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-by John Urie-
A Spontoon Island Story
By John Urie
On Your Marks...
“If this is what Mr. Dole calls a celebration, I’d hate to see what happens when he stages a funeral.”
“It IS a funeral, dumbass!” snapped Katie MacArran at the passing waiter -- who hadn’t realized she was there. In response, the potbellied pig mumbled a fast apology and hurried off in the direction of the kitchen.
Katie watched him go, then turned back to observe the proceedings on the dance floor. Funeral was right. Not only had the Golden Eagle failed to turned up in Oahu, so had the Miss Doran. No wonder Charles Lindbergh had declined to participate in the Dole Debacle, as it was swiftly coming to be called.
Anyone who thought the pineapple tycoon had not been overly optimistic in his expectations could now put that contention to rest. For the post-derby banquet, he’d reserved the grand ballroom of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, an enclosure that would have been too large even if EVERY racer had made it to Wheeler field.
With a grand total of exactly three finishers, the revelers looked like a scattering of ants let loose in an empty warehouse...and even then, they were moving about like zombies. Every time the band tried to play a fast number, the dance-floor quickly emptied.
This whole ‘celebration’ had been a fiasco from the start. When Katie had asked Hjalmar if he were planning to attend, the Norwegian Elkhound had practically begged off with tears in his eyes...and she hadn’t objected one bit. Heck, the only reason SHE was here was because William Hearst had ‘suggested’ that it would be a good idea for her to ‘show the colors’, as he put it.
In the meantime, James Dole was offering a $10 thousand dollar reward, payable to anyone who could find the two missing race planes. Ralph Pulitzer had kicked in another $10 grand, payable to anyone who could locate the crew of the Golden Eagle. In response, one of the pilots who’d failed to get his plane off the ground back in Oakland had taken off to look for them, and now HE was ten hours overdue.
Small wonder that when George Hearst had telegraphed Katie, strictly forbidding her to participate in the search, she’d immediately cabled back a reply, reading simply, ‘Thank you!”
Neither plane was ever going to be found...not this late in the game. Katie knew it, Ralph Pulitzer knew it and James Dole knew it too As it was, she couldn’t have taken action, even if she’d wanted to. Her plane’s chronometer had turned out to have a broken mainspring; impossible to repair and re-calibrate in time to join the hunt. ( That was what she’d told the reporters, anyway.)
And so, here was Katie, by herself, in a simple black dress (the only color that seemed appropriate) sipping champagne and wishing this molasses of an evening would come to an end. Had it been up to her, she’d be using the time to much greater advantage; supervising the disassembly and crating of the Boilermaker Special for it’s return trip to the mainland, and from there to Britain. She couldn’t wait to be gone from this place.
Even now, the recriminations were flying...and as anyone could have predicted, the prime target was the hapless James Dole. Art Goebel was coming in for some harsh words as well. Upon his arrival at Wheeler Field, he’d proceeded to strut around, mugging for the cameras while strumming a ukulele...not exactly the most tasteful thing to do, given the tragedy that had followed.
(Katie, for her part, didn’t hold Goebel’s antics against him. How the Hell had HE been supposed to know that only two other planes would make it besides the Woolaroc?)
At first, Katie hadn’t been sure how the Hearsts would react to her achievement. She’d only come in second, after all. These misgivings were quickly swept away by the first telegram she received from San Simeon. No, she hadn’t won...but she HAD beaten the Golden Eagle. That was the most important thing as far as both William Randolph Hearst and his son were concerned.
And now, with the Eagle all but written off as lost, the Hearst Newspapers were firmly and irrevocably in Katie’s corner. Had it not been for her, it might be George and William Hearst who’d be having to answer a slew of uncomfortable questions...questions that were peppering the Pulitzers instead. Furthermore, the Pulitzers repeated predictions that the Boilermaker Special would never reach Hawaii had turned out to be 100% wrong – while the Hearsts’ similar prophecies regarding the Golden Eagle had been (pardon the pun) dead on.
Best of all, in his first statement following Katie’s landing, George Hearst had taken the opportunity to lash out viciously at Ralph Pulitzer for that ‘feminine wiles’ editorial.
“The Examiner hopes this makes it QUITE clear that we made our decision to sponsor the Boilermaker Special based solely upon Miss MacArran’s skills as both an aviatrix and an aircraft designer. We demand a full, written apology from Mr. Pulitzer, both to Mr. Hearst, and to Miss MacArran, for having suggested otherwise.”
Of course, no such apology would ever be forthcoming, which only made things worse for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch...or the Sour Grapes Post-Dispatch, as it was coming to be known in certain aviation circles.
