Copyright 2014 Zach Neal and Long Cool One Books
Design: J. Thornton
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased, or to any places or events, is purely coincidental. Names, places, settings, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. The author’s moral right to the proceeds of this work have been asserted.
Table of Contents
The big Liberty V-12 thundered away up front as Nathan Wyatt studied the map on his knee-board.
The next beacon should have been visible by now, but there was an unusual, elevated fog over the frozen northwest that night. It couldn’t really be called cloud, it was just moist air trapped under an inversion layer.
The moon cast its pale light over his left shoulder, its reflection blinding in the instrument panel when he had his head in the wrong place. He was getting a crick in the neck.
People talked about Hell and its fires. In Nathan’s opinion, Hell was very much colder than that. The only question was why he had never been able to quit.
He was following the meandering snake-track of a river, which really ought to be the North Platte. But if it was the North Platte, where were the beacons? Ten miles apart, there were hundreds between Chicago and Cheyenne where his ten-hour shift would end. The thing about the town of North Platte was that he was supposed to refuel there, and if he couldn’t find it, then he was in a heap of trouble.
Flying at an altitude of a thousand or twelve hundred feet, he really should be seeing either this beacon or the next. Turning his head as far around as it would go, he could still see the last one. Visibility simply wasn’t that bad—not back there, anyways. He dare not go higher, not in ice-fog. Losing sight of the ground, flying lower just made it harder to pick out landmarks, losing the forest for the trees so to speak—although out here it was all prairie and the occasional small homestead.
The Airco DH-4 was stable in flight and the instruments were, in general, pretty good. Too many good pilots had been lost. Whether it was from engine failure or simply flying into the ground, it was impossible to say. Nathan knew the one-gee death spiral all too well. It had happened to him once over France. Thankfully, it was broad daylight, and he’d entered cloud at about twenty-four thousand feet. It was really something, to have the ball centred up, no slip and no skid indicated, and to come out of a cloud. There was little in the way of sensation in terms of good old gravity through the tailbone. He’d been going straight down and upside down, the only real clue that something unusual was happening was the racing engine as the prop unloaded. After that, the drag built quickly, the engine was close to seizing up, and you had run out of doubts with the ground spinning up at you. The thing to do was throttle back and pull hard.
At last, Nathan saw something familiar, a tall wooden grain elevator, a railroad siding, exactly four houses and a crossroads.
The dim yellow lights were comforting. So the beacon was down, then. That had to be it, the only question was, where was the next one…it really should be there. Visibility just wasn’t that bad.
The damned thing had to be there. It just had to be.
There was definitely some kind of power outage down below. The faint glimmers of light he was seeing all came from oil lamps and candles or automobile and truck headlights. He’d followed the stark beam of a freight train, half a mile long, as it slowed up and entered the town.
With its massive rail yards, North Platte was easily identified, and once identified, finding the airfield was relatively easy. At least it should have been. Nathan was figuring on some sort of power failure all along the line, as he hadn’t seen a beacon in the last thirty miles.
The ice fog must be condensing on the power lines, weighting them down and causing them to snap or short out or something…there was something with a few lights off to his right and then he had it, banking in for an approach.
He had her lined up. His speed, altitude and distance were good, and he throttled back. The runway was lit with stinking, oily smudge-pots, stretching out in two thin lines before him.
The windsock hung limp, flood-lit from four sides by their small emergency generator. The runway looked a bit slick. Just as he’d figured in these kind of conditions. The wheels touched with a squawk and then he was too busy to think, trying to keep the big, heavy plane with its four hundred pounds of mail up front from ground-looping on patches of black and grey ice. The speed dropped off and then he had her, taxiing in to the barren pool of light in front of the cinder-block structure, white-painted, that served as a terminal once you got away from the coast and the last of the big cities, Chicago.
Nathan Wyatt had flown in the War. He had three confirmed kills and a half a dozen unconfirmed ones, which really didn’t matter a few years later. No one really gave a damn, except kids reading those pulp stories that distorted rather than informed. He’d been scared once or twice as he recalled, but the memories faded fast and were already sufficiently hazy. He was scared pretty much every time he flew this route. It was always something, with the air mail.
