Ellis woke, for what felt like the tenth or eleventh time, gasping desperately. The air was damp and filled with the smell of growing things, but it clogged his throat at first and when he finally got his bearings he saw Jack, sprawled back on the dirt, looking stunned. It occurred to him that he'd pushed him, but it was all hazed in uncertainty.
"Where -- " he asked, and then clutched his scalp as pain broke through. "My head -- "
Jack crawled forward slowly and pressed a hand against Ellis's head. It was wonderful, cool and callused, soothing. Ellis leaned into it.
"Your fever's broken," Jack said, sitting back on his heels. "You know where you are?"
"Australia," Ellis rasped.
Jack grinned, threw his arms around Ellis's head – ow – and buried his face in his damp hair.
"Thank God," Jack said. "You scared me."
Ellis tried to support himself on his hands and found them steady if somewhat weak; he disentangled himself from Jack and sat up, pulling his knees up. Jack backed away, but he was still smiling.
The little camp they'd made -- what, a few hours before? -- looked quite lived-in now; there was a blanket on branches stretched over his head, and the fire was a shallow dip filled with ash. He looked at Jack questioningly.
"Where's Clare?" he asked. "Where's de la Fitte?"
Jack looked suspiciously as if he were about to cry. "They've gone on."
"Gone on? Where?"
"To Port Darwin. They were going to steal something -- " Jack's face, he noticed, was drawn, almost gaunt, with deep hollows under his eyes. "Something to help you."
"To help me -- oh," Ellis said. "I've been sick."
"Fever," Jack swallowed. "It's been three days."
"Three days?" Ellis demanded.
"Clare and Purva left yesterday because Purva said -- " Jack hesitated, seemed to get hold of himself, and continued. "Purva said if we didn't do something you were probably going to die and someone had to stay here, so I did. They, uh. They'll be back soon."
Ellis reached out and grasped Jack by the back of the neck, smiling reassuringly.
"You did exactly right."
"You scared us," Jack whispered.
"I'm sorry, Jack."
"You called me Anderson."
Ellis widened his eyes a little. "I talked?"
Jack nodded. "Not much sense."
"And you've been alone here since yesterday? Have you slept?"
"A bit," Jack said. "I had to keep watch. You look better now, though."
"I feel better. Have we got any water?"
Jack scrambled up and fetched him a tin cup of water, holding it to his lips. Ellis smiled, stopped him, and took the cup himself, sipping slowly.
"When did you eat last?" he asked. Jack glanced around as if the concept of eating was something strange and foreign. "What time is it?"
"I had breakfast," Jack muttered. "I think it's about two. Early afternoon anyhow. Clare took your pocket-watch."
"Smart girl," Ellis said, cradling the cup between his hands. "Jack."
"Yes?" Jack looked at him warily.
"Eat some food. I'm all right." He smiled reassuringly. "It was probably the -- the Dead Isle. Taking away my ability."
Jack shook his head. "Purva said it was infection from your cut. She put something on it to help but the fever wouldn't go away."
"Could have been both." Ellis explored the cut on his head gingerly. It felt raw and fresh, as if scabs had not yet formed. He set the cup down and stood, only a little unsteadily, stretching. Jack began to rummage through one of their packs, and to Ellis's surprise dug up a small mound of wet soil near the tree.
"Eggs!" Ellis said, when he saw what Jack had dug up. "Good lord. Where did you get those?"
"Clare went birding," Jack said, wrapping three of the eggs in bark and placing them in the red embers of the fire. "She found them. God knows what kinds of birds they have here but eggs are eggs. They'll take a while to cook."
"I can wait," Ellis said. "Three days, Jack? Really?"
"Today's the fourth. I -- " Jack looked at him. "I really wasn't looking forward to burying you on my own."
Ellis smiled. "I wasn't looking forward to being buried."
"Jack?" a voice called from the trees, and Ellis saw Jack jerk his head up. Oh good -- he wasn't hearing things. "Jack, it's us."
"Clare!" Jack called, cupping his hands around his mouth. Ellis winced. "It's all right! He's awake!"
"Awake?" Purva called. "All of this and that for nothing! Merde!"
There were shadows in the trees, which reminded him uncomfortably of fever dreams for a moment, and then Clare and Purva appeared through the brush, Clare running with a pack over her shoulder and an unfamiliar bag in one hand. She rocketed into him, laughing with relief as they hugged, and then had to catch him when he stumbled, pulling him upright by his waistcoat.
"He woke up about ten minutes ago," Jack said, digging up another two eggs and putting them next to the first three. "I didn't think you'd be back so soon."
"It's not as far as we thought, not if you cut across the peninsula," Clare said. "Two hours, maybe."
Ellis became aware that Clare still had her arms around his chest. She seemed to notice too and stepped back hastily, straightening her shirt.
"I go in, I steal medicine, I spend an hour under a train, I smell like grease, I come out, I walk back, he is better," Purva complained, sitting down next to Jack. "Life is very unfair."
Jack grinned sidelong at her. "What'd you steal, then?"
"All sorts of potions," Purva replied, as Clare unslung both bags from her shoulders and, with another appraising look at Graveworthy, joined them near the fire. Purva took the unfamiliar bag and began to unpack it, while Clare pulled out one of Ellis's own pens and his last blank notebook.
