FLYING at 5,000 feet in the hazy blue vault of the summer sky, Joe Smith, who had once been Pilot Joseph Stedman of Universal Air Transport, had the world over the Canadian wilds to himself. Which was not wholly as it should have been, for at some time during the past hour his friend, Dick Connor, flying a ship that was a twin to the one Joe piloted, should have passed him, bound south from Bushton Mines, near the edge of the Barrens, to Woodville on the railroad.
The steady droning of the motor had lulled into fitful slumber the two passengers in the compartment behind him, and after a time Joe set the control stick of the plane between his knees and took up a pair of binoculars from the vacant seat beside him. Not that there was anything to be nervous about, Joe told himself. But . . .
It was that tiny uncertainty that assumed huge proportions where Dick Connor was concerned. When a man has only one friend in the world, the affairs of that friend and the matters which touch upon his well-being, become magnified.
Focusing the glasses, Joe searched the vacant spaces ahead, past the gossamer blur of the propeller. Only the blue, misty horizon, that seemed to tilt down toward the Arctic ocean and the end of the world, met his gaze. Nowhere was the dark, insectlike dot that would be the afternoon plane bound south.
He turned the glasses on the landscape below, scanning the bush that extended mile after timbered mile far below the rushing ship. Here and there small blue patches betokened lakes, lying silent and untroubled, locked in the heart of the wilderness. Streams like silvery threads wound their tenuous course across the varied shades of green carpeting that seemed to make up the terrain. This green carpet, Joe knew, was variously composed of tall stands of evergreen; of straight, leafy timber; of dense thicket and fathomless marshy swamp. From the heights it gave an unbelievably soft, tapestry-like effect.
For a moment, far to the left, Joe thought he caught a glimpse of something whitish, and his heart pounded a trifle faster as he turned the glasses on it. But it was only a compact stand of white birch clustered near the summit of a hill. In a way it had looked like the wreckage of silvered wings, and Joe breathed more easily to find himself wrong. But it was with a vague sense of foreboding that he laid the glasses back on the seat and turned his attention to the stick.
Minute after minute ticked away through the clock on the instrument panel, and the gasoline gauge showed that gallons of fuel were blasting away through the hot exhausts.
Far on the horizon, a splotch like an azure mirror gradually took form, and Joe eased the stick forward gently and began to drop down toward it.
From the air, Joe had always been surprised at the insignificance of Bushton Mines. Like a toy village, dominated by the bulk of the stamp mill, the concentrating plant and mine-head building, it lay almost on the shore of blue Lake Belden. And around it, pressing upon it from every side, the strange, wild tangle of undisturbed forest land that ran for mile upon mile until the trees petered out to scrub and the scrub petered out to an occasional alder stand in the limitless morass of the Barrens.
Yet down there, in that ant heap, men with rock drills and explosive were day after day ripping asunder the great pre-Cambrian sheath that for a hundred million years perhaps had held its yellow golden hoard inviolate. A treasure that might have been held inviolate for centuries to come were it not for men like Connor and himself, who day after day spanned the distance from civilization to wilderness, carrying out the gold concentrate and bringing in the luxuries that made life in the isolated places more bearable. Mail, passengers, perishables, medicines—like flying shuttles the incessant crisscross of the big monoplanes wove a constant strand of communication and service between Bushton and Woodville.
In the winters when the snow blanketed the world, the heavy supply trains, laden with weighty staples and supplies and machinery, drawn by powerful caterpillartread tractors, thundered their way through the wilderness with elephantine progress bringing the year’s supplies for development and sustenance. But it was the swift, vibrant rush of the planes that, winter and summer, formed the nerve channels of Bushton Mines.
And it was because of Dick Connor, and because Dick Connor was his friend, that Joe, who called himself Smith, was a part of this. Dick was chief of the Bushton air transport system. Upon his shoulders rested the responsibility for maintaining sure, safe service. With two planes, three mechanics and an assistant pilot, Dick had a two-year record of no mishaps and very few forced landings. In the winter the snow skis made landings easy, and in the open months the pontoons enabled them to land on Lake Belden, thus doing away with the necessity of an airport at Bush ton.
It was to the rippled surface of Lake Belden, named for the chief owner and developer of Bushton, that Joe brought the monoplane in a long easy slope, like a huge shiny water beetle alighting on the surface. As he taxied the plane over the water toward the peeled-log apron at the shore, he noted with relief that its twin ship was pulled out, clear of the water.
Why, he wondered, had the plane not gone down that afternoon? Connor himself always took out the shipments of concentrate; there must be some reason for the trip being cancelled.
Drifting the ship up to the apron, where a mechanic caught the wing rope and made them fast, Joe waited until, the passengers were out; then, grasping the mail sack, he emerged through the little door, threw the sack to the mechanic and jumped out on to the apron.
