Clear the Air
SINCE EARLY that morning the clangorous winches had beat incessantly upon the winter air. The booms creaked as the bulging cargo nets swung inboard; shoes rang on steel decks. Intermittently came the
shrill of the bo’s’n’s whistle, the bellowing roar of the chief mate.
Unmelodious perhaps, but to Buck MacQueen, standing on the after deck of the stubby little freighter Melrose, this strident overture to a ship’s departure was music indeed. For a long moment he almost forgot the slim dark girl at his side.
She stood patiently, glancing now and then at the young ruddy face, the hard square jaw, the new felt hat set unhappily on his head as though it had no business there at all. “You like it, don’t you, Buck?” she said softly.
Buck looked down at her, grinned. “Sure I do, Molly. It’s been almost a year since I've had steel decks under me. Feel like a kid on an outing.”
“But you’re not—sorry? Really sorry?”
“That I’ve left my duffle bag ashore for good?” Buck’s big hand went about her waist. “Of course not, kid.” he assured her vigorously. “I know when I'm well off. When I ship again, it’ll be the way we are now—as passengers. No more ixmnding brass on leaky iron kettles for this baby.” She nestled close against his broad hard shoulder. “It’s going to be fun, isn’t it, Buck? Yokohama must be thrilling.”
“Yoko’s a nice town,” Buck said. “You’ll like Yoko. The pilot’s coming aboard, it won’t be long now, kid. What do you say we look about a bit. I’d like to poke my head into the wireless shack topside. Jim Barton’s on this run.”
A suggestion of a smile touched Molly’s full lips. “I’ve been waiting for that, Buck. You run along, I’ve got to make that cabin of ours a decent place to live in.”
Still smiling, she pushed him off. “If I did mind it wouldn’t do much good. Run along now, but see that you don’t take the key away from that poor defenseless chap up there.” At the door of the shack, Buck paused and his blue eyes searched the decks below. The last hatches were being battened down. Already hoses were at work washing the slush and débris into the scuppers. Beyond, the hills of Vancouver crouched like grey ghosts behind a veil of falling snow. Buck sighed and shouldered in.
“Hello, mister,” Buck said.
r‘PHE SLIGHT blonde young man in a faded blue jacket was bent over a bag. He turned at the intrusion and a wide grin broke over his face.
“Buck MacQueen! Well, my Japanese aunt, what are you doing aboard? Don’t tell me you’ve come to get your feet wet again.”
They shook hands heartily. Buck pushed his hat back on his head and grabbed a battered chair. “Press up those pants of yours. Sparks; you’re carrying passengers.” “Passengers? This mud scow? You don’t mean you're \t.” Buck nodded. “Mr. and Mrs. Buck MacQueen are departing for Yoko—on pleasure.”
“Ila!” Jim's eyebrows rose. He tossed a pair of pliers into the air and caught them. “So that’s why glt;xxl radio men go wrong. Zip—the little ladies yank them ashore and put rubbers on them. Pretty soft. Vacation with pay, eh?” Buck lit a cigarette and expelled a cloud of smoke with a display of deep contentment. “That’s the life. It’s the best move I ever made. Regular hours. Good homemade food. No cockroaches in your prunes. Evenings at home. A guy lives like a human being.”
Jim Barton smiled crookedly and scratched his chin. “You trying to convince me—or yourself, Buck?”
Buck snorted. “Do you think I’m kidding myself?”
“Oh, no,” Jim said deliberately . “Only I went ashore once. After having a bottom under you for almost ten years, it gets sort of homelike, cockroaches and all. Well, here I am back again.” Jim tossed the pliers into the comer. “Better have a drink. Buck; I don't want you crying on my shoulder.”
“Say, stow it,” Buck began bluffly but the braying hoot of the whistle drowned his words. The bow lines were free. The Melrose was easing oil’. Buck gathered his long legs under him and rose. “There’s heavy weather outside that means some long watches, Barton, if you think I'd like to be in your boots, you’re balmy. See you later.”
He was deep in sleep when the Melrose dropped her pilot late that night. The open seas were pounding her now. Hard, driving snow fell hissing on her decks, freezing on the wheelhouse, obscuring the horizon— and the sky. The Melrose plowed on, shaping her course to the northern great circle route to the East.
