-- Chapter 4
They flew over to Germany.
Said Pyecraft: "The chances are that the airports, for any survivor must have been above the cloud, as we were," so they went to Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, but every town was dead.
"I'm getting tired of looking down at Germans with stone Heil Hitler arms," said Betty. "I vote we go home again."
"Maybe," said David,"some of them were climbing a mountain in Germany, Neill?"
Neill told him, but David failed to find Everest on the map of Germany.
"But there's one here that looks high," he said poring over the map; "the Zug-something."
"The Zugspitze," nodded Pyecraft; "we might try it," and then turned the nose of the airship to the Bavarian Alps. When they came over the Zugspitze all glasses were concentrated on the mountain side.
"Look!" cried Bunny suddenly, "is that someone waving a Nazi flag?" It was.
Neill took the speaking trumpet and in his best German shouted to the man below to come down to the level, for the airship could not ground on the mountain side. The man began to run downhill, and when they had come to earth he came panting towards them. All stared at the man. He was in rags, and his unshaven face gave him the appearance of a wild man of the woods. Gordon instinctively and unconsciously fingered his gat. The German tried to speak, but his words were incoherent. Pyecraft gave him a stiff glass of brandy and colour began to come into his cheeks and life into his eyes.
"The poor man", murmured Evelyn, almost in tears.
The German looked at her quickly and a smile came to his face.
"Englisch?" he said. "Gut, I speak a leetle Englisch, by dam I am, not true?" and when the children laughed he laughed with them. He began to tell his story. His name was Fritz Apfelkuchen and his age fifty-two. He was a radio engineer, and had been sent to the summit of the mountain to try experiments with a new portable broadcasting apparatus. Thus he had escaped the destroying cloud. He had been completely bewildered, for he had not noticed the green cloud, and when he came down the mountain again and found everyone turned into stone he had concluded that he was mad. He listened to the children's explanation of the petrifying cloud in amazement. The death of humanity did not seem to worry him.
"Wot I likes not is that I can send not radio messes", he said sadly.
"Messages", corrected Neill kindly. "Messes are the things that Michael makes of radio. What do you intend to do? You can't live in Germany alone. You had better come back to England with us."
Fritz shook his head.
"Nein", he said, "das kann ich nicht. Ich bin Deutscher. No, Germany is my home and I must here stay. But we can speak to us another on the radio, not?"
"H'm", murmured Neill, "but the trouble is that none of us know anything about radio. We couldn't send you messages."
"Speak for yourself", said Gordon, and the other boys growled agreement with this sentiment.
Pyecraft said: "The best thing is for Fritz to give the boys a few lessons on transmitting", and this was agreed to. They flew to Berlin, and in the radio lab there Fritz constructed a simple transmitting set which they were to take to England. It could be run off car batteries and was powerful enough to communicate with Germany.
"I votes we go back to the school", proposed Jean, and they all agreed.
They were all glad to see the old place again, even if it did look rather neglected and uninviting. It had been a hot summer and grass was everywhere. The gravel paths were green, and even on the tarred roads green patches were appearing. Chad's beard had withered and dropped off, but Evelyn made a beard of hay and tied it on, but the rats got it next day. The rats had taken possession of the house, and it was evident that they resented the return of the humans. They looked sleek and fat, and the children wondered where and how they were feeding. They soon knew, for the skeletons of pigs and cows and horses told the grim story.
"If you ask me", said Robert gloomily, "when they exhaust the supply of animals they'll go for us."
"I can't think of a more ghastly death than being eaten in instalments by rats", said Pyecraft, and the girls shivered and shrank.
"I know", said Gordon suddenly.
"You know what?"
"How to beat the rats. We'll collect all the terrier dogs we can and make them into a bodyguard."
"An excellent idea", said Neill, "but how are you going to collect them? By now they are running in packs like wolves, and if you did catch a few how do you know they wouldn't ignore the rats and have a feast on us?"
"We could take their puppies", said Jean, "and train them to fight the rats."
The idea seemed to be the only feasible one, and the company became a sort of trappers' association. The terrier pack was led by the Alsatian, and its ferocity was terrible. The pack had attacked one of the Zoo lions and after a whole-day battle had dragged it to earth and killed it. The carcase lay rotting by Theberton village.