“Where’s Dick?” he asked. “Didn’t he fly this afternoon?”
The mechanic, AÍ, looked at him queerly, as though groping for words.
“No—he didn’t go down today ...”
There was something evasive in his voice, but before Joe could enquire further he saw Raia Belden hurrying toward him from the hangar.
“Back in a minute, Al,” he said. “Take the mail up, will you?”
Joe smoothed the sandy hair off his forehead with an unconscious gesture as he went to meet Raia. He was curiously eager that she should think well of him; of how he looked, of how he acted, of what he was.
Not because she was old John Belden’s daughter. That in itself merely implied that she would inherit a certain interest in Bushton Mines. Aside from that, being John Beiden’s daughter could not confer any especial distinction, for John Belden was neither better nor worse than the average mine owner. But Raia Belden possessed the bright quality of sunlight, that seemed to penetrate into the darkened lives of others and dispel shadows that were threatening. An unstudied freshness, a friendliness in her nature, found a resonant chord in Joe’s being, and had made him, from the moment he had seen her, yearn for her companionship.
A companionship which, because of her insatiable interest in flying, had not been hard to obtain—at least on the ground. For reasons of his own, Joe had avoided flying her.
Joe had come to the Bushton service in the spring, and it had been after the fly season in July that Raia had come up to be with her father while he directed some new prospect surveys in the surrounding bush. She had been here a month now, and Joe secretly dreaded her departure, which was scheduled for the coming week.
As he walked toward her, Joe pulled a small oblong package from his pocket. It was a box of candy he had got in Woodville.
“Present,” he grinned, holding it out to her, while his grey eyes dwelt happily on the light clustered curls that framed her face.
Something in her expression stopped him, and the hand holding the box slowly sank to his side.
Raia, her eyes very serious, came up and slipped her arm through his. Turning, she began to walk with him slowly toward the hangar.
“Bad news, Joe,” she said quietly, holding his arm very tight. “Can you take it?”
Joe knew then, for the tone of her voice told him more than words. He stopped short in his tracks.
“Dick?” His voice sounded very far away in his own ears.
“We won’t see Dick any more, Joe.” There was a slight choke in her voice. “They were working on the plane—he slipped, I think. The propeller was turning over—it struck his head ...”
Joe nodded dumbly. She didn’t have to explain. He knew how those things were.
TN THE PLAIN, pine-boarded room which John Belden
used as an office during his sojourns at the plant of Bushton Mines, Joe faced the mine owner across the desk. Belden, a grey-haired man, heavily built, carried his head low between his shoulders, so that he gave the vague impression of a buffalo. But his eyes were large, thoughtful, with a luminous quality in their depths. Eyes that were not dominant, and for that reason were dangerous. They had the power of drawing things out of men. Perhaps it was on this account that Joe never felt wholly comfortable in John Belden ’s presence.
“Naturally, I’m distressed about this thing, Smith,” Belden was saying. “Connor was one of my most trusted men. His job was an important one, and he is—was—a very integral part of our organization. Replacing him presents something of a problem.”
“Yes. sir,” Joe spoke dully, as though the matter were one of small interest.
"I know Connor placed a great deal of confidence in you,” pursued Belden carefully. “And it is largely because of that, aside from the very satisfactory work you’ve done with us, that I am considering you as his successor.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Belden.” Joe was a little surprised. Until now he had not considered the situation in this light.
“There’s just one thing,” said Belden suavely. “In running over our records, I am unable to find any dossier, so to speak, on your past connections. References from former employers, flying experience, and so on. Did you present us with your credentials, let us say, when you entered our employ?”
Joe felt that old haunting sense of panic take possession of him. But he beat it down, firmly.
“Why—no, Mr. Belden,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t asked for any.
Dick Connor knew me, and I supposed he attended to that.”
“H-m—that was highly irregular,” said John Belden. “Of course he had a certain leeway with his men—but all such material should have been filed—just in case—of a thing like this. I suppose, though, there won’t be any difficulty on that score.”
There was a question implied in his tone, but Joe remained silent.
As though fearing that he had not made himself wholly clear, Belden spoke again.
“The shipments of concentrate that go out by plane are insured, of
course. The pilot that flies them is bonded. Heretofore Connor has done this work, and as the company pays the expense of the bond, it has not seemed necessary to incur this expense for both our pilots. If you take over the management of our transport, you will fly the concentrate, naturally. I have some forms here which, if you will fill out, I will forward to the surety company. They will verify your past record very quickly, and we will be happy to confirm your appointment.”
Belden extended some papers across the desk.