Someone was entering the ballroom. Normally, Katie wouldn’t have paid any attention, but this was the first guest to arrive in more than an hour...and he was distinctive in his appearance to say the least.
He was a wolf by species, but with the red fur, black stockings, and pointed muzzle of a fox.
But not the size of a vulpine. He was big, not quite as large as Katie’s father, but with a physique that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo.
His clothing was unique as well, a long, cream-colored, loose-fitting shirt, intricately embroidered down the front, with a ring-collar, and a cloth sash-belt encircling his waist. Below these, he wore baggy trousers of simple black, tucked into low boots of soft suede leather.
Katie took one look at him, and felt a strange rush of excitement...one the made her feel weak and light-headed at the same time. She knew at once that it wasn’t love -- or even a close relative of amorous attraction. She’d been near enough to a romance before to know that what she was experiencing right now was something wholly different. It was...well, what WAS it that she was feeling?
And who was that wolf...or was he a fox?
She quickly found and buttonholed one of the reporters for the San Francisco Examiner, a badger who was currently on his sixth glass of bubbly
“Hey,” she said, pointing at the wolf, while keeping her voice at the level of casual curiosity, “Who’s the big guy in the fancy shirt?”
“Oh, him?” said the badger in a partially slurred voice, “Tha’s Grand Duke Peter Mikhailovich Korvanov of Russia.” He hiccuped, “Or that is...he used to be, before the Revolution.”
“Uh-huh,” Katie answered, folding her arms and smiling sardonically, “And where’s that bridge he’s got for sale again?”
In the late 1920's, hustlers posing as former members of the Russian aristocracy were about as hard to find as flies in an outhouse.
“Nope...not that wolf.” said the badger, hiccuping once more, “He’s on the level.”
As Katie had hoped, the champagne had worked the badger’s tongue loose and he proceeded to fill her in on Grand Duke Korvanov’s story.
Whelped in 1881, Peter Mikhailovich Korvanov had already distinguished himself as one of Russia’s most promising future military leaders by the time he was 21. Unfortunately, he was also one of those furs with a habit of saying exactly what he thought, never mind who the listener was. On July 31 of 1914, two days after Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia he had told Tsar Nicholas II, point blank, that his decision to come in on Serbia’s side was a disastrous mistake. “If we go to war against Austria-Hungary, Germany will almost certainly come to their aid...and we cannot hope to defeat the Kaiser’s armies with such poorly trained and equipped forces as we currently have, no matter how many troops we put into the field. Do you not remember our humiliation at the hands of the Japanese, Nicholas? Have you forgotten that our defeat nearly sparked a revolution? We are even less prepared for a war now than we were in 1904...and this time we will be facing perhaps the best army on the European continent. Be warned, Great Tsar...if you provoke Germany into declaring war on us, you risk nothing less than the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty.”
When Tsar Nicholas’ intransigence did push the Kaiser into declaring war on Russia, the reaction to Peter’s counsel was predictable; He was loudly denounced as a defeatist, and even a traitor. When he tried to make one last appeal to reason in the Duma, he was shouted down before he could finish his first sentence. Tsar Nicholas then stripped the fox/wolf of his command and sent into semi-exile on his estate, near the city of Kharkov.
“And there you will hang your head in shame, until the day of our glorious victory.” Nicholas told him, sneeringly.
Except there was to be no glorious victory. Less than one month after Peter made his ominous prediction, it was already coming to pass. At the disastrous Battle of Tanneberg, in August 1914 Russia lost a staggering 190,000 troops. And Grand Duke Peter Korvanov was hastily recalled to take command of two shattered Russian armies. Though he was stalemated in his first two engagements with the Germans, in the third battle, he handed the Kaiser his first military defeat on the eastern front...a minor one, to be sure but still a defeat. In the months that followed, Peter never lost a fight against the Germans.
But it was never enough to turn the tide. Peter was only one of many Russian commanders, and thanks to his inability to hold his tongue, his star never rose in the hierarchy. As if that weren’t enough, even bigger trouble was brewing for the fox-wolf back in St. Petersburg...trouble in the furson of a winter-eyed Russian Blue cat named Grigory Novykh, more popularly known as Rasputin
Peter Korvanov and Rasputin had been bitter enemies ever since 1911, when the feline, a notorious debauch, had seduced ( some said raped ) his wife. When Peter found out about it, he wanted to challenge Rasputin to a duel. Unfortunately, Rasputin had the Tsarina wrapped around his little finger by then...which meant he also had Tsar Nicholas in his pocket. Though no one could ever figure out how he did it, Rasputin had the uncanny ability to control the bleeding whenever the hemophiliac heir to the throne, Alexei, suffered an episode. All Peter could do was discard his wife and continue to regard Rasputin with a smoldering hatred.