"On foot", declared David, "we can't do it. We must be mounted. We must get horses."
But here there was a difficulty, for very few horses were left. Most of them had been penned in fields and, being unable to get away, had fallen easy victims to the dogs. Neill suggested going to the Scottish moors, where no doubt horses had survived because of their freedom of flight, but, as Bunny said, even if they caught them how were they to bring them to Leiston? They couldn't easily convey horses by airship.
"True", said Neill, "but what about shipping them from a Scots port?"
The plan seemed worth trying, and they flew to the Scots moors. There they found horses running about in large droves - wild horses with flying manes.
"Now for fun!" cried the boys exultantly.
"Fun", said Neill quietly, "is hardly the word. Do you see that other drove coming over the brow of that hill? Highland cattle, Skibs, led by bulls. Look out! They are going to charge!"
There was a rush for the airship, and they just managed to get clear of the heather when the leading bull rushed at them.
"Give them a bomb!" yelled Bunny, but the girls told him he was a murderer, and it was just silly and rotten to kill such lovely animals.
"Lovely?" said David as he looked over the side at the bulls pawing the ground and snorting. "Shouldn't care much to be a Spanish bullfighter, would you, Neill?"
"Not much", said Neill hastily, "but an idea has suddenly come to me. Last night, you may remember, Michael was telling us the theory of bullfighting, how that the whole art was to make the bull charge the red rag and not the matador. I propose that Michael now follows up his theory with a practical demonstration."
Michael smiled in a sickly sort of fashion.
"Funny, aren't you? I was talking about one bull in a bullring, not a few hundred bulls on a Scots heath."
"We might find a single bull somewhere", said Neill helpfully.
By this time they had flown away from the herd.
"Look, down there", pointed Gordon, "isn't that a bull all by itself?"
"It's a sheep", said Michael hastily.
"No", said Neill, "it's a bull. Give Michael his toreador's sword and we'll lower him with the rope ladder."
Michael glared at Neill with hatred in his eyes.
"It isn't the same thing", he said. "In Spain the bull is first made tired by goring horses and getting darts into it, and then, when it is just about done out, the matador kills it. That bull is fresh and, without a horse, it would be certain death."
Neill looked at him hard.
"Theory is all right", he said, "but when it comes to practice - "
Michael jumped up. "Give me that Bolshie flag and my sword", he shouted. "I'll show you if I am a coward or not", and he swung out and down the rope ladder. All gasped.
"You idiot, Neill!" cried David. "You are driving him to his death."
"Better death than dishonour", said Neill. "But we shall miss him. He was a pleasant companion."
Michael reached the ground, and signalled for the rope ladder to be drawn up. He stood there alone, his lips set firm, his eye on the bull. The bull looked up and gave a tiny snort; then it went on eating grass. Michael took a step forward and waved his red flag. The bull gave two snorts and then let out a tremendous bellow. Michael paled, but he took another step forward. Then the bull rushed at him.
"Great!" said Pyecraft. "Did you see how he put out the flag at the moment of impact? See how he stepped aside and let the bull miss him by a hair's breadth?"
The bull, now angry, turned suddenly in its tracks, and again made straight for Michael. Its left horn tore the seat out of Michael's pants, and this was the luckiest thing that could have happened, for the trouser seat stuck on the horn and kept flapping in front of the brute's eyes, so that he could not see his enemy properly. This, of course enraged him more than ever. He pawed the ground viciously, and made short, sharp rushes. He had brains, that bull had: the Spanish ring bull is just learning that his enemy is the man, not the rag, when he meets his death, and that is why a bull is never allowed to enter the ring again if he happens to survive one fight. He has learned his lesson and would never be tricked by the red rag again. This Skibo bull learned his lesson after the second charge. He ignored the red rag and made straight for Michael every time. The boys had their automatics trained on the bull in case Michael should fail, but Michael did not know this: indeed, he was very indignant when he learned it later.