Morning found the Melrose burying her stubby nose in a grey sea 2(X) miles off the coast.
In the warm saloon it was relatively still. There was the rhythmic creaking of the laboring ship, the tinkling of glasses on the hulking sideboard. They were alone, Buck and Molly. He was packing his pipe moodily.
She was stretched out on the cushioned bench, idly riffling the pages of her book.
Molly looked up uneasily.
“It’s pretty bad out there, isn't it, Buck?”
“Eh!” He started out of his reverie. “Oh, pretty heavy going -—sure, kid.” Buck grinned down at her. “But as the chief on the Mandalay used to say, ‘When you see sharks around the smokestacks, you can begin to worry.’
Don’t trouble your pretty head about this blow, Molly.”
She returned his smile but her eyes held him thoughtfully.
“Buck. . .”
“What is it that’s troubling you, kitten?”
“You’re not thinking again?”
He struck a match under the table, laughed. “You sure can find more things to worry about this morning, Molly. If you think I’ve got the sea itch again, forget it. Didn’t I promise you to stay ashore for good, kid? Didn’t I tell you I’d never touch a brass key again? It was the best thing you ever did when you made me take that shore job.” He reached over and gripped her knees. “Just forget it, kid.”
A draught of bitter air sucked into the saloon. Captain Cramer stamped in from the deck, wiping ice from his shaggy eyebrows. He was a towering hulk of a man—great stooping shoulders, a rocklike face chiselled clean and hard and roughened by the wind. Cups rattled in the serving pantry, then he came through into the saloon, a cup of steaming coffee in his hairy fist.
He nodded briefly. “Hope you found your quarters comfortable, Mrs. MacQueen. ’Fraid the Melrose isn’t exactly a luxury liner.”
“The cabin’s very comfortable, captain,” she assured him. “I don’t suppose any ship’s a luxury liner in this weather, though.”
Captain Cramer took a deep gulp from his cup and wiped his mouth with a fist. “Bit of a blow,” he admitted; shrugged. “You’ve got to expect it this time ot year. Don’t have to tell you that, Mr. MacQueen,” he said to Buck. “Understand you were on this run yourself.”
Buck nodded. “Seven years. Ashore now—shipping office.”
“You’re well out of it,” the master cai:l brusquely. “Wish I’d had your sense when I was your age. Well. . .” He jammed his cap over his ears and shouldered out into the wind.
Buck smiled crookedly to himself. Well out ot it; that’s what they all said. Funny part of it was they all probably thought they meant it. He could remember sitting up in the shack six days out of port and grousing, himself, about what a dog’s life it was. Well, lie didn't doubt that it was just that, but he wondered what that old sea dog would do if he were stuck ashore sorting bills of lading.
Molly was poking him with her small, pointed toe. “Go on up to the shack, mugwump. I don't mind. You’re about as hard to see through as a pane cf glass.”
“Well,” Buck grinned sheepishly, “I did think I might poke in and look at the weather report. But gosh, Molly, that’s no fun for you.”
“Buck, I was a sailor’s sweetheart for a year before I finally married you. I can get along a few minutes without you now.”
VJL/JTH A RELUCTANCE that was not altogether con* ’ vincing, Buck escaped to the deck. Buck wouldn’t have said escape; he would have shuddered at the w'ord in that connection. Molly was the gamest little girl in the world. She had had her heart set on taking their first vacation trip together on one of those Great Eastern floating palaces. But Molly had just smiled a little when he had suggested it halfheartedly. “Don’t worry. Buck,” she had said, “I wouldn’t think of depriving you of a sniff of your old haunts. We’ll take one of the Green Star freighters— I’ll probably love it.” No, he never wanted to escape from a girl like that. Yet, undeniably, he felt his blood pound faster as he leaned into the hard wall of the wind. The seas were thundering into the well decks, battering the forward hatches. He heard the engines growl as the Melrose smothered her nose; clamor wildly as her screw was carried free. He gripped the icy rail of the ladder and blundered up.
Jim’s tired eyes brightened as Buck pushed into the shack. He slipped off his earphones and tossed his magazine in a comer. “Grab a seat, Buck.”
Buck hooked a chair with his foot and yanked it up. “What’s up, Jim?”