Joe took them and looked at the questionnaires.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t satisfy these, Mr. Belden,” he said slowly. “Dick Connor knew me, and knew I was a good flyer. That’s why he gave me the job. You see, I can’t give references from previous satisfactory employers and so on, the way they ask, because—well, you see—” He floundered slightly. “I was a sort of stunt flier—wing walking and that stuff—around the country. Sort of on my own, you know. I can assure you”—he looked straight at Belden—“that I have never committed a dishonest act, or done anything for which I would be liable to imprisonment. But, aside from Dick Connor, I don’t know where I could get the sort of references you—I mean these companies—would require.”
Belden looked at him for a time, as though he would draw out with those eyes of his the thing that they both knew—• the true reason why Joe Smith couldn’t offer references.
“No—I think you have the look of an honest man,” said Belden finally. “But bonding companies don’t go on
appearances. So I’m afraid we shall have to pass you over, if you think you can’t satisfy them. I’m genuinely sorry, my boy. It would have been a good opportunity for you.” “I’m sorry, too.” Joe felt himself flushing under the scrutiny of Belden ’s eyes.
'-pHREE DAY’S later Joe came out of the hangar and started down the apron of peeled logs, preparatory to warming up his regular plane for the morning flight to Woodville. Single-handed, he had been maintaining the service of communication, but tire concentrate had been accumulating at Bushton.
“Joe.” He turned at the sound and found Raia standing beside him. He had not seen her since the time she had broken the news about Dick to him. Somehow, in that moment, he had felt that they were very close to one another, because Dick Connor had treated her very much as an elder brother would. She had flown with him the summer before.
“Yes?” Joe pulled off the leather helmet with the earflaps and goggles, and looked down at her.
“Dad told me this morning that there’s another flyer coming up today.”
“Uh-huh.” Joe spoke with assumed nonchalance. “Flyin’
his own ship in, I understand. Pretty flossy.” He tried to appear unconcerned.
“Listen, Joe.” Raia seemed disturbed. “Why didn’t you get that—that job? I asked dad to give it to you, and he told me he would. What went wrong?”
“You—asked him to give it to me?” Joe stared at her.
“Yes.” Raia looked off across the lake, and there was a little troubled note in her voice. “I—like you, Joe—and I wanted to see you get ahead. I thought everything was all right. And now they tell me this other man ...” She did not finish the sentence.
“Raia, I ...” For a wild instant Joe felt the desire to tell her and have it over with. To tell her the whole hideous story and get it off his chest. But the fear of finding in her eyes the contempt that he had seen so often in the eyes of others, the unbelief and the scepticism, halted him. He pulled on the helmet. “I’m sorry you did that,” he said quietly. “It’s just one of those things we have to forget about. But I’m awfully glad—you felt like seeing me get the job,” he finished uncertainly.
Then he turned and hurried down the apron. When he looked back over his shoulder she had gone.
All the way to Woodville and back that day, he was preoccupied with a problem. Who would be the new transport chief? Would it be someone who knew, or would it be a stranger who had never heard of Joe Stedman and with whom he could work in harmony? A lot depended on that.
Therefore it was with nervous hands that he set the plane down on the waters of Lake Belden an hour before the late sunset, and, with his pontoons throwing showers of spray, thundered in to the apron.
His eyes took quick note of a strange ship—a trim, speedy little low-wing amphibian monoplane of the latest streamline design, with its snub nose boasting a powerful motor— resting lightly, on its single slipperlike pontoon, by the apron. The new flyer had arrived.
At the landing Joe got out with the mail sack and turned to see that the plane was made fast, while AÍ got aboard to pass out the load of supplies he had brought, consisting mainly of five-foot lengths of casing for the diamond drills with which Belden’s men were proving the pre-Cambrian out in the bush.
“Smith,” Beiden’s voice spoke behind him, “I want you to meet Martin Boyd, who will have charge of our transport flying for the time being.”
Martin Boyd !
Slowly Joe turned and looked at him. "Icicle” Boyd—one of the coolest, nerviest pilots in the Dominion, formerly a flying mate of his in the service of Universal Air Transport.
Boyd, a lean angular man with deeply-lined face and frosty blue eyes, had extended his hand, a pleasant smile on his face.
As Joe faced him he quickly withdrew his hand and his face became quite blank, as though he had never seen Joe before.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?” he remarked flatly.
“Yes, it’s me,” said Joe, eyeing him steadily.
“You men know each other?” Belden stared from one to the other. He sensed that all was not well.
“I’m afraid so,” said Martin Boyd. “Mr. Belden, I think you and I and—Smith, had better step up to your office immediately. We might as well have this out right now.”
In his voice was the cold intolerance that Joe had been familiar with in the old days; an intolerance of cowardice and weakness.
“Have what out?” Belden was quite puzzled. “Is something wrong?”
“You’ll find out quickly enough.” Boyd was abrupt. Silently Joe accompanied the two men to the pinepanelled room, and Belden shut the door.
XTOW, GENTLEMEN, what is this all about?” he enquired, seating himself at the desk and waving the others to chairs.
Neither of the men sat down.