Both combatants were becoming exhausted. Sweat was pouring off them both. Suddenly the bull caught him and tossed him high into the air, but Michael fell astride the bull's back, and the brute went careering round in circles coming down hard on its front feet, trying to throw him as steers do in rodeos. Michael waved his hat and shouted: Whoopee! Then he was thrown off and lay still. A gasp of horror went through the occupants of the airship when the bull charged the prostrate figure, but the gasp changed to a cheer when they saw him point his sword at the charging bull. There was a flash of steel, a crash of carcase, and a red stream dyed the heather. He had got it right through the heart. Then Michael fainted.
Everyone, even Neill, said that Michael had fought very cleverly and bravely, and Michael modestly said that it was luck rather than skill, but of course he knew he was lying.
"Very pleasant interlude", said Pyecraft, "but our business here is to catch wild horses. My idea is that we find a drove of them, bring the ship down just above their heads, and shoo them before us till we get them into a glen where they can't escape. We'll separate them from the cattle this way."
Everyone agreed that this seemed a good method, and they duly shooed a drove into a glen between two mountains. The top of the glen ended in high rocks, and it was evident that there was no escape that way. The drove was a large one, round about three hundred horses. Pyecraft, who had been a cowboy many years before, showed them how to use a lasso, and they practised on two stone shepherds they found nearby. Pyecraft showed them the sudden jerk which took off their heads each time, and soon the children were adapts at the game. The horses had at first been terror-struck, for many of them had never seen a human being, but they became accustomed to seeing the children practising daily with the ropes, and they went on grazing quietly.
Well, there is not much left to tell. They lassoed nine horses, one for each, but it was evident that no single horse could carry Pyecraft, and Betty suggested they wait till they went back and tried to lasso an elephant for him. It wasn't easy to manage the horses. When caught they kicked and struggled, but finally they got them all tied together and with a thick rope to the airship, and flying a few feet above the ground they brought them to the sea. There was a boat in the harbour at Buckie, and they got the horses on board. Neill and Pyecraft agreed to take the airship home, while the children brought the horses by boat to Sizewell.
"Are you sure that you can sail a boat?" asked Neill doubtfully.
"Of course", they replied indignantly.
"But is it the right course?" asked Neill, and they looked at him in disdain and made no reply.
As the two men flew southwards Neill remarked: "I'm worried about these kids. They know nothing about steering a course, nothing about rocks and things, and the lights of lightships and lighthouses are all extinguished long ago. We really ought not to have let them go alone."
"They'll come through all right", said Pyecraft calmly.
Meanwhile the boat was still in harbour, for it had to be provisioned for man and beast. The children had no very clear ideas about animal fodder, and had to use the method of trial and error. Evelyn tried one horse with a tin of sardines without result. Betty cooked a nice dinner in the ship's galley - tinned tomatoes, bully beef, cooked carrots, all followed by a custard pudding. It smelt good, and Betty was much surprised when her horse sniffed at it and then looked the other way.
"All I know about horses is that they eat grass", said Jean, "but we can't bring a field of grass on a ship, can we?"
"Maybe they will eat hay", suggested David, and he raided a haystack. The results were good, and they spent the day carting hay.
Having settled the provision question they turned their attention to the mechanism of the ship. It was a ship of a thousand tons with steam engines. Obviously someone must light the fires and stoke up, and this the boys did with vigour. The girls arranged the provisions and took charge of the galley. It took a long time to get up steam, and then came the question of steering. By vote they elected Robert captain, on the ground that his uncle knew a man who had a brother who was captain of a liner, so Robert put on a sou'wester and paced the bridge. He was very proud of himself and uttered strange sounds.
"Land ahoy", he shouted. "Man the mizzen bulwarks. Weigh the anchor."
"The only scales here are fish ones", grinned Gordon, who was swabbing the deck, and the captain told him not to use mutinous language. Strange how a bridge makes one dignified and apart.
"Cast off!" ordered the captain, and they cast off their jackets. Chief Engineer David stood by the engines.
"Full speed ahead", signalled the captain, and David drew a lever. The ship ran backwards into the jetty, and there was a long and acrimonious telephonic conversation between the bridge and the engine-room. Betty said that the horses shouldn't hear such language. Robert kept signalling, and by trying all the levers David managed to pile the ship up on a sandbank: then while they waited for full tide they had a meeting and appointed a new captain and a new chief engineer. Bunny took over the bridge and Gordon the engines.