That smoldering blew up into a full conflagration in September 1915, when under prodding from Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas arrived on the battlefield to take fursonal command of his armies. It was Nicholas II’s most grievous blunder yet...and the last straw for Peter. The Tsar’s military skills would have been farcical had the consequences not been so tragic. Once, Peter managed a glimpse at a letter Nicholas had written home to his wife. It was signed, “your poor, little weak willed hubby.”
He later learned that Nicholas II, Tsar of All the Russias, signed EVERY letter home to Alexandra that way. THIS was the fur who was supposed to lead the Russian armies to glorious victory?
It didn’t take long for Peter’s unreserved manner to do him in. Less than three months after Nicholas assumed command, Grand Duke Korvanov was on his way to a desk job at the War Ministry in Petrograd. And there, he entered into active conspiracy to do away with Rasputin, once and for all. At the palace of Prince Felix Yusopov where the mad monk finally met a baroque end, it was Peter Korvanov who fired the final, fatal shot.
When the Tsarina learned what had happened, she ordered that both Prince Yusopov and Grand Duke Korvanov be tried and executed for treason. Then, after she had cooled down, she relented and had Yusupov confined to his estate. Peter Korvanov wasn’t so lucky. He was banished to Siberia along with two his children, both of whom quickly succumbed to typhus. A year later, just as Peter had predicted, the Romanovs were swept from power by the Russian Revolution, and in a truly ironic twist, Peter was immediately granted a full pardon by the provisional government.
But when he boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway in Irkutsk, it was an eastbound, not a westbound train that he took. And in Vladivostok, he caught the first ship to anywhere.
“That anywhere turned out to be Hawaii.” the badger was telling Katie, “and he’s been here ever since.” He took another sip of champagne. “Peter Korvanov actually came out of the Russian Revolution fairly well off...financially speaking, that is. Even before Nicholas had him confined to his estate, he was making arrangements to have the family artwork shipped out of Russia. He also converted just about every other asset he had into Swiss Francs and deposited them in the Bank Of Zurich. Took a big loss, but not as nearly as much as lot of the other Russian gentry did when the Bolsheviks took over. Visionary guy, that Grand Duke...not only saw the Russian Revolution coming, but he also knew the Reds were gonna be the big winners in the end. When the Russian Civil war broke out the Whites offered him a general’s command under Admiral Kolchak. Korvanov told them straight up that the ONLY position he would accept with the White armies was as their supreme commander...take it or leave it. Needless to say, they left it.”
He burped. “‘Scuse me. Gotta go find the toilet.”
And Katie went to go talk to Grand Duke Korvanov. To her considerable surprise, he immediately asked her to dance. With some reservations, Katie accepted. While she hardly had two left hooves, her natural element was the sky, not the dance floor. Korvanov, however, turned out to be a marvelous dancer. He was so good in fact, that soon Katie was floating effortlessly
across the floor in his arms. It was amazing that someone so powerfully built could be so light on his feet.
During their third dance, he moved his lips close and began to whisper in her ear. At first his comments were both innocent and affectionate. But soon they began to take on double meanings.
And Katie began to feel the heat rising. By their fifth dance, she was completely under his spell. When the fox/wolf suggested she come home with him for the night, she was as powerless to resist as a moth circling a candle-flame.
No sooner had they passed through the front door of his comfortable two-story bungalow, than Peter swept Katie off her feet, and was carrying her up the stairs. Then, she was inside his bedroom, the walls tilting sideways as he laid her down on his huge, ornate bed...and her dress was coming off...coming off easily. She felt her bra come unhooked, her undies being effortlessly drawn away
It was then that Katie’s fears finally overcame her exhilaration, but it was much too late to back out now. She began to shiver uncontrollably.
“Ahhh,” said Peter, not at all disappointed, but rather solicitous. “You are afraid because it is your
first time, Catherine?”
Katie hugged herself and nodded, tightly...trying not to let herself get teary-eyed.
“Shhh...” he hushed her, putting a finger to her lips, “Do not worry Katyusha. I know just what to do...and I will be as gentle with you as the cool morning breeze.”
And he did know
And he was gentle.
And he was very well equipped for the purpose.
When Katie boarded ship in Honolulu three days later, Peter was not there to see her off. It didn’t bother her. In fact, she was glad he wasn’t there. Already the Riiser-Larsens were beginning to wonder where she’d been disappearing to the last couple of evenings. If Peter Korvanov showed up at the quay side, they’d quickly add things up.