Jim Barton connected the loud speaker, filling the tiny cubicle with a mad gibberish of morning traffic. Buck settled himself, his trained ear sorting out the medley of sounds. He knew the guttural growl of KRH, the land station, calling a freighter off the Islands. There was the deep tube-voice of a Gold Coast liner, the high wail of a Jap freighter calling for bearings. A slow lugubrious stuttering stabbed in.
Buck looked up. “Ah ! Jerry Farrel, eh? I could tell his fist in a million. Is he still pounding brass on the Brighton?”
Jim nodded. He took a cigarette from his pack and tossed it over to Buck.
“Just told him you were aboard. The Brighton's running a parallel course. Jerry’s fist’s no belter than it ever was. But he’s okay. Slow but sure, Jerry is. How’s yours. Buck?
A bride and her seagoing husband give thrilling answer to a dread challenge
Rusty as an old mare’s hoof. I’ll wager. The way you list'd to pound out that old KLBC on the Regis was famous all over the pond.”
Buck scratched a match on his heel. “I can still pound ’em out. don’t let anybody fool you.”
Jim sighed and reached up for his log. As he was finishing his quarter-hour entry, the bridge speaking tube whistled. Jim hooked it with one finger. ‘Aes. sir?. . . Righto, sir.” He tossed it back on the hook and glanced significantly at Buck.
‘The Old Man wants me to shoot up the ten o’clock weather report as soon as it comes in. Don’t think he likes the sniff of the wind. Can’t say that 1 blame him. I’d rather ship with a cargo of dynamite than unsacked grain any day.”
Buck crumbled his butt. “That’ll be a pretty thought to sleep on tonight. Jim.” He rose slowly. “Guess I’d Ix-tter report below. I’ll pop in again.”
DUCK LAY awake that night. He lay awake deep into the midnight watch, listening to the groan of the tortured timbers, the incessant pounding of punishing seas. He had slept like a log through worse than this many a night. But now it was different. He thought of Molly sleeping peacefully in the bunk below and he thought of what he had seen, what he could feel with every lift of the ship beneath him. The old scow wasn’t taking the seas the way she should. She was sluggish, loggv, the fight had gone out of her. . He’d been a fool to take the kid on an old hooker like this with a cargo of unsacked grain. Good Lord, it couldn’t blow any harder! But he knew that steadily the wind was backing in. It could blow harder— and it would. It was going to blow black cats and red devils before it got any better.
Another new day broke dishearteninglv. The bleak ceiling was ragged, wind-torn. Seas were piling higher under a fierce lash of wind. The Melrose plowed on. blunderingly, as though blinded and weary under the ice that whitened her decks, froze to her wheelhouse.
Buck and Molly sat silently in the saloon dawdling over their mid-day meal. There had been no ritual of breakfast that morning, even less of dinner. The mates had gulped their coffee hurriedly, standing in their oilskins. The master hadn’t appeared at all. There was a tension you could feel and it was growing.
Buck lit a cigarette and glanced uneasily at Molly. “How do you feel, kitten?” he asked cheerfully.
Molly pushed her cup away. She considered her slim hands a moment. “I’m frightened, of course, Buck,” she
said after a moment. “I’m not used to this, that’s all. I’ll be all right.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Buck assured her. "Why, this is nothing.”
Molly smiled weakly. “You like it—even this way, don’t you. Buck? But now you know what I’d be thinking about it you ever went to sea again. I’d be thinking about you out in this, Buck.” Site shook her head a little, pressing the dark hair from her temples. "Don’t mind me, Buck. Just nenes, 1 guess.”
He dug his hands roughly through her hair. “You think too much, kid.” he chided her. "Take it easy. I’m going to trot up and get the latest dope from the shack. Be right back, kitten.”
He found Jim Barton, his face drawn, his eyes heavy with sleep, slouched deep in his chair. Jim slipped off his earphones as Buck stanqxxl in and held them up without a word.
Buck cocked his ear to the muted wail. He sat down heavily and lit a cigarette. “What is she?”
“A Russian tramp,” Jim said. "Steering gear and engines went haywire. She’s just off the Aleutian Islands. All her sea anchors are out, but she’s marked for the rocks if someone doesn’t get a line to lier. The Nereid's coming up.”
Buck listened silently to the frantic signals stabbing out across a thousand miles of storm-lashed sea. He shook his head. “Good luck to you, sailor. Like to say I’m glad I’m not in their boots, Jim, but it wouldn't sound so good, eh?” Jim looked up quickly. “You know, then?”
