Let 'em find their own way back t'civilisation."

"Would serve them right, I admit."

"Too dam' true." Claire still riding high in her fury. "Oh, sh-t! Tell Helen t'land an' corral 'em tight till we arrive. I got words t'exchange with 'em that'll make their combined hair turn white an' fall out, so I have!"

Gabrielle, after sending the appropriate message, though couched in slightly more delicate terms, sat back silently not wanting to fuel the on-going fire by her side any more than was strictly necessary.

"Bloody fools!" Being Claire's last word on the subject as they headed on north.

—O—

The Cessna bounced when Claire initially brought it in low over the surface of the lake intending to land down the centre of the narrow but relatively long body of water. Bounced so hard, twice, that she took the plane back up to figure out what the problem was before attempting another landing run.

"What the Hell!"

But Gabrielle had a theory.

"You brought us in too fast, like we're still in the Hudson; this's a Cessna, far lighter. You got'ta come in slower."

Claire furrowed her brow, absorbing this advice, then acted.

"Sounds likely, give ya that. OK, I'll try it; here we go."

This second time, the water of the lake shooting past the wings on either side as if it was a solid body, the plane touched the surface far more gently, pontoons scything across the surface leaving white wakes in their rear in the required manner; the plane drifting to a halt smoothly and gently.

"Thank Ker'rist fer that!" Claire at the extreme limit of her capacity to take any more drama that day.

Gunning the engine in short bursts brought the plane to the edge of the generally shallow pebbly shore where she let the pontoons rake up slightly on the loose surface.

"Well, here we are, Ricky, back in Kansas after the tornado!" Gabrielle bringing all her acclaimed humor to the situation.

"Hrrph!" Claire, however, not enjoying the said situation in the slightest.

On the beach, when the ladies' disembarked, the errant tourists were congregated waiting; Claire though, now regally pissed-off what with one thing and another, was not in any mood for the polite preliminaries.

"Hallo, Miss Mathews, how nice to see you once again. I—" Mr Hopkins, as head of his party, got no further, however.

"Hopkins, ya fool, what in Hell ya think you're up to? Ya got any idea of the dam' hard work, expence, an' general f-cked-uppiness that's been goin' on these past few days tryin' ter save your dam' hides?"

Hopkins stepped back a couple of paces, shocked by this reception as of a particularly angry Valkyrie.

"Ah, er, what's the matter?" Perhaps the most inappropriate remark he could possibly have made in the circumstances.

Claire in return gasped wordlessly for a few seconds before she became articulate again; but when she did so it was in English, French, German, and American, keeping her tirade up for almost four minutes—its general theme being the ineptitude, foolishness, and overall idiocy of tourist-stroke-hunting parties' universal capacities to haul themselves and everyone associated with them into the Slough of Despond in record time at every opportunity.

"Oh, dear! We didn't realise—"

"But you dam' well will when our Bill for expenses hits your carpet, buster." Claire still frothing at the mouth, like a leopard in a zoo offered the wrong kind of antelope meat for breakfast. "Three planes—no, four—yeah, four planes have been activated in search of your dam' hides. I've had to call in people who owe me, spend money on repairs whose faults lie solidly at your feet, buy enough fuel t'drive a battleship in a storm, and spend days I could'a been doing real work repairing my equipment an' final scouring miles of forest fer you-all! And the dam' result? Here ya all are, snug as bugs, enjoyin' yourselves an' askin' how nice it is t'see me again? You g-d'd-m bunch o'morons."

Mr Hopkins, all of a bother on finally realising he and his compatriots complete inadequacy during the course of the past few hours, only made things worse with his next remarks.

"—er, er, aah, dear me; but everything's worked-out fine in the end though, hasn't it, ma'am?"

Even with Gabrielle hanging onto her lover's arms with both her's Claire was still adamant and outraged—she going-off on a second discourse appertaining to the personalities of all those within earshot even more thoroughly and in stronger language than before. So much so, indeed, three-quarters of a mile away in the deep woods a passing grizzly, pausing to listen to the angry diatribe drifting through the trees even at that distance, took a moment then turned round, obviously under the impression there were far more salubrious and safer places to be elsewhere.

—O—

Next day the small dusty airless office at Gatch's Point was host to a disparate group consisting of Gabrielle, Claire, Helen, James Dickson, and Kevin Jenkins, head Mechanic for Parkes' Aviation Solutions, Regina.

"Well, there's an end to it." Dickson voicing the ultimate statement on the subject of their meeting.

"Let's dam' hope so." Gabrielle putting in her pennyworth, though without any satisfaction.

"Ya sending Hopkins the bill, right enough?" Helen focusing on the important point.

"Dam' straight, gal." Claire not at all in a merciful mood. "Days of organising searches, fuel costs, dragging people in'ta the catastrophe t'help, planes being requisitioned like a Navy press-gang, planes goin' Doolali at every moment, repairs costin' thousands—of course I'm billing Hopkins an' his g-d'd-m cronies, for every dam' cent."

"I've brought my team with me." Jenkins nodding wisely, like an old-time Prophet. "Can repair the Hudson no worry; the Norse, that'll take a little longer; the Bobcat, ya crunched the pontoon struts mighty heavy landin' it that time, Miss Mathews—have t'put some new bolts in them, too. Altogether cost'll be somewhere around five thou, I'm afraid."

A hiss of indrawn breath circulated round the table where they all sat, nobody present wishing to be hit with a bill of that enormity.

"Sh-t, yeah, let 'em pay." Helen making known the general agreement of the whole group.

"Hopkins an' his partners are all lawyers, anyway, probably wont miss a few thou; maybe teach 'em a lesson, hopefully." Claire musing on the tribulations of working for the Public.

"How bad's the Bobcat?" Dickson wondering about his own machine meanwhile.

"Oh, when I say the pontoon struts were hit mighty heavy meb'be I was exaggeratin' some." Jenkins shaking his head and smiling at the same time. "Three hours, with the tools an' equipment my boys an' gals brought with us, an' you should be airworthy agin'. We'll take the pontoons off complete; return it to the wheeled landing-gear. That alright?"

"Great! Thanks."

Gabrielle, now thinking it high time this chat was brought to a close, stood up magisterially like a Hostess at a Society Dinner looking for the ladies' to leave the table.

"OK, Time's knocking on the door, let's get the show on the road, folks."

—O—

The small bungalow on the shore of Lake Seclusion serving as homestead for Claire and Gabrielle had its drapes closed and a warm log fire blazing in the living-room grate. Both women sat together on a long sofa basking in the warmth, with glasses of whisky on the low table in front of them; Gabrielle being dressed in a pair of loose shimmering pink silk pajamas, Claire in a pair of men's cotton ditto red and blue striped.

"What is this, lover-baby?"

"Caol Ila, eighteen year old single malt from the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland." Gabrielle relaxing snugly against her lover's side. "That's what the label on the bottle says, anyway."

"I like it, slightly smoky."

"Yeah, not so bad." Gabrielle pretending to be an expert in Scotch whisky, a ploy which didn't escape her partner's notice for one instant.

"Gal, you are one of a kind, no mistake."

"Glad you think so, baby—come on, what about a kiss?"

So invited Claire lost no time in accepting.

"Mmm, nice." Gabrielle wholly satisfied with the results of her request. "But, say, you've been drinking whisky, dear—smell it on your breath, taste it, in fact?"

"Well, so have you, lover-gal!"

Gabrielle thought over this escape clause for a few seconds.

"Yes; yes, you're right, I have, haven't I? Hee-hee!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Atalanta Haulage' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—