What DID bother her was that when she’d gone by Peter’s house that morning to say good-bye, she’d been met at the door not by him, but by his Filipino housecat...who had curtly informed Katie that ‘his excellency’ had gone out for the day and would not be back until late that evening.
As he told her this, the Grand Duke’s Talbot 14/45 motorcar was plainly visible in the garage.
Katie was more irritated than hurt. Even as Peter had been seducing her, she’d known that he harbored no genuine feelings for her...nor she for him. She might have lost her virginity to the fox-wolf, but her heart had stayed right where it was. She didn’t expect to hear from Peter after she returned to Britain, nor was she planning to write HIM any letters.
So, why had she let Peter Korvanov take her to bed? Partially, it was because of the loss of the Golden Eagle and the Miss Doran...and her own close call. Tragedies make us want to ratify our lives...and is there anymore life-affirming act than love-making? Katie had also gone home with Grand Duke Korvanov, because...well, here she was, 22 years old and still a virgin...and this WAS the roaring twenties, after all. She had graduated from college summa cum laude, she had been one of the first furs to cross the arctic by air, and she had built and flown not one, but TWO successful race-planes.
But she still hadn’t done ‘it.’ There was something rather absurd in that equation...and truth be told, ever since that ‘feminine wiles’ editorial had hit the newsstands, Katie had become increasingly curious about what ‘it’ was like.
At the end of the day however, Katie MacArran had given herself to Peter Korvanov out of nothing more than pure, physical passion. And on that level at least, it had been everything a girl’s first time should be. In the years to come, when she thought about that night, it would make her want to giggle, not flick away a tear.
But for now, dammit...Peter could at least have spared a minute or two to let her say farewell. That was all she wanted, no entanglements. Even when she made that known to his housekeeper, the feline just kept stubbornly insisting that the Grand Duke was not home.
Katie sighed, chalked it up to experience, and hurried off to catch her ship. Her only fear now was that Peter might decided to have himself a few boasts at her expense...but if he ever did, none of it ever got back to her. He died of cancer, three years later, at a private hospital in Basel, Switzerland.
When Katie arrived back home in the states, there was another victory bash, this one held at the San Simeon castle and much livelier than the banquet James Dole had given. Although, for Katie this turned out to be a ‘celibate celebration’. Hard for it to go any other way with her father in attendance. What surprised her was how well her sire seemed to get on with William Randolph Hearst, a fur not noted for an affinity towards the British aristocracy. At one point Ian confided to the publishing magnate that he was considering the purchase of a newspaper himself.
“Prohibition’s na’ gonna last forever, Mr. Hearst,” he said, “And if ye want the truth, I’d just as soon start putting my money in something a wee bit more legitimate than I’ve done.”
“Then what the HELL do you want to buy a newspaper for?” William Hearst had cracked, and two of them had enjoyed a good laugh.
From San Simeon, Katie and her drove up to San Francisco, where they took the train to Boulder to help her grandfather close up the house. At this point, Grandpa Joe’s illness was beginning to catch up with him and he had made the decision to re-locate to New York, where there was much better medical care available...and where he could be close to his old friend and former protege, Jim Spanaway and Jim’s wife, Mary...Katie’s former nanny.
“Important thing for me right now is not be by myself.” he said. “And you know Mary...always happiest when she’s got somebody to take care of.”
From Boulder, they continued by rail to Purdue, where Katie would pick up her diploma. During the course of that journey, Joe asked her what she planned to do next.
“Oh, it’s back to Howden and the R-100, grandpa.” she said, much to his obvious relief, “No more risky flights for this mare...not for a while anyway. Barnes Wallis has already agreed to take me on again. ”
“Aye.” said her father, nodding from behind his copy of The New York Journal, “She’s already sold the design o’ that plane of hers, would y’ believe Joe? “ He turned to look at his daughter, “Who was that, bought it again, Katie?”
“Andrei Tupolov.” she told them, smiling contentedly, “Aircraft designer for the Soviets. Made a heckuva nice profit on it, too.”
And to herself, she added smugly. “Take THAT, Peter!”
Joe’s ears went up and formed a steeple.
“The Soviets? What the HELL would the Reds want with your airplane?”
“Beats me” said Katie, shrugging, “But they were offering me a damn good price....more’n three times what I got in prize money for finishing second.”
Joe sniffed twice, a sign of disdain.
“I have to tell you, Katie...I’m not so sure I like the idea of you sellin’ your plane to the Bolsheviks.”