"I took notes," she said, offering it to him. He took it, fingers tracing the creases in the leather binding. "Seemed like the least we could do. Are you really all right?"
"I think so," he said. "You?"
She wouldn't quite meet his eyes, which told him more than he needed to know. Jack might blurt out his fears and insecurities; Clare preferred to pretend hers didn't exist.
"How was Darwin?" he asked, instead of pressing. "How'd you get in?"
"I didn't, I watched from the trees. Purva went inside," Clare said. Jack pulled out a glass jar and held it up.
"Chloroform! And -- " he unpacked a bundle wrapped in fabric. "Ooooh."
"Are those bananas?" Ellis asked, blinking.
"They grow them," Purva said. "Beyond Port Darwin. I went into the kitchens. Many they call Tribals there, dark skin. Many...quarter-blood, maybe? I fit in," she added with a sharklike grin. "They grow bananas and apples and pomme de terre and mangoes."
Jack passed one of the bananas to Ellis, who peeled it and broke off chunks, eating so fast he choked before forcing himself to slow down. It was almost too sweet.
"So they're a plantation as well as a garrison?" he asked, around a mouthful of banana.
"Not quite," Clare said. "There are plantations around it, but I don't think the government owns them. The food goes to the garrison, but I saw some mangoes being sent south in one of the supply trains. Almost everyone's in uniform inside, but the farmers come and go to load supplies. It looks like a train leaves twice a day. Or did while we were there, anyway."
"Tell me everything," he said, turning to her. She took the book back from him and opened it, reading from her notes while Jack and Purva examined their stolen treasures.
"It's a complicated process but -- you should see some of the machines they have, Jack," she said. "They have a lot of things for unloading and loading the train cars. And the engines look different, somehow."
"Ohrly?" Jack asked, mouth full of mango. Clare rolled her eyes at him.
"They bring in the train and you can see there's this -- man, he has a ledger, he goes from car to car and makes notes before anything's unloaded. Then he goes off to the second track and watches them load those cars and makes notes."
"What comes in?" Ellis asked.
"Yesterday, big lockboxes. This morning it was cattle."
Clare shrugged. "Soldiers need to eat, I guess."
"But -- that means they're loading and unloading at the same time."
Clare grinned at him. "Yes."
"And how many soldiers would you say that took?"
She held up the book, pointing to one of the pages where a neat column of numbers told him the story. "Garrison's fortified. They have some scary cannons, but there aren't that many soldiers. When the trains arrive they leave about ten men on guard duty and another handful at the port. Probably in case a ship comes in. Purva says even the cook-staff goes out to help unload. That's how she got in, unloading."
"Stole everything this morning, when the train came in and they left to unload," Purva said. She held up a loaf of bread enticingly. "Ran away after. Close call."
"And the cook-staff are -- " Ellis asked.
"They call them Tribal," Purva said.
"Aboriginal?" Ellis asked.
"The garrison practically empties for about half an hour, twice a day," Clare said. "Everyone's out in the train yard. Purva got in through the train yard too, the brick's really old and not very well-made. There are some good-sized holes in the wall."
"And the," Purva paused, mouth pursing as she tried to come up with the word, "the book thing."
"Ledger," Clare said.
"That. Locked in a desk. Easy to pick. I think you want to steal that," she said to Ellis.
"Probably so. Could be useful. They'll know it's gone, though, and that does rather give up the game."
"We could set fire," Purva suggested.
"Drastic but effective; I'll consider it," he said, smiling at her.
Jack yawned in the middle of trying to eat another piece of mango, and Clare laughed.
"Go to bed, Jack," Ellis said. "You look like you could use it."
"What about you?" Jack asked.
"What about me? I have Clare and de la Fitte to look after me if I suddenly fall to pieces again." Ellis smiled at Clare. "I'm going for a bath and to stretch my legs a bit."
"But -- "
"Jack, you are not chief engineer of me," Ellis said firmly. Jack's lips quirked. "Go sleep."
"I'll show you a good place to bathe," Clare said, standing and offering him a hand up, which he was embarrassed he rather needed. "There's a river nearby."
He gathered a spare shirt and trousers, glanced at Jack with a silent order to obey, and followed her into the brush.
Ellis walked well enough, his long legs still outdistancing Clare's even though he didn't move as quickly as usual. He was quiet as they passed through the trees, following a line of trampled plants and broken twigs that Jack had made the first day Ellis was sick. Jack had said he thought he heard a stream and hunted down the source so that there would be fresh drinking water for Ellis, who mumbled and burned and twitched on his makeshift bed.
"We came down here to wash, day before yesterday, and there was this -- enormous lizard swimming through the water," Clare said, as Ellis leaned on her shoulder to step over a fallen log. "Jack was all for shooting and eating it, but it didn't stick around."
"Are you certain we should bathe here?" he asked, easing sideways down the shallow slope.
"I'll keep a lookout," she said. He glanced at her. "What?"
"I -- assumed you'd go back," he said.
"Ellis, modesty aside, we've lived on a boat together and I'm not entirely innocent. And I'm sure I'm not the first woman to -- "
"All right, all right, bluntness has a place and time," he muttered, flushing red. She turned to look upriver, seating herself on a dry patch of soil, and virtuously did not peek as he undressed. She heard soft splashes as he waded into the water, and glanced his way just in time to see his head disappear beneath the surface of the river. He came up again with a snort, and she glanced away quickly.