“In the first place, Mr. Belden,” Martin Boyd said coldly, “this man’s name is not Smith. This is Joe Stedman. Does that mean anything to you?”
“I’m afraid not.” Belden wrinkled his brow.
“If you were a flyer, it would. Much as I hate talebearing”—Martin Boyd’s voice rang with honest conviction —“in view of the safety of your service, I have no alternative in this case. The facts are few. Three years ago, in a bad storm in the United States, a tri-motored passenger plane of Universal A. T. crashed, killing twelve passengers, one pilot, and the hostess. The other pilot was found some twenty miles from the scene of the disaster with a broken leg. Near him was a parachute, from which he had just managed to free himself. That pilot was Joe Stedman—this man here.”
Boyd paused and looked at Joe.
“Do you deny this?”
“No,” said Joe quietly. “What you say is true.”
“I must say”—Belden looked slightly annoyed—“that I fail to understand exactly why this concerns me. There was an accident, and he jumped out. Why didn’t the others do likewise?”
“There was only one parachute in that plane,” said Martin Boyd quietly. “It was for the use of the pilot if one was flying the ship alone, not otherwise.”
“Oh,” said John Belden after a moment. “I see!” “Naturally,” went on Martin Boyd impersonally, “he was discharged by Universal for—let us say, unreliability— and I understood he had been grounded. I suppose he got a license under an assumed name, and has been flying ever since for people who don’t know him.”
“I can’t understand”— Belden shook his head—“how Connor would take a man like that into our employ. He should have known better. Why, I’d never feel safe with him in the air again.”
“That’s the way everyone would feel—if they knew,” said Boyd calmly. “I’m afraid you’ll find it necessary to let him go. I know I shall not be able to work with him—” “And why can’t you work with him?”
No one had noticed Raia come in the quietly opened door, and the sound of her voice was like a bombshell exploding in the little room. They all started, even Boyd.
Joe flushed, and the expression of his eyes was miserable. “Go on—tell her,” he said thickly. “She might as well know now as later.”
Briefly and courteously, Boyd repeated what he had just told John Belden. Joe admitted to himself that Martin Boyd never exaggerated. Everything he said was attested to in the records of the investigation that had followed the disaster.
Raia listened to him until he had finished. Her expression did not change, but Joe noticed that there was a slight paleness in her face as Boyd came to the end of his story.
“I think I understand,” she said quietly, turning and facing her father. “But it doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?” “What?” John Belden stared at her. “What doesn’t seem fair?”
“Turning him out like this. Whatever he may have done at the time of that accident, he has served you faithfully and to the best of his ability, hasn’t he?” Raia’s voice was cool, matter-of-fact. “I’ve heard you say that you were lucky to have such a skilled, steady pilot working for you. Why, two-thirds of the men in this camp have done something in the past they must be ashamed of. If you start firing people because they have had black marks against them, you’ll have to shut down permanently.”
Raia gazed at her father as though the common sense of tke thing were too obvious for argument.
“I suppose there is something in that, too,” said John Belden thoughtfully. “Also, if we make a change, we’ll have to break in a new man. Smith—Stedman, I mean—knows the country and the work now. It would hold us up.”
“You can do anything you like about it, Mr. Belden,” said Boyd firmly. “I’ve told you what sort of a man he is. If he stays, I shan’t take any responsibility whatever for anything that happens. Suit yourself.”
“We could, of course, arrange it this way,” remarked Belden; “we could let Stedman fly mail and supplies, while you could fly concentrate and passengers. In that he wouldn’t be entrusted with any lives.”
Boyd shrugged. “Anything you say.”
“I’ll think it over,” said Belden, nodding dismissal at them. “Meantime, arrange to divide the work between you as I indicated. By the way, Smi—Stedman—I suppose you want to stay, even after this?”
Continued on page 55
Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5
Joe flushed. Above everything, he wanted to be away from there. But the way Raia had stuck up for him . . .
“I’ll stay,” said Joe quietly. “That is, if you’ll let me.”
Belden eyed them thoughtfully.
“I think, then, for the present we won’t say anything about what’s happened here. Understand?”
RAIA, THAT was terribly decent of - you.” Joe faced her outside the office. Boyd walked unconcernedly off toward the hangar, turning his back abruptly on Joe after excusing himself to the girl.
“Not at all,” said Raia distantly, as though Joe were a stranger to her. ‘T did not want to see an injustice done anyone, particularly by my father.”
“Anyway, I wonder if you’d listen to my side of it,” said Joe. “I don’t suppose you will believe it, any more than the other people have done. But I’d like a chance to tell you, anyhow.”
“Very well,” said Raia. “Let’s walk over by the lake, and you can tell me as we go. I can’t promise to believe you, though.” “Thanks,” said Joe gratefully. “But I hope you will. In the first place, the facts told you by Boyd are true. Here’s what happened.”