“I’m not selling them plane, Grandpa.” Katie quickly informed him. “ I’m keeping the Boilermaker Special. Heck, Tupolev refused to even talk about purchasing her outright. All he wants is the right to incorporate some of her design features into a project of his own that he’s working on.”
“After which, he’ll claim that EVERYTHING was his idea from the start!” Joe responded, sinking in his seat and regarding her with a persimmon scowl, “I’m telling you Katie, never trust a Comrade.”
“That’s why they don’t even get a peek at her blueprints until I get paid in full.” Katie assured him, putting a hoof atop his. “Don’t worry Grandpa, I remembered to cut the cards.”
“Well...and it’s not like the Boilermaker Special’s a warplane is it?” said Ian, laying down his paper. “If tha’ t’were the case, I might agree wi’ yer, Joe. But that plane o’ Katie’s got no military use.” His expression became awkward. “Err, that is the case in’t it, lassie?”
“Oh, good God yes, that’s the case, dad.” Katie answered, at once. “If there’s one kind of plane I don’t want anything to do with, it’s a warplane.”
Ian smiled and Joe relaxed. Their minds might not have been at such ease had they been aware that only two years ago, Katie had also sworn she’d never have anything to do with building an airship.
When they reached New York, a new crisis hit them head-on. No sooner had their train pulled into Grand Central Station, than it was immediately boarded by a quartet of scowling furs, all clad in the same long, blue, serge coats, and flashing badges at everyone in their path. Striding directly up to Ian, the leader of the group, a Bison, waved his shield in the English Hunter’s face and identified himself as an agent of the US Treasury Department.
“You’ll have to come with us, sir.” he growled, disdaining to address the Duke of Strathdern by his proper title.
Katie spent the next three hours pacing the floor of their suite in the Waldorf Hotel, wringing her hooves and occasionally stopping to let Grandpa Joe hold her in his quivering arms. Joe had already called Jim Spanaway and Jim had called an attorney.
Then, just as the tension was becoming unbearable, someone knocked at the door and in stepped Ian MacArran, with a huge smile on his face.
Katie threw her arms around his neck and began to cry.
“There there, Lassie.” he told her, stroking her mane. “S’ all right. I’m nae goin’ to jail.”
Later, with Jim and Mary Spanaway in attendance, he recounted the experience.
“They just kept droppin’ pictures of these lads on the table in front o’ me...Meyer this, Lucky that, Frank the other...and what kind o’ fool calls himself Bugsy? Anyway, they kept demanding t’ know; what was my relationship with any o’ that lot? But all I could tell ‘em was that I had no idea who any of them were. And I didn’t. First time I’d ever heard any o’their names or seen any of their faces was right there in that office. Finally, Jimmy....” Here, he corked a thumb at Jim Spanaway, “...arrived wi’ a solicitor...Oops, attorney’s what ye call it over here, an’ the attorney demanded to see either a warrant or subpoena.” Ian chuckled and slapped his knee. “Well, wouldn’t ye know it? They didn’t have one, so all they could do was turn me loose...though they did tell me it’d be in my best interest to be on the first boat back to Britain.” He grinned. “Well, turn’t out, I just happened to have the steamship tickets in me jacket...an’ ye should have seen that bugger’s face when I waved ‘em under his nose an’ asked, ‘How is it ye don’t know ALREADY I’m on the next ship to Southampton, yer so bluidy smart?’.”
Katie, Joe, and Ian all enjoyed a good horse-laugh, with Jim and Mary eagerly joining in.
But early the next morning, things were not quite so amusing. At 5 AM, there came a furious pounding on door of their hotel-suite.
“What’s going on, Dad?” asked Katie, throwing on a robe as she came out of her room.
“Dunno.” he said, waving at her and her grandfather to stay put. “But youse let me handle this.”
“Better not be those Goddam revenuers again.” rumbled Grandpa Joe. And Ian put his head against the door.
“Who’s there?” he called. A plaintive rodent’s voice answered immediately.
“Duke Ian MacArran?”
“Aye, that’s me.” said the stallion, ears falling impatiently backwards, “What is it ye want, then?”
“Sir, I have an urgent telegram for you from your son, Colin MacArran, in London, England.”
Ian’s ears snapped forward so quickly they might have been spring-loaded.
“London?” he said, looking over a shoulder at his daughter and his father-in-law. “What the devil’s Colin doin’ there? He’s s’posed to be keepin’ an eye on things in Strathdern while I’m away.” He turned his attention back to the door.
“Read it to me, laddie.”
“I can’t sir.” said the voice from the other side, “It’s marked Private and Confidential. I can slip it under the door if you like.”
“Do that, then.” said Ian. A second later, he was stooping down to pick up an envelope and opening it.