"That feels brilliant," he said. "So. Tell me about Darwin Port."
"What do you want to know? I gave you the timetable."
"What it's like, I suppose. Are the men there happy? Are there any women? This man with the ledger, you don't sound like you fancy him overmuch."
"I can't really judge," Clare said. "He just looks like a rat, that's all. They seem happy, for soldiers. There aren't any women, though, at least none as soldiers."
"Odd. Is it a cleared settlement? Trees and grass?"
"Not in the train yard," Clare said. "There's an inner courtyard in the garrison that has some trees."
"How does the port connect?"
"It's just a port. The walls go up to the rock over the water, then there's a drop to the bay. All the cargo has to come up a cliff. They have machines for it."
Ellis hummed to himself, thoughtful. She risked a glance at him and found him hip-deep in the water, looking the other way. She could see the barest remains of the scar on the side of his throat where he'd been cut, and a brown mark on his shoulder that must be the exit wound from the infamous shooting he'd suffered in Wyoming. There were other scars, too: a few low ridges of white skin around his ribcage and two long, shallow furrows on his back. Eventually he splashed some water on his face, ran wet hands through his hair, and turned back to her. She looked away quickly.
"Well, it's a start," he said. "Now, eyes shut, if you please. You might have wooed some young Creationist boy at the Trade Schools but I have my dignity to maintain."
Clare laughed and obediently shut her eyes as he dressed. "He wasn't a Creationist!"
"He was a shop boy. He sold shoes. Very nice, not very bright."
"I'm not surprised."
Clare frowned, eyes still closed. "Why?"
"Because, when we want a sweet we don't eat what's good for us. When we want substance, we don't go looking for it in the sweetshop," he replied, and she felt damp fingers tweak her nose. She opened her eyes to find him leaning over her, looking mischievous and buttoning his waistcoat.
"Who says I wanted a sweet?" she asked.
"You are young and overly bright. Of course you wanted a sweet."
"We might have been great lovers," she said, as he pulled on his shoes. He looked at her sharply. "My shoe-selling boy and I. He might have been run over by horses and I still mourn him. You don't know."
His smile was uneasy. "And?"
"What is the true story of the end of you and the shoe boy?"
She puffed out her cheeks and sighed. "I got bored, and he got jealous of Jack."
"Better men would. Jack owns a part of you no lover ever will."
"You seem awfully interested in my boyfriends," she grinned, offering him her arm. He took it, water still dripping down his collar from his hair.
"Maybe I'll write a book," he replied.
"You and books. We're in the middle of the forest on an island closed to trespassers and I just spent two days in a tree spying on the Australian military, and you want to write a book!"
"Maybe it'll be about you," he said. Clare felt his hand squeeze her arm gently. "Once I suss you out. Which may, I admit, take some time. Come along," he added, increasing his pace slightly. "Jack's going to think one of your giant lizards ate me."
Clare followed, but she also watched him closely as he returned to camp and sat down with Jack to pick the shell off his egg and eat stolen bread and jam. She wasn't afraid of the Great Ellis Graveworthy, but if he was making a study of her he could shove right off. She wasn't a pet or a plant or an essay.
He caught her watching, as dark was beginning to fall, and gave her a solemn, mocking look, but he didn't ask questions or seem to be paying any more attention to her than to Jack and Purva. He didn't object when she disappeared into the shadows to sleep a little more privately and, while she listened, she didn't hear him asking Jack any subtle questions about her shoe-shop boy. Not that Jack could have told him a whole lot -- Jack had ignored the shoe-shop boy for the most part.
When we want substance, we don't go looking for it in the sweetshop, she heard in her head, as she fell asleep.
Purva lay on her back, stretched in the rough grass at the edge of the tree-line with her head tilted up, looking at Port Darwin upside-down. It couldn't be more absurd upside-down than right-side up, after all. All these little people with their little land-locked ways. Soldiers! She understood why Graveworthy wanted to study this place, she'd read about espionage and intrigue, but land, on the whole, was for people without the imagination necessary to go to sea.
Next to her, Jack was flopped on his stomach, arms folded, chin resting on his wrists, eyes never leaving the train yard. He muttered to himself as he watched one of the great, hulking metal beasts being backed into position for loading. It was an education in itself, listening to Jack Baker talk about machines.
On her other side, Clare was taking notes from Graveworthy, who sat next to her with Purva's spyglass held to his eye. She resented the fact that he had her spyglass, given to her by Jack, and wasn't even using the headstrap. Still, she bided.
Until Jack stiffened, suddenly, and spoke in a voice just barely above his whispered murmurings.
"Oh," he said. Purva turned to look at him. "Oh. It's automated."
She frowned. "What is this automated?" she asked softly. On the other side, Graveworthy was still speaking to Clare, who was interrupting to tell him to slow down.
"Auto-mata. Self-driven," he said. "Look there, you see the locomotive on the side with the housing off?"
Purva followed his gesture. "Yes."
"It's a belt-fed -- oh, clever, clever." Jack whispered. "There's a gear on the engine. Get it moving and the gear turns the belt which scoops coal up and feeds it into the boiler."
Purva didn't know all the words, but she could work out enough. There was a broken-down engine, off to one side, its guts clearly visible; a long strip of metal, attached to one of its wheels, was secured at the other end to a smaller wheel which, when turned, would drive a strip of leather with scoops on it. Those scoops, she reflected, could be used to transport coal from the coal-bin to the boiler, the thing that drove the wheels. As long as the train was moving and had coal, it would keep moving. She supposed this was clever.
"Found something, Jack?" Graveworthy asked.
"The engines are automatic. If you get one rolling it'll go till it runs out of fuel. I can't believe I didn't come up with that!" Jack sounded frustrated. "It's -- it's art."
Purva saw Graveworthy crane his neck. "What happens if someone's on the tracks?"
"Dead someone," Jack said, holding out his hand for the spyglass. Graveworthy passed it over. "No brakes. They must be single-tracked all the way to Brisbane. One way in, one way out. It's fast, I'll give you that."
"Mm. Cargo like that still can't travel unmanned," Graveworthy mused. "Clare, did you see soldiers on the train when it arrived?"
Purva scowled. "You ask her?"
"Fine, did you?"
"I did! Two a car. They almost stepped on me when I was under."
"Makes our lives harder. If there are guards in every car, we'll never sneak on there. Is there room in the engine?" he asked Jack, who focused the spyglass and frowned.
"Looks like. Hot, though."
"Might send you lot ahead. Safer that way -- if one of us gets caught, the rest will be all right."
"Or we'll all get caught separately," Clare said. Purva liked Clare but she did stomp on adventures.
"Still -- " Graveworthy lapsed into silence. "I may need to go in myself. I want that ledger. And I want to see what's inside."
"I can go," Purva said. "Been there."
"Can you map it?" Graveworthy asked.
"I know where the kitchens are. Food for the journey."
Purva heard Jack's stomach rumble. "I'd kill for a steak," Jack muttered.
"No need to go that far," Graveworthy answered.
And then there was a click.
It was a very loud click.
Purva, who knew the sound, froze. At the edge of her vision she saw Graveworthy sit upright, back suddenly ramrod straight. Purva put out a hand and touched the back of Jack's head in warning.
"Anyone move," said a thickly accented voice, "I shoot the lot of you. I got two guns. You just heard one of them."
Graveworthy lifted one hand slowly, then the other.
"We're unarmed," he said. "They're just kids."
"I'm not going to shoot you less I have to. They're just kids, tell 'em not to do anything dumb."
"Don't move," Graveworthy whispered, then in a louder voice, "Hey -- will you let me stand up and face a fellow?"
There was a second click. "Sure. Don't care to shoot a bloke in the back."
Graveworthy got to his feet fluidly, and Purva could just barely see him turn around.
"What you want down Port way?" the voice asked.
"Just out of our place," Graveworthy answered. "Lookin' for a cheap meal and a ride out, that's all."
The voice laughed. "Ain't what you'll get at the garrison."
"Ain't your concern," Graveworthy replied. Purva waited for the shot that would accompany such insolence on many pirate ships. "Just trying to feed the kids."
"Your kids." Another bark of laughter. "Tell another one."
Purva saw, on the edge of vision, Jack's hand slowly inching towards the untouched mango sitting by her cheek.
"You going to rob the Port. You aren't coming out alive," the voice continued.
"Aren't going in alive, if you keep that gun where it is," Graveworthy answered.
"I'm giving you a warning. Don't go near the Port."
Purva could feel the shift in Graveworthy from defensive to interested. "You work down the Port?" he asked.
"I look like a soldier to you?"
"You farm for the Port?"
Jack's hand closed around the mango. Purva huffed a breath of air, trying to warn him not to do it.
"Never mind what I do. You and the kids get up, you walk away. You keep walking till you get back where you came from."
"Don't shoot. All right? Charity, dear, stand up slowly."
Purva saw Clare stand without turning around.
"And your hired help."
Purva's fingers twitched. Now she hoped Jack was going to ignore her warning.
"You heard him," Graveworthy said. "Up you come. Slowly."
Purva sat up, pushing herself to her feet. She swayed a little, to block Jack's hand from view, and got her first look at their captor.
He was short and wiry, wearing dust-colored clothing that didn't look so different from theirs; trousers, braces, shirt, an odd tip-tilted hat...and a revolver in either hand. His skin was darker than hers, the darkest she'd seen since they arrived.
She could see Graveworthy opening his mouth to summon Jack, but before he could Jack had turned and fired the mango, his arm whipping around so fast she barely saw it and the man with the guns didn't see it at all.
The fruit hit his left hand, knocking it into his right, and both guns went off well wide of any of them. Purva turned and saw faces down below, turning to look in their direction. She turned back just in time to see Graveworthy lunging forward, tumbling down with their captor and wrestling, hand to wrist, trying to keep his guns away from him.
"Ellis, they're coming," Clare called, grabbing Purva by the arm and pulling her away from the treeline. "Jack!"
Purva saw only that Graveworthy's grip on one wrist was slipping, and she surged forward, stealing the pistol neatly out of his hand. She had no idea how to cock this sort of pistol, but the cold tip of it against their captor's temple seemed like a good idea.
He stopped moving after that.
There was a moment of silence in which they could hear the shouts from the Port. Purva steadied her hand as Graveworthy hauled the man up by the collar and shook him like a dog. He didn't look like a man whose fever had just broken a day before.
"Where's your farm?" he hissed. The man gasped for breath. "The soldiers are coming. Where's your farm?"
A hand extended to the south.
"Take us there."
They moved silently and quickly as they could through the trees, Graveworthy with one hand on the collar of the man who'd threatened them, his other holding one of the man's own pistols against his back. There was a trail of sorts, and evidence that the farmers around the Port must use it fairly frequently.
South of the Port, the tangle of tropical undergrowth fell away to cleared farmland, crop orchards growing in orderly rows. Off to the east Jack saw a field of vineyards; ahead were mango trees, and the irony that Jack might have assaulted the man with his own produce made him smile grimly.
"Is there anyone in the house?" Graveworthy asked, tilting his head at a small, single-level dwelling outside the orchard.
"Not this time of day," the man replied. To his credit, he was still walking proudly, not begging or threatening. He turned his head slightly. "Soldiers're coming. We're nearest the Port. No hedging bets now; blow away in the wind or come inside and save your skin."
"You're awfully helpful for a man who just threatened to shoot me," Graveworthy said.
"Tried to give you friendly warning."
"Those don't normally come with guns attached."
The man shrugged, and Jack saw him flash a grin at Graveworthy. "We don't trust wanderers round these parts. You want to be target practice, you go 'head be my guest."
Graveworthy shoved him forward, firm but not rough. Jack followed with Clare and Purva, twitching at the sounds of soldiers approaching in the distance. The man pushed the door open and Jack waited for both him and Graveworthy to enter fully before he ducked inside.
"Under the stairs," the man said, gesturing to a second doorway covered only by a fabric curtain. Jack brushed past the curtain and found himself in a narrow hall, with a staircase on one side and two doorless frames on the other.
He crowded into the well beneath the stairs with Clare and Purva, Graveworthy backing in, pistol still sighted through a crack between fabric and wood. The front door banged open again.
"Captain," said the man, standing at the door with his hands clasped behind his back. "What can I do for you?"
"You hear gunshots?" the captain asked. The man nodded.
"My boys gone hunting roo up the hill," he said. "Figured that was it."
"Your boys poach too close to Port," the man barked.
"Isn't poaching if it's unstaked land," he replied. "Send you up some steaks, they catch anything. You call out a whole Port for a couple of bangs? You jumpy, Captain?"
"Port's a target. You want the goddamn ferals setting your farm on fire, you be my guest."
Jack couldn't see the man smile, but he could hear the amusement in his voice. "They don't bother me up here, Captain."
"Don't think I haven't noticed."
"Well, I can't paint myself white and hope it sticks. G'day, Captain."
The man called Plater closed the door and turned, leaning against it, holding a finger to his lips. Jack looked to Graveworthy, who hadn't moved a muscle. After a tense few seconds, Plater nodded as if to himself and gestured for them to come out.
Graveworthy led, holding out his hand silently to Purva for the second pistol. He laid both of them on the wide, clean table that filled the central room, eyes never leaving the other man's face. When Plater didn't reach for the guns, Graveworthy drew his revolver out of the holster under his coat and set it next to them.
"Now," he said. "Nobody's getting shot today, are they, Mr. Plater?"
Plater gave him a sharklike grin. "Depends on you. Hey, yellow-hair. Like to pour you a drink if you care. Never seen anyone throw like that."
Jack realized Plater was speaking to him, and glanced at Graveworthy.
"Accept the man's hospitality, John," Graveworthy said.
"Sure. That'd be fine," Jack said, trying to keep his accent from slipping. This was not how he had expected a surprise attack in the forest to end. Plater nodded and went to the long workbench on one side of the room, pouring something pale yellow from a glass bottle. Jack accepted and sipped a bare mouthful of burning alcohol, hoping that would satisfy the bizarre civility that was descending on the room.
"Why didn't you turn us in?" Graveworthy asked. Plater sat down and kicked out another chair, gesturing at it. Graveworthy sat.
"Nobody likes the Port less than me," he said. "And God knows it's not a safe place for strange women. As for me, you never know what kind of rangers are out there -- a friendly warning around these parts is as liable to get my throat slit as it is to help anyone. Man has to take precautions. Bet you understand that, Mr. -- ?"
"Eric," Graveworthy said.
"No. Just Eric."
"And Just John, and Just Charity?" he asked. "What's your help's name?"
"Lafayette," Graveworthy answered.
"You off the Res?" Plater asked Purva. She frowned. "You speak any English?"
"Enough," she retorted.
"Bet you do," he said, turning back to Graveworthy. "I'm no fool. You aren't a bush ranger any more than I'm a white man. You square with me about what you want in Port and I'll square with you about whether you're likely to die getting it. We understand each other?"
Jack saw Graveworthy smile. It was a smile he'd seen a few times before, and usually it meant someone was about to be tricked.
"You tell me, Plater," he said, "why you don't get on with Port. Then we'll see. Or should I guess?" He held up a hand, ticking off points on his fingers. "Port buys cheap, and doesn't like to buy from your farm because you're a little closer to earth tone than they are."
Jack felt Clare's fingers tangle in his as they listened.
"Port ships to Brisbane, but they don't ship cheap, and you haven't got a choice about using the rail to get your goods there in good time."
"You a lawyer?" Plater asked.
"Not precisely. Why, do you need one?"
"We been begging to get some relief up here," Plater said. "Can't get anything done because it's a territory. No proper governor except the military governor at the Port. They're bleeding us dry."
