'The Snakebite 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 and others. They transport a nurse into the wild up-province forest looking for a snakebite victim.

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—

"Ricky!"

No answer, the lady in question being some fifty yards off talking to a customer out by the Hudson on the runway.

"Ricky!"

Claire, hearing something on the edge of her auditory range, paused in her conversation to glance back towards the small shed which acted as office for Atalanta Haulage. Helen, on radio duty, seeing this move in the right direction took immediate advantage.

"Ricky, telephone—official!"

Claire, hardly impressed, raised her arms in the universal expression of someone who wanted more.

"Regina Hospital—medical emergency—we're needed."

Claire paused, obviously offering some sort of apology to her customer, before turning back to the office. A minute later she entered the open door and stood by Helen at the radio table.

"What's up?"

"Regina Hospital, emergency transmission," Helen on the ball. "The lady says someone's called in from up north about a snakebite victim; need fast transport to get the needed serum there. Can you help?"

"Where's there?" Claire pinning the major point in one.

"Corolal Lake, north-west of the state."

Claire frowned over this before giving-up.

"Lem'me break-out the maps; never heard of it, t'tell the truth."

Two minutes later she had pinpointed the lake.

"Got it!" She placing her fingertip on the map, in case the position made a break for freedom. "That's no good; got a red dot on the map—means floatplanes can't land there. Is there another likely lake nearby? No, there ain't."

Helen, still hunched over the radio, shook her head in tandem with Claire.

"Lookin' at it, there ain't a road nearby either. Nearest seems t'be some fifteen miles south of the area. How're we gon'na get in there?"

Claire bowed over the map, examining the entire local area round the lake before glancing at Helen.

"This Hospital lady, she still with ya, on the radio?"

"Yeah."

"Right, tell her whoever's gon'na be the medic in question'll need'ta use a parachute. See what they say."

Helen raised her eyebrows, then turned to transmit the message twiddling her earphones to get best input from the long-distance caller.

"OK, she says they'll put an experienced medic in place; ask's if we're gon'na come down to pick the medic up, or what."

"Tell her we'll send the Hudson in twenty minutes, I'll pilot it." Claire making plans on the hoof. "Should be able to make the return flight in just over two hours; Gab should be back with the Noorduyn from cross-state by then. We'll get her to take the Hudson on up north to make the drop over the lake—I'll go too and parachute with the medic."

Helen turned back to the radio, using her microphone to send the suggested plan of campaign to the far distant capital.

"That's it. Ricky; they'll be waiting when y'get there."

"Better get on the move then." Claire nodding assent. "Tell Gab when she returns, so's she's in the right frame of mind. If she starts swearin' tell her it only affects her complexion."

"Hah! Not if I value my health, thanks; when she fires up she's something t'stay back from."

"Don't I know it!"

—O—

The airstrip at Regina was top-class, having two runways both paved with concrete. This, of course, making it a busy airport with many arrivals and departures during the day and night. When Claire arrived in its airspace an hour and three-quarters after taking-off from Gatch's Point she found herself in a queue of two other aircraft before she could land. Finally, trekking across the intervening bare ground by the runways she chose to adopt a haughty attitude as she approached the glaringly Art Deco Control Tower and Admin building; she loathing this modern style with a vengeance, unlike her partner who loved it—but the necessary paperwork beckoned and this was its lair. When she was finally free of this boring and time-consuming part of the joys of being a pilot she wasted no time in escaping back into the fresh air where she found a large station wagon waiting outside the building with a thirty-year old woman standing by its side waving at her.

"Hi, you Miss Mathews?"

"The very same."

"I'm Greta Chapman, Assistant Supervisor at Regina Hospital; I'm the medic who'll take the ride up north with you."

"Got all your equipment? Serum and whatnot?"

"Yes, thanks." Greta turning to retrieve a small hard leather case from her car. "All in here. Apart from which I'm ready to go, if you are."

Claire was well used to this level of get up and go from civilians and had the necessary dampening answer to hand.

"Not so quick; got'ta file my flight-plan first, then refuel, then wait in a queue for my turn to take-off. Whole thing? Meb'be an hour. There's a restaurant over in that big shed to our right; time for you to have a coffee an' sandwich. I got t'talk t'you anyway, about parachuting. Take it you haven't before?"

"Parachute? No, er, no; it'll be the first time. Is it hard?"