Katie would never forget what she saw happen next; Her father reading for a second...and then clutching at his throat and staggering against the wall. When he turned around again, even in the dimness of the pre-dawn light...she could tell that his face was ashen.
“Wha-What is it, dad.” she asked
“What happened, Ian?” asked her grandfather.
For only the second time in her life that Katie had ever seen it, Ian’s eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, Katie...Joseph. It’s Frances...my bonny Frances.”
It had happened two days previously, when Katie’s mother had awakened complaining of a headache and a high fever. The asylum physicians had prescribed aspirin, and that had helped a little...but then her temperature had spiked viciously and the previous evening she had slipped into a coma.
A serum test revealed that she had come down with Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a disease usually fatal in 50% of all cases...but with Frances already weakened after repeated attempts at self-starvation, the prognosis was that she had three days, a week at the outside, before she was gone.
It was fine weather and a smooth sea all the way to Britain...but of all the ocean voyages upon which Katie MacArran would ever embark, this was the one she would remember as the longest. Oh, the furs from Cunard Lines had been wonderful. When Ian had explained what happened, and asked if they could squeeze aboard two more bodies, Grandpa Joe and a nurse, they’d agreed before he could even finish the request.
“Your wife’s father? Oh, say no more, your Grace. Of course, we’ll make an accommodation.”
The passengers were great, too. Katie stopped counting at twenty the number of furs who stopped by to offer their condolences and say, “If there’s anything I can do...”
On the fourth day out, at breakfast, with all of them picking at their food, the ship’s captain approached their table with his hat in his paws.
Even though he knew it was coming Ian was devastated. For the rest of the journey home, he was in state of near catatonia, staring into space with glassy eyes, and occasionally mumbling incoherently. More than once he had to be physically escorted from the ship’s bar...albeit, as gently as possible.
Grandpa Joe took it even harder. He had not only lost a daughter, he had lost his ONLY remaining child...and one who had rejected him to boot. Without warning, at any given moment, he would begin to sob uncontrollably, and nothing could make it stop.
As for Katie, for her it was the proverbial emotional roller-coaster...only one without any highs, only dips and flat sections One minute, she would be relatively stable. The next, she would be having her own crying jag. Or she would spent hours standing at the railing, staring out to sea, trying to feel something, WANTING to feel something, but unable to make the emotions come. And that made her feel guilty, and then that made her feel sad, and then that would bring on the tears again.
Katie MacArran’s mother had died...but she was a mare Katie didn’t know, someone she had last seen when she was eight years old. When she tried to remember what her dam looked like, there was no clear picture, only impressions.
And yet...Frances was the one who had brought her into the world, the mare who had given her life and nursed her. That had to count for something, didn’t it?
When they descended the gangplank in Southampton, Colin was there. Katie almost didn’t recognize him, he looked so strong and resolute in his frock-coat and top-hat.
His first action upon greeting his father was to take him firmly by the shoulders.
“Da...I know what ye’re thinking; tha’ you should have been here. DON’T think that...an’ don’t let me hear you say it. You couldn’t have known...nobody did. And dinna ye worry, I’ve got all the arrangements made.”
Through the days that followed, the train trip north, the wake, the burial service, Colin was a rock. He was Katie, Ian and Joe’s anchor, the one that kept on going when they were too emotionally spent to act. He saw to it that everyone was fed, he kept a pot of tea on all night, in case the others weren’t able to sleep. ( and almost nobody was. ) and when Frances was laid to rest on the hill overlooking the valley of Strathdern, it was Colin who read the eulogy.
“I know that mother was poorly in her final years, but let no horse think that this was all that Frances MacArran was. Her legacy will always be the better part of her...the part that remains with us....in my father’s heart, in my grandfather’s soul, and my sister Catherine’s and my bloodline.” Here, he looked directly at Katie, “Even though we may not have known our mother well in the years of her decline, we are better horses, the two of us for being born of her...for no colt and filly could ever come from finer stock.” and then, he’d thumped his chest. “In appearance, I may be an English Hunter, but in my veins, flows the blood of a Mustang...and I’m proud, very proud to make tha’ claim.”
And Katie burst into tears, only this time it was very different. Finally, at last, the emotions she had been searching for had come to the surface. She did love her mother. For all that had happened, Katie DID love her dam. And with that realization, she was finally able to let go of her feelings in a good, cathartic cry.
Later that evening, as she was getting ready for bed, someone knocked on her door. It was Colin.
“I was just wonderin’ if I could have a word wi’ youse...in the parlor, if ye don’t mind.”