In brief sentences Joe sought to recreate the bitter events of the night of the crash.
“It was a very dark night, and we ran into a storm. Our radio went dead, and ice started forming on the wings. Hank Carey —that was my co-pilot—and I were fighting the best we could to keep the ship up. You see, when the ice gets on the wings it changes the contour and lowers the lifting power. It was black as pitch, with gusts of snow and rain high up and a terrific thunderstorm below. We could drop down into the clouds, and you could feel the bolts of lightning crash by your ears. Then we’d fight her up into the higher altitudes and get the ice. It was awful. We were tossed about in the air currents until it seemed the ship would split to pieces. But we kept her going and kept her up. Our only hope was to keep going and trust that we’d work clear of the storm area without crashing. To try a landing would have been suicide, because we couldn’t tell where we were—over water or mountains, or where.
“I remember there was no panic. The passengers sat there very quiet—I guess they knew we were doing our best, and we were. But it was terribly rough—gusts that would come smacking out of the darkness and turn the ship almost upside down.”
Joe stopped and stared at the ground as they walked.
“After a while something went wrong with our port motor. It went dead. And we needed it mighty bad, that motor. I strapped on the emergency parachute that we carry, and made a try to get out to it. Foolish, I guess—you can’t very well fix anything under such circumstances. But we were desperate. That little extra bit of power might mean the difference between life and death for the passengers—and us. I managed to get there, when a terrific gust hit us, threw the plane on its side and simply tore me off that wing. I don’t know, but I think it broke my leg across a strut as I went off. Maybe not. I thought I was a goner, so the only thing I could do was pull Üie ring and pray that the chute would open in the storm. I guess it did, because the last thing I remember was hitting the ground an awful wallop. You know the rest.”
“But Joe—why didn’t you tell people this? Surely you must have?” Raia seemed puzzled, almost suspicious.
“That’s the bad part of it. You see, Hank Carey and I had something of an argument as to which one of us would try to reach the motor. I remember saying to him, ‘Give me that chute; I’m getting out, not you !’ Hank was married and had a kid.” Joe shuffled the ground with his toe, and his voice was low. “I thought the fellow that stayed inside might have pulled the ship through. Anyway, when they found me, I was out, and in the hospital I talked a lot. Delirium, you know. I kept saying over and over, ‘Give me that ’chute, I’m getting out!’ They got a stenographer and took it down, and it was presented at the investigationWasn’t allowed as evidence finally, but it had a lot of weight. Everyone thought I had taken the ’chute away from someone else and bailed out at the last minute. I guess that gust that took me off must have thrown the ship out of control, because she crashed shortly afterward. No one lived to bear me
Joe stood there, his hands in his pockets, looking earnestly at Raia.
“That’s my story. You can believe it, or you can call me a liar.”
Raia stared out across the waters of Lake Belden, streaked with crimson and purple from the sun now below the trees of the northern shore. There was a far-away, troubled look in her eyes.
“I’d rather believe you—I’d rather believe what you tell me, Joe—than anything else in the world,” she said at last in a low voice.
“But there’s just that little doubt, isn’t there?” said Joe grimly. “Just that little uncertainty that takes too much faith to overcome. I know how it is. I guess I can’t blame you. Everyone else has always felt the same way, when he knew. All except Dick Connor. He’d been my pal since we were kids. ‘Never mind the rest,’ he told me. ‘You know, and I know.’ And now I’m the only one who knows,” said Joe.
Raia said nothing, only the troubled look in her eyes deepened.
Presently they turned and walked silently back toward the little wooden village that was Bushton Mines.
HEAR THE BUSH is afire up north of you people. Pretty bad, is it?” The mechanic at the Woodville depot put the question to Joe as they worked over the motor on the plane Joe had brought in that morning. It had started missing in the air.
It was six days after Joe had spoken with Raia, and during that time a very considerable amount of excitement had developed about Lake Belden.
“Yes,” said Joe, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a grease-stained hand. “Guess that’s why it’s so hot down here. They spotted it up at Bushton nearly a week ago, and it’s been working south ever since.” “Guess the wind’s changin’.” The mechanic sniffed. “I been smellin’ smoke for most of the momin’. Blowin’ down this
“Plenty up our way,” said Joe briefly. “When they go in’ to get a new motor for this crate?” asked the mech. aggravatedly. "There ain’t goin’ to be nothin’ but trouble with this one from now on; she’s that old.” “New plane going to be delivered next month, I understand,” said Joe. ‘Then this will be a reserve ship. Always have one under repair then. More work for you.” “Well, it can’t come any too soon to suit
me,” said the mech. “There—guess she’s okay now.”
Repairs completed, Joe warmed up and tested the motor; and then, with his load of supplies and mail, he battered off along the river that was the Woodville landing place and finally jumped the heavily-loaded ship into the air after a series of splashes.
“She does need a new motor,” he thought to himself. “Barely enough power to pull her up into the air with a load. Good thing the lake at Bushton is a big one. We need plenty of run.”
Heeling the ship gently over, Joe went droning off into the north. Familiar now the landscape that passed beneath him, and he paid little attention to it until nearing the end of the trip. Then he noticed, suddenly, that the scene presented a different aspect. Far to the north, beyond where Bushton Mines lay, the horizon boiled with murky fluffs of smoke, shading from grey to black. An ugly, roily prospect. The forerunner of it had drifted down upon the lake, and as Joe plunged into the haze that hung over the lake he noticed a heavy tingling sensation in his nostrils.
“Where is everybody?” he said to Al, as he got out of the ship at the apron.
“All out digging trenches and fireguards and cuttin’ down trees,” said AÍ. “They want you up at the office right away.” Wonderingly, Joe went up to the office. It was oppressively hot, and the sun cast a weird, greenish brown light through the pall of smoke that was drifting heavily down over Lake Belden. At the mine, he found a gang of men with hoses sluicing the shafthead structure with water drawn from the lake by power pumps.
Cames, the superintendent, met him at the door.
“What’s the matter?” enquired Joe. “No fire here, is there?”
“Very bad, Smith. The wind has changed in the night, and it’s going to come down on us like a racehorse. The whole bush up yonder is burning. Every man, woman and child is out there strengthening our fireguards. I’ve had a lot of supplies taken out to one of the islands in the lake, and if worst comes to worst we can move everyone out there. But we hope to save the settlement.” “What do you want me to do?” asked Joe. Cames stared at him.
“I don’t know what you can do. You’ve heard about Belden?”
“No. I just got in.”
“Last evening Boyd took Belden and Miss Raia up to fly over the fire zone. Thought they might see from the glare just where the worst of it was. Boyd wanted to go alone, but Belden said he was going because he wanted to estimate the chances of saving the mines. Guess Miss Raia went along to sightsee. They haven’t come back.” Cames, hollows from sleeplessness deep under his eyes, shrugged. “We can only hope they—landed on one of the lakes somewhere. But it got dark when they left ...” Joe stared at him aghast.
“You mean—all three of them—are missing?” he asked incredulously.
“Yep,” Cames nodded tiredly. “If they’re still alive, they’re up there in that burning area. At least, they’re not back here. I’ve sent out men, of course.”
“Guess I’d better go after them,” remarked Joe casually.
Cames shook his head.
“That’s up to you,” he said. “I’ll not say Yes and I won’t say No. But I’ve been up in these woods a long time. I don’t think you have a chance of finding them, son, and I think you’re more than likely to kill yourself. You can’t come down through that smoke, you know. It’s like fog. Maybe when the thing has burned over we’ll find
“Thanks,” said Joe. He held out his hand. “If I don’t see you, so long.”
“Okay, so long,” said Cames matter-offactly, and turned back to the building.
Joe lit a cigarette and walked quickly back to the hangar.
“Come on, Al,” he said to the mechanic. “Put every gallon of gas into that hummingbird of Boyd’s that she’ll take. I may need it.”
“Whyn’t you take the mail plane?” AÍ asked.
‘Too slow on the take-off and won’t climb fast enough,” said Joe. “Come along now —and, say—if that fire gets here, take the mail plane out to the island. You can ride the water in her. Put plenty gas and oil aboard her first, see?”
“Sure,” nodded AÍ.
WITH THE gasoline in the tank of the amphibian, Joe warmed the motor of Boyd’s ship up with as much haste as he dared, and taxied out into the lake, the ship handling like a charm. He had flown similar planes frequently and knew their qualities in skilled hands. Opening the throttle, he thundered across the waters of Lake Belden, now a dirty pea-soup color under the smoky sky, and the plane hurtled into the air like a bullet.
Lip—up—until he was 5,000 feet—7,000 feet—and still climbing. Far above the smoke now, in the clear air, he could gain some perspective of the extent of the fire. Miles to the north, he could see what appeared to be a diminution in the smoke that must mark the burned-over area. Next to that was the burning part, and below him, between Bushton Mines and the fire, lay the roily, drifting smoke clouds that obscured the, as yet, unbumed forest. If the three people were alive, they would be somewhere in that obscure southernmost belt. When the motor failed—if that should happen—Boyd would try to bring the plane down in one of the many lakes that dotted the country. To search the lakes was the only chance to find them—if they had not tried walking through the almost impenetrable underbrush.
Because Raia was with them, they would try to last it out in. the waters of a lake possibly, instead of trying to outrun the fire through the bush—a desperate undertaking, not knowing exactly where the fire was travelling or at what speed.
Checking his compass and altimeter, Joe eased the stick forward and dropped on a long slant toward the umbrous billows that lay beneath him.
Down there were hills and valleys and giddy air currents and tall trees, all waiting for him to make a slip of the hand, the barest error in judgment. A little heap of wreckage in the wilds would be all that was left. The visibility, he grimly told himself, was minus zero in places.
With the motor throttled low, he came down through the smoke. Suddenly, below him, he sensed rather than saw the tops of trees. His hand clutched convulsively on the black bakelite handle of the throttle, and the motor awoke to frenzy as the plane leaped upward like a frightened stallion.
The smoke was blowing now, carried in eddying streamers by the increasing wind, and in the patches of clear air he caught a glimpse of water to the left. Swinging the plane, he came sidling down, to roar up out of the cavern between the trees when he saw nothing resembling a plane anywhere on the surface of the trees.
Minute after minute ticked through the clock on the panel, and steadily, continuously, through the smoke-laden air beat the deep song of the motor, now hushed to a low mutter, now reverberating from forest and lake in a shaking thunder.
Like some paladin of old charging recklessly across a stricken field, the swift plane scourged the sultry air above the doomed forest. Increasingly thick grew the winddriven banners of the smoke, and the heat from the not far distant flames beat against Joe’s face where the goggles left the nose and mouth unprotected.
Fire spat continuously from the exhaust,
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
Subscribers receiving: notice of the approachingexpiration of their subscriptions are^ reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.
The demand for copies to fill new orders is so great that we cannot guarantee the mailing of even a single issue beyond the period covered by your subscription. To avoid disappointment, your renewal order should be mailed to us promptly when you receive the “expiration” notice.
and the ship bounced crazily in the mad air blasts caused by the wall of fire to the north. But always, with firm, skilled hand, Joe curbed the leaping plane, trusting to the suddenly unleashed power of the great motor to hurl him clear of sudden obstacles.
Time after time he found bodies of water beneath him and dived in swooping surveys of the shores and surface, but no glimpse of the downed monoplane rewarded his endeavor.
From east to west he laced the forest with a crisscross of low passages, scanning, searching, blinded at times by brownish grey fog so thick that instinctively he drove the plane higher to escape it. At other points, able to see clearly the terrain beneath him through rifts in the blanket, he skimmed crazily across the waving tips of the spruces.
Closer and closer to the crimson wall of the flames he worked, and at last, when he had almost abandoned the northward course he spied a glimpse of water—a tiny, solitary lake, not yet in the fierce clutch of the fire.
With the whine of air in the struts barely audible above the ear-battering rumble of the close-throttled motor, he came down —down—down—until the tops of the spruces were only a few feet below the slipper pontoon of the ship only to streak up and over the lake like some baffled bird of prey. But in that swift passage over the tiny body of water he had glimpsed the thing for which he had been seeking—a careened wing spread near the shore, the remains of a
Even in smooth air, the landing on that lake would have been hazardous. Now, with the air disturbed by the fire and with no possibility of studying the water for hidden obstacles, he must come down in a narrow stretch, like a swallow alighting in a bird bath.
Setting his lips grimly, Joe swung in a wide circle and came back from the south, against the wind that was pushing the crackling red wall down like a devouring demon upon the hapless lake.
The motor was barely turning over, the plane sidled in the uncertain air, the tail swung right and left as Joe flipped the rudder with tense quickness.
Down she dropped—closer. Now she
cleared the trees, and was past the rocky
“Whoosh!” With a splash, the big slipper burst the leaden surface of the water, and the ship rocked heavily as she rushed across the lake, which was very narrow and scarce long enough to wear out the headway.
"DOR THE first time since he had seen it -L from the air, Joe looked at the downed plane. There she was, careened on some rocks near the far shore, her pontoons a total wreck, the fuselage bent and shattered from the impact of her landing. From the cabin windows, hands waved madly in his direction.
Carefully Joe taxied the little ship toward the larger one.
“Can’t get closer,” he shouted, pushed the goggles back from the reddened eyes. “Rocks—you’ll have to swim over.”
Boyd came out first and helped Belden down, bearing most of the older man’s weight. Belden’s right foot dragged, and Joe guessed it must have been injured. That was why they had stuck by the plane. Then came Raia, clad in the khaki breeches she wore when flying. Supporting Belden partially, they swam hard for the little plane.
A minute later three dripping figures were pulled out on the big slipper by Joe’s waiting hands.
“Motor conked out on us,” said Boyd briefly in answer to the question in Joe ’s eyes.
“I knew you’d find us, Joe.” Raia put her hand on his arm, and there was something in her expression that repaid Joe for all that was past. “You were our last hope.”
Belden said nothing. He was panting from the swim in the ice-cold water, and there were lines in his face that had not been there previously.
Boyd and Joe lifted Raia to the passenger cockpit and helped Belden up. Somehow they managed to squeeze in. The slipper
was low in the water from the weight of four people.