"But they bleed the black men a little dryer than the white, don't they?" Graveworthy asked. Plater eyed him speculatively. "We're just passing through. Don't mean any harm to the farmers. We can get what we came for and move on to Brisbane."
Plater laughed. "On the train?"
"My lad's an engineer. He has ways," Graveworthy said. "Managed to get past you all right."
"What do you want from Port Darwin?" Plater insisted.
"Information." Graveworthy rested his hands on the table. "I want the port's ledger-book."
"You won't get it."
"You leave that to us."
"What I wouldn't give to see Byre come to grief," Plater said thoughtfully.
"He the man with the ledger?"
"That one. Tight-fisted bugger. Runs the company interests at the Port."
"And what are the company interests?" Graveworthy asked, a light glinting in his eye. Plater frowned.
"I told you I wasn't a fool. We all know what the company wants. Steel! Ships! Cannon! Cogs in the machine."
Graveworthy nodded, as if he were thinking.
"Plater," he said, "If you want to put the screw to this Byrn, you get me and my hired girl into the garrison, and get my boy and his wife on a train."
"Revenge doesn't put food on my table," Plater said.
"What about publicity?"
"We're on our way to Brisbane. I have friends there," Graveworthy said. Jack, as always, was amazed at his abilities; Jack couldn't tell that he was lying even though he knew he was. "Get your voice heard."
"No goddamn southerner's going to listen to a settled Tribal in the Northern Territory," Plater replied.
"No goddamn southerner needs to know, do they?"
Plater took a pocket-watch out and checked it. "You don't get me killed, you might do some good. Evening train's in at seven. Outbound leaves at seven-forty-five. How fast are you, Eric?"
"Fast enough," Graveworthy answered, and Jack realized that there was a lot of danger in his very immediate future.
They spent the time between arriving at Plater's farmstead and departing for the port in re-packing the bags they carried, reducing the number from four to two so that Jack and Clare could get them on the train without much trouble. Plater seemed intrigued by the assortment they carried; Jack's wrench, Purva's spyglass, the lack of skirts or dresses for either Clare or the Hired Help. As Ellis helped sort out the food they could take from the food they would have to leave, Plater spoke again.
"You can come in with me," he said. "We'll say you're looking for a plot to settle. You'll have to meet with Byre about shipment contracts. My work ends there; that's between you and him."
"You won't be sorry, Plater," Ellis said.
"Probably will. Port's my livelihood, Eric."
"Why did you come all the way up here to farm? Surely there's richer places."
"Born in the lower Territory, didn't want to go Res. Land up here was cheap. Now I know why. Still, it's fertile. And they might not like the Tribals much but you know how it is down south."
Ellis nodded, though he didn't know at all. "What about the children?"
"They'll have to get on while the loading's going. Nobody looks twice, couple of farmers' kids helping out. You'll have to join them by departure."
Ellis grinned. "Leave that to them. If there's one thing my boy's good at, it's making a distraction."
Plater glanced across the room, to where Jack was inspecting some kind of new window-lock device Plater didn't appear to think was anything unusual.
"My own won't be home tonight," Plater continued. "They went up prospecting. Gold all over this island, so they say. Waste of time but in the off-harvest there's not much more to be done. Patrols, but we're pretty slack on those just now."
"You get raids often?" Ellis asked.
"The others sometimes. The landless Tribals don't bother us. We let 'em steal some fruit, sometimes they get lucky and a few head of cattle get loose off the train." Plater tilted his head at Purva. "You pick her up off the Res?"
Ellis grinned. "My boy picked her up."
"Quiet one. Looks like a spitfire though."
"Little bit of both. Kids're sweet on her," Ellis said.
"You seem young to have a son his age."
Plater laughed. "Says the thief."
"I think I like the Northern Territory," Ellis said. "Land of hospitality and mangoes."
"Mostly mangoes," Plater replied solemnly.
Clare had to admit that they blended pretty well as they joined the small gathering of farmers and soldiers at the gates of the big train yard outside the Port. Most of the farmers were dusty but well-dressed men, either older than Ellis or somewhere around Clare's age. Ellis did have to hold Jack firmly by the elbow, though, to prevent him from excitedly inspecting the mechanized cart a few of the farmers were using to haul goods around with.
"First and second generations," Ellis said in Clare's ear as she took in the farmers. "The Port must have lured them up here around the time the borders closed. Makes you wonder how long it was planned."
"Writing another book?" she asked.
"Perhaps nonfiction this time. When de la Fitte and I get inside, stick with Jack and get yourself hidden. Don't wait for us if we don't show up."
"Does anyone ever actually obey when you say that?" she asked, and felt pressure on her shoulder.
"Once, Anderson didn't wait for me. If he had, he would be dead now. Don't mistake caution for sentiment, Clare. Trust me."
The doors swung open then, and Clare shouldered her pack; a few of the farmers were lifting sacks or hauling crates off carts and she went more or less unnoticed as they trudged into the rail yard, despite the fact that her pulse was loud and fast in her ears and it was almost difficult to keep up with Jack.
They wove in and out of the soldiers and farmers, avoiding the noisy carts and the lines of men standing to attention by the newly-arrived train. As the ratty little man called Byre walked down the cars, making notes and stopping occasionally to investigate a shipment, the cars he'd already cleared began to unload. Jack took her pack, hiding it behind a carriage wheel and glancing over his shoulder at the second engine, primed and waiting to leave as soon as the cars had been loaded.