Claire pursed her lips at this level of naivety.

"Can be fatal, on occasion; something we wan'na avoid, if ya get my drift."

"Ah!"

"Go on over t'the restaurant, I'll come over in about fifteen minutes then we can talk, OK?"

"Yes, fine; see you there then."

"Right."

—O—

The restaurant was not busy, with only a few tables being used by individuals or groups; on entering Claire immediately saw her potential passenger and headed on over to her table.

"Hi, so, I brought my coffee—you OK?"

"Yes, thanks," Greta nodding her assent. "So, where do we go from here? I got'ta go through a parachute course before we take-off, or what? Don't think I have the time for that, you know. I know for certain my patient, up north, is hanging on a thread meanwhile. Parachute courses are out of contention, unfortunately. I'll take some instruction, sure; but that's the length of what I can afford—we got'ta get up to Coralal as fast as that plane out there can fly, if you don't mind me egging you on."

Claire smiled at her passenger's wish to get the job done, and quickly.

"See where you're coming from. Course's are out, like you say. Look, I take you up and give some instructions on the parachute as we go. After all, it's just a matter of you flinging yourself out into the void then pulling the ripcord and hoping for the best from then on till you hit the ground—gently, we hope. Nuthin' to it, really."

Greta looked at her pilot in some consternation.

"You think?" She shaking her head with some conviction. "Doesn't look that way to me. Jump and pull the ripcord? That all there is to it, really?"

Claire took a long slow swallow of her lukewarm coffee, taking advantage of the extra time to form some sort of logical reply.

"In usual circumstances, no; much more to it than that. People who parachute usually need a long course in such, with preliminary jumps along the way, t'get used to throwing themselves out an airplane at enormous heights. You're gon'na have to just do it hugger-mugger. Comes with the job, I suppose you could say. You up for it?"

"I'm here." Greta nodding slowly. "Which means, given the circumstances, I'm up for whatever's needed to complete my mission. If I have to jump, then I will jump."

Claire nodded over her coffee-cup.

"I've filed my flight-plan, refuelled, and given the old kite a look-over. We're ready to go now—you ready?"

"How many times is this you've asked that same question?" Greta becoming just a trifle exasperated. "Yes; we need to get the serum to my snakebite patient; the only way being parachuting—I'm up for it—so let's go!"

Claire gave Greta one last glance, nodded understandingly, and rose from her chair.

"Let's get moving, then; you can sit in the navigator's seat beside me. When we reach Gatch's Point we'll refuel again, then my co-partner, Gabrielle, will take over pilot duties while we stay in the passenger cabin, ready to jump out the side door. OK?"

"Yes."

"Right, let's get to it."

—O—

The three women stood in the shadow of the Hudson on the bare ground at the side of Lake Desolation; Helen, their trusty helper-in-chief having just completed its refuelling. At the moment a fine detail of their journey was under discussion.

"Ya got the serum on ya? Dam' well hopes so; ain't goin' back t'Regina now."

"Of course! What d'ya take me for?" Greta taking rightful umbrage at this lack of confidence on Claire's side. "In this leather case, five doses—should do the trick."

"What?" Gabrielle, newly returned from a long haul in the Noorduyn, as usual taking the most dramatic route. "You need to inject the, er, victim, five times? Won't that hurt?"

"No-no-no!" Greta groaning out loud at this example of an amateur intellect at work. "Only once—the others being back-up. Just get me there is all I ask."

But Gabrielle had other queries on hand.

"It's been what, near on a day since this snakebite was reported; ain't the poor fella, or lassie, going to be, well, dead by the time you reach them?"

Greta was by now stepping from foot to foot in her impatience at this extended interrogation.

"Probably, yeah, if you don't get me up in the air and on my way anytime soon!" She letting her built-up frustration taste the sweet pine-scented air. "Sorry—sorry. Just—no, she, it's a young woman by the way, no she'll be alive alright, just in a delicate state of distress. It was a Western Rattlesnake that got her—"

"Rattlesnake!" It was Claire's turn to express horror. "Ain't they dam' well deadly all the time? What makes ya think this gal'l still be in the Land of the Living when we get there?"

Seeing the only escape route from this interminable stand-off was to produce the goods quick-time Greta reverted to her scientific education.

"Western Rattlesnakes are found all over the dam' country—well, that isn't quite right; they're found on the Western coast and parts of north Saskatchewan. Their bite can be deadly, but not so often anymore. It depends on how much and how strong the venom is the snake injects on any one bite; if indeed it injects any at all: that's called a dry bite, but still potentially dangerous for all sorts of reasons. If it's only one bite, as in this case apparently, and the victim's pretty healthy there's a good chance the effects won't be too severe—but the antivenom's still recommended, of course. Even if it was deadly it'd still take most of a day and a half, maybe two, for that to, um, occur. We move fast, we can get the antivenom to her well in time to help her recover. Time, in this case, mattering, y'know. Shall we?"

The pointed nod Greta here gave towards the stationary Hudson left Claire and Gabrielle in no doubt of her immediate needs.

"Yeah, right, OK, let's get to it." Claire assuming command. "Come on, we'll take the passenger door, Gab'll climb in the cockpit; we'll still be in communication through the open cockpit door to the main compartment. You've never used a parachute before, y'say?"

"No."

"Ah, pity; oh, well."

—O—

The difficulties inherent in using a parachute for the very first time entail a whole host of possibilities; will the parachutist hit any part of the plane's fuselage on the way out; will they pull the ripcord at the right time, will they pull it at all; will they land safely or not; in a dangerous landscape will they lose contact with their companions? This last giving Claire some worries, over and above the rest.

Two hours had taken the Hudson to the destination though, looking out the windows, all that could be seen was an never-ending forest interspersed with a variety of lakes and rivers.

"Sure that's Corolal down there, Gab?" Claire peering down at the ground with a frown.

"My map says so, what can I say?" Gabrielle taking no prisoners as she leaned over to speak through the open passenger compartment door behind her. "You can see why we can't land there—too tortuous and not wide enough, and even from this height I can see a floating log."

"Ummph!"

"How's Greta coming along with the chute?"

This topic stung Claire straight-on, she having some difficulty with the whole subject.

"We're gettin' there; just keep flyin' the plane, babe, OK?"

"Har, that way, eh? OK."

Claire sighed then returned to her lesson on how to jump out a plane at a great height, and survive.

"Greta, the thing of most importance is the ripcord, OK?"

"In what way?"

"Well, if ya don't pull it you'll find out what way quickly enough!" Claire finishing tightening the straps of her passenger's chute, which were many and diverse.

"Sure all these straps are in their right order?" Greta having last minute doubts. "Does that one actually go round there?"

"Lady," Claire, realising that parachute instruction was not her best subject, beginning to lose patience. "I've been jumpin' out'ta planes for years; haven't, as ya see, hit the ground at the wrong speed yet."

Greta's expression at this anecdote was hardly one of conviction, she seeing perfectly well Claire's slightly scarred right cheek and earlobe, broken nose, and having noticed when they met the aviator's decided limp in her left leg: but she said nothing.

"Right, we ain't got a static line; this crate had, but it's been taken out so you'll just jump and pull the cord on your own." Claire hitting the point that mattered with expert aim. "We're at eight thousand feet at the moment, so you'll have plenty of time; don't try to pull it immediately on exiting the door, that'll just end badly—give yourself about three seconds, OK?"

"How do I control the chute on the way down?"

"You don't." Claire precise on this question. "Given a long series of lessons you could control it, but right now just hang onto the armlines and let yourself fall; trying anything to change the chute's actions'll just cause problems for you."

"OK."

Claire took another look out the rectangular window by the entrance door, then grabbed the internal handle.

"OK, I'm gon'na open now – stand firm; we're passing over a large open area of grassland about two miles from the lake. There's probably stones or even boulders there so be careful if you can when you hit the ground. I'll be coming down right behind ya, should land somewhere close-by. Gab'll circle round t'see we land OK. Right—ready?"

At a nod from the virginal parachutist, head protected by an ex-military hard helmet, she also wearing heavy gloves, strong jeans, and boots Claire pulled the door in and sideways. Instantly the atmosphere in the passenger compartment changed from calm to stormy as the outer air buffetted its way into the aircraft.

"Ready? Go—Go!"

A second's hesitation then Greta held the sides of the door frame, leaned forward and disappeared out of the aircraft. Claire, not hesitating herself, followed suit—her breath instantly caught by the whistling wind tugging at every inch of her body as she fell—then she pulled the ripcord and experienced the usual result; a wrenching of her whole body as the chute opened and the suspension lines took effect. Twisting round and round as was initially common in these circumstances she got the chute under control by delicate pulling on the lines then glanced down to see what state her passenger was in. Seeing the fully extended round grey mushroom shape below she gave a deeply-felt sigh of relief.

"Looks like she'll make it, thank God!"

Then her whole attention transferred to the dropping zone immediately below her waving boots. It was a wide treeless glade covered in dark green grass but with the ominous grey of large stones and boulders dotting it, though not hopefully to a dangerous degree.

"Think she'll miss the rocks—dam' hope I do too!"

—O—

The glade, on arrival, showed to the two women as being some hundred yards wid and three hundred long; both having landed safely with no injuries apart from a certain lack of breath after the solid thump they each experienced on hitting the ground. On standing and making sure Greta, some thirty yards off, was also on her feet and in one piece, Claire glanced around but not to any instant result.

"You OK? Great, lem'me help you out'ta that harness—it can be worse than gettin' in'ta the dam' thing. There ya go."

"Thanks, my antivenom box seems fine too."

"Great." Claire heading to her left hand side through the shin-high grass. "The lake's over here; come on, let's see if we can find your patient—no sign of her yet."

At the lake's side a two metre wide but fairly long pebble beach ran along allowing the women to stand beside the water.

"See any sign of a camp?" Claire looking both ways along the shore. "Don't see any tents or equipment anywhere."

Greta also took time to note the immediate environment, but to no greater end than Claire.

"From what the Hospital back in Regina told me the patient's a thirty-three year old woman, with a male companion, age unknown. I didn't get any detail of what they were doing here or what position they had adopted—hunters, fishers, tourists on a hike. Just two people."

Claire nodded as she hunted in a small canvas box on a leather strap round her left shoulder.

"I got the walkie-talkie here, let's see if Gabrielle can receive us. Dove One to Hudson, are ya receiving me, over?"

The squarish metal instrument, with its now extended long arial, gave forth a whining whistling echo of the ionosphere before suddenly crackling into intelligible life.

"Hudson to Dove One, hear you loud and clear. What's your status, over?"

"We're both fine, no problems." Claire putting her lips close to the walkie-talkie. "Can you see anyone on the ground? There's no sign of a camp, over."

A pause ensued, the sound of the Hudson providing a growling roar as it flew overhead.

"No, can't see anything, over."

"Oh, great!" Claire groaning out loud. "Just makes things all the harder. Dove One to Hudson, make a few more passes, look for anything at all that'll show the presence of Humanity—anything, over."

"Hudson to Dove One, OK; give me some time, I'll go over the whole area. Make camp and brew some coffee, meanwhile; I'll be back in five, over."

"God-a'mighty! What a gal." Claire shaking her head at life in general. "That's my partner, Greta. Looks like we need to search for ourselves if we wan'na find your patient."

"You're the expert." Greta passing the buck without turning a hair. "I'll follow your orders, only there's a time aspect in operation. It's coming up on around fifteen hours since the woman was bitten; if was at all seriously then by now she'll be in a bad way. She'll need the antivenom without any more delay. Is there any way of alerting her and her companion we're here?"

Claire considered the problem from all sides before replying.

"The Hudson overhead should be sign enough, I'd a'thought. Gabrielle dropping flares won't be much help, I'm afraid. I do have an automatic, though. Meb'be you wan'na hold your ears meantime? It can be damn' loud."

Greta shook her head, glancing round the glade yet again.

"If you think it necessary; just point it up in the air, I don't want to have to deal with ricochets as well as what's already on my plate. Don't hit Gabrielle either, I don't want a plane crash on my hands to add to everything."

Claire, assaulted on all sides, took a wide calming reconnaissance of her surroundings before taking a deep breath as she unholstered her weapon.

"I'll shoot at an angle, high over the trees and the lake. Ready?"

She pulled the trigger twice, the automatic giving the usual loud staccato report which echoed from the surface of the lake and the stands of trees all round. Standing motionless, feeling the warm light breeze, smelling the variety of vegetative odours, and tasting the clear fresh air they waited for any sign of other human life in the vicinity; but as one minute passed into two and then three it became obvious if any answer to Claire's gunshots was coming it wasn't going to come quickly.

"Well, that doesn't seem to have been any help."

Claire had to take a moment to hold in the answer she dearly wished to give.

"Had t'try." She gritting her teeth while looking all round again. "Let's see if Gabrielle's had any better luck. Dove One to Hudson, any success, over?"

"Hudson to Dove One, There's some movement about half a mile to your nor-west. One person, I think; I'm going to descend and make some low level passes, over."

"Right, Gabrielle; meb'be they didn't see us parachute in? I'll wait for you to complete your run—see what happens, over."

Greta had been examining the contents of her medical equipment and now directed her attention to her companion once more.

"The antiserum's in good condition; all I have to do is get it to the patient. How in Hell'd they not see us parachuting? Would'a thought it took up the whole firmament; certainly felt that way to me when I was on my way down."

"Always does, lady." Claire nodding understandingly. "A very personal relative thing, parachuting; but in the whole swing of things it doesn't amount to a hill of beans generally speaking. They meb'be looked-up at the sound of the plane after we'd jumped and landed? Gabrielle's low passes may jerk the man into doing something physical, or at least show his exact position. Look, here she comes."

When Gabrielle had said she would bring the Hudson in low she stood by her word; the plane shooting overhead just above the treetops at a height of around two hundred feet. Then she banked the plane and came back over, this time at a slight angle so she could have a better view of the ground beneath as she roared overhead; after which the walkie-talkie broke into life once more.

"Hudson to Dove One, over."

"Read ya loud an' clear—what's the situation, over?"

"There's one figure on the edge of another glade some half mile to your nor-west. Take that direction and go through a stand of firs about maybe three hundred yards wide; that'll bring you out in the glade—he should be standing on the far side. It's about fifty yards wide and a hundred long; if you reach it he'll see you, over."

"On it, babe, over an' out." Claire standing tall and straight for the first time that day. "Come on, Greta, we got places t'be."

"Right behind you, lead the way."

—O—

The second glade, when the rescuers arrived there having negotiated some heavy undergrowth, stubbly clumps of waist-high grass, and thick stands of firs that blocked the daylight in several places, proved to be a lesser sibling to the one they had just left behind. Narrower, only around fifty yards wide, it seemed to run along in a winding manner out of sight to the womens' left hand. On the far side, as if examining the landscape like a tourist, stood a mid-sized man in the regulation attire of the Canadian hunter—violently checked red and yellow shirt, dark-blue jeans, and a buff-coloured waist-length hunting-jacket sporting far too many unnecessary pockets to be useful. By way of introduction he waved his broad-brimmed hat in welcome as the women strode through the knee-high intervening field of grass, itself something akin to the veldt of South Africa or pampas of South America.

Claire was first to speak on their meeting.

"Hi, how's things? Lady still, er,—she still, uum,—"

"She's alive, yes." The man, showing himself to be in the late fifties with thick salty grey hair, nodded acknowledement. "Concious, too; Mattie's not in too much pain or anything worse, I'm glad t'say—but not in an easy state either. Swelling an' discomfort an' whatnot else, y'know. You brought something t'help, I hope? It was a dam' rattlesnake, I'm sorry t'say; shot it myself, but too late, of course. Glad I had a walkie-talkie to contact the outside world; things might have gotten dicey else. Shall I take you to the patient, then? Time waits for no ma—er, person, y'know."

Greta leapt into action now she was in the element for which she had trained industriously before-hand.

"Lead the way, Mr,—er?"

"Lampson, Larry." He identifying himnself as he turned to lead the women along a barely perceptible track into the dark fir forest. "This seems to be a deer-track, or something like. Goes on for miles, far as I've been able to judge. Mattie's only about three hundred yards further along, thank God! Like I said, she's concious but suffering quite a bit—though not as much as I feared might be the case. You'll be able to tell what shape she's in better than I, of course."

His glance at Greta hardly seemed, by her expression, to enliven her outlook.

"I'll be able to tell when I meet her. The fact she's concious and not in too much distress probably means the snake didn't inject a deadly dose; they can do that, y'see, regulate how much venom they use in varying situations. If we're lucky Matttie got the soft option—we'll see, anyway."

Less than five minutes later the trail opened up into if not another glade at least a wide almost circular space where the open blue sky could be seen and the grass was far higher than elsewhere. To one side of this semi-glade lay a substantial round tent held up by many ropes fixed to pegs in the ground; Lampson bent to brush the loose flap aside then held it to let the women enter.

Inside, strong light coming through the thin canvas on all sides, lay a woman on a wrinkled blanket. She seemed to be in her late twenties or eary thirties, short brunette hair, pale skin, around five foot seven, but at the present moment writhing uncomfortably and showing signs of fever and sweating, dark rings under her eyes making her seem perhaps more sick than she actually was. Greta dropped to her knees beside her, then glanced round at her spectators.

"Things could be worse—wan'na give me some privacy? I need to make a complete examination—by myself!"

Taking the hint the two extraneous spectators turned as one, using the still open flap in its exit mode this time rather than the entry they had accomplished only seconds before.

Out on the open grass several yards away from the tent the two stood together, making preliminary moves towards a Council of War.

"What do we do now?" Lampson raising his eyebrows. "We, Mattie and I, we hiked in here some eight days ago—no transport. Can hardly hike back out, and this dam'med lake's too dangerous for you to bring in a floatplane. The nearest road's also, I believe, some twenty miles off."

Claire, surprisingly, had an answer to this seemingly unanswerable query.

"Meb'be it's our military training, but Gabrielle and I—that's the pilot of the Hudson stooging around up there at present flying in circles, my partner—Gabrielle an' I made some plans before we left for Regina to pick-up Greta, that's the nurse seeing to your companion. Plans, yes—we phoned the nearest community to where we are now, the hamlet of Consolation about fifteen miles south-east of us. A farmer there has a big truck—a Dodge one and a half tonner stake platform; he's bringing it along some minor roads and tracks as we speak. He said he could get it right up to this lake; we all thought that wasn't possible, but he says speaking from personal experience and knowledge this whole area's interspersed with tracks of all shapes and sizes. Should arrive sometime in the next three hours if his schedule is to be believed. Room in the truck for us all to get back to civilisation."

Lampson pondered on this good news for a few seconds but quickly found a crack in its wall.

"All very well, but what's Mattie going to do in this Consolation place? Yeah, think I remember us going through there on our initial way here. But how can we get Mattie to a hospital from there?"

"Only a half-way house." Claire on top of this difficulty. "Once Mac, that's the farmer who owns the truck, gets us all back to Consolation he'll bale out and we-all will take it on along the main road to Severington, around eleven miles further south-west. There's a small airstrip there; good enough to land the Hudson, certainly. Gabrielle should have us all back in Regina in, oh, two-three further hours?"

"Yes, we spent a night in a hotel in Severington on our way here." Lampson nodding understandingly. "Well, suppose all we can do meanwhile is hope your nurse puts Mattie in good enough shape to, uum, survive the journey. She isn't going to, you know, die, d'ya think?"

Claire had enough confidence and professionalism to bat this yorker into the long grass without delay.

"No, she'll be fine; Greta, that's the nurse, told me Mattie's probably only had a partial venom bite—meaning the chances of her dying are minimal to not at all. Buck-up, we're all gon'na be OK, especially Mattie."

"God, hope so, with all my heart!"

—O—

The truck, on its arrival just about two hours after Claire and Greta, proved by the owner's own proud attestation to be a Dodge 1½ ton T series with a stake-bed, the flat platform protected by high metal bracing-rods and an all-cover tarpaulin. There was plenty of room on the flat bed for Greta to arrange a configuration of blankets and equipment to keep her patient as comfortable as possible, a rear window in the wide cab allowing communication between the two. The first the group knew of the truck's presence was the low growl of its engine in the distance then, a mere few minutes later, the high curved steel-barred bonnet breaking through a stand of low bushes some thirty yards off, the complete vehicle coming into view like a whale blowing in the ocean. Within the hour everybody was sorted and in place, Greta and Mattie, she still semi-concious though relieved somewhat by the drugs administered by her nurse, on the flatbed; and Claire Larry and Mac in the cab. Mac, it turned out, actually had enormous experience of the area with intimate knowledge of every track within fifteen miles of the lake.

"It ain't much of a specimen of its kind," He referring to the lake they had just left as he maneouvred the truck along a seemingly impossibly narrow winding track. "But it's got good potential in the fishin' way. Brought many a fishin' party out here over the years. That why you an' your lady-friend were here t'begin with, I expects?"