"Ixird, guy, I can see! We’ve got a fifteen degree list. If 1 look cheerful, it’s professional. Got a wife on board.”
Jim ran his fingers slowly through his hair and reached for a cigarette. “Half the Pacific ixnired into the forward hold last night. Grain’s broke through to |x>rt. All the pumps are going and all hands shovelling but” Jim shrugged "grain and water don’t mix so good. If this sea doesn't flatten. . .”
HTUK WHISTLE of the bridge tube broke in. Jim flicked it from the hook. “Yes, sir?. . . There’s the Brighton, sir. . .Hart Line. The Oakland for ’Frisco is somewhere south. . . Righto, sir.”
Jim shook his head, mashed his cigarette. “Not so good. Buck. She’s sprung a couple of plates. Water’s coming into the engine room. The Old Man wants me to shop around a bit—just in case. And he wants a bearing. Fat chance of getting an accurate position from land at this distance.” Buck’s lips tightened. “Looks like the Old Man figures he can ride it out. He ought to know.”
Jim shrugged and threw the switch. “Just the same, I’d rather be drinking beer at the White Horse.” The generator hummed, whined higher. Jim straddled his chair and reached for his key. “My best chance is to get the Brighton working on a radio-compass bearing. She carries a loop.”
Jim’s rigid finger caressed his key. “KSPL. . .KSPL.” The Brighton’s call letters went hunting out into the storm.
Buck rose and stood waiting until, a moment later, the answer came from the Brighton. It was Jerry Parrel’s slow, inimitable swing. “Go ahead, old man.”
Buck dug into his coat, tossed a hand at Jim and pushed out.
On the starboard wing on the bridge, Captain Cramer stood grim-faced, staring down upon his battered foredeck. The wind was abating; the white horses were gone from the crest ol the sea. But the storm had done its work. The Melrose lay beaten, mortally hurt, practically on her beam’s end. She wallowed sickeningly, tons of black water lopped inboard, smothering her decks. Slowly he wiped the freezing spindrift from his eyes and strode to the engine-room’s phone.
“How’s the water below, Mr. Grady?”
“The Pacific’s still pushing in. captain.” Mr. Grady’s voice was tired, dispassionate. “Chips is putting shores up against the bulkhead, but it’s coming in faster than we can pump. Can’t keep our fires much longer.”
“Keep pumping as long as you can, Mr. Grady. I’m sending for assistance.”
With effort he straightened up and reached for the radio speaking tube.
“Sparks, send an SOS. We’ll need the Brighton and any other ships available. Did you get a bearing?. . . Well, keep contact and keep me advised. . . In the meantime, here’s our approximate position, it’s the best I can do. . .” Three-fifteen. From the radio shack of the S. S. Melrose, the fateful signals pounded out over the air: “QST. . . QST. . . SOS. . .SOS. . . DE—KM RM. . . S. S. Medróse. . . ”
Within a thousand-mile circle over the boiling floor of the North Pacific, listening men came erect, alert, adjusting phones at their temples. From a hundred shacks the news was bellowed to the bridge. The S. S. Melrose in distress!
KRP, the land station at ’Frisco, let loose, stabbing the air with a peremptory command. “SOS. . . Stop sending ! All stations stand by. . .”
Then abruptly came a strange, unearthly stillness. The light in the shack flickered; blacked out. Jim knew that below there were shadows filing up from the engine room. The valves were shut down. The power was out. The
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low faltering pulse of the Melrose had given up.
Jim Barton threw off a numbing weariness, fumbled for another cigarette and rose to switch to the emergency batteries.
The Oakland was pounding through for a better position. The Brighton was wailing for signals: “Keep calling, old man, we
need another bearing. .
Jim threw the switch. A flash sprang out, whitening the room. A report like a rifle : shot stabbed his eardrums as the circuit i breakers blew. Jim’s thin shoulders sagged.
; The starting resisters were open. Dumbly he ¡stared at the silent generator. A sweet, sickly smell of burnt insulation crawled into : his nostrils.
BELOW, in the grey murk of the saloon, Buck’s arm was about her. “There now, kitten. Steady now. It’s going to be all right.”
She was hard against him. “It’s slanting, j Buck. It’s uphill. I can feel it.”