“Go on, Boyd—in with you.” Joe jerked his head at the control cockpit.
Boyd shook his head.
“She’ll never get off the water in this small lake with four of us.” There was a cold smile on his face. “I’ll wait and trust you can get back before the fire gets here.”
“Trying to put me in the hole again, aren’t you?” said Joe evenly. “Not this time, Boyd. If anyone rides out on this ticket, it’s you. Then, if you can’t make it I back, the story will be that Icicle Boyd rode home on Stedman’s ticket. I was the goat Í once and I’m not going to be again'. Just suppose I couldn’t get back—they’d all say I left you here to die !”
These words were perfectly audible to the two persons in the cockpit above. Then Joe dropped his voice to a low, quick vibrancy.
“Listen, Boyd—no heroics now. You’re married and I’m not. This is your plane, you can fly her better than I can. If you can get her out of this place, you’re good. Get going now. When the fire bums by, you might drop back. I’ll weather through in the water, maybe. You can’t make it back before the fire gets here—and neither could I. Smoke will be too thick probably, and you couldn’t find the lake. Use your bean.” He jabbed Martin Boyd fiercely in the ribs with the knuckles of his hand once as though to stir him to action, and the next moment Joe was in the water, swimming with long, easy strokes to the wrecked plane.
He pulled himself out on one of the pontoons, and watched with breathless interest while the amphibian beat heavily down to the far end of the lake and turned. Boyd was wasting no time. Then, with the great motor thundering hollowly in the cavem between the trees on either shore, it came rushing down upon him. Now Martin had it clear of the water—now he was almost at the trees. The flame spat rose-and-white from the racking motor, and the little wings bounced upward under the swift manipulation of the controls. Boyd was, in truth, a master flyer. They were clear now, and droning away in a long circle to the south, toward Bushton Mines.
Joe grinned to himself, as though something amused him. For the first time in three years he felt easy, carefree. He took a cigarette out of his drenched pocket and eyed it ruefully. A thought came to him. Dick Connor used to keep an emergency packet of cigarettes in a little compartment under the pilot’s seat in the stranded plane. Maybe it was still there. He climbed up and looked. There it was.
He threw back the glass hood over the pilot’s compartment and sat up on the edge, and lit a cigarette, flipping the match idly into the water.
“Here’s looking at you, Dick, old timer,” he muttered, gazing at the small white object in his hand, still with the faintly amused grin on his face.
The smoke was growing thicker overhead, and the heat swept in dizzying waves from
the forests on the northern shore. Joe | found himself idly wondering how long it j would be before a wall of living flame swept Í over the little lake. There would be no actual conflagration, he knew, on the water, | but fierce heat would scorch all objects above the surface, and there would be enough smoke and gases to render life most uncertain. He recalled having heard that the heat generated in the midst of a raging bush fire was often higher than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. A man one second, a cinder the next ! And in the ice-cold water a man would suffer such exposure, if he stayed there long, j as would mean the end, in all probability.
The plane, of course, would catch fire and the gas tank sprinkle the surrounding waters I with livid fire as it exploded.
In a detached mood, Joe calculated his i chances of survival as rather slim. He had never counted on Boyd’s being able to return. The lake was hard to find, and by the time Boyd had located it, it would be under such a smoke pall that he probably could not land. In fact, the smoke was even now blotting out what little air had been above the waters.
Minute after minute ticked by. Joe’s thoughts turned to Raia Belden. What a swell girl, she was—steady, courageous ! He hoped Boyd would get back to Bushton Mines safely. Once there, they would be all right . . .
Speculating idly on these things, Joe was aware of a sound, a droning whine. It came from somewhere overhead.
GLANCING UPWARD, he saw the little
amphibian appear suddenly over the trees, seeming to trail smoke from its wings as it came, the whine of air in its struts a taut shriek over the bumbling of the motor. Like a plummet it dropped down, as though it would land squarely upon him. The outline of it was vague, indistinct, as though half concealed by a heavy fog.
It splashed into the water and rushed in a smother of spray toward him. Martin Boyd was waving frantically from the cockpit.
“The darned fool,” muttered Joe to himself. But his heart was suddenly warm toward the man in that little plane.
Boyd had found his way back.
Slipping into the water, Joe swam strongly out to meet him.
Boyd was down on the slipper to haul him up.
“In case we don’t get clear”—Boyd put out his hand—“I want you to know I’m sorry, Joe.”
“Aw, heck,” said Joe. “I know how it was, Marty.”
In the clasp of Martin Boyd’s hand, Joe knew he had regained a friend.
“Let’s get goin’,” said Boyd. “That Belden girl is having hysterics because we left you behind.”
Three minutes later, as the little plane shot clear of the treetops like a silver bullet in the scalding murk, the first red tongue of destruction to reach the lake sank back baffled, as though wounded by the blast of air from the buoyant propeller.