Katie was wary...she still hadn’t forgotten what had happened the last time she saw her brother. And yet, was THIS stallion the same spoilt colt who had tried to take a few liberties with her? It was as if the adversity of losing Frances had brought out every single one of the qualities she so admired in both her father and grandfather. His behavior over the past week had been nothing short of exemplary.
For the first time, Katie was beginning to think that her brother might make a worthy heir to the title of Duke of Strathdern
And so, she agreed to follow him to the parlor, where she was surprised to find Grandpa Joe already seated in on of the oversized wing chairs.
“I won’t waste words.” said Colin, as soon as she had taken her chair, “But I wanted you to know that I realize what I did the last time I was in Colorado...what I did wi’ you Catherine...” His voice began to falter, and she saw his head drop down in shame, “...o-or what I tried to do was very wrong. And I want to apologize for my actions.” He looked up again, the rock of Gibraltar once more, “Nae excuses...Nae ‘I was young and foolish’ or anythin’ of the like. What I did was wrong...and I’m very, very sorry for it.”
Katie started to reply, but Colin had already moved on.
“And you, grandfather. Wouldn’t blame you if you got up and walked out right now. It was me turned mother against ye. Nae point tryin’ to deny it.” He wanted to say more...but Joe cut him off with a raised hoof.
“Ian already told me ‘bout how you tried to talk into reconcilin’ with me, son..” He stuck out a hoof and said, “Apology accepted.”
And so Katie accepted his apology too...but not with any tearful embraces. One day maybe...but not today.
Two days later, Frances Combs MacArran’s will was read. Although most of her property, such as it was, reverted to her husband, there was one notable exception. Frances, it turned out, had owned a tidy chunk of stock in her father’s mining equipment company. And this stock, every share, was willed to ‘my darling colt, Colin.’
Either Katie or Joe could have contested this clause and won. When Frances had written these words, she had hardly been of sound mind. But given Colin’s sterling conduct following her death, neither one of them chose to do so.
“Besides.” Joe confided to Katie afterwards, “It’s not like he inherited a controlling interest. Hell, that ain’t even a key block he’s got.”
Neither he, nor Katie could begin to realize just how gravely they had erred.
The following morning Colin’s stoic facade finally cracked. He arrived at the breakfast table, eyes full of tears and could not stop weeping. It was as if, now that everything was accomplished, he could finally give vent to the emotions that he had been keeping bottled up over the past long days.
Later that afternoon, he made a request of his father. Katie heard about it from her sire afterwards.
“Father...if it’s all right, I’d like to take some time away. I’m...really na’ in any state to resume my duties at the distilleries at the moment.” ( Colin had been promoted to managing of all of them the year before. ) “And I’ve na’ had a holiday in more than three years...so might I be allowed to take a leave of absence?”
Ian had smiled and laid a hoof on his son’s shoulder.
“After the fine way you’ve handled things these last few days, son? I’d say you’ve earned it, laddie. Take as much time off as you like. Only please don’t be goin’ to America. Last thing youse want is those bloody treasury agents all over yer arse.”
“Actually, I was thinking o’ the Mediterranean.” Colin answered, smiling back. “Josslyn’s there...and he’s just lost his father, if ye recall. Misery loves company and all that.”
“Aye...I remember,” said Ian, nodding, “I knew his da, the 19th Earl of Errol quite well. Fine idea, Colin. Go ahead.”
And neither could Ian know that he had just made a far more grievous mistake than either his daughter or his father-in-law.
Or that this would be his last.
When Katie returned to Howden, and a warm welcome from both Dr. Wallis and Neville Norway, she was unsurprised at the progress that had been made in her absence on the R-100. It was neither more, nor less than she had expected. The outer girderworks was now complete, and the task at hand was joining the various sections to make a whole.
“But things are movin’ much better than they were when you left, Katie.” Neville Norway told her in his broad Aussie accent, “The more we get done, the easier it is to find the quid.”
There had been a new member added to the R-100 design team while she was gone. His name was John Redruth, and he was a fallow deer from Cornwall. Katie and John quickly struck up and acquaintance, and soon they were seeing each other socially. On weekends off, they would frequently hop in Katie’s new WACO-10 biplane and fly off to wherever caught their fancy...or down to London, where they would stay together at the MacArran house in Kensington. ( Her father had elected to remain in Strathdern for a while. )
Katie liked John and he liked her. He was of average height for a cervine, but an extremely athletic deer just the same. While studying Aeronautics at Queen Mary University, near London he’d been captain of the school Rugby team ...and still liked to play the occasional ‘pick-up’ game when the opportunity arose. His background was also very similar to Katie’s. John Redruth was the son of a mining engineer, and very familiar with Combs Mining Equipment.