"Yes, but mostly we were just hiking in the district looking at the flora and mammals and that sort of thing." Larry allowing at least the partial truth of this guess. "I'm a Professor at Saskatoon University, y'see, and Mattie's one of my best students. That's why Mattie got too close to that dam' rattler; we knew it was there; she, under my guidance, tried to use a stick to move it around a little, but it got the better of us in a blinding flash, and the damage was done."

Claire nodded understandingly, she well aware that civilians, even University Professors, could act in the silliest manner when let out by themselves into the real wild world.

"These things happen. Gabrielle should have landed at Severington by now, awaiting our arrival there. Mac should have us in Consolation in the next hour—that right?"

"Yeah, meb'be some less." Mac hanging over the steering-wheel with both hands gripping its circumference as he steered along the hardly visible track. " I won't go fast enough t'disturb the passengers back-aways, but quick enough t'get there in about the hour, sure. This track opens up into a fair-sized trail in about another mile, then we can get ahead good."

"Soon enough can't be too soon, I think you'll find Greta says." Claire taking the pragmatic outlook.

"Uumph!"

—O—

The airfield at Severington turned out, on the Dodge's arrival now under command of Claire, to have only a short dirt runway; though good enough for Gabrielle to have landed the Hudson without incident, she awaiting her passengers with bated breath—or, in real-speak, some annoyance.

"Took you long enough; thought I'd need t'contact Regina to send a search party to look for the search party. What took so long? How's the patient? You make it alright? Well, of course you did; here you are, after all. Well?

Claire, well used to her partner's often illogical not to say slightly unhinged manner of reviewing the world around her, took liitle notice of this diatribe, focusing on what really mattered.

"Mattie's more or less OK, so Greta tells us. She's been given a healthy dose of the antivenom an' should pull through in the end; but we still need to get her to Regina and hospital as quick as we can. The Hudson fueled-up an' ready?"

Gabrielle in her turn offered her revered partner only the chilliest reponse in answer.

"The side door's already open; need a hand getting the patient in?"

"Nah, Larry n'I'll manage; you can see to pilotin' us, OK?"

"Was meaning to do such anyway, lady." Gabrielle standing on her honour in front of witnesses. "Join me up-front when you're fixed and ready t'go."

"Will do."

Ten minutes later, after a smooth take-off, Gabrielle had the Hudson heading south for their final destination; Mattie laid out on the floor of the passenger compartment on a stretcher and covered in blankets, Greta still crouching by her side; Larry taking a seat nearby, Claire now in the cockpit alongside her pilot.

"How's the patient?"

Claire turned to give a glance back through the open door to the passenger compartment.

"Doin' fine, apparently; Greta seems to have the whole thing well under control. Mattie isn't in mortal danger anymore, thankfully."

"Good!" Gabrielle concentrating on her piloting duties as they spoke. "I haven't managed to refuel since leaving Regina, y'know; well, only a trifle. What with one thing and another we're running low now. Not dangerously low, but we need to reach Regina sooner than later and land first time and even then the engines'll have been breathing fumes only for the last twenty mile or so."

"Oh, f-ckin' brilliant!" Claire hardly impressed by this news. "We really gon'na meb'be crash-land somewhere? Didn't Severington have any spare fuel?"

"Yes, I got twenty gallon; but you know how far twenty gallon'll get us?"

"Iimph." Claire working out likelihoods and possibilities in her head. "There must be other handy airfields as we approach Regina; I'll give the map a good goin'-over, see what's where. Meb'be I can find a suitable field we can land in if necessary n'commandeer some local car or truck or something t'get to Regina in."

Gabrielle sniggered.

"Just like being back with jolly old Captain Graham, eh?"

"Oh, don't remind me!" Claire growling at this bad memory of days gone by.

A few minutes of silence, or as much of this product as could be had in a small aircraft powered by two mighty Wright Cyclone radial engines, swept by then—

"Saskatoon!"

"What?" Gabrielle still concentrating on keeping the Hudson on an even keel, now flying at eight thousand feet.

"We should land at Saskatoon—that's well within the plane's present fuel borders according t'the gauges, anyway." Claire sure of her figures as she consulted the notepad on her knee, covered in markings reesembling a hieroglyphic inscription scratched by a drunk Egyptian scribe. "We can make Saskatoon easy—but the fuel gauges say Regina'll be well over the red-line otherwise.

"OK, so Saskatoon it is?"

"Yip, bear, oh, five degrees t'starboard an' keep goin'—ya can't miss it."

