Last time Anatoly, Bentley and Thompson survived their night with the chickens and started their search properly.
They had managed to get dried and dressed again before they reached the next island and both Anatoly and Thompson were hoping not to have to wade ashore again. This island seemed to be made primarily of a huge, towering cliff which was simply covered in birds. The air was full of birds, doing a complicated dance it seemed, swooping in and out without ever colliding. As before they circled the island, training field-glasses to survey the area, and then guided the boat towards a convenient sandy cove.
Bentley steered the boat into the cove, Anatoly jumped out and waded the last few feet with the mooring rope to secure the boat to a handy nearby rock. He waited on the sand while his colleagues dismounted and watched the circling birds. “Not sure I’d be able to camp here,” Bentley said wryly. “It’s a bit noisy!”
“That would not have bothered Jack, or the others, probably,” Anatoly commented. Of all of them he knew the children best, though even his knowledge was limited to a few brief conversations. If he had been a few years younger, he could have seen himself being friends with Jack and Philip, but whether or not they’d have accepted him was another matter.
They watched the birds for a few more minutes, marvelling at the sheer numbers – and at their terrible clumsiness on land as they knocked eggs from their precarious nests on uneven ledges – and then drew their minds back to the task at hand.
“I think, with all these clumsy birds around, we should split up,” Bentley said. “It’ll be quicker and then we can get away from this mess of an island!”
Thompson nodded. “Whistle if you find anything.”
They each picked a direction and went off, eyes peeled for any signs of human presence. Obviously a human present would be a clear sign, but they were also looking for remains of camp-fires, foot-prints, scraps of paper, tin cans and so on. After a while Anatoly found a couple of patches of grass which seemed to have been flattened down. It wasn’t terribly obvious unless you were looking at it from the right angle, and he circled the area a few times, looking closely. He was just fingering his whistle, considering whether or not to alert the others in case it turned out to be nothing when three short, sharp whistle blasts came from the east.
He hot-footed it in that direction and found Thompson who was crouched by a small, gurgling stream. “I’ve found some footprints,” he said without preamble. Anatoly joined him in crouching and examined the ground. Around the spring there were clear signs of people. Flattened grasses and heather, slightly churned up mud where the ground was wettest, and, as Thompson had said, a couple of reasonably clear foot-marks.
Bentley turned up a few moments later and looked down at the footprints with them. “It’s a good start, I haven’t found anything,” he said as he examined the prints. “All I found was a lot of birds.”
“Pity they can’t talk,” Thompson remarked, taking a couple of photographs of the spring as evidence. “We could have asked them if they’d seen anything.”
“I think I might have seen something,” Anatoly broke in. “I was just about to whistle when you did.” He swept his arm in the direction he had come from. “There’s some big patches of slightly flatter grass over that way.”
The other two nodded and followed him without comment, showing that had at least some faith in him. Like he had, they circled the area a few times, examining it from all angles. They agreed it did not look like the sort of flattening that could happen to grass in the wind, it was too regular a shape. “Possibly a couple of tents,” Bentley said, crouching down as if looking more closely at the grass would tell him more.
“In that case we had better assume they could have stayed here, even if it was only for a night or two, and make a thorough search,” Bentley said with a firm nod. “I would have expected to see their boat if they were still here though, but there may be a hidden cove on this island that they came in at.”
They split up and began a slower and more methodical search of the island, starting around the spring and the potential tent area, and working outwards.
Coming back together, several hours later, they admitted that no other major clues had been found. Some loose earth had been investigated and a couple of tins had been found buried, and one or two other foot-prints had been spotted but that was it.
“They are not here,” Anatoly said with a shrug when Thompson and Bentley debated the fact. “They may have been here for one night and moved on. We need to keep looking.”
“Do we think this is where they have gone missing from?” Anatoly asked cautiously.
“We don’t know that they are missing,” Bentley reminded him. “All we know is that we can’t raise Bill on the radio. It could be broken for all we know and he’s gallivanting around some island miles away and having a grand old time!”
“All right,” Anatoly said, though he had a gut feeling that Bill was not having a good time at all. “Do we think that they left this island as recently as our last contact with Bill?”
“It’s hard to tell,” mused Thompson. “But I’d wager it was a bit earlier. The grass has mostly sprung back from where we think the tents were, and those cans are starting to rust already.”
“We don’t even know it was Bill on this island,” Bentley added, always the sensible one. “It could have been any trippers, here a week or so ago perhaps.”
It was disheartening, but they had made notes and taken photographs of what evidence they had found, and so all they could do was head back to their boat, get it back on the water and travel on to the next bit of land.
They ate on the boat as they were starving, having last eaten when Anatoly had prepared them breakfast, and Bentley powered the boat towards the next island, aware that it would be getting dark soon.
To be continued…