He couldn’t lie to her about that. It was right before her eyes. A glass skated across the sideboard, crashed to the floor. She started violently in his arms.
“Steady now—keep your chin up, kid. It’s going to be all right.. What if we do have to take to the boats? The Brighton and the Oakland can’t be far off. Jim was asking the Brighton for a compass bearing when I came below. If she hasn’t had time to plot our bearing, she can follow her direction finder on Jim’s signals. She’ll pick us up before midnight. Don’t you worry, kid.”
Molly straightened. “I’m sorry, Buck, j I’m ashamed of myself, honestly. I’ll be all I right as long as you’re here. But. . . but 1 you won’t leave me, will you?”
“Never for a minute,” Buck said.
The engine-room crowd was shambling in now, coming out of the pitiless cold of the deck. The messman was rationing coffee in the pantry, and the light from the burner ¡hunted over grim, set faces. They were waiting. There wasn’t anything else to do now but wait—and hope.
From overhead came chopping, chopping. They were pounding ice from the blocks and life-boat rigging. The glowing tip of Buck’s cigarette burned fiercely in the darkness.
She didn’t know, Buck thought, she didn’t know what this night could be. In an hour they would take to the boats, the open sea, ice freezing on gunwales, hands numb and frozen to oars. If the Brighton’s course was sure, it might only be a few hours. If she went wide in this bitter night. . .
There was a disturbance on the deck, grating steps, voices. The crowd at the coffee boiler broke apart as the door pushed open. The chief mate and the bo’s’n came through into the saloon, a burden in their arms. The Old Man shouldered through from the outer deck as they were laying the prone figure on the cushioned seat.
“Is he hurt bad? Rustle some lamps in here,” he bellowed over his shoulder.
The mate straightened up and shook his head. “Just a bump, but he’s out cold, cap’n. Slipped on the companion ladder. The kid was groggy anyway, hasn’t slept in more’n twenty-four hours.”
The Old Man's fist closed, opened again. After a moment he said: “He called up to the bridge that he was going below for tools. Said his starting resister went.” The Old Man shook his head and grasped the lighted lantern that came up. “Mr. Hoggins, better send a man aloft to watch for flares. And let go with another rocket.”
And all the while, Buck felt Molly’s fingers tightening about his arm. What he had to do was simple. So very simple ! He had to leave her. That’s what he had to do. He had to leave her there alone in the darkness. That was all he had to do. It was a tough enough job to find a foundering ship without an accurate position—but a handful of small boats—pea shells !
He rose, bracing himself on the wall against the sharpening list of the ship. He felt her grip loosen. It was like hands slipping from their last purchase.
“All right, Buck,” she said, ‘T understand. I’ll be all right. I’ll—I’ll wait for you here.”
His fingers dug into her arm. “Better get on all the warm clothes you’ve got, kid, and slip on a preserver. If I’m not back, go along to your boat. And don’t worry about me, kitten, I’ll be along.”
He bent, kissed her savagely and wheeled off.
/^\N THE WAY through the door, he bellowed at the ship’s carpenter: “Get me a bucket of salt water, Chips! Don’t ask any questions; just get it and fetch it up to the shack.”
A pale light burned weakly in the deserted shack. A cigarette smoldered on the edge of the bench, burning the varnish. Buck brushed it off, tossed his coat into the corner and set grimly to work. His fingers were suddenly steady, his eyes hard and bright. He was skinning wires, whirling his screwdriver, ripping with his pliers, his legs spread wide and solid on the sheering deck.
It had been done. He could do it again. A bucket of salt water as one contact and a metal object, lowered slowly into the water as the resistance lessened, as another. If that didn’t start the generator, nothing would.
From the mouth of the speaker came a rush of anxious queries: “KMRM. . .
KMRM,” the Brighton was pounding out. “How?. . . Are you all right?” The Oakland was calling the Brighton: “Can’t raise the Melrose. . . Has she foundered?” The land station at ’Frisco let loose again: “KMRM. . .KMRM. . .”
Chips came bungling in, lugging a sloshing bucket of salt water. There was a look of dumb bewilderment upon his wide Slavic face. He started to speak but Buck snapped in: “Here, set it down. Take a hold here!” There was a rush of bitter air, the creak of frozen oilskins as the Old Man pushed in. “What do you think, Mr. MacQueen?” he asked quietly. “Can we give ’em a signal?” Buck snipped a length of wire. “Hope so, cap’n. What was the last word on the Brighton?”
