Chapter Twenty-five: Tangled in the Trees

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

I, Captain Francis William Cadell relieve the officer-of-the-watch and assume personal command of the Lady Augusta. After the time-consuming excursion up the Wakool, I waste scarcely a minute to hail the wallowing Mary Ann and her crew. There is a race I must win, and if repairing the mast takes them some time, that is all to my advantage.

We steam around the little side-wheeler and back into the Murray, yet the mighty river has narrowed, now choked with snags and overhanging tree branches. Even so, in an effort to put some distance between us and the Mary Ann, I order three-quarter revolutions in both engines. Beyond this speed our consumption of fuel grows prodigiously, and I do not plan to take on wood again ‘til the race is run.

It seemed to me that we left the Mary Ann battling a serious position with the loss of her mast, but before we can begin to relax, within a mile in fact, she is behind us, with the mast in place, jury-rigged with ropes. On the next bend, refusing to slow, and forced to evade a snag, we are swept from bow to stern by those obstreperous overhanging trees. I hear and feel in my gut the sound of tearing metal. I shout for men with boat-poles, oars, anything, to fend the branches away, but much of the ornamental work on the first funnel and some deck furniture is carried away.

The Eureka fares even worse, with part of the handrail flattened, and a broken tiller wheel. My face is filled with the blood of my shame and frustration. This river is not so easy to tame, and I knew it from the start.

Meanwhile the Mary Ann comes alongside, and in an echo of our own actions a half-hour earlier, hails us with an insincere offer of assistance that I refuse forthwith, and deciding that any damage can wait, I use every man on board to help fend us away from the trees and back into the stream. Again we chase down our rival with everything we have even as a saffron-yellow sunset fills the sky and river with colour as if it were all of the same element.

Thirty minutes of growing darkness follows before we again have the Mary Ann in our sights. Now she travels slowly, lacking the lantern head-light that we use to illuminate the river on these long night runs. On a rare, wide stretch we pass her, our passengers who have imbibed on strong spirits and champagne jeering and cat-calling as we do so.

We steam on until exhaustion overtakes us. We strike overhanging trees again and again, and run hard against snags twice. The passengers are beginning to mutter about the wisdom of this night run. We anchor in the stream on a narrow point, effectively blocking any chance of the Mary Ann passing by us in the night, and I fall into my cabin bed to sleep.

*****

My repose is interrupted by a pounding on the door, and the moment I come awake I can feel the issue. The boat is listing, heavily, leaning at an angle so my cabin floor is at thirty degrees.

I hurry to my feet and find the First Officer, William Webb at the door. ‘Sir, the boat is listing.’

‘I can see that,’ I snap. ‘Do we have a damage report? Are the pumps working?’

‘Not yet sir.’

‘Well do it, and hurry.’

All the passengers are out on deck, complaining and howling like wild creatures. I select Petrie and Robson from amongst the gathering crew and send them below with a lantern. They are back in moments with the news that the bilges are filled with water, causing the list to the port side.

Fortunately now, the pumps too are working, and a bucket chain established. Within an hour the water has been largely evacuated and the carpenter, Winsby and his mate McGregor are investigating several sprung planks, assuring me that we will be ready to steam on by sunrise.

With the crisis over, and the Lady Augusta again on an even keel, I go to my cabin. I hear a strangely gentle knock on the door. This is unusual, and I open it wide, staring at the apparition that stands before me.

It is Anne Finniss, looking more beautiful than Aphrodite, dressed in her night gown and robe. ‘I can see you’re upset, about what happened,’ she says. ‘It’s not your fault.’ She reaches for my hand. ‘I thought you might need comfort.’

I harden my heart. I want her more than anything, but taking the wife of the South Australian Colonial Secretary to my bed, on a crowded vessel, with all her cabin-mates knowing that she is not where she is supposed to be, would destroy my ambitions in an instant.

‘Get out,’ I hiss at her. ‘Please, just get out of my cabin now.’

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron
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