Three days journey further up the river the Indiscretion approached the sharp turn marking that area of the jungle known as The Black Keys. The riverbank upon which they needed to land was a quagmire of alluvium; a slimy mixture of sand, and muck rising to form a shallow but very wide bank before a distant oxbow lake. The length of this slick mass extended five miles along the river while the distance across, from the river to the lake, was just under two.
Further upstream the banks of the river were serrated by jagged rocks jutting into the water. This geographical feature, combined with a stubborn unwillingness to backtrack, meant landing anywhere but along the mud impossible.
Captain Maynard cut the engines and allowed the bow to ride up onto the shore. Through his telescope he had determined the lake to be at it’s narrowest at an angle direct from the point of landing. With luck they would have as little as 4 or 5 yards to swim across once they traversed the bank.
Captain Maynard, as always, would guard the boat while the others went ashore. “I will await your return just down river from this muck for as long as I have supplies. Failing those I will retire to the Leviathan’s Bane where I will remain until you return.”
Setting out, the others soon found the trek to be more wearisome than they’d imagined. With each step the putrid muck threatened to suck the footwear from their feet with an audible slurp. Though still early morning it was already hot, with a tropical humidity that melted cooler tempers straight away.
Emerson, always concerned with the polished condition of his footwear, stepped with a precise flat footed gait that soon had him lagging behind the others. Gadget alone among them seemed to be in his element running on far ahead only to stop suddenly from time to time, sliding in just such a way as to throw up a spray of muck, like a skater cutting through ice, his bursts of laughter a sharp contrast to the fragile tempers of the others.
“Miss Ginsburg,” said Emerson “I believe you are employing too much force in your up-step. It is causing little flecks of mud to splatter the tops of my shoes.”
Junie stopped and looked back, glancing down at Emerson’s patent leather loafers. A thousand amusing retorts came to mind yet the mood called for a simple wave of the hand and a ‘pffft’.
Emerson was flabbergasted. “You just ‘pffft’d’ me.” his jaw dropped. “Miss Ginsburg, if you knew the time and expense I invest in shopping for shoes…”
Junie glanced at Lapis and said, “I’ll bet he eats quiche.”
Emerson reached down and wiped a glob of muck from the side of his shoe then reached out. “Oh look Miss Ginsburg, you appear to have a bit of dirt on your cheek.” he said drawing a line on her face. Junie’s eyes narrowed as she took a step forwards, raised her boot and placed it down on the top of Emerson’s shiny leather loafer. Emerson pulled his foot back so quickly he lost his balance. With arms flailing he grabbed the first thing he could reach which might prevent a fall. Unfortunately the first thing he could reach was Junie Ginsburg who came down on top of him not so much with a thud but a splat.
Junie started to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. “Mr. Lighthouse, I believe your shoes are the least of your concerns now.”
“So it would seem.” said Emerson. He then threw his arms about her shoulders and quickly rolled over. Using the momentum he started, Junie kept it going. They continued to roll, picking up mud like a growing snowball rolling down a wintry slope.
“Cor,” said Gadget standing next to Lapis, “I didn’t know grown-ups knew ‘ow to ‘ave fun.”
The two finally came to a stop not far from the far shore where with much laughter their tempers were greatly restored to a happy equilibrium. Emerson, laying atop Junie caught his breath and said, “Miss Ginsburg, I wonder what the ladies of New Babbage would say if they knew you were rolling around in the mud with such a rogue.”
“Oh,” Junie looked around feigning great concern, “is there a rogue about? I hadn’t noticed.”
Emerson reached into his inside vest pocket and found his handkerchief which amazingly had remained somewhat unsoiled. He brought it to Junie’s face and wiped the mud from her cheek. He then folded the handkerchief over, and with a saucy grin began to trace her lips, slowly wiping them clean.
“Mr. Lighthouse,” said Junie looking up at him, “I believe I see that rogue now.”
Science has much to say about the universal laws of attraction, how two bodies, through the force of gravity will eventually come together. Who is to say how gravity may have played out in the alluvial muck that morning, for before it could run its course an arrow suddenly appeared with a soft thwack in the mud beside Emerson’s head.
In an instant the spell was broken. They scrambled to their feet and ran back to where Lapis and Gadget now stood.
“Look!” Lapis pointed across the narrow barrier of water. “Over there.”
Only about 15 feet away, on the other side of the narrow lake they saw a man of about fifty, his hair long and matted, his beard a tangled grey. His clothes were nothing more than torn rags which at one time might have been a uniform.
With a wild look in his eye he notched another arrow and let it fly. Fortunately his aim was atrocious and the arrow landed nowhere near anyone. His next several fared no better, many of them misfiring into the lake. Soon he was out of arrows.
With each missed shot, Emerson’s eyes narrowed as recognition took hold. “I know you sir. Captain Smith! How can you not recognize me? It is I, Emerson Lighthouse. Surely you remember… last October… I shot down your world class luxury air cruiser… the Henri Giffard XVI. How have you been sir?”
Emerson seemed to miss the fact that both Junie and Lapis looked somewhat uncomfortable with the exchange. “Didn’t I hear something about that man trying to kill him once? Something about forcing him and Malus to jump over the rail of a lighter than air, gas-filled balloon?” Lapis asked Junie under his breath.
“Mister Brother,” Emerson replied having overheard. “Our sacrifice of jumping into the ocean allowed that balloon the buoyancy it required to remain aloft. Thus saving the rest of the crew and passengers from certain death. Isn’t that right Captain Smith? I saved your life.”
Emerson was playing a diplomatic gambit hoping that by removing any blame from Captain Smith and then bringing in an element of debt (as dubious as it was) he might be able to soothe things over. However, his attempts to placate the Captain appeared futile. The castaway charged into the stagnant waters of the oxbow lake with a look on his face suggesting he intended to do more than just throttle Emerson Lighthouse. He reached about the half way point when he stumbled with a startled scream that quickly turned to one of terror. The river was suddenly alive with a frothy red foam hiding the frenzied battle below between ravenous blood-sucking leeches and insatiable carnivorous eels with the former luxury aircruiser captain the prize for the victor.
“Well… that was rather unpleasant.” said Emerson moments later as the lake returned to its stagnant stillness.
“It would appear that we are trapped.” noted Lapis. “We know from our observations in the boat that this lake before us extends for miles in either direction and this is the narrowest point which makes it the logical place to cross.”
Emerson bit his lip as he considered their options. “How far do you figure we could throw Gadget?”
“Bugger what?” exclaimed Gadget.
Lapis seemed to be calculating before nodding. “That could work… if you took his arms and I took his legs we could generate some potential by swinging him a few times before we tossed him. It might be close but in theory it could work.”
“Gadget, you in?” asked Emerson.
Gadget seemed to waver as if he were weighing the thrill of a potential carnival ride against a healthy suspicion of the carnies in charge. “Ah, okay.” he finally said.
Moments later Emerson and Lapis held Gadget by the arms and legs at the very edge of the water. “Okay,” said Lapis, “on three.”
“Wait” queried Emerson, “is it one, two, throw on three… or one, two, three, throw?”
“Listen,” said Lapis with a note of impatience, “if it was one, two, three, throw, I would have said throw on four.”
The two men started swinging the boy. “One, two, threeee…” and they heaved little Gadget who easily cleared the water landing safely on the far side.
“Bugger if that wasn’t fun!” hollered Gadget scrambling to his feet.
Within the half hour, the stowaway had found sufficient logs to build a bridge for the others to safely cross and they were once again on their way.