“She was calling for signals for a compass bearing. The Oakland’s somewhere south.” Buck nodded. “That’s her yammering now. How much time, cap’n?”
“Half an hour at best. The boats are being swung out now.”
“Give me ten minutes more, cap’n.” He jerked his head at Chips. “Okay. Better beat it for your boat. And Chips”—his head came up slowly—“see that she’s aboard.”
The carpenter turned, stared dumbly for a moment. Blood was pounding at Buck’s temples. His nails cut into the palm of his hand. Suddenly, he found himself shouting.
“My wife, you blockhead! My wife— you hear! See that she’s over—see that she’s. . .”
The Old Man gripped his shoulder gently. “Mr. Henderson took her over. She fought like a wild cat to stay, but they got her over. She’ll have all the care and protection possible.”
They were chopping ice again. The mate’s voice came roaring: “Easy now. Clear that line. Slack away!”
BUCK RIPPED another coil of wire from the wall. He drove h is screwdriver through the copper ash tray on the table. The Melrose lunged sickeningly. came up staggering on her flank. A can clattered to the floor.
From the mouth of the speaker came another rush of frantic queries: “KMRM . . . KMRM. . . KMRM. . .”
“Cross your fingers, cap’n,” Buck said. “Here goes.”
He set the breakers. Gripped the switch.
The Old Man, his hard face immobile, bent forward. The switch was in. Slowly, Buck lowered the ash tray into the bucket.
A low hum filled the room. Steadily it whined louder, higher as the ash tray went deeper into the salt water.
Buck’s long body snapped erect. “I’ve got it, cap’n. That does it!”
The chief mate’s beefy face came thrusting in. “We’re holding the last boat, cap'n.” The master nodded. “Be right with you, Mr. Hoggins. Better let her go. We’ll jump for it.”
Buck threw the antenna switch, reached for his key. Quickly, a string of test V’s spat out beneath his rigid fingers.
Then he let loose. “KSPL. . . KSPL . . . KSPL. . .”
The mate had gone but Captain Cramer stood waiting silently in the doorway. The ship slopped over. Buck braced himself against the bulkhead and waited. A silence — a silence that screamed. Then the Brighton came through with a sudden roar.
“How?. . . How?. . . Thought you were gone. . . Send test for another bearing. . . From the strength of your signals, we’re close by. . . Go ahead, old man.” The key was under his fist again. “Melrose foundering. . . Two small boats off, third leaving now. . . Have you got position? . . . Advise Oakland and all vessels in your vicinity. . .Hurry!”
Almost instantly, the acknowledgment came: “Okay. Position okay. . . Pro-
ceeding to you under forced draught. . . Oakland eighty miles south, coming up. 73!”
Seventy-three, to all pounders of brass, was best of luck. With one arm jammed into his jacket, Buck paused to place the log pad on the key. One long droning signal would guide the approaching ships as long as the Melrose stayed afloat—until the sea silenced it for ever. “Just keep your finder on that signal and keep on coming,” Buck thought, “that’s all the luck we need now.”
The Old Man’s hand closed about his arm. “We’ll have to jump for it. Mr. MacQueen.” “Righto, sir. I’m ready.”
TT WAS JUST after midnight that Jerry J Farrei, at the key of the Brighton, flashed ; the news to the anxious world:
“Picked un two of the Melrose lifeboats . . . All hands safe. . . S. S. Oakland pi-king up third. . . S. S. Melrose foundered six miles south of present position. . .” Several minutes later, the Oakland cracked through to the Brighton:
“All hands safe here. . . Suggest you transfer crew and passengers to us for ’Frisco. . . Buck MacQueen wants Molly MacQueen. . . Is she all right?”
The reply spat back at once.
“She’s right at my shoulder. . . Message follows—‘Darling, just love, that’s all. And I give up. II you get a chance to go chief operator—take it. Looks like it was all decided long ago that you’re a sailor and I’m a sailor’s sweetheart. Waiting to see you. Love. Molly.’ ”
Then all those who were listening knew that Buck MacQueen was on the air again. | “You’re a wonder, kid. . .XXX X.” i