"Might as well pitch in," he whispered, joining the human chain snaking back to the carts. Clare fell in behind him and both of them watched Byre work his way down to the end of the line, followed by his soldiers.
"There really are no brakes on these engines," Jack murmured to her as they worked. "Did you see that incline outside the gates? You get the train rolling, head it down the slope, and the auto-feeder keeps it going. All the way to Brisbane. Probably an upslope at Brisbane to stop it. All that's holding them in place right now is those big pig-blocks."
He nodded at two large metal bars, propped underneath the engine's front wheels.
"They look like they wouldn't be that hard to move," Clare said.
"No, not particularly. Just heavy. That kind of thing would definitely cause a commotion. Might even get Byre out of his office. And nobody'd notice us while everyone was trying to stop the train."
"Well, give Ellis some time," she said. "And Byre's got to put the ledger away first."
"You know what I love about you, Clare?" he said.
"My sparkling wit and divine beauty?"
"That you never think any of my bad ideas are bad ideas."
Clare laughed. "I've learned it never does any good, Jack."
Plater clapped Jack on the back then, leaning over him as if inspecting a bundle. "You're in luck. Sealed shipment going out to Brisbane. No guards on that car. Get over to the third car down, help load the trunks in, get behind the trunks once they're loaded. You'll be sealed in."
"What about the others?"
Plater tilted his head. Jack cut his eyes sideways. Graveworthy was speaking to Byre, one hand touching his arm, gesturing inside, and Byre was nodding, his posture radiating subservience and avarice.
"They may have to wait for the next train."
"I have an idea," Jack told him. "Those pig-blocks are the only brakes. As soon as we're settled in this one, knock the blocks out on that one. The train'll start to move."
"Well," Plater said. "Something like that, take everyone by surprise. Soldiers'd have to chase it. Byre'd have to come see what the fuss was."
"Tell the others if you see them that we'll meet them on the east side of the Brisbane station." Jack picked up his bag and tossed Clare hers. "We'll go help load."
Plater, hand still on Jack's back, gripped his shoulder sudden and tight.
"You aren't from around here, are you?" he asked softly.
Jack looked up at him, considering whether to trust him. He wondered if this was how Graveworthy felt all the time.
"Go up the coast a day and a half's walk," he said. "You'll find our ship. We'd be obliged if you'd keep an eye on her for us."
Plater grinned. "What makes you think I won't steal it?"
"The fact that you stopped to warn us before you fired," Jack said. He took Clare's hand and pulled out of Plater's grip. "We won't forget this, Plater."
When the shouting started, Ellis mistakenly blamed Clare for a moment. It made sense; she was the more mischievous of the pair, at least intentionally. On the other hand, Jack was by far more likely to cause explosions and kidnap pirates. Really, it was a toss-up.
Byre's office was richly appointed, with a large desk and a locking drawer for his precious ledger, which he placed carefully on the soft fabric lining and left open, as if it were a jewel on display. He'd given Ellis a printed handbill on cheap rough paper and launched into a speech about the richness of the soil around Port Darwin and the amenities that the fort could offer, from regular military patrols to shipping services, even loans for newly-begun farmers. The rates on loans, which were not printed on the handbill, were outrageous.
Ellis half-listened and nodded when appropriate, keeping an eye on Purva, who was inspecting every aspect of the room with care and subtlety. Cataloguing the exits, studying the layout of the furniture, figuring out what it would take to get to the ledger. It was heartening, and one less thing he had to do himself. She could rival Anderson as a right-hand man, with a little training. As it was, he trusted her to find them a way out if everything went to hell.
And then everything did go to hell, but not for them.
"Are you certain you don't need to see to that?" he said, interrupting the smooth flow of Byre's pitch. The shouting outside had gotten louder, and there were clanging noises.
"My men are fully competent," Byre replied. "It is vital to trust one's subordinates, don't you think?"
"Absolutely," Ellis replied. "Military discipline and all that. Do you often have trouble with your soldiers?"
"Very rarely, and we police our own," Byre said tightly. Footsteps -- boots on stone -- rang up the hallway outside the door.
"Excellent to hear," Ellis said serenely, as a fist pounded on the door and it opened without preamble. A young soldier halted inside and skidded to something approaching military attention.
"Runaway train, sir," he said. "She slipped her braces. The fort's turning out to try and catch her but she's full up with coal and not fully unloaded yet."
Ellis watched as Byre glanced at him, a glance full of profane thoughts. Then, hastily, he shut the drawer the ledger was in, locked it, and turned back to the soldier.
"Leave ten on harbor patrol and call the rest to the yard," he said. "Mr. Grimes -- "
"By all means. We are patient folk, farmers," Ellis said. "We'll await your return with great interest."
As soon as he was gone, Purva was across the desk and shaking the drawer gently. Ellis rose and quietly shut the door.
"A very cheap lock," she said, grasping a narrow stiletto letter-opener from the blotter on the desk and poking it into the lock. Ellis leaned against the desk with his back to her, casually blocking the view should anyone come in.
"This is very much fun," Purva continued, jerking the drawer back and forth slightly. "Though, too much walking."
"I couldn't agree more. Any joy with that lock?"
"What is it you say: do not rush genius?"