Deakin was the mechanic on duty, his assistant Richards as dumb as an ox but strong enough to pick up the tail boom and put the heavy plane anywhere they wanted. They stood watching as he gratefully pulled off the goggles, the heavy gloves. Stiff as he was, bundled up in fifty pounds of clothing, it was a struggle to get up and out of the seat.
Richards had a ladder there for him and with no wind-blast, it felt oddly warm although their breath hung in the air.
“How’s she running?”
“Yeah, it seems all right. Check the oil, okay?”
“Yes, sir.” Deakin grinned, not meaning anything by it.
They were just words to him.
Depending on how long the plane stayed on the ground, Deakin could pull the radiator cap and check the coolant as well. If he tried now, it would just boil out into his face, the system being pressurized with an overflow tank.
Reaching in, Nathan pulled out his big vacuum flask. His personal bag was tucked as far back under the seat as he could get it.
Nathan turned and shambled off in the general direction of the terminal, a grand name for a shack that had little more than a desk, a phone, a radio and a bog of a washroom. The other thing they had was coffee.
The trouble was that a pilot’s bladder could only hold so much. While some claimed to be able to relieve themselves into a Coke bottle in flight, he’d never been able to bring himself to make the attempt—all those pilots mysteriously flying themselves into the ground was a factor for sure.
The heat was always like a blast furnace in these little places. He was already sweating, and he was barely in the door. Out back, the putter of a small petrol engine explained the lights still being on, dim and yellowing, flickering a bit, but they were on.
“Drink?” In his shirtsleeves, Jameson held up the bottle.
“Sure, make it a big one. What’s the weather?”
“Ah. Good question.” He pawed through the stack of flimsy sheets on his desk.
Jameson had one out and was now studying it, but Nathan reached and he gave it up readily enough. As usual, it didn’t say much, with so few weather observers out on the vast and sparsely-populated plains. There was nothing he didn’t know or suspect already, but he’d have another look in a minute. It was essentially the same as the one from Chicago. He set that aside for a moment, pulling down zippers and still shaking with the cold. A couple of hefty meat sandwiches might help with that. He was looking forward to slabs of cold roast beef, cheese, mustard and lettuce. He was on schedule and everything, which was nice as he didn’t have to hurry. He needed the break, ears still ringing and his thoughts far away. Your fingertips just ached when you began to warm up.
Jameson pulled out the bottom drawer and found a glass, fly-specked a bit but all right in his opinion. He poured a couple of fingers for Wyatt.
Nathan took the glass and sniffed suspiciously.
“Bourbon, the very best.”
Nathan made a face. Jameson was from somewhere down south. It showed in the accent, the booze obviously, and maybe one or two attitudes.
He sipped the liquor, bearing firmly in mind that some things were an acquired taste. Setting the glass down, he went into the back to dump the dregs of his flask before filling it with fresh coffee.
There were times when you tried to pee and it just wouldn’t come, and then, when it did come, it didn’t want to shut off.
Then you ended up with a dribble down the leg and one more discomfort to rack up alongside of many others. This was not forgetting the dangers, which was theoretically counterbalanced by the best pilot’s pay available—outside of flying as a mercenary in some forgotten, far-off war. Pilots of his acquaintance had found work of a sort, bombing and strafing people you kind of liked on behalf of someone who, ordinarily enough, you really ought to have despised.
It was that kind of world.
“She’s all ready to go.” Deakin’s voice was distant, with the engine idling away and a fresh gust of cold wind on the side of Nathan’s face.
Some of the mechanics understood and some were next to useless, but the fuel gauge read full and his instrument scan revealed no problems.
He waved. Richards pulled the wheel chocks and Nathan checked the controls for free and easy movement. Deakin slapped him on the shoulder and Nathan nodded. There was never very much to say anyways. He knew all he was likely to know and there was nothing more they could do for him. Advancing the throttle, she started to move and then once again he had his hands full and thinking took a second place.
The hard-packed dirt surface dropped away and then he was climbing up towards low, thin clouds that glowed from the moon, now higher in the sky and dominating everything below. The stars were faint but they were there.
The compass was steady and the engine developing full power. There were a few lights and then the town was gone. It was just him, a set of railroad tracks gleaming in the moonlight, a river and the occasional crossroads. The signs and the white paint marks on the road were the only thing giving him any depth-perception at all.
One thousand feet. So near and yet so far.
The last time he’d had his eyes checked, the news wasn’t very good and he had been thinking about his future.
Flying was in his blood, his first love but hopefully not his last.
He still had a piece of gristle stuck in his teeth, and his tongue worried away at it as he flew.
There it was, down below. Three lights, spread out in a short line. That would be the hayfield.
What that just his imagination? A shadow, moving past the last golden orb. She would be down there, tending to her lights and waiting to see if he would turn up. She could hear him now from that distance…
He’d checked the elevation, and set his altimeter accordingly. This was his next to last stop.
Checking the altitude, he estimated that he was about three miles out. He throttled back and watched as the numbers slowly wound down. There wasn’t much to hit in the flatlands except the ground. Nice thing about flying at night, out here in the middle of nowhere, there was no turbulence to speak of. She would fly herself, if only he could let her.
His goggles were dirty, but then they always were. He would miss this old bitch of a plane.
A halo surrounded everything in his goggles, brighter than all the rest, the result of oil, and condensation, and rubbing the glass clean with a rag that inevitably had some grit on it.
One mile to go, and he throttled back some more. The rate of descent was everything, keep it smooth and then you don’t have to throw a bunch of corrections into her.
Even at night, black cloud shadows lay on the land, rendering everything ambiguous and untrustworthy.
His problem, of course, was that he never got mad. He never got even—he just waited.
It was time they did something about that. If you wanted a future, you had to plan for it.
His wheels hit the ground, rapidly coming up to speed, although you could still get that trademark tire-squawk from dirt.
The tail was all over the place on the frozen dewy grass, and as usual, he was all over the rudder pedals, managing it.
He killed the motor. The only real doubt was could she help him start up again, and yet the plan depended on it. No wonder he was scared. So much depended on her.
Of course he was scared.
What she must have felt was another question, but she trusted him and she would be full of hope.
She would be filled with hopes and doubts and fears right about now and he would have to be strong enough for the two of them.
Jenny’s shadow came running out from behind the last fire. He prayed she would have the brains to stay the hell out of the propeller. His heart settled as her pale form, clad in a thin cotton dress under a long woolen coat, and wearing lace-up farm boots, appeared beside the cockpit.
He nodded, unable to speak. Frozen stiff in the intervening twenty minutes, he’d never really warmed up.
This was their moment.
He extricated himself, dropping to the ground with a painful shock through the heels of his hard leather flying boots.
She clung to him, shivering against his icy outer garments.
“Where is he?”
She looked up and he kissed the bridge of her nose. Smiling wanly in the moonlight, she spoke.
“We’re lucky. He’s gone into town.”
Nathan nodded. And when her old man got home, he’d be drunk as a skunk. All according to routine. He reached in and pulled a screwdriver from his pocket. He’d watched them load the mail very carefully, and he knew just where to put his hand…a small, grey canvas bag, not weighing much over a pound or two, revealed in the light of his pocket flash. He put that little bag in his pocket for a minute.
Carefully screwing down the hatch again, he dropped the screwdriver in the cockpit. They were committed.
His heart did a little flip at the thoughts of confronting the old man, but Jenny was special.
She had an old grey mare pegged out in the darkness of the corner of the field, in behind a small windbreak of straggly conifers. Nathan had a hell of a time getting up on it, dressed in stiff, uncooperative clothing. Riding bareback, mounting the thing with no saddle and no stirrups was almost beyond him. With her cuddled up in front, talking to the animal and holding its mane, they went a couple of hundred yards through the darkness. The pale outline of the house and one solitary light on inside appeared around the last corner.
Looking back, the fires were invisible, either screened from the road by trees or terrain. They might even be burning down into embers by now. She’d followed his instructions to the letter and that was at least something.
Hopefully this augured well for what came next.
Putting the mare in the barn, Nathan waited as Jenny went up to the house.
It was cold in the barn, with so few animals to warm it with their body heat. He caught the unmistakeable aroma of a hog or sow, a couple of mules and the one lonely horse. Along one wall there were a series of slatted wooden cages for the hens. There were reassuring noises from the animals, who somehow knew he was no stranger.
Other than that, it was very dark and very quiet. Checking the luminous dial of his wristwatch, it was ten-thirty. They might have a while to wait, but it could also happen very quickly. He went to the back of the furthest stall, a pile of loose hay heaped up behind a couple of rails tied in place with soft iron wire. Taking the rails down, the place looked undisturbed. Using a pitchfork blind in the dark, he carefully began pulling some of the hay away until he hit something hard.
Once he knew where the bike was, he worked the hay out from around it and then, pulled it off the kickstand and the machine out into the larger room.
He listened carefully, hearing nothing out on the roads tonight. With a small pocket flash, he checked the motorbike over. He turned it on and gave it a kick. He didn’t dare run it for very long, it drowned all sounds of another vehicle approaching. It was deafening in the small space, but it had fired up and it seemed to be running well. He pushed the choke back in and let it kill itself rather than flood the carburetor.
In the shocking silence that returned, again he listened to the sounds of the night. It might be his imagination, or it might be someone else. There was definitely a car, miles off still, but by the sound of it, it was headed this way. Taking out the small bag of uncut diamonds, he shoved it snugly down in the bottom of the right-hand saddle-bag.
Jenny was in the house, waiting. He could feel her fear even from here.
You couldn’t really blame her.
She was a young girl, barely a woman, but even for him, this was going to be an awful thing.
On the other hand, they would have ten million in diamonds, and a bit of a head start. This was of surprisingly little comfort in that last little lull before the storm.
Nathan had never hated anyone in his life, but he had been close once or twice. Even now, he was finding it hard. Mister Johnson’s battered old Ford turned into the driveway. The thing pulled to a stop and there was a pause as the man rummaged around in the foot-well of the passenger side.
There was the clink of bottles as the old man dragged a crate of beer, mostly empty, out of the car. He took it up to the house, balancing it awkwardly as he tried to find the keyhole.
Mister Johnson lost his temper easily, and he started banging on the door, still trying to keep the beer from falling and breaking.
“Jenny, Jenny. Let me in for Christ’s sakes.” He raised his hand, cursing, to pound some more.
The kitchen light came on almost instantly, with Nathan holding his breath…she should have waited a few seconds, a half a minute at least, but the old man didn’t seem to notice.
Mister Johnson backed off from the door as she opened it.
Nathan could hear Johnson berating his daughter as the shadows moved inside and the kitchen door closed.
Lifting the latch, he moved out of the barn, where he’d been staring through a crack. Nathan headed around the back of the farmyard, grateful that Johnson didn’t have a dog—probably the only place in a hundred miles that didn’t. They couldn’t afford to feed a dog, and that wasn’t half the story.
He was in luck—Jenny had remembered to unlatch the bedroom window, leaving it all the way up, a stick propping it on one side. There was no screen, not surprising for people in such poor circumstances. Easing a leg over the ledge and bending awkwardly, he slipped into the room, very conscious of the floor creaking beneath his feet and the voices in the next room on the other side of a very thin partition.
Jesus. He really hadn’t believed it. No man would ever be that despicable.
“No, daddy, please—not tonight, please…I’m not feeling well.”
His voice, loud and harsh, was so slurred with alcohol that Nathan could barely understand the words, but she clearly did.
“Come here, bitch.”
Nathan heard a slap and his blood boiled.
The bedroom door crashed open, making enough noise that his own hurried scuttle into the dark corner by the closet went unheard.
They came in, with Jenny backing up and the old man, blood in his eye, pushing her violently backwards until she hit the bed. She was crying, unable to stop herself from looking around for Nathan. The only light was that coming in from the other room and its solitary candle and the moon outside the tall window. It was right at this elbow.
He watched only a moment longer, waiting until he heard the fabric rip. Mister Johnson struggled to get Jenny out of her threadbare dress, as their breath congealed and condensed in the cold, deadly air.
“Hi, Archie.” There was a silence.
The breath was loud, the other sounds, slobbering and grunting, disgusting in the extreme. It was impossible to believe that the man couldn’t hear him.
That grizzled old head whipped around. Nathan flipped on his flashlight, blinding the old bastard.
“Archie, fucking, Johnson.”
He knew what was up now, all right. Nathan, looking at the seething, out of control animal rage on those features, had no doubt Johnson would kill him if he could—and then probably accuse him of raping his daughter. He might even kill her too—he probably would.
Nathan was just stepping forward to take him on, fists raised in classic pugilistic fashion, but the old man was unbelievably fast and there was a flurry of blows exchanged before Nathan tripped on a corner of the rug and toppled.
Johnson was standing over him, one foot going back, getting ready to kick Nathan in the face. There was a loud, metallic clang as Jenny whacked him on the head with a shovel leaning against the wall beside the door.
The old man spun, raising his right hand, and Nathan was on him in a heartbeat, getting a knee up in his kidneys and a real good chokehold on him. He pulled back, and hard. Johnson’s big hands plucked and scrabbled at his own, as Jenny stared into her father’s eyes in shock and fear. She dropped the shovel and cried, water coursing down her cheeks as she watched him struggle for his life.
After a time, with Nathan squeezing and not letting go for anything or anybody, the body went limp and he let it drop to the floor.
“Oh, my God.” Her hand was over her mouth as she stared at their handiwork.
“Come on. Let’s get on with this—” Nathan had killed men before, but that was war and this was different.
This was here and now.
“Get out of here. Give me that shovel—”
No one would ever understand this, when there had really only been the one answer.
A couple more good whacks would just about do it.
With Jenny unable to cope, Nathan dragged her father, still warm and breathing but not for very much longer, out to the car. He put the old man over his shoulder and slung him across the hood. There were no major gashes and consequently not much bleeding. The car fired up with one step on the crank, being still warm. Getting wordlessly into the driver’s seat, Jenny climbed in beside, silent with the horror of what they were doing but apparently resolute enough not to raise objections or back out now.
What he might have done under such circumstances was a very good question. He’d only made love to her once or twice, before realizing that they must inevitably get caught when the old man came home unexpectedly sometime. If only the fuel pump hadn’t conked out on him once. He’d gone up to the house to see if they had a phone. Of course they didn’t so he’d had to fix it himself. One look at Jenny and he was intrigued if not exactly in love. Something about the look on her face made him inquire more deeply—what was she so afraid of?
As it turned out, she was stuck there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The old man didn’t allow her to go into town, attend school or even go to church for fear she would betray his dirty secret. She was completely in thrall to him, all out of fear and a kind of self-loathing. He’d been lucky to get the fuel pump repaired with the tools on hand, being merely a leaky joint in the tubing. He’d gotten away again before Mister Johnson was any the wiser.
They drove gingerly back to the hay field, Jenny steadying the unconscious man on the hood, unable to look at him directly. It was strictly necessary and she didn’t know how to drive.
The plane hulked before them. Johnson came off the hood easily enough, and Nathan dragged him feet-first to the aircraft. Having studied the problem, there were only so many solutions. Nathan’s flying suit would be a bit big on him, however it made it easier to pull the clothes on that pallid, naked body. Jenny took her father’s clothes and put them in a pillowcase. Nathan, quickly pulling on his own civilian clothes, found it surprisingly warm, thin as they were, compared to the upper air and clothes he’d been wearing for hours. His boots were a bit big for Johnson, but he tied them as tight as he could get them. They must hope for the best.
Getting Johnson, who weighed about a hundred and sixty pounds up into the mail compartment seemed unlikely and so he didn’t even try. Getting him up onto the wing root was hard enough, what with the bracing wires, and he tried to centre the unconscious man up on the centre of gravity. The ailerons were further out on the wings, and assuming he could lash him securely enough, it would be good enough for a short trip.
“You’re going to have to sit on the tail.”
She nodded, still not speaking.
There was nothing good to say.
Nathan turned on the fuel and the ignition switch. His voice rose as he went around to the front.
“Okay, you’re really going to have to dig in your heels.” Throwing the prop against the compression, the motor spun it the other way and she sparked herself into life.
The plane sat there at idle, sputtering away at four hundred revs as he ducked under the wing and got aboard as quickly as he could.
He had two challenges right now, and she had her own as well. First he had to find the crash site—carefully selected over months of research, examining every possible place from the air in the course of his normal duties. The thought of her, waiting, having to endure, had spurred him on, infuriating him, and eventually the plan had been perfected. Insofar as that went. He couldn’t forget one single thing.
They were doing very well so far.
He had to put her down just right, in the darkness, and in uncertain terrain.
They had to find each other and get away, a feat by no means certain even out here.
Her weight came off the tail and then she stepped up onto the wing. They kissed with dry lips.
“I love you.”
“I love you too. Jenny. Just follow the plan, okay?”
She nodded, eyes big in the darkness.
“All right.” He would have to trust her.
Both of their lives were at stake. If things went wrong he would do his best to protect her, but—
Advancing the throttle, very conscious of the dead weight slung across the wing and the light cross-wind from the northwest. The air bit into the control surfaces, she cleared the ground and then they were away.
The sky was still calm, clear, and the moon was at its zenith.
All according to plan.
The damned body on the wing shifted again, and the feel was almost more than he could bear. This had always been the weak point of the plan. There were a few weak points. Having Jenny drive the body to the crash site was clearly asking too much and the body would be too intact. If Johnson came to, in spite of his drunken state and a couple of good cracks on the skull with a shovel, she’d never be able to handle him. Not in her state, not in any state.
Thankfully, it was only five miles, and after that there was nothing but open range lands and isolated ranches for thirty miles or more. A lonely cowboy, out riding the range, in the wrong place at the wrong time, would be sheer disaster.
It lay just ahead. There was a burned-out building, and a grim little barn, still intact, and the fading signs of the drive coming in from a solitary dirt road that ran north and south but petered out a little further on until it was little better than a goat-track.
Flying at six hundred feet, he took a quick look over the side. Mister Johnson appeared to be still unconscious, which was good. He was staying relatively where he should be, although he had clearly shifted back on climb-out. A little bit of down-strick cured that. There was little to no turbulence and the night-time visibility was as good as he’d ever seen.
Things were going well. He checked his watch. This shouldn’t take more than ten or twelve minutes…
The air was cold, clean, and he was freezing to death in the thin civilian duds. He had to get her down soon, no matter what happened.
If only he could be warm.
He had to set her down just right. There was a dark line across horizon, contrasting with the paler grasslands.
Throttling back, he cinched his belt as tight as it would go. Pulling a small cushion out from under his seat, he got ready. The rate of descent was way too high and he added throttle, the cushion in his lap, lining her up.
She clawed at the air, shuddering on the edge of the stall. There was a thin screen of brush and then a small gulley. The sides were steep but crumbling with loose earth, roots and more thick growth that was too big to be called weeds and too small to be called trees.
They were there. Cutting the throttle, he pushed in down-stick, and then pulled back at the last second. Letting go of the stick, he kicked in full right rudder, trying to get the cushion up in front of his face in time.
He must have hit her just right. The landing gear shattered and slammed back against the bottoms of the wings and fuselage. The front end went over and the tail came up, and when his face hit the instrument panel, he saw stars in spite of the cushion. He was still alive though.
He could barely see through the tears in his eyes.
It was very quiet, just some hissing noises as the coolant spilled out of ruptured lines. There was a strong smell of gasoline, which was good as long as it hung on for a moment.
The pillow had saved him to some degree, but his neck felt like hell and it took a moment for the nausea to pass.
Undoing the belt, he got out of there as quickly as he could. He pulled the big buck knife from his pocket and cut the ropes holding Johnson to the wing. Grabbing him under the arms, he made the superhuman effort, complicated by the fact that he wanted to get the man’s feet in first.
God, but how he struggled. Mister Johnson’s was face right in his, conscious of that hissing noise, the smell. What a hell of a whack they must have made. His nose was on fire, he might have broken it.
And yet he was alive. Getting the seat-belt around Johnson’s waist was another story, but finally he managed it. He thought his heart would explode, as surely it must, from the combination of fear, excitement, and sheer physical exertion.
He was having trouble getting enough air in his lungs.
Everywhere there was silence, not even a bird, no distant dogs barking, barely a breeze stirring.
He made sure he had his knife. Johnson, complete with helmet strapped tightly on and the cracked flying goggles, looked convincing enough. Gathering up the ropes and setting them well away, grateful they weren’t soaked with stinking fuel, he reached into his jacket pocket for the matches. He couldn’t leave a burned match…that would be a dead giveaway.
With the barest hint of lightening in the east, he had perhaps half an hour or forty-five minutes before dawn. He’d better be well away from here.
One more thing. Finding some dead grasses sticking up from the half-inch of frost or snow persisting in spite of fairly high daytimes temperatures for the season, he twisted it together and then stepped back to try and get it going.
He had too much to lose, and when it went, it would go up with a whoosh.
The loose little bundle was lit. Tossing it casually to where wet gasoline still dripped onto the ground, he was already moving backwards. He tripped and went down, up again on the instant.
The flames caught, the plane started to crackle and the glare lit up the place for fifty or a hundred yards in all directions.
People would see that for miles.
He put the dead match in his pocket. Finding the ropes on the ground, he turned, put his chin down and started half-walking, half-running to their rendezvous.
He had two or three miles to go and he could not allow anyone to see him between here and there.
Once away from the broken terrain lying immediately to the north of the river, it was flatter than flat. It was also growing lighter by the minute. Looking back, the fire had died down, but a plume of black smoke rising into the sky would be a beacon to the curious for miles around. He kept going, thinking of Jenny. There was a stitch in his side but it wouldn’t kill him to keep going.
He thought he would never come to the road. Turning onto it, he slowed to a steady walk, heading back towards the Johnson place. There was a car, barely discernable, but it was black and it sounded about right and it was headed his way out of the rising sun.
It kept coming.
“Oh, thank God.”
It was her. She pulled to a stop and they changed seats.
She sounded very subdued.
“Hi, Baby. Did you see anyone?”
She shook her head.
“Good.” He cranked the wheels and turned the car back the way she had come.
Nailing the throttle, all they had to do was get back to the farmhouse without being seen.
They left the car out front. Right where it should be. She locked the house after a quick run-through. She had only one or two things when she came out, a picture of her mother and a couple of small items of food from the pantry. Bologna and bread. A little pot of butter. It was all they had to keep them going—Nathan had saved up a bit of cash, but he had left the bulk of his funds in his bank account in order to avoid triggering suspicion. As it was, the theft would be soon discovered.
Pulling out a pair of leather helmets, medium-length leather coats, split at the back for the saddle, and goggles for each of them, he put her few things and the ropes, one or two other items including the bag of stones into the saddlebags. There was room left over. She looked sad and bedraggled in the dark and heavy leather clothes.
“Let’s hope she starts.” He tried to grin but it didn’t come off very well.
He helped her turn the animals out into the yard, leaving the gate open so they could wander.
He pushed the bike out into the yard and Jenny closed the barn door for the last time. There was a stick through a loop of wire to hold it shut. The machine fired up on the third kick and he let it idle, and then she got on the back. Her arms came around and she hung on tight, burying her head in his shoulder.
He put it in gear and eased on out of there, conscious that there were houses a couple of miles to the southeast.
Going back towards town, turning north on the first paved road he found, the next farmhouse would be a good ten miles away at the next little crossroads…
By that time, they would be just a pair of anonymous strangers on a motorcycle, unusual, but not obviously connected with the crash of a mail plane a few miles west of North Platte. Driving with one hand, he pulled back the heavy leather glove with his teeth. It was six-ten a.m. and there would be people about even on a cold winter’s morn. With not much to look at around here, they would be objects of interest under almost any circumstances.
The sooner they got the hell out of there the better.
Nathan should have minded his own business, but once he’d seen Jenny, it was pretty much game over.
Life had just changed, one way or another, for the both of them.
At least they had each other.
They were two damaged people.
About Zach Neal
Zach Neal has been writing ever since he can remember. A forestry management professional, he prefers the outdoors to the office. He lives in the Halton Hills overlooking the Greater Toronto Area. He studied at the University of Toronto. Zach’s a single father of two healthy and energetic children. Zach’s boys, Aaron and Jason, mean everything to him.
Nathan Wyatt is flying the nightly mail from Chicago to Cheyenne when he has to make an emergency landing. Looking for a phone, he walks to the nearest farmhouse. Jenny Johnson is a beautiful woman, one who bears a terrible burden. Isolated and alone, a captive in her own home, only he can help her. After some thought, he has the perfect plan. If only he can trust her. If only they don’t forget anything. A short story of love and vengeance, set against the romantic backdrop of the early days of airmail.