Gabrielle made no reply, reserving whatever she wanted to say on this topic for when they were safely on the ground.

—O—

The two-runway airfield at Saskatoon lay some distance outside the actual city limits, making it easy for Gabrielle to land though the officials in the control tower there made no bones about being unhappy about her unexpected arrival. On the taxi-way she rolled the Hudson past a line of no less than seven DC 3's apparently from two separate airlines; as she found a parking spot well past this group the passengers behind her could hear the engines of another aircraft circling preparatory to landing just after the Hudson.

"Busy place."

"Yeah, seems t'be busier than Regina." Claire looking out her side-window at the activity on the tarmac to her left. "Say, look! Just t'the right of the control tower, that looks like a small hospital t'me. There's even three ambulances parked in front of it. Wonder if Greta's noticed?"

"Miss Mathews!"

"Ah-ha, she has!"

Twenty minutes later an awful lot had unfolded around the airfield; Greta had headed post-haste for the hospital, explained her presence and needs, gotten some extra medical help and medicine for her patient, and commandeered one of the ambulances with a bravado that captured Claire's respect. During this drama Claire and Gabrielle, however, were in all sorts of bother with the control tower, whose inmates seemed rather more interested in having the flying duo arrested for some obscure breaking of some even more obscure regulations. By the time they had sorted this out, via Gabrielle's hot-headed but determinned opposition and a phone call to a certain Department in distant Ottawa that no-one at the airport had ever known to exist before but which had considerable clout in the air industry, they found themselves back in the fresh free air on the concrete promenade looking over at yet another DC 3 landing.

"Where'd they all come from?" Claire asking this question rather to make conversation than any real wish to know.

"Who cares!" Gabrielle pinning the butterfly with cold efficiency. "Look, there's Greta, and is that an ambulance she's grabbed?"

"By God! It is, an' she has!" Claire mightily impressed. "What a gal! Greta, ya goin' on a journey without us, then? How's Mattie?"

Greta ran a hand through her long brown hair as she came over to the aviators.

"Mattie's fine, needs some ongoing care, of course. Larry's already in the ambulance with her. I'm going to acompany them to Regina; I've got the authorities to lend the vehicle and its driver to me for the journey. Thanks for all you've done, much appreciated."

"No bother—well of course, it was, but ya know what I mean."

Gabrielle took charge of rescue operations for them both.

"What my partner means is, Greta, its been fun and we're both glad you can escort your patient to Regina in good shape. Good luck!"

"Thanks! Better be going, see you!"

Two minutes later the ambulance had pulled away and disappeared on its errand of mercy leaving the women on the concrete walk with no more input to the day's dramatic events.

"Well, here we are again, all on our lonesome." Gabrielle sounding like a sad elf on the day after Christmas.

"Ain't it always the same, ducks?" Claire coming back with her best philosophical rejoinder.

Gabrielle considered the relevance of this, then turned towards their distant Hudson.

"Better see about getting the old crate fuelled-up, I suppose." Then another thought hit the Accountant for Atalanta Haulage. "Say, Ricky, who's going to pay for this whole convoluted odyssey? Us, or the Government? Or both? I don't think we should stand any part of the burden, do you?"

Claire, hard put to it, bravely tried to work out the mathematics in her head as they approached their aircraft.

"Well, er, well. Uum. There's that Dodge we pressed into service; don't think the Government people'll go for that. Then there's the parachutes; somehow rather fancy we'll be told to provide new ones at our own expence. But the fuel for the Hudson, that's definitely down t'the folks in Ottawa t'reimburse us for."

"Dam' hope so, or I'll have words to say that'll go down in history for all eternity to come, babe!"

As they reached the Hudson, standing to one side as they oversaw the technicians already at work re-fueling the plane, Claire opted for politic silence rather than simply putting her foot in a hornet's nest of recrimination and verbal abuse of all and sundry within spitting distance; a standpoint she knew her volatile lover was easily capable of taking in times of stress.

"Looks a nice afternoon for our return flight t'Gatch's Point. Fancy listenin' t'Fletcher Henderson on the radio when we get back, lady?"

"Iimph! Sounds like a plan. You make supper, while I relax in a comfy bath?"

Caught on the hop, victim of her own proposal, there was nothing Claire could do.

"Oh, alright!"

The End

—O—

Another 'Atalanta Haulage' story will arrive shortly.

—OOO—