Ellis laughed. "A runaway train smacks of Jack Baker, don't you think?"
"Joy!" Purva cried, as the drawer popped open. She pulled out the ledger, slammed the drawer shut, shoved the book into the bag Ellis held out, and grinned.
"Now we walk out, quietly, and look for the others," he said. "Stay close to me."
The halls and the rooms they passed were all empty as they left. Even the train yard was nearly bare, though a dust cloud in the distance spoke of many running people, and perhaps a few of the motor-driven carts, chasing after a train.
He eyed the guards still standing around the remaining train. Most were lounging up against the cars, smoking or sharing food, spitting fruit pips into the dust. A hand grasped his arm before he was fully out the door. Plater pulled him back inside, a warning finger on his lips.
"They're in the third car from the front, the sealed one," he said. "You'll never get another chance like this one. Can you crawl?"
"Crawl?" Ellis asked, eyebrows quirking. Plater pointed to the unguarded rear car, and the track running beneath it. Ellis glanced at Purva, who nodded. "We can crawl."
It was filthy, bloody work to crawl across the ties between the narrow iron rails, huge wheels rising up on either side of them. Purva squirmed forward like she'd been built for it but Ellis, broader-shouldered and with less head clearance, made a mess of his elbows and knees. He tried not to even breathe too loud, lest the guards should hear. It seemed a long, slow journey and any minute the train might return and their theft be uncovered.
When she reached the third car, Purva looked over her shoulder with a what now? expression on her face. Twenty feet back, Ellis shrugged and kept coming. She rolled over and began to poke at the floor of the car, until suddenly Jack emerged from nowhere, reached down, and pulled her upwards without a sound.
Ellis blinked sweat from his eyes, wondering if he'd actually just seen that. But Purva was gone, and now Clare's head was dangling from the undercarriage, upside-down, grinning at him.
He finally reached where Purva had been and realized it was a trap-door, the kind built into most rail cars for easy maintenance access. Jack and Clare each dropped a hand down and hauled him up by his shoulders, forcing him to bow his back or risk hitting his hips on the underside of the car. He braced his boots on the corners of the trap, pushed, and rolled over onto dusty wooden boards. Clare put a hand over his mouth.
"We're in a sealed car," she said softly. "No guards."
"Not very sealed," Jack added in a whisper, with a sniff. "Boards over the doors, plates over the windows, and a completely unlocked lower trap. Not to mention the ceiling hatches are latched shut with ridiculous little hooks."
"Did you get the ledger?" Clare asked, taking her hand off his mouth. He sat up, nodding. "Wasn't our diversion good? It was Jack's idea."
"Brilliant," he whispered. Jack looked pleased.
The car itself was piled high with wooden crates and white fabric bags, the bags stamped TERRITORIAL MAIL in large, blurry letters. The crates formed a barrier in front of the doors on both sides, and Jack and Clare had obviously done a little subtle rearrangement to make a small, empty space in the middle. It would be tight sleeping quarters for as long as it took to get to Brisbane, and probably unbearably stuffy and hot, but it would get them there in safety. Ellis sighed with relief.
Purva had taken the ledger out and was poring over it with interest, finger running down the numbers. There was a whistle in the distance and the sound of raised voices; Ellis imagined they'd caught their runaway train. He heard the other carriages rattling as the guards climbed into them. After an interminable silence, a second whistle and the jerk of movement told them they were underway. Ellis had the sensation of picking up speed as the train started its journey down the low, shallow slope.
He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He knew enough to rest when he was safe, and he'd been operating more or less on sheer audacity since Plater had put a gun to his head. Now he was reminded that he was still recovering from the fever, and not as young as his companions, either.
"Aha," Jack said, exploring their carriage as the train began to move. "Clare, nice for you, I've found a bucket. The decencies will be maintained."
Ellis smiled as Clare laughed and, from the sound of it, threw something at him.
"It'll reek in here by the time we reach Brisbane," she said. "Ellis, you smell foul already."
"I was crawling over train tracks," he said, reminded that his arms were beginning to hurt. He opened his eyes and tried to study his own elbow, with limited success.
"You're cut up," Clare said, touching his arm gently. She undid the cuff and rolled the sleeve up, taking a handkerchief out of his waistcoat pocket. "Purva, is there any alcohol?"
"Yes, I am sure," Purva said, digging carelessly through the mail bags. "Aha!"
The burn of the scrounged alcohol in his cuts made him grit his teeth and clench his fists tightly. Clare tapped his wrist. "You're making it bleed worse."
"Sorry," he said, trying to relax. Blood ran down his elbow to his wrist. Clare sighed, wiped it off, and wrapped a torn strip of his shirt quickly around the injuries.
"You're falling apart, Graveworthy," she said, rubbing gently at the healing scab on his head. "Next you know, your legs will develop arthritis and your nose will fall off."
"Can't have that," he murmured tiredly. She deftly cleaned and wrapped the other arm, then sat back on her heels.
"Anything else that needs seeing to?" she asked.
"No, thank you. I think I'll sleep a little. Wake me if anything interesting happens."
She nodded and slid aside so that he could lie on his side, back to her and Purva, arms carefully stretched out to keep them from bumping the floor. He thought he felt Clare's fingers smoothing his hair down as he dropped into sleep, but it was probably just an illusion, the motion of the train car or his own tired brain playing tricks on him.