At full tide they managed to get clear of the harbour, and they steamed out into the open sea. The captain set a course due south, and the engines thudded their way through a calm sea, and the crew slept the sleep of the carefree. Jean took over the bridge while Bunny had breakfast and a nap. "But", he impressed on her, "stick to the course."
"Ay, ay, sir", she said and saluted, and Bunny gave her a gracious smile.
It was a lovely voyage. The horses munched their hay, and the children busied themselves with the ship. Stoking was a fag, and often the ship would stop because the steam gave out. Bunny took the bridge again. "Newcastle", he said airily, waving his hand towards a town on shore.
"I didn't know that Newcastle had mountains and woods behind it", said Robert, who was really jealous of Bunny's captainship.
"That", said Bunny in superior tones, "is because you didn't attend the Geography lessons enough, me lad."
"Oo", shivered Jean, "but it is cold, and going south should be warmer."
"That`s a ridge of high pressure coming from Iceland", said Bunny.
Then Robert saw snow on land.
"Funny thing to me", he said, "but if we are going south how comes it that we see snow in October? I propose we sail into that town in the distance and see what it is."
"Scarborough", said Bunny with a frown. "I know where I am going", but the others insisted on going in to see, and they slowly steamed into port.
"BERGENS FISKEBOLLER", spelled out Robert. "Good lord, the fool has brought us to Holland."
"Sweden", corrected Betty; "no wonder it was cold. I votes we get a new captain." And they elected Evelyn who at once turned direction south. They sailed all night and in the morning found themselves in Bergen again, so they made Betty captain. Betty was a good captain, and she took them south right enough.
"We've been steaming for a week now", said Gordon, "and we ought to be near Sizewell. There is no land to be seen. And the glass is falling and I don't like it. Betty can't manage a boat in a storm."
The storm broke, and the ship plunged and creaked alarmingly. Betty had to lash herself to the bridge. The poor horses were terror-struck and very sick. The whole crew was sick, but sickness or no sickness the fires had to be kept going.
"We'll have to heave-to." said Bunny.
"Heave two what?" asked Betty.
"I don't know", said Bunny, "but in a storm you always heave-to."
"I'm heaving enough", said Evelyn, who indeed was very sick. It was a dreadful night, and again and again they thought their last moment had come. The storm lasted for three days and then it began to die down. Soon the sun shone, and they sailed on a calm green sea.
"Nice and warm", remarked Jean as she sunned herself on the deck.
That night they dropped anchor in Barcelona.
"We must have slipped through the straits of Gibraltar in the night", said Robert. "I votes we fire the captain and let me have a go again." And they did, and Robert steered them easily to Gibraltar, and out into the Atlantic, and then they ran out of coal. Then they suddenly remembered that they had wireless and they sent out an S.O.S. And luckily enough Neill picked it up.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"On the sea. We've got no coal and very little grub."
"Yes", said Neill, "I know you are on the sea, but where? Are you still on the coast of Scotland?"
"I don't think so", said David, who was doing the transmitting. "We came to Barcelona by mistake."
"Barcelona?" said Neill. "Barcelona? What the devil are you doing there?"
"We passed Gib. two days ago", said David. "But", said Neill, "it's all very simple. When a ship is sinking it wirelesses its exact position. What is your exact position?"
"I don't exactly know", said David, "but there's a big ship lying on our left and some flying fishes on the right, and -- "
"What's your latitude and longitude, you fool?"
"What are they?" asked David.
"I don't know", said Neill. "Every ship carries them. Look in the captain's locker. Hullo, do you hear me? Hullo! Hullo!"
But the ship's batteries had run down. Neill looked at Pyecraft. "We've got to find them", he said.
Well, to cut a long story short, they found them, and they towed the ship over to a stone-crewed White Star liner, from which they filled their bunkers and got food and fodder. Then, with the airship guiding them, they eventually reached Sizewell beach. The ship couldn't come in because of her draught, and the children were taken ashore by airship, while the horses were brought in next day. The boys rowed out in boats and made the horses swim ashore.
And the next chapter will tell how they broke-in the horses.
TO BE CONTINUED.
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Chapter 4 of 'The Last Man Alive' by A. S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.