He was also a wizard on the subject of aeronautics. Together, he and Katie enjoyed coming up with off-the-wall aircraft designs: a plane that could take off on pontoons, and jettison them to land on wheels, a plane with a reversible pitch propellor for landing on short runways, a flying boat with detachable wings and retractable wheels, making it able to move through all three elements, land, sea, and air. Whenever they showed one of these cockeyed designs to Barnes Wallis, it invariably left the big elk in stitches.
“You’re not planning on BUILDING any of that, I hope.” he remarked on one occasion.
“Good lord, no!” said John, half amused, half horrified.
That was why what happened next was doubly frustrating for Katie. One Friday afternoon, purely on a lark, she suggested to John that they go drop by Cardington where the R-100's sister ship/rival ship, the R-101 was being built.
“Huh...excellent idea, Kate,” said the fallow buck, “I’m rather curious about how things are progressing on the socialist ship meself.”
That being said, they flew off to London, and the next day, took the short drive to the R-101's hangar
As they approached the Cardington facility, Katie’s first impression was one of sheer size. If the shed where the R-100 was being assembled was huge, then this one was enormous. “The largest building in England.” the watchdog in charge of the gate proudly told them. Katie, for her part, experienced a small sense of foreboding. With it’s grey walls, blocky architecture, shallow-sloping roof, and three regimented rows of windows, the place looked more like an enormous prison than a dirigible shed.
As it turned out, there were several members of the R-101 design team on duty that weekend, and they were only too happy to show their creation, such as she was, to their fellow airship builders.
Or perhaps the proper term should have been, to show OFF their creation to show UP their fellow airship builders. Every single member of the R-101 team to whom she and John were introduced was cocky to the point of arrogance. At one point, Katie mentioned in passing that she had been aboard the Norge on it’s flight over the arctic, and their guide, a blue fox named Cyril something, responded with the declaration that a SINGLE cell of the R-101, carried more lift than the entire Norge. By the second hour of the tour, Katie was ready to deck the next twit who used the phrase, ‘best in the world’ to describe the R-101...especially since she was rapidly coming around to the opposite point of view.
Unlike the R-100, which was a privately financed venture, the R-101 was being sponsored by the British government. ( hence, their respective labels, capitalist ship and socialist ship.) Determined to show up Hugo Eckener, who was then hard at work on his next masterpiece, the Graf Zeppelin, Whitehall had ‘left nothing to chance’ in the creation of the government dirigible; an extra strong stainless steel and Duralumin frame, servo-motors instead of manual steering, and diesel engines rather than gasoline. Katie was aghast. In the minds of the London bureaucrats, all this might have added up to the finest airship ever built, but in her mind it totaled up to something else...weight. Even worse, from her point of view, was that in pulling out all the stops in the design of their airship, the R-101 team had literally done just that. The novel gas valves which they proposed to install were so sensitive that Katie was certain they would leak at the slightest provocation. In other words, almost constantly. ( And at that point in history, ALL airships rode on hydrogen. )
It was as if someone had come up with the airship equivalent of the bizarre aircraft designs she and John Redruth were always producing...only this time for real, not as a flight of fancy.
But if Katie was appalled by the flying monstrosity that was taking shape in Cardington, such was not the case with her companion. John Redruth wasn’t just impressed by the R-101, he was amazed...no, awestruck. All during the drive back to London, he did nothing but rave about what a fantastic design the R-101 was. “Ohhhh, if only we had such resources in Howden...”he kept saying over and over. That night, pleading a dose of colic, Katie slept by herself...or tried to. She knew what was going to happen. This was exactly how she’d acted when she’d first heard about the Dole Derby.
Sure enough, within a month, John had tendered his resignation with the R-100 team and was on his way to Cardington. Only two months after that, he and Katie went their separate ways. It was a painful breakup for her. No sooner had John left Howden than he began to beg, plead, cajole, and whatever to try and persuade the pinto mare to come and join him. Finally, John’s nonstop barracking had it’s effect...though not the one he might have envisioned. During one of their weekend stay-overs in London, Katie exploded, calling the R-101 ( among other things ) ‘a disaster waiting to happen’ and suggesting that John had lost both his sanity and his intelligence for ever becoming involved with ‘that Goddam flying Titanic!’ The episode ended with him stalking off into the night and her slamming the door behind him. Ohhhhh, why the HELL had she ever suggested that visit to Cardington?
Katie and John might eventually have reconciled. In the course of their spat, neither one of them had said anything truly hurtful.
It never happened. In less than a week, Katie MacArran had bigger problems to contend with.
R-101